Saturday, September 29, 2007

Lighter moments

I never intended for my teaching blog to be all gloom and doom. So for a little balance, here are some stories that prove that, no matter how infuriating my students are, they're still delightful:

Funny story #1:
It's the Wednesday before our two days off for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The population of students at my school is more than 80% Hispanic, and the teachers seem to be largely Italian and Irish, so I'd bet a pound of gefilte fish that there weren't more than five people who knew why we were off. As we walk to the schoolyard for dismissal, I have this conversation with a first grader:

Phillip: "Tomorrow is birthday?"
Miss Brave: "No, tomorrow is a holiday for some people."
Phillip: "Tomorrow is Monday?"
Miss Brave: "No, tomorrow is Thursday."
Phillip: "I have gym tomorrow?"
Miss Brave: "No, there is no school tomorrow. What day do you have gym?"
Phillip: "Mondays. I like Mondays because I have gym."
Miss Brave: "When you come back to school, it will be Monday and you'll have gym."

Funny story #2:
After the regular school day ends, a lot of the kiddos at my school stay for an extra 50 minutes of small-group instruction for "at risk" students. In my 50-minute session, we usually get the kiddos packed up before the 50 minutes rather than after, so we'll be all ready to go at 3:10. Some of them stay in the room and some leave, which of course confuses them all to no end: "Are we going home? Do I go to computer?" Eduardo, in particular, is a total space cadet; every day I give him the same weary instructions: "No, Eduardo, you stay here with me, remember? Get your backpack...and your lunchbox...and your take-home folder...and your put those things inside your put your backpack on the back of your chair and come to the rug -- why are you lined up at the door? You stay here with me, remember?" "Oh yeah!" he'll say brightly, and then set about the task of pushing in everyone else's chairs and chastising them for leaving them out in the aisle.

Last week, we're walking down the stairs for dismissal, Eduardo and his Spider-Man backpack merrily bouncing down the steps no matter how many times I remind him that (a) we put one foot on each step and (b) we have marshmallow feet when we take the stairs -- when he suddenly looks up, alarmed. "Miss Brave!" he calls out. "I didn't pack nothing!"

It took 10 minutes for all my first graders to pack up their things. I'm not sure what sweet, aimless Eduardo was doing during that time, but I can bet it was more interesting than getting his homework folder.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Letters to a distraught teacher

Recently my dad, who's a librarian, brought me a book called Letters to a Young Teacher, by Jonathan Kozol. At first I was resistant to reading it: The reality of teaching is so far from the comfortable world of reading about it in books that I thought it would just make me bitter.

But I did read it. It's basically a series of letters that Kozol wrote to a brand-new first grade teacher in inner city Boston whom he calls "Francesca." As he comments on Francesca's classroom and her rapport with her students, he also expands on his theories about educational policy.

In one part, he reflects on how Francesca recounted an incident that happened in her classroom to a woman who was conducting a teaching workshop. A student in Francesca's class was telling other students about a story she had written, and all the other students picked up on it and started relating it to their own stories. The workshop woman was impressed that the students had made what she called a "text-to-self" connection.

In the book, Kozol and Francesca both agree that this woman is ridiculous and that teachers don't actually talk like that. And that's when it hit me: I talk like that. I like that stuff. I like learning all those theories about how children learn, about how they make those text-to-self connections. I like working with kids one on one and in small groups and watching those connections click, and on occasion I even like the excitement that comes from the whole class getting really involved in an activity I've set up.

But Kozol and Francesca are right: Most teachers don't talk like that. They're too busy actually teaching.

Where does that leave me?

Frantic, frenetic, unfabulous Fridays

"Shhh! The teacher's here!"

This is (along with "CanIgotothebathroomcanIgotothebathroom?!") probably my least favorite thing to hear from my students. That's because "the teacher" they're referring to is not me, but their classroom teacher. And what it says, in a nutshell is, "We don't respect or listen to Miss Brave because she has no power over us, but shhh! The real teacher's back!" And that's the worst feeling in the world, because it means I've failed in the basic, primary objective of beginning teachers: Behavior management.

Management is not, shall we say, my "thing." I'm too soft, too willing to get bogged down listening to everyone's sob story ("He took my pencil!" "No I didn't, it's my pencil and then she hit me with it!"), and too easily distracted by other problems cropping up in the room ("OK, one of you needs to be the bigger person here and -- JAMES WHY ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR SEAT SIT DOWN RIGHT NOW"). In my first grade class today, I spent literally almost the entire period dealing with the issue of whose turn it was to use the bathroom. Let me tell you something: I once ran a marathon, and it took me five hours. And I think I would rather run a 5-hour marathon every day of my life than spend another 30 minutes having the following conversation with first graders:

Child #1: "I gotta use the bathroom."
Miss Brave: "Someone is in there right now; you need to wait. And you need to stop calling out and use the bathroom signal. So last week, we were talking about --"
Child #2: "I gotta go bad, it's an emergency!"
Miss Brave: "As soon as that person comes out, you may go. You don't need to tell me out loud, you need to use your bathroom signal. Right now you need to wait.
Last week we learned that good writers -- "
Child #3: "Me too, Miss Brave, I can't wait!"
Child #4 exiting the bathroom with bloody hands: "Miss Brave, my tooth fell out!"
[Room erupts into chaos]

Behaviorally, this afternoon was a disaster. All three of my classes ended with their class stoplights on red (translation: Your behavior is atrocious and you get no stickers; when this happens I tell them how sad and disappointed I am that they won't earn a special reward from me, but actually, the fewer special rewards I have to dole out, the less expensive teaching will be), and two of those classes ended up in trouble with their classroom teachers for misbehaving with me, which makes me feel absolutely awful. It shouldn't be the classroom teacher's responsibility to discipline students for their misbehavior in my class; it should be mine. But I'm running off to another class and I don't have time and the students know it, which is why they misbehave in the first place. One of those classes gives their classroom teacher a lot of trouble, too; but the other one is much more respectful of their classroom teacher, and I'm just the crummy writing teacher everybody hates who comes in to ruin Friday afternoons.

It was Pajama Day at school today, but I'm glad I didn't wear my pajamas. If I had been wearing pajamas while A.J. and Joseph wrestled on the floor right in the middle of my lesson or while Carlo flicked pencils, point-first, across the table, or while second graders made armpit-farting noises solely to piss me off, I think I would have lost it completely.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

164 more days to go

Today I quit my job.


About eighty times.

The upside to quitting my job mentally is that I'll still get paid tomorrow. The downside is that I still have to go to work -- mentally, physically and emotionally.

Before we commence with the misery, here's a quick overview of the curriculum plan followed by my school, where we conduct reading and writing lessons according to something known as the "workshop model." The workshop model looks like this:

  • Each period is 50 minutes long.
  • Each period begins with a 10-minute "mini lesson" conducted by the teacher, which consists of multiple parts: Connecting the lesson to something the students have already done; introducing the "teaching point" for the day, which is outlined in very specific language that always includes the word by ("Good writers use correct punctuation by ending each sentence with a period"); modeling the teaching point; actively engaging the students in trying it out; and then sending them back to their desks to write for 35 minutes.
  • Students write on their own for 35 minutes while the teacher "conferences" with individual students.
  • The lesson concludes with a 5-minute "share" and review.
The kiddos at my school participate in this writers' workshop every day. I see them once a week for an extra period of writing. So I envisioned my time with them to be supplementary to writers' workshop. I pictured a happy-go-lucky period full of grammar games and activities in which I would make capitalization and sentence structure fun for everyone! La la laaaaaa --

OK, yeah, that's not exactly how it's working out. The mandate from administrations says: Follow the workshop model. I have oodles of issues with this, including:
  • Some kids hate writing. Sad, but true. They are not happy about having an extra period of writing. Behaviorally, this is challenging. I hear whining, I hear sighing, I hear outright defiance -- and I don't get to play fun games like "Capital vs. Lowercase!" (which went over pretty well with my second graders) because they're supposed to be writing. Again.
  • Some kids hate writing. Sad, but true. They are not happy about having an extra period of writing. Mentally, this is challenging. A lot of them use half the period just thinking of an idea -- and by then, I'm literally wresting the paper out of their grimy hands because I have to run off to another class. Because I only see them once a week, they don't get to continue it another time -- and if my lesson is "Good writers use correct punctuation by putting a period at the end of a sentence," like it was today, and I'm in a first grade class, like I was today, some of them won't even get to the end of a sentence by the time class is over.
I have much, much more to ruminate over (Jonathan Kozol's Letters to a Young Teacher; the fact that everyone from the ESL teachers to the literacy coach is confused about what my position is supposed to be), but it's late and I have to go to bed. Because as much as it sends me into a panicky, crying tailspin -- I still have to go to school tomorrow.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Mondays are manic

