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.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Guide to Student Teaching #11

The general consensus believes that I am “too nice” for this job. According to my colleagues and professor, my lessons and planning are solid and engaging, and my classroom management skills are progressing… nicely. Last week, I learned about the differences between being a “mean” teacher and being a “hard” teacher, so this week, I tried to remember that my lessons are hard, not mean. I stuck to my plans, held fast to my homework assignments, and did everything I could to accommodate various types of learners. The work was moderately challenging and would have been very satisfying, had the students actually listened to instructions and paid attention during lessons, but the sad truth of the matter is that I do not command respect because, as one of my students told me, “You’re just not crazy enough.”
When I probed the student, I discovered that these kids typically responded to teachers who “yell and holler, and throw stuff around the room,” and even though I verbalize my expectations, frustrations, and disappointment with my classes from time to time, I have only yelled at a class once, and when I brought that incident up with the student, he laughed at me and said, “That wasn’t real hollering.” I remember that day vividly, and I recall the tremendous amount of guilt I felt all weekend for losing my temper. If that wasn’t considered “real hollering,” then there are only two feasible explanations: 1) I don’t actually know how to holler and yell, or 2) the student doesn’t understand the definition of “holler.” Both are strong possibilities.
I may not be a mean teacher, but after gathering some information and processing some feedback, I am beginning to wonder if the “hard teacher” needs to be replaced by the “crazy teacher” to make the “teacher” part of the title count for something. I can act crazy, of course, but I’m not actually crazy. I could yell, and threaten, and pull on students’ ears the way another teacher does, but those are not truly options for me. My weapons, for lack of a better term, are well-constructed and engaging lessons, and the points these students need to get good grades. However, for this particular student culture, the value of education is lost on them. Several of my students do not see the importance of school and treat it like an interruption in their real lives. I am struggling to instill a sense of purpose in them, but to do that, I still need their attention, and in order to get that attention, apparently I need to be crazy.
Should I have a makeup artist give me a fake black eye so I can tell these kids that I got into a barfight? That’s crazy. Should I throw a chair or break something, as my student suggested? That’s crazy too. Maybe I should threaten violence, as a few students (and colleagues) have proposed. Definitely crazy. Should I continue to entertain these options? That is what’s really crazy. I’m not crazy, so why are these the only solutions I can think of? Why are these the only resolutions that the students and staff can provide? I find it hard to believe that anyone enjoys getting yelled at or threatened with violence, and it is absurd to think that doing so will actually instill a lifelong love of learning.
During my first few weeks at this school, I found that the students were responding well to kindness. It was odd that they seemed surprised by my genuine attention and concern, but the surprise gave me hope for being able to manage a classroom and impart some useful knowledge. Perhaps it was the kindness that was mistaken for weakness, and now, ten weeks later, I have no control over my classes. I lost them somewhere between “being kind” and “being a respected authority figure.” I had originally thought that kindness would beget respect, but now I wonder if I should have walked in on the first day as a raging authoritarian and disciplinarian… that’s crazy, right? Although, if I had, then I might actually be teaching these kids instead of just begging them to pay attention, and the only respect I would have lost would have been my self-respect.
This is the quandary of the public servant: changing personal beliefs to meet the publics’ needs in order to accomplish a valuable goal for society, or maintaining strong principles at the risk of doing a bad job. I am certain I will find a balance, and I am certain that every student body will pose different challenges, but the thing I am most certain of, is that I am proud of my “niceness” and I’m worried if I sacrifice that, I won’t be the type of teacher I could respect.
ADDENDUM: After a long conversation, several deep breaths, and some serious contemplation, I think I understand how to reconcile being “too nice” with being “crazy.” The happy medium exists in being firm, strict, and confident in my abilities as an educator. Confidence has never been my strong suit, but I reviewed everything I have done up to this point, as well as the lessons I have planned for the upcoming weeks, and they’re good. I made the mistake of expecting to make mistakes in my planning and effectively showed my students that I could be pushed around, when I should have trusted myself and emanated confidence. I don’t need to act crazy, and I don’t have to stop being “nice,” but I absolutely need to remember that I am a trained professional

