Sunday, April 29, 2012

Towards a Better...

At my middle school, testing season is almost over.  Next week we will have make up tests and that's it for the year.  Things got thrown into panic mode since we were set to do paper and pencil tests for the 7th graders and at the last moment the state department said we had to do computerized testing.  We only have about 50 computers in the school and 500 students. It wasn't a nightmare but the counselor had never arranged this sort of thing before so we all suffered a bit.  Both the administrator and the monitor must stay in the room during testing and roamers are to come check every once in awhile to make sure that students are comfortable and that administrators don't need a break.  I really dislike having a room full of kids who have to pee for three hours and nobody comes to get them to take them to the bathroom.

Anyway, I am sure my kids did a great job.  I'm not allowed to see or to help or to look at test scores.  Likewise I instruct the kids not to talk to me about them.  However, it leaks out and sometimes in their exuberance, someone will brag to me about what they got.  I'm happy for them but also say they can't say those things to me. I think that the English scores will increase dramatically this year.  I'm in the English department and the main sixth grade teacher and eighth grade teachers really did a great job this year.  Those scores will follow us as well, wherever we go.

Speaking of going, my student intern is almost at the end of her stint in my school. Next week she is going to institute the poetry unit I asked her to create.  She has used my materials to come up with curriculum, written lesson plans and will institute them and assess at the end of the unit.  She is doing much better in the classroom and I feel comfortable having her there to help teach.  She thinks she is ready to go out on her own.  I hope so.  I've been teaching for that last however long and I'm still never as prepared as I want to be.  There is also a lot the kids throw at you and even when you are prepared, you have to watch your face and reactions.  So I've been thinking of some advice of my own for Title 1 public school teachers.

1. Don't take it personally.  Kids have it rough in public school.  Their home lives, especially those who live in poverty, are sometimes (though this is not the rule) challenging.  When they say or do ugly things, it's almost never about the teacher. When you hear ugliness, look immediately beyond the words to the child spouting them.  At all costs, avoid sarcasm.
2.  Not everyone who is poor is troubled.  Lots and lots of my students have happy home lives.
3.  My goals and values may not be their goals and values.  I am White.  The vast majority of the students I teach are either Hispanic or Black.  While we all have common American experiences, there are cultural differences and I do not have the right to make a kid feel bad because they realize from an early age that college is not for them. I do have a responsibility to learn more of my student's cultures and to pull those things into the classroom so that we can all learn better.
4.  That does not mean that I can give up talking about literacy, a better life, and college.  The fact is that as a 7-8 grade English teacher, I might be the last literacy educator they see.  This makes my job that much more important and urgent.  The buck stops here.
5. You know what my goal is? My goal is to be a better person.  That's why I teach. That's what it boils down to.  I want to look in the mirror every day and see someone I can be proud of.  How I go about teaching ties into that.
6.  My personal life has little place in my classroom.  My students know I am White and that I speak some spanish.  I tell them a little about growing up where I did, about the migrant children who became my friends and about Spanish lessons from 6-12 grade.  I tell them about my past teaching jobs, including the prison which fascinates them, and I talk about my dog and cat.  That's about it. If I am teaching curriculum and listening to their talk and their world and entering a realm that ultimately does not belong to me, I want to be as empty of a vessel as I can rather than a cup spilling over.
7.  Take the weekends off.  I know it is difficult.  Grade papers before you come home.  Set up curriculum and lesson plans on your plan period.  Do as my friend Bonner suggests and touch a door or some piece of the school as you leave and say "I am leaving this place" and do not come back until Monday.
8.  Laugh.  Tell jokes.  Enjoy these students because junior high is brutal and hormone filled and frightening.  Laughter is important and instructive and makes life easier.
9.  When you are wrong, say you are sorry. Publicly and with sincerity.  I apologize to my students when I get stuff wrong.  I take responsibility and get more respect for that than if I never admit mistakes.  This shows that if I can get better and be a strong person who is compassionate, then they can be too. It's a pathway and an example.
10. You spot it, you got it.  I stole this from an Al-Anon meeting (that's friends and family members of alcoholics).  When the kids were spending their lunch hours smearing food up and down the hallways and throwing trash on the grounds, I was dismayed and angry.  I decided that instead of some punitive action, I had a responsibility to teach compassion and responsibility.  I took an entire day and had the students write letters to Margarita and Griselda, who are our custodians.  I walked them around and we picked up trash.  We gave the letters to the ladies and made them cry.  I asked that if anyone saw people throwing trash or food where it shouldn't go that they speak up.  Now our hallways are mostly clear and the grounds look better.  Such a simple thing, really.  If you can, then do.

I feel strongly that we are the guardians of innocence.  Our middle school kids are half child, half teenager and spend a good deal of time just trying to figure out what to do next.  When someone or something threatens their ability to do so, it turns me into a raging witch.  For instance, one of our students dropped out for three months.  His dad dis-enrolled him and took him to Texas.  When he got back, his mom came to re-enroll him.  Only he had gotten a gang tattoo on his neck in the intervening time.  He knows that in order to be part of our school, he has to cover that tattoo but chooses not to.  Every single time I catch him, I take him to the principal and he spends time out of class sitting, waiting for his mom to come bring him a turtleneck.  It's crazy.  But I have to do that- to keep gang symbols and tattoos and signs and graffiti out of my school.  It's not just my job, it's my moral responsibility as an adult and as a human to protect others.

In other news, I have bronchitis again.  My doctor will be so thrilled.  Last weekend I missed an important play in Oklahoma City and this weekend, I missed a great play here in Tulsa.  I simply had no energy to walk from the damn car to the theater to sit there for two hours without coughing my head off.  I'll go on Monday for a shot and some antibiotics and blah blah's the same story.  My job is killing me because each time I walk into the building, I inhale dust and mold and probably asbestos.  I'm hoping next year will be better and working, always working, towards a better world.


  1. If you wore a respirator they might get the message. :) or where can we randomly call and complain to?

  2. You have excellent advice here for Title 1 teachers. On number four, you are quite correct. One of my 6th graders informed me the other day that she really doesn't want to go to high school and bother with that. She says her Daddy dropped out of high school and is doing fine. I'm still trying to formulate a response to her that will get her to rethink that decision...