Reflections on a First Teaching Year, Part Two

The last post included some of the odds and ends of my first year of teaching—unexpected moments and ongoing background stories. This week, some of the more challenging parts of the year.

Commuting Sucks

Austin has bad traffic, yo. And I got to spend 8-10 hours a week sitting in it. Once in a while, 12.

It Doesn’t Stop

This, I think, was the bit I was least prepared for. Teaching is a job you cannot leave at school. It takes up space in your head. It eats up time you’re nominally not at work because there are lessons to plan and papers to grade. I’m not going to pretend that I was working sixty-five or seventy hours a week, because there were serious inefficiencies in my time usage. Especially in the fall, though, it felt like 65 hours a week. (In actuality, it is usually about 50.)

Teaching college, you’re working with adults. Young adults, yes, who often need help, but adults. You’re responsible for getting them the content of your course, and sometimes for some professional mentoring. You are not, as a professor, responsible for the students themselves. You bring home papers to grade. You have lessons to plan. You may worry about certain students. It’s much rarer to worry about whether they’re actually going to make it to adulthood with a reasonable chance of success.

Teaching middle school, that worry is constant. You’re not actually a parent to your students, but you worry about them in much the same way, whether you’re at school or at home.

My First All-Nighter Since Grad School

At the end of the first semester of my doctoral program, I discovered that it does, in fact, take longer to write a 20-30 page paper than the 10-12 page papers I’d written during my master’s. The upshot of this was a sleepless night, serious heartburn from midnight coffee, and (probably) some mediocre papers. While I had short nights during my other finals weeks, I did not again have one in which I called a 20-minute doze enough.

…until third quarter grades were due.

I don’t like grading. I understand that grades have uses. Importantly, they’re a structure that keeps students accountable. Work that’s not for a grade usually doesn’t get done. None of that means I like grading. Because I dislike it, I tend to put it off. (Building grading into my schedule and getting it done sooner is one of my main goals for next year.) When I put it off…I get to spend an evening…and a night…and a morning catching up on grading. It was complicated in the third quarter by some inclement weather days and the usual mess of students turning things in late.

Next time I’m up all night, I really hope it’s for something more entertaining than middle school essays.

Perpetual Emergency

Standardized tests have higher gravity at low-SES schools. The administrative response to this was to declare an emergency in February that never really went away. Students at risk (or at perceived risk) of failing their STAAR tests were pulled every which way but loose.

My interventionists and inclusionists were rescheduled so many times that, occasionally, nobody in the building knew when they were actually supposed to be working with my students. On a related point, I had no input on most of the changes, including which students would be pulled. The situation was spectacularly frustrating for everybody involved.

Between the time that the scores for the reading test came back and the re-test for students who failed, I had a number of students who received three hours of English intervention every day. Because of the way that intervention was scheduled, I did not see some of my students at all for five weeks. A few of my other students spent half of their days doing only English (three hours in the morning with the interventionist, 90 minutes with me for normal class time, and 90 minutes of previously scheduled reading enrichment).

On a related note, I was asked to sacrifice some of my ELA time for students to practice for the STAAR science test. I did not especially mind this, because it was swapping one technology mandate for another—they went from working on the digital reading learning platform to the digital science learning platform.

We spent almost half the year in an “emergency.” It reminds me of this SNL sketch about terrorist threat levels.

Did I Mention the Testing?

Even assuming that we can get students to do meaningful work in the afternoon when they have been testing, I lost about 14 days of instructional time to actual and practice testing. Get rid of that useless assumption, and it’s more like 20. Then add to that a few days that were mostly lost because I taught at 5-12 school and we spent a few days sequestered because of high school testing. It adds up quickly. The tests interrupt instructional time, make it harder to complete meaningful projects, and stress everybody out.

The only people I’ve heard enthusiastically defend the amount of standardized testing we put students through are politicians and testing companies.

You See Failures Immediately, and Successes (Mostly) Later

I can’t tell you the highest quarter grade I gave this year, but I can name every student who failed part of my class, and every student who is doing summer work to try and get to high school after failing standardized tests. The class with the discipline problems occupies more headspace than the one where most students are well on their way toward college. The students who keep you up at night are the ones you’re still trying to figure out how to help…or the ones you worry about not being able to help at all. As a teacher, you just have to wait and see…and often you don’t get to see.

Next: the fun stuff.

