1.26.2015

When is it ok to tell a woman she is attractive?

When is it ok to comment on a woman's appearance?
1. When she is your close friend in a non-work context.
2. When you are shopping for clothing and she asks for your opinion.
3. When you are going out together for a special occasion, such as a date, that required a little extra work.

When is it not ok to comment on a woman's appearance?
1. When you are her boss.
2. When you are a co-worker.
3. When you are her subordinate.
4. When you are a stranger.
5. When you first meet her.

1.23.2015

How I make my work day more enjoyable

often work fifty or sixty hours per week. It is the purpose to which I devote the vast majority of my mental, emotional and physical resources. 

I do not think that this is, of itself, a bad thing. Honestly, left on my own, I collapse pretty quickly into hours of idle Internet browsing and multiple days of wearing the same stretch pants. My work keeps me moving, learning, growing. I suppose I am also fortunate that I have such a multifaceted job: each day, I stretch myself in new ways. My work makes me a better person. 

So many people seem to live for the weekends. I like weekends, too. I really like doing nothing. But weekends make up a tiny portion of my life, and I want to enjoy every day, not just the two days I don't have to be in my classroom. 

Things I do to make my work better:
--Arrive to work early, like, almost an hour early. I've found that although I am a "morning person", I need time to warm up. If I have to talk to a horde of students only ten minutes after arriving myself, I feel off-balance and rushed the entire day. But if I have enough time to make a pot of coffee, check my email, check my lesson plans, and read through the newspaper before I have to start work, I feel like I've got my mind in order and I am ready for the day's work as soon as the first bell rings. 

--Pack a good lunch. No way am I going to eat cafeteria food or convenience food every day and feel good about it. I make big meals on weekends, and pack it for lunch the rest of the week. 

--Drink fresh coffee. There is just something comforting and indulgent about having something for myself on my desk during my prep. 

--Make friends at work. Because I am a social person in a social place. Friends make it more fun. 

--Joke with the kids. Because that makes it more fun, too. 

--Stop working sometimes. Because sometimes, it is time to go home. 

--Go to sleep early. Because another hour of Internet browsing isn't going to do anything for me, anyway. 

--Wear comfortable clothes that look nice. I move around a lot in my work, so my clothing needs to be able to move with me. And if I look nice, I feel better prepared for anybody who stops by, including surprise visits from the principal, a parent, or the vice superintendant. 

--I never leave the building without having my lessons planned and copies made for the next day. It just stresses me out to not know what is going on, and trying to lesson plan from home is often three times more work. I do take home grading because there isn't usually time to get to it during a regular day, but it usually doesn't have a hard deadline, and so if I don't get to it or forget something, it doesn't throw everything off. 

--Grade with coffee and a friend/TV on the weekends. Because if I'm going to work on my weekends, might as well make the environment enjoyable to make up for the misery of grading first-attempt essays in beginner Spanish. 

1.19.2015

What I wish my students' parents understood


1. When your child misses school, it does a lot of damage. 
Not only do students miss the benefit of in-class instruction and assistance, but then I have to take minutes that add up to hours in emailing you about the absence, writing out directions for assignments, answering your questions when you do not understand, scheduling test retake times, staying after school for retake assessments, grading retake assessments, and entering all of this into the gradebook. And in spite of the astonishingly disproportionate amount of time I invest in your child to help them catch up, a child who is only one of 150, the end result is always inferior to the learning your child could had received if they had simply been in class that day.

You may feel that your child's learning is equivalent (or better) than if they had been in class because your child "wrote a report" on that real-world experience, but that assignment was likely a space-filler in the gradebook compared to what your child actually should have been doing. And if you feel that your child's school experience is lacking anyway, remember that the time I spend catering to your one child is time I cannot spend developing new and engaging activities for the rest of the class. 

Yes, sometimes a student is sick and must stay home. Sometimes important family events are planned with disregard to the school schedule. Sometimes, great opportunities cannot be missed. Regardless of the reason, I will do my best to help your student. But please don't spit in my face by taking your kid out of school to go to Disneyland, not when I spend my own weekends and holiday breaks grading papers because I can never get to them during a regular school day in part because of the extra work your family vacation created for me. 


2. School is a place of real learning.
You may feel ambivalence towards your own school experience. You may have "never needed algebra" since graduation. I understand that sometimes schools feel confining. I agree that there are improvements that we should find ways to work in - more time for kids to be physically active, taking more time to explain why the content is relevant, and so on. And yes, some teachers and some schools need more help than others. Trust me, teachers hear it all the time and we are already working on it. 

