Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The last day

On the last day of school, I sternly instructed my students, no one would be allowed to leave before I received a "real goodbye." There would be no sneaking off while my back was turned, I warned them, no frantic cries of "Iseemydadbye!" amid the usual chaos of the schoolyard.

As it turned out, the last day of school was just as much of a blur as the first. By the time we returned our books to the class library, cleared out our desks and seat sacks, played our last round of board games from home (did you know that Uno now comes in a Disney Princess edition?), ate our last leftover snacks from our Friday celebration, discussed our favorite moments from the school year, the importance of reading over the summer (with the Baby defiantly proclaiming, "I'm not reading nothing over the summer, it's boring!") and our summer vacation plans (Ecuador! Mexico! Florida! Sesame Place!) and handed out report cards and important notices (why did we photocopy a letter from Joel Klein addressed to "colleagues" that effectively slammed the UFT and send it home to the parent of every child in the school? who knows?), there was nothing to do but leave.

So leave we did, trooping down to the schoolyard in our summer clothes, the Mean Girl outfitted in a printed T-shirt that proclaimed a need for a "boy slave," Ashima in a pretty pink dress. Arianna (who, during our discussion about summer reading, noted, "My mom used to buy me boring books, but after you gave me those two Amelia books, I asked her if she could get me those instead) presented me with gorgeous white flowers; Marielle gave me a cardboard box inside an enormous pink bag that turned out to be an elaborate ceramic sculpture of two gilded elephants, which I'm informed represent good luck.

Good luck, Miss Brave's class.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Monday will be my last day teaching at P.S. Throwing Chairs. Even though I've been waiting to say that for, oh, three years now, leaving will still feel bittersweet. The old adage about how "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" has never run truer than in my teaching career. In my first year of teaching, I taught 400 students in 19 different classes on six different grade levels, in a school where I knew no one. I taught English Language Learners and special needs students in CTT and self-contained classes. I taught English Language Learners who were special needs students in CTT and self-contained classes. I had no curriculum, no mentor, and no bathroom key. I wrangled entire grades in the auditorium all by myself during mass preps and our school's most notorious troublemakers in the suspension room. By the time the year was over, I knew I never wanted to be a cluster teacher again, but I also knew how to walk into a room full of strange children and command respect (or at least a few moments of suspicious silence).

My second year, I provided small-group academic intervention in reading. My roster shrank from over 400 students to under 60, but for the first time I was subject to the same intense scrutiny of my teaching (not to mention my ability to sift through sanity-crushing loads of data) as everyone else. I survived weeks (months, even) when it felt like I was testing more than teaching and other weeks (other months, even) when it felt like I was covering other teachers' classes more than teaching. When the year was over, I felt I had finally developed a niche as a reading teacher...only to have my principal decide to place me in a classroom of my own.

At the beginning of this year, I had a running debate with myself over whether this year's start was harder or easier than my first year. In my first year, I didn't know a soul; at least this year, I had a support network of other teachers. In my first year, though, I got to flee the classroom after 50 minutes; this year, I had to stick it out with my most challenging students all day.

Was it easy to deal with William and Julio, to battle the Not-So-Magnificent Seven and my apathetic literacy coach? To teach an above-average size class of 28 students with zero push-in support and hold in my pee for hours on end? Of course not. But did it strengthen me as a teacher? I have to hope that it did, otherwise my three years here were in vain. And I can't bring myself to believe that.

Recently, with my classroom still in a shambles after Julio's most epic meltdown, I spent my prep on the phone with the parent of one of my students who's been diagnosed with tic disorder and will probably qualify for testing modifications and occupational therapy next year. He's a student who's been frustrating me all year, because despite his intelligence he bottles all his frustration inside him and prefers to work independently (very, very independently) rather than with anybody else. So this mother and I were talking, about the ways in which testing mods wouldn't give him an escape hatch from hard work but rather ease his frustration a little bit, and his mother very sincerely said to me, "You're describing my son exactly the way I see him." I can't even tell you how gratifying that is for a teacher to hear -- not "You're the best teacher in the world," or "You have changed my child's life forever," but simply, "You're describing my son exactly the way I see him" -- You know my child. You understand him. You may not always be able to get through to him the way you hope, but you continue to strive for him.

