Saturday, September 25, 2010

The magic five

Before the school year started, Ms. Halpert and I were warned (ominously, in some cases) about a group of our students, whose second grade teachers referred to them not-so-affectionately as the "magic five."  Considering I used to teach in a classroom where a "problem behavior" was throwing chairs, I was prepared for anything.  I was prepared for war.

But actually?  They're not that bad.  Are they irritating?  Yes.  Are they impulsive?  Yes.  Are they lacking in self-control and the ability to sit still during a lesson?  Yes and yes.  But are they throwing chairs?  No.

I expressed this to a colleague of mine, and she rolled her eyes.  "Some teachers here have never taught anywhere else," she said in a low voice.  "You've definitely seen worse." 

Is it the neighborhood?  Maybe.  Is it the attitude projected by the administration?  Possibly.  But the impression I get is that, whatever the cause, my new school's "worst kids" don't hold a candle to the worst kids as P.S. Throwing Chairs.

Speaking of which, I received an e-mail from a colleague of mine at my former school, who now has the infamous Julio in her self-contained special education class.  She wrote:

We're working on relaxation techniques and developing him into a good leader. he is so kind to the other kids, he loves helping them and me. On the second day of school, Julio said to me, "Ms. J, I really like being in the small class. I was nervous at first but now I'm not. When I used to be in a big class, I used to get frustrated."  He's doing REALLY well! Thanks for caring so much about him, he tells me that some of the things I do for him are what you used to do. He won't forget you. 

Not to be all full of it, but: I credit myself for finally convincing Julio's mother, after years and years of guidance counselors and teachers all telling her the same thing, that a self-contained class was where Julio would thrive.  And if I can help reform that kid, I can certainly reform the magic five.

Friday, September 10, 2010

What a difference CTT makes

Even though I was eager to teach in a CTT classroom, and even though Ms. Halpert and I seemed to be getting along well for relative strangers, I had my reservations.  Last year, my classroom at times resembled a war zone.  And as the only person over the age of 9 in a room of thirty people, I learned to think fast, to make firm decisions, to improvise.  I had no paraprofessionals and no push-in providers, so I never had to clear my decisions with anyone else.  If I wanted to extend my social studies lesson and shorten my word work period, I did it.  If I wanted to spend all of first period discussing the schedule for the week and changing classroom jobs, I did it.

When Ms. Halpert and I sat down and started planning, I quickly realized I would face a new challenge: compromise.  One of the things I appreciate and admire about Ms. Halpert is that even though she's a brand-new teacher, she doesn't just take my word for it and let me make all the decisions.  If our roles were reversed and I was a brand-new teacher working with someone more experienced, I would probably take a passive role and let the experienced teacher take the lead.  But Ms. Halpert doesn't do that, and our give-and-take on decision-making often leads to better decisions.  The downside is that decision-making can take twice as long.

So in addition to my usual first-day-of-school fears, I had added concerns about co-teaching for the first time.  Even though we'd been working together and practically attached at the hip for the first few days, we'd never actually seen each other in front of a group of kids before.  Would we accidentally interrupt each other's first-day-of-school speeches?  Would we disagree in front of the students?

So I'm pleased to report that the first day of school went really well.  I really, really like Ms. Halpert's style with our class -- probably because it's so similar to my style, which reassures me even more that our principal really knew what he was doing when he "arranged our marriage," as he put it.  I felt confident that we really presented as a united front, a teaching team.

Even better, I'm really pleased with the style of CTT.  When we walk our class through the narrow stairwell (where our 28 students don't all fit on one flight of stairs), one of us is at the front of the line and the other at the back.  When we did our Writing On Demand, Ms. Halpert walked around the classroom to check in with our students, and I sat with Karolina, who's newly arrived from Hungary and speaks very little English.  We looked through a picture dictionary together and worked on simple sentences ("I like books," "My brother plays football"), and I didn't have to worry that somewhere else in the room something sneaky was going down.

After school, we high-fived each other, went to the dollar store to buy 10,000 more sets of plastic bins (classroom teachers, take note: you can never have too many plastic bins) and divided up our extensive to-do lists for the weekend.  And thankfully, I still feel optimistic about the way the year will go.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

10 Things I Wish a Teacher Had Told Me

Happy back to school!  In honor of my officially becoming a tenured teacher (take that, new value-added teacher data reports to determine tenure), I present to you 10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started Teaching.

1. Don't sweat the small stuff.
You put your students' names on everything in your room only to find out that some of them are spelled wrong on your class list.  Or some of them moved away and you're getting three more instead.  And now you don't have enough little birthday cakes to complete your class chart!  Something like this will inevitably happen in the first week of school.  But the truth is, the only person who will notice is you -- and if you resent the fact that you're going to stay at school until 6 pm redoing it, you're just going to make yourself miserable.

