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.
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: "