Later that week, she phoned our IEP coordinator and mentioned how happy she was to have me as her son's teacher, that she wanted to visit the school and tell the principal how much she appreciated me. Seeing as my principal hasn't acknowledged me since I notified her that I would be leaving, I don't think she's feeling particularly appreciative of me at the moment, but it was still nice to hear. Then I got an e-mail from my new principal, whose tone in addressing his staff seemed so cordial and genuine. It made me feel hopeful. I've been so happy in my personal life and yet so miserable in my professional life for so long. This time, maybe, I won't have to kill myself quite so much to become stronger.

Monday, June 21, 2010

First and last

This school year, I have gone on interviews for three jobs. One was an administrative-type position at a non-profit that organizes free sports activities in the five boroughs. Even though I was overqualified for it and it would have meant taking a substantial pay cut, I was so desperate to get out of my classroom that I would have taken it anyway. Fortunately, I didn't get it.

The second was an opportunity to create and direct a toddler curriculum for another sports organization. I went on multiple interviews and even presented a PowerPoint. I was told the position had come down to me and someone else.

I didn't get that job either.

It appears that the third time's the charm. In the next school year, I'll be teaching in a third grade CTT class in another borough.

I have been trying to leave my school since the day I arrived, but after three years, my feelings are more mixed than I thought they would be. Leaving my school also means leaving behind a significant portion of my favorite students, who would have been in my class next year, and my fabulous colleagues. And just because my class this year was populated by the Not-So-Magnificent Seven doesn't mean every class would be.

But while my students would have changed, what probably never would have is the lack of support I get from my administration. Since the beginning of June, Julio has been off the wall out of control. I'm talking throwing chairs, throwing his shoes across the room, emptying the garbage can all over the floor, showing all of us the middle finger, running around the room hitting kids on the head, excessive swearing, jumping off tables, chewing on paper towels, and did I mention throwing chairs?! Actual chairs, people. Not pushing them, but picking them up off the floor and tossing them. One day last week I hustled my entire class out of the room ("Like it's a fire drill, line up and get into the hallway and don't make a sound"), and my principal sent someone upstairs to take pictures of my wrecked classroom like it was a crime scene, and other teachers stood by in the hallway and gawked like it was a crime scene, and after it was over people asked me, "Are they going to let him come back after this?" when I knew that the truth was that he wouldn't get suspended and that there would be no discernible consequences of any kind. And did you know that you are only "allowed" three (official) student removals per semester? I found out when my AP said, "Because this would be your second..." in a leading tone.

Today I called upstairs to tell her that Julio was walking around the room hitting kids on the head, cursing at them and grabbing their stuff away from them to throw it on the floor, trying to code a little urgency in my voice, like, remember what happened last week when my classroom was a crime scene? From there the conversation proceeded like this:

AP: "Oh, well, I'll try to call the guidance counselor."
Me: "Yeah, she already spoke to him."
AP: "Okay, well, I'll try to give her a call."

Translation: Hang up the phone and shut up. So now I feel a little bit like a second grader myself: You don't want to help me? Fine, I'm leaving and I'm taking my toys with me!

Someone inquired in a comment on my last post about whether Julio would get his special education placement. The answer is yes. Julio's mother signed her consent for Julio to enter into a self-contained second/third grade bridge class in our school next year.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Endings and beginnings

I had a truly fantastic birthday at school. First and foremost, Julio's mother gave me the greatest birthday gift of all by not sending Julio to school on my birthday. As a result, it was a blessedly relaxing day, and I was genuinely touched by the gifts and the love my students gave me. The Sneak's mom even sent in birthday balloons! (Since Julio recently chose a meeting between me, his mother and my assistant principal to reveal his claim that the Sneak had showed him a condom in his wallet at lunchtime, the guidance counselor cynically observed that the Sneak was probably kissing up. Side note: When this juicy tidbit of information was revealed, my eyes literally bugged out of my head. It was followed by my assistant principal asked Julio, "How did you know what it [aka the condom] was?" Most awkward silence ever!)

I wrote thank-you notes to all the kids who made me cards or gifts :)

Of course, just when you're least expecting it, the $#@! will hit the fan. When I arrived in the morning on our Brooklyn-Queens professional development day, I wasn't expecting to find next year's organization sheet in my mailbox...but it was there. With my heart pounding, I quickly scanned all the names of next year's second grade teachers.

And my name...wasn't among them. Apparently my students aren't the only ones moving to third grade next year!