2. If you can put off until tomorrow what you planned on doing might want to think about it.
I realize this sounds an awful lot like procrastination, which to most teachers is a dirty, dirty word.  But as a new teacher, you're going to be staying in your classroom until nightfall anyway.  Your classroom is going to become a time-sucking vacuum of dry erase markers and despair.  (That was poetic, no?)  So if you really, really wanted to plan out your entire week's worth of math lessons, but it's after 5 pm and you've got at least an inkling of what you're going to do tomorrow -- go home.  You'll take care of tomorrow tomorrow; tonight, you have to take care of you.

3. You can only plan what you can plan.
You can't build a house without bricks.  So if you're itching to start planning your word work period but your workbooks haven't come in yet, don't make yourself do the same work twice.  If you're a brand-new teacher, it will kill you that you have empty boxes in your plan book.  Trust me, you will fill them with something.  Probably forty-seven somethings that you won't finish.  Which brings me to...

4. There is no such thing as empty time.
When I first started in my own classroom, I used to panic about how I was going to fill all the hours in the day.  Then I quickly learned that at no point in your teaching career, ever, will you look around the classroom and say, "Well, kids, we're all done for the day!  Let's knock off for a bit!"  First of all, if you have elementary schoolers, everything will take seven times as long as you think it will (except, of course, the activities you actually want to drag out).  And you can always ask the kids to read.  Or write.  Or practice their math facts. get the idea.  If you're relatively innovative and have a good head on your shoulders, you will always come up with something for your students to do.  That said...

5. Be prepared for anything.  Really: anything.
Preps get canceled.  Field trips get canceled.  Assemblies get canceled.  Push-in and pull-out teachers cancel.  You know who never cancels?  Your naughtiest student, that's who.  It always pays to have extra activities on hand -- or at least in the back of your mind -- that you can pull out when the copy machine breaks and you can't hand out your social studies worksheet.  Because idle students are restless students, and restless students are troublesome students.

6. Improvise.
I used to love it when my math teacher's guide instructed me to display something on my overhead projector. Because guess who didn't have an overhead projector?  Or when I taught reading AIS and wanted to construct the same chart in all five of my classes, but desperately needed to save paper.  That's when I discovered that contact paper + dry erase markers = reusable heaven.  Work with what you have, and as Tim Gunn would say: "Make it work!"

7. Use resources from your sources.
Last year, when I was new to classroom teaching, I would fly into my neighbor's classroom every morning in a panic about something.  "Today's math lesson says all the kids need individual thermometers!"  "The first teaching point in the writing unit mentions a character map and I don't know what that is!"  And every morning, my saint of a colleague would patiently walk me through it.  "Oh, we never do that thing with the thermometers, we just skip it and do it whole-class."  "Let me take out my writing stuff from that unit last year and we can put in for copies."  Most of your co-workers were brand-new teachers once, too, and most of them will be more than willing to help you out.

8. Never assume.  Speak up!
When I was first hired as a cluster teacher, my principal vaguely assured me that at some point in the first few weeks of school -- she wasn't clear on the details -- we would sit down and talk about what I should expect to be teaching in my brand-new position.  If you've ever worked in a school like my former school, it won't surprise you to hear that I didn't talk to my principal again until she came to observe me teach -- in April.  Sometimes you have to speak up and ask, whether it's about the curriculum you're unfamiliar with or the workbooks you haven't gotten or the dismissal procedures you're unclear on.  At my former school, classroom teachers were responsible for picking up their classes from cluster teachers and delivering them to lunch; at my new school, cluster teachers bring their classes to and from lunch.  (Which means, since I have a before-or-after-lunch prep three days a week, I get almost two solid hours kid-free in the middle of the day.  Duuuuude.)  So it never hurts to clarify.  But remember...

9. Some days, you have to be brave and hold your own hand.
Your first year of teaching is often overwhelming.  If you're lucky, you'll have a support system in the form of friends, family and fabulous co-workers.  But your fabulous co-workers have their own bulletin boards to staple up, their own spelling inventories to grade and their own running records to copy.  Those are the days when you may feel terribly alone in the world.  But this too shall pass (and all that junk).  Three years in, you'll be writing blog post reassuring new teachers about how much they don't know.

And lastly...
10. Your moment will come to you.
Teaching will rarely play out in your classroom the way it does in the movies.  In your first year, probably no one will thank you for changing her life or turning his academic career completely around.  But a little girl may delight in the books you picked out for her.  Or a goof-off may admit, for the first time ever, to liking reading. Or you may just emerge unscathed from a year of epic battles.  Whenever it happens, that will be your moment as a teacher -- and nothing in your value-added teacher data report can take that away from you.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The walls, the walls are coming down

"The walls, the walls are coming down
The here and now is coming round"

This year I will be the general education teacher in a CTT ("collaborative team teaching") classroom.  In the CTT model, there are two teachers in a classroom, one a special ed teacher and one a general ed teacher.  60% of the students are general ed, and 40% have IEPs ("individualized education plans" for students with special needs -- IEPs outline a student's struggles, modifications and specific goals for progress in the year ahead).  CTT classrooms are a good fit for students who need more support than SETTS (pull-out special ed services) but can function in a less restricted environment than a "self-contained" special education classroom (also known as a 12:1:1 because there is one teacher and one para-professional to every twelve students).

