middle school

Exit 162. Not the new guy anymore.

I told someone recently that the upcoming school year will be my 18th year teaching (not including 2005-06, when I was traveling for half the year and substituting the other half).  How is that possible?  The students who recently graduated from high school and are starting college this year were newborn babies when I started teaching.  Where did all the time go?

And more importantly, why do I still feel like a new and inexperienced teacher?

Part of the reason is because I haven’t been teaching in the same place for very long.  I haven’t been in any one public school or school district for more than four years.  Every time I have started over, I have felt new again, since students and their parents don’t know me, and I am unfamiliar with the school culture and the curriculum.  I spent seven years at a tiny private school, and that’s kind of a different world, not to mention that there were only nine teachers and many of them had been there for a long time, so I still felt new in some ways after a while.

But I think I’m finally starting to feel like I’m not the new guy anymore.  My school has had a lot of turnover since I was hired in June 2014, with several retirements, several others taking other positions elsewhere in the district, a few moving away for family or financial reasons, and one death.  Even though I’m only going into my fourth year at this school, I think I’ve been there longer than about half the staff, and among the six math teachers, I have been there the second longest, and I am tied for second in terms of how long I have been a full time teacher in the district.

I have started preparing for the upcoming school year, and I have gotten to meet some of my new coworkers.  And the idea of not being new anymore is finally starting to sink in.  I am able to help some of my new coworkers find their way around the school, get the computers to work, and, in the case of math teachers, learn how the curriculum works.  And this really seems to be helping my confidence.  I’m not quite as shy or reticent among my other coworkers as I used to be.  I feel more like I belong, and less like I’m always rubbing people the wrong way.

I have written before that my principal has told me that she could see me being a leader among the teachers.  Maybe she’s right after all.

(By the way, I missed another week on this blog.  Sorry.)

Exit 155. Light at the end of the tunnel.

I can see a light at the end of the tunnel.  In a few days, I will be finished with this school year.

The end of the year is always a bittersweet time.  I’m glad to have a break coming up.  But I’m definitely going to miss some of the students.  Although their math skills left much to be desired at times, this year’s students really were sweethearts for the most part.  Of course, many of them I will still see walking the halls next year (but then, last year’s students who are finishing middle school entirely I won’t see around anymore), and there are always a few every year that I stay in touch with.

The end of a school year is also a good time to reflect.  I can look back and think about how this year went, and what I can do differently next year.  I had some ideas for things I could do differently this year, and once the school year started, and I became overwhelmed by many other changes made across the whole school, my ideas didn’t get implemented well.  It didn’t work the way I had expected it to.  So I’ll try again next year, and it will be better now that I know how this year turned out.

This is also a good time to reflect on my personal life.  I have some time off coming up, obviously, and that is the perfect opportunity to do things out of my comfort zone.  Sometime in the next few days, I’m going to write a list of goals for my summer break.  It sounds kind of clichéd, but I’ve done this a couple times in the past, and it really did help me do something out of character that I wouldn’t ordinarily do on at least one occasion.  I don’t know yet what will be on my list, and I don’t know yet if I’m ready to share my entire list, whatever it ends up being.

I often feel pressure at the beginning of summer vacation, like I have to make this the best summer EVER!!!.  And I often feel pressure at the end, because of everything I wanted to happen over the summer that didn’t happen.  I’m trying not to worry about all that and just enjoy life.

Exit 142. It’s hard being angry and feeling like there’s nothing you can do about it.

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with someone from the one dance place I’m still attending regularly; I’ll call her 2M1207.  We had never talked about my work until yesterday, and she was interested to hear some of my thoughts about being a teacher.  I said something I’ve said often before: 7th grade is both the best and the worst age to teach.  You have the nice kids from stable homes, who are just starting to emerge into maturity but are still childlike enough to give me the fun of working with children.  And then you have the angry tough kids from broken homes, who are at the height of defiance and have not yet been humbled by harsh reality.  In my current position, I have a lot more of the first type than the second, at least compared to the other school where I once taught 7th grade.

Regarding that second group of students, the ones I referred to 2M1207 said, “It’s hard being angry and feeling like there’s nothing you can do about it.”

That statement really hit me.  Because it sounds a lot like me.  But not about school.  I know the feeling of being angry and feeling helpless.  That’s how I feel about a lot of things in the world right now.  The world is really messed up, and it doesn’t make sense to me, and it often feels like I am out of options.