I wasn't thrilled. I did not want to change grades, I did not want to move into a testing grade, I did not want to deal with this year's second graders again, I did not want beginning ELLs, and I did not want to change rooms. And now: I'm changing grades, I'm moving into a testing grade, I have to deal with this year's second graders again, I'm going to have beginning ELLs, and I have to change rooms.

After the shock wore off, I consoled myself with some of the advantages. I will get push-in AIS support for math and reading and push-in ESL support for my ELLs, none of which I had this year. My new room is lovely and has much less bulletin board space (which translates into less wrestling with backing paper and standing on my tiptoes on tables trying to reach the top). And because we didn't do our articulation of classes until today, I was able to selfishly and sneakily place eight of my favorite students in my third grade class.

After dismissal, I went to see Arianna, one of my chosen eight, in her after-school program. Last year, Arianna was in my reading group, and when she was held over in second grade, I was happy to have her in my class. She's a lovely, sweet, earnest girl who isn't getting a lot of support at home and sometimes seems a little lost.

Last year, Arianna's second grade teacher lent her Amelia's Notebook, a book that purports to be the notebook of a young girl who loves to doodle and record her ideas. Arianna kept the book for months. When she finally returned it, I caught a glimpse of Arianna's own notebook. She had copied the pages of Amelia's Notebook -- copied them! -- so that she would be able to save it for herself.

Ever since then, I've been telling myself, You've got to get that girl her own copy of Amelia's Notebook. So today, after school, I presented Arianna with her own copies of Amelia's Boredom Survival Guide and Amelia's School Survival Guide. She gasped, then threw her arms around me and exclaimed, "Miss Brave, you're the best teacher ever!"

And at that moment, seeing how completely thrilled she was, knowing that she would treasure those books all summer long and that she would be coming with me to third grade...I kind of felt like it.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Every elementary school classroom probably has that one student who loves to shower her teacher with homemade gifts and trinkets. In my classroom, that student is Ashima, who came to my class from an English boarding school in Nepal. Ashima is an adorable, pint-sized study in the adjustments of immigration: At seven years old, she has an impressive knowledge of her Nepalese background ("Miss Brave, in Nepal, the cats are our gods"), but her wardrobe is 100% Hannah Montana. I have no idea what it's like to attend an English boarding school in Nepal, but it definitely hasn't always been easy for Ashima to adjust to life in a New York City public school; more than any other of my students, she's so easily upset by perceived slights of friendship or disturbances in which she doesn't receive a proper apology for the injustice in question.

Ashima comes to school nearly every day bearing some gift for me; once, a little bracelet she made from beads, once a figurine of a dog with a bobbling head. But today, she outdid herself; inside the bag she proudly presented to me was a miniature tank with a single beta fish swimming lazily around a teeny palm tree.

I let the kids write down suggestions for its name; ultimately, I went with Wilbur. So now we're a classroom of 28 children, 30 brassica plants, 1 burned-out teacher, and 1 Wilbur the fish. Here's my concern, though: My birthday is on Wednesday. Do I need to worry that she's going to bring me a puppy?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sweet sixteen

Well, it's been an eventful few days. First Julio had a meltdown of unprecedented proportions, in which he hurled an art project constructed from wooden blocks halfway across the room, then picked up the broken pieces and began smashing them to the floor, screaming incomprehensibly. This was literally ten minutes before the end of the school day, and I had an obligation to leave right when school was over, so I stayed just long enough to notify my assistant principal and hear her standard "Write it up as an anecdotal, call his mother and tell the guidance counselor" line. God forbid he had thrown those blocks toward us instead of away from us, and we'd be all be looking at concussions.

Meanwhile, Julio has spent a lot of his time lately insisting that he is "dumb" and "stupid," which is probably the source of all the rage simmering underneath the surface, so...this is a child in crisis, and I cannot for the life of me get anybody to care. I love our guidance counselor, but she is extraordinarily overworked as it is and she seems to spend most of her day running around the building putting out fires and dealing with immediate emergencies. (Ironically, her office is directly across the hall from my classroom, but naturally she wasn't in it when Julio threw the blocks.) My assistant principal is an intelligent, competent administrator, but she seems more interested in how things look on paper. And all over the school there is a chain reaction of middlemen, from the IEP coordinator to the social worker to the guidance counselor, when what we really need is a direct line for emergency situations.