On Mondays, I see in this order:
  • a self-contained special ed kindergarten (9 kiddos with a wide variety of special needs; I see them first thing in the morning and therefore they tend to trickle in one or two at a time as the bus drops them off, all yawning from the weekend)
  • a self-contained special ed fourth grade (see League, Way Out of)
  • a third grade class that's on their third teacher so far this year (yes, their third in three weeks of school)
  • an ESL first grade whose teacher always comes back five minutes late from her prep, thereby making me late to my next class; there is probably a picture of this class in the dictionary under The Class That Wouldn't Stop Talking, Ever, and Never Listened to Their Writing Teacher
  • an unruly second grade whose teacher I am convinced dislikes me; today on my way out I heard her say, "Writing is over and now you follow the rules that you always follow" -- as if I hadn't been trying to make them follow any rules, like, throw me a bone here
I once had an English teacher who made us measure each day thusly: "Today is the second day of the thirty-fifth week of our marathon year!"

In that case, today was the first day of the fourth week (although it's only the first day of the second complete week) of school, and here are some things I still do not have:

1. keys to the library (where my office is located) or the bathroom
2. control of my classes
3. a faculty mentor

I've mentioned before that I find this "mentoring" business to be a little backwards. When it's the first week of school, and you have kids in your classes that outright refuse to do a single thing you say, and children are hitting each other right in front of you and stealing your stickers, that's when you need a mentor for guidance and a good sob session.

Last week, the teacher who was supposed to be my mentor became the literacy coach and told me she wouldn't be my mentor anymore. Today, I saw her in the hallway. "Miss Brave," she said. "I still have to mentor you."

I still have to mentor you? Alas, that doesn't sound promising.

Lastly, because the subtitle of this blog is supposed to be "teaching, learning and surviving my first year in education," not "teaching, learning and complaining my first year in education," here are some good things that have risen out of the ashes of my first month of school:

  • being on the receiving end of spontaneous hugs from some of my students
  • comments like "I like it when you come to our class" (these comments are usually totally unwarranted, by the way, since as I have done nothing but futilely strive for silence for 50 minutes, I don't really merit a compliment)
  • passing classes in the hall who wave furiously and whisper, "Hi Miss Brave!" in their hallway voices
  • so far, all my classes have laughed at my demonstration of how a sloppy lowercase M looks like a "big McDonald's M"
  • working one-on-one with a kid and watching as something clicks
  • two teachers (one first grade, one second grade) who are always really nice and gracious when I come to their classes

Friday, September 21, 2007

Freaky Fridays

On Fridays, all of my classes are really, really challenging behaviorally. I see a mixed general ed and special ed kindergarten class, a chatty first grade class that includes a student who by rights should be in a 12:1:1 self-contained special ed class, and two second grade classes that are, well, a little out of control. One of them is more than a little out of control, and if I were their teacher (who is also new), possibly I would have actually quit by now instead of just thinking about it every time I end up crying in the school bathroom. (See the list of ten things I was worried about before school started.)

I was pondering my situation the other day, and I came to the realization that the best schools have two pieces that fit together when it comes to how they treat their teachers: accountability and guidance. With accountability, they hold teachers responsible for what they teach; they make sure each teacher goes through her mandatory observations; they expect teachers to collect data and perform assessments on their students. With guidance, they provide their teachers with the tools that are necessary to do their jobs: New teachers have mentors; there are people who can answer questions; there are supports in place, and there are curriculum resources at teachers' disposal.

My school has plenty of accountability; I know this because the most common refrain I hear when I scrounge for advice is, "You should find out _____ before you get observed" -- this last part always dropped to an ominous whisper. But the one thing no one has been able to tell me is: Well, who do I ask? Who's supposed to be guiding me? Where is my mentor? (The teacher who was supposed to be my mentor is leaving her classroom to become the school's literacy coach and announced, "I'm not going to be your mentor; someone else will." But who? I'm still waiting to find out.)

My position is new, so I'm pretty much forging my own path. My thoughts at the end of the day range from "I wish I could quit right now" to "maybe at the end of the year I'll be glad I had this experience" -- but so far I haven't thought, "I think I'll want to do this again next year." I know it's my responsibility to take initiative and reach out -- but when I see 17 different classes and I feel like there's nobody in the world checking in with me to see how things are going...I get a little overwhelmed.

