Ready to Fight

After digging deep, working my butt off, and spending about $120 on school stuff today, I’ve managed to accomplish a good amount of what I wanted to get done to prepare for this week. I don’t have any panacea for my manifold problems, but I’ve at least got a gameplan. I’m hoping this is the week I start to put a dent in it. We’ll see how it goes…

Scraping the bottom

The day after my last entry was probably my worst day of teaching yet. I finally hit the wall after working like a dog since Institute started late-June. I’ve had one day actual off so far. I thought my life would normalize at some point, but it hasn’t happened. And the extended school day at FAST has been taking it’s toll. On a typical day, I spend about 10 hours in school, almost all on my feet, and then I come home to plan for another 3-4. I don’t have time for big breakfasts, and many days I simply don’t get to eat lunch because I’m fighting one fire or another.

After a Wednesday of 13 combined hours of work and grad school, the death of my computer, and an hour and a half spent trying to throw together a half-assed lesson plan on the spare computer my Mom had sent me (thank God for that), I laid down in time for me to grab 6 hours of sleep, hoping that I would be reasonably alert on Thursday. Arriving at school, I kicked myself for forgetting that my entire planning period would be taken up by my team meeting, leaving me essentially no time to make copies.

Forced to decide between keeping my teammates waiting and showing up to class completely unprepared, I made my copies and arrived at my team meeting 10 minutes late. I was confronted about my continual lateness, which I took particularly hard because I hate hanging my teammates out to dry, since in the grind, they are some of the only people I can count on in a pinch.

My first class went pretty well, but my second class was a disaster, which was particularly poignant since my boss was observing me. She can’t have been impressed. I tried to keep things in order, but class was chaos. I spent so much time trying to get people to shut up that in the brief moments of silence, I was too flustered to deliver an effective lesson. I gave the kids an activity to do, and only realized near the end that it was the activity from the 2nd half of the lesson. This obviated the next 40 minutes of my lesson, so I pretty much had to wing the 2nd half. Not that anyone would have noticed since the 1st half was so awful. Oh, and don’t let me forget, she was also present to hear me announce to my class that all their grades were gone since my computer died and I don’t have a backup. As my boss left, she implored me to read her observation notes.

I read them after school, and needless to say, they were not uplifting. Almost a full page of it was stuff I was doing wrong. I delivered an impromptu lesson to the 2 kids who showed up to coach class which was nice, but then I witnessed the demoralizing scene of one of the students getting berated by his mother for attending without permission. I tried to defend him, saying he’s one of my better students, but she simply turned it against him telling him threateningly that he better get an A+ then. My room had become a organizational nightmare, and I couldn’t bear to stay in the building and clean it up, so after my coach class, I simply grabbed all the clutter and brought it home with me, even though I knew I wouldn’t have the energy to take care of it.

I arrived at my house a near-wreck. Overall, Thursday hadn’t gone significantly worse than the average day, but it was one of those days where I was exposed for my lack of professionalism and preparation. I knew I had to change my game for Friday, but after a week of 6 or less hours of sleep and one real meal per day, and the emotional beating I had taken at school, I didn’t have it in me to plan. I felt like I was drowning. I laid down at about 8:30, and didn’t really leave bed until Friday morning.

Friday was probably actually a much worse day than Thursday. But I felt like my normal self again at least. It probably helped to rest my body and mind for the night.

So here I am in my usual Saturday routine. Trying to relax, but in the back of my head literally counting the minutes until 5pm Sunday, when the school night begins and the grind resumes. I’ve actually got some great ideas for Monday that hopefully will change this whole game up. It was a downer that instead of spending my Saturday decompressing, I had to spend 8 and a half hours at Hopkins for grad class and TFA sessions. On the other hand, I did get some great ideas at a couple of my grad class workshops, so I wouldn’t say it was a wash. I’ve just got to devote myself to working my exhausted butt off these next 24 hours to make it happen. All I can do is just keep digging deeper. Thanks to everyone who has prayed for me and helped me keep my head up. I’m sure this won’t have been the last week I’ll need it.

When it rains, it pours

I find myself in surprisingly good spirits at the moment, despite the fact that my laptop broke (probably for good this time) and that my classes have been mostly a complete clown show these last couple days.

