Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ode to the School Secretary

Walking by an office window recently, I caught sight of a little Halloween decoration on someone’s desk. Suddenly, my mind flooded with affection for the school secretaries who have made my teaching life easier.

My father, a thirty eight year teaching veteran, chaperoned my first school secretary love affair. I can’t remember the woman’s name, but the front office secretary in his high school took a shine to me. She always had a little treat for me when I traipsed after my dad, keeping him company during summer days when he went in to verify book counts or in afternoons before he worked as the announcer for the school’s wrestling matches. She gave me a little toy bank she made herself that I kept until I left for college. I knew her from the ages of possibly five to seven; sadly, I can’t even picture her face. I can see her hands, opening her drawers, giving me paper to draw, making me feel welcome “behind the counter,” which seemed to me a land like Oz.

When I first began teaching, I taught in an urban school district. A succinct version of perhaps the most formative years of my professional life would categorize the experience as challenging. After three years, I got a job in a more stabilized district, and the young woman who got my schedule quit the third day of school on the front office answering machine. I stayed through three years because of my father’s guidance, affection for my students, fellow teachers’ advice and understanding, my own abject poverty, and the love and support of several school secretaries, by then called administrative assistants.

I laugh as I realize my relationships with these women looks remarkably like the one I had with the school secretary when I was six years old. Unlike teacher friends, who might share my prep or lunch period one semester but not the next, administrative assistants are reliably available. These women found the heart to decorate their desks for the seasons even when the challenges we faced as an institution left many of us without the energy for such niceties. They lovingly compared me to their daughters, they assured me that my nascent efforts at strong teaching counted, they clucked their tongues at my travails, handing me Hershey kisses and promising things would get better with time and experience. One woman even fixed me up with her nephew, a lovely man who ultimately wasn’t my cup of tea but who treated me gloriously, a sweet reprieve from my work life.

These women made sure I never missed a health care open enrollment. They ensured that I knew ahead of time when a parent came in to see me. They gave me a little oasis at their desks, a place where someone liked me and refrained from judgment, putting aside the piles of work that needed their attention and meeting my needs instead.

The administrative assistant with whom I now work treats me with the same kind of caring affection. Since I’m no longer a new teacher, she grants me different support, the support of one working woman to another. She shared her pregnancy stories as I carried my son; she makes sure my schedule works with my duel role as teacher and parent; she always acts as if listening to me and my issues is just what she was planning to do in that moment anyway.

Amongst the many intangibles that make a school successful lies the school secretary. May all teachers find a little haven in the school office.

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Know When to Walk Away--Know When to Run"

Am I referring to a difficult exchange with a student? A department disagreement? No, as almost always, I’m referring to that charming stack of essays to be graded that almost every English teacher has fermenting in a tote bag on the seat of the car, near the front door, or by her or his desk. I try to grade essays within seven to ten days of receipt because I find students’ investment dwindles if I take too long to get the essays back. That makes me feel like I wasted energy, and I can’t stand that feeling. However, October is a busy time for me.

Besides the fact that I mother a four year old and the Halloween season is in full swing (he’ll be a penguin, by the way), the conference I coordinate for regional English teachers takes place next week, too. It’s an exciting time for both those reasons. Through some really poor planning on my part, all of my classes turned in essays to me about now. (I think I thought back in August, “The conference isn’t for another week; I’ll grade everything before the big day!” Did I forget that I decided to hand fold the programs? Groan.) I’m having difficulty quieting my mind sufficiently to pay these essays the attention the students who wrote them deserve.

Students like to get their work back quickly. Telling students I don’t have their work because my life kicked up a notch gets about as much sympathy as when a parent tells a beloved child she has a headache. “And this means what to me?” asks the child, eyebrows arched. So I don’t tell my students I’ve prioritized other things. Instead, I explain that, for various reasons, I’m having trouble grading with patience and interest. “I don’t think that’s fair to all of you,” I explain, “ so I’m going to take some extra time to be sure each essay gets the attention it deserves. I don’t want to take my stress out on somebody’s essay!”

