Friday, January 30, 2009

Epiphany - Less work equals more Teacher

For weeks I've been wracking my brain about the pacing guides versus the state standards.

Backing up for those of you that are not in the teaching profession: there are federal laws that dictate what constitutes what will be taught for each subject for each state. This is to ensure that a student who relocates from school system A to school system B will theoretically be taught the same materially and get an equivalently good education. However, this isn't usually how it works out since there is little governmental oversight.

In the inner city spectrum of the educational world, to make matters even more complicated, we don't just have federal rules on what we're supposed to be teaching for our subject area. We also have these little guides that tell us what we supposed to be covering by each 4 and 1/2 week period, conveniently called a pacing period. At the end of these pacing periods, the students get tested and if their tests scores aren't up to snuff... people and schools get axed.

We call this "No Child Left Behind." I won't get into that subject here because I don't understand it enough yet to have an opinion either way.

I do know that I think the pacing guides are confusing, vague, not well organized, difficult to follow, and generally have been the ban of my existence for 6 months. I've been trying to organize my units and lessons around them because I follow the state standards but they are no help because they are so VAGUE! These couldn't be any less helpful if they weren't in English.

So... I finally got sick of them tonight and said a naughty adult word while throwing them across the room. I pulled out my copy of my state standards and looked at them again. Well organized, the content well explained, in-depth, thorough, and consistent - I think I will use these to make my own pacing guides. It's not really what I had planned on doing, but my kids don't get the tests anyway so I don't have to worry about NCLB. For now.

I'm still teaching by the state standards. I'm totally committed to that. Until I'm teaching a subject that I'm certified to teach in (Biology, Chemistry) I'm going to go with the state standards and not the pacing guides because they make much more sense. Anything that makes my job a little easier is totally worth it. I need all of my energy for the kids.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mini Vacation and my Sanity

Snow day, version 3.0.

I suppose all in all, this is an extremely good thing. We got 13 inches of snow and all of yesterday I didn't leave my apartment. I just holed it in with the cat and the electric blanket and caught up on some extremely much needed sleep and brain-dead time. I didn't bother to go outside and play in the snow because then I'd have to look at my car and see how buried it was under the snow.

The point there being that I live in an apartment complex that plows. That sounds great until they plow the snow past your car and you now have a wall of snow holding your car in. At 5am. And you really need to get across town to a school by 6 to organize a classroom for the day. Did I mention that I find mornings annoying?

Actually, that's not true. I'm an insomniac and I have been all my life. I don't sleep well, wake up frequently, don't fall asleep easily (especially when stressed), don't stay asleep easily (especially when stressed), and I wake up early (especially when stressed). My mother used to call it the "mom gene." When we're nervous, we wake up. I've almost never needed an alarm clock in my life because I wake up 5 to 10 minutes before it goes off every day. When I'm nervous, I wake up 1 to 2 hours before it goes off. For some odd reason, it's worse for me when the sun is up. I feel the weight of my lack of sleep more when I wake up to the sun's rays than if I wake up and it's still dark out. Maybe it's a biological rhythm or maybe it's psychological... I don't know. I do know that waking up at 5 am is a lot easier than waking up at 9am when I've gotten 5 hours of sleep. Go figure.

These days I tend to get very little sleep. I have about 150 students to keep track off and every day they turn in at least one assignment each. Multiply that by 5 days a week and add to that the research for the lessons and time to create them, and prep time to copy, set them up, and whatever else is needed and you have my time just for teaching. Add to that the time for my graduate studies and you have the rest of my life.

Again, I love my job. I mentally equate this to the time during a doctor's training called "residency." It's when they first start to work all hours of shifts and are basically the slaves of their departments while they try and earn their stripes in hopes of getting a good gig. First year teaching is like that. These transition to teaching programs are more like a doctor's residency. They are not for the faint of heart.

