Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Quick One

NEW TEACHER TRAINING IS OVER. It is safe to say that of the other alternative teacher training programs, we were the best prepared to teach in the fall. I'm not trying to be cocky, but I'm dead serious. I am hard-pressed to think of anything new that I learned over the past three days. While our training was very county-specific, other groups were not and we feel very fortunate for the level of organization and helpful information that PGCTF provided us.

Three days, two happy hours, still lots of love for fellow Fellows.

Also, I finally got my classroom! I will be sharing it with two other special ed teachers, but I am excited. I will begin decorating tomorrow! Then, comes moving and then the last week before school. I am also feeling much better about the unpreparedness. I can only do so much with the info I have and I think I've done a good job. Best of luck to all teachers hitting the classroom this school year, especially the new ones!

Friday, August 6, 2010

I Love Advice for New Teachers.

It's time! With less than a few weeks left before I'm thrown into a classroom full of kids, I wanted to post up some teacher tips that I culled from other ed bloggers. Reading ed blogs has consumed my free time but I cannot describe how useful everyone's blogs have been (and so enjoyable to read all the stories, too!).

Thanks to Dee does the District for providing these excellent tips:

"1. Pack an extra change of clothes: ... pack a shirt and a pair of pants, ... undies, socks, and sneakers ... Not to mention toiletries, a hairbrush, floss, and a lint roller ...

2. There is no shame in taking a few mental health day: ... Yes, your students need you, but your mere presence is not going to close the achievement gap if you are stressed about other issues. From day one, you should have a substitute binder ... include a welcome letter, notes about each student and particular behaviors that they may exhibit, [contact info], who in the school they should consult with ... over any issues, as well as plans and work for the students ... list [your] best helper students who [can] be relied on to answer any questions ...
3. Kiss your Friday nights good-bye: ... You get up at 6:00 every morning, your body needs Friday night to recover. Just make it up on Saturday night!

4. Schedule a weekly dinner, and stick to it: Having a weekly dinner, preferably with teacher friends, is a nice thing to look forward to during the week. It [gives you] time to discuss ...problems, professional and personal, together and have a little fun.

5. Network with colleagues in, and out of, your school.

6. Have a plan: I cannot stress how important it is to have a plan. In fact, don’t just have a plan, have five. You can never be too prepared as a teacher. The worst possible scenario is having extra time: it’s a recipe for disaster. One thing I found helpful, was keeping student folders for each content area. Each individual folder was chock full of extra worksheets tailored to each student’s IEP goals and/or other areas of weakness. If one of my students finished his work early, he knew he could find extra practice in the folder. It doesn’t have to be super-intensive – give them some “fun” activities, too; their favorite worksheets were often word searches or crossword puzzles with recent key words they learned!

7. Be flexible: Having a plan is great, but even the best laid plans, especially in teaching, can go awry. You may think you have an AWESOME lesson, until you start, and no one gets it. You can either a) think on your feet and immediately change gears, or b) you shelve the lesson, in favor of something else. Go home, reflect, re-plan, and re-approach the topic again for the next day. (Again, it helps to have multiple plans!) I also learned how to be flexible when it became clear that special education classrooms didn’t get substitutes; I never knew when I might have five extra bodies in my room for the day.

8. Be patient, but not too patient: Despite the omnipresent feeling of urgency surrounding you, you need to be patient… with your students. I do caution you to not be too patient with the bullshit you encounter. Showing patience with your students is one thing, rolling over and accepting the status quo when it comes to their welfare and success, is another issue. My patience with children has multiplied exponentially this year, but my patience for the bureaucracy and for adults’ shenanigans, has worn thin. You are an agent of change, although I say this with a grain of salt. Truth be told, it will probably take you all year to establish credibility with your colleagues, but be patient, stick with it, be dependable, and be an advocate for your students; you will be rewarded ... 

9. Remember, it’s never the kids’ fault: there are so many reasons for why our children aren’t succeeding and aren’t on grade-level, but I do not believe it’s because of anything they did. Your responsibility as a teacher is to seek out their strengths and needs and their interests, and crack their codes. Every child can learn – I’ve seen it and you will see it. Similarly, if a kid comes in and tears up your classroom or curses you out, it’s almost never your fault: it’s some other factor that is being taken out on you. But, it’s your job to be the problem solver.

10. Most importantly, surround yourself with a group of people you can trust to be there for you. ... You need a group to be there to celebrate your highs and commiserate with during your lows ..."

and thanks to Harry Potter and the Urban School Nightmare for these tips:

"I tried a new management technique with my classes today that I heard about from a colleague. Essentially, you say that everyone who wants to learn sits in one half of the room, and everyone who doesn't want to learn sits in the other. Then you only teach the half that wants to learn. The great thing is that nobody is going to say, "Oh, I'm stupid. I don't want to learn." Because of course they do actually all want to learn. So then all the kids sit on the good side. But if they start talking or not working or putting their heads down, you say "I thought you wanted to learn? Which side do you want to sit on?" REVOLUTIONARY. I had children who have not done work all advisory actually learning! Of course, they could learn all along, but they weren't because they didn't ever have to make that choice. I'm going to keep this up."