Of course, there are options.  I just don’t always see them right away, because they require thinking outside the box, trying something different than what I have always done before.  And the same can be applied to the angry students I come across.  There is help for them, but they have to think outside the box… and I may need to also in order to understand completely where they are coming from.

I don’t know if my conversation with 2M1207 will help me out of my anger at the world, but hopefully this perspective will help me in my next interaction with an angry student.

 

Exit 123. You’re tough.

Since I teach math, I have had many students over the years tell me that I was one of their favorite teachers, despite the fact that they hate math, or they are bad at math (they think), or both.  I know that feeling well, although as a student, math was never the class I hated.

I recently saw a post, on the Facebook group for alumni of the high school I went to, saying that a former physical education teacher and coach had passed away.  I’ll call him Mr. F.  I saw him much the way that the students in my classes whom I described above see me: I hated PE.  I was never very good at running or lifting or any physical activity.  But I loved Mr. F as a teacher, mostly because he was really funny.  Sometimes he would say things completely unexpected out of nowhere.  One time, I told him, quietly, nervously that my stomach hurt and asked if I could use the bathroom before we started running or doing whatever we were doing that day.  He pointed toward the bathroom and said, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Yeah!  Go take a big sh**!”  I have not stayed in touch with Mr. F, I haven’t seen him since I finished high school, and I don’t know anything about his passing other than someone on this post mentioned cancer.

But when I saw that he passed away, this was not the story I shared on that post.

In the summer of 1991, right after the year I had Mr. F’s PE class, I worked out in the weight room with the football team.  A lot of my friends told me I should play football, mostly because of how I was built.  But I was not an athlete.  I liked to eat too much, and I did not like to run.  But football players were the cool kids, you know how high school stereotypes are, so I worked out with the football team nevertheless.

There was another problem, though: I didn’t really understand football.  I understood the basics, touchdowns, field goals, first downs, and such.  So in addition to working out all summer, I solved this other problem the only way I knew how: I did my research.  I did a lot of reading that summer about football.  I learned about football rules, the roles of the different positions on the field, different types of plays, strategies, and the history of American football.  And when the first day of double practices came, just after my 15th birthday, I was ready.

No, I wasn’t.  Who am I kidding…

I was in the locker room getting ready that morning, and I saw Mr. F.  I had not seen him all summer, and I wasn’t sure if he knew that I was going to try out for football.  He seemed happy to see me, and he asked how I was doing.  I said that I was nervous, and that it looked like practice today was going to be tough.  “But you know what?” he replied.  “You’re tough.”  It really meant something to me that he believed in me, despite the fact that I could never run very fast or do a pull-up in his class the year before.

My football career lasted one day.  I lasted that morning and that afternoon, and I didn’t come back.  I was in way over my head.  I was badly out of shape.  But something positive did come out of that experience in the end.  It took a few months for me to get over the disappointment of not being good enough to play football, of letting down Mr. F and all my friends who encouraged me to play.  But by the time the following football season started, in the fall of 1992, I enjoyed watching football much more than I ever had in the past.  The time I spent learning more about the game helped me enjoy watching it much more, and this has stayed with me to this day.

It’s okay that I couldn’t handle football, and that I wasn’t very fast or strong in Mr. F’s PE class.  Not everyone is an athlete.  But I still found inspiration from Mr. F.

And it’s okay that some of the students in my class did not understand everything I attempted to teach them.  Not everyone is a mathematician.  But my students can still find inspiration from my class.

Exit 105. A little recognition and encouragement would have helped.

On Friday, one of my students was carrying two Mylar balloons filled with helium around school with her.  Both of them had congratulatory messages on them, and I overheard her telling several of her friends who apparently did not read the balloons that it was not her birthday.  I asked her what the balloons were for.  There was a special barbecue lunch that day for students who had made honor roll the previous quarter, and she said that her aunt and uncle (whom she lives with) had gotten them for her because it was the first time she had ever made honor roll.  I said good job, and gave her a fist bump.

