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.

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