Reflections on a First Teaching Year, Part One

Friday, I turned in keys. I turned in the laptop and bag that have kept me company on most of the 9,000-plus miles I’ve commuted since late September. I gave a few bags of miscellaneous inherited office supplies to the secretaries up front. I made an enormous pile of desks and shelves and cabinets in the middle of my room, because apparently my school plans to start summer by repainting the walls. I signed more shirts than yearbooks, and said numerous goodbyes to colleagues and students.

…and that was that. I had survived my first year of teaching full time.

My first thought is to say “Oh my FSM, was it hard.” It was hard. There were a few days I came home and cried. There were others that I definitely wanted to. More numerous were the days I just came home exhausted. Spending your days surrounded by the raucous emotional tumult of thirteen and fourteen year olds is tiring on its own, never mind trying to get them to learn something.

I’ve posted before about how much energy I put into splashing rather than propulsion. That got better as the year went on. I got much faster at planning lessons. I figured out which students needed which kinds of warning to get them to actually be quiet. With the help of my awesome co-workers, I got better at sorting bureaucratic necessities from bureaucratic niceties. I got (slightly) better about putting off grading too long.

There was testing. So much testing. The scheduling of said tests invariably worked out so that I spent the most time with my most challenging section, trying to keep them doing something productive on days when all of us were already tired and cranky. The test scores came out okay—I surpassed the goals my administrators set and almost all of my eighth graders will get to start high school in August.

Part Two will go into more depth about what was hard and what I learned about doing hard things. There was so much going on in the background, though, that became part of the year’s scenery…

—A fellow teacher’s transnational relationship trying to weather visa woes and the general hazards of long distance relationships.

—Pregnancies and house purchases.

—Repeated “opportunities” to be part of presentations various faculty and administrators gave as part of their work on master of education degrees and principal certifications.

—A surprising amount of faculty turnover as some people left and others came on to assist with the constant stream of “emergency” interventions that began in February.

—Students searching for novel ways to break the dress code, including one student who spent six weeks in a wig because she was told her (expensive) blue dye job violated school rules.

—Shifting patterns of students (especially the girls) ganging up on each other about self-proclaimed “drama.” This eventually led to a student being suspended for cyber-bullying, which of course kicked off a whole new cycle of shenanigans.

—On two different occasions, my class being disrupted because somebody decided English was the perfect time to ask out a crush.

—The surreal moment when I was listening to “Achy Breaky Heart” in Spanish while eating doner kebap while surrounded by teenagers.

—Racing my principal on an inflatable bungee run (at his behest) on what I believe was my ninth day on the job.

—Lines for the microwave in the teacher’s lounge.

—Chocolate-covered espresso beans becoming occasional life savers (and occasional crutches).

—Learning more than I’d ever considered there was to know about Mexican candy…and, to a lesser extent, Mexican pop stars.

—Tying somebody else’s necktie, and having to explain that it was only barely going to work because it was a child’s tie and too short.

—Explaining to a girl how to fix her bangs after she’d allowed another student to mangle them.

—Saying things in German just because my students asked me too.

—The time I danced at the dance I was chaperoning in exchange for a promise that a particular student would finish all of his missing homework.

—Explaining to students that it was not, in fact, cold. At all.

Of Joy and Being Led

It is the nature of objects in motion to stay in motion. We don’t always have to try and steer. 

Friday, I finally managed to get a handful of students outside for a preliminary bit of ultimate frisbee. This came after several explanations that there are not going to be “tryouts” unless we somehow conjure more than twenty people. We had…three.

While I was doing some pretty standard exercises to teach those three students to throw forehand, I had the opportunity to watch a bunch of other students playing soccer.

My school has good soccer teams. It’s one of the few positives we get to check on the list of “stereotypes you expect for a school with an 85% Hispanic student body.” We also have a terrible “field” that once had grass but is now a broad swathe of bare dirt surrounded by knee-high weeds. It’s dusty. It’s hard enough that even hard ground cleats won’t give you much purchase. One of the goals has been broken since February.

So that’s the scene: Anglo English teacher watching Latino middle schoolers play soccer in the dust. It’s that scene that goes somewhere in the first third of the inspirational movie (be it a sports or education movie). Maybe I’d be played by Kevin Costner.

Here’s the thing: they didn’t need me. At all. Soccer practice had been cancelled, so there were no coaches on hand. The students had one goal. They were playing a free-for-all scrum that involved yelling at each other in English and Spanish (and with more profanity in both than they’d admit) and occasionally claiming to represent (or claiming somebody else represented) countries from Chile to England.

And they were happy. Joyful. I see many emotions as a teacher: pride, resentment, happiness, fear, anger…I do not often get to see joy, the pure exultation in the moment.

