Monday, January 29, 2007

Celebrate the Half Way Point!

Congratulate me: I’m half as inexperienced as I was half a school year ago. That’s right, February marks the halfway point through my first year of teaching. And boy, was it ever an uphill battle!

I draw a big X in bold black marker through each day that I teach, like notches on a belt. The best advice I ever got was to take it one day at a time, and every day at 3PM I feel like a winner if I get out of the classroom alive. I’m by no means a veteran yet, but I’m making fewer rookie mistakes each day. And I feel triumphant because there are less than half of my original Teaching Fellow cohorts remaining, and the saying goes that if you can make it until Christmas, you’ll make it through the year. I feel older than I was in August, less shiny and more able to think like a teacher.

Important things I’ve learned so far:

1. There is a balance between teaching special ed kids and giving them freedom to fool around; I can get more out of them if I let them muck about each day. Once I started taking the academic pressure of my kids they started hating me less and their grades actually improved. When it comes to work, quality is definitely better than quantity. “Give me 15 minutes of your attention for notes, and the rest of the period is yours,’ is my war cry, and for the most part I can get through a chunk of notes. Mind you, this only works for special ed kids where parents and administration might now be expecting too much from student.

2. Some days, you can’t teach a damn thing. So your choices are to try to trudge through the lesson, get really frustrated and incur the wrath of furious teenagers, or simply hang out. It’s more about taking the pressure of the kids, but realizing that some days just aren’t good for academic teaching takes the pressure off the teacher too. I just make sure there’s work up on the blackboard and books on desks in case administration walks in. CYA and all that jazz.

3. Structure and routine all the way. The Teaching Fellows stressed the importance of structure during the 7-week summer course I took. It was just words until I had twelve pairs of eyes on me, and I had no idea what I was doing. The kids knew I had no clue what was up, and took every advantage. I implanted a routine the 2nd week of class: work on the board each morning listed with numbers and vocab words on chart paper. I’ve added to the routine, changed it up some, and added signs around the room warning kids when the tests are coming. I had too many students ripping up tests because they “didn’t know there was a test today” and “didn’t study.” CYA apparently is for students as well as administration.

4. Don’t bother being hip. You could be the coolest “G” on your street, have awesome tattoos and stories of your gangbangin’ days…as soon as you tell kids you’re a teacher you are automatically files away in students brains as lame with a capital L. So I’ve adopted my lamitude, and embrace it. I even act extra dorky around my kids sometimes, just to get a rise out of them. For instance, when it comes to their ghetto-slang I have no qualms about asking what words mean, and teasing them a little:

Student: “Yo, son, I’m dead ass!”

Ms. C: “Hun, could you explain how your ass died?”

Student: “ Yo, miss, you’re whack! I mean dead ass.”

Ms. C: “ Do you mean like your butt fell asleep? Or are you taking about a deceased donkey?”


Student coming through classroom door: “I’m Rick James, Bitch!”

Ms. C: “Do you mean ‘I’m Rick James comma bitch’ or ‘I’m Rick James’ bitch,’ meaning that you are a bitch belonging to Rick James?”

Student to class (good naturedly, I hope): “Yo, this bitch is whack.”

Yes, I know that dead ass means dead serious, and yes I know that my student was just quoting the Chappelle’s Show…but the kids would be mortified if they though I watched the same TV shows that they did.

5. Administration contradicts itself and is generally unstable. I’ve gotten memos on new rules, and then had trouble with administration backing me up on them. In my experience administration hasn’t been mean or rude to me, but they haven’t been very helpful either.

6. Never let the kids see you fall down, cry, or otherwise make an ass out of yourself. Seriously, they never forget. I slipped out of a chair the third week in school, and students who weren’t even in the room regale the story like they had front row seats. I keep a solid grin on my face, and try not to rise to the bait. But it sure is hard to feel sorry and empathic for students when they mercilessly pick on you. As a new teacher my ego is like the skull of a newborn…I haven’t hardened completely towards the taunts and slings of the students, which leads to lesson 7.

7. Don’t take it personal (or if you do take it personally, find a way to get out the anger so you don’t clock a kid.) I’m sure with time I’ll be able to maintain Zen peacefulness while my students run rampant on those really bad days, and stomp on that last nerve holding me together. Until then I’ve started walking the 30+ blocks home instead of taking the train. It started after a particularly awful day where I was brought so close to tears of frustration that I refused to talk to my class. I cut out conversation as half punishment, half self preservation and couldn’t help but look at the ringleader student and feel the rush of anger. I walked home that first night, like a mad person; stomping my feet down on the pavement as fast as I could go. I’m not lying when I say I felt 80% less angry when I got home than when I left the school.