That night, Julio put on a pint-sized superstar performance at the school talent show, and the next day, he didn't show up for school. Obviously he had some recuperating to do. All this time I've been thinking he's an emotionally disturbed child with untreated ADD, but maybe he's just preparing for his future as a rock star!

Sixteen more days, sixteen more days...

And what are we going to be doing with our time in those sixteen days? Not doing any quality teaching, that's for sure! No, we're administering a final round of reading assessments. Back at the beginning of the school year, we started these new assessments that took us two months to complete, and that was with a push-in AIS teacher helping us. Now, we have sixteen days of school left and no push-in AIS teacher, so this is going to get done how...? It's not going to have any impact on report card grades, because those are due before we'll finish. We never looked at our original set of data from September or used it to drive our reading instruction in any way, so I have no idea what this round is supposed to measure or accomplish. All I know is that it means I have students reading at fantastically high levels that I never encountered when I was in AIS (my highest reader is a P, or end of third grade), but I won't get to meet with them for guided reading or small group instruction because I'll be busy assessing whether my students know how to read pairs of rhyming words.

In other news, today in read aloud we were up to the chapter of Charlotte's Web where Charlotte dies. I think I almost cried a little in front of my whole class. Even though we had been preparing for Charlotte's death for a while now (and most of the kids have already encountered the movie, so the cat was out of the bag), they still seemed faintly stunned that it had actually happened. I don't think they're enjoying this book as much as they did James and the Giant Peach, because it's not as outrageously funny, but I think it has such rich messages about friendship and loyalty and duty and growing up (they loved the parts where Fern is itching to go off and ride the Ferris wheel with Henry Fussy). Today, in another attempt to move past the vocabulary of "sad," I talked about the word "grief" and how grief is deeper than sadness, like what you feel when someone close to you dies. "You might be sad if you lose your favorite toy," I said, "but you wouldn't feel grief." So we talked about how Wilbur is grieving for Charlotte, and Ashima, who joined my class when she moved to the United States from Nepal in November, raised her hand and said, "That reminds me of James and the Giant Peach when James' parents died." Yay! There's nothing like a good literary connection to warm an embittered teacher's blackened, shriveled heart.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Miss Brave gives up

I have a long post about Julio saved that I've been meaning to finish and post, but I've got to be honest, people, I'm kind of tired of talking about him. To his mother, to my assistant principal, to the guidance counselor, and the IEP teacher, and even to Mr. Brave when I come home and say, "You won't believe what Julio did today..." I mean, what more can you say about a kid who crawls under your desk, takes his shoes off, tosses them into the middle of the room and then emerges, feigning confusion and asking, "What happened?" Last week, Julio asked me if he could have a drink of water. I told him he would need to wait until after our mini lesson. He went to the water fountain, drank water, and then returned to me and...asked me if he could have a drink of water. I couldn't help it: I laughed. "You just drank water," I exclaimed. Julio shook his head. Drops of water were literally flying off his lips as he proclaimed, "I didn't drink any water!"

How can you reason with that? You can't. So...I just stopped trying. I'm not going to argue with him. I'm not going to berate him. I'm pretty much going to ignore him. Wait, let me rephrase that: I'm going to ignore his antics. The singing. The banging. The dancing. The screaming. See, Julio does his work; he just doesn't do it at the same time or in the same manner as everyone else, because Julio thinks he is Justin Bieber and has to schedule his schoolwork around his concert performances of "Baby" (now playing at a classroom rug near you). Any antics can't ignore, I either (a) address in a supernaturally calm voice or (b) pick up the phone and call my AP, my guidance counselor or the office...whoever picks up the phone and will send someone to come get him. (Recently, a school aide burst into our room asking, "Where is he?" 27 pairs of eyes immediately slid over to the closed bathroom door, where Julio had barricaded himself and was loudly banging out the rhythm to "We Will Rock You." "What's he doing in there?" the school aide demanded. I shrugged. Lady, if I knew that, I'd either be making a lot more money or we wouldn't be in this mess in the first place.)

Julio isn't getting placed in 12:1:1 by the end of the year -- I believe the guidance counselor's exact words were "You're stuck with him until the end of the year, I'm so sorry." So I have developed an attitude of Zenlike patience and calm. The mantra that goes with it sounds like this: Eighteen more days, eighteen more days, eighteen more days...