9.16.2014

Prayers for my students

Jesus, help her to know she is accepted here, and does not need to play tricks for attention, because I'll give it to her for free, later. 

God, help him to wake up, because he is going to miss so much of his life if he spends it sleeping. 

Father, may she recognize that her worth is in you, and free herself from the fear of B minuses. 

Lord, may he reach the point where his smarts aren't enough, and he has to work for good results, and wipe that smirk off his face. Please, Dad, soon. 

May he sit down. Good Lord, may it be. 



6.28.2014

That time I gave up

Winter, 2011

I had begun to listen to swing music on my early morning drive into the city. I memorized the lyrics of the songs, distracting myself to keep the tightness in my chest from getting any tighter. I told myself things like, It is only six hours. Nothing will hurt you. You will get through this. The worst that will happen is that you have a bad day, and then you go home and sleep and try again tomorrow. And, Think about how much character you are building.

I taught 250 students in two different buildings. Two. Hundred. And fifty. I alternated which days I spent in each building, Monday here, Tuesday there: the Organizational World Cup. My students were not impressed by my youth. I was not impressed by theirs, either, for that matter. They did not like it when I gave them zeros for the homework they had forgotten to do since the day before yesterday. I didn't like it either, but I had tried so many things already that did not work, and I did not know what else to do.
 
I unlocked my classroom. It smelled educational, like dry-erase marker fumes and pencil shavings and tile. Rectangles of fluorescent light flickered in the ceiling. I straightened a few student desks as I walked to the back of the room, where I had a table that I used as my own desk. I took off my coat and sat down in the rolling chair I had requisitioned from a computer lab at the beginning of the year, scratching the inner part of my elbow where I had some kind of rash, eczema or something. I then turned to open my case and begin the day.

My case was a suitcase - literally, the carry on that I had taken with me to travel abroad during college. I used it as a portable office, to help me keep organized between my two classrooms. I kept papers to grade, purple pens, the Teacher's Edition of my textbook, and my computer inside.

But this day, my case was not there. I knew exactly where I had left it, in the kitchen next to the door. Inside were my photocopies, my computer, my book. I imagined my normally chaotic day, where getting students to stay in their seats was a struggle, let alone teaching and learning. Then I imagined me standing at the front of the room, with nothing for them to do for an hour, six hours in a row.

My chest grew tighter, and my breathing quickened. I told myself to keep calm. I tried to think through my agenda for the day, making a list on a scrap of paper, going over what was in my case, what I needed to get through the day. I could manage without a computer. I could make some copies. I could hear young voices in the hallway - school would begin soon. It would be ok. 

I went across the hallway to the vice principal's office to ask the secretary for help making copies. She was a wonderful woman, warm and motherly. I secretly wished I had her job, so that I could talk calmly with one student at a time, and that I didn't have to give kids zeros for homework.

She looked up at me and saw what must have been my pale, shocked face. "Are you ok?" she asked. I had come in to ask for help making copies, but I only shook my head no. No, I was not ok. My eyes burned and my throat hurt. My hands were trembling, and I was breathing hard. I rubbed, hard, the rash that was spreading down my arm, making it red.

"I forgot my case at home," I said quietly, trying to make my voice steady. "All I need are some copies...I can't breathe."

She gently guided me back into my room and shut the door, handing me a cup of water. "You're just having an anxiety attack," she soothed. "You'll be ok."

I nodded and drank the water. I felt better. Childish, but better. I gave her the worksheet I needed copied, and she left to make the copies. I tried to breathe deeply, and I finished the water by the time she returned and the students were tumbling in the door the way that sixth graders do.

I managed to get through the day. I don't actually remember it, but I know I didn't leave. I breathed and walked and said some things, and somehow kept doing what I needed to do.

In the next few days and weeks, I managed about as well as I ever had, and it probably looked like I would pull through. My administrator seemed to think that I had recovered, that I would do fine later if not sooner, and left me to my work.

But he was wrong. In the next few weeks, the rash spread across both of my arms and across my stomach, and my jaw ached when I woke in the morning. I had nightmares that kept me from ever waking up rested. Whenever I tried to think about the next week, the next month, or coming back from Christmas break, all I could see in my imagination was blackness. 