8. Find ways to express yourself and give energy to your own needs. Walking out the rage (see above) and blogging are the two things that kept me sane this half of the year. I also try to go out with other teachers and drink. Being social helps, and sharing stories with other NYC teachers lessens the burden. I try to get a night out at least once a month. Finding a cheap bar with a good happy hour is hard, but important, because a starting teacher’s salary sure doesn’t go far.

9. A veteran teacher at my school gave me the helpful advice to get out of school each day as early as possible. The first few weeks I was in at 7:15AM and leaving around 4:30…at first I scoffed at the teacher’s advice, wanting to make a good impression on the administration, that I was hard-working and willing to stay as long as I had to. I felt better as a person when I left earlier, and found it just as easy to gather lesson plans at home.

10. For special ed students you grade behavior as much as academics. For the first report card I calculated graded based solely on test scores, homework and projects…and only had two passing students. Students were mostly absent, skipping, or refusing to do work. I was lucky to get one out of every three assignments I assigned. There had to be a sliding scale, because if a student saw a report card with all failing marks there would be no reason to do anything to fix it. My students are so easily frustrated it’s amazing; a child will misspell one word in a journal entry and crumple the entire notebook and toss it. I’ve seen it happen. So I feel I have to be a lot more lenient, give credit for any work that’s handed in and be kind on their report cards, only failing kids who don’t hand in a single thing, or don’t show up. At the end of the day these kids will most likely only get an IEP diploma, and as useless as an IEP diploma is, I couldn’t cheat the students of it.
11. Pick your battles, and don't let others dictate them to you. For months I was a harpy on language, while I as a person, didn't really care. I was taking administration's rules and adopting them as my own. Now I make a perfunctory admonishment to the cursing student, and let it go. As long as they aren’t cursing at me. I let the kids sit on their desks, but I start bitching if they sit on mine. I tell them not to fight, but I am adamant now that if they must fight, to take it into the hallway. At least there they will be spotted quickly by security, and won’t wreck my room.

In a few ways I know it’s too late for me to be an excellent teacher for these students; a lot of what I’ve implemented I have learned too late. It’s true that there is a learning curve for teachers, and while I know that the class I’ve had this year are basically guinea pigs…I feel like I’ve done all right by them. As the Beatles song goes: "
"I've got to admit it's getting better, better
A little better all the time (it can't get no worse)"
It really is "getting so much better all the time!"

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Lame Fieldtrip (Or: I Couldn't Make this Stuff Up!)

For my class’s second fieldtrip I wanted to take them out of the neighborhood, farther than mere walking distance and came up with a trip to see the film Freedom Writers. Did I think it would inspire the students to scribe eloquent prose in my classroom? Well, no. With a class average of 3rd grade literacy I didn’t figure on churning out any Yeats after a watching a movie. However, I figured maybe it’d spark some interest in debate, maybe show the teacher’s side of the classroom, and for no other reason—get the kids out of the school for a while.

Or, at least that was the plan.

Problem #1: While walking toward the theater in downtown Brooklyn, after a pretty successful ride on the subway one of my students got pooped on. Even worse, it was the sole female student. Death from above! My kids are called emotionally disturbed for a reason, and this girl was FREAKING OUT about the poopage. And, in all honestly, I really couldn’t blame her…the devious pigeon’s aim couldn’t have been more detrimental SPLAT, straight to the top of her head, a little on a cheek, and the rest on the side of her coat. Danielle’s voice rose in pitch and volume, cursing and rubbing her hands into the mess in her hair. I can’t say that I thought fast, or said “just the right thing” however I did try to minimize the event by dispatching a paraprofessional to take my girl into the nearest bathroom inside a McD’s and clean up. I can safely say that the Teaching Fellow program did not ready me for fecal-therapy.

Problem #2 (the big one): We were rounding the corner and coming up to the movie theater when we saw an explosion of school children. It was like every school in Brooklyn took their students to this exact spot. After waiting in line with my antsy students (Derek kept threatening to kick the asses of the half-his-age students ahead of us) Freedom Writers was sold out. Lame. Really lame, and no one to blame but fate.

OK, I thought to myself, I could salvage this trip by letting the kids see Stomp The Yard. I could put up with 90 minutes of step-dancing as long as my kids didn’t go home empty handed. Or so I thought. Four minutes later: Stomp the Yard sold out. And the hoards of students kept piling in, lined up down the block and up the next street. I offered to take the kids to see Dream Girls, however, my students decided to cut their losses and go.