At the end of the day today I walked into the office and another teacher said to me, "Your job isn't changing, is it?" And I said, "Uhhhhh...I don't think so..." but I was thinking, Well, nobody tells me anything, so who knows?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Unfortunately for all of us

Things you don't want your students say to you:

  • "My mom hit me." I told his teacher, who told me to tell the AP, who told me to tell the guidance counselor.
  • "I threw up in the bathroom." Having been instructed to not send a child to the nurse unless he or she was actively on the verge of death, I asked another teacher who happened to be in the room if I should call the office. She suggested that the kid looked fine now and that we wait it out. When his teacher returned and I explained my ill-conceived 'no nurse' theory, she gave me a withering glare and...sent him to the nurse. Yup, Ms. C officially hates me.
  • "She's throwing up!" Yes, twice in two days in two different classes! This time we did send the girl to the nurse. Who sent her back to the class. Where she threw up again, this time on the table. She went back down to the nurse. Who sent her back to class again. Where she...wait for it...threw up again...!
Things you don't want other teachers to say to you:

  • "I feel sorry for you." On the one hand, this says, "I acknowledge that this must be a challenging class for you to teach." On the other? It says, "You're screwed."

This afternoon as I waited an excrutiatingly long time to get my new behavior management charts laminated at Staples ("Green = Great Day! 2 stickers!"), this guy looked at them and said, "I remember kindergarten! All we did was eat milk and cookies and nap."

"Well, it's a lot different now," I replied, "...unfortunately for all of us."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Wednesdays are wacky

Wednesdays are my all-kindergarten day. My schedule on Wednesdays looks like this:

1. prep
2. self-contained special needs kindergarten (8 kids, all of whom have special needs)
3. inclusion special needs kindergarten (16 or so kids, about half of whom have special needs)
4. kindergarten I am actually getting to know a little bit
5. lunch
6. ESL kindergarten (24 or so kids, all of whom are just learning English)
7. ESL kindergarten (ditto)

As you can imagine, Wednesdays are a little exhausting. Keep in mind that my certification is not actually in any of the specialty areas of (1) the kindergarten grade, (2) special needs or (3) ESL. Strike three! I'm out!

What's sad is that the kids in their second week of school already know more about their writers' workshop than I do. While I was having them choose paper (and don't even get me started on how I got verbally bitch-slapped for not bringing my own paper to provide for my seventeen classes a week when other teachers had expressly reassured me that there was no need for me to bring my own paper) and work on their own, one of the kids pulled out a date stamp. A little girl at his table, who's clearly Extremely Bright and in actuality would probably teach the class better than I would, calmly said to him: "You need to put that away. The teacher didn't say anything about using the date stamp, she only said to get a piece of paper and a pencil and write your name." In response, I just sort of gaped at them, because that's exactly what I would have said had I not been pre-empted and also paralyzed by my fear of kindergarteners.

I see both special needs kindergartens twice a week. For writing. I "co-teach" the inclusion class with a special ed teacher who is there to modify my lesson for the special needs kids (quotation marks to indicate that what I actually do is say moronic things in front of 5-year-olds and she interrupts me; she is also one of those people who is really hard to get a read on when you're talking to her, so I can never tell whether her questions are actually designed to insult me or not), and yesterday while the kids were "working independently" (quotation marks to indicate that they were actually in varying stages of throwing tantrums, fighting with each other or trying desperately to get my attention by waving their papers in the air and calling, "Teacher! TEACHER!!!"), she turned to me and said bluntly: "Kindergarten doesn't need a writing cluster." Making her the third teacher to tell me that my position in the school is completely superfluous.

Lady, you don't know how much I completely agree with you, but does either of us have enough clout with the administration to break it to them?

All the school's a stage

Last night, I went out for Happy Hour with a mix of old and new teachers at my school. (The Jewish new year is here, so we're off Thursday and Friday -- I don't get the impression we'd normally be out drinking on a Wednesday afternoon.)