Just ask my cat who watched me fall asleep on my keyboard of my laptop last night with my glasses on on top of a book and a deck of cards I was shuffling for stress relief. It was just past 11pm on my night off. I woke up at 2am with my glasses smushed onto my face, the light on, the laptop asleep, and my cat curled around my shoulder - purring. Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Snow Day, 2.0

Another snow day - time to catch up on lesson plan and grading! Yay!!!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Busy Bee

Due to horrible weather, my graduate courses were canceled tonight. Am I doing something productive? No. Currently, I'm getting ready to go and get some much needed sleep. I could catch up on my much needed grading, but I think to myself... if I don't get some sleep soon then my students are going to see me teach about the benefits of sleep deprivation and hallucination during class through example.

They'd probably find it funny. Most of them come in every day with under 4 hours of sleep. They either work after school or are up all night talking to their friends or playing video games. I think most of their parent (single family homes) work double/triple jobs.

Anyway... I work full time as a first year teacher. That is a major time commitment. I don't take a lunch most days because I tutor the kids during my lunch break and I don't like eating in front of kids that don't have money for food. I can't feed them all so I don't eat. I get one hour during the day to work on my lessons and grade, but that's never enough for the 150 students I teach. I teach 6 classes a day and am in the school from 645 am until 4 to 6 pm. I plan my lessons after school and grade after school. I go home to work on grading and planning lessons. I'm teaching outside my subject area (Biology) so I have to go home and teach myself my subject so that I can make sure I know it enough to answer all of the questions I'll get.

I also take two graduate courses per week towards my masters in education. That means I also have my own homework, projects, papers, and finals to do for these classes. That, and I have the 3 to 4 hours per week of sitting in class on the other side of town listening to my graduate professor(s) tell me how to be a good teacher. I do like these classes, but when you've been up since 5 am, having a class from 7-9 pm gets really painful. Paying attention to even the most interesting material becomes difficult. By the time you get home, you want to die.

On the weekends, due to my busy schedule, I often catch up on things like: eating, sleeping, doing my lesson plans, washing clothes, sleeping, sleeping, holding still, sleeping, not thinking, and generally behaving *not* like a chicken with its head cut off.

Sometimes I wonder why I left research. Then I look into the eyes of my students every morning and I don't even wonder. I love my work. Even with all of the sacrifices. I love my work.

I'm Learning about Lessons and Smoking

I really like coloring projects. I'm having the students draw a diagram from the book today to learn about the electromagnetic spectrum. I used to hate doing this when I was in school. However, it's a good way to introduce a topic because the kids have to copy the material by hand. The kids seemed to like doing something that didn't involve a lot of writing of thinking for a change. I need to figure out a balance of assignments that involve critical thinking, creativity, hands-on manipulation, and memorization so that they are well rounded.

For right now, they are enjoying the coloring. Now, if I could only figure out how to time my lessons. Whenever I get a lesson going for what should take 20 minutes, it takes an hour. In what should take an hour, it takes them 10 minutes. I give up.

My only consolation prize for the day is that my students are incredibly supportive of the fact that I'm quitting smoking. I wasn't going to tell them at first, but they figured it out on their own when I was twitchy. They were so happy. They've been asking me about it every day and even going so far as to smell my hands to make sure I'm not smoking. Today, Kristina in my morning class jumped up and made me a star award for quitting and took it around today to have everyone in the school sign it for me. I nearly cried. She hugged me and told me she was proud of me.

These are the inner city students that everyone is afraid of. Hahahahahaha!

Monday, January 26, 2009

No Excuses?

Today's rant: Some days I feel like a total and utter failure as a teacher.Why, you may ask? I'm connecting with my students? I'm making an impact on their lives! I'm helping them to work on literacy and basic math skills. I'm helping them to gain an interest in the sciences and show them that they *can* do well in school.

However, I don't feel like that's enough. I don't feel like they're learning. I'm not meeting the state standards. I'm going at a snail's pace to make sure that I've got everyone caught up and we're falling behind. I'm going so slow to not scare them. I'm leaving out the stuff that I know that they won't have time to get because they don't have the background knowledge for. It makes me feel cheap and dirty, like I'm giving up on them without trying. When do I say, "that's enough" and walk away from a challenge? I feel like I've been doing that too much.

