The way we were

This post is mostly not about teaching – at least not how I imagine it going in my head at the moment. It could certainly apply to teaching, though. This is a post about how easy it is to embellish your past to make yourself look better or even to beat your current self up over something – all without realizing that you are doing it. Observe:

A few years ago, I decided to start running. I have several friends who run, it’s cheap (good shoes are a must, but otherwise that shit is free), and the timing is flexible. It is also a good way to get outside. Being way out of shape and having had trouble with shin pain in the past, I started with the Couch to 5k program and after a couple years and several attempts, I finally (finally!) got into a routine last summer. I lost about 30 pounds (200lbs down to 170lbs) by watching what I ate and running every other day. It was pretty rad.

Then the school year started. By the first week in September, my sleep routine was totally nonexistent, and the idea of waking up at 5:00am to run after falling asleep at midnight for the fifth day in a row seemed impossible. I stopped running. Fast forward to this May, and I’d gained back 20 of the 30 pounds I lost, plus I felt like a lazy sack of fail.

After making excuse after excuse as to why I wasn’t exercising, I decided to retry a 5k training program using RunKeeper, the program I’d used to track my runs last summer (which I highly recommend for cost [free!], features, and ease-of-use). Today was my third run in 5 days and so far it feels pretty good.

Here is where the “hindsight is through rose-colored beer goggles” comes in. I was feeling bad about exercise all year, in particular this spring because I kept thinking, “I started exercising in February last year and it took me until September to lose 30 pounds and I’ll never stick with it blah, blah, blah – why even bother.” (Yes, I often think in run-on sentences.) So, today I was editing my run on RunKeeper when I thought, “Hey – I wonder how this compares to my distance last year around this time…” I figured if I was going to beat myself up over not being as active as last year, I might as well have the data to back myself up.

Turns out, I didn’t start running in February. Well, I did. I ran for about a week and then I stopped. Then I ran once in March. I didn’t even bother in April or June. I didn’t start running regularly until July, at which point I ran pretty much every other day for two months straight before the school year got to me in September.

I’d been beating myself over not being as good as my past self, when it turns out that my past self was no better than my current self. In fact! If I keep up with this running thing through June and into July and August, that’s a whole month more than last year. Maybe I’ll even continue through September and on through the year, maybe I won’t, but I’m already on schedule to outdo myself. Yet, here I was agonizing over being a slacker.

I suppose what I’m saying (rather verbosely, as always), is that hindsight is not always 20/20. Sometimes the way we were was not as good as we remember, and I think using foggy memories against oneself is kind of sad. Just something to think about in the event that you were putting off doing something good for yourself because you tried it once and it didn’t work. Maybe this time you’ll do better, maybe not, but doing something is better than agonizing over doing nothing.

End-of-the-school-year-itis

Seniors (twelfth graders, not the elderly) get to call it senioritis. “I’ve been doing this for 13 years, and now I’m finally off to college!” (…to do it for another four plus years, but you keep that tidbit under your hat so as not to discourage them.)

I read this fantastic blog this evening and my first thought was, “HEY, NOW! We need to work through to the end of the year. Every day is important!” My second thought was, “Fuck, there were several days when it would have been great to just watch a movie and enjoy each others’ company before the school year ended.”

This, in particular, resonated with me:

We were awesome back in October; don’t you forget that. We used to care, and that counts for something.

Indeed. In August, September, and October, the school year is fresh and the students are calmed enough by the novelty of being back in school that they behave and do their homework. I grade papers and file student work and answer emails in a timely fashion. I wear nice clothes and do laundry every week.

By December, I’m starting to wear thin. The kids are done. Then we have a two-week break and I get a teacher workday to clean off my desk (I had a desk?) and we get about 50% of that fresh-start feeling back.

By May? Whew… in May, I’ve lost my desk again, and I can’t find anything. I write notes on Post-its and then promptly lose them. (They are probably stuck to some kid’s shoe.) I wear the same shirt twice in a week and hope nobody notices. Then I don’t care if they notice. Then I dare them to say something if they notice.