Then I started thinking.  This student really has made a turnaround since the beginning of the year.  Some of it certainly seems to be related to changes at home.  She started the year living with her mother and doing just enough work in my class to get a D.  She moved in with her aunt in December, and she has been doing pretty solid B work ever since.  I reserve Thursday afternoon for students who want to come to the classroom to work or to get extra help, and while she is often chatty when she comes in Thursday afternoon, she has been the most regular of any student all year, and she usually at least gets work done while she’s chatting and being silly.  Some of you who know me in real life, or from Facebook, remember her from a story I told about a Thursday afternoon a couple months ago.  She showed me a worksheet where she had to label diagrams of a penis, testicles, vagina, and ovaries, and she said, “Look what we’re learning in science class!  It’s disgusting!”  Later that day, she said something about her history class, where the regular teacher is out on maternity leave.  She then holds up her science homework and proclaims, “When she comes back next year, I’m going to show her this, and I’m going to say, ‘I KNOW how you got pregnant!'”

Anyway, the first thought I had was that it was nice of her aunt and uncle to encourage her for making honor roll.  She really has started working harder, and she deserves some kind of recognition for it.  But then I thought of the hundreds of students who made honor roll and did not receive any balloons from their parents.  Of course, they are recognized by the school with certificates, and this barbecue, and students with straight As additionally received a coupon for In-N-Out Burger.  (As I was passing them out, I told the students that if they didn’t like In-N-Out Burger, they could feel free to give me their coupon, and I’d put it to good use.  No one did, unfortunately.)  But I know that it often means more to a child, or even to an adult, to be recognized by those closest to him or her.

My past is full of times when I felt that my talents went unrecognized.  Mediocre students would often talk about their parents giving them money or rewards for good grades, and nothing like that ever came up for me, because I always got good grades.  I’m not saying that I necessarily agree in all circumstances with the concept of material rewards for good grades.  But a little recognition and encouragement would have helped.

Friends, if you have children, encourage them at things that they are good at, even if they are already consistently performing well.  If you have adult friends who are overcoming challenges of any sort, encourage them.  Tell them that it is inspiring to see their hard work.  Maybe they need to hear it, even if you never doubted their ability to complete these challenges.  And those of you who are running marathons, practicing healthier lifestyles, pursuing advanced education, or doing volunteer or missionary work in disadvantaged environments, good for you.  Thank you for sharing.  I enjoy seeing the fruits of your labor and your hardworking spirit.

Exit 30. I have a past.

Several years ago, back when I still used to do chat rooms, I said something to one of my chat room friends about my brother.  She replied, “It’s weird to me to think that you have a family.”  I asked why, and she said something about how she doesn’t know any of my family, and it’s like I just came out of nowhere.

I’m still not sure exactly what she meant by that, and I know she didn’t mean it as an insult.  But she does have a point.  Most of my closest friends now don’t know my family, although my brother has come to a couple of my birthday parties and 20th Century Video Game Nights.  I definitely have a family, though.  I’m not one of those bad-ass superheroes with dead parents, like Batman or Spider-Man or Kinsey Millhone.  My parents are very much alive, and they raised me.  I didn’t come out of nowhere.

But for a long time, I have felt that something similar was missing: childhood friends.  I don’t have that lifelong friend whom I’ve been close with since kindergarten.  In elementary school, I was the kid who constantly got picked on, and my attempts to fit in were met with ridicule and rejection.  I started making friends as a teenager, but once I graduated from high school and moved away, I would only hear from them sporadically, or not at all.

A few days ago, those of you who are my friends on Facebook may have seen a picture I was tagged in, a group photo of a bunch of kids with bad 80s haircuts wearing San Francisco Giants gear.  The picture, taken in October 1989, was from my 8th grade yearbook.  That was also the year that the Giants played (and lost to) the Oakland Athletics in the World Series.  Since those two teams are the closest to the school, we did group pictures of fans of each team.  And now, 25 years later, someone scanned that page from the yearbook, pointing out that we’d been Giants fans for a long time.  Similarly to the stories I told last month about my class reunion, this was a guy I had had a couple of classes with at one point, but we didn’t really run in the same circles later on in life.  Yet he still thought to tag me.

I hear friends talking about their childhood friends that they still spend a lot of time with, and sometimes I feel like that was something I missed out on.  Pretty much all the people I hang out with these days are considerably younger than me, and I feel like I’ve always been an adult as far as they’re concerned.  It’s like I came out of nowhere, like that one friend told me once.  But I have a past.  I had a childhood, I had teen years, and thanks to Facebook and the recent reunion, I feel a little more connected to my past than I have in a while.  I really should stay more connected with my past.