As my students would say "that's just too much." Except when they say it, it's usually in response to the amount of work I'm giving them. For me, I feel like I'm not doing a good job as their teacher. I feel like I've given up on them because I'm not pushing them hard enough.

They may not know the same amount as other kids, they may only have "pockets of knowledge," they may have seen things in their lives that would make me want to run and scream, they may go home and not see a single happy thing for the rest of the day but my face, they may not eat at home, they may just be pitiful.... but that doesn't make them stupid. I don't want to treat them like they're stupid. They are all bright and have the ability to pull themselves out if they want to. I just need to balance that with the reality of their lives and that is incredibly difficult.

The motto I want to live by is "No Excuses." However, what do you do when there are reasons for when students don't have work done or fall asleep in class every day? I want to push them to do their best... but what does that really mean?

I just want to have faith in them and push them to do their best. I want to believe in each and every one of them but it's draining. My little heart is tired in believing all day long. Is there a point where you just don't want to believe in each one every day? Is that wrong? I think it is. They're children, after all.

Friday, January 23, 2009

One Tough Cookie

Things that I need to get tougher on in class:

The kids really need to not have distractions to get their work done - that means their phone, mp3 players, how much their friends are able to talk to them, and their ability to distrupt the room.

Every day I look the other way because my kids are overloaded with electronics. According to the school rules, I'm supposed to confiscate the electronic devices whenever I see them or hear them. I don't want to spend the rest of my life arguing with students over taking "their property," so I look the other way. This probably doesn't help me in the end.

Then again... to make connections I need to be able to be "Miss Nice Guy." Contradictory, I know. Ugh. I'll figure it out as I go along. This are passable as they are right now. I think that the first year of teaching is like the first pancake. It's supposed to come out wrong while you figure things out.

Observating Headaches

It's been a long week.

I really hate teaching when I have a headache. Today's headache - I had 4 of the top people from my administration come through during my last period class and "observe." I'm all for people telling me how to do my job better, but I come from the profession research world were we did things a little differently and this is still taking a little bit of getting used to.

For example, this is how things worked in a lab: to get qualified to run a machine, do a research protocol, or basically anything in the lab there was a process. First you had to read about it and get signed off as done. Then you had to watch someone do it and get their signature. Then you had to do it and with the person next to you. Then you had to do it by yourself and have the person watch you. Then you had to run the next three times of doing to by yourself and have the person available for questions you might have. Then you were qualified to do whatever it was on your own, but you weren't considered a master.

In education, I was just thrown into the classroom. I was a sub and I wasn't given anything more than the rosters that were 3 days old. I didn't have access to the ability to take attendance until 3 months into school. I couldn't do grades. I couldn't do anything. I was just there taking up space. I couldn't discipline the kids. I made it all up as I went along. I tried to act as if I were a teacher and be respectful to all school rules.

When I became a full teacher in November, all rules were off. I wasn't given a rule book, a list of things to do now that I was a full teacher, a list of anything other than policy on dress code for the teachers and information on benefits from downtown when I signed. As to the school's policy's... I'm figuring them out as I go.

Now that I'm actually being observed... I think to myself that I'd like to know what I'm being observed on. I hope they know that I've just picked everything up since I've been here without any direction.

It was after the observation that I got a huge headache. I was worried that the kids would be themselves and shout about drug references during lecture or start screaming at each other. Today they were good. Small favors, eh?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Minions and the lesson of bad days

Some days you feel like a nut. Some days you don't.

I suppose in every job there are days when you drag to get out of bed and just don't want to go into work. When your a teacher there are days when you just don't want to look the little sprouts in the eye and say "I know you did your best, little Johnny!" Some days you want to say "F-ck it" and curl up in the corner with your eyes covered with your hat and sunglasses. Oh, and can one of the students get you a warm drink and a blanket like a good minion?