Please, PLEASE, leave any helpful tips/advice you have for new teachers/teachers in general. I know I'm not going to be teacher of the year, but it would be helpful to hit the ground running :)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

UPDATE: Job Found.

This is me, come August 23rd!
I have a job! :) The first interview went well and two of us are getting hired, as opposed to one. I'm really excited. It's going to be super fun.

Thank you all for following my rants and for (maybe) appreciating my current excitement.

Drumroll, Please... It's the Last Week (2 Days) of Institute!

Ahh, we have finally made it!! There are two more days of Institute left (and then several years of teaching...!). Tomorrow, we are all partaking in self-selected workshops (e.g. Disability Law, Technology in PGCPS, Interviewing Tips, etc.) and getting our final evaluations from our advisors. On Tuesday, we will have a final class session and then a closing ceremony, celebratory barbecue included.

And a celebration is indeed warranted. Last week was absolute craziness. Sunday night we had a ferocious storm in the Washington metropolitan area and thus, come Monday morning, many of our practice teaching schools had lost power or only had partial power. While we were in the building, the students were kept on the buses in case they had to be taken back home or to an alternate location with power. At one point, about a half hour since they had been there, we had to bring them off the buses and into the warm and slightly crispy building to wait for further instructions. About a half hour after that, we were told to move to a high school about ten minutes away. When we got there, we sat in the school's cafeteria because that was the only part of the building with both power and working a/c. So, in case you're not fully following, on the last week of our practice teaching, we were in a cafeteria with minimal supplies which we gathered from the previous school. Very little teaching was done, as you can imagine, but we did our best.

On Tuesday, we were still at the alternate location with no option to go to the previous school so the scant supplies that we had chosen to bring were our only options. Despite the conditions, the kids did really well and we actually got to teach in a more routine manner. Wednesday came and we arrived at our alternate school once again only to be told that we were back at the previous school and then told again that we were at the alternate school. There was much confusion. Wednesday was a good day because we had brought things from home for the kids and I got to teach science and we set up an impromptu viewing area for The Magic School Bus in the hallway. The kids were actually paying attention and learned the planets pretty well. (!!) Finally, come Thursday, our last day of practice teaching (yes, I feel prepared for 30+ students for 180 days now that I have been "teaching" for 15. And I say "teaching" because for the first two days of the 15, we were only allowed to observe and some days were interrupted by craziness.), our mentor teacher had said that we would not be teaching anything to the students and that we would spend the day having a pizza party.

Thus, my co-teacher and I didn't plan anything. When we came to school, lo and behold, our mentor teacher says, "What did you plan for today?"

Lady, we didn't plan shift, per your request!

As you can probably tell, I was not a fan of my mentor teacher. Through the face grabbing, the talking ill of the kids in front of them, the falling asleep during our lessons (even when the kids never fell asleep), the not doing any of the kids' or our evaluations on time, the telling us that we were doing 'okay' though she didn't do much of anything, etc., I was constantly reminded of the enemy I was fighting in PGCPS: complacent teachers who don't belong in the classroom. Or in the school system whatsoever for that matter. And I grew wary of the battle. I don't mean to be harsh, but I'm telling it like it is. You have no right to work with children when you choose not to put in the time to teach them. And if that is true, you certainly have no right to be our mentor.

Anyway, that's enough of that. For the most part, I did like the kids I got to work with, but I do doubt if I have enough patience to help them excel. We had one student who was 13 going on 14 who could barely say the alphabet, much less write it. He could not assign numbers of a group of objects and he could not write his name, despite our trying to practice it with him daily. He also had trouble following directions and keeping his hands to himself, the latter of which really bothered me. I hate being touched. He also constantly asked to go to the restroom and my co-teacher or I would take him. For me, when I was in the first grade, my teacher refused to let me go and it was a disaster. Thus, I promised myself that I would always let my students go. But it was getting ridiculous. He would ask 5 or 6 times a day (a summer school day goes from 8:00 am to 12:30 pm). I guess in time we will see just how much patience I have.

Finally, the last big news of the week was district hiring. On Wednesday, we had this HORRENDOUS benefits meeting for all resident teachers. (You want me to decide who my assets, $5, goes to if I die? I'm 21. And again, I have like $5 to my name.) I didn't sign up for health insurance, as I'm still on my parents' plan, but I did sign up for the free life insurance and did some tax forms (some of which I did not know how to fill out...). At the end, our HR representative told us that he was going to send a list of our names, content areas (?) and contact information to principals in the county. That night, some Fellows received scheduling for interviews. The next day, it continued. I could feel the tension setting in. We were all wondering who would get placed first, who would get the most interviews, who would get the least, etc.

