Year Eleven: What I Want To Be When I Grow Up

I just wrapped up my 11th year teaching, and this is my 11th pause to look back at the expanse of a school year. I’m in an entirely different place.

In the past, when looking back on the year, I’ve written pages and deleted half of them. I’ve sometimes struggled to sanitize my experiences of working in public education in order to create something for public consumption. Exhausted by the school year still lurking behind me or looming ahead of me, it can be difficult been hard to pick out the positive bits from the year. This is pretty normal, I think, and why teachers have the “summer off” – to recover, and to be able to face the next year. (This is also what the weekend is for, if you are lucky enough to have one.) Over the past decade, I was also looking at job postings every Spring, even when I did not want to leave the school I was at. I was never sure I was getting a contract, or I wasn’t sure what my salary would be and if it could cover my rent and my commute, or I wasn’t sure if I could do another year, or I wanted to keep doing what I was doing but needed a temporary or after-hours job to make ends meet. Again, I think this is a normal part of teaching. Even when we love what we do and want to continue, this is not a profession of stability.

That’s not where I am this year. I’m not looking for jobs. I’m not deleting paragraphs. I’m not bracing myself for next year.

After ten years of teaching Spanish, this was my first year out of the classroom. I started a new role at a new school, as a full time EL Coordinator at a small project-based high school here in San Diego. There were a lot of new things this year, and it’s hard to sum it up here. No day was exactly the same, and was often unpredictable. Teaching has never been a predictable profession, but in hindsight some things were pretty consistent in the classroom: I was with certain people at certain times and certain places, with consistent routines in each situation. This was not the case this year at all.

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My first day of my new job involved some impromptu beekeeping. Like I said – not predictable.

 

This new role has 3 main parts:

  1. Supporting students.
    I work with all the bilingual students at my school – primarily those who are classified as English Language Learners by the state, but also other students outside of that somewhat nebulous classification. For the first part of the year, I spent a lot of time getting to know them and what they individually need – finding out strengths & areas of growth, identifying their support networks at home & school, and setting goals with them based on their big picture goals. This individual support varied on what students need – some I worked with daily, and others as needed.
  2. Supporting families.
    I’m a link between monolingual families and monolingual staff, but I’m also working with parent groups and committees to give workshops and support the connection between families and school, particularly for our Spanish-speaking families.
  3. Supporting staff.
    I have done a little bit of professional development with teachers on supporting English Language Learners (and I feel I’ll be better in the future now that I’ve had a year to figure out it myself!) but I’ve also gotten to work with teachers at any stage that they need support in: Planning projects, helping with small groups, leading book groups, etc. I’ve also participated in the school community in other ways – with an advisory, covering teachers when they are sick, chaperoning field trips, helping start a MEChA club, and most recently with a Women’s Empowerment immersion week. This first year in particular I really wanted to get to know everyone and make myself part of the community, so I’m not just a presence who comes into classrooms and helps a few specific students.

Some of my favorite parts of this new role:

My role is based on individual relationships.
I love getting to know students, parents, and staff individually, and I love that those relationships can continue over several years. Working with multiple grade levels that has always been my favorite part – establishing positive relationships is so important, and even more so when it comes to a support position. I’m looking forward to beginning next year with students who already know me.

I get to play around with lots of data.
Gathering data on student proficiency and communicating that to students, teachers, and families has allowed me to nerd out with spreadsheets to my heart’s content. One of my responsibilities is administering the state-mandated English test for English Language Learners. I was doing this before at my former school (thinking about doing this at the end of the year with a full time teaching load and final projects still makes my eye twitch a little.) This year the testing was entirely my responsibility, but I actually had time to do it (although getting cancer in the middle of the testing window complicated things a bit, but that’s an obstacle I hope to avoid in the future.) Standardized testing is definitely not my favorite part of this role, but collecting and monitoring data on student proficiency means that students can actually be reclassified as proficient when appropriate, which means less testing in the future for them.

I don’t take work home.
I leave my school computer at school. My “work hours” are less restricted to the school day (with tutoring, after-school workshops with parents, weekend events, etc) but I am not bringing home grading every day. I do have some after hours texts or emails, but I had those before on top of hours of grading. Now, when I leave work I can leave work. This is the biggest (and probably healthiest) change. While there is still the emotional aspect and some very heavy situations that follow me home, it’s not the same as having those heavy situations AND grading hundreds of assignments each week. This has allowed me to have time after school for volunteer work, activism, & just being a human.

I’m treated like a professional.
I’m very appreciative of my administration this year, and the community of teachers I work with. I’ve worked with a lot of wonderful teachers and administrators at a variety of schools, but this is the first time that I’ve actually felt that I have the support and resources I need to be good at my job. I feel heard and respected by my coworkers and my supervisors. When I am asked to do a task, I’m given the time & resources necessary to do that task. I wish this wasn’t so novel.

Working with young people is the most hopeful thing I know of.
After being in K-8 schools, this was my first time in a high school. Less lining up in the hallway and more making out in the commons. Less bathroom accidents and more bathroom shenanigans of a different nature. Overall, it is a small school with a strong and positive school culture, and our kids are respectful and thoughtful. I love the small school environment and don’t think I could be at a huge school. After a year of chaperoning field trips, covering sick days, and just being present in the classroom, I know a lot of the kids even when they are not on my caseload, and I appreciate that. Working with high schoolers and at a project based school means working side by side with young people on solutions to real world problems. My 9th grade students had conversations about race & privilege that grown up activists still struggle with. I watched my 11th grade students present cases to lawyers and law students with the California Innocence Project, to advocate for closing or reopening cases. My students and I gave food and legal resources to day laborers, served food to asylum seekers and brought them to the airport. I’ve always been grateful to have a career that is built on and intersects with so many of my passions, but this year especially I felt there was a lot of overlap between what I do at work and what I do in my off hours. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Working with these young people make me feel infinitely more hopeful for the future.

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The Broad in LA – part of a week-long Women’s Empowerment immersion week.

 

I don’t have as many funny stories this year, or cute portraits of me, or pictures of student work. However, for the first time I feel like I can be good at my job.

This year while working with a freshman in my office on something, he stopped what he was doing and asked: Sara, what do you want to be when you grow up? I laughed and said: I want to be this! A teacher.

It’s true. I’m doing what I want to be when I grow up. I thought I was before – and I was – but that missing piece of balance and mental health was here this year. As it turned out, this was also the year I had to add fighting cancer to the picture. I can’t imagine doing that last year, with my mental, physical, and emotional state. Now not only do I have time to take care of my health if necessary, I also have time for other projects & passions.

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Chula Vista Zine Fest – a student led zine fest I helped with this year

 

Looking forward to next year, I have some specific areas where I want to grow:

Continue to learn how to best be an advocate for my students.
I see advocating for students as the biggest part of my job. In the coming year I want to explore more how to differentiate between learning differences and language differences, and make sure that there is not an over representation of bilingual students in the special ed program, and collaborate with the rest of the inclusion team to find strategies that work especially for those students where the two overlap – bilingual students who do have disabilities. I will also be working with parents through our newly formed ELAC to look at big picture EL supports at an organizational level.

Get more training as an interpreter.
A relatively new & significant part of my job has been interpreting meetings. In the past I did help with interpreting parent meetings and phone calls, but I’m more available for these now as I’m not in the classroom. Ironically, I am using Spanish far more in my day-to-day life now than when I was a full time Spanish teacher – partially because teaching intro Spanish classes involves pretty specific & scaffolded language, but also because I’m using Spanish in a wider range of ways now: individual communication with parents, workshops with Spanish-speaking families, interpreting IEP meetings, helping the office or monolingual staff contact families, and my after-hours adventures with asylum seeking families. I’m becoming more comfortable – especially as I’m establishing relationships with families, students, & staff – but it’s still an area of growth. I would like to get more training so I’m more confident and more precise, especially with high stakes discipline meetings or interpreting assessment reports with very specific vocabulary.

Refine my elective Spanish class.
I am still teaching a Spanish elective class – mostly to native speakers who want to boost their GPA, or others who want to continue Spanish classes beyond what’s required in the curriculum. My class size has usually been under 10, and all of them chose to take Spanish – the only elective that has grades, homework, and academic credit. On the first day of class with them, I asked them to get out a computer, notebook, and pencil, and gave them a website for them to go to. Immediately they followed directions, and I faced a room full of eyes on me, with pencils poised over paper. I didn’t know what to do with myself. We’re not in middle school anymore, Toto. It has been great working with a small group of motivated students. Class time is still very limited, however, and I’m trying to figure out how to best fit quality language learning into very little time. Our school has a pretty limited foreign language program in general, and I’d like to find ways to expand it – especially through the lens of first language support for my bilingual students.

Push back against systemic racism in education and beyond.
Recently I’ve been confronting the realities of being a white educator working primarily with students of color, both in Detroit schools and now through my role with English Language Learners. I have been exposed to so many thoughtful conversations through my activist work and through some of my coworkers who did an amazing unit with freshmen on race. I don’t want to be another well-meaning white lady supporting racist structures just by my inability to talk about race. I went to a really valuable workshop by Standing Up For Racial Justice. I’m currently reading White Fragility with a group of friends and will be running another book club later this year with my group of activists. I know that I have blind spots and fragile spots and I can’t afford not to examine those, especially as an educator and as a potential foster or adoptive parent.

Be more flexible and empathetic.
I’m definitely realizing that my organizational style is more neurotic than I thought before. (Surprising nobody who knows me?) I think this sometimes gets in the way of being supportive to individuals and groups that don’t organize the same way. Today I leave for Spain for a month, where I’ll be volunteering in a pilgrim hostel on the Camino de Santiago. Every day I’ll be welcoming, serving, & feeding a different group of international pilgrims. No crazy spreadsheets and no agendas, just a box of donations to buy groceries each day. I know I’m going to crash into my need for control during this process, and hopefully come out of it better at being flexible and able to connect with a wide range of people.

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Not everyone wants to use Google Calendar this way.

 

Maybe I’ll even get to write about that experience, and post more than one thing per year in this space?

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Ten Years: Doors Closing, Windows Opening

This year marks a decade of reflecting on my teaching. As has been my trend in recent years, I’m reflecting on the past school year after the summer break is over. I spent most of my summer traipsing around Europe and the East Coast, followed by an unusually early beginning to professional development.

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Emblematic of this year: Leaving late, taking the bus. (Not so much the rain.)

On the last Sunday night of summer vacation (that is, the Sunday Nightiest Sunday Night of them all) the oppressive humidity of an early San Diego heat wave didn’t help my insomnia. I lay awake for hours. I had trouble envisioning what the school year would be like, so my brain had trouble fixating on any particulars. For lack of specific anxieties, my mind wandered back over the last ten years of teaching. In the hazy darkness of insomnia it’s not thoughtful reflection or measured analysis that tends to happen, and on this night it was was the faces of students that floated to the surface of my mind. Lots of individual faces… over a thousand now, I think? It was the lost faces that stuck on the surface, as they often do: Students lost because I never found the key to what made them tick. Students who wanted nothing to do with anything I tried to offer. Students lost to inescapable things in their home lives. Students lost to cancer and suicide and house fires and car accidents.

(OKAY. This might be a pretty dark way to start this post. With that said, I am currently in a good place. So bear with me. It gets better.)

Last summer, as usual, I had a list of goals for this year. I worked hard and intentionally on all of them and achieved few, in part because of the unexpected twists and turns this year. Looking back at my plans for long term vertical planning of a TK-12 program makes the past year look pretty bleak from where I’m standing now, since the Spanish program has been cut entirely. (Again, bear with me! Everything is okay!)
Read more of this post

Calendars

A cop, a barista, and a teacher
walk into a coffeeshop on a Friday in June

and for him it’s his Tuesday
and for her it’s her Monday
and for me it’s the Friday of the Mondayest week in my whole career.

(6/8/2018 – Last entry from my red journal)

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Mi Noveno Año: Small Victories, Big Dreams

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Estoy de acuerdo.

After nine years of teaching, I am appreciating again the process of reviewing and reflecting at the end of the year, and reading back through almost a decade of reflections on teaching. I like to do this at the beginning of the summer, but over the years the reflection process has crept across my summer… and here I am, writing just before school starts again, during the first week back at school, finishing it up during the first (long!) weekend of the school year.

Wrapping up my 9th year, I reached some milestones: Read more of this post

A Sense Of Place

I write less and take fewer photos here in California than I did in Michigan. Maybe because any energy or time for communication or artistic expression is already monopolized in other parts of my life. Maybe it’s because I don’t need to work as hard to find beauty as I did in those long, grey winters. One sunny afternoon feels like the next, and my sense of time isn’t as rooted in fireflies / changing leaves / numb extremities / slushy roads / crocus buds.

This year I have been teaching a photography club after school. Maybe “teaching” is the wrong word because mostly I’m just handing cameras to kids and leading them rambling explorations. They climb trees, lie on the sidewalk, climb up into trees, and cluster around any available tiny leaves, unique garbage, cute dogs, and interesting patterns.

Their perspectives on the world make me more aware about my own, as I sift through the digital residue of the last few months. I’ve been in San Diego for almost three years – long enough to have routines and connections, but not to outgrow a feeling of being a newcomer. Pulling up roots can be so fast, and regrowing them so slow.

I love reading novels with a strong sense of place, and after 3 years in this place I have more senses than I have fully formed thoughts.

Cloudy May mornings.
Radio telling me about the texture of the ocean.
The bend of pelican wings above me (not quite echoed on my shoulder blade.)
Jacaranda purple pooling on sidewalks.
Palm trees bending and crackling under jet paths.
Smoke creeping over dry hills.

I can recognize the songs of humming birds & the scent of jasmine.
I am waiting for my lemon tree to produce fruit.

Year Eight: Growth vs. Grit

A new home.
Yesterday I lay on the floor of the lunch room at school and surveyed my eight years of teaching from that angle. On a floor or flat on my face can feel like the right perspective for this expanse of time. I remember lying on the floor of my empty apartment, my first year of teaching and my first year of living by myself. I remember sleeping on the floor of my first classroom, trying to gather myself together for a long commute home in the snow. I remember sunnier afternoons in Spain, where two other teachers and I lay out mats on the floor in the music room on during afternoon siestas, for un poquito de relax.

Eight years brings me here to San Diego, where we finished our two weeks of teacher prep with an hour of yoga together. Stretching and moving and lying still among a big group of my coworkers was good. For some reason I think it helped get me into an emotional place where I can actually reflect on my school year, which I try to do each summer. Maybe the equivalent of mental stretching.

As a not-new-anymore teacher, I keep checking my pulse: Am I growing or am I just surviving? The end of last year was hard because I didn’t know if I was doing either. It was an exhausting year, and the exhausted end of the year is not the best place to recognize growth. In the midst of growing pains is also not the best place to recognize growth, and there were a lot of growing pains (both as a school and as a teacher.)

And now… I’m here, and I’ve grown. So here I am with some wordy lists and some listy words (because that’s just me.) Read more of this post

Permeations

Summer! For the last few months I was completely erased by work, and as soon as I emerged and found the bits of my life again it was to take it all apart and put it into boxes.

Now there’s a new apartment in the same new city, open windows and walls that feel permeable, air that feels heavy and skin rubbed thin, borders crossed alone and familiar flight paths overhead.

Last summer was quiet and I had too much time to think. This summer is filled with voices and plans and radio waves and the moments of stillness have been rare. I’ve been teaching a bit (but not Spanish) and meeting new people (in Spanish) and meeting old friends in new places (in Hungarian & Croatian, but without remembering any.)

I’m shelving books by color instead of by contents and writing/remembering/thinking in pictures rather than words (again.)

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Vuelos

I don’t write and take pictures anymore, other than the small pieces that fit through the screen of a smartphone. So it’s March and I am just now looking through the photos I took in December, when we went back to Michigan for the holidays. Winter in Michigan is probably what I miss the least, but I do miss the people there, and the colors that are so bright and surprising in the middle of gray days.

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Gratitude

It was a quiet Thanksgiving here in our little apartment. I spent the morning drinking coffee and going through a massive amount of photos from the past six months, and the afternoon video chatting with family back in Michigan. I’ve definitely appreciated the space to breathe this week – we’ve spent so many of our breaks and even weekends out of town.

I’m not feeling particularly festive this year. It may be as small as the tragic combination of PMS and a bad haircut. (Not to be underestimated!) It may be the startled realization that it’s been over a year since we moved across the country, and that so little has changed (other than the steady trickle of bank accounts emptying into cross-country flights.) It may be that this Michigan girl still can’t reconcile the disconnect of a California Christmas, with snowflakes pinned to palm trees. More than that, it’s other contrasts: A colonizer’s holiday is celebrated in a country where having the wrong skin color can (still) be fatal. Messages of peace and goodwill decorate doors that are closed to refugees and to neighbors who worship the wrong way. People celebrate the holidays with death-defying consumerism, rushing into stores where employees can’t make a living wage but can be trampled to death.

Gratitude is important, however. It’s one small way to fight the discontent and greed and hate. I feel that I often write about gratitude, both here and elsewhere. For me, it’s the only antidote to the absolutely  human capacity for discontent.

This year I’m thankful:

  • for this still-new city, with its many beauties – both obvious and hidden
  • for my husband, who for eight years has been my adventure partner, and who more recently has become a very good cook
  • for that cat who we love despite it all
  • for friends both old and new, both near and far
  • for technology that allows us to connect with our loved ones even from far away
  • for new nephews and new sisters-in-law
  • for weddings and the chances to go to them, even from across the country
  • for my job and the chance to work hard for something I care about, with wonderful students, families, and staff
  • for the chances I’ve had to connect with others in a positive ways – my own students, exchange students, youth volunteers and children in Mexico
  • for the opportunities and the connections I’ve made via the Spanish language
  • for (oddly enough) the chance to participate in our justice system by serving on a jury
  • for health, freedom, food on the table, and a roof over my head
  • for photos to fill in the spaces when words fail me:

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Seven Years Treading Water

I just* finished my seventh year of teaching.

I’ve gotten in the habit of taking time each summer to to reflect on the school year. It’s been valuable to look back and see growth in myself. I would encourage any new teacher to journal through their first year (at the very least) just so that later on, when things feel particularly crazy, you can look back on the craziest times to see just how far you’ve come. (That’s also why Educating Esme was an important read during my first years of teaching.)

*Normally I do this before the end of August, but not this year. Still… it’s important to look back, even as I am already looking forward and planning for the coming year.

I’ve been at four different schools now, including my one year in Spain, and the longest I was at one school was three years, so my experience of teaching has been a string of fresh starts. Even within those short stints at each school, being a Specials teacher has also has been an endless cycle of fresh starts and a fair amount of flailing.

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Here’s to more than just survival.

This year brought yet another new school, yet another fresh start, and new lessons to learn: Read more of this post

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