Monday, August 29, 2011

Back on the chain gang

Today was my first day back in my classroom since June, and I'll be totally honest: I was d-r-e-a-d-i-n-g it.  Which is not a good sign, because the summer should have (and usually does!) left me feeling relaxed and refreshed and ready and other pleasantly alliterative r-words to set up my classroom.  New Sharpie flip chart markers!  New table names!  New refrigerator and microwave for my classroom!  ("No matter what happens this year," I said ominously when I bought them on sale at Target, "at least I'll have snacks.") 

I must do a bad job teaching my students to respect our school supplies, or maybe $#@! just happens when you have nearly thirty 8-year-olds in a room, because I've had the misfortune of watching my supplies get destroyed so many times that it almost (almost!) sucks all the joy out of restocking my classroom with new ones.  Every year I buy those cheap plastic sharpeners from Staples on sale for fifty cents, and every year they break three days into the school year (which is likely the fault of shoddy manufacturing, not mishandling by my students), and every year I buy more, reasoning, "Hey, it's fifty cents."  If I added up all the fifty-cent sharpeners Staples has suckered me into purchasing, I could probably afford to purchase a fancy electric sharpener.  (I have one of those, too, but the noise is so ear-splitting that my #1 classroom rule this year instead of "Respect classmates, teachers, schoolwork and property" is likely to be "No one touches the sharpener."  Just kidding.  Probably.) 

Of course, it wasn't just the threat of broken school supplies that gave me pause.  Last year was a really hard year for me.  In some ways, it was my toughest year yet as a teacher because it so deeply shook my confidence in myself and my ability to teach, to work as a member of a team, to keep myself and my classroom organized, to get through to my students.  It was my first year at a new school, and I left it somehow feeling as though I hadn't represented myself the way I wanted. I wasn't happy with myself as a teacher.  I did a lot of thinking about it over the summer, because I knew that the only way to start fresh in a new school year would be -- as self-help-y as it sounds! -- to shift my perspective from excuses (I had a hard time because I didn't get along with my co-teacher, or I had a tough class) to pro-activity (next time, I can try to change...).  Otherwise I could feel myself slipping easily into the role of those stereotypical bitter old teachers everyone is always complaining about. 

When I got my teaching license in college, my professors made me write a statement of purpose defining my teaching philosophy.  I wasn't yet a teacher, so how could I know what my teaching philosophy was?  I just pulled out my fancy portfolio to look at it and it's filled with jargon-y buzzphrases like "empower my students with the ability to take charge of their own learning" and "differentiate instruction for students so that each student may have an opportunity to work at his or her instructional learning level."  It's easy to look back on those words now and laugh at myself: Oh, undergraduate Miss Brave, IF YOU ONLY KNEW.  But it's also easy to take those words in earnest.  Of course students should take charge of their own learning!  How fantastic it would be if teachers would always differentiate instruction for students so that each student may have an opportunity to work at his or her instructional learning level!  (Memo to undergraduate Miss Brave: That is a mouthful.) 

I guess my point is that the education debate sometimes feels so polarized that you're either a bitter old cow of a teacher who's just riding out the years until retirement, or you're a naive eager young teacher who's passionate about revolutionizing the teaching world.  In terms of teaching experience, I'm practically middle-aged (according to this article, almost half of NYC teachers leave the system within six years), and this year like never before I feel a strange pressure to define my teaching philosophy for real this time, not just for pretend in a college class.  And the truth is, despite what the movies would have you believe, I don't think that all it takes to help your students succeed is prove to them that you believe in them.  I think it takes more than that -- a lot more -- and my task this year is to put those puzzle pieces together, to keep all those balls in the air.  Be strict, but not mean.  Be firm, but be flexible. 

There was a really interesting article in the Times magazine recently about "decision fatigue," about how being forced to make lots of decisions -- even seemingly insignificant ones -- can sap your willpower.  Mr. Brave's first reaction when I told him about it was to comment: "That explains why you're so exhausted at the end of a day of teaching."  Then he put on his 8-year-old voice: "Miss Brave, can I go to the bathroom?  Miss Brave, can I sharpen my pencil?"  Teachers make dozens of decisions in the course of a school day.  Last year I got so bogged down in the little decisions -- am I going to let this go or am I keeping him in for recess?  Should I express my opinion or just keep my mouth shut? -- that I forgot to focus on the big ones.  Am I going to try something new or just give up?  Am I going to take charge of this class or aren't I?