But as a teacher, I can clearly see how school contributes to the growth of your child. Even if my students never speak Spanish outside the classroom (though I hope that many of them will), in my classroom they are also exposed to a world of cultural and political perspectives that they might never see otherwise. This exposure helps them to see the world with greater understanding, compassion, and balance. And even if they struggle through algebra and decide to become an English major, at least they know that there is process and order to how the physical world operates, and that architects are handy people to have around to ensure that the roof doesn't fall in. And if your child has a hard time sitting still in a seat, school can help them to learn how to focus until they have completed a task. You undoubtedly have a great impact on your child, but each teacher your child encounters is an additional adult with professional training in guiding and growing your child. And as teachers, we have front-row seats to witness growth 150+ times over in the course of a school year, and it is a true reward for a year of hard work. It is a shame that your sample size is so much smaller, so that you do not get to see what we see. 


3. Students are pretty rough material and usually need some work
Parents and the media seem to value greatly the ideas and opinions of children and teenagers, often over the opinions of specialists and professionals. I've read plenty of articles about what it is "really like" to live in a teenage world, and how wonderful the world could be if we just listened and gave them the opportunity to change the world. And it is true, many young people have performed great and brave deeds from which we can all learn. 

However, for the most part, I find these articles frustrating, the way your doctor might feel about your alternative-health-forum self-diagnosis. To begin, I already consider it a part of my job to encourage my students to find ways to put words to their unique experiences, to stand up for their values and principles and enact change. But let us also remember that a sixteen-year-old view of the world is necessarily limited by the very short sixteen years that they have lived. Their opinions are often simplistic, and are anchored in the specific environment in which they are raised. Teenagers are capable of dedicating great amounts of effort and energy towards their goals, but their good intentions and grand strategies are as often hampered by impulsiveness, lack of discipline, lack of follow-through and narrowness of experience. 

As a teacher, it is not only part of my job to provide them with new information to fuel and develop their ideas, but also to teach them the skills necessary to put their ideas into action, skills like planning, communicating, anticipating challenges, diligence, and discipline. For each article and TED talk given by a twelve-year-old, consider the teacher that taught them to write and revise, to practice their speech in a mirror, and to act with courage. 

I recall a book I read in elementary school called "Frindle," about a boy who invented a new word and made it his mission to have it published in the dictionary. His teacher, an old-school, dictionary-loving teacher, stubbornly opposes him at every step. But in the end, when he has achieved his goal, she congratulates him with pride. "Every story needs a good villain," she explains to the surprised student. Though the student felt that the teacher was obstructing his path, she was actually helping him to refine his mission and motivate him to continue. 

If you feel that a teacher or school is a hindrance to what your child could achieve, take a moment to consider that maybe the hard, slow work of education is a crucible meant to refine your child into someone who can really do wonderful things, once they've finished their algebra homework. 


4. Teaching is more than you think it is
Teaching is a breathtakingly complex and demanding job. The number of tasks that a teacher performs in a single day, often several at a time, could easily be redistributed to fill an entire week in another profession. Teachers must of course begin with a knowledge of the lesson content, but also consider in advance how to communicate in a way that students will follow and hopefully find interest, anticipate where students will struggle, and how to help students to review and practice and demonstrate mastery of the content. In addition, teachers must be adept not only in maintaining relationships one-on-one with students, but with groups of thirty students at a time, while also monitoring the behavior between students, discouraging students who demonstrate inappropriate behavior and communicating boundaries, while simultaneously attempting to teach. And another layer is the delicate psychology of authority, how to speak in a way that demands attention, how to stand, how to dress, how to arrange a classroom so that students are not distracted by the students passing by outside the window and also not whispering to their friends or Snapchatting pictures of their teacher's backside. And then there are the logistical functions, how to organize a year's curriculum, how to make information easily available to students and parents, how to build backup plans to everything done in the classroom, should a student miss school or not understand it the first time. And then to stay informed of best teaching practices, philosophies of how to assess student knowledge, how to reach struggling students, how to maximize student learning, and rewriting lessons each year to meet these best practices. And then to work through the ideological and political aspect of teaching, to consider the impact of inequality, of cultural capital, of the Pledge of Allegiance, the disenfranchisement of non-English speakers and diversity, and to take opportunities whenever possible to present these issues to your students as well. And of course, don't forget the requirement to meet state-mandated requirements, licensing criteria, union negotiations, and coping with the alternating swells of public support and public scorn. 

And then, you have to spend your weekends grading, because there is no way you are going to get to it after a ten-or-twelve-hour, every-minute-accounted-for workday. No. Fricken. Way. 

I'm told that it gets easier, slightly. Once you have your curriculum established, you can hope to go home by 4 instead of 6 (assuming you arrive to school by 6:30).





