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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Final Blog Assignment: Write about your experience

Of all the blog assignments that I've disliked, this one must be at the top of the list. When I was asked a few months ago to describe my experience so far, I all but refused. I said that I could not possibly describe in words, 400 words, an experience that has so fundamentally changed me. Now only a few months later, I get to add 800 words. It's still not enough, but I'll try to give you a glimpse of what these two years have been like.

Two years ago I was a college senior living with my two best friends, Jon and Liz. We were all finished playing college athletics, so our days consisted of hanging out on the deck, going out on the square, making dinner together... doing whatever we wanted, really. I had a job at a local outdoor store and I tutored freshman athletes... I remember thinking, almost exactly two years ago, that I never wanted it to end. I was digging in my heels, soaking up every moment, taking as many pictures as I could. I knew I'd never be able to go back to that place. I also knew I was about to start the toughest two years of my life... at least that's what I'd been told. I really had no idea.

Summer training brought stress, intimidation, failure, second-guessing. I remember going home to Columbus after second session and wondering if I was really cut out for the job. I pushed my return back as far as I could, leaving at 4am the day that I needed to set up my classroom. I stayed until early evening, making my best guess at how a classroom should look. I called upon my own memories as a student. I placed my desk strategically near the door because I'd been told that was a good management technique. I organized the books and disinfected every desk. Twice. I was making stabs in the dark and praying that no one would notice. 

That's a feeling that is hard to describe. Everyone has experienced first day on the job jitters, but how about having to mask those jitters in front of a class full kids - kids who can't wait to pinpoint your first weakness? How about first day jitters when you've had only two months of shotgun training? First day jitters compounded by an evaluation during first period. An unannounced, unexpected observation to add to the butterflies, the second guessing, and the palpable "Who is this new lady?" mentality. I tried to throw my shoulders back, shatter the tension. I'm not sure that happened until second semester. Every day I dragged myself to school. I chugged coffee and tried to hide my exhaustion and frustration. I begged myself to be positive. I remember sitting at my desk during homeroom and giving myself little pep talks. Every. day.

It got easier second semester, but even that was short-lived. I seemed to have figured out my own teacher persona, management style, philosophy. Not completely, of course. But I had made ground. The kids behaved better and my lessons became at least a little bit less forced. I even enjoyed my job on a lot of days. Any teacher knows though, that the end of the year comes with quite a bit of student apathy. So that brief stretch of victory was quickly dampened by some of the same frustrations I experienced at the beginning of the year. With snow days and early dismissals caused by tornadoes, we were in school through the first week of June, making for the longest school year I've had to date. July never looked so good.

Over the summer I got to see my favorite band, Dispatch, at the amazing Red Rocks amphitheater in Denver, I went to India for two weeks, and I got to spend some much needed time with my family. I got back to Mississippi motivated, confident, refreshed, and missing my kids. I was ready.

This year has been easier on several levels. Management is no longer a daily battle. I have an amazing group of kids this year. As a second year teacher in a high turnover school, I actually have a leadership role. I've been given more responsibility: technology coordinator, yearbook advisor, track coach, basketball coach... it's a lot. But I'm certainly not bored. I still dread waking up in the morning, but luckily this year I know that a kid will make me laugh by 8 am. And this year I let myself laugh. I think it has made me more approachable, and while Teacher Corps may frown upon my newly-found, relaxed demeanor, I'm confident that it's been a huge contributor to my improved management.

Looking forward
I can't say that I'm digging my heels in, begging time to slow down like I was two years ago. I'm ready to move on. I've spent six years down here - a good chunk of my twenty three-year life. I feel like I've given Teacher Corps the best of myself, and maybe too much of myself to be honest. But that's ok. I guess I wouldn't have it any other way. I've heard Teacher Corps graduates say this before, and now I believe them: I can do anything. Anyone who makes it through these two years knows how to handle stress, failure, rejection, exhaustion... manic highs and depressed lows... and that can be all in one day. This program, this job, has prepared me for anything. No matter what I do next, there's no way it will be this hard. There's no way I'm not prepared. 

I've learned so much about myself. I've learned that compassion outweighs frustration - every time. I've learned that sometimes kids are wiser than they get credit for, sometimes adults are more naive, and I've learned that making a kid laugh does a world of good for both of us. I've come to see that education's problems are too complex to be solved by a teacher, a program, or sweeping state mandates. The issues with failing schools are often rooted in the communities that serve them. So instead of throwing up my hands and deciding that the problems are too big for me, I should take comfort in the fact that I am on the front lines - building relationships, trying to change perceptions, and hopefully teaching a little English. I should take comfort in that. I should and I will. I am a teacher. But I need a break... so I won't be a teacher next year. Perhaps the following.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Blog Assignment: How has MTC changed you?