Here are some of the things the veteran teachers told me about their own first years in teaching:
  • "I never cried so much in my life."
  • "I literally ran out of my classroom into the bathroom crying and wouldn't go back. I was like a child. Another teacher had to come into the bathroom and be like, 'You go back in there and take 'em!'"
  • "One of my kids threw all of the math books into the trash can. The guidance counselor found me in my classroom, sitting on the floor, crying, pulling all the books out of the trash."
And here is some of the advice they gave me:
  • "Just literally do not crack a smile."
  • "You really have to be like a drill sergeant."
  • "You have to be...I don't want to say mean, but you kind of do have to be mean, and that can be hard if it's not your personality."
There's an analogy out there that says that teaching is like acting. Now that I'm a teacher, I can certainly see why it fits: I have stage fright and I have to pretend to be someone I'm not. The only downfall is that in teaching, no one's feeding me my lines.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

First year teacher? Here's why you're unprepared.

I got my teaching certificate by following the so-called "traditional" route; I minored in Education in college. I sat in safe, quiet lecture halls and listened to professors use words like "pedagogy."

True, I was also a student teacher. In February, after the classroom teacher had done all the real work of getting the class organized and settled and ready to learn. By the time I got there, the class ran so smoothly that my first-graders probably could have done it without me.

I used to be wary of "alternate certification routes" like Teach for America. How could you become a teacher when you hadn't done your share of sitting in safe, quiet lecture halls and listening to professors use words like "pedagogy"? But now I think that perhaps I don't really have so much of an advantage over those Fellows. Because if you're a first-year teacher, there are always going to be reasons why you're unprepared:

1. You don't know how long anything will take.
Time does strange, twisty things when you're alone in a classroom with children. You may spend your entire lesson cajoling your students to sit down and be quiet. You may envision an entire, 5o-minute lesson that flies by in 20 minutes. This makes it impossible to plan lessons with any degree of certainty.

2. You don't know what your personal teaching style will be like.
I did my student teaching in a classroom with young children, and without consciously meaning to I ended up mimicking my cooperating teacher's style for the sake of continuity. I adopted her phrases and even her tone of voice so that my students would respond to me the way they responded to her. Now I'm wondering: Who am I as a teacher, anyway? I love to make my kids laugh, but if they laugh does that mean they respect me less? What noise level should I tolerate during independent work? For how much longer should I keep forcing myself not to smile?

3. You don't know who to turn to.
During a conversation I had today with another new teacher, she told me she felt lonely, stressed out and completely without guidance. In short, it was like talking to myself in a mirror! She suggested that maybe it would make me feel better to know that other people feel the same way, but actually it just made me feel worse, as if I were trapped in some unfortunate hazing ritual for new teachers: We all pay our dues.

What else happened today?
  • I learned, once again, that if you have a Band-Aid on your finger, your young students will ask you about it. More than once. When you think they're raising their hands to make insightful comments about the alphabet.
  • Two first-graders gave me completely sneak-attack hugs. One came from behind with the force of an atom bomb, and then the hugger ran away, later remarking, "I know you from kindergarten!" Alas, she is mistaken, as I am most definitely a New Teacher. The other was also an end-of-the-day surprise hug that came with the heart-warming comment, "I like it when you come to our class." Too bad my heart is already hardened and I suspect it's because I am Too Nice. (And because I, unlike their classroom teacher, would never threaten to lock the bathroom so that they all wet their pants...!)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Everything you've learned about behavior management is wrong

(Lessons I Learned From Class 1-216)

1. Speak quietly, so your students will have to be quiet to hear you.
Nope! They won't even notice your presence (despite the frantic shushing action of nearby students) and they'll just keep right on talking.

2. Wait for quiet before you start speaking.
You'll pretty much be waiting all afternoon. The noise might briefly dwindle to a dull roar, at which point you'll open your mouth in anticipation, but after that it'll just start back up again.

3. Use a Pavlovian signal to get everyone's attention.
Might be effective the first time, but after that? You're pretty much just the tall(er) lady standing a corner and waving your arms/ringing a bell/shouting "Give me five!"/putting your hands on your head. (All things I tried today. All ineffective.)

4. Be clear about your rules and expectations before delving into your lesson.
Inwardly marvel at the way you hold your students' undivided attention. Savor this moment for later when everything goes haywire. Because it will. Oh, it will.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Alphabet soup

Today I saw a car with a license plate that said "CTT" on it and my brain immediately thought: "Collaborative team teaching."