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Guide to Student Teaching #10

It’s official. I am “a mean teacher.” I never wanted to be a “mean teacher,” and to be fair, I’m not mean to every student, just the ones that won’t follow basic instructions, argue with classroom procedures, and generally prevent other students from learning. For those students, I am “mean” because I choose to teach rather than waste precious instructional time bickering with them.
This week was pretty good in regards to building trust and motivation in my students. My juniors have been having a blast interpreting lines from Oedipus at Colonus, the prelude to Antigone. They’re learning a whole slew of new vocabulary related to emotions by selecting, defining, and applying different words to the same lines. Not only do these kids get the opportunity to learn and apply new vocabulary, they also get the chance to practice reading and speaking with purpose and comprehension. The students who expected to sit and act as “audience” members were given the task of “directing” the speakers by asking them to reread certain lines with different emotions or have the actors respond differently to show multiple interpretations. It’s been pretty great, and a few students have shown genuine disappointment when class is over. One student actually made a suggestion to improve the activity by proposing that we incorporate a “freeze” direction and allow students to “tag in and tag out” of scenes.
This successful series of lessons and activities came with a price, though. The day after we began reading and interpreting the script, I had written an assignment on the board which ensued in an argument about being given homework on a Friday, especially a Friday before the football team’s first playoff game. The contentious student refused to write down the assignment, and insisted “someone else will do it for me.” I was annoyed, but firmly explained that he needed to write it down before we continued reading and interpreting the script that day, just in case we ran out of time. I also explained that my lesson plan included time to begin, and possibly finish the assignment in class, if everyone followed instructions and didn’t hold up the class with arguments over homework. The student smirked at me, looked around the classroom, and folded his arms across his still-empty desk. Everyone else looked at me to see what I would do, and at that moment, I realized I needed to set some very real standards or I would never keep this class under control.
I wrote the student a referral and started to send him to the in-school suspension room for disciplinary action. He began to argue, telling me that I was being unfair, and if I wrote him a referral, he wouldn’t be allowed to play in the football game. The rest of the students were silent, furiously scribbling down the assignment while sneaking glances between the football player and me. One student began to say something about how the team “needed him this weekend,” but stopped when another student said, “Then he shoulda written down the homework.” I was so proud and annoyed and altogether confused by the mix of emotions I was feeling, but once he was escorted out, the lesson flowed smoothly, every student participated, and when the bell rang, I overheard two students arguing about how Oedipus’ lines should have been interpreted and read. The students didn’t have time to begin the homework in class that day, but I will certainly remind them that I am happy to incorporate suggestions and that my lesson plans include time to work as long as they don’t waste time or challenge my agenda.
I wish this could have been the end of the incident, but once word got around that I had (finally) written a referral and disciplined a key football player, I was approached by several students and staff members, all pleading that I renege on the referral. It was truly amazing to hear so many people tell me that I needed to reconsider my actions. Had I not taught several students some important skills in regards to reading, listening, speaking, critiquing, interpreting, and applying vocabulary? If I hadn’t removed the student (who has a history of disrupting class and arguing with teachers), would anyone have learned those skills while gaining important background knowledge for the required reading? Although I stood my ground, I questioned whether or not I should have considered the school culture more before potentially endangering the success of the football team, a source of pride for the staff and students.
I’m almost positive I did the right thing, but I am prepared for a few scenarios come Monday: 1) If the student is not allowed to play, and the team wins, then I will not have any more problems from him. 2) If the student is allowed to play, regardless of a win or loss, he will never listen to me again. 3) If the student is not allowed to play, and the team loses, everyone will hate me.
I really hope they win, but I also really hope they didn’t let him play. Monday might be a rough one.