Our district hiring manager had prepared resume books for principals with all of our resumes, but only principals who contacted her received them. For the most part, many principals were contacting us solely on the fact that they had several vacancies and they saw our name and the content area that they maybe needed. On Thursday, I received an interview with a school down by Andrew's Air Force Base. About 40 other Fellows also received an interview. The school has 22 vacancies! I will be interviewing with them tomorrow morning. On Friday, I had a super awkward group interview with the Fellows of Math Immersion. We felt that we were personally the closest group of Fellows because we have known each other since mid-May and now we were competing for the same job at a "coveted" school. (Coveted because of location, school culture, etc.) We will find out on Monday who gets the spot.

As a Fellow, I understand why I am here. I decided to be a PGCTF Fellow because I saw terrible teachers "teaching" students full of potential. I couldn't look away, so I had to stay and do something about it. I don't think of myself as a savior in any way. I see myself as an activist. I'm fighting for something I believe for, I'm fighting for a better education for students who haven't always experienced it.

With that said, I don't think it's fair that sometimes we are being asked to sacrifice ourselves. We are encouraged to take the first job we are offered, because then we are taking a position in a school that needs us most. As of now, there are about 8 middle schools with the "highest need." These are the schools that either have been taken over by the government or will be in the next year if improvement is not seen. I feel that we should be able to pick from the interviews that we receive from these 8 schools. I also feel that we should be able to pick from any other schools on that priority school improvement list, but program staff are shuffling us toward middle schools were the most vacancies lie. I am a more of a high school-person because I feel that I could establish a better rapport with that age group, despite my age, which I feel is important to student learning. I also came into teaching wanting to prepare students for college. High school students are thinking about college, middle school students are not really yet. And please, please, please, don't get me wrong but it is also unlikely, no matter how great a teacher I could be, that many of my special education students will not have the capacity to pursue college. While they will go on to do things that they may love, I want to influence the future and the future usually goes to college. Again, please don't get me wrong. Non-college goers are important supporters of the future. I really believe that. But my passion is in working with college pursuers

Okay, so we accept a position in the first school tells us that they "needs us most." (What if the next school needs us more?) What about what we need? How can we be truly effective first year teachers if we are to go to a low-performing school with poor support structures and is far away? How can we teach if we are exhausted and only get home in time to swallow our dinner, say "hi" to our loved ones and sleep? How can we be asked to teach subjects that we do not feel comfortable teaching when there are vacancies in subjects we do feel comfortable teaching? While it is important that we care about raising student achievement, we could do it so much better if we are taken care of first. I don't remember the saying about selfless, but it's something like, if you're not okay, how can you help to make sure others are okay? On a low oxygen airplane, you put your oxygen mask on before you aid the child next to you.

These are just some of my concerns. For example, tomorrow's interview, the school begins at 7:45 in the morning. (I am not a morning person.) Teachers report at 7:15. The school is 33 minutes away from my apartment without traffic and nearly an hour with traffic. That means I would have to leave by 6:40 or earlier. That means that I would have to be awake by 5:30 if I want to eat and look presentable. So what time should I go to bed? I want 8 hours, right? I should be sleeping by 9:30 pm. Well, school is over at 2:30, but we are to stay until about 3:00 pm. As a idealistic new teacher, I want to offer after-school office hours/homework help. I would stay about an hour or two later. But, I might as well stay until rush hour is over... When am I supposed to exercise? (Driving around all summer during lunch time is making me fat.) (I think exercise would put some kick in my steps.) When am I supposed to have "me" time to keep my sanity so I don't take it out on my students? When am I supposed to see people I like who are not between the ages of 11 and 14?!

This is why we do kind of need to "shop around" schools. I am up for working at a high, high-need school, but I would prefer one that will take good care of me as I take good care of my students and one that will not make me fill up my Prius every week and turn me into a road raging maniac. The school that I interviewed with on Friday is 12 minutes away from my apartment and teachers report at 9:00. Now that's more like it. School ends at 4:10, which is a little late for me, but hey, I have been going to school from 7 to 7, so everything else basically looks good. Plus, I could stay after school for an hour or two and still make it home for a reasonable (7:00 pm) dinner time. I could probably take a run, do some grading, cleaning, other life maintenance and still get to go to bed for 8 hours at midnight.

Anyway, so if we don't have a school by Friday, we will begin to get "slotted" which means that we will just get placed in any open vacancies. Many of us are thinking that we might as well shop around for a school that we like, because in the end the worst thing that could happen is that we would get a school we didn't like, which would have happened if we had accepted their offer in the first place but only then, we wouldn't have known if we could get a happier placement. Our district hiring manager is discouraging us to get to the slotting phase because then, geographical preferences aren't really looked at. That may be true. But, the school that is furthest away and has contacted us is 70 minutes away with traffic (from Silver Spring where many of us live, further north in Montgomery County, you can expect that your school will be far away) and the school that is the furthest south in PG County is 80 minutes away. It's risky to shop around, but not that risky.

As you can see, I have many concerns. What is not a concern is, however, that we should all, or just about all, have placements by the time new teacher training begins. I hope that our cohort continues to have weekly get togethers because I desperately, desperately need the laughs.

How's this for a novel? :)