I'm going to be honest and admit that I don't have the energy to write a flowing piece of prose in response to this prompt. And for the first time, Ben, I'm sad about that, because this is a topic I've thought a lot about. I'll come back to it later and give it the time it deserves. For now, however, I will provide a simple black and white itemized list with brief explanations of each MTC effect, separated into three categories: the good, the bad, and the not quite there yet. Here goes.

The good:
I’ve become more caring and empathetic - as a person, not just a teacher. I've come to realize more than ever that everyone has a story, and this year I've found myself personally invested in several of them. I’ve gone from judgmental to more judgmental to totally accepting. I’ve distanced myself from old ideals while passionately seeking out new ones. 

The bad:
I'm more argumentative, especially around people who aren't teachers. I'm far too quick to assert my opinion in debates about education and poverty, and I have to make a conscious effort not come off as pompous just because I have these two years to boast. I'm afraid that sometimes it's offensive, so I need to get to the point where I come off purely as someone who's invested in underprivileged children and education. I need to do a better job of showing that I've formed my opinions through an immense amount of caring and reflection, not just out of ego and face value assessments

The not quite there yet:
I'm absolutely not the person I was a year and a half ago. And that's a good thing. It's not that I was a bad person... none of us were or we wouldn't still be here. But this experience will change you; it'll make you think more critically about this country's problems, about life, about people. It'll make you more compassionate for those from a background different than your own. It will teach you how to manage time and stress in a way that makes your worries in college seem laughable. What I haven't yet mastered is putting all of this in perspective in the moment. I still get frustrated and I still get overwhelmed. But I'm hoping that whatever I encounter post-MTC will seem easy by comparison.


Today my students finished presenting their Writing Modes Projects. To begin the unit, I told them to pick anything as a topic because I wanted them to write about something they loved. I wanted them to get excited about writing, so the only requirement was that they take their topic and use it to write three short essays: one narrative, one persuasive, and one informative. The final product was to be a presentation where they shared all three with the class.

One of the last presentations of the day was by a girl who I haven't really gotten to know this year. She's quiet and painfully shy. She has fiery red hair and her cheeks seem to match its shade anytime I approach her for conversation. It's hard to tell whether she likes school, my class, or even me... but for Christmas she did give me a bookmark, homemade out of a popsicle stick and puff paint. Her project topic: bullying.

As she approached the front of the room, I noticed my heart beating a little faster, my cheeks surely matching hers shade for shade with each step. She's in a class with some of the school's worst behavior problems - a group of kids to whom I'm constantly saying, "be nice." This in itself would've made me nervous enough... but the fact that she'd chosen bullying as her topic, the fact that I'd read her rough drafts, made me question if I was cruel to allow her to share in front of this group.

Her back faced the room and her shoulders slouched as she sat her presentation board on the table up front. She pulled back the right flap to reveal the word "gossip" written in big bubble letters. My glare had to stifle snickers throughout the room. The rest of the board featured similar words, a set of big red lips out of which spewed various hostilities, and of course, her essays.

"I'll read my narrative first," she said, eyes focused on the floor.

"OK! Go ahead, honey!" It sounded hollow and meaningless. A meager attempt to soften the ensuing blow.

Here is what she read:
I was entering my new school with a chilling breeze when I froze still in the front door. I was greeted with a warm air brushing against my arm. That would be the last warmth I felt.

My first day they called me names and said no one loved me. That stuck with me for a while in my mind. Some of the snobby pretty girls said I'm weird and ugly. They also said I don't belong in their school. The rest of the school year I didn't feel important. For the years to come, in my depressing, dark, cold soul, I heard K and his gang of friends along with the girls who talked behind my back, wishing desperately I'd disappear. 

I ignored them whenever it was time to go outside - my time to escape the torment inside. I dashed to the fantasy of my dreams, the playground on top of a steep hill. It was simply the place where every child wanted to go. One day I was walking alone thinking of what crazy things I would do when I got home, when all of a sudden people pummeled me with rocks. A while later when it was time to go, they pushed and shoved like I wasn't there. I just told myself that bullies wanted to get in fights with me because they thought I was too nice.

For a few seconds, I, like the rest of the class, was frozen. I looked down to find my hands folded in nervous tension, knuckles white, her grading rubric blank. I couldn't write anything. Her eyes still had not left the sheet of paper in her shaking hands. I took a reluctant glance at the faces of her audience. A couple of them, literally, had dropped jaws. A few of the less mature ones tried to find the eyes of their buddies in hopes they could share a laugh. Nothing of the sort happened. One brave kid began to clap.

I winked at her and said, "All right. That was excellent, S. Which one will you read next?"

Her next two essays were equally as impressive - the informative aptly explained the different methods and effects of bullying. For her persuasive, I was proud that she chose to be more creative than simply arguing that bullying should stop. She offered various bullying solutions specific to our school.

When I finally brought myself to fill out her rubric, I found it difficult to write anything at all, let alone any constructive criticism. I wanted to be proud of her vivid language, but critique the essay's shaky transitions. I wanted to commend her on her use of "live" verbs but caution her against switching tenses. It all seemed so trivial. She had written something from her heart, something from her own inner diary, and she had read it in front of a room that would make any confident adult at least a little nervous.

Instead of writing a grade at the bottom of her rubric, I wrote, "Come see me." When I handed it to her, I assured her that it was for a good reason, but as usual she simply turned red and offered only the shadow of a grin.

To be honest, I have no idea what I'll say to her. I've already put a 100 in the grade book, because even though her essays weren't perfect, they were lightyears better than her peers'. What I really want to do is make sure she's OK. I want to make sure those things don't happen at this new school, and I want to tell her how proud she made me, that I know how hard it must have been to get up and share such personal information. What's odd is how nervous I am to have that conversation. I'm suddenly intimidated by a twelve-year-old who exudes such wisdom. I'm afraid she'll see through my shallow attempt to check on her now... after she had to slap me across the face with her struggle. I'm also afraid it's too late to make anything better for her.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


When I think about what I need to accomplish at my school before the year's end, I get immensely overwhelmed; in fact, lately I've been trying to avoid the subject. I haven't yet begun on the yearbook that I agreed to take over. I haven't organized the Beta Club ceremony, nor have I had the time to call a meeting of its current members. The 7th Grade Writing Assessment is 17 school days from now and tryouts for the track team begin Monday... so this weekend will be spent organizing materials for that because I'm the head coach... but oh wait, those basketball teams for which I'm the assistant coach have their final games on Saturday. Did I mention the Ed Law midterm that I should be studying for or the MTC portfolio that has been pushed beyond the back burner?

What about those dozen students who are currently failing my class? Those students whose parents won't return my calls. The ones who fail to understand how important it is that they turn in their projects - because a late grade is better than a zero. Before I even begin to think about what I want to accomplish on a personal level, I need to get past, or at least compartmentalize all of those other things.

But when I actually do get a spare moment to think about it, to think about the fact that my time here is almost through, the "to do list" rolls out with ease. I want to build better relationships with all of my students. I want their faces to forever be imprinted in my memory. I want to spark a passion for writing in some of those students who I know have a gift, and I want to show my most jaded children that their cynicism is crippling them. I want to get M to sit still for ten minutes straight and convince S that it's cool to be smart.  I don't really care about the test scores, but I do care that my students move to the eighth grade with proficiency and feel confident that they can continue to improve.

I know that all sounds incredibly cliche, but it's the truth. Those are the things that really consume my daily thoughts. Those are the things I think about when I'm choosing to avoid the pressure of everything else.

A Day in the Life Part II

Last year I went through and itemized every minute of my typical day. Unfortunately my schedule has not really changed, save the additional 30 minutes I've added to my commute. Now that I am the proud owner of a hybrid, my fuel cost isn't a whole lot worse than it was last year, so my drive has become something I really do enjoy.

I still hit snooze five to six times before I actually roll out of bed. I still apply makeup, drink coffee, eat breakfast, and listen to NPR on the way to work. I know it sounds stressful, but the two lane country road I take to school is actually pretty beautiful in the morning, so after I've finished the aforementioned part of my routine, I relish the solitude.

Once I get to school, I still stand in the main hallway for duty. This is one of my favorite parts of the day because, for some reason, I LOVE enforcing dress code. Maybe it's the "fixer" in me. Besides that I get to see the adorable elementary schoolers who can barely contain their excitement most mornings and frequently burst into skips on their way down the hall. My pleas for them to walk are typically fruitless, but they're so cute that I can't help but laugh most of the time.

While my days are vastly more enjoyable and less stressful than they were last year, I'm still pretty exhausted by the time I head home. But again... I love the drive. I roll the windows down, turn the music up, and decompress. I think that drive has been a huge part of my sanity this year.

