Sunday, December 16, 2012

Over thinking Student Teaching: Epilogue

My swan song came in the form of a letter I addressed to the students and staff of my student teaching placement site. It was printed in the most recent issue of the school newspaper and I worked very hard to structure it to mirror my understanding of good practice. I doubt that anyone who reads it could see the deliberate care I took in composing it, but that’s okay as long as the overall message of intense gratitude came through. Here is an annotated version of my farewell letter:

[1]Dear Ladies and Gentlemen of The School High School,

[2]I’ve given myself a writing assignment: a one-paragraph, single spaced thank-you letter to everyone I’ve met in my three months as a student teacher at TSHS. [3]You may be surprised to hear an English teacher say this, but writing can be hard! [4]However, nothing worthwhile is easy. [5]I want you all to know that this has been an experience I will never forget (in a good way!), and I feel I have learned more during my time here than I ever could have imagined. [6]Although I’ve been a teacher to many of you, I’m also a student, and in a few weeks I will be graduating. [7]Whether you know it or not, I couldn’t have done it without you. [8]You adopted me into your family, and like most families we’ve had victories, disagreements, laughs, arguments, more victories, and that one day when the power went out. [9]Wherever I go from here, I’ll always be a [mascot].

[10]Thank you and good luck,
Ms. Jacover

[1] The salutation was constructed to deliberately include formal and respectful titles to remind students that expectations for behavior and conduct are high, and will continue to be so. I referred to each student and whole classes in this manner on a daily basis to instill a sense of pride and decorum in how they choose to conduct themselves. It is my hope that by doing so, I have imparted a lasting impression on how these students may view themselves in relation to how they would like to be viewed by the larger world.
[2] This statement was included to set a tone for the letter, specifically to remind readers that everyone is a student and a teacher, to some extent. The sentence is intentionally declarative in nature and provides the reader with an outline for what to expect from the rest of the text.
[3] This comment reveals an attempt to connect with the reader on a personal level. It is crucial for students to recognize that the work of English language arts is a constant struggle for everyone. By including this statement, I am trying to communicate that everyone who engages in this type of work faces individual challenges.
[4] This statement acknowledges and reinforces the overall message I attempted to communicate during my time as a student teacher. It is slightly preachy, but ultimately intended to present the conditional factors associated with mastery of English language arts.
[5] The main idea of the message comes into focus here, and the reader should have been able to use context clues to predict this statement. It is heartfelt and honest, and intended to provide a model for authentic writing.
[6] This sentence reiterates my role as a teacher while reinforcing the concept that everyone plays dual roles of educator and student. The main idea of this sentence also supports the daily reminders I gave students about the benefits of completing assigned work.
[7] Specific language addressing the reader serves as a reminder that learning is collaborative. The qualifier present at the beginning of the sentence is intended to foster metacognitive and reflective thoughts in the reader. It is my hope that a reader can acknowledge and accept his part in the larger context presented.
[8] Again, language specific to the school culture is included here to support the school’s mission statement regarding efforts to build a small learning community. The term “family” was intentionally used to evoke a sense of responsibility within individual readers.
[9] The closing statement speaks to the core values present within the school culture, particularly the value placed on athletics and team sports. The reference to the mascot should hopefully remind students of my personal investment in the extracurricular activities most valued by the school and stakeholders.
[10] I included this to indicate that my gratitude for the experience is intertwined with my investment in the readers’ success. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Guide to Student Teaching #14