Exit 21. An interesting fashion trend.

As you know, I started a new job this school year, and I’ve noticed an interesting fashion trend among the students at this school: Pizza My Heart shirts.  All over the place.  On any given day, I’ll probably see an average of at least one or two Pizza My Heart shirt in every period, with a comparable proportion of students wearing Pizza My Heart shirts as they pass by in the hallway.

Let me explain, for those of you who don’t live around here.  Pizza My Heart is a chain of surfing-themed pizza restaurants located in the San Francisco Bay Area and Central Coast regions of California.  They have 23 locations between Emeryville to the north and Isla Vista to the south, according to their website.  I don’t feel qualified to write about the restaurant itself, because I’ve only been to Pizza My Heart once.  It was the one in downtown Santa Cruz.  I do remember it being good pizza, though.  They also sell t-shirts at all of their locations, usually featuring surfing-related designs, and they have a meal deal type thing where you get a slice of pizza and a t-shirt for ridiculously cheap.  It’s actually genius marketing on their part, because they get their brand plastered on thousands of walking human billboards all over California.  I’m still a little bitter that the largest t-shirt they carry is still too small for me.  I just checked on the website, and the online store also only carries shirts up to one size too small for me.  I’m a pretty big guy.  Come on, no XXL shirt?  I’m sure some of the biggest Pizza My Heart fans probably eat enough pizza that they’re pretty extra-extra-large by now.  I wore my XL Pizza My Heart shirt a few times, but after I washed it once it was too small to be comfortable.  It’s now sitting in a box in my garage, along with all the other shirts that are too small for me now but too nostalgic to throw away.  (If any of my crafty friends read this, how much would it cost me to get you to turn these shirts into a quilt?)

So why would it be such a big deal that so many students at my school have Pizza My Heart shirts?  It’s because the nearest Pizza My Heart location is an hour and a half drive from the school.  (And the nearest Pizza My Heart location that is actually in a touristy area is a bit farther than that.)  This is not a place where the kids hang out after school on a regular basis or go out to eat after their baseball or soccer games.  They can’t get to Pizza My Heart unless they take a day trip to the beach with their families.  They have to make a significant effort to acquire these shirts.  And I just can’t figure out what the big deal is, although I have a theory now.

I wondered first if many of the kids took some sort of school-sponsored trip to that part of California and all ate at Pizza My Heart together.  For example, I thought maybe a science class did a field trip to the aquarium in Monterey, or to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk to discuss physics while riding the roller coasters.  But I asked a few students about their Pizza My Heart shirts, and I didn’t get answers that suggested any sort of group activity.  Most of the answers I got involved the pizza being good and the shirt being comfortable.  Those are good reasons, but still not enough to explain such a huge number of kids wearing shirts from a non-local restaurant.  I have another theory.

Let’s not forget, these are still middle schoolers, with all their middle school quirks.  Like peer pressure.

At some point in the relatively recent past, there was probably some kid who took a day trip to, say, Santa Cruz with his or her family, and on the way home the family had dinner at Pizza My Heart.  The kid got a t-shirt and wore it to school, and all of a sudden everyone wanted to look cool, just like that kid.  So they all started bugging their families to take them to Pizza My Heart next time they went to the beach.  (Again, genius marketing on the part of Pizza My Heart executives to get their brand out there.)  I remember being a kid and wanting to wear stuff that all the other kids were wearing.  Most of the time I didn’t get my way, but I still blame a fascination I had with Hard Rock Cafe shirts in my 20s, as well as a fascination with concert tour shirts that continues to this day, on things that I’d see other kids wearing when I was a teenager.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.  It’s just funny to see how these trends spread.  And it’s kind of sad how so many engage in that herd mentality, where being like everyone else is more important than being oneself.  Fortunately, some people grow out of it as they get older.  I just wish more did.  And in the big picture, fashion trends really are a relatively harmless form of peer pressure.  If I had a kid that age, I’d encourage them not to care what the crowd is doing, but if they wanted to dress like everyone else to fit in, I wouldn’t be as worried as, say, if they wanted to do drugs to fit in.  And I’ve definitely seen much more bizarre and irrational fashion trends than Pizza My Heart shirts among students in previous years.

And the genius marketing is showing itself again, because all this makes me want to give Pizza My Heart another try next time I’m in that part of the state.  Except I’m still bitter about the lack of XXL t-shirts.