1.12.2015

One Day

6:30 Arrive
Check mailbox, say hi to secretaries
Check and answer email, drink coffee
Write date, agenda and "Learning Target" on the board
Review plans, make last-minute changes

7:00 
Students begin to arrive
Greet students, answer student questions, hand out detention slips
Set up test retakes on clipboards for students who were absent

7:15
Announcements, make sure students are listening
Distribute and collect ballots for whatever school election is currently happening

7:20 1st hour
Warmup/Check in homework/Attendance/Answer questions/Hand out test retake clipboards
Check answers to warmup and homework as a class
Intro to lesson, reference to Learning Target
Activity 1: Review or Notes
Activity 2: Reading, Speaking, Writing or Listening Practice
Activity 3: Reading, Speaking, Writing or Listening Practice
Conclude lesson, reference to Learning Target
Homework

8:25 Prep period
Answer email (5-10 min)
Bathroom break (5 min)
Sketch out plan for upcoming days (5 min)
Prepare notes plus three activities per subject taught for next day (40+ min)
(I teach two subjects, so eight 15 minute activities. Most activities take at least 5-10 minutes to either update from the previous year, or 30+ minutes to create from scratch. Realistically, notes plus two or three activities can be produced in a typical prep period)
Update website (5 min)
Make copies (10-15 min if copier is working)
Enter grades (15 min)
Check in/collaborate with other teachers (10+ min)
Occasional meetings with admin to discuss evaluations, individual students, etc. (30 min)

9:30 3rd hour
Warmup/Check in homework/Attendance/Answer questions/Hand out test retake clipboards
Check answers to warmup and homework as a class
Intro to lesson, reference to Learning Target
Activity 1: Review or Notes
Activity 2: Reading, Speaking, Writing or Listening Practice
Activity 3: Reading, Speaking, Writing or Listening Practice
Conclude lesson, reference to Learning Target
Homework

10:35 4th hour
Warmup/Check in homework/Attendance/Answer questions/Hand out test retake clipboards
Check answers to warmup and homework as a class
Intro to lesson, reference to Learning Target
Activity 1: Review or Notes
Activity 2: Reading, Speaking, Writing or Listening Practice
Activity 3: Reading, Speaking, Writing or Listening Practice
Conclude lesson, reference to Learning Target
Homework

11:40 Lunch
Talk and eat

12:10 5th hour
Warmup/Check in homework/Attendance/Answer questions/Hand out test retake clipboards
Check answers to warmup and homework as a class
Intro to lesson, reference to Learning Target
Activity 1: Review or Notes
Activity 2: Reading, Speaking, Writing or Listening Practice
Activity 3: Reading, Speaking, Writing or Listening Practice
Conclude lesson, reference to Learning Target
Homework

1:15 6th hour
Warmup/Check in homework/Attendance/Answer questions/Hand out test retake clipboards
Check answers to warmup and homework as a class
Intro to lesson, reference to Learning Target
Activity 1: Review or Notes
Activity 2: Reading, Speaking, Writing or Listening Practice
Activity 3: Reading, Speaking, Writing or Listening Practice
Conclude lesson, reference to Learning Target
Homework

2:20 End of School Day
After school test retakes and make up tests (10-15 min)
Room upkeep (10 min)
Write referrals, email parents, email SpEd teachers (15+ min)
Enter grades (15 min)
Check in with other teachers (10+ min)
Grade retakes (forever, because each one is different)
Finish prep for next day (30++ min)
Work on prep in addition to daily lessons: homework packets, review packets, answer keys, unit planning (20+ min)
Write upcoming tests/quizzes (20 min, more if its a big test)
Make copies (15 min)
Clear desk, set up for next day (10 min)

Not everyday, but usually 2-3 of the following per week: 
Staff Meeting once per month (60 min)
Department Meeting (30 min)
Class Council meeting once per week (fundraising for prom) (30 min)
Work on any assignments from administration (10-20 min)

6:00
Leave

Weekend
Grade papers, 3-5 hours per weekend, every weekend

Other things that take up time and energy, but don't make it onto a to-do list:
Maintain student engagement
Manage classroom behavior
Provide extra help/resources/attention to struggling students
Adapt and modify activities throughout the day
Maintain an organized system for all documents and resources
Research and develop innovative activities that fulfill ever-evolving best practices criteria
Inspire young hearts and encourage young minds
Change the world

1.10.2015

Cycles in Teacher Improvement

Last year, one of my projects was to master the art of getting my students to listen without having to yell, clap my hands, or repeat myself fifty times.

I had good moments and bad ones, but it was a consistent challenge for me throughout the year. I learned how to make eye contact, to project my voice, to make sure that I myself was not distracted by the papers on my desk or the student in front of me. But even through the end of the school year, there were still times that I felt that the work of getting my students attend to what I was saying was a struggle.