There should be a dictionary online for all these acronyms and abbreviations: translating DOE-ese (DOEse?) into English.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Despair: 1, Miss Brave: 0

Things that would probably make my teaching experience a heck of a lot more bearable:
1. a key to my office
2. a key to the library, where my office is
3. a key to the bathroom, for Pete's sake, I was not meant to hold it all day
4. kindergarten writing paper
5. first grade writing paper
6. second grade writing paper
7. a curriculum (i.e., a reason for my existence)
8. a staff member I could ask about all these things without feeling stuuuupid
9. the mentor I was promised all new teachers would receive; now is the time I need her, not January when all this is just a bad memory
10. my health benefits to kick in so I could get some Prozac or something

Things I always suspected I would dislike about teaching that I do, in fact, dislike about teaching:
1. feeling isolated from everyone over the age of 8
2. the sense of crushing despair I feel after unsuccessfully attempting to implement every single be quiet and stay quiet signal known to teacherkind
3. the sense of crushing despair I feel when I try to comprehend the enormity of differentiating instruction for the second graders who can barely write their own names
4. having so much planning to do outside of school
5. behaving like an ogre to wriggly, chatty small children who don't get a gym class who are behaving like wriggly, chatty small children who don't get a gym class
6. school politics

Things I dislike about being a push-in cluster:
1. Frantically running from class to class
2. Working with about 350 kids so there is zero chance I will really learn all their names (classroom teachers: where are the nametags that are supposed to be on their desks?!)
3. Having to carry my own supplies from place to place
4. Not having any of my own supplies to carry from place to place
5. Not knowing what any of the regular classroom routines are and thus being unable to implement them with any consistency
6. Seeing each class for only 50 minutes a week: all of the challenges of teaching with few of the rewards that come from getting to know a group of kids really well
7. Not bonding with any other teachers on my grade level
8. Being viewed with less respect, authority and adoration by the kids
9. When the classroom teacher needs to step in and tell her kids to shape up because they're not behaving for me; the word "embarrassed" comes up frequently in this situation, when really I'm the one who's embarrassed
10. Realizing that the only thing worse than being in the "challenging" classrooms for 50 minutes would be being the full-time classroom teacher

Today was a tough day. Over the past few days I've gone from thinking, "I can't do this for the rest of my life" to "I can't do this for more than a few years" to "I can't do this next year." Today for the first time I thought, "I can't do this at all."

My kids aren't violent. They aren't dangerous. Most of them aren't even openly defiant. There are teachers out there who are getting injured by their students on a daily basis, who face exhausting, hellish conditions every day, who don't have any supplies or desks at all. There are teachers out there who are facing ineffectual principals, illegal overcrowding, and hostile work environments. There are teachers out there who would probably kill to work at a school like mine. Those are the teachers who make me think: I'm not thick-skinned enough for this. I'm not tough enough for this. I'm not dedicated enough for this.

I like working with kids one-on-one and in small groups. But teaching to the whole class -- it's getting to me. There's the pressure to make sure everyone is listening, all eyes are on me, no one has their hands on anyone else. What behaviors do you nip in the bud? What behaviors do you choose to ignore in a futile attempt to pick your battles? There's the pressure to address the needs of 25 individual students in one 50-minute period. How much time do you spend with the kids who are busy writing away, and how much time do you spend with the kids who are staring blankly at their empty sheet of paper?

My 50-minutes co-teacher told me that at the end of her first year, the principal suggested that she re-think her choice of teaching as a career. Five years later, she's still teaching at our school. I'm not strong-willed enough for this, I thought; if at the end of my first year, someone tells me to re-think my decision to teach, I'm going to re-think it. Then I realized that someone already has. During my disastrous first student teaching experience, my cooperating teacher's parting words to me were: "Don't teach first grade."

I thought I had something to prove here. But what if I just made a terrible mistake?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

I like your hair

Whew! Today was my first actual 5-period day: two second grades, a prep, lunch, and then three first grades in a row. And I survived it, so thumbs up for me! (I'm a big "Give me a thumbs up when you're ready" kind of teacher.)

My internal dialogue still sounds like this: "Oh my goodness oh my goodness," like that girl in Annie, and I think I haven't yet developed a good barometer for how the lessons are actually going. During my first period class, I was thinking, "Oy, I don't know about this," and at the end of it, the classroom teacher said to me, "That was a fantastic lesson, have you ever taught before?" (Just now I had the horrible, horrible thought that maybe she was being sarcastic. It really didn't sound like it, though.) But it didn't feel fantastic; I didn't get the rush of teachendorphins I usually feel after a lesson has gone really well.