Problem #3 (the most irritating one): After not watching the movie I took the kids to Popeyes, thinking to at least get them fed so the whole trip didn’t suck. And with so much extra time I figured we could take the kids on a book-finding expedition…seeking out the local Barnes and Nobles and making a list of books desired to put into our class library. A fine idea in theory.

A little back-story on our little class trip: One of the students going with us to the movie was NOT supposed to go. This student being the one who punched out the windows in my class and started several fights that week. I didn’t really think we could control this student on a class trip, and my administrator decided that he’d be fine to go. The assistant principal said that if worse came to worse I could call his mother’s cell phone and dismiss the student from the trip. Right—like that would do any real good if the young man went postal.

So there we were in Barnes and Nobles, the majority of my students browsing, picking out books they wouldn’t mind subjecting their brains to…and out of the corner of my eye I see my “trouble student” flipping through a porno mag. First of all, I didn’t think B & N carried porn. Secondly, if they did carry dirty magazines…wouldn’t they hide them? It was when I saw the kid trying to stuff the magazine into his coat that I flipped out. I couldn’t imagine calling his mother and telling her what her boy was stealing…or worse if security caught him at the door; I was picturing headlines like:

“Inexperienced Teacher Blamed as Unruly, Underage Student Steals Skin Mag”

So instead of keeping a low profile, murmuring reasonably to my student about why stealing is wrong, and generally a bad idea nowadays due to technologically savvy security teams…I shouted: “Put that down! NOW!” Heads turned, my other students were mortified, saying they would never go on another trip if Derek came along. (And for the most part, aside from the pooping…these ED students acted like normal kids in public, I was proud of them.)

I hustled them all out of the store and declared the fieldtrip over, telling the kids they didn’t have to go back to school, but they couldn’t stay here.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Teaching Vs. Babysitting

If you’re wondering why I haven’t written in a while, well, I don’t have much of an excuse. The past few weeks after Christmas break have been buckets and buckets of the same: I’ve seen the new principal twice, had a couple windows punched out in my classroom, one more good kick and the classroom door will need to be replaced. And I haven’t been teaching much.

I’m responsible for teaching my homeroom class two periods of ELA a day, Global Studies, Biology and music classes…ELA I sneak in first thing in the morning, and in music (where I have no skill) I show a lot of musical films, global studies is normally hit or miss depending on who shows up each day, but Biology is really suffering. I’ve been trying to teach the same chapter on viruses and bacteria since the end of November.

There’s two ways I feel about this less than par teaching. The first being slothful, I don’t spend as much time planning lessons, making worksheets and creating new ways to teach and motivate. On a good day I can teach 20 minutes out of a 45 minute period, I have less than a 50% chance of having a good day. I get the sense that most teachers just teach what they can and worry more about keeping fights out of their classroom, and trying to keep students in the classroom and not smocking blunts in the bathroom. So maybe I am just babysitting these kids, sometimes I don’t mind setting aside the curriculum and just hanging with these interesting young people if I know no one expects any better from me. Yes, I know I’m supposed to elevate these kids and somehow make them more ready for their future, prepare them for college…but there is very little I can do if I’m the only person rowing in the canoe. I’m still waiting to see what direction the new principal takes us…The old principal was very much in favor of academics in her ED school, which may have lead to her getting booted out.

On the other hand I’m uncomfortable giving up what I consider my job: teaching. I am a TEACHER, I should be giving info to the brains of my students, packaging the information in ways the students can grasp. But after “teaching” four months I can see why the teacher burn-out rate is so high, what I expect from myself doesn’t seem possible in this setting. I consider it a good day if I don’t lose my cool with the students, or let them get to me. I should be considering it a good day if I can get the kids to learn something. If I lower my expectations for myself, I’ll be more comfortable with how little I actually teach, but I’ll be giving up so many ideals I internalized when I thought about teaching. I knew teaching special ed was going to be tough, but it’s really bonkers.

To be honest, the days I enjoy the most is when I have most of my students sitting, and we’re all engaged in conversation. It’s not academic per se, but if they are all seated, and not hitting each other, or spitting…and I feel involved it feels like a small victory. When a student says “please” or “thank you” or picks up a piece of garbage when I ask them, or knocks politely on the door instead of pounding I feel pretty good about my job and my students. But is that enough?
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