A switch had been turned off, a breaking point had been reached. My body and my subconscious informed me of the decision it had made for me even before my will agreed. But eventually, my will consented, and the last day of school before Christmas break was my last day at that school, ever.

I know that great educator stories usually involve the teacher giving her life in order to inspire her students. My story doesn't look like that, because I quit before I even made it through the first semester. Then I found a much easier job among people whose skin looked more like mine, with a work iPad and a normal class load. It was there that I began to succeed. 

I don't know the moral of this story, except maybe that real life stories don't always end the way that movie stories end. 

I'll let you know if I ever figure out more than that.

6.05.2014

Check Out

I am tired when I come home from work.

I interact with one hundred and sixty students - plus staff and parents - every day.

Every flipping day.

Did you know that I am an introvert?

Uhy.

I don't want to go to sleep once I get home. I'm not falling-asleep tired. I just want to check out for a while. 

I watch TV. Sometime I read a book. I mess around on my iPad. I surf Pinterest. I click on links in Wikipedia articles. I do nothing.

I could do something productive, I suppose. I always feel vaguely guilty whenever I'm not grading. 

Is it ok to check out when you are too tired to think?

5.17.2014

Travel Gracefully

1. Wear clothing that is soft, stretchy and does not wrinkle, and bring a sweater or jacket, no matter how hot it is outside. At the very least, you can use it as a pillow.

2. Do anything you can to get through security quickly. Wear slip-on shoes, avoid metal - earrings, belts, bracelets, clips, etc., and keep your computer in an easy-to-access pocket.

3. Check in online. Sometimes you don't even need to print a boarding pass, because a lot of major airlines use electronic boarding passes. And if you check in online and also travel with only a carry-on, you can literally walk into the airport and head directly for the security line, no other stops necessary.

4. The best way to sleep in a chair (that I have found) is to put your bag in your lap and rest on it. It saves your neck and shoulders from a lot of twisting and aching, and you avoid the mouth-hanging-open-doofus look. 

5. Pack your toothbrush, deodorant, floss, and mint gum somewhere you can get to it easily. Hand wipes are good to have, too. Also, lotion. It seems like I always want lotion when I travel, but never have any. 

6. Bring an empty water bottle so you can fill it once you pass security, and you don't have to buy water. 

7. Download audiobooks and podcasts BEFORE you get on the plane, because a computer is a lot less interesting when you can't go online for four hours.

5.16.2014

Five Principles of Classroom Management from Machiavelli's "The Prince"

 1. The Inertia Principle
Machiavelli: “Now I say that those dominions which, when acquired, [...] are of the same country and language, [...] it is easier to hold them, especially when they have not been accustomed to self-government; [...] He who has annexed them, if he wishes to hold them, has only to bear in mind two considerations: the one, that the family of their former lord is extinguished; the other, that neither their laws nor their taxes are altered, so that in a very short time they will become entirely one body with the old principality.” (Ch. 3)

Teacher: A new teacher will have the easiest time of teaching if they maintain a previously approved mode of operating, as long as the previous approved authority has been removed fromthe picture. (Notice I said easiest, not the best). Also, teachers who come from a similar background as their students will be more easily accepted than those of a differing background.

2. The Relationship Principle
Machiavelli: “But when states are acquired in a country differing in language, customs, or laws, there are difficulties, and good fortune and great energy are needed to hold them, and one of the greatest and most real helps would be that he who has acquired them should go and reside there. This would make his position more secure and durable, [...] Because, if one is on the spot, disorders are seen as they spring up, and one can quickly remedy them; but if one is not at hand, they are heard of only when they are great, and then one can no longer remedy them. Besides this, the country is not pillaged by your officials; the subjects are satisfied by prompt recourse to the prince; thus, wishing to be good, they have more cause to love him, and wishing to be otherwise, to fear him.” (Ch. 3)

Teacher: Know your students, talk to them, make jokes with them, mediate between them, and you will be able to detect and solve problems and encourage positive behavior as it occurs, rather than after a crises occurs. 

3. The Force Principle
Machiavelli: “But in maintaining armed men there in place of colonies one spends much more, having to consume on the garrison all the income from the state, so that the acquisition turns into a loss, and many more are exasperated, because the whole state is injured; through the shifting of the garrison up and down all become acquainted with hardship, and all become hostile, and they are enemies who, whilst beaten on their own ground, are yet able to do hurt. For every reason, therefore, such guards are as useless as a colony is useful.” (Ch. 3)

Teacher: Do not treat every student as a potential enemy, and do not address every problem with force. If you do, you will have lots of enemies and a lot of problems. 