It occurred to me today that I've never spent a significant amount of time (as an adult) in an elementary school at the beginning of the school year. I keep squirming inside because the other teachers seem really strict, and I feel like I need to lay down the law. I know that I need to keep reinforcing, but when I stop a class in the middle of independent work five times and tell them to be quiet, I start to feel like I'm not doing something right and I get the urge to give up. I'm using to joking around with kids and being less of an authority figure; in the past few days I've actually felt myself consciously trying not to smile. Because, you know, first year teacher -- don't smile until December!

Another reality is starting to settle in: school politics. The teacher I do my 50-minute period with -- let's call her Mrs. Talker -- is a talker, and she likes to talk away to me about how the principal always finds one person to pick on every year and how other teachers were terrified that the math coach would become the new assistant principal and all kinds of other juicy gossip that I feel (a) kind of grateful to be in the loop on and (b) vaguely uncomfortable knowing. Right now I kind of nod and smile and make appropriately surprised noises every few minutes. On the one hand, it's so nice to be talked to by another adult that's not in that singsongy "I know you'll tell me if there are any problems with my students, Miss Brave!" kind of way. On the other hand, there's a kid sitting right next to me who wants my help practicing letters, and perhaps I should devote my attention to him, hmm?

Today during a first-grade lesson I paused to ask if anyone had any questions. In the first row, a boy's hand went up. "I..." Pause. "I like your hair!" he said.

That's not a question, I told him, but I thanked him anyway.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

If anyone asks, we're working like dogs in here

Today I was, if it's possible, even more nervous than yesterday. You know what it's like to imagine something going wrong...and then it goes wrong? It's not even that yesterday was such a miserable day. It's just that, this being the first week, I have been wound extremely tight, and anything that goes the slightest bit awry is causing me massive internal panic. (Which is why teaching is possibly the wrong profession for me. But I digress.)

At any rate, I was extremely nervous for my first class of the day. Then I realized that it was a self-contained special needs kindergarten class and, as you can imagine, this made me even more nervous. I got to the class, and whoosh! That's the sound of all my frantic lesson planning going right out the window. As their teacher wryly put it: "They're special." Pause. "They're very, very special...I'm not sure what you want to do with them...coloring would be great!"

Well, in Writers' Workshop parlance, coloring = writing, right? So I did a modified version of my original vision, which consisted of reading Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten and having them "write" a story about how they got ready for kindergarten. And with at least a few of them (there were only five in the class), I think something clicked. They told me the story of their picture ("Mommy and Daddy took me to school"), and I transcribed it. At the end of the lesson, one boy waved his paper in the air and said, "I wrote a story!" Mission. Accomplished. On my way out, their teacher told me, "You were so good with them." Who knows if she was just being polite, but as I have zero experience with special needs kindergarteners, let alone a self-contained class of special needs kindergarteners, it was really, really nice to hear.

Interestingly, my favorite time of the day so far has been the 50 minutes at the end of the day when some kids go home and the rest of the students are broken up into smaller groups. My room assignment is in a first-grade class with a teacher whom I first found intimidating in that she seems rather old school, been around the block, not having any of this newfangled accountable talk, you get my drift. The idea of the 50 minutes is that she has one group of kids and I have another, and we work in small groups on...something, it's never been made exactly clear because apparently there are union rules that govern how we can spend our time blah blah blah. But they're all kids from her class, and it's a small room, and she opined that it didn't make sense for each of our groups to squeeze into a corner and work on different things, so we're throwing caution to the wind and co-teaching. It's all a little weirdly covert and illicit, like apparently last year her co-teacher during that period was in graduate school and would work on her papers during that time. Today she gave me a sideways look of sorts and I had to reassure her that I wasn't going to rat her out to the administration; she's a funny lady, I'm just learning the ins and outs of the school bureaucracy, and I'm not going to rock the boat by declaring, "I shall take my eight students, squeeze them into this corner of the room and teach the life out of them!" So now we're on the same page, but the funny business continues: "Of course if anyone asks," she told me, "we're working like dogs in here."

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

My first first day

...because tomorrow may be just as challenging, but at least it's not the first day!

My first day. It wasn't fantastic, but it wasn't miserable, and since I feel like I'm teaching in a vacuum it's hard to say whether I'm in trouble or whether I'm just being hard on myself.