When I interviewed at my new school and the principal asked me whether I'd be interested in a CTT classroom, I immediately said yes.  I had so many frustrating experiences last year with William and Julio, who needed IEP services but weren't getting them; I wanted the experience of being in a classroom where students who needed a modified curriculum were getting the services they deserved.  And I was also interested in the experience of team teaching.  As my new principal explained, "CTT is like a marriage, and I've set up a lot of blind dates."

Co-teaching will definitely be a new adventure.  My new co-teacher and I have spent a significant amount of time together this week, setting up our room and planning for the first few days.  One thing our principal warned us about our class is that we've got a number of strong personalities (something I'm used to by now!) and that we'll need to be highly structured in our expectations of behavior and get ourselves on the same page so that we can be consistent.  There are so many things that go into classroom management that I've never had to agree upon with another teacher: What signal will we use to get our class silent and attentive?  When is it okay to get out of your seat, or to ask permission to go to the bathroom?  I have to admit, at one point, our endless discussions started to wear me down; when you're in a classroom by yourself, you get to make all the executive decisions and be done with it.  I'm also experiencing a little bit of culture shock, moving to a new school; when we were discussing what the consequences should be for inappropriate behavior, my co-teacher suggested "removal from the group."  Apparently it's common to send a student to another classroom, or banish someone from the meeting area--both totally verboten at my former school.  (Which isn't to say that we didn't do it, but I preferred the gentler terminology of "giving someone a break" from the crowded meeting area or distracting classroom, because making a student sit apart was basically considered akin to corporal punishment.) 

When I went for my interview at my new school, I could tell my principal was pleasantly invested in making sure that my co-teacher (who had already been hired) and I would make a good team.  Apparently many people interviewed for the position, which tells me that he didn't hire just anybody to throw together, and he noted that we have similar styles.  He also wanted us to meet each other first before he officially hired me.  (I remember sending her silent messages of "Please like me! Please help me get hired!")  I can see why he thought we would be a good fit; we're both analytical and detail-oriented.  Unfortunately, sometimes we seem to be oriented to different details: In the past few days, my co-teacher (henceforth known as Ms. Halpert) has been focused on planning our curriculum, while my priority has been to get our room set up and in order
 for the first day.  Which is probably natural considering that I'm entering my fourth year and this is her first; I can teach those first few management mini-lessons in my sleep (you know, "writers think of ideas for personal narratives by sketching a memory," "readers prepare for reader's workshop by setting goals for themselves," blah blah blah), while she may not have ever considered that our students will need to practice pushing in their chairs over and over and over again on the first day of school.  She starts a lot of her sentences with "I'm worried that..." but has at least given me permission to tell her to calm down.

So slowly but surely, we nailed down our routines and expectations.  We'll ring a bell for attention, but we won't clap.  No one may go to the bathroom when we're meeting at the carpet, but you don't need to ask permission to get up to get another pencil or piece of paper.  And there will be no boys' line and girls' line -- because when I taped down lines on the floor to mark the beginning of each line, my new principal gently asked me to rethink it; there was a girl at the school who identified as a boy, and the principal preferred not to delineate gender specifics.  "I want especially the girls to know that they're people, too, not just 'girls,'" he said.

Inside, I cheered.  And I slowly began to think outside the box my former school built around me.  We could do a "Question of the Day" as part of our new morning routine!  We could build choice time into our Friday afternoon schedule!  We could let our students have more than two minutes to pack up at the end of the day!  "Here, no one will tell you how to do anything," noted a veteran teacher down the hall.  And that is an idea I can get married to.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

It's the end of the summer, when you send your children to the moon

"She doesn't want to go, because she won't know what she's up against
The classrooms and the smart girls, it's the end of the summer"
--Dar Williams 

The end of the summer always sneaks up on me. One minute I'm taking myself shopping mid-week and trying to convince myself that summer has weeks and weeks left to enjoy, the next I'm feeding the parking meter at the school supply store and blowing my entire Teacher's Choice allotment (this year clocking in at a grand $110) in a single hour.

This school year brings a huge amount of change to my teaching career: new school, new grade, my first year in a CTT classroom. But to my pleasant surprise, I've yet to have a single back-to-school nightmare, and I find myself uncharacteristically relaxed about the entire endeavor. Maybe it's because my lovely co-teacher is brand-new to teaching and has confessed to a serious case of "nervous new teacher" syndrome, leading me to assume the (out of character) role of laid-back veteran. (As I joked to Mr. Brave, "Can you believe there's a partnership where I'm the laid-back one?) Maybe it's because nearly everything horrible that could happen to me as a teacher has already happened. Maybe it's because the vibe at my new school is already so much more relaxed than my old one (which is going to take some getting used to: I still jump about when my principal drops by my room just to say hello and check in, and I'm still processing the news that teachers get to set their own classroom schedule).

So even though I'm never ready for summer to be over, this is the most excited I've ever been to start a school year (well, as a teacher, at least).  Let's hope the feeling lasts, at least through Rosh Hashanah!