Appropriate Focal Range (for my Third Year of Teaching)

Teacher Appreciation

A few weeks into summer vacation, I think I am still close enough for detail and far enough for perspective – perspective that was hard to have while shoveling snow off my car at 6am, or during the ten thousand things fit into lunch break (none of which included lunch – maybe I’ll figure out how to eat lunch next year.) I have been teaching for three years now. Three years is not very long in the scheme of things. I have two more years before the state of Michigan might even trust that I’m in this for the long haul (the kind of trust where they take a few grand off my debt) and seven more years before they say: okay, you have taught for a while, and have racked up even more loans with graduate credits, and we’ll forgive the rest of your debt since you are probably broke and/or totally insane.

However, three years make me feel a little bit old and respectable, because of the unbelievable expanse between my first year, and the surprisingly fast pace of my second.

I learned a lot this year. For example:

How Objectives Changed My Life. (If any of my professors were to read this, they would say “I told you so.”) I always was taught that objectives are a starting point – you need to know what you want the student to do by the end of a unit, lesson, or activity. Unclear objectives make for unfocused lessons and useless assessments. Up to this year, however, my objectives mostly lived on my lesson plans  (we all know how perfectly day-to-day teaching lines up with lesson plans, right?) and in a brief oral preview at the beginning of lessons. I would get the occasional reprimand from administration for not having my up-to-date objectives written on the board, and would make a half-hearted attempt, but the logistics of teaching so many classes and ages in one room made most of these attempts futile. This year, however, I made objectives the starting point for my students as well as myself. I put up student objectives in Spanish at the beginning of each lesson, for students to translate. (Grades 4-8 had to write them down in their planners, which factored into participation grades. I quickly realized that an oral translation was better for younger grades – rather than taking fifteen minutes of class time to write objectives.) This let students know what we were doing for the day (and forced me to have my crap together), but also was a huge confidence boost for students. I pointed out cognates, and demonstrated my promise that “I will always throw you into a sea of language, but I will always throw you a raft.” Students stopped panicking whenever they saw a chunk of unfamiliar Spanish, and picked up a lot of common words without any more direct instruction.

Some essential components of the First Few Weeks. I work on a quarterly schedule, meaning that every 9 or 10 weeks I get entirely new classes, so three years of teaching = twelve chances to start a class right. This year a few things worked very well:

  • Throwing students into a sea of Spanish right off the bat (see above) by giving them my rules in Spanish. Going over the rules in English is boring for everybody anyway, and they are simple enough that students can impress themselves by how much they can figure out on their own.
  • Exchanging letters with middle school students within the first few days. After going over rules, I have students write me a letter about themselves, what they want out of the class, things that help them learn, and so on. Depending on time constraints, I will either respond to each letter individually or respond to the whole class – but I try for the individual letters. I want to allow for student input, and the letter exchange sometimes surprises students into being engaged when otherwise they would not.

Work smarter, not harder, when it comes to classroom management. I have tried all kinds of elaborate classroom managements systems, but I have found that simpler is always better, when it comes to both explaining and maintaining a system – especially across 5 different classes & age groups each day. Plans that involved a lot of time outside of class for me were more likely to fall by the wayside – prep time is always better used for lesson planning and grading.

Organization involves foresight and a fair amount of sneakiness. I have found that I have to trick myself and my students into organization, or it isn’t going to happen and the week before progress reports is going to be a panicky mess of ungraded assignments. For me, this meant that I put copies of every assignment and handout into a binder labeled with dates, and used that at the end of each week to upload copies to my class website. My excuse was so that my students would have no excuses, but really it kept me organized and accountable more than anything. I haven’t done so well at tricking my students into being organized, but I know that being organized myself is the first step anyway.

Quality assessments can help lead to quality instruction. For the first two years I was spending about as much time on assessments as I was on objectives: I used them, but they didn’t really shape my day-to-day instruction. In my graduate courses, I learned a lot about assessments. I created an introductory diagnostic (which was really helpful considering my classes are full of such a wide range of ages and levels) and tweaked the few vocabulary quizzes I have been using, and put a lot of time into revising the project and rubric for my Especialista assignments. Being very specific and organized about what my students do at the end of a unit has helped clarify all the content. (Again, seasoned teachers and my methods professors look knowingly at each other.)

Field Trips are worth the stress. My first year of teaching I was barely keeping things together within the classroom, much less anywhere else. My second year I toyed with ideas for field trips that never actually came about. This year, I collaborated with the art teacher on a trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts (cultural art with a side of boobs, and the painting that made my students ask me if I was “half black”) and then with the gifted & talented teacher on another trip to Mexicantown in Detroit. (Many kids were very excited about speaking with the owners of the restaurant, because “they spoke to us in Spanish, and we spoke Spanish back!” …but really nothing could compare with the overwhelming delight of an all-you-can-eat buffet.) Most of my anxieties about these field trips were eased just by the fact that we went, we did it, we all came back in one piece, and I think I have the confidence necessary to even go myself next time.

Many things get easier, and some never will.  Alongside my small victories this year, I also dealt with some very difficult students. Many kids loved and enjoyed Spanish, but several hated it and hated me. I was spit on by an 8th grader and attacked by a kindergartner. I wrote up less students than last year (I think I got through the 3rd quarter without any referrals) but still wrote up more than administration would have liked. I wrote my first CPS referral for one student, and went to the funeral of another. No amount of better teaching will take away the crushing helplessness against the huge weight of what goes on outside my classroom. This will never be an easy job.

Saying goodbye was difficult. I have grown so much in the past three years, and although I am exceedingly excited and grateful for the Fulbright grant and the opportunity to teach in Spain for a year, part of me (the part that was raised Catholic, probably) feels guilty. I took a job that not many people want, and I was determined to love it, to be good at it, and to persevere. Three years in, I am leaving. I am abandoning my 80 mile daily commute, Michigan winters, and far more than 40-hour work weeks for broader horizons – where I will be assisting in a classroom for approximately 16 hours a week, five blocks from the Mediterranean, with an ample stipend and public transportation to take me all over Europe on my long weekends. I don’t know what will happen after I come back. I love Detroit and would love to teach there again, if I am in Michigan at all. It is important to me to teach where I feel I am needed and challenged – not just where I can be comfortable. I will be back, but it’s hard to leave now, knowing that I won’t see a lot of my coworkers and students again.

Teaching is a job that requires constant growth and an elastic heart, and I am brimming over.

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5 Responses to Appropriate Focal Range (for my Third Year of Teaching)

  1. I love reading your reflections on your job. It almost makes me want to keep working in a school. Almost ;-).

  2. Wendy Kennedy says:

    I hope someday you publish a book for Spanish teachers, and include these gems. You are wise beyond your years!

  3. Chelsea says:

    this is so well thought and beautifully written that it made me teary eyed. you are an inspiration, and i am so, so, so excited for you – for what you’ve done and what you’ll go on to do 🙂

  4. Erika says:

    I am so proud of you! Good luck on ur journey. : )

  5. Pingback: Year Five: Becoming a Better Teacher vs. Becoming a Statistic | Me importa. Me importas. Me importan.

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