4. The Friends and Enemies Principle
Machiavelli: “Again, the prince who holds a country differing in the above respects ought to make himself the head and defender of his less powerful neighbours, and to weaken the more powerful amongst them, taking care that no foreigner as powerful as himself shall, by any accident, get a footing there; for it will always happen that such a one will be introduced by those who are discontented, either through excess of ambition or through fear, as one has seen already.”

Teacher: Giving favors to gain the friendship of dominant students undermines your authority. It could result in these students taking advantage of your good intentions to gain something they should not have, or they could outright reject you for seeming to lack standing in your own right, it could make it seem that it is really the students who have control, not you as the teacher. Instead, identify students with potential and cultivate their growth as leaders, thus establishing yourself as a leader among leaders. 

5. The Old Grudges Principle
Machiavelli: “He who believes that new benefits will cause great personages to forget old injuries is deceived.”

Teacher: Interacting with more than a hundred individuals daily, it is easy for a teacher to accidentally offend or insult a student without realizing it. Even a recognized faux pas can be forgotten by the end of a long day and left unresolved. To avoid this, keep an eye out for subtle signs of annoyance or offense, and address minor issues as immediately as you can. Students will remember wrongs, even if you do not, and it can reemerge and cause problems later. It is also helpful when you begin to have problems without apparent cause and to think back and see if you can recall anything that might have offended a student but left the matter unresolved. 

5.09.2014

How to grade faster


  • Give smaller quizzes more frequently, rather than long tests less often
  • Make the numbers consistent and easy to calculate. My quizzes are typically 20 points each, one page front and back, and they are in sections of five questions, ten per page. (Not my doing - that is how our textbook publisher arranged it, but it makes everything much easier)
  • Write the "out of" amount at the top before you copy the quiz, so that you don't have to write the same thing a hundred times over.
  • Add up the "number correct" on the bottom corner of each page, and then add the total score as you go, to save yourself a final shuffle-through to add up the final scores.
  • Make as much of the quiz multiple choice as possible. Sometimes writing/short answer is necessary, but attempt to arrange it so that it is as easy to grade at a glance as possible.
  • Some feedback is better than no feedback. Getting some of it done is better than getting none of it done.
The idea behind all of these is to increase momentum. Though it should technically take me just as long to grade three 20-question quizzes as it does one 60-question quiz, just the feeling that I have finished something and can wrap it up keeps me productive, whereas when I am grading the second page of the 60-question quiz for one hundred students, I feel like curling up and dying.

5.06.2014

Where politics happen

I attended a "voluntary staff meeting" today that was held to discuss the budget cuts that my district faces in the next school year. The superintendent was there, plus a handful of teachers. I went because I am a nerd, plus I know that as a new teacher, I land on the vulnerable end of the spectrum when it comes to layoffs and budget cuts.

We watched a video that explained the situation, then the superintendent shared a few thoughts and answered a few questions. As we discussed who was in the state legislature, who supported this proposal or that, where the funds come from and what restrictions are placed on how they are spent, I had a series of realizations.

  1. I know more about educational funding in the state of Michigan than probably 80% of the entire population, including the Internet and the news media. 
  2. The people making these decisions are people doing jobs not unlike mine. I make decisions for my students, and they make decisions for their electoral districts.
  3. Politics happens when interested people meet with the people who have the jobs where you make decisions for larger groups of people.
  4. Knowledge, experience, influence, government and inspiration are all words that connote a power bigger than any one person. But if I understand something better than most of people in my state, and I demonstrate interest and produce sound information and share that information during my meetings with the people with the jobs where you make decisions, then I become an ordinary person with significant power.
  5. This power - to acquire information, to share ideas, to come up with solutions - is no different from what I do in my life everyday anyway.
I suppose my point is, I always think of politics and influence as something that happens over my head, complicated and mysterious, and that little I do or say or think could affect what occurs. But it is not above my head, and I could, if I leveraged myself in certain ways, do quite a lot to affect what occurs.