Thursday, January 27, 2011

Things I really needed

First and foremost: the snow day, obviously. I had my hopes raised high for the last potential snow day; we even assigned "Sleep with your pajamas inside out and a spoon" as homework.  I slept badly all night from the anticipation, woke up at 5 am to hear the big announcement, and ended up hugely disappointed.  (Dirty teaching secret #437: I think teachers enjoy snow days more than our students.)  So yesterday, when Ms. Halpert started to say, "What do you think are the chances that -- " I cut her off with a "Absolutely none. Zero."  So it was an especially lovely surprise to get the gift of a snow day this morning!  On the news, I saw a reporter interviewing several home health aides who had been waiting for the bus for more than thirty minutes so they could get to their patients, and I immediately felt guilty.  So props to all the people (like Mr. Brave!) who did make it in to work today.

What I really needed, though, was a little encouragement.  Between the situation with my co-teacher and my students' tiny attention spans, I was beginning to question my effectiveness altogether. 

Then the other day, one of my students brought in a cake his mom had baked for us (delicious).  The attached card thanked us for all of our hard work and dedication.  "I have seen my son's love for school grow this year, and it could not have happened without you," she wrote.  Both of us teared up when we read it; what a lovely expression of appreciation, and what validation for both of us.

For some reason, the other day, my thoughts drifted back to the infamous Julio.  He's now in a self-contained class and, according to his new teacher, is doing great.  Recently she contacted me to tell me that his classmates had voted him student of the month for his kindness.  His kindness -- my Julio, who used to kick chairs in the direction of other students in my class.  All of a sudden, I was tearing up again.  Because I thought: I did that for him.  Was I the only reason he got the services he needed?  No.  But was I an instrumental reason his mother finally saw the light after three unsuccessful, frustrating years in school?  I give myself permission to say: Yes, I was.  I may have wanted him out of my classroom, I may have had many, many unkind thoughts about him, I may have cried my eyes out with frustration over him, but I believed in that child.  I am so honestly happy to hear that he's having a good year. 

So that's what I really needed: to feel good about myself as a teacher again, if only for a few brief moments.  (And to lie on my couch wearing my fuzzy pink slippers and blogging in the middle of the day while chunks of snow crack against my window -- that too.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Time to change, time to rearrange

There are some major differences in the culture at my former school, where I taught for the first three years of my teaching career, and the school I'm at now.  One reason I was so happy to be hired at my current school was that the differences were so apparent: my current school is helmed by a principal who knows most (if not all) of our students by name and whose presence is obvious throughout the school.  At my former school, the majority of my students literally could not identify the principal when they saw her.  Also at my former school, all of our decisions as teachers were rigidly controlled by the administration.  We didn't even write our own teaching points; they were handed to us by our literacy coach.  By necessity, because we had so many push-in teachers, our schedules were arranged for us (and heaven help you if you were "caught" teaching a different subject than the one your posted schedule said you would be teaching).  Everyone took conference notes in exactly the same way (a way that was changed so frequently you could get whiplash trying to keep up with which format to use).  At my current school, there is a lot more -- dare I say it? -- trust that the administration puts in teachers.

There are other differences, though, that are more subtle, and they've made the transition rockier than I may have originally thought.  I've blamed a lot of my unease this year on my co-teacher, but I'm sure that part of it is just adjusting to a new school.  I started out doing things the way I'd always done them, just because that was the way it was done at my former school, only to find out that I'd missed the memo on my new school's way of doing things.

At my former school, for example, it was common practice to plaster every square inch of one's classroom with charts and examples of student work.  You name it, I had it up on the wall in my classroom.  Now, for my first two years I was a push-in teacher, and I got around to a lot of classrooms.  All that stuff up on the walls?  It was totally overstimulating.  It was colorful, and it completely screamed "LOOK HOW MUCH LEARNING WE ARE GETTING DONE!", which is probably why we all did it, but it was extremely distracting and I'm not entirely sure whether it was for the benefit of our students or our visitors (I suspect it was the latter). 

So when I got to my current school, I followed suit.  Every chart we made went up on the wall somewhere.  And it stayed there, because we were proud of them.  The more stuff you have up, the more you must be teaching, right?

Then one day my principal gently informed us that he was going to help us "de-clutter" our classroom.  He suggested we peek into other classrooms to see what was going on in them.  And it wasn't that other classrooms didn't have anything up on their walls; it was just streamlined better, and not as overwhelming. 

Case in point: We have a gigantic calendar in our room.  It is so big that it literally eats up an entire bulletin board, so the only place we could stick it was behind the door, aka very far from the meeting area where calendars should live.  We have this gigantic calendar because I used it last year when a teacher at my former school loaned it to me, and I loved it so much I went out and bought it for my new classroom, even though it was ridiculously expensive.