So this year as I rearranged and reorganized and readied and other pleasantly alliterative r-words my classroom, I was realistic.  I didn't fantasize about how my sharpeners would stay pristine and unsullied all year.  I didn't tape up my new behavior chart without expecting it to fall down (which it did, moments later...and moments after I tacked it up again...and moments after that...until I finally tracked down my mounting tape!).  But I did get a little geeked out about my hot air balloon nameplates for the door.  And I did name my tables after important values I want my class to display this year.  (Calling the Kindness table to line up is just much cooler than calling Table 3.)  I started with the small decisions, so I could ease in to the bigger ones.  What kind of year are we going to have?  It's not entirely up to me, of course, but I need to set the tone -- and with September 8 drawing nearer, I'll have to make the decision to be ready.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Staples: Not in fact all that easy

I have a love-hate relationship with Staples.  Like many teachers (Mrs. Mimi springs to mind), I love bright shiny new school supplies.  But I sort of hate Staples, where I always wait on line for waaaaay longer than necessary and the staffers always seem to be singularly unhelpful.

Nevertheless, I've been at Staples frequently the past few days, trying to stock up on supplies while they're on sale.  Today I was trying to buy five highlighters for a dollar, except the packages I had picked up apparently didn't match the teeny picture in the circular (even though the brand and colors were the same), so the cashier sent me back to Aisle 3 and then took another customer whose e-mail address he had difficulty inputting into the system, adding another twelve years to my wait.

Just before I handed over my Teacher Rewards card, he asked me if I would like to donate $1 to buy school supplies for children who can't afford them.  I politely said, "No thank you."  For one, I have done this before in one of my many, many trips to Staples.  For two, that's pretty much what I was doing at Staples in the first place: buying school supplies for children who can't afford them.

He took my rewards card, shook his head, and said, "And you're a teacher."  So...I know I'm very sensitive and easily offended, but...I was offended.  This is where I should have exploded into a Taylor Mali-esque "What Teachers Make" moment, but what I said was: "Exactly. These are school supplies for children who can't afford them.  I spend hundreds of dollars every year on school supplies."

On the way home from Staples, I ran into a former classmate of mine and we exchanged catch-ups.  When I told him I teach third grade, he laughed and said, "That's so cute!"  Ohhhh, former classmate, you have no idea.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

It's that time of year again

Since they start running back-to-school ads practically just as the last Fourth of July firework is shooting off, I try to ignore them as long as possible.  But when Staples Teacher Appreciation Day hits, you know the end is nigh.

Like many teachers, I spent most of the summer trying to forget about school while simultaneously trying to psych myself up for next year.  Every summer, I swear I'm going to do tons of preparation, and every summer, I don't do as much as I'd like.  Growing up, I was always conscientiously over-prepared, but summer brings out the procrastinator in me.

One thing I did do this summer was to read Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching by Angela Watson, who runs the Cornerstone website for teachers.  I'm sure there are tons of books out there about how to ease job stress, but it was interesting to read one that's aimed directly at teachers; only a fellow teacher can appreciate those uniquely frustrating circumstances like when your push-in prep teacher is fifteen minutes late or when an administrator suddenly demands that you have a classful of individual assessment results ready by tomorrow.  The lesson Awakened teaches is something I already know but have extraordinary trouble doing, which is: It's healthier to let go than to stew about it in a seething rage.  Summertime was the perfect time for reading it, too, because summertime is like New Year's resolution time for teachers: This year, I will remain refreshingly above it all and not get mired in misery of any sort!  Ms. Watson is up-front about the fact that clearly this attitude is a work in progress.  She's also up-front about the fact that she came by this attitude by way of her Christian faith, which I admit was disconcerting at first, but the content of the book doesn't really Go There, so to speak, which as a non-Christian I appreciated.  Bottom line: Anyone who's trying to help teachers feel less stressed out so that they can be better at their jobs, rather than blaming teachers for the sorry state of everything ever, is cool with me.