A little bit over an hour ago, I was getting ready to get some serious lesson planning done when my computer suddenly cut off and I smelled a smell that is unmistakable to any electrical engineer: the smell of an IC shorting and burning. Suffice it to say that my laptop is dead, because to plug it in again would be to risk starting a fire. Pretty much all of my critical documents are stranded on the hard drive, until I can get my hands on an enclosure so I can access it. Fortunately, I still have my mom’s spare laptop, which she airmailed to me the last time my laptop died. So, I’m not completely hosed.

Yesterday was a wake-up call. My Hopkins supervisor showed up unannounced and was witness to a completely out-of-hand class. She gave me a much needed reality check. I have let my expectations for student behavior slip dangerously low. I am tolerating behavior and disrespect that is totally unacceptable. I am letting the kids walk all over me. I need to hold these children to a much higher standard of behavior, not just so that I can get through a lesson, but so that they can learn to operate socially in the real world.

Today was day 1 of putting kids in check. I made about a dozen parent phone calls today, most of which I should have made a long time ago.

My laptop is dead, but it might not really be such a horrible thing. This give the chance to start fresh with my grading, which has been in shambles. It also gives me an excuse to let the kids start off on a clean slate, which is just the lifeline they need, because out of my 90+ kids, probably about a dozen are not failing currently. Progress reports just came out, and needless to say, they crushed some souls. And although much of the bad grades are as a result of abysmal effort by my students, I also must take some of the blame, mostly due to planning mistakes, failed ideas, and poor organization. It might be a good thing for all of us to have a chance to start fresh.

I realize how cracked-out that sounds, but I’ve learned to celebrate the major defeats as minor victories…but hey, in B’more, every day I’m still breathing and my car is where/how I left it is a blessing.

…but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express!!

It just occurred to me the other day that part of the reason this teaching thing is so problematic is that I really don’t know what I’m doing. I’m teaching Algebra I for the first time, but I’ve never actually seen a veteran math teacher successfully teach an inner-city math class. Or even just an average, experienced teacher. I recently likened it to the following scenario:

“Imagine you have flown on an airplane before, and so you are aware of the basic process of airplane flight. You have also been given a crash course on the principles of airplane flight, and you have been allowed to control the a small plane for brief periods of time. Then…they throw you into the cockpit of a 747 and tell you to fly it across the country, through stormy weather, with air traffic control screaming at you the whole time, with part of the flight crew missing, and with the knowledge that arrival at the destination is literally a life or death proposition for about half of your passengers. But don’t worry! They’ll teach you what you need to know, once you get it in the air. Also, the passengers are freaking out, so they’re going to need you to constantly make sure they’re under control and reassure them that everything’s fine. Oh, and by the way, not all of the equipment functions, but don’t worry, they’ve got a guy working on it. It might be ready half way through”

I’m sure the scenario sounds absurd, but I bet most people who are doing programs like TFA would agree that it would be fairly accurate, if only there was a proper analog to trying to be a full-time grad student while flying the plane. Every now and then I feel like I make the tiniest bit of progress, but I’ve got a long way to go to even get to the point where I’m minimally competent. This job sure would probably be impossible to wake up for if I didn’t know it was so crucial. It’s not fun the vast majority of the time, but still, I don’t regret it a bit.

Homeroom Blues

Friday was a crazy day. One of my homeroom kids managed to get suspended for a week within the first 30 minutes of class. We lead the students between their classes as a group, to prevent the hallway chaos that is prevalent at many Baltimore high schools. While I was outside the room watching the students, one of my students apparently decided to pitch a fit and start throwing papers and booklets on the ground in the back of my classroom. I don’t know if he was doing it as an attack on me or what, but the teacher next door overheard the ruckus and confronted the student. He refused to clean up the mess, so she brought him down the the principal and he was suspended for 5 school days.

I never saw what happened in the room because I was leading the rest of the students to their next class. I was expecting I’d be spending the first part of my planning period cleaning up the mess. But when I got back to my room, I was shocked to see that two of my students had stayed behind and cleaned up the mess, and actually had organized things better than they had been before. It is probably the nicest thing anyone has done for me in a while. I made sure to call both students’ houses to tell their parents about their good deed.

Sometimes it’s hard to see past the continuous behavior problems to realize who I’m getting through to. I don’t much care who likes me or not. You can’t care, or it would break your heart. But it’s nice to see that some of my kids have a lot of respect for me.