Wait... that's not PC, is it? Pfffttttt....

Teachers aren't perfect. We have bad days, too. We definitely aren't Saints. I know I'm not. There are days when I get frustrated and I know I'm not good for much and I've gotten off track of my learning goals. Today is one of them.

Chalk it all up to adaptability. The most fascinating thing that I have yet to see about being a teacher is that you have to adapt not only to the subject and State Standards of the subject, but to each individual classes' needs that you teach, each student that you teach, and the needs of each day that your with each class. You get psychotically bendy. It's a good think I liked Yoga before I became a teacher.

It's also extremely humbling. No matter how good you are, there's always more work to be done and more balancing to do. That's what I like about this profession. There's always something to do and something to keep my mind occupied. I do like keeping busy. And there's always the minions (kidding...).

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Good Days and Bad

Some days feel like the equivalent of bipolar disorder in the classroom. There are ups and downs that strike so fast that I'm beginning to wonder if I haven't somehow developed the disease without my knowledge. I think that any sort of service profession is bound to have it's ups and downs, but I never expected this. Then again, I view my students as people instead of children. That may have been where I went wrong to being with.

Not too long back, one of my students went missing. I had figured that it was coming. He was always in and out of trouble and in fact was in so much trouble that he was locked up in a detention center pending a court case to decide if he was going to prison. He was able to go to school during the day but was under lock and key at a detention facility at night. A few weeks ago he disappeared. I heard from one of my students that he had run away from the detention facility and that friends where holding him at different houses for under 24 hours since there was a warrant out for his arrest. I expressed my extreme disapproval for the stupidity of the situation. Now he was going to go away and do hard time.

I found out yesterday that he was caught by the police in gang colors. For those that aren't familiar with this, members of a gang wear specific items of dress to indicate their membership. This goes back to the original cowboy gangs of the old west, liquor running bootleggers, organized crime of all ethnic groups, and the modern ganstas. If the police catch people in gang affiliated dress, then the sentence gets jumped up. When my student told me about this, I responded with "that is so stupid!" referring to the gangs. He took offense. Apparently, there are more of them in my classroom.

The difficult part about working in the inner city isn't the knowledge that the gangs are there and that they are recruiting young children into their fold. The difficult part about working in the inner city is that you walk in and the children don't have little flags about their heads that say "can be saved" or "can't be saved." I walk in every day with the assumption that I might be able t help each and every child. I know that I can't. I know that it's unrealistic to think that I can reach every single child and pull all of them out by their ears to a better life. I want to but I can't. I don't have the energy, time, money, or sanity. I know I can reach some, but I never know which ones or when.

The really difficult part is that to do my job and do it well, I need to make connections. I need to develop rapport with my students so that they trust me and will do what I ask of them. In order to do that, I get to know them and they get to know me. This is where it bites me in the posterior: when you get to know them you get to care. It's hard to remain detached when I know that one of my students has been in a gang since he was 11 years old and has probably seen more things than any 11 year old probably should have ever seen. I want to shake him and put him on a train to the other side of the country, but I can't. I want to go outside and scream because it's not fair and it's never been fair and it never will be fair. It's just the way that it is.

There are good days and there are bad days...

... and I still love my students no matter what they do outside of school. I can remain detached for them. I will keep this job until I can't anymore. The day that I can't handle it anymore is the day that I walk out that door and don't come back.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Note

My students don't care about politics. I really shouldn't be that suprised by this. They are... kids. In fact, since they don't care about politics it makes them a tad bit more healthy than their suburban counterparts that are gunho about politics and organizing political rallies when the Grand Ole Party needs a fundraiser or Tom Dashle has another attack with white powder covered envelopes.

Today we get a new president in the United States, and regardless of what you may think of this my students are nonplussed. I find healthy. The youth of America is still politacally apathetic, at least the economically despressed youth is.

When I was in college, whenever I used to hear the word "economically depressed" I used to see a worn down factory squishing a small town. Yeah, it's like that.