When I get home from school I turn into a hobbit. Occasionally I grab dinner with friends, but mostly I close my bedroom door, read a bit of whatever book I'm on, write a blog, and sleep. I rarely plan. I rarely grade. I rarely socialize. In some ways I enjoy my evenings the most. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Blog Assignment: Describe Your Experience So Far

How can you ask me what my experience has been like so far? How can you expect me to put into words - 400 words - an experience that has literally transformed who I am as a person, as a woman, as a daughter, sister, friend? I wish I could. I really do... for my sake. I wish I could put it into a nice little package. I would tie a bow around it and let you send it out to Teacher Corps recruits, because as much as I’ve complained on Saturdays or awoken on Monday mornings wishing I had an easier job, I wouldn’t trade this “experience” for anything. I wish I could do it justice.

I’ve become more caring and empathetic. I’ve gone from judgmental to more judgmental to totally accepting. I’ve distanced myself from old ideals while passionately seeking out new ones.  I’ve nearly drowned myself in stress and worry but filled my oxygen tank with little victories and laughter. And that’s all in one day.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Friday, December 2nd... Part II

In going back and reading my last post, I became a little irritated with myself. The blog ended up reading more like a story centered around me, and that was not my intention. My true intention, which hopefully shone through towards the end, was to express my frustration with my school administration - or really the system at large - and their constant failure to show the kind of compassion necessary to serve our children... especially our troubled children... which should be the goal, right?

Sadly, the fight on Friday was not my only source of frustration and not the only example that illustrates why I get so angry. But for the story to completely make sense, I have to go back to a month ago when I found a folded sheet of paper lying on the floor after school. Even at first glance, it was clearly a student note. Most times I don't even read them, but my curiosity got the best of me on that day. I unfolded the paper and immediately my jaw dropped. There, in familiar handwriting complete with small tittle hearts, was a conversation between two girls. The conversation was of such explicit nature that simply typing it now would make me feel immensely uncomfortable. They talked of sexual desires, accomplishments, and ponderings. They congratulated each other in text message abbreviations that I couldn't follow. My stomach was in knots. I recognized the handwriting but I just couldn't place the girls who owned it. I had to figure out who they were. I had to talk to them and explain the harm in such actions.

My gut was telling me they were students of mine from last year, so I strode down to an eighth grade classroom and asked for writing samples for the girls who I suspected. None of the teachers were able to provide them. For a couple days I stayed on the trail, but as I got busier and the situation grew smaller in my rearview mirror, I forgot about it.

Fast forward to Thursday of this week. During the last few minutes of school, one of the eighth grade students in my yearbook class walked up and handed me a note. I have no idea why she gave it to me. I had simply been standing by my desk talking with a couple of students. I didn't immediately unfold the note, but when I did my heart sank. I recognized the handwriting immediately.

"Is this your handwriting?" I asked as casually as possible.

"Yes, ma'am. I'm in a fight with C right now. We wrote it during first period."

"So this other handwriting is C's?"

"Yes ma'am... ain't you gonna read it?"

"Why do you want me to read it?" The bell rang to dismiss the students and she was distracted. She followed the crowd out of my room, letting me off the hook.

Before going out to bus duty, I dug frantically through my desk to find the note from a month ago. The handwriting was a perfect match. Rereading the note, being able to put faces and personalities to the words, I again found my stomach in knots.

Now here is where I went wrong: I should have called the two girls into my room, maybe the next day during planning. Instead, I took the notes to my two female assistant principals, thinking they would be the best to handle it. I expressed my concern and explained that I was not hoping to get the girls in trouble, but that I felt it was a matter serious enough to be handled by the administration. I assumed it was the only way to really reach the girls.

After school on Friday, I asked one of the principals how their conversation had gone.

"They were embarrassed," she said in a dismissive, high-pitched tone.

I paused, waiting for her to elaborate. But she didn't.

"I'm sure," I said. "What did you say to them?"

She immediately snapped back. "We don't have to disclose everything to you. There are some things we just don't need to share."

Again, like I had earlier that day, I turned and walked away without saying a word.

Ignore the fact that I felt embarrassed. Ignore the fact that I felt disrespected. Ignore the fact that it had been a short three hours prior that the same principal mocked my approach to the fight. Ignore the fact that I have approached her only a handful of times ever for requests concerning students. Ignore the fact that I was downright livid at her, at the situation, at my own poor judgement. The real issue is that we have students who deserve more than they're getting.

Mississippi is still one of the only states that does not teach sex education. Juxtapose that with our nation-leading teen pregnancy rate, and you get a puzzle so maddening it will make you want to throw something. Our kids have no idea how dangerous, how life-altering their actions can be, and on the few occasions when we, as teachers and administrators, actually get an opportunity to teach them something... we blow it.  What's perhaps even more disappointing is that those of us who actually wish to do something good, something different, are treated like lepers. And the only ones who truly suffer are the kids.