I finally had my “Professor Henry Higgins” moment this week! By George, I really did it, I did it, I did it! I said I’d make a [student] and indeed I did. While Henry Higgins, of My Fair Lady, was dealing with the foul-mouthed, flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, and I had to contend with the foul-mouthed, egotistical 16 year-old in my 3rd period class of juniors, the challenge of teaching such hard-headed people remains an apt parallel in my mind.
At the beginning of the semester, my student and I were at odds. He didn’t see any reason to follow my instructions, and I couldn’t fathom how to force him to learn. We had showdowns on a daily basis, oftentimes resulting in one of us leaving the room to sulk, cry, or complain. After he refused to take a quiz, I made the decision to tighten the reins and approach teaching him from a different angle. I constructed a separate assignment for the belligerent student and kindly explained to him and his mother that the reading materials contained information pertinent to his personal goals (of graduating high school and going on to college to become a football star). The assignment was to connect the content from the articles (high school football recruits who went from “best to bust”) to the major themes within the play his class was reading (how “hubris” causes tragedy in Antigone). I was proud of the assignment, but I had very little hope that it would change his attitude toward school or me as his teacher.
This week, my student underwent an Eliza Doolittle-esque transformation. He presented his work to the class, meeting and exceeding the expectations I had set for him, but the real shock was seeing how invested he was in the work for the rest of the week. He turned a corner this week and became a model student. Not only did he take a leadership role during class discussions, but he finally stopped stealing instructional time with his disrespectful antics and comments. It was a lover-ly week, t’was!
In addition to this victory, I am finally getting ready to finish up my student teaching stint. My exit strategy is in place, the papers are graded, all involved parties are aware, and… I may have a job lined up. I don’t want to count any chickens just yet, but the option has been presented, and I am seriously weighing it. For all of my complaints, I know that beggars can’t be choosers, and the job market isn’t exactly overflowing with possibilities right now. The question I keep asking myself is this: Do I believe in the school’s mission? Even though the answer is a resounding YES, I just can’t seem to reconcile the message of the mission with the policies the school implements to achieve that mission. It’s all very confusing.
Clearly, I have some things to consider. Although I don’t support the school’s current policies, I wonder if I could affect change from within. If I could affect that change, what level of support or resistance would I face? Would the flexibility of a private or charter school weigh more or less than the comparable salary a public school could offer? Time commitments, travel/distance, demographics, financial and administrative support, and availability of resources are at the forefront of my mind, but there is one other factor that might influence my choice. Once again, it is Professor Henry Higgins’ voice singing, “Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn! I’ve grown accustomed to her face!” reminding me that this school, the staff, and most of all, the students, have made an impression on me that won’t be easy to set aside.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Guide to Student Teaching #13

This week, although short, gave new meaning to the word “thanks” for both obvious and abstract reasons. Obviously, the instructional week was cut down to two days due to the Thanksgiving holiday, and planning for an abbreviated week was a relief, for which I was thankful. Also, I happen to love Thanksgiving because there isn’t any other national holiday where everyone is encouraged to reflect on what they are most grateful for, and I desperately needed to reflect and remind myself of the numerous things I am grateful for.
In concrete terms, I am grateful for my student teaching placement, my cooperating teacher, and the colorful characters and students I interact with daily. They remind me of how diverse and interesting the world is. I am grateful for them because they have afforded me a glimpse into my own future as an educator, and in that future I see myself in a career that actually requires me to constantly learn and grow. Teaching is a fascinating profession. It is an occupation that allows for as much or as little upward mobility as I want and at a pace I am comfortable with. It’s also fascinating because of how mainstream society views it. Teaching is typically described as: noble, honorable, difficult, vital, necessary, underappreciated, satisfying, and (my favorite) thankless.
ThankLESS. I find this adjective particularly intriguing because the implication is that teachers are taken for granted, or teaching is unrewarding, and although that may be true in the midst of a year, semester, or even on a daily basis, the ultimate truth is that this job is only deemed thankless by those who are looking for thanks in the first place. Teachers can’t afford to be appreciated while they are teaching because the learning process requires time, and any educator who is looking for gratitude on a daily basis from current students is in the wrong profession.
The past few months of student teaching have given me some of the most frustrating experiences of my life, partially due to the various professional obstacles and partially due to the lack of consideration I have felt from stakeholders (students, parents, administrators), but in spite of the aggravations, I have actually witnessed learning and the satisfaction of knowing that I caused it. My students may not realize it now, but I trust they will someday, and that’s when I’ll get to feel appreciated.
Unfortunately, I may not be present for those moments when students realize that I taught them something crucial. I suppose that is the part of the job that is thankless, but it’s only hypothetically thankless. If I continue to do my job well, have confidence in what I’m teaching, and remember to be grateful for what this profession offers me, in tangible terms, then I don’t ever have to feel unappreciated.
Of course it’s difficult to keep my chin up everyday, but I trust that my future holds at least a few students who will come back to me to say, “Thanks for that lesson on (propaganda techniques, language emphasis, creative writing, etc.) way back when I was in your (7th, 8th, 9th…) class. It was really fun, and I learned a lot.” As long as I hold onto that hope, I will never feel this job is thankless.
One more note on gratitude: This Master’s program has been an incredible journey, and I am so grateful for having the opportunity to gain experiences as a student and a teacher. I hope I never forget how it feels to be a student, but I also hope to become the best teacher I can be. I have been walking a tightrope for several months, and this holiday weekend reminded me that my lessons aren’t for me, but for my students. As much as I enjoy crafting intricate, worthy, and engaging lessons, I can’t treat lesson planning as my own projects to be evaluated, or else I run the risk of feeling dejected and unappreciated when they don’t work exactly as I envision. That’s what the Thankless Monster feeds on. I suspect it will always be a struggle to create customized lessons for people who may not see the value in them until long after they’ve left my classroom, but I can take solace in the fact that I am doing work that will benefit the majority... eventually.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Guide to Student Teaching #12

