Organization

First of all, I would like to point out that I started this entry two years ago, nearly finished it, and then… forgot? Got distracted? Who-the-fuck-knows? Anyway, it’s just as relevant, so why not just post it? I ended up doing the exact same thing this year, anyway. Ha!

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Post drafted 17 August 2013:

Last Monday was the beginning of the new school year for me. It took me four days punctuated by various meetings (oh, the meetings!) to get my classroom in order because, even after three years at the same school, I am still going through and reorganizing the files from the previous teacher. Also, because my class is multi-age and I usually have students two years in a row, I teach science and social studies on a rotating schedule. I had to pack away the physical science and dig out the life science paraphernalia and roll up my US maps to make room for world maps.

This got me thinking about how we, as teachers, organize our classrooms and how it’s different from the way a doctor or a lawyer or any other professional would prepare for — well, actually, I suppose doctors and lawyers don’t actually prepare for a “new year”. Teaching is unique in that aspect, and that is kind of interesting, as well.

Every profession has files – patient files, case files, student files, etc – that is nothing new or interesting. Teachers have files for administrivia (one of my favorite made-up words, co-opted from a colleague long ago), subjects, previous years’ materials, tests, drawings, etc. I have two filing cabinets with six drawers absolutely stuffed with overflowing hanging folders. I have crates filled with more files, binders, and notebooks full of notes, worksheets, and tests. I have boxes and bins full of planets, rulers, flashcards, hand lenses, dice, clothespins, scissors, crayons, etc. I have six bookshelves that are nearly completely full of student books, textbooks, teacher books, workbooks, and reference materials. There is so. much. stuff. Everything has to be reasonably accessible. Everything has to be organized in such a way that students can find it, I can find it, a substitute can find it, and (most importantly), we can all put it back for the next time.

My ability to achieve organization (excellent) is inversely proportional to my ability to maintain said organization (dismal), so every year I spend a week sorting, recycling, deliberating, and pulling my hair out over where things go. Every year, too, my system gets a little easier to follow, so maybe by my tenth year of teaching, I’ll have a method that even I can maintain. [Edited to add that as of the beginning of year 8, my method is still improving, so maybe I’m correct!]

Anyway, while performing this yearly ritual I always damn the previous teacher’s seeming lack of any organizational system. I’ll find two or three (or four!) files with the same heading in as many different places (two filing cabinet drawers, a crate, and a binder). I found math in a language arts folder and a really great social studies project idea in a science bin.

Finally, I realized – I would not want to be the person who has to sort all my crap at the end of the year. Except, um, well – it kind of has to be me. Thus, I try to make the systme better, easier, and more, well, organized.

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Here’s to the start of Year 8 – may I last a little longer in remaining organized that last year, and may I find yet another solution that sticks.

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.

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.

Um… it’s February? I mean… almost March…

I’ve been meaning to write. I’ve been meaning to tell about all the things – ALL THE THINGS – that have happened this year.

So much. Not enough time.

In fact, I’m in the middle of lesson planning for this week, and I really should get some sleep.

I’ve cried and yelled and nearly given up several times this year. Something is keeping me going, though…

And it’s not all bad – I love my students. I enjoy teaching a lot of the curriculum. But there is so much crap that has to be done. So much planning. So much bullshit that doesn’t matter. So much paperwork. So much ass kissing. So much… and not enough time, energy, or reward to make it all worth it.

Yet, somehow the net gain is positive. Somehow I keep getting up every day and going in. I keep smiling at my students and telling them how amazing they are. I keep planning. I keep grading. I just keep on going… I try to hang on to the positive and learn from the negative, and I just keep pushing myself to get through this year. Next year will be easier.

It seems that what attracts people to this blog continues to be the post I made concerning the sexualization of young girls. The search terms are sometimes alarming, really. I suppose I should make another controversial post to attract a new crowd of weirdos. I do want to post more often, but it’s really hard to fit everything in. Maybe I should try to make a regular schedule… where I post once a week or something. We’ll see.

I just have so much to share – so many ideas, so many successes, and so many failures. I have questions, too. Everyone with any sense knows teaching is hard work, but nothing can fully prepare you for it. Nothing. *whew*

…set…

Open House came and went with a decent crowd and much broken Spanish. I have a class of eighteen: nine boys, nine girls, ten black, and eight hispanic. Two of my students speak no English (Spanish and Chatino, an indigenous language of Mexico that is nothing like Spanish), and I have two students who receive services for special needs.

Several parents expressed gratitude at my attempts to speak Spanish with them, and I want to work on my Spanish. There is a program offered in my district that involves taking a Spanish class once per week and going to Guatemala during the summer, and it’s completely free to teachers. I’d really like to get into it, but I’m not sure if I’m too late.

Things are a bit stressful at this moment – I have to write up lesson plans for the week to turn in on Monday morning… it’s not really that different from requirements I had during student teaching – in fact, the required plans are far less detailed than what I’m used to. That being said, I’m a little lost as to how to start things off. One of the other third grade teachers emailed me her plans from last year’s first two weeks of school, so I will look over those for guidance.

You know, even though my name is on the door and I’ve spent a week preparing my classroom, it still doesn’t feel like “mine”. I know this will change as time goes on, but I’m so used to working with other people’s students, I’m not sure how having my own class is supposed to feel.

Ready…

New Teacher Orientation is done. I have been inside my classroom. Teacher workdays (read: meetings ALL DAY) start tomorrow…

My room was completely empty when I came in… I had nothing except a teacher desk, a kidney table, some chairs, two bookshelves, an overhead, and computers. I don’t have any textbooks. No library. No student desks. No crayons, paper, markers… nothing. I couldn’t move any of the furniture, yet, either – AND we don’t get our keys until tomorrow.

Stress city.

I swept out a cabinet and feebly started putting my personal teacher materials in it. I really had no idea where to start. I still don’t.

I have a sad stack of books, most of which are probably too low-level for my third graders (I student taught 1st grade, so I have LOTS of picture books). I was given construction paper and some supplies when I left student teaching, but not nearly enough. Not even close.

So, I did what all teachers do – I went shopping. I have no idea if I’ll get reimbursed or for how much, but I just HAD to buy SOMETHING. The first day of school is in a week, and my walls are completely bare – I needed a calendar, Star of the Week stuff… I’m going to spend today making “welcome” decorations for Open House (Thursday!). I’m broke. I’m tired. I’m not sure how it’s going to come together.

But I know it will. I know it will all work itself out… I bought crayons, markers, colored pencils, nametags, posters, a calendar, borders, and office supplies. And the wonder folks at Staples are having WONDERFUL sales for Back to School, including free supplies with an increased limited quantity for teachers. I was able to get 25 bottles of glue, 25 plastic rulers, and 25 packs of pencils (200 altogether) – all for FREE. I’m not being paid to say this, and I’m not one for brand loyalty, but Staples is saving my ass right now.

Tomorrow I’m going in to school early. Really early. I have to – I won’t be able to calm down until my room looks like a third grade classroom and not a cavernous storage space.

You know what, though? I’m so excited that it actually overshadows the stress. Here’s to a great year!

Here it goes!

Well, I start new teacher orientation on Wednesday. I’ll be teaching 3rd grade and I’m very excited about this. I cannot wait to get into my classroom and get it all set up, though the whole process is a bit intimidating!

So much to do, so little time!