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 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 39. Hearing her story really put my own life in perspective.

As I believe I’ve explained before, by some quirk of fate I’ve become The Cool Teacher to some of the kids at my school.  A group of my students likes to sit in my room after school to work on homework, or sometimes just to hang out and play games on their phones.  In the last month or so, some of their friends who are not in my class have been joining them.  Most of this group came from the same elementary school, so they have known each other for many years.

A few days ago, the usual group was there, and a new girl (new to the group, and not in my class, but not new to the school; she came from the same elementary school as most of the regulars) was with them.  I’ll give her the astrocode “Alpheratz.”  While they were there, they were talking about how Alpheratz has a key to ride the elevator.  The only students who are allowed to ride the elevator are the ones who can’t climb stairs for medical reasons, so I figured that she probably had a sprained ankle or something.  I hadn’t noticed any blatantly visible reason why Alpheratz couldn’t climb stairs.  “Why do you have an elevator key?” I asked, expecting a routine explanation like a sprained ankle.

“Cancer,” she replied, as matter-of-factly as it is possible to say that word.

“What?” I said.  I knew I had heard right, but it was totally not the answer I was expecting.

Alpheratz then went on to explain how she had started getting headaches as a kid and had been dealing with a brain tumor off and on since the beginning of elementary school.  Her friend who was in my class started talking about all the fundraisers they held for her and her family when they were going through this.  About half an hour later, when the kids were leaving my classroom, Alpheratz came over to my desk with a piece of paper and said, “Here.  This is for you.”  She had written two pages for me to read about her family, her condition, the surgery she had in first grade, and all the pills she has to take now.  (I won’t go into any greater detail about that, because it’s not my story to tell.)  And because of this, she has problems with balance and can’t climb stairs.

What struck me the most about all this was her positive attitude.  She didn’t hesitate at all sharing all this with me, and I had just met her an hour earlier.  Hearing her story really put my own life in perspective.  This girl has been dealing with this since first grade.  It’s pretty much the only life she knows.  And no one knows what will happen to her in the future.  But all she can do is keep on doing the best she can.  If I had been in her situation, I don’t think I could be so happy and positive and open about all this.  I’d be complaining about life not being fair, and I’d probably be really angry.  I’ve been in some irritable moods lately, but none of it has anything to do with the excruciating pain and uncertain future that Alpheratz must be going through.

Like I said last week, sometimes I just need to make do the best I can with what I have instead of complaining about things not being the way I want.  Alpheratz is a perfect example of this.  She was dealt a hand that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and you would never know it just from seeing how she acts around her friends.  I want to remember how much I do have.  I’m relatively healthy, and I can climb stairs.  I have so much to be thankful for.  And I really hope this girl is okay and that she makes it, so she can go on to inspire others.

Exit 18. Every second counts.

I’m not one of those people who goes on and on about how everything I learned in school was B.S. that didn’t prepare me for the real world.  But there is one distinct thing that I learned that is relevant to my life right now that does, to some extent, fit this description.  Normally, when I see people making statements like that, like the meme going around with all the practical life skills that one wishes they had learned in school and complaining about an incorrectly worded concept from geometry that they learned instead, with the implication that geometry is useless, I want to point out that I did in fact learn most of those practical life skills in school.  Most students just don’t pay attention because those things are often not taught until late in high school, when no one cares about learning anything anyway.  And I also want to point out that geometry isn’t useless at all, because it teaches critical thinking and logical argument skills.  But then I decide that this isn’t usually the kind of argument worth wasting my time on.

But there is one topic on which I agree with the people saying that school doesn’t prepare you for real life.  Before I continue this story, I should acknowledge something about my job.  I normally don’t talk about work at all on here, because I don’t want to get in trouble at work for something that I wrote on a public blog.  So here’s the big announcement: I’m a teacher.  I teach kids old enough that they only have my class for an hour for one subject.  That shouldn’t really be a surprise, though, since I did mention previously, when the girl recognized me at the concert, that I was a teacher 11 years ago, and a lot of people keep the same careers for 11 years or more.

Anyway, now that that’s out of the way, back to the point of the story: On Mondays, I ask my students how their weekends went.  I sometimes tell stories about what I did over the weekend.  I have conversations with students about things they are interested in.  And all of that goes against much of what I was taught about classroom management.  I learned things about how every second counts in the classroom, so I shouldn’t waste any time on non-instructional matters.  I learned not to be friends with the students, because I have to be an authority figure.  And I learned not to let the kids see me smile before Christmas, although that was more of an exaggeration to make a point about being an authority figure more so than an actual practice intended to be followed to the letter.

Here’s why I do that.  For one thing, it makes the job a little more fun.  But there’s a more important reason.  Some time ago, I think it was the year after the girl from the concert was in my class, I had a student who got Ds and Fs for the entire first half of the year.  She was a capable student, she just didn’t try very hard.  Early in the second half of the year, her other teachers and I had a conference with her dad.  He agreed to be much more proactive in making sure she was doing her homework.  He arranged for us to sign her planner every day to make sure she was writing down correctly what homework she had to do each night.  And he communicated with us much more actively to make sure he knew how she was doing.  And her grades instantly improved.  She had a B on her third quarter report card.  She did A and B work for the rest of the year.  And the year after that, she had a free period in her schedule, so she was my TA, helping me with routine classroom tasks.

I really think, though, that there was more to her turnaround than the conference with her dad.  Right around the same time as the conference, she had come to my room after school to ask me something, or maybe to write down the homework that she had forgotten to write down earlier.  I’m usually in my room working on stuff after school, and I’m usually playing music during that time.  My taste in music ranges from just about everything to just about everything else.  On that day, I was playing this song, a huge hit at the time.  Or possibly something else from the same album; I don’t remember the exact song, but I do remember the artist, and this is the only album of theirs that I have.

The student walked in and heard the song before she could ask me her question.  Her eyes lit up, she got all excited, and she said, “Oh my gosh!  I LOVE Evanescence!”  And ever since that moment, she always seemed to be a more active participant in class.  She answered questions.  She talked to me.  And I honestly believe that making that connection of listening to some of her favorite music really motivated her to do better in my class after the conference with her dad.

So while I agree in principle that every second counts in the classroom, I don’t interpret that to mean that I shouldn’t ask students about their lives outside of school.  Doing that is a perfectly valid use of instructional time, because it builds relationships with the students that makes them more motivated to participate in class.  In a class for which the subject matter was less interesting to me, I always enjoyed class more when I liked the teacher.  If I don’t take the time now to bond with the students, I’ll be wasting more instructional time throughout the year trying to keep their attention and get them back on track.  It’s a worthy tradeoff.

Of course, as with all things in life, there has to be a balance.  I can’t spend too much time bonding with students and not teaching them what they’re supposed to be learning.  I’ve had classes a couple years ago that I felt got off task too often when I tried bonding with them.  And this year, one of my classes always wants to talk about superheroes instead of doing their work.  But that doesn’t mean I have to go to the other extreme and not bond with students at all.  After over a decade in this career, I feel like I’ve gotten closer to that balance of how best to use my time.

Exit 11. That same kind of situation, except now I’m on the other side.

I got recognized in a crowd the other day.  I’m famous.

No, not exactly.  And it wasn’t from this blog, although that would have been awesome.  “Hey!  I know you!  You’re that guy who writes Highway Pi!  Can I have your autograph?”  “Sure.  Anything for my adoring fans.”  Actually, if someone I didn’t know came up to me and said that, I’d be really scared, because I’ve never used my last name or a photograph of me on this site.

So here’s the story.  I was at a concert on Friday night.  This show was a three hour drive from my house.  I have family in that area, I grew up in that area, and I went to the concert with my cousin.  This really drunk guy in front of me at one point turned around and said, “Hey, is your last name [insert my last name here]?”  I said yes, thinking that was someone I had gone to school with at some point in my childhood, or possibly someone who was in a class or on a sports team with my brother, since he didn’t know my first name.  I said I didn’t recognize him, and he said, “Not me.  That girl right there.  She says you were her teacher a long time ago.”  I asked him when, and what school, and the information was accurate; I was in fact a teacher at that school during that year.  It was 11 years ago that I was her teacher, and the school was over 100 miles from where this concert was.  I asked her her name again, since I couldn’t hear what the drunk guy had said.  Normally this would have been one of those really awesome wow-what-a-small-world, what-have-you-been-up-to-the-last-11-years moments, except for one thing.

I don’t remember her.

She didn’t seem too upset or put off by that.  She said it was a long time ago, and she understood that I’ve had a lot of students since her.  I even went so far as to ask who her friends were in 7th grade (which is the grade I taught during the year in question), and if she remembered what period she had my class, hoping that that might jog my memory.  She said she was quiet and didn’t have a whole lot of friends, and she only remembered one friend’s name.  I do remember her friend by name, although I don’t remember that girl very well either, just the name.  And if she was correct regarding the period she had me, I remember her class being one that was mean to me, so I’ve probably blocked it out of my memory.

I realized something yesterday.  I mentioned in #7 that I had a pen pal in the ’90s who I recently tried to track down and get back in touch with, and she didn’t remember me.  What happened Friday night was that same kind of situation, except now I’m on the other side.  This girl who I used to write to years ago meant a lot to me.  I didn’t have a lot of friends during that time, I was going through some difficult transitions in my life, and she was always there to be kind and encouraging, not to mention nice girls who look as good as she did often didn’t pay that much attention to me.  But from her perspective, being cute and young and friendly, she had a whole lot of other guys competing for her attention, so one of them is much less likely to stand out almost 20 years later.  As for what happened Friday night, a middle school student only has five or six teachers each year at the most, so each one is a lot more likely to leave an impression on a student.  I can still name all my teachers from 7th grade, for example.  But from my perspective, I had around 160 students each year, and I had hundreds more students each year after that.  It’s only natural that I would have forgotten a few over a span of 11 years, and I don’t think it makes me a bad teacher or a terrible human being for having done so.

Still, though, I like running into and hearing from former students.  I wish I could remember them all… well, at least all the ones who weren’t mean to me all the time.  There are a few that I’ve stayed in touch with all along, and a few more who have tracked me down on Facebook over the years, and a few more whom I have gotten reacquainted with after running into them somewhere.  It’s nice to see what became of these people whom I knew as preteens and teens.  And it’s always fun to hear what they remember about my class.  This girl I saw on Friday said that she liked my class, and that I was always helpful.

I’ve never mentioned my line of work on this site… but this fall, I will be returning to the public school system.  Maybe I should do something differently at the end of the year to make sure I remember these students.  I’ve saved yearbooks from every year I’ve taught before, and if this new school does a yearbook, I’m planning on continuing that practice.  Maybe I should save a copy of each year’s class rosters too.  Or maybe I should just let life take its course and not feel so bad about forgetting some people from the past.  I don’t know.  Something to think about as I get ready for the new school year.

And as I started writing this last night, I was telling someone this story, completely forgetting that I had just told her this same story 20 minutes earlier.  So maybe my memory is just going bad as I’m getting older. 🙂