All in all, today is a good day. Despite my students being irate that they "have" to go and watch President Elect Obama being sworn in. Despite the fact that I'm underslept and have a ton of grading to do and planning to do. Depsite the fact that I'm behind on quizzes. Today is a great day.

After first period today, I found a note on my desk that one of my students left me. Here's what it said. (Oh, and it's things like this that make my job worth it even on the days where I feel like I could spit nails.)

"Ms. D.
Artistic, Informative, Happy, Knowledgable, Crazy, Weirdish, LIKES PENS AND PENCILS!, Fashion Sense :D duh

It was unsigned. I know who wrote it. The girl who sits in the front row and who always smiles and gets her work done desipte being absent frequently is the prime candidate. She always makes me laugh and she's always reading college level books. I like her immensely. It's hard not to have favorites.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Ketchup or Catch-Up?

How do teachers cover what we need to cover in time, especially considering the random chaos that throws us off track... like snow days, student absences, whole school assemblies, unannounced class field trips taking 1/2 the student body, late buses, and announcements/phone calls constantly interrupting out classrooms - to name a few.

As someone new to the teaching profession, it amazes me that teachers manage to stay sane in a constantly chaotic environment. I work in an inner city school, which is especially more so. On any given day I can expect at least 1/5 to 1/4 of my classes to be missing due to absences, and that's a good day. There have been a few days where I've had less than a 1/3 of my class show up. I have to judge whether it's worth it to teach the material and then catch-up missing students later (like, after school on my own time) or lose a day of teaching and delay the class.

To compound the issue, I have a schedule that I have to keep according to the state. Every month there are certain topics that I *have* to cover, come rain or come shine. I'm ok with that, but it's going to take some adapting to figure out how to plan for chaos and come out on schedule.

Hence the current rant. I'm behind schedule. The kids need to learn 3 weeks worth of stuff in half the time, and it's not their fault. It's half mine, and half the weather's (last week there was a snow day and two of those days should have been snow days because most of my students were gone).

What to do to catch them up without being cruel? Ugh....

Friday, January 16, 2009

Snow Days


Four exclaimation points. The sign of a truly deranged mind.

In other news, I think the the politics of my school corporation finally caught up with the fact that it's negative 25 outside with the windchill and that a lot of my kids don't have coats. Seriously. Some of them are coming to school in their hoodies. Compound this issue with the fact that the hoodies are not dress code appropriate and they must be left in their lockers while on school grounds and you have the makings for hypothermia or at least frostbite while in the rooms that aren't insulated well.

The sheer unadulterated joy that the students feel when they see that school has been cancelled is nothing compared to the joy that the teachers feel when they see that school is closed. We don't have to come in to school and deal with the students being unruly due to the weather. We don't have to brave the roads and risk our lives for the sakes of education. We can stay at home, in our beds, and actually sleep and stay warm.

In short... the students' have nothing compared to the teachers enthusiasm for snow days.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fire Drills and Maturity

Today, it was negative 24 with the windchill. I think that the actual temerature was somewhere around 10 below zero. I know that when I went outside I wanted to scream and I was bundled within an inch of my life. I don't know what it must have been like for the kids that didn't have the appropriate outerwear. I'm so glad that I started operation rent-a-sweater. It has turned into operation grab-a-sweater because yesterday, during one of the coldest days of the year, we had a fire drill. That's right, ladies and gentlemen, we had a fire drill. When it was 24 degrees below zero outside and most of my students were in lightweight polos and tee shirts we had to go outside for 5 minutes. Most of the student body did not have sweaters. I had just brought my box of sweaters into the building that morning and I'm so glad that I did. I was throwing sweaters to the students when I heard the alarm go off first period. In fact, I was throwing my scarf, my coat, and my suit jacket to the students (because I was in a sweater with my suit and they were in tee shirts). It was insane. One of my students that I wrapped up in my scarf said in a sarcastic voice "thanks mom!" When we went outside, I saw him wrapping the scarf around another student in the same way because she was freezing in just a thin tee shirt. I resisted the urge to shout "thanks mom" at him and embarrass him. See, I can be the mature adult.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Inappropriate Humor and the PC Teacher

Thought of the day: teachers have to be more careful with humor than anyone else on the planet. Except maybe politicians. Actually, nix that. Politicians don't really have a sense of humor.