First there was the unanticipated schedule change; my afternoon kindergarten class was (surprise!) switched with a special needs second grade class. I wasn't expecting to teach second grade today, and I wasn't expecting to teach this particular second grade at all. OK, I thought; you hear about this happening all the time, this is your first big challenge, roll with it.

It was a little rocky. I'm definitely thinking Too Big at this point, and I need to scale back my lessons, big time. They say that on the first day, you should which they mean "have more things ready for students to do," not "try to make students accomplish a project that's beyond them." I have 50 minutes with them, once a week, and I think I've been wildly over-optimistic about the things I'm going to be able to accomplish in that time. I still don't have a curriculum to follow, nor is there any sign that I'm going to get one, so I need to be proactive and write my own...and it definitely needs to be less "think conceptually about how you feel as a first-grader and then write about it" and more "first-graders put spaces between their words when they write." Today was the first day, so I tried to make with the big introduction, and it kind of fell flat. Memo to Miss Brave: Think small. After all, it is called a mini lesson.

I take comfort in the fact that I'm not the only new teacher who looked just the slightest bit shell-shocked at the end of the day. When you watch a great teacher teach, it all looks effortless, and then when you're up there yourself, it's like your brain is screaming a hundred different things at you: Have the supplies ready! Can all the students see? Should I reprimand that student who's looking a little unfocused? Don't be fumbling to reach those markers! Firm up the tone of your voice! And because I'm rushing from class to class, keeping one eye on the clock and trying to do the time in my head is really hard. I'm sure every teacher can tell you that things you think are going to take a long time happen really quickly, and things you think should be quick take forever. And it's not like I can steal a few minutes from the next subject if I want to; I have to be out of there and ready to go.

I'm still on a cluster-teacher seesaw. Sometimes I think, Further along in the year, this is going to be pretty sweet! No matter how challenging each class gets, I'm outta there after 50 minutes. I have all these extra prep periods. I don't have to worry about attendance, fire drills or all the other paperwork the classroom teachers have to deal with. Other times I think: I am never going to learn all of these students' names, and they're never going to respect me as much as they do their classroom teacher. The classroom teachers are going to judge me as a teacher when I'm in their rooms, and at least they have a curriculum to work off of! And I'll always feel a little bit lost about my place in the school culture. And even more troublingly, I think: I don't know if I want to be doing this next year.

But there's something about teaching that keeps teachers coming back. I never would have thought that after my disastrous student teaching experience, I'd be back in a classroom. I read and hear teachers' countless complaints about their profession, and then I see them return year after year anyway. And all the things that challenged me today are things that, in time, will improve...I hope.

At the very least, I'm going back tomorrow

Troubling anecdote: One of the students on my roster of small-group after-school students was a no-show. His classroom teacher pulled me aside and whispered the reason: Last week, his mother killed him and then killed herself. "He's not here. He's dead," she said flatly. There are no words.

Hopeful anecdote: "YOU DID A GREAT JOB! even if you did a shitty one, you're doing a great thing, and thus deserve to be congratulated." --Inspiring words from my friend Catherine. Thanks buddy!

Saturday, September 1, 2007

If you can read this, thank a teacher

In the past few days, lots and lots of people have been giving me advice on how to handle my first days of school as an elementary school teacher. Some of it has been helpful ("When you're writing a mini-lesson, always ask yourself: What is it that you want the kids to know by the end of the lesson?"), some of it has been well-meaning in a way that just ends up freaking me out a little ("Before the first day of school, take a sleeping pill, because no one sleeps that night"), and some of it has been downright terrifying ("They can smell fear. So don't show them a moment of weakness, or they will run you into the ground").

But by far the strangest advice I've gotten has come from my real estate broker (a former elementary school teacher herself), who gave me the inside scoop today as we were waiting for my credit check to go through.

"Do you have stickers?" she asked me. No, I replied, I hadn't gotten any yet.

She raised a single finger for emphasis and gazed straight at me, her eyes flashing with intensity.

"Don't go in there without stickers," she said.

The first thing I did after leaving her office was to eat a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles. The second was to run to Staples and buy two packages of tiny happy face stickers (1,440 stickers in a pack!) for $2.99 each.

I'm still worried about crying kindergarteners, remembering the names of approximately 400 different children, differentiating instruction for 17 classes and planning a curriculum around the all-too-nebulous directions given to me thus far. But apparently as long as I have stickers, everything will turn out fine.