We recently rearranged, reorganized and relabeled our entire room, as part of our kumbaya efforts to work together more effectively.  Our reorganization entailed carrying a dozen heavy tables back and forth down the hall (during which I stabbed myself in the ankle with a table leg, and it still hurts), wrapping every single basket in our library with packing tape, and countless hours of literal blood, sweat and tears.  And then last week Ms. Halpert glumly reported that our principal had pointedly noted that our overlarge, inappropriately located calendar was still up.

And that's how it came to pass that we are replacing my beloved $100 calendar with a $13 one from Staples.  If any teacher out there would like to purchase a very gently used, practically brand new gigantic classroom pocket chart me!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Phoning home

I hate calling parents.  I admit, this is almost entirely my fault.  First of all, I always let too many infractions go by before I do so, so that by the time I call I have an insanely long list of complaints ("...and then today, he poked another child in the eye with his pencil and called him a boogerhead") that the parent is always shocked, I mean completely shocked to hear about because of course he's never been like this before and they had no idea there was any problem.  (I know all the "Tips for Surviving Your First Year of Teaching" books always make it sound like you should practically be visiting your students at home over the summer to introduce yourself, but the reality boils down to: I don't have time to call 28 sets of parents just to shoot the breeze.)  Second of all, at my last school, calling a parent inevitably resulted in one of three things: (1) The child returned to school alluding to the fact that he had been or would be spanked or hit if his parent received another call home; (2) the child returned to school even angrier at me and the world because one of his electronic devices had been taken away as a result of his behavior, prompting the child to make the entire world suffer for his own misery, or (3) absolutely zero change in behavior. 

Thirdly, there's always the wariness factor.  Often I'm calling parents I haven't met, because unfortunately the parents I need to speak to the most are the parents who don't come to Meet the Teacher Night or parent/teacher conferences.  Sometimes there's a language barrier; sometimes I hear other children yelling or crying in the background; sometimes, with the advent of parents replacing their home phones with cell phones, I reach a parent who isn't really in a position to talk.  Many times there are such long silences on the other end of the line that I'm not sure if I'm being met with hostility or not.  In those cases I end up rushing through my prepared speech, or I find myself making excuses for the child ("I think he may have been upset because the other student took his pencil, but it's still not good manners to call someone a boogerhead"), even if in my head before the phone call I was ready to nail him to the wall.  And a lot of the time, it's not like I'm telling the parent anything they don't know.  "Yeah, he does that at home too, and I just don't know what to do about it" is a common response.  It's as if they're telling me: "Look, lady, if I had better control over him, you wouldn't have had to make this phone call in the first place."

This isn't to say I haven't made progress.  Last year, I pretty much gave up on sending notes home when I found several weeks' worth of The Baby's negative behavior reports stuffed into his desk.  This year, I called a few parents on a day when Ms. Halpert was out of the building, and when she returned she wanted to know what the students had done that was so much worse than usual. My answer was nothing, really, but at some point the usual shenanigans deserve a phone call home too.  Out of sight is out of mind, and I think some of our kids' parents have convinced themselves that they're perfect angels when they're out of sight at school all day...and if they don't hear anything to the contrary, how are they supposed to know what is really going on?

 My favorite parent to call was The Antagonist's mother.  She was the first one to tell you that her son had faults, and she was refreshingly open to hearing them.  I called her so often that she would answer the phone by saying, "What did he do now?" and then we would both laugh.  It may not have always changed his behavior, but just the idea that he knew that Mom knew what I knew at least put it all out in the open.

Unfortunately, I often call parents from my cell phone, just because it's more convenient to make a call from the privacy of my classroom, where I don't have a phone.  Last year, Julio sauntered into the classroom (late as usual) one morning and informed me that his mother had sent me a text message.  This year, my newest troublemaker's mother has taken to texting me at all hours; today, I got a text from her at 2:30 pm about where her son was supposed to go after school.  I didn't actually read the text until after school was over, because -- believe it or not, newest troublemaker's mother! -- my phone does not ring out loud nor do I check my texts during the school day, even on Friday afternoons.  On the up side, she gave me permission to call her at any time, and one of my favorite tricks is to whip out my cell phone during class and prepare to put students on the phone with their parents right then and there.  (This backfired on me once when no one answered and I had to leave a message instead.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


On any given day, I might find myself frustrated by a number of things that go on in my classroom.  I've written before about minor calamities (broken pencils! lost folders!) and major ones (suicide threats! thrown chairs!).  For the most part, those incidents -- like many things that happen when you become a teacher -- had nothing to do with my actual teaching ability, but rather my ability to not jump out a window in the face of overwhelming despair.

Lately, though, I've noticed something that does make me worry about my teaching ability: A number of my students, during mini lessons, are deeply engaged.  Deeply engaged, that is, with various activities other than paying attention to my mini lesson.  They are drawing on their folders.  They are playing with their fingers, or with the person's hair in front of them.  They are, in short, paying so little attention to the lesson that they are not even bothering to pretend to pay attention by staring at a space approximately above my head.

Over the years, I've tried a number of methods for bringing these students back to earth.  There's the singsongy, syrupy approach, in which I praise various other students in the vicinity of the offending student who are paying attention: "I can see that A.J. is ready to learn.  I would like to thank Tanya for paying attention..."  This approach has a calming effect, but when you have students who are seriously hardcore not paying attention, they don't even notice you're doing it.  Then there's the cranky bitter teacher approach, in which I zero in on a daydreamer with laser precision: "Manny, can you repeat what Jada just told us?  ...I didn't think so, because you're not paying attention."  I'm not such a fan of this one. 

Recently, though, I realized what does get their attention: not pleading, not "I'm waiting," not barking out orders to "sit on your bottoms, eyes on me."  What does get their attention is when I really get into my teaching; when I use funny voices, or toss in jokes, or act over-the-top animated like I'm just having such a good time teaching and we all will too, ha ha ha!  In short, when I teach like a teacher should teach.  Which leads to a vicious cycle, because when I'm frustrated by looking out into a sea of uninspired third graders who aren't paying attention, it's not easy to throw myself into a lesson that I'm convinced no one's listening to anyway.  So I carry on with the other stuff, and half our day is lost on just getting settled on the rug.

My principal told me once that maybe I focus too much on that management, that I should just concentrate more on my teaching and the rest will follow.  I think I need to experiment with taking his advice.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Putting the teach in team teaching

Friends, I am having a rough year.

Those of you who followed my exploits last year -- or, for Pete's sake, since I began teaching three years ago -- may be throwing your hands up and thinking, "Seriously, Miss Brave, again?"  Last year, alone in a classroom full of maniacs, all I wanted was for another adult to join forces with me to stop the madness.  That's why I was so eager to teach in a CTT classroom at my new school.  Now I'm...not alone in a classroom full of maniacs, and all I want is for my co-teacher to disappear.

I haven't blogged about it because I'm still not quite clear on when it all started to go downhill.  I know that I come from a school where, by necessity, we ran a pretty tight ship on time management of our lessons.  Because we had many push-in teachers for various subjects, if math was supposed to end at 9:37, math had to end at 9:37.  I got a little frustrated with Ms. Halpert when it was 9:37 and she was still working with one student instead of transitioning to our next activity.  But I never said anything to her about it, and that was my mistake.
The year progressed.  I started to leave school a little earlier at the end of each day, and Ms. Halpert (who is a first-year teacher) continued to stay late.  As it turns out, she was becoming more and more resentful of the fact that I wasn't there with her.  But she never said anything to me about it, and that was her mistake.

Meanwhile, both of us became increasingly fed up with trying to plan with each other; I tend to over-estimate students' capabilities, and Ms. Halpert tends to want to over-scaffold them.  But neither of us said anything to each other about it...and that was our mistake.

It all came to a head during a grade-wide writing planning session in which Ms. Halpert sat with her back to me (not very "turn and talk to your partner"-like behavior) and an extremely tense and awkward vibe seethed in the air.  The next day, our principal asked to speak with us individually; Ms. Halpert went first.  I don't know exactly what was said at that meeting, but it was alarming enough that my principal told me he thought he might have to take one of us out of our classroom mid-year.

Eventually we agreed we would salvage our partnership through the end of the year.  (We also privately agreed that we did not want to work together again next year.)  But that decision has opened up a whole new world of work for both of us.  In the process of transforming the layout of our classroom (again -- having 28 students and two meeting areas makes for an extremely cramped classroom space), I got whacked in the ankle with a heavy table leg.  It hurt.  We've been asked to work with the literacy coach and the math coach, which naturally makes us feel scrutinized.  To add insult to injury, the literacy coach (who has never watched either of us teach a lesson) has been bringing us to other classrooms to observe the "structure of the mini lesson," which is something we both know we can recite in our sleep.  Ms. Halpert was a student at Teachers College; I was a reading teacher for a full year.  Both of us know how to teach a mini lesson; what we don't know is how to navigate each other.

We agreed to try to do it, but it's a long, hard slog through the bleak, dark days of January, and what awaits us now doesn't seem all that rewarding.  Some days it makes me question my commitment to teaching altogether.  Other days, I just want to make it all the way to June.