My homeroom is pretty much a zoo, but I refuse to be that teacher who yells at the class or becomes hostile toward individual students. Some of my students actually blame me in class for not being able to control my class. I feel their frustration, but what they don’t realize is that it’s the individuals in the class that choose whether or not to be in control all I can do is provide incentives and disincentives. One of my students, genuinely perplexed, asked me, “Mr. Johnson, why are you so nice to us?”

I told him it’s because I treat people how I’d like to be treated. I don’t know, but I think I got through to him, at least for that moment. For that class, that’s probably how it’s going to be. I’ll just have to weather out the chaos and cherry pick my breakthrough moments with individual students. I guess the bright light at the end of the tunnel is that if I succeed, I will have turned some of these kids’ lives around, because right now, I’ve got about 8 or so students who I really feel are making choices little by little that are going to take them out of this school, on to the streets, and either to prison, death, or lifelong struggle. The stakes are extremely high.

Smacked down

Today was probably my worst day of school so far. I have let my homeroom get out of hand, and it’s gotten to the point where my instructions to them are pretty much ineffective. My issues with management pretty much blew all of my “reinvention” out of the water. A few people in the class won’t shut up, and it’s pretty much impossible to do anything over the constant chatter. I don’t try.

About half of everyone else is frustrated because it ends up with the class operating at about 10% productivity, and their bored to death. However, I haven’t been able to impress upon some of the frustrated ones that I need for them to step up and be on task. Instead they use it as a license to whine or join the problem. The worst part are the quiet, serious things that go unaddressed because I’m distracted by the noise.

My professional responsibilities–which definitely merit an entry of their own at some point–have also been weighing me down. All the meetings and all the discussions serve important purposes, but they also eat deeply into my time, which is my most precious commodity right now. And I’m definitely falling short of meeting my professional commitments as well as I needed to be. I almost melted down in a team meeting that severely cut short my preparation time for my lesson.

Then my lesson blew up. I spent all day yesterday designing a new lesson format, only to have it crash and burn due to a combination of the aforementioned management problems and my failure to adequately prepare the details of the lesson. By lunch, I was pretty much shell-shocked. I didn’t have the will to eat my meal, and spent most of my 35 minute lunch (already abbreviated due to my out-of-control math hour) recovering my sanity.

Just to add icing to the cake, our school police officer issued me a ticket for my expired registration.

The afternoon went slightly better though. After the train-wreck of first math hour, I tabled the lesson for my second class. Only one out of about 8 kids showed up for detention, so I had to make some calls home, which went well. I’m definitely going to need to lean on the parental support lever to turn this thing around.

Days like these, make me question my competence in general. Millions of teachers are out there doing well, and I just can’t seem to get the hang of any of it. I often feel like what little I am doing right is like a house of cards that might just collapse at any moment. I can think of a million things I could be doing with far less stress and far more success. But I’ll never quit, because that would make me the biggest hypocrite ever. How can I ask my kids to do things they think they suck at, and then walk away myself? I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror. So I don’t care how bad it gets, I gotta figure out how to make it work.

As of right now, lessons are secondary, because I can’t deliver a lesson until I can recover control of my room.


The last several days have been tough. I struggled during Week 2 with just about every aspect of my job: planning, execution, management, organization, tracking, and on and on. On top of that, I was physically exhausted by midday Wednesday, despite the long weekend. In some ways, my sanity was saved on Thursday, after students were sent home halfway through the day due to extreme heat (most Baltimore city schools, including mine, have no AC). In other ways, the heat day is a nightmare, but that’s another topic.

Since, for once, I had the luxury of some extra time, I spent well over an hour that afternoon being mentored by a third-year teacher on my 9th grade team. It’s always fantastic to get good advice, but criticism can also be hard to swallow and overwhelming. And it’s really tough to walk the line between being confident enough to effectively execute your strategy, while at the same time being open to continuous improvement.

So that began my several days of thinking about how I am going to reinvent myself as a teacher–a process that will probably have to be repeated many times. I know I’ve I’ve spilled my guts about my problems to several veteran teachers. I’ve gotten a lot of good advice, and I think I’ve finally managed to wrap my head around my action items for this week.

One thing I’ve learned is that teachers are generally really generous toward rookies. On the other hand, there’s really only so much