Today, I was explaining UV radiation to my students. I was trying to get them to wake up since they have a tendancy of going to sleep whenever the lights go out for the PowerPoint to come on. Today, I was joking around about the use of tanning in our culture and how it was essentially frying the skin of people that underwent the process. What I wanted to say was "people who tan expose themselves to the risk of cancer because the UV rays destroy DNA." What actually came out was "blah blah blah, joke about dark skin not needing sunscreen, blah blah blah." A few of the student hooted and hollered about that one. I'm luck I wasn't fried on the spot by a bolt of righous lightning from my extremely PC father. Unfortunately, the kids try to goad me into being un-PC all the time. On my good days when I say nothing that could offend anyone, they will still twist what I say to try and get a rise out of me. You have to marvel at inguinuity in the face of bordom.

Another lesson learned about the perils of teaching with under 5 hours of sleep. Just say no.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Operation Rent-a-Sweater

So, there's a dress code in my school. The dress code is new within the past 5 years and the students are still angry that they can't wear their everyday clothes to school. I mean really, really angry. Just bringing up the topic of the dress code is enough to lose control of the class as they all start decrying any attempt to control the way that they dress. The students try to get the teachers on their side by providing examples of such wonderful logic as "it's against the constitution... no really!" "it limits our freedom and self-expression" and my favorite "we're too poor to buy these new school uniforms."

As some background, yes, greater than 95% of my students have free or reduced student lunch. Yes, many of them have horror stories about their lives that make my hair want to curl. Yes, I hear about kids having to work jobs to help pay rent, no food in the fridge for weeks due to money issues, and some of my students have never seen a doctor or dentist because they don't have insurance and the free clinic is on the other side of town. However, almost all of them have cell phones and unlimited texting, and an almost unlimited supply of cheetos, soda, candy bars, and energy drinks in my class. Some students bring in a jumbo bag of cheetos and two sodas per class but say they don't have money for lunch. This will lead into a later rant on this blog entitled: "They don't need Earth Space Science or Math, they need to learn how to budget."

Anyway, enough of that. The point of all of this is that my school doesn't allow the students to wear hoodies inside the school. This is a major fashion faux-pas, as greater than 75% of my students try to sneak them past me every day. I hate dealing with this because the school is cold. The students want to wear their hoodies to keep warm. I don't see a problem with that, but I need to uphoad the school rules. Thus, I have found a way around it.

To every student that I tell to lose the hoody and they respond with "but it's soooo cold in here," I can respond with "rent a sweater for the day."

I went to Goodwill and picked up a bunch of sweaters of varying sizes that are all school colors. I have them in the corner of my room and the students can rent them for a quarter per period. Problem solved. I am planning on the rent-a-scarf, rent-a-blanet, and rent-a-book program. Many of my students lose their textbooks and ask to borrow my teacher edition to do their homework. A few copies of the textbook with the covers painted neon pink, green, and orange should solve that problem.

That, and I'm totally going to hell because I will never have to worry about laundry money again. I call that a win-win.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Welcome to InsaniTeach

This is a blog kept by a teacher in an inner city school in a major metropolitan city in the United States.

Here's some background: In my personal blog I noticed that in my transition from being a researcher in clinical trials for cancer therapy (I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you) to being a teacher in an inner city school that teaching was dominating my writing. Therefore, I have decided to create a blog specifically for teaching and teaching in urban, high-risk schools.

I will not state where I teach, nor in what major city. I just wish to discuss my experiences in entering the education field, the organization in schools, my students in general, culture shock at working in an urban, high-risk school, and in general about how much I love teaching and my students.

Welcome to InsaniTeach.