Thursday, February 28, 2008

Saturation Point

March rears her head in just a day or so, and with her, she brings the state testing for which I’ve been preparing my students. The only thing I’m confident about is that I am more concerned, more prepared, and more focused about the testing than any of my students appear to be.

I am pacing myself through grading the piles of practice essays, forcing myself to stop when I grow inattentive instead of rushing through the last ones in the pile just so I can say I got it done. No, I step back, exist under the nagging sense that grading is waiting for me and return to it with a fresher eye the next morning. This kind of discipline grows from my belief that careful, specific grading on my part will inspire students to careful, specific editing on their part the next time they write.

My students’ attendance grows increasingly spotty at this time of year; there’s not much on the calendar to look forward to besides our testing dates, and I suppose I grow more serious and disturbingly earnest around this time, too. I might do a mini-lesson here and there of something fun or interesting, but the major thrust of each lesson now is test preparation; we administer it in two weeks time. Things students do frequently, like working on an out of class assignment while I’m reviewing a lesson, upset me more as we enter this phase of test preparation. I get tense—“Listen! Pay attention! Please trust me that I know what you should be doing!”

If history repeats itself, the majority of my students will do fine, and I will relax again. It’s just that saturation point in the semester. I’ve taught them the test skills. They’ve gained much of what they will gain. I can’t move on yet—the test is nigh. I need to hold them here, reinforcing, emphasizing, (sometimes) begging. It’s not the time of year that made me want to be a teacher, but it is one of the required elements, at least at this point in educational politics.

It’s the time of the year when I feel like my students should know certain things, and when they don’t, I take it personally. (If I really link my mental health to students’ mastery of the semi-colon or apostrophe, I could be doomed.) It’s the time of the year when the end seems merely theoretical. It’s the time of the year when we as teachers need to breathe fresh air into our own lungs as people beyond the classroom because until the testing is over, the air at school has gone a bit stale. I’ve hit my saturation point. It’s time to meet my classroom responsibilities while casting my horizon outside the school door. An art project, a new fiction author, plans for a weekend trip—there are various ways to remind myself that while I use teaching to define who I am, teaching doesn’t have to define my entire life, especially when it becomes so test-preparation centered. This weekend, I’m going to try to focus upon the things I really like about being a literate adult. Sometimes teaching writing makes me forget the joys of reading and writing; without that joy, I know I’ll lose the spark that makes teaching worthwhile, and that’s too high a cost for any test.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Recovering from My Mistake

I raised my voice to a student yesterday. It wasn’t worth it. She’s been absent for more than a month, and she called me with a list of reasons and things she felt I’d done wrong, and after listening to her, I started to speak. And she kept talking. And talking. I started with a sharp, “Excuse me” that escalated to a shrill (okay, I shouted) “EXCUSE ME! LET ME SPEAK!” She followed up with a rousing, repeating refrain of “WHO’RE YOU YELLING AT? WHO’RE YOU YELLING AT?” and explained vehemently how she expected to be treated by her teachers, and alas, it did not include yelling. Neither one of us hung up, and we talked our way back to reasonable, and she apologized for misunderstanding a few things, and we have a meeting scheduled to address her needs, but man, I’ve been sick over the yelling match. It has cost me so much more than I gained.

Why did I yell? I yelled because, in that moment, I clung to the mythology that as her instructor, she should show me respect and not speak over me when it is my turn to speak. Ha ha ha. Maybe that’s true some places, but I’ve made a decision to teach students who don’t come from an educational tradition, and the notion that teachers inherently get respect is foreign. It is earn-respect-as-you-go around here, and I know that. I signed up for that. It’s just when she kept talking over me, I forgot, and I just wanted my rank to assure me my turn. Yelling gained me nothing and lost me ground with this student. Also, should I have further problems with this student, she can always say to my department chair and my dean that I yelled at her, and it will be true. Yikes.

So now that I’ve smoothed things over with the student, it is time to forgive myself. I’ve spent a lot of the last fifteen hours since the incident replaying the event and seeing if I can justify my behavior. I really can’t. I think it was a human moment, and I am entitled to be human, but it wasn’t a shining teacher moment, no matter how I look at it in various lights. I’m relieved I didn’t curse or name call. Sheesh. When I lose myself to frustration like this, I realize I need to spend more time trying to be happy in my personal life, doing things I enjoy. I draw upon the energy that enjoyment gives me when I’m in difficult communications, and obviously, my reserve is a little too dry. I try to read lovely articles about teaching like this one, and remember that I’m not teaching everyone; some kids love school and reading. Going for a run helps. At a former school, I used to run with a fellow teacher, and we joked about getting t-shirts that read “Pound Pavement not Students.” Confessing to fellow teachers has always helped me, too. I’ve always been surrounded by the kind of peers who support me when I’ve made a mistake like this one, who reassure me they’ve had bad moments, too. Knowing that teachers I admire have stepped off the patience wagon helps me to let it go.

I always spend a little time when this happens wishing I could be more intimidating; I don’t think this student would have talked over just any teacher. I have an accessible affect that can be misunderstood as easy to bully, I suppose. However, I doubt I can conjure up a new affect now. So self acceptance is part of this post-mistake process for me, too…Sometimes I’m not a teacher, but a person waiting for her turn to share her side, and I, too, want to feel heard. I know from experience that silence would have worked better than yelling, but I made things right with the student, and now I will forgive myself for my moment, brush myself off, and work at keeping my love of teaching at the forefront of my mind.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Thursday, February 14, 2008

"Hey, Teacher, May I Have a Do-Over, Please?"