This week was full of drama, tragedies, and successes, and I’m proud to say that I have finally figured out how to meet these students where they’re at without sacrificing what I believe is important, namely, teaching. My periods of anger, frustration, and self-doubt gave way to a sense of steely resolve (cracks knuckles). It’s not certain how long I’ll be able to maintain the level of order necessary to educate these kids, but for now, I’ll say it was good week.
Although the instructional weeks are short, and the time it takes to introduce a lesson, explain an assignment, and facilitate productive work time leaves me with approximately 10 minutes of actual teaching time, I discovered that I don’t need to work as hard as I have been. These students are intelligent, but they lack discipline. After I cracked the whip, yelled, and reminded my classes that I am not their friend, they got to work. I established my authority, then moved on with my lessons. Once I did that, my students actually had fun with my lessons and activities. They worked, they learned, and they didn’t whine about the assignments, probably because my assignments are fun. I feel more confident now that the majority of my students are on track, and it left me the time I needed to adjust lessons for those students who require more one-on-one instruction.
Of course, I still have students who exhibit some serious behavioral issues, but I learned that my frustration isn’t going to help them, so I adjusted and planned for a few contingencies. For example, one of my juniors has been awarded a football scholarship and since then, he has expressed visible and verbal disdain for the work and is a constant disruption in class. The day I gave his class a quiz, he refused to take it. He was belligerent, obnoxious, and altogether childish, especially since he insisted on making a show of the rejection. I gave him three chances to take the quiz, all of which he snubbed, so I wrote a “ZERO” on it and told him that we were going to call his mother then and there. He was expecting to be sent to the in-school suspension room for disciplinary actions, and he even seemed eager to leave, but I wasn’t about to give him what he wanted to replace what he needed, which was a serious scolding.
Although his mother never returned my call, he and I had a discussion, and he condescendingly explained that “nothing was gonna change,” and that he “doesn’t have a relationship” with his mother. My initial reaction was annoyance, but I took his feedback and decided to create an alternative assignment for him. The assignment isn’t difficult, and it includes some high-interest and highly relevant reading material. Basically, if he refuses to take the next quiz, I will hand him a thin packet containing 4 articles about high school football recruits and the various ways they failed due to academics and failure to meet the new NCAA requirements. His assignment, paralleling the unit on Antigone, is to respond to the question: How does hubris cause tragedy? My hope is that he will simply fall in line with the rest of the class, but I’m prepared if he doesn’t.
For my next feat of strength and flexibility, I will explain how I scared my sophomores into completing the homework I assign! My sophomores are reading a novel set in a post-apocalyptic world where a nuclear war has ravaged society. As an ongoing writing assignment, I created a role-playing game where students are faced with problems to solve or obstacles to overcome (in writing). Students who score 0-4 points twice in a row DIE. This week, I held a funeral, and the class realized that I was serious. The student was not allowed to speak (because he was dead), and a few students spoke at the “funeral” to chastise the “dead” student for not even trying. It was hilarious and effective, and the best part? I didn’t have to scold anyone myself because the students did it for me.
After the funeral, I asked the student if he had any regrets, and he said that he wished he had done the work. Being prepared for this situation, I provided the student with an alternative assignment in order to get back into the game. The student will need to write a reflective essay, similar to that of an obituary, and he will need to specify the mistakes he made and his regrets, how he would do things differently, and descriptions of his strengths and weaknesses. The student was so eager to get back into the game, that he began writing immediately.
I am beginning to understand how crucial it is for a teacher to set firm and rigid expectations early on, and although I missed out on a lot of instructional time trying to maintain order and manage my classrooms, I’m doing it now, and my students are responding well. My freshmen have been the worst class for turning in assignments, but now that I build in class time for them to write down homework, there has been a dramatic increase in homework submissions. In addition to having the assignments written down, I have also been displaying the high-quality work to praise those students who deserve it while providing a model for the students who are struggling. Again, I do not need to chase down assignments or reprimand a class because the students are learning how to monitor and police themselves.
It’s really nice to sit back and watch my students collaborate on learning instead of waiting for me to force it on them.