Saturday, August 25, 2012

Another Reason to Avoid PD

Dear All,

Since I started teaching, I've managed to forget about or be sick on every district-wide professional development day.  This has been quite a boon to me; I was actually looking forward to Thursday's session.  I was right to want to go: our facilitator was dynamic, she gave us planning time, we received most of the materials we need to plan for the year, aligned to standards, etc.  Wonderful.

The room was really hot, and, not having been to a PD before, I expected air conditioning.  I mean, even if most of the high schools don't have it, it would make sense to hold PD in a school with some kind of central air, right?  I mean, there has to be at least one, doesn't there?  Well, the host school was no cooler than mine, and there I was, in a sweater and cords.  It was 90 degrees, and I was sitting by the heater, in front of the windows.  When we had our first break, I made a beeline for the hallway.  (Having no windows, the hall was much cooler.)  The heat didn't send just me running, though.  Yells from the corner where I'd come from followed me out.  I chatted with a friend in the hall, but floods of people dispersed us.  Why?

The heat chased a snake out of the heater.  It slithered right onto my bag.  Had it been there while I was sitting in my chair, hiding it from view?  Did they scream because it came out when I left, or because it stirred on its way to my chair?  It was a long, black, orange-striped snake.  The stripes were shaped like diamonds -- a rather menacing shape on a reptile, I think.  When the dude who caught it wrapped it around his arm, it went all the way to his elbow.  The creature was an inch and a half in diameter, at least, but I was shaking with shivers too much to get all that close.

I was skittish the rest of the day.  My effort to look like I wasn't trying to keep my feet off the ground while watching all four of the legs of my chair meant that I have no idea what was said about our unit plans, curriculum, or testing.  No idea.

But it's all okay.  The school was glad to find it, really.  No matter about teachers whose bags are inspected by reptiles -- they'd been looking for a replacement for the Science Department pet, lost last October.  Oh.  Wait... maybe this was the same little guy, just hanging out?  Living off mice?  In the school?  For nine months?  What else is living in our halls?

I'm glad my bag was an attractive enough lure to get it out of the heater, at least, even if I may never again set foot in a professional development session.

It didn't help that on my way out my department head told me about another one in the Social Studies room.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Second Year Begins

Alas, it was not in the cards to document my first year as a teacher.  Perhaps, in the relative calm of the second time around, I will be more attentive to my web presence.  Here's to that, I say, and clink my cup of tea to the edge of my computer.

My to do list stretches on and on, well into impossibility, but today I learned that the pushpins will hold posterboard to the cloth wall of one side of my room.  At least, the posters weren't falling down when I left, an hour after putting them up.  I also learned that the age of the screws holding the blinds make pulling some of them down to cover the wall of windows difficult, at best, but at least when the rod of the shade hit me in the face it didn't leave a bruise (yet).  The sink in my room isn't working, so the risk of water fights is nil (huzzah!) and the unfortunate juxtaposition of said sink with the only working outlets and internet jacks is rendered a bit less problematic.  My boards aren't covered in The Sticky, that unnamed substance which so often mars good slate blackboards, and I have confidence that I will have a computer in my room by the time students arrive, even if it is my laptop from home.

I must confess that fear has been building in me for weeks now.  What if they fight?  What if they refuse to work, even more than last year, and what if (God forbid), I'm not ready?  What if I haven't written my syllabus before the first day?  I had that nightmare the other night.  I woke up in tears and cold sweats.  Then, yesterday afternoon, as I settled in to work after a long morning of polishing silver, cleaning faucets, watching Frasier, cooking a three course breakfast, and staring at my bills, my flash drive announced that it needed formatting.  All the work I'd done since July -- admittedly, not as much as I'd have liked to have finished -- was gone.  You can imagine the panic.

So yesterday evening, after making dinner for my Grandma and seeing all my old teacher friends at a barbeque, I collapsed into a Negative Nancy I don't ever want to be.  The panic and the fear chased off all the rational solutions to the problems I face with data tracking and objective mastery.  I sat on the couch with my wonderful boyfriend offering me all these great answers to my questions, but I refused to see the light.  I couldn't breathe for all the problems I felt.

But hope comes from strange places.  A good night's sleep and decent breakfast helped, as did seeing friendly faces before I even left for work (what joy it is to live with a good friend), but hope comes from stranger places than that: the smell in the hallway when I walked into school banished my panic.  The smell of old, chipping tile walls and slightly rotten laminate floors, freshly waxed; the smell of dust and grime sloshed away for the new beginning of a new year.  It was the smell that came off of the cafeteria and gym, unused for a summer but seasoned well by years of service.  It was a familiar.  This place was familiar.  The hallways made sense, they looked the same; the morning light felt like it usually does in the stairwell, unnecessarily filtered, not quite able to bleach out the scent of old soda in the corners.  The lights in the hallway upstairs weren't working, but the form of a favorite colleague was familiar enough to recognize.  I knew we were smiling before I could see her.  And my new room, my room next to the stairwell with the most fights, my room next to the only plug in the hallway and therefore a favorite site for skipping and for water coolers; my room, full of things that haven't happened yet -- I was happy to see it.  It's a new room, but it feels right.

