Friday, January 28, 2011

How Do I Accomplish What I Set Out to Do in Teaching...?

And I mean, without killing myself over it.

I came across this clip from The Onion via Mr. Teachbad's blog. And I ask myself, do those who don't give a crap (and straight up let you know that they don't give a crap and then their parents echo the same sentiments) deserve my effort or time? My answer: kind of. Under different circumstances, they might've given a crap. They shouldn't be punished for being molded to not give a crap. On the other hand, I haven't adopted all of my parents' values (to their dismay) and I believe that sometimes, you can say, "Mom, that's nice that you don't care about your education or mine, but I do, so no, I can't watch Jersey Shore and Teen Mom with you, I have to do my math homework." It's all very nature vs. nurture, but I believe that as individuals, we often provide our own nurturing and we often do have the conscious ability to mold and shape ourselves and it is just BS to say that our kids are programmed robots who "can't help" the way they are. B.S.

People (who are not teachers/don't seem to remember being teachers of the trenches) are constantly telling me that I need to engage all of my students and that I need to plan lessons that, basically, can take them from apathetic, unmotivated youth who are well on their way to, well, no where (and I'm not trying to be harsh) to college-ready leaders of the future.

Yes, yes. That's lovely. And as silly as it kind of sounds to me now, that "mission", if you will, is exactly why I came into teaching.

What I hate about this amazing year I've had is that administrators have asked me to move some of my high basic kids to proficiency and in my head (and sometimes out loud), I laugh. Are you joking? The kid cannot even remember his name sometimes and you want me to teach him to remember 6 months of math facts and skills? I also hate that I am at the point where I "teach those who want to learn." The worse part is that I don't see how I can't. I don't feel that I have the time to try to convince the "others" to learn, while able and willing students are waiting on the side lines. Prior to the magic of PGCPS, I would have said, "We need to move and believe in every child." In a way, I still believe that... but I can't apply it to PGCPS. I desperately want to believe in every child's ability to achieve and their ability to actually care about their education and I desperately want to be a good enough teacher to actually make a measurable difference in their lives, but with the time crunch, the focus on standardized testing, the pressure... I'm just trying to stay afloat ...while some of my students sink.

In some ways, I am happy that I have had experiences that have taught me that a well-meaning individual isn't going to be able to change a broken school system in a year. In some ways, I am saddened by the fact that the improvement isn't that easy. As adults "guess and check" solutions (and quick fixes) for our schools, how many students are going to have to suffer as guinea pigs? Really, how much potential are we losing? Most of all, I wonder if a really good teacher could get my students to invest in their education, straighten up their behavior, engage them in issues bigger than themselves, and last, but certainly least, raise their MSA scores and grades.

So here's the thing: I'm just trying to survive my first year of teaching. I feel that I have been able to remain surprisingly upbeat about the lack of support I feel I receive and the state of PGCPS. I'm trying to improve the education that my students receive. I wouldn't say that I'm trying extraordinarily hard or my best. Because as it is, I am exhausted. And how easy it is to deny apathetic, sometimes rude and disrespectful children the same help and education that I provide to other students?

Sometimes, I feel justified in my actions. I have a student who, because of his emotional issues, has missed a lot of assignments and in-class information, because he comes into class angry and unable to participate, despite my speaking to him in a calm (but firm) voice and despite my use of reason. One of my class rules is "Rise above it." I really try to stress that as much as I can. I made a t-shirt to wear to class to show that I really believe in it. Every day issues are so minute that if you let them affect your life, you're going to miss out and regret it. I always say, leave it at the door and take what you can from the here and now (or something more middle school appropriate). But that reasonable talk doesn't usually work with him, so I let him stew in the back of class. I don't allow him to go to his favorite administrator because a hissy fit should not signal a fun trip to the office where it's sunshine and butterflies. I try to tell myself that I'm teaching him life. (And admittedly, I'm also trying to "win" and say, "You want to be miserable? Well, you can sit right here and do just that.")

Seven months ago, I believed in the ability of our education system to rise.
I believed that a good, well-intentioned teacher could inspire children to seek and fulfill their full potential.

I still believe those things, deep inside, under a hardened shell of cynicism... I look at the kids in my school who are starting fights, talking about gangs, writing hateful things about each other in the bathroom, wondering the hallways during class as they continue on their path to no where good, and outright telling me that they don't care that their county is the worst county, educationally... (and then some...) in the state.

And I wonder, what will it take for this type of school community to rise? And how am I helping it there? Sometimes, I wish I was teaching high school so I could talk to my kids about these kind of serious topics...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Many Things...

A quick rambling of thoughts appropriate for 2 am on a school night:

1. Is it possible...? I could be a good teacher...? I'm sitting here planning my science lessons for the week and yes, I think it's possible! I feel very upbeat and into the activities we'll be doing. I also am having a lot of fun with our unit (waves). While math is certainly "easier" to teach (because of less prep, although maybe a good math lesson requires a lot of prep), I can't be enthused about it like I can science. Science was my favorite subject growing up, I majored in it, I wanted to be a doctor. Science, I love you and you are so much more fun than math. Please, PGCPS admin, let me teach only science next year. I really think I can do a good job in this area.

2. I met up with some fellow Fellows today for an event paid for by our non-existent program. People who used to be the inspiration of our group are a bit jaded now and that's sad to see :( But totally understandable. If there's any doubt - let me clear it up. This is an extraordinary group of people (and no one's dropped out yet!!). We will all make extraordinary teachers... somewhere else. Which is sad to think, because PGCPS needs us... clearly. But with their lack of infrastructure and communication, we've got to GET OUT of here before the system collapses and traps us under the rubble. It's not even a metaphor, some of the buildings might actually collapse on us.

3. I love teaching. I love working with students. But I don't know how long I can handle a job that follows me like it's my shadow. At school. At home. At social events. It's calling me, "There's still work to do!!" I fall asleep with papers all over my bed. I fall asleep thinking about school. I fall asleep due to lack of sleep from planning, grading, dealing with daily duties... I love that I have the rare opportunity to touch so many important lives. But, gosh, aren't there any less demanding jobs with just as much as importance? I just want my job to stop following me home sometimes! I hope that as the years go on, it will learn to stay at school. I really don't want to abandon this career; it is still very important to me, despite my learning of the darkness that is our public school system, especially amidst high-achieving school systems.

4. I don't find my education that incredible. According to the rest of the U.S., though, I am a product of a great school system. (And I not only won't argue that, I will toot that MCPS horn... toot, toot, we are awesome.) I just wonder though, if my schooling is considered exceptional, or at least my school district, as I didn't go to one of the more "elite" schools, what the heck is going on in the less awesome schools districts?! Oh, my.

5. Last note - I'm getting better at lesson planning, though it is still slow. Haven't gotten to math yet, but science is done for the week :) Yeah, science!

Thanks for reading :) Have a great week!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Teaching is B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

A year ago, had someone asked me, I would say that teaching is life-changing, world-shaping, an incredible profession...

I still think all of those things, but they would only come up after these thoughts: IT'S INSANE. LITERALLY INSANE. Men and women with optimistic hopes for shaping the future weathered down by the system. Men and women getting paid for teaching students ~40 hours a week, when they are really teaching, coaching, advising, parenting... ~countless hours a week. A job where the expression "there aren't enough hours in a day!" must have come from. And in the kind of school system I work in, teachers are the parents to children whose parents are in some way unable to "properly" parent their children. You know what I mean - telling them that drugs are bad and school is good; that you need to treat others as you wish to be treated and that sex and having babies is not for middle school (or high school).

Teaching is an important job. Even as I don't feel that I am a "real" teacher, I remind myself of that every day - what I'm doing is important, though challenging.But sometimes I wonder - is this job REALLY possible? Reaching children in urban schools and leading them to become the leaders of tomorrow? Can it REALLY happen? (And without killing yourself over it? And without it being some sort of miracle story turned into a movie?) I would like to say YES, IT CAN. But sometimes, when you're at the bottom of Kilamanjaro looking up, you can't help but say to yourself, "holy shift, this is impossible."

Anyway, I wanted to reflect on what an "ideal" week for me would like (all my responsibilities scheduled and fulfilled):

Class: 37 hrs 30 mins

Morning Meetings: Add'l time required - 60 mins/weekly; 90 mins/biweekly

- SPED Department Meeting
- Math Department Meeting
- Science Department Meeting

Planning Period Meetings: Add'l time required - 50 mins

- SIT Meeting
- Team Meeting
- Coach Meeting
- Collaborative Meeting (one for co-taught math, one for my intensive's math class and one for science)
     - Since there are 5 planning periods in a week and I should be attending 6 meetings, 1 add'l planning period should technically exist....

After School Activities: Add'l time required - 3 hrs (supposedly.)

- Extended Learning Opportunity (planning and tutoring math lessons)

Planning: (My coach has suggested that the lesson should be done (worksheets tried, activities attempted) and all materials need to be created/prepared/gathered before considering lesson planning done. It takes me an hour to two to think of how I would like a lesson to go. Then it takes me to time to create handouts and powerpoints - 1 to 2 hours. Then I have to make copies, gather or make materials, etc. - 1 hour to 2 hours. Each day I teach a "high" intensive math class, a "low" intensive math class and a low intensive science class. Theoretically, I have 3 prep's. About 1/2 of the time, I do different things with my higher class that I don't do in my lower class, so I say that I teach 2.5 different classes.) I'm going to calculate on the low end of planning (3 hrs/lesson), rather than the high end (6 hrs/lesson). I do also acknowledge that I am a slow planner. Also, my principal suggested that I should be only planning and teaching about 3 lessons a week as they overlap on days so that's why I multiplied by 3 instead of 5:

3 hrs/lesson x 2.5 lessons a day x 3 lessons a week = 22.5 hours

So in total, we're up to 65 hours a week. Now throw in some grading in there, IEP management, bulletin board updates.... Did I mention that teachers don't get paid enough?


Friday, January 14, 2011

Lesson Planning Hurts my Head.

Okay, so I lied. I enjoyed break entirely TOO much to want to come back to blog about school! But now I'm back to share a story about one of the aspects of teaching that I find most challenging: lesson planning.

At school we have a "protocol" for lesson planning which consists of the basics, like an objective, materials, warm-up but also about 20 or so questions for creating a "work period task", opening and closing (my school is a workshop model school... don't get me started). It's all very overwhelming. I'm not a fan. I am down with the writing an objective and thinking of a warm-up, beginning, middle and end of a lesson that ties to and helps my students meet the objective. But "crafting" an opening that will be short enough to set up for the work period task in approximately 8 minutes and creating tasks that challenge my higher learners, scaffold for my lower learners and meet my middle learners all at the same time seem incredibly, incredibly time-consuming. And this job doesn't allow me enough time for proper sleeping, eating, working, and playing. Additionally, most of my students are so dependent that I can't imagine being able to have all of them working on different challenging tasks and being able to support them all at the same time. Not to mention, ideally I should perform all the tasks myself first and edit them as necessary.

I grew up in a teacher teaches you how to do it, then you do it system. I liked it. It worked. It was mostly what I was planning to do when I became a teacher. I would say that it works okay in the environment that I'm teaching in. However, we are supposed to teach on the basis of student discovery. I am all for inquiry (especially in science) and I am proud of my students for their progress, but when I try discovery-based lessons, they move slowly because they are not willing to or cannot think of what to say to participate. And honestly, I don't feel like it helps them remember the information any better. What does help their memory of what they learned is moving around and doing hands-on activities.

As you can guess, I don't like the protocol or the model my school uses. I agree that planning is important, but some of my best lessons were ridiculously unplanned. (And some of my planned lessons were great, too, but good planning doesn't always lead to a good lesson, I've found.) So why all the whining?

Prior to winter break, I was called into conference with my principals. They stated that they were concerned about my level of planning, because for formal observations, I provided them with hand-written (brainstorm, jotting thoughts-style) plans. This is how I plan. With pen and paper and thoughts inserted. They were not pleased. Understandably, I should have provided a nicer copy, but my administration wanted to see me use the protocol.

Most of the teachers in school do not use this protocol. (I don't think they know that.) (And I don't think I'd be on the radar had I pretended for the observation that I use this protocol. But I was foolish and naive enough to believe that honesty is the best policy. Last time I'll ever go down that path again.)

Why I'm peeved is that my administration did not have many negative things to say about my teaching. While they did have suggestions for growth (and admittedly, there is A LOT of room for growth), they said that besides the plans, they felt I was a teacher with good potential. Anyway, I have been told to use the protocol for all of my lessons and to send in my lessons. Which further cramps my style of planning day to day or sometimes, 2 days to day. Which I have been told is acceptable, but I am now supposed to be planning week to week. I am okay with proving that I'm using the protocol, but having to change my method of operation to plan a week's worth of lessons for three different classes by Monday of each week? It's a good thing we teachers have so much free time on our hands...

And while some of my administrators gave great constructive criticism, can I just put it out there that my mentor has always had great things to say about the several classes that she's sat in on? And she is the only SPED-specialized observer I've ever had. I don't think it's a coincidence. I think she gets it. SPED is a different kind of world. For PC reasons we may like to pretend that these kids are just the same as gen ed kids. And in many way they are, but as students... the similarity is much less. (And for the record,  don't think that SPED kids can't achieve as much as their gen ed counterparts. I just think that some cannot due to physical constraints and that while my kids are capable of many things and often capable of learning what I teach them in math or science, they are often not capable of recalling those things the next day. And that's what SPED is, kids who learn differently from their gen ed counterparts. So why non-SPED people keep telling me to do what the gen ed teachers are doing with their students puzzles me. Also puzzling is why my admin continues to suggest that my kids are all college-capable when cognitive skills as low as theirs would make college extremely unlikely and difficult. Again, I love my kids, but I think it's important to be realistic. Sometimes the most frustrating thing is wanting to take time to teach them how to add instead of the pythagorean theorem.

Since I want to keep this relatively short (and this is kind of dragging on!), I just want to say that a lot of the time, I feel flustered by the lack of support and understanding teachers (especially new teachers) receive from the higher-ups. I don't want to use my being new as a crutch, but you can't as a new teacher to know all the things that a veteran teacher knows (like the curriculum back to front - in which I teach three). And while lesson planning is important, I think that the lessons should be written to each his own. If I am able to sculpt lessons in a way that makes sense to me, I think I would plan better lessons, benefiting the students, rather than learning to deal with this protocol which is unattractive and cumbersome. Even more frustrating is that one of my administrators suggested that my job should be "easier" because I teach special ed and thus fewer students. (Oh, no s/he didn't!)

Special ed is not my calling, I know that, but being involved with it is going to keep me respectful of the profession for years and years to come. When is there going to be a SPED-specialized administrator? When are we going to stop being the dumping grounds? :(

Anyway, so that's my rant! In summary, I think that lesson planning is important. I would love to make beautiful, complete lesson plans all the time if I could. I am a perfectionist and love color coding the sections of my lesson plan. :) But good gosh, where is all the time for this much attention to detail? I'm just trying to survive and teach my kids what they need to know! (And that does NOT consist of how to make a circle graph!) And... I wish my school would not suggest for me to "pick" 10 children I teach to "move to proficiency" and "leave" the rest, because I won't be able to "reach them all."

Side note - I went to a training yesterday and everyone at my table fell asleep. Sometimes, I have no hope for the uprising of this county.

Hope everyone has a great weekend and if you have any tips on making lesson planning bearable, leave them here! :)