How surprised I was to realize only a few months into this school year that the struggle to make myself heard over my students has become almost a non-issue. Sure, my students sometimes still talk over me, but all it takes is a extra-well-projected "Listen up!", and I've got all their eyes on me. I realized that I actually learned a lot last year about managing student attention, and it just took a fresh start for me to be able to capitalize on all that I had learned.

This year, another new teacher that I know is having the same sort of challenges. Rather than trying to give her advice about how I dealt with the same problems, I mostly want to say to her, "Stick it out, keep trying, don't take it personally, it will get better next year."

See, the thing about teaching is that it works in cycles, and for the most part, one cycle is one school year. It is extremely difficult to change the way things are in the middle of a cycle. Once you are in the middle, you generally have to ride it out to the end. This is perhaps because the mistakes that you make in the beginning of the year are still too recent for students to forget, or maybe because their judgments and opinions of you change at a slower rate than the rate at which you may be learning.

This is what people mean when they share that much-despised teacher's proverb, "Once you have lost them, you can't get them back," It is a remark in reference to teachers failing to maintain the respect and attention of their students at the beginning of the year, and how the beginning of the year "set the tone" and there is no going back. Though that expression has an awful way of undermining the morale of struggling teachers, the principle behind it, that it is difficult to get 150 students to change their behavior mid-year, is valid. But rather than discourage struggling teachers, the principle should encourage them. Though you may feel that you are not making  progress, you are probably learning a lot through your experience. Once you begin the next cycle (school year), you may find that your skills have surpassed your own estimation of them. (This is assuming, of course, that the teacher is actually trying to improve their skills, and not giving up and/or developing bad habits).

And even better news for teachers who are in the middle of a difficult school year: it is halfway done. Happy second semester, everybody!


1.06.2015

Public and Private Space in the Classroom

As a teacher, I operate within a public space. Every action that I take when I am in view of any student (or on my school-issued computer and online accounts) is a public act. If I wear an inappropriate shirt (or the same shirt twice in one week), swear out loud, assign too much homework, or sneeze in front of my class (or on a student), it is possible (not always probable, but definitely possible) that by the end of the day, every student and parent in my school community could know what I did.

This was one of the most important lessons that I had to learn when I transitioned from being a student to being a teacher. When you are aware that 150 people are watching you closely every single day, you make accommodations. You choose clothing according to a new set of criteria, your posture changes, your voice changes, your vocabulary changes.

My students operate almost entirely within a private space, or at least the perception of one. We work together within the same four walls, but our worlds are different. Nobody is watching them unless they do something that brings attention upon themselves, like tell a joke or fall out of their chair. Acts like these cause them to enter briefly into the public space. I can also draw students into the public space by addressing them individually during class, or by making them present something to the class. However, once that attention-calling event is over, they return almost immediately to the private space.

It is a part of my job to educate my students about the public space.

1. Sometimes students misjudge which sphere they are in. For example, when a student interrupts me when I am addressing the class, they are acting within private space, forgetting that we are actually in front of thirty other people. It is a part of my job to help them to recognize that their act is inappropriate for a public space.

2. I also teach students by example. When I act this or that way, not only am I judged on the appropriateness of my behavior, but I am also teaching students about what type of behavior they too can get away with in the public sphere.

3. This perception of privacy also affects in how my students respond to me. Students find safety and comfort in their privacy, and they are offended if they feel that their privacy has been unjustly taken from them. While I operate in a public mode at all times, students transition back and forth. If I ask them a question in front of the class, it is public. If I ask a question one-on-one, it is private. The same question, the same teacher, but different experience with a potentially different result. I must be aware that, when I ask a question, though I may believe that I am only asking for a response, I am also asking that student to leave the private space and join me in the public one.

As a teacher not only of Spanish but also of people, it is part of my job to teach students to transition from public to private with grace, agility, and confidence. To do so, I myself must be aware of and adapt to the space within which my students operate, and help them to build that same awareness and teach them how to respond.

1.05.2015

Why is January the first month of the year?

January is in the middle of the winter, in the middle of the school year. Three months of cold and dark precede the New Year, and three months of cold and dark will follow. It is not actually the beginning of anything at all. I'm sure it has something to do with some ancient Celtic festival or other, but I'm not really concerned with ancient festivals. That's not my point.

I want the New Year to MAKE SENSE. I want it to fall along a natural break, like the first day of Spring. That would be perfect, in fact. Because how can I make New Year's resolutions when everything is going to be exactly the same for the next three months? 

Some Puritan self-starter probably did it. Some self-improvement junkie back in the day was thinking that everyone needed a snappy shove after the holidays right when all anybody wanted was to stay inside and sleep. Spring was just too far away, and everybody slipped WAY too much during all of that holiday nonsense and better knock it off STAT.

Puritans!