I will buckle down and rewrite my lost syllabus.  I will write my late slips and refusal to work forms, I will organize a new flash drive and back it up to the cloud, even if Dropbox won't load at school.  I can't believe it's over, this summer; I spent such energy looking forward to it.  Here I am, now, and I guess I get to spend my energy looking forward to tomorrow, instead.  Maybe I'll get better at being this happy exactly where I am.

After all, there are too many windows in my room to avoid the light for long.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Upon Writing A Final Exam...

I didn't update this blog often this year, and that is a fair reflection of my consistency in much of my teacherish life so far: intentions fell flat upon implementation because the urgency of the task overwhelmed my ability to manage in the time allowed.

So I sit in a coffeeshop on Memorial Day, trying to write finals for my English I and II classes, realizing I left my flash drive at home.  Classic.  Perhaps I can come up with a final from memory: what did we study this year?  Conflict?  Vocabulary?  Metaphor?  Romeo and Juliet?  Symbols?  Jesu Maria, if this is the list that I am coming up with, how stranded must my students feel, faced with a final exam?  What terrible disservice have I done?!

This may seem melodramatic, but there has been a deep, strangling struggle in me for the last few weeks.  I think I failed my students.  They took the HSA this past week (a high stakes test that should be easy as pie but actually takes them many, many tries).  The look of sadness on their faces as they Christmas Treed the last section, the knowledge of their failure writ in the resignation on their faces, I knew.  I promised them I'd help them pass.  I didn't.  It broke my heart more than I could have predicted.  I did not teach them as well as they deserved; I did not come up with kinesthetic, sorting-based activities; I did not make my activities rigorous enough; and now, I should be writing a final, but here I am, without my flash drive, only my memory of a year -- could have been ten years -- to guide me.

So what shall I do instead?  Help my boyfriend look for apartments and intermittently write a list of the things I failed in and a list of the things I passed in.  Maybe by the end of this I will have found a bigger chunk of my optimism than I've had the last few weeks.

Forgive me if I borrow weighty words and then labor to make them light.

Things I did wrong:
- angered easily at small grievances, among them students' insults and refusals to work
- gave vocabulary work that was too difficult
- stopped providing weekly written progress reports
- failed to insist upon homework completion
- forgave missing work too easily
- forgot to have fun and succumbed to urgency
- got caught in the necessity of the instruction instead of the application of skills
- didn't track IEP goals in grading
- gave them materials they often passed without thinking hard enough
- didn't given them enough rigor
- didn't learn to break up fights
- didn't deescalate conflicts often enough

Things I did well:
- came up with organizational systems in excel
- called parents and kept track of it in excel
- wrote seriously quality IEPs
- organized grades so I could use the data to track progress... but rarely used it that way
- kept on top of emails
- developed a good relationship with my department head
- created different levels of lots of texts... but only sometimes created different ways to interact with said texts
- created individual plans with different kids
- consistent focus questions
- found some decent websites for materials
- realized the importance of teaching explicit skills
- realized the importance of writing a unit test BEFORE teaching the unit

This is getting depressing.

One of my students hasn't come in weeks.  She could have passed.  She could have been a writer; god knows she needs the outlet for her, ah, 'creative' versions of her life (she lies, often).  Did she stop coming because I stopped insisting on it?  Was I too nice, and not kind by pressuring her to get her work done?  Was I too soft, in my hope that a good relationship would inspire work?  Yet... the worst days were the days I got angry or yelled, the days I tried to force LEARNING into their heads.  The worst days were the days they saw my frustration at the enormous gap between where they deserved to be and where they are.  I hear, over and over, that this is not my fault, but I feel so strongly that it IS my fault, that their deelopment this year was my responsibility, that I owed it to all of them to be more patient and have more fun so that they could, too.

Their final is in a week.  Some of them still write sentences without subjects, some of them hate me, some of them haven't written a complete sentence on their own all year -- I teach special ed, I know, but still, I should have students who can write sentences.  It's not fair to them to send them out into the world with a passing grade when they can't write to save their lives -- literally.  Yet I can't fail them, no matter if that is a more accurate representation of how well they can get along by writing, if I am at fault for their inability.  Given the Fail List, I know it's mostly me.

They say that in your first year this feeling of epic failure is common, but that you were still better than the alternative.  Those words feels bitter in my mouth; not the bitter taste of adrenaline, the bitter taste of something poisonous.  How can this be better than what they would have had?  Even my writing has gotten worse this year.  I haven't taught them how to practice writing or how to use it to express themselves, really.

I feel empty.