Part of it was kids being kids, of course. Freshly-minted teenagers need to play, and they don’t generally play around the people who assign them grades or decide whether they get to start the next game. They don’t even necessarily play when they know they have an adult audience. The students were ignoring me, which I’m sure helped them to be happy. (No comment on whether the same applies in class.)

Aside from the contact high of being around the really happy, though, watching the middle schoolers play their game made me think of this blog post. (Mr. Rad’s blog is fantastic. It also makes me pine a bit for Minneapolis.)

My school is a charter. It comes with uniforms for the students and a laundry list of things for which they can get positive or negative points. (I sometimes wish they had houses so I could actually say “5 PRS for Gryffindor.”) We have block scheduling. The default assumption is that the students will sit quietly whenever asked, for whatever portion of 90 minutes the teacher requires. They have a painfully short lunch break. They spend a ton of time being told what to do and, more often, what not to do. Some days that seems necessary to get the 28 thirteen and fourteen year-olds I have in my room pointed in the same direction and learning. I try my best to give the students opportunities to speak, to each other and to me. I try to listen  .

The striking thing about “Mr. Rad’s” post, though, is that he calls for getting beyond listening. He calls for us (meaning privileged white males) to be led. That’s a much, much harder thing. Listening can be a passive process. When you’re listening, it’s easy to do so selectively (ask any teacher). Being led, though, requires active following. It requires more than Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain.” It means going beyond “How can I help?” to “What needs to be done?” and even further to “What do you want me to do?” It’s hard. It’s hard as a teacher who’s pushed to wield authority. It’s hard as somebody for whom society has been built.

For me, that meant going over and inviting (and only inviting) the kids playing soccer to try ultimate. A few of them did. We had a game that was about as slapdash as you’d expect on a short field with five of the six players involved unable to throw a forehand more than ten yards. Most of the kids, though, stuck with their soccer game. We played around them. After five or six extremely long points, the soccer players who’d been playing ultimate went back to playing soccer. They invited me to play, too, and I tried for a bit.

They didn’t need me, though. Not there. They were doing fine without my help. Isn’t that what we aim for as educators?

Research Questions

In this penultimate unit of eighth grade language arts, we are studying research. “Research” for these kids usually consists of pulling out a smartphone and asking Google (or Siri) a question. YouTube was in almost all of their lists of “five places to get information.” When I showed them a video about the Library of Congress main reading room, many were skeptical about there being that much that isn’t available online.

This has been a fun unit for me to teach, in part because I’ve taught variations on “how to write a research paper” more than just about any other topic. The key, I think, is getting students out of the idea that research is just looking stuff up. Research is really one way of answering a question. It often involves looking stuff up, but it’s the question that’s important. I let the students choose their topics, but guided them pretty closely in the development of those questions. They are sick of me asking what their research question is…and probably also sick of the dirty looks I give them when they can’t remember it.

Of course I was going to bring my dissertation in for them to look at. It’s a big stonking book and I wrote the whole thing. I researched it all. I found almost everything in the bibliography myself. If nothing else, it would give me something to hit back with when the students inevitably complained about the number of sources they needed to find.

It helped that the kids were interested in New York and the library with the lions and in their teacher more generally. They got to hear about novelties like “newspapers” and “microfilm.” I got to explain that some of the things I looked at had to be brought up from basements. In boxes. (In their defense, if you’ve had Google in your pocket for most of your living memory, the notion of getting paper files from boxes somewhere sounds a little bizarre.) The students were mostly suitably impressed, and I held their attention for one more day—a victory when the standardized test is over and you’re obligated to hold their attention for another six weeks.

Because I didn’t want to be switching back and forth between the document camera and my laptop, I went and looked at the page for my dissertation at the University of Minnesota digital conservancy.

It’s been downloaded nearly 200 times since January 2014.

I sincerely doubt many of those folks have read the whole thing. It was still a surprising discovery. I was perversely satisfied to know that somewhere out there, desperate undergraduates might be plagiarizing my work. It was the sort of quasi-immorality, I thought, that I probably deserved. I managed to squeeze in a lot of things that would come up in searches: a bunch of prominent 20th century American composers, the New York Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez, Pierre Bourdieu… Plenty of places for an enterprising young person capable of using Ctl-F to grab a paragraph or two.

That was going to be the whole story—how I like to teach people about research, because research is about answering questions, and I want more people to be more curious. I want more people to feel equipped to look for their own answers. I want more people to actually be equipped to sort out reasonable answers from poorly-argued or unsubstantiated ones. And how I thought it was funny and a little flattering that somebody might plagiarize my dissertation for an undergraduate research paper.