I get a little touchy at the end of the year. There are deadlines, events, students who are moving away, report cards to prepare, assessments to give. If you screw it up and don’t finish it by the last day of school, there is no chance to deal with it “next week.” It’s over. You admit you forget to test that kid’s math facts or you dig up an old score from March (when you still cared) and use that, instead. It’s a rough time.

Trust me, I wish the last weeks of school were all Mythbusters episodes, recess, and goodbye parties. In fact, I would totally do away with student homework for the last month of the year, in part to alleviate the at-home stress, but also because I don’t want to grade it. But I can’t. It’s not because I have some moral obligation to always make every day academically jam-packed, either. It’s the parents.

Not the normal parents, like Jen Hatmaker. Oh, no – you guys are rad. You guys make me feel normal when you remind me in the car line that I forgot to respond to your email, but it’s totally fine because you haven’t checked the assignment notebook in a week and we’re all good. You all keep on keeping on. (You are also the parents that give me a bottle of wine for Christmas because you know me.)

No, it’s the parents who INSIST that their children will never get into a good college if they don’t have homework every night. It’s the parents who want to know what the next four topics in math will be so that they can preview them at home. It’s the parents who want to make sure that Johnny and Suzy are doing academic work all the way through to the last day of school because… because fuck if I know.

Look, I am a good teacher. Most days, even in May, I stick to my schedule and make sure we get as much academic work done as possible. I don’t throw my hands up in the air after April testing and think it’s all over – I know there is still work to do. AND I know that these parents really do want the best for their kids. They want to make sure that their kids are learning and growing and not slacking off because it’s the end of the school year. I get it. All I ask is that you not hound me constantly to ask what’s going on. Trust me when I say that your kid doesn’t need homework because he or she is doing fine.

My school year is over, although I still have to finish writing report cards, and I am relieved that I can start tackling some things I’ve put off all year. That said, the last two weeks of school were rough and I know that most people still have at least one more week left. Go easy on your kid’s teacher, okay? Remember that they were awesome back in October and give them some credit. I promise that your kids will be fine.

Abuse

I’m not sure where to start, here. I guess I’ll begin with the post that got me thinking about abuse several years ago. Skepchick, one of my favorite websites, has a regular feature called Ask Surly Amy. In this post, somebody asked her for advice about helping an abused woman he knows:

I finally got her to leave him. It was tough for her at first, but I did everything I could to help. Things paid off: she got a job and a house. She was proud of herself and had plans for the future. And then she gave up all that and came back with him. Because she wanted to. All this happened TWICE.

He went on to ask why she had done this, and explained that he was frustrated with the situation. I can completely understand how he must have felt: betrayed, helpless, hurt, and frustrated. I would feel the same way in a similar situation. People gave him very good advice, and he decided not to give up on her. The piece of information that resonated with me the most was in the very first comment:

One thing I’d like to add is that most women who leave abusive relationships leave a BUNCH of times and go back before they leave for good. I think the statistic I learned when I was training to work with women in crisis was that most women leave eight times.

Eight times? I looked it up.

That is staggering. I cannot imagine getting up the courage to leave an abusive situation once, let alone more than half a dozen times.

Later, a friend posted a story about young actress, Afshan Azad, who played Padma Patil in the Harry Potter movies. She was attacked and threatened by her father and brother for dating a non-Muslim man, and she did not testify against them in court.

I, of course, can only speculate as to why she didn’t show up to testify against them in court. Perhaps she felt guilty about turning them in. Maybe they threatened her. Maybe she thought it would make things worse for her if she testified. It makes me sad, in any case, that she has gone through this. It’s not the exact same thing as having an abusive partner, but the core situation is the same: somebody who is supposed to love you is causing you harm, on purpose, even if they think they are trying to protect you.

I have heard stories about battered women, from Patrick Stewart’s accounts of his mother’s abuse to a good friend who recently left her abuser. It’s a situation that happens to women and men who never think it will happen to them. There are photographic accounts such as this one and this one. People see and hear about it all the time but know very little about the nature of abuse.

The truth is that every case of domestic violence is different. To judge and assume is not only unhelpful, it can be harmful. Remember this if you are ever found in this situation or faced with a friend who is being abused: it is never the victim’s fault. Get help. Be the help that somebody else needs. Spread information about domestic violence that can give others the tools to offer the right kind of assistance. It is important to understand how to help without making the situation more dangerous for the victim or yourself.

If you or anyone you know is suffering from domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE(7233).

Public vs. private: Part II

[This is the second of two posts about my journey from public schools to private school. You can read the first part here.]

There I was, career-less and broken. It was the summer of 2010: vying for teaching jobs was highly competitive, I had a black mark on my record, and I didn’t have the energy to fight for myself anymore. I worked part time for $10 per hour over the summer and was considering trying to make that a full time gig. I had pretty much given up on teaching.

One miserably hot July day, an acquaintance (who is now one of my dearest friends) texted me to say that the 3rd/4th grade teacher had just left the private school where he taught. “Turn in your résumé today,” he said. I had never considered teaching at a private school, and had barely considered some local charter schools. I assumed this was a secular school, because this particular friend didn’t seem the type to teach at a religious school, but we had never really talked about it. I had negative, uninformed opinions about private schools, but at that point they were better than my informed opinions about public schools. He seemed happy with his job and I thought, “Well, maybe he can vouch for me even though I’m not sure I can.” I got a little excited about the prospect. I researched the school via its website, wrote a cover letter, updated my résumé, and readied my interview suit.

The interview process at Camelot Academy was long and consisted of email correspondence, a phone interview, a sample lesson taught to a group of kids, and several meetings with the director. I got the impression that she was hesitating to hire me for some reason, and I agonized over what I could do to tip the scales in my favor. I had no idea who else applied for the job, and while I was careful not to point out that I had been fired from my last teaching job, I couldn’t lie about it. One day, she asked me why I’d left my last school. While giving my carefully prepared spiel, I realized it wasn’t going to be enough. “I notice you didn’t put your principal down as a reference. Why?” I couldn’t lie. I couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t sound like I was hiding something, so I just told her the truth. I burst into tears and told her everything, sure that I had just lost the last opportunity I had to stay in teaching.

I was completely shocked by her response. She understood. She still seemed apprehensive, but I clearly had not ruined my chances. She was honest with me and explained that my lack of experience and the fact that I was young worried her; she wasn’t sure how parents would react. (I was 27 at the time, but even at 30 I still get carded for alcohol and am often mistaken for a high school student. It’s lucky, I suppose, unless you’re trying to be taken seriously.) The teacher who had my position previously had left somewhat suddenly, and she was concerned that parents would be disappointed unless her replacement was someone who seemed able to fill her shoes. In the end, Thelma took a chance on me, and I am eternally grateful to her for that.

Teaching in a private school is completely different from teaching in a public school. Your income is directly related to parent happiness – if the parents aren’t happy, they’ll just remove their kid from the school. Too much of that and then there’s no income with which to pay the teacher. I was also still struggling with a low opinion of my abilities and my previous teacher-principal relationship. It was clear that Thelma was on my side from the beginning, but I was constantly worried that she would decide she had made a mistake and fire me.

Meanwhile, I was trying to learn a new curriculum and create my own lesson plans, something I hadn’t done since I was a student teacher. The freedom to teach things the way I wanted, coupled with the flexibility of class groups, was amazing and overwhelming. I was trusted to do what I had been trained to do. Visits from the director were not punitive – I was given support, praise, and constructive feedback. My opinion, however new, mattered. My talents were appreciated. My entire first year I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, yet nothing happened. By my second year, I had a pretty good idea of what I was doing and how I would improve. I of course had my frustrations, but nothing that I couldn’t talk about with my colleagues, boss, and parents of students. I grew as a teacher and learned more about my strengths in the classroom. Best of all – student happiness was a top priority and standardized testing was a thing we have to do once per year rather than a regular event to be prepared for at all costs.