I don't have time, now, to write the list of things I'll change and add and do; that will come sometime this summer.  There's no perfect wrap up here; I need to write a final and a study guide, so I don't have time to find peace with this.  I don't have time to find peace with my endless to do list, or the rather lonely feeling that came on Friday when one of my kids commented, "Ms. Warfield never laughs."

All I can resolve to change this week is to be joyful, for these days; to use mad libs more often, and maybe Quiddler; to search for something fun this evening that they can do all week, to research fun readings for their final.  I could give them a scavenger hunt through their archive of work from the year.

I suppose there is some hope in this after all: I still have ideas.  I have hope that I can be the teacher I want to be because I know where all the holes are -- the journey to find ways to fill them will be long.  I have to find the right dirt, I guess.  I must not fill the gaps in my pedagogy with sand.  I must fill them with real work and real skills... but I must not let this urgency scare us away from the task.

I'm not looking for sympathy, but I would love an answer to this question: how do I keep it fun and light in the face of obstinate refusal, absenteeism, and administrative pressure for numbers?  How do I change my threshold for stress, to keep the frustration from surfacing in class?  How do I remember thatmy kids are wonderful people whn the adults around me scoff at such?  I know that if I enter the world in the spirit of joy, I will feel better, and so will they -- but where is the time for the meditation, and what do I say, and how do I keep that consistent?  Quaker Meeting helps, but what is my mantra every day?  What can I say that does not harangue and push, but reminds and lifts?

How can I lighten my spirit in the face of all this failure and all this need?

Such is my quest for light.

Forgive me for not writing sooner.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year's?

On New Year's Eve, we moved from Italy to Spain in the champagne department, so I guess the next step would have been port.  Yeah, I stole that phrase.  From K, at my dinner party.

Some of my favorite people from across these fine states were in my apartment that evening.  It's too small for us all to sit in the same room, so a sampling of my people got cross-pollinated from the necessary seating separation ... awesome.

I haven't written in some time.  The new year always makes me feel like I'm in a little bit of a funk, and this year hasn't been any different.  I resolved to finish what I start rather than put a task down midway: no more picking up a dish from the dishwasher and letting it hit the counter before the cabinet.  No more starting a progress report and then letting it hit the 'to finish' pile.  It's working!  My room is cleaner, my laundry is put away, I managed to lesson plan for a fair bit of the evening.

Still, there is  bit of dread in me for tomorrow.  I want that to go away.  It isn't that I don't love my students, I do.  And I did much of my paperwork before the break, so while I have massive amounts of mailings to do in the next week, I shouldn't have this knot in my chest.  "We Bought A Zoo" released all the tension of the holidays for an evening or two; a few days with a cousin in Manassas put a smile on my face; a New Year's Eve party gave me lots to laugh about.  It's just... now, I feel a little like glass, and I want to feel more like sunshine.

I am going to write to get my positivity back.  These are the things I love about my life right now:

One of my favorite people from college lives around the corner.  We spent the evening banagramming, monopolying, and writing plans.

I live three hours from the greatest town on earth (Charlottesville) and dinner parties with rabbit, brothers, and dreams of a farm.

One of my students told me she wanted to go to Harvard.

K smiled and wrote a complete paragraph before the break.  She usually shouts at me a lot.

The paperwork has a purpose.  Even if it's redundant, I have to remember that there was a reason we were asked to do that, so I have to try.

If they haven't noticed that I haven't been perfect so far, then they may give me a little leeway.

Keep moving forward.

I have friends I trust in times of crisis AND times of joy.

The ball of stress isn't gone yet.  I'm really nervous about tomorrow.  I'm nowhere near the organizational whiz kid I need to be.  I'm dreading someone finding out I'm a phony.  Oh.

I guess that's the meat of it: I came into this year thinking I could change the world in a few months, believing that I was good enough -- because I think through things and try hard -- that I, unprepared, was better than other teachers.  That's just not true.  I'm so young as a teacher.  I do things like not realize that there's a ten year old faking being a high school student in my class, I enter entire IEPs without realizing which radio buttons I have to hit before I can save and therefore have late paperwork, and then there's the progress reports I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be copying and sending home... I answer my own questions, I repeat myself, I lose my patience.

This is going to be a long slog.  It's about more than enthusiasm.  I think I'm dreading tomorrow because I know I'm not good enough and being confronted with that... well, it'll get better.  I can work on the paperwork, I can fix my tendency to answer my own questions.  I can remind myself to take deep breaths.  I have the reflective capacity to look at problems as they come and fix them; maybe I'm just overwhelmed because it's been so long since I was in class that I can't break the manifold things wrong with me as a teacher into fixable pieces.  Maybe tomorrow I'll find the fixable stuff again.

If not, I'll walk the AT in silence for a few days over spring break and it'll come to me then.

Here's to writing some time before then, and here's to your year being a peaceful, friendly one.