Then I got a serious message about my dissertation…on Facebook. (Which just goes to show that my students’ constant claim that “Facebook is for old people” isn’t so off base.) A former professor of a former colleague had been reading it, and thinking about it.

That’s a different kettle of fish. That’s what the dissertation was meant to do. It was meant to be part of scholarly discourse, to contribute to human knowledge (in a minuscule way). At a moment where I am putting myself on a job market very different to the one in higher ed, one where I am trying to figure out ways to talk about how well my students did on their standardized tests without sounding like I care too much about the standardized tests…that message hit me. That’s what I left behind. The reasons that I did still hold true, even as a few more of my former colleagues get fingertips in doors with longer-term and even a few tenure-track appointments.

It’s a reminder that I was good at what I did. I wish that it could remind me of that without simultaneously poking at old scars. I’m sure that in a day or two I’ll be over it. I know (thank the FSM) that this is being bumped in mid-stride, not anything that’s going to really change my direction. It’s just enough to throw me off balance for a moment.

Still. Academia, man. It gets its hooks into you but good…

Song of the Year, 2014 Edition

Around this time last year, I picked my 2013 song of the year—not the song that I listened to the most, nor the song that I liked the most, nor that annoying ear worm that never goes away (looking at you, Meghan Trainor and every song from a certain wintry Disney film). No, my “song of the year” is the song that encapsulated the year for me. The woeful dissertation-finishing/academic job-hunting year of 2012’s song was “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”—a lonely song for a lonely time. I followed that up with The Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” for 2013—another year adrift and trying to figure out what the hell to do with myself, a year of unemployment, transitions, and unhappiness that I managed only intermittently to stave off.

So. What was 2014’s song? Like 2013, it was a year of transitions. I spent the spring in long-term substitute jobs, falling back into love with teaching. I spent the summer going through a teacher certification program and, um, buying a house. In September, I got the first full-time, regular-paycheck-plus-benefits job I’ve had since 2006. The weekend before I started that job, I finished the draft of Ghosts of the Old City. House! Job! Novel! A lot of good things happened in the latter half of 2014.

Here’s the song that goes with them: The Decemberists’ “This is Why We Fight” from The King is Dead.

(No, I do not quite understand why the post-apocalypse despot is young, white Prince.)

For the first time in half a decade, I felt last year like my work was getting me somewhere. It was not what I’d spent all those years in graduate school preparing for, but there’s not much use in crying over spilt time. Although it sounds contradictory, I think I no longer regret chasing my PhD despite wishing that I hadn’t done it. The emotional weight has diminished. (See also: the idea of detachment I wrote about here.)

“This is Why We Fight” is not valedictory, and I don’t really think my 2014 was either. The house, the job, the (draft!) novel…those are not prizes that I won. They’re not some kind of belated justification for the effort I’ve put into my various endeavours. They’re a side effect, one that I greatly appreciate. They’re things that I could not possibly have done without the support of many wonderful people in my life.

Which brings me back around to “This is Why We Fight”: those people, and all the other people I interact with. My kids. My students. My family. My friends. That’s why I fight. That’s why I put up with the commute. That’s why I keep going back to students who have called me names and blown me off and, in one case, written an essay about how much they dislike me.

When we die
We will die with our arms unbound
And this is why
This is why we fight

The song’s lyrics are simple. The video—which I hadn’t actually seen until I started this post—is evocative and takes fighting literally (although there’s much to be made of starting a revolution with a white flag). Simple lyrics, though, delivered with Meloy’s emotion and the whole band’s driving instrumentals, make me think of all the reasons that I fight. This is one of those songs that hits me, that can make me tear up the same way I do when I get to tell students how well they’re doing, the same way I did yesterday when my son earnestly told me that maybe he would go to work in government so he could help create justice.

That’s why I fight. That’s one of the things I figured out in 2014. It’s what keeps me going in this young year.

Finity

Humans are bad swimmers.

The shape of our bodies lends itself to climbing trees, running long distances, using tools…and creating lots of turbulence when we propel ourselves through the water. Even Michael Phelps expends a fair amount of energy that doesn’t move him forward.

Being a first year teacher is like learning to swim: you splash and flounder and far, far too much of your energy is spent on turbulence rather than propulsion. You’re inefficient—dreadfully inefficient—but you’re in deep water so you don’t really have much choice but to keep swimming. You expend enormous amounts of energy on the little things: keeping track of papers, filing lesson plans, attending meetings. Then, too, there are the more important things that aren’t directly part of teaching content: classroom management, staying on the same page as your administrators, understanding how the standardized tests work. It’s all turbulence and splashing. There is not, as a first year teacher, that much energy left over for propelling yourself and your students toward actual content knowledge.