The way we do things at Camelot is not right for every student. I freely admit that some students would be better served in public school, at different private schools, or at schools that sadly don’t exist (yet). While Camelot has low tuition when compared to other schools, affordability is also an issue. That said, yesterday’s graduation ceremony showed me how wonderful we are for the students we do serve and reminded me how much this school saved me when I had lost all confidence in myself. Each of the nine seniors delivered a speech that explained how Camelot had given them a place to grow, gain confidence, and be themselves. Some came from other schools in which they had been treated badly by other students or teachers, some struggle with mental and emotional disorders for which they found love and support, and all of them praised the dedication and hard work of the teachers and director for helping them reach their academic goals.

I realized that each one of them were echoing my own feelings for a school that became a family for all of us. All schools should have the kind of community that we have; I don’t teach any of those seniors, yet I cried during their heartfelt speeches. I was happy to do my part to make the graduation ceremony special for them, and I am proud of all of them as they begin their college careers.

I don’t know how to fix public education; a balance between variety of school environments and standardization of curricula would be a good start. Either way, after three years in this private school I can’t imagine teaching anywhere else.

Public vs. private: Part I

My entire education (including college) came from public schools. I volunteered in public schools from my junior year in high school until I graduated college in 2008. I’m even a North Carolina Teaching Fellow. I always imagined that I would teach in public schools and I still strongly believe in free and accessible education for all people. (I’m a big ol’ socialist – also, dumb people are not so good at running things.)

It's got what plants crave...
It's got what plants crave...

Then I taught two years in Durham Public Schools at Lakewood Elementary School. Initially, I thought it was great. Sure, they were bogged down by Reading First, but everything else seemed perfect for me. The student population was overwhelmingly low-income, which was exactly the kind of school I wanted. In my interview I got the impression that the principal, Cornelius Redfearn, was enthusiastic and liked my background in science. He hired me right away and let me choose the grade level I would teach. It was his first year, too, so I also expected some sympathy and understanding regarding the challenges I would face as a new teacher.

It was the worst job I have ever had. Redfearn didn’t understand children, specifically the children who attended the school he was supposed to be running. He didn’t understand teachers, either. What did he understand? Office politics. He understood how to make himself look good to his bosses, and that was all that mattered. He refused to suspend children from school, even when they threatened or fought with each other repeatedly, such that we were celebrated for having a low suspension rate. He and the assistant principal were inconsistent with behavior management and showed no appreciation to the students, parents, teachers, or staff.

Our theme for my second year there was “No Excuses” – a reference to student test scores and how there are no excuses for low scores. Half of your class has documented learning disabilities for which they receive inconsistent, minimal support? That’s an excuse. Some of your students have only studied English for one or two years? Excuse. You should have tried harder, stayed later, managed behavior better – all while administering daily, weekly, quarterly, and semesterly assessments. I didn’t even have control over my lesson plans – everything, down to the page number of the math book, was assigned to the teachers from the district. I argued that it wouldn’t work; some of my students needed extra time on a concept. Excuse! I should have taught it better the first time. We effectively deleted the Social Studies from the curriculum, as well, to make room for a two-and-a-half-hour block of language arts time. This infuriated me, and I said so. I was the one who always asked for sources when we were presented with “data” on why this method of language arts instructions works. I questioned our testing methods. I suggested we have some flexibility with our lesson plans to tailor them to our students. I was a squeaky wheel – I dared to challenge the way things were done. I cared more about whether my students were eating, safe, and loved than the score they achieved on a single test in April. I kept work samples to show student growth in the inevitable event that a kid failed the End of Grade test and I needed to prove that they had actually learned something that year. Nobody trusted the teachers to actually determine if their students were learning.

Caring about your students was unappreciated – sometimes punished. You could not advocate for your students, have an opinion, or question authority. I was absolutely miserable, and there was nothing I could do about it. The economy was shit, so I couldn’t even quit and go elsewhere. Teachers in North Carolina lost their yearly pay increase my first year, and no new positions were opening up anywhere. Many schools were losing teachers and struggling with larger classes. At the end of my first year I considered applying elsewhere to see if I could find something better, but I decided to stick it out.

If I hadn’t been fired, I would still be there. I said the wrong thing to the wrong person who was buddies with so-and-so and didn’t like me, which resulted in me hearing the dreaded, “I’m going to recommend you for non-renewal of contract.” Non-renewal of contract. Fired. I was fired, for the first time in my life, from the job for which I had trained in college and planned to have since I was a middle school student tutoring my best friend in math. I couldn’t believe it. I fought it, but there was nothing to be done: I was a second-year teacher with a yearly contract that could be canceled for any reason. I refused to sign my final evaluation and wrote a rebuttal that I submitted explaining my unfair treatment. I cried in the hallways and cursed Redfearn’s name at every opportunity. Students of parents offered to go to bat for me, some of whom even went downtown to make my case. It didn’t matter, the result was the same. I was jobless in the midst of a recession and had no idea what I was going to do about it.

The saddest part? I actually started to believe that maybe I was the problem. I thought maybe I had screwed up. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a teacher. I considered being a secretary so that I could file papers and answer phones. I couldn’t screw that up. I felt like a failure; I deserved to be fired. The summer after I lost that job I barely even looked for another teaching job because I didn’t think anyone would want me. I wasn’t sure I could sell myself to a principal even if I got an interview. I was depressed and I felt completely worthless.

And then I found Camelot…

[This is the first of two posts about my journey from public schools to private schools. The second post can be found here.]

Being Viola Swamp for a day

I didn’t wear a wig or an ugly dress. I didn’t give them warnings or let them know what I was planning to do. I didn’t even plan to do it until this morning.

My students argue all the time about nothing. Every time I try to let them work in groups they fight. Recess is usually a nightmare: “He got tagged but won’t be it!” “Ms. Amanda, she said I was a big fat meanie-head!” “They won’t let me play in the castle!”

I’ve talked to them. They’ve talked to each other. The director of the school has talked to them. They’ve been given strategies to resolve conflicts. They’ve been told to stop doing x, y, and z. Even if a strategy works for a little while, they go right back to their bickering ways after a week at the most. No matter what has been done, they just. keep. arguing.

My solution? An ENTIRE day of “You cannot interact with each other for any reason. Period.” No talking. No showing each other your work. No working together in pairs or in groups. No playing together. ALL DAY.

They did math in silence (which is a normal requirement, but they actually did it today). They lined up the first time without talking (usually they have to do it over because they start talking as soon as their butts lift off their chairs). They ate snack and lunch in peace and then read quietly. I was actually able to TEACH in language arts because there were no side conversations. We watched a video in social studies because I wasn’t sure they could handle anything else.

Recess was the most pitiful display of misery that I’ve ever seen. One kid, the most extroverted one in the bunch, cried the entire time. (I felt kind of bad about that and told him so.) Two kids were thrilled and ran around singing to themselves and having a grand time. Both are more introverted, and one tends to get picked on and treated poorly during recess. The rest of them were like zombies. A few just kind of sat there, staring, looking miserable. One said, “It’s like a wasteland of doom.” They didn’t want to play because there was no point in playing by themselves. A few kids listlessly dug around in the sandbox or sat in a swing. It was eerily quiet and sad. You’d think I’d gleefully run over their puppies in front of them.

I got a letter and several pictures explaining how they felt. I’m going to give them all a chance to write about their experiences after my planning period.

My point, which I’ve explained to them, is this: If you can’t interact with each other in a way that is kind, appropriate, and within my classroom expectations, then you can’t interact with each other at all. I haven’t dealt with an argument all day. It has been glorious.

Tomorrow, I will let them go back to “normal.” We’ll see if anything changes. I’m guessing that they’ll think twice about getting into an argument. If not, we’ll go right back to this.

I don’t think they like me today. I’m okay with that.

Lunar eclipse and the solstiversary

I wish I had pictures, but the cloud cover was too spotty and it was so cold that I couldn’t feel my toes. In any case, the lunar eclipse was lovely, and I’m glad we got up early to see it. According to The Bad Astronomer, it’ll be a few years before we get another chance. As usual, he has a great post about lunar eclipses that doesn’t include any “full moons/eclipses make you crazy” crap. I <3 Phil Plait.

Today also happens to be the winter solstice, which also happens to be my 2nd wedding anniversary. My husband has already gone back to bed, which is where I am headed. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our Solstiversary than to sleep in and snuggle after seeing his first lunar eclipse.

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone! The days start getting longer after today – hooray!

Why being on vacation kind of sucks

Being a teacher, I get two weeks off for Christmas winter solstice. I’m not sure why they like the solstices so much around here, but I get two MONTHS off for the summer solstice, so there’s some solstice love going on. (Equinoxes? Not so much.)

Anyway, when left in my natural state (meaning, when I don’t have to work), I pretty much do as little as possible. For instance, I stay up late and sleep in, shower as infrequently as possible, and forget to eat.

I have had a cup of coffee today, and that is only because my husband made enough coffee to share this morning. I have not eaten anything, despite feeling hungry and wishing I was eating something. I am too lazy.

Instead, I read the internet and laugh at other people’s near-death experiences. Having recently discovered Hyperbole and a Half, my desire to make my own internets for others to read was renewed.

So I guess you can blame Allie Brosh for making me think I am entertaining enough to create a blog that people will read.

And you can blame our pagan, solstice-loving society for giving me time off so that I can write about a billion posts every day. For about two weeks. Then I won’t write anything, because I will be busy teaching and stuff. Sorry. (Or: You’re welcome.)

Cats are funny

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I like cats. We own four of them. I laugh hysterically at I can has Cheezburger, we own two copies of the Bad Cat Book, and I treat my occasional depression with videos of cats being funny on the internet. I also like dogs a lot, but let’s be honest – cats are funnier.

I think it’s the underlying fear that the cute things they do are just failed assassination attempts.

I’ve already shown you the video of our most vicious cat, Amira, in this post. She makes no attempts to hide the fact that she would kill us if only we would turn our backs a few seconds longer.

Here are some cats that don’t belong to us. I’m sure you’ve already seen these, but I want to share anyway. (Mostly so that they’re all in one place when I run out of coffee or the zombies come.)

First, there’s An Engineer’s Guide to Cats by Paul Klusman.

Paul Klusman has other funny videos, including An Engineer's Guide to Cat Yodeling.

Next, there’s Winston. His videos are posted by richfofo on YouTube. I wasn’t sure which of them to post here, at first, so here’s the first one I saw:

Winston is adorable.

And, while this isn’t a video of a real cat, I very much enjoy the cartoon series Simon’s Cat. Simon’s cat reminds me of another of our cats, Goblin. I don’t need to post a video of Goblin, because this is pretty much what it would look like:

Mow.

I’m sure you can find more funny videos on your own. Or maybe you hate cats, in which case I have no idea why you’re still reading. I do write about other things, you know.

Fleeting obsessions

When I was a kid, I wanted to be famous. I couldn’t decide whether I was going to be a movie star, a singer, or a dancer. That’s probably why I am not good at any of those things, now. When I got a little older, I wanted to be a secretary. My mother said I was too smart for that, so then I thought I’d become a veterinarian or an astronaut. (Because those things go together…) I later decided that if I was going to go school for that long, I might as well become a people doctor. On a whim, I figured I should be a pediatrician. Then I realized that going to college for the rest of my natural life did not sound fun, so I settled on teaching. Eventually, I ran out of time to change my mind, so that’s the career path I stuck with.


Teaching = telling people to be quiet all day.

This is pretty much how my brain works all the time. “Ooo, shiny!” pretty much runs my thoughts. It’s a wonder I get anything done at all, and it probably accounts for the fact that I have not become really fantastic at any one thing. In the time it took me to write the last paragraph-and-a-half, I have been distracted by: cats, the radio station, some lint on my shirt, and the fact that one of my keys is sticking. Honestly, I should probably be medicated.


Look, a goat! What was I saying?

What was I saying? Oh, right… my inability to focus. (Ha!) Anyway, my point is that I have many interests, and they are forever changing. There are some that I come back to often: photography, roller derby, and playing the violin are a few that have been rattling around in my head lately. I think I had originally intended to discuss one of them in depth in this post, but (as usual), I got a bit distracted and all over the place. That happens a lot, so I guess this is fair warning.

I don’t make sense.