I don’t think they’d grant me a month, but they do give me the breathing room I need right now. When students nag me about papers I’m already feeling guilty about, I tend to get snippy, which serves no one. I’ve found that openly pushing back from the table, confessing I’m walking away for a week or so, garners respect and space.

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

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Little Icing on my Cake...

Tuesday our school gave us a day of in-service training. The content of the day did not light me on fire, but I’ve also sat through much worse; besides, they gave us a make-your-own-sundae surprise, which we teachers responded to with a kind of enthusiasm that only highly educated professionals who buy their own office supplies can muster. Our administration, as well as paid consultants, peppered their speeches with the poster platitudes of education: We do the most important work; Our students need us; We are the backbone of America. Then they showed us statistics demonstrating how much more we must accomplish. Pretty much a standard day of in-service, in my experience…

They emphasized that we teachers must ensure that our students are fully engaged. They told us that students who value the relationships they build at school perform better. They urged us to relate more to students, to be available, to be caring without lowering our academic standards. I agree with these messages, but these broad discussions weary me. I left the day uncertain if the measures I take to engage my students are enough. If not enough to reach every single student, are my efforts at least enough to make me “a good teacher?”

When my developmental writing class trooped in Wednesday morning, two young women balanced tubs of Tupperware amongst their bags. Within, they carried the validation I needed. On Monday, I had been reviewing compound-complex sentences. I directed students to write a complex sentence and then add a simple sentence to the end as a way to get used to writing this structure. As a model, I wrote: “If Joe needs the car, we can walk, so he can drive.” A few students argued that “he can drive” was too “little” to be a sentence. We talked again about the three things needed for a sentence, but then I launched into a metaphor I’ve used for at least ten years.

“I’m the youngest of four,” I began. “So when it came to things like baking birthday cupcakes, my mom had been around the block. A box of cake mix makes about 26-28 cupcakes, and my grade school classes always had about 30-32 kids. My mom would make that one box stretch, making these little cupcakes that didn’t even rise above the liner paper! Then she’d make one batch of icing stretch, skimping so much that sometimes the cake could be seen through the thin veil of icing she scraped across it. I would complain. ‘These cupcakes look cheap! They’re too small! They need more icing! Add some candy to the top!’ Of course, my mother had none of it. ‘We don’t need to bring cupcakes at all,’ she’d say. I just wanted fancy bakery cupcakes like the Pino girls brought, the cake mounded high above the wrapper, the icing flourished generously. But alas, my mother made a point. Though small and simple, my cupcakes were still cupcakes.” I correlate that the humble simple sentence “He can drive” has the three basic elements needed to be a sentence. Just because some people like extra icing (adjectives and adverbs) or candy on top (prepositional phrases) doesn’t mean this humble little structure is any less a sentence. Usually, my classes laugh and shake their heads at me. I tell this story with a bit of drama. I mean, it’s an hour and forty minutes of grammar in isolation I’m asked to teach here! I try to personify parts of speech, too…I tell them the semi-colon is for when the ideas are so intimate they want to slow dance, touching down the length of their little word bodies…I get goofy. The cupcake story is no exception. On Monday, my class laughed.

However, on Wednesday, these two girls brought in cupcakes for the class, “like Ms. K’s mother never made her, like the sentences she wants to see.” I get teary now just writing about it. I wouldn’t have told anyone Monday or Tuesday that these girls related to me in any special or particular way. They don’t seek me out all the time. I’m not certain they’ll come back to visit me after our schedules part. They baked those cupcakes and gave me a delightful, sweet, and unexpected dose of validation. How many students feel that engaged but just don’t know how to bake? We may never be able to accurately assess how “engaged” our students feel in our classes. Now when I reflect on my Tuesday night concern about whether or not I am trying hard enough to engage my students, I think that maybe any teacher who cares enough to evaluate him or herself every so often is probably doing it right. I know dozens of teachers who deserve a student-baked cupcake who may not get one. It’s an imperfect science out there. I may not get another cupcake for another ten years. But I got one this week, and it sure is sweet…

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