We do it anyway, though. How could we not? We love our students. Whether we’re fresh out of school or fresh out of an alternative certification program, we’re teachers because we care about the work. We can wear our cynicism about the system for everybody to see, but it hasn’t had time to deepen and become bitter. We give teaching everything we’ve got.

Here’s the thing, though: that extra energy? It has to come from somewhere. Whitman wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes.” First year teachers put most of our internal multitudes to work on teaching. We get a little boring. We do things like eat raw almonds for lunch because we didn’t make it to the grocery store or because we were thinking hard about the day’s lessons and forgot to pack a proper meal. We don’t get enough sleep. We have to remind ourselves that our kids at home are not our students. Sometimes, we have to hunt down that one of our multitude who washes dishes and does laundry. (That one is really good at hiding.)

Our multitudes are finite. Our energy is finite. For me, writing is one of the things that slipped for a while. NaNo was a bit of a train wreck—I didn’t have a plan when I started, spent the first weekend writing some game stuff, and was still at zero words of actual draft two weeks in. By the end of the third, I decided that continuing to gun for 50K was not going to be at all fun, so I stopped. I did write a few thousand words more before November was out, but it was back to writing for fun. There will be Camp NaNo in April and in July, and (shockingly) I don’t require it to be NaNo to write.

I do require time and energy. I have to find space in the finite. I have to decide, day to day, whether I’ll get more out of washing dishes or writing a few paragraphs, whether to spend a spare twenty minutes jotting down ideas for lesson plans or character development (or sleeping). I have to remind myself that I’m more likely to waste time playing games when I’m tired, and that those twenty minutes would almost always be better spent sleeping.

And teaching never really goes away. It’s nearly as bad as grad school for thoughts of “I should be working” lurking always in the back one’s mind. It doesn’t feel as much like being stalked by a monster as the dissertation did, but it still takes a remarkable amount of headspace. There are constantly things to fix, different points to emphasize, procedures to tweak to make things run more smoothly. I think about particular students. I think about particular lessons. I try to figure out different ways to explain things to my ESL and SPED students…and how to give my GT students something that will actually make them think. Teaching, like art, will fill as much space as you give it.

Finity is a bitch. But I’m learning to be a better swimmer.

Infinite Recursion

I remember, during my first year of T.A.ing a writing-intensive course, asking the exasperated rhetorical “who taught these kids how to write?” It was one of our favorite things to complain about in the T.A. office. Why couldn’t these college freshmen understand the concept of a thesis? Why did one particular student insist on ending every single paragraph of her paper with a summary sentence? (And why did she believe so thoroughly that she was right that it took confirmation from six other T.A.s before she would accept that I was onto something when I told her to stop doing that.) We blamed teachers. We blamed testing and the bizarre standards that go with it. In short, we blamed high school for college problems.

Now I teach middle school. The other day I listened to a colleague explain in detail how she could tell exactly which teacher her problem kids had the previous year. There’s a temptation to blame elementary teachers just as thoroughly as we used to blame high school teachers in the T.A. office. (We also blame parents, mind. Especially for discipline problems.)

I’m sure that if I end up teaching high school, I’ll be immersed in complaints about middle school teachers. That’s the way it goes: when you find a mess, you blame the last person who was in the room. We could run it all the way back to “why weren’t you reading to your kid when she was six months old.” (Seriously, though, read to your little kids! And your bigger ones.) And when we run it back that far, we can start going bigger: Why were you born poor? Why did you inherit that poverty from your parents? Why are achievement levels at your neighborhood elementary so bad that you can get an academic all-star just for meeting grade level expectations? Why?

“Who taught these kids how to write?”

That’s the wrong question. Not entirely wrong, because if we are going to change outcomes and improve the system, we eventually have to get at the systemic questions. Right now, though, we need to shut up about whoever had our students last. I’ve known good teachers and bad ones. I can’t think of a single one who didn’t care about his or her job. Some care more than others, but you don’t stay in teaching if you are not trying to help students learn.

We have students for a few hours each week. That’s it. Regardless of the level we’re teaching at, the students will spend more time outside our classroom than inside. We have to work with what they bring in with them, warts and all.

The question we need to ask ourselves is “how are we going to teach these kids to write?” (Or to understand science, solve math problems, understand history, or whatever.) Blaming other teachers won’t answer that question. Sometimes, when you walk into a messy room, the only real answer is to start cleaning it up.