Well, quite frankly, I don’t think many of my students use this orphan-like phrase when they ask me to forget the past and let them begin again. We are six weeks into our semester, and just in time for Valentine’s Day of Love, some missing students have surfaced and asked me to find it in my heart to forgive them and let them begin again. One gentleman has had three consecutive weeks of absences; I’d stopped counting him when determining copies of handouts. He returned contrite and naïve, speaking vaguely of eye infections. “Can’t I just do all the work and catch up?” he asked earnestly, his eyes begging me to let bygones be bygones.

It is a teacher’s cliché to resent student versions of “Did I miss anything?” It feels like admitting that I am just a distributor and collector of papers to say, “Oh of course you can make up the past three weeks with a packet!” Perhaps if I put less of my heart into pacing and designing everything, it would seem less hurtful. To be fair to students, they didn’t invent this system of making up work. I’ve had numerous administrators direct me to “make up a packet” for my units on Shakespeare or research essay writing or other huge undertakings that use up all my teaching talents to try to get intangible concepts across to students. I resent the reductive nature of make up work more for how it reduces me and my teaching than for the work it takes to compile it. And that I fear may be vanity…

As for the work it takes to compile make up work, I must be honest and say I resent that, too. Here I’ve been at school, keeping my end of the bargain and teaching. A perpetually absent child has now returned, his return a harbinger of paperwork I must now assemble. Yet, philosophically, I believe in second chances. I believe in letting students make new choices today based upon the insights and maturity they have gained. I just have trouble believing it in practice. So, I’ve come up with a little compromise. I tell my earnest-turning-a-new-leaf students that yes, they can make up what they have missed, and yes, I will compile that for them. However, I will only allow them to make up work if they have good attendance for the next two weeks. If these students truly do return and attend and keep up with the current work as best they can, I find my desire to catch them up generates all on its own. After two weeks of attendance and effort on a student’s part, I am again smitten. Intoxicated with the potential of keeping a lost sheep in my flock, I tend to put together a much better make up packet. This compromise, I figure, keeps me from missing anything…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Thursday, February 7, 2008

My Teaching Wardrobe Re-Visited

As seniors in high school, my friend and I used to pass notes about our English teacher’s clothes. We did this because her fabulous clothes exceeded the outfits our other teachers wore and because we were sixteen. “It’s a suede skirt day!” I wrote to my friend who would not have our classy teacher for two more class periods. I, myself, have not garnered that kind of praise from students with my fashion sense. Early on in my teaching career, my utilitarian fashion approach caused a student to exclaim, “See! Navy blue pants! I told you…I mean, it is Wednesday!”

When I began teaching, I had to transform my early nineties grunge collection of thrift shop granny sweaters and floor length skirts into a professional wardrobe with little to no money. Since I couldn’t shoot for the moon, I instead strove for “neat” and “appropriate.” Additionally, I’ve always lived at least a forty-five minute commute to my school, so “crumpled” has come easily to my overall look, too. Looking around at my fellow teachers, I don't think I'm alone. Most of us look nice, but I don't think a bunch of us together would be mistaken for members of a city law firm.

As a younger teacher, I tried to be sexually innocuous. I wore blouses that didn’t cling or have deep cut necklines; I wore pants or skirts that hid curves. I’ve always focused on students with lower skill sets, an issue often accompanied by immaturity. I didn’t want my femininity to be a distraction. (Okay, so maybe I wore something cute once, but after a day of "Whoo-hoo! Teacher's got a date tonight--can it be with me?" I decided to go for something more bland.) A bad experience with spit balls of gum covering the back of my head one day led to the habit of pulling my hair up instead of leaving it down. (The worst part of that day was not knowing when the gum had gotten into my hair; my classroom management in those days left something to be desired!) In the end, these various factors distilled into a recipe of plain shirt + long denim skirt + bun clip = good to go.

I’m thirty-five now, and the likelihood that I’ll be a sexual distraction has diminished somewhat, which is probably why I’d like to tighten up my look a little. While I am still “neat” and “appropriate,” I fear I’m slipping into “dowdy.” However, now there are different factors to consider. If I teach in stockings and clicking heels, people assume I have a meeting with administration. Where I teach, the academics slouch around in cotton and prints and slip on mules; administrators wear tailored outfits in dark solids with shiny leather shoes. A shift in uniform at my age could be seen as a shift in career focus. (“Look who wants to be an administrator!”) Another alternative is the “school spirit” route, but wearing shirts with the school emblem tucked into my black jeans every day requires a kind of cheer I find difficult to muster day after day.

I might as well face it; other people have to look at me all day long, so I don’t get to hide if I’m in a blouse that pulls or a skirt that rides up. Unlike my classy teacher from years ago who read The Bald Soprano aloud to us students while she sat perched on a stool, I march around the room and gesture frequently, often getting sweaty as I try to rouse enthusiasm for proper use of the semicolon. I teach with overhead markers and grade with sometimes sticky gel pens, so I’ve never wanted to spend lots of money on formally tailored work clothes. I wear shoes that withstand being on my feet and perhaps crossing a field during a fire drill. Maybe I look exactly like what I am: somebody’s teacher, somebody’s mom, and somebody who gets the job done. Maybe I’ll start investing in a better wardrobe for the weekend instead…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher