Mi Noveno Año: Small Victories, Big Dreams

IMG_-zcfg9s

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

Advertisements

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

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.

19977862574_7b3c00640f_k

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

Year Six: Leaving Loose Ends Untied

Through the eyes of my students.

At the end of the school year or of the quarter, wrapping up my time with each group of students, I always feel the same pressure: not enough time. Along with the anxious countdowns to summer vacations and sleeping in and having a personal life, I always wish I had more time. Students finishing projects or presentations without the chance to present them. Graded work that goes in the recycling bin after grades are submitted. Students that have struggled all year, and who suddenly have a light bulb go off in their brain sometime in June, just as productivity dissolves into field trips, class parties, award ceremonies, and absences. Language use blossomed at the eleventh hour: students making Spanish puns, or understanding Spanish puns and begging me to stop, students having entire conversations in Spanish, interviewing each other in Spanish, and then suddenly it’s the last day of school, and… ya está.

On the last day of school, there were lots of hugs and lots of crying, especially from graduating 8th graders. This year the end of the school year was particular emotional for me, as well. My husband and I have been toying with the idea of an out of state move all year, and in the final weeks of school I was using the time difference to my advantage, scheduling phone interviews with West Coast schools after my own school day had finished.

Remote interviews are pretty exciting. Hypothetically you could outline your professional qualifications over the phone while in a bathrobe, or via Skype in pajama pants and a blazer. (I’m not admitting that I did that, of course. But who would even know, right?) Sometimes high tech online video conference rooms malfunction, and your video flips upside down while you are describing how adept you are at integrating technology into your lessons. And sometimes you set up a phone interview for the last day of school, after emotional goodbyes to students and sharing funny and touching memories with staff over beers. This already might not be ideal, but then the sky might open up, spitting lightning and thunder, and dumping down buckets of rain right when you are trying to find a quiet parking lot for the interview.

Read more of this post

Year Five: Becoming a Better Teacher vs. Becoming a Statistic

(Things remaining out of reach)

Since finishing my first year of teaching, I’ve tried to take a moment at the end of the school year to reflect on the year and what I’ve learned. I ended my first year a little shell shocked, began to pull things together for a second year, and by my third year could see some structure emerging from the chaos. The following year I was working with kids in Spain on a Fulbright grant, but something about my reduced responsibility as an assistant, the shortened work week, the long lunch breaks (with real plates and silverware), the frequent holidays or strikes, the Mediterranean two blocks away, the distinct lack of snowy Michigan commutes, and the weekend travel made it seem more like a sabbatical. At the end of the year I was busy packing up, watching things burn, and walking the Camino, with no time to reflect – at least not in a digital format.

So it’s my fifth year of teaching, and I’m back in the mitten, at another Detroit charter school, teaching K-8 Spanish once again. The school year wrapped up weeks ago, and the summer “break” is speeding by. I still haven’t gathered the words to summarize this past year.

Things are looking up. My new school has the central organization and supportive leadership that was lacking previously. I have tuition assistance, a real contract and benefits, and administration who listens to ideas and input from staff. There is a lot of parent participation, and the school feels like a community. This helps to balance the fact that I am back on a cart instead of in a classroom, and that I am teaching 7-8 classes a day, 10-13 classes per semester (with a varied and inconsistent amounts of time with each group, that’s approximately 35 lesson plans a week!)

This year, for some reason I am finding it hard to cobble together a list of things I’ve learned, or things I did right this year. Starting at a new school is like going back to your first year of teaching in many ways. You have to get to know new staff and new students, a new set of school policies and politics, new expectations and curriculum. (Unless you are a Spanish teacher and just do everything from scratch.) On the other hand, unlike a first year teacher, I had a sizable collection of lesson ideas and resources from my previous lessons, along with lots of cultural tidbits and increased fluency (albeit a bit lispy) from my year in Spain.

As a first year teacher, however, I made up for my lack of experience with determination and an optimism in the face of the reality which (sometimes literally) punched me right in the idealistic face. For some reason that idealism and optimism is what was missing this year. For years, a voice in my head kept reassuring me that this would get easier, that I would get better at it, that I would learn, that they would learn. Something about looking back on five years has muffled that voice. It might be the expanding black pit of student loan debt, the long commute with eyelids fluttering on the highway, the student casualties that rack up whenever you work with large numbers of young people, especially in the environment I work in – students defiant or failing or suspended or expelled or more concretely lost to suicide, cancer, violence, tragedy. More than anything, what was drowning everything else out was purely selfish: exhaustion. I’ve seen other teachers bite the dust – lack of budget, lack of all-powerful standardized test scores, too many opinions, too much work for not enough pay. I’ve heard the statistics of teacher attrition for years, and somehow assumed I wouldn’t burn out.

I thought that five years in I would have figured things out a little more, that I wouldn’t constantly be overdrafting my bank account, that I would have time for family and friends and grocery shopping and sleep. More importantly, I thought I would be a better teacher. As it turns out, to be a good teacher you have to have drive and enthusiasm and the willingness to give up a lot of things for your job, but you also need to have a reservoir of mental stability. I didn’t have that this year.

I still care about my job and about my profession. (I even care about this soul sucking M.A. that is inching closer each day.) Even more than that, I care about my students. They are worth the exhausting hours and emotional roller coasters. So I’m going to remind myself of that, and I’m going to pick my mantra back up and trust that it is going to get better.

(And it probably will. A few more weeks and wedding planning will be done. A few more semesters and grad school will be, too.)

Maybe that’s the hurdle I crossed this year as a teacher: I kept my head above water. I taught the things I knew how to teach. I put together delusional outlines of the things I planned to teach each grade, and then usually scrapped them as schedules changed without warning, or my own time limitations caught up with me. Kids learned Spanish, sometimes despite me. (The blessings of working with the younger grades.) We sang, and had mini-dialogs, and greeted each other in Spanish in the hallways, and rapped about ourselves using describing adjectives. Onward and upward.

By the end of the year the kids wrote down the things they could do in Spanish after spending the quarter with me, in the form of “I Can” statements.

Of course, the first and second graders illustrated theirs in adorable ways.

(I like the one kid’s honesty about his achievement. “I can name one color in Spanish and that is rojo.”)

Okay, okay. I’ve learned things.

I can name one thing I did this year: I kept going.

I can recall and describe my reasons for doing what I do.

I can make progress, inch by inch.

I can become a better teacher.

I can try again this coming year.

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:

Read more of this post

Closing Chapter Two

4717405969_efd0b254c6.jpg

My second year of teaching is officially over. Read more of this post

Pulling it together.

I am taking my last personal day off today, so that I can go to the (potential) new school and check it out during the school day, and perhaps teach a sample lesson. So yesterday in between final grades and driving to tutoring, I threw together sub plans.

Any teacher knows how tricky sub plans are. This was especially daunting at the beginning of the year for me. In my preparation at the university level I have learned how to write out meticulous lesson plans, propped up by standards and objectives, but trying to tell someone in writing what to do with my classes seemed impossible, especially after my first few months at this school. I learned quickly that nothing would go as planned, that nobody at the school really cared what lessons I taught as long as I kept the masses under control, that nothing was guaranteed, and that whatever I spent all night planning could very easily be destroyed by one temper tantrum, one broken projector or copier, one collective mood swing, one misplaced assumption of previous knowledge, motivation, or interest. That’s what teaching is about: a balance between spontaneity and planning.

I’ve learned a lot this year. I have put together an entire curriculum for grades K-8- although not entirely well articulated or in a board-presentable form yet. I didn’t have books (sometimes didn’t have paper), but I’m okay with that. I can put together sub plans in a half hour instead of in three hours. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing teachers, and I have learned so much from them. Even the incompetence in the administration isn’t as terminal as it seemed a few months ago, because I’ve learned how to be independent. My sixth graders still can’t speak much Spanish to save their lives, but my fourth grades can describe themselves and their friends in complete sentences, and my primary classes can respond to nearly entire classes in Spanish. I’m feeling warm and fuzzy and proud about many of my classes (while at the same time wanting to throw myself out a window during others.)

Last week I wrote up a 6th grade girl for being disrespectful (she’s the one who called me “sweetie” previously, the author of the spontaneously novel insult “african-licker,” and in this instance she whooped at me before cutting out of the classroom). I called home and sent her to the office with all required documentation, first thing in the morning, and not surprisingly found her still sitting in the office at the end of the day. It is common for referrals to sit for days on the disciplinarian’s desk (and I have to resist using any other more descriptive yet profane terms for this woman). I had the girl’s mother meet me in the office, and when Ms. Disciplinarian came out of her office to talk to another student, I confronted her and said that we were ready to talk about this now, please. The girl got suspended, and Ms. D. was only marginally condescending to me.

This feels like a victory in itself. My first week at this school – my first week of teaching, ever – I broke up a fight in the seventh grade boys’ class between a kid bigger than me and a kid bigger than my dad. I don’t even remember whose fist it was that connected with my jaw, but it was a reality check. Another check was later in the disciplinarian’s office when I listened to her rake me and my classroom management over the coals for a half hour.

That was before I knew my fellow teachers very well, before I got uppity during the weekly meetings where this same lady put down my entire team, before I knew whose office was okay to cry in, before I knew that such-and-so is on the basketball team and the coach can usually have some sway with him, before I knew that such-and-so’s mother died a few weeks ago and so don’t threaten to call her, before I had certain kids’ home numbers in my cell phone.

I am coming down to the final days of my first year of teaching, and while it has been challenging and far from ideal, I feel incredibly blessed that I have been able to learn so much. I’m sure I’ve learned far more than I’ve taught. One of my fellow teachers was asking me about my first year experience, and in essence said “Don’t give up on the profession just because this is so challenging.” I assured her that I wouldn’t. That’s the thing: this year hasn’t changed my desire to teach. It’s just taught me a lot about my abilities to do so. Whether or not I am at a new school next year, I know it will be easier. Not easy, of course, but that would be boring.

%d bloggers like this: