It is now the Saturday after my third week of teaching. I just woke up from a 12-hr night of sleep and I had a delicious breakfast of grits, biscuits and gravy, and coffee with ice cream. The Delta U cafeteria is growing on me I meant to update this blog last week when I was sure I had made a real breakthrough on Tuesday night and was going to have an AWESOME, perfect, beautiful Wednesday…and then that didn’t happen. However, this Thursday was good, and Friday was even better. But I’ll tell you about that soon…
Institute may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done–actually, it IS the hardest thing I’ve ever done–but it has taught me so much invaluable information about the achievement gap, about myself, and about the value and challenge of being a teacher. I’ve learned about everything from how backwards planning works to how NOT to joke about waking-up a student who feigns being asleep (NEVER say the word wet-willy to a group of 5 year olds). I’ve learned that threatening to call home is not nearly as motivational as not being able to do the ‘Rock-n-Roll Hokey Pokey’ at the end of the day. I’ve learned that I never valued all the hard work that goes into planning a lesson, maintaining order in the classroom, making and grading assessments, keeping in contact with parents, and knowing the content you’re teaching inside-out and backwards so that you can explain things we do without thought to a kindergartner. I’ve also learned that my most challenging students have SO MUCH potential; it’s my job now to figure out how to get them there.
There are three main things I’ve learned from institute that I didn’t know 2 weeks ago.
a) Institute is the hardest thing I’ve ever done because quitting is not an option.
I had heard that institute was the hardest thing I would ever do, but I was pretty skeptical. Sure, it’s a lot of work and a tough schedule but if I can take 18 credits, be the president of a club sports team, be a conversation partner, and hold 2 jobs, this was going to be a breeze. Yeah, I know teaching for the first time is going to be challenging, but I was a tour guide back at school and I already had that plus some other teaching experience under my belt. And what about all that lesson planning?! Well, I had taken some Ed courses at Pitt and had planned a lot of lessons before. I honestly thought that my role at institute would be to encourage and help other struggling CMs because I would be excelling. And then I got here…
If you read the last post, you know I had a rough first week. TfA lesson planning took a lot more time than I had expected and I was/am only getting 4-5 hrs of sleep/night. My lesson plans were pretty decent, but I never got to execute them in the classroom because I spent so much time dealing with behavior problems. My kids weren’t learning anything because I didn’t get to teach much and even though we rarely had enough time for my assessments, they sucked in the first place since I was expecting kindergartners to read and write on a worksheet. I made kids cry, they weren’t learning anything, and I didn’t know what else to do about it. I WAS A TERRIBLE TEACHER!
But this isn’t piano lessons, or soccer, or AP Bio–I can’t just say, “I’m not very good at this…I should just try another career.” This is my life for the next two years. Being in Teach for America isn’t really binding until you sign your Ameri-corps contract, and even then it’s not like trying to leave the military or quitting a job. I am not a quitter, but if there wasn’t so much motivation to stay, I might have actually just left. Aside from the fact that I had already moved all my stuff here, landed a job, made a commitment, I couldn’t imagine just going back to Pittsburgh and living with my family until I found a job or decided to go to grad school.
What really keeps me here though, is knowing what’s at stake if WE leave. There’s a reason Teach for America exists and there’s a reason they accept all highly-qualified applicants. Yes, there are a lot of good teachers out there, but if I spent 4+ years getting my teaching degree (and paying for that degree), I’m not going to WANT to teach in a school where the pay is average, where my students will be ‘difficult,’ and where the school system/administration isn’t the best. Who can blame good teachers for wanting to teach in the suburbs!? I’m not saying that we’re just as prepared to teach as someone with a traditional cert (because most of us really aren’t at this point), but TfA recruits and trains the way it does because America NEEDS highly motivated teachers in our lowest-preforming schools RIGHT NOW. None of us leave institute fully prepared to teach, but that’s why we have ongoing certification and so much teacher-support staff when we get to our regions. I’m not a great teacher yet, but if I quit now then I won’t be anytime soon. And my kids–every one of them–deserves a teacher who will challenge them to meet high goals and give them the skills and confidence they need to make it all the way past graduation. All 5 of my students now, and all 20-some of my students that I’ll meet in less than a month, NEED me to do this.
b) ‘Investing your students’ and having a ‘culture of achievement’ are so much more than TfA buzzwords.
This week in particular, I’ve really been able to see the difference between my students here and how I was at that age. A lot of my students are here because they have to be. Their parents drop them off in the morning and they have to stay in school until they get picked back up. I LOVED school at that age, mostly because I was good at it. I came into school already knowing how to read, count, speak well, and play with other students (minus that smacking-another-preschooler-in-the-head-with-a-firetruck-incident when I was three…but I learned from that and moved on). The kids with the most behavior problems aren’t by coincidence the ones that are behind the most academically. They act the way they do largely because they are behind before we even start. They don’t think they can do the work and they probably don’t think I think they can either. Which is why investing them is so important.
My kids all want to go to first grade, but since they’re probably all going in the fall it doesn’t make sense to them that they have to do anything extra to get there. What we’re doing in summer school though, is teaching 1st grade material and simultaneously covering material they didn’t learn in kindergarten. This way, they’ll be just as, if not more-so, prepared for first grade than the rest of their peers–the students that are behind will be excelling instead of falling more behind. But this needs to be communicated to them! They don’t just WANT to absorb all this new stuff…they need to know how it will help them do well in first grade and how THAT will lead to college and a good job. Just that little explanation which takes maybe 5 mins out of our lesson plans, can make a huge difference in behavior.
‘Culture of Achievement’ is another TfA phrase that I didn’t fully appreciate until now. It refers to the atmosphere of a classroom where the students are all on a positive trajectory and help one another to get there. My classroom had become a battle ground between the smart kids and the ‘bad’ kids. No one wanted to sit next to one another, no one wanted to work with one another, no one wanted to help one another. It’s going to be hard to fix that in the next 5 days, but having students that show one another that they believe in each other is just as important as academic achievement. Not to mention, it’s going to make my job a lot easier if they help each other stay focused and can sit at the same table without any instigation/retaliation.
c) I can have a real TfA classroom–it’s what my kids looked like on Friday
My week had been getting slightly better, but on Friday we started making some real progress. The first thing that happened was I realized what it means to FEEL invested. During our Diversity Community(Culture?) and Achievement (DCA) session on Friday I came into the room and really had to use the bathroom. But when we got started, I couldn’t leave because the discussion was so good and I knew it was all relevant to me becoming a good teacher. My kids ask to ‘use it’ like 5 times a day…but if they really cared about what we were doing, they wouldn’t! They wouldn’t ask “Is it time for lunch?” or “When are we going home” either. So I realized I had to spend a few minutes on investing them when I got back to the classroom.
The second thing that happened was our bathroom break. Historically, these have been terrible. We’re always the last class to get into line (because we can’t follow directions), and some kids take a really long time doing God-knows-what in that stall and then even longer ‘washing their hands’ (aka playing in the water). Friday was just as bad even though we are cutting down on our time a little bit (we have a goal of spending less than 3:30 ‘using it’). We were 5 mins late to walk to our classroom and only 3/5 were walking the way they should. Thanks to that, one boy whose hands weren’t on his ‘hips and lips’ reached out and touched something on the wall which fell down. I put it back up and re-iterated that that wouldn’t happen if he had been standing the way he should have been and we proceeded to our door.
My directions then were, “walk to your seat and sit in Leo poistion” (sit up straight, hands folded, feet on the floor). My first 2 boys played with the light switch as they came in and the other 3 milled around the classroom. I started behavior narrating (I see Josh is walking to his seat…I see Randy is sitting down…) but they didn’t care. Enter: angry Ms. Sawl.
The lights went off, my voice got loud, and my kids looked terrified. But it worked. We spent the next 15 minutes of learning time talking about respecting one another and what that looks like. We talked about how our actions affect other people and unkind behavior hurts everyone. I told them my story about how I had to go to the bathroom for an hour but I cared so much about what I was learning that I held it. And we talked about how what we’re learning now will be important for first grade and will help them become police officers and scuba divers. At this point, I had taken up 20 mins of a 45-min lesson, but it was worth it. My lesson on ‘take away’ was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and every student got 6/6 on the assessment.The transition to our next lesson and the lesson itself weren’t as great, but considering I was trying to squeeze in an already challenging topic (counting down to subtract without manipulatives or a number line) into 20 minutes, I can’t exactly blame my kids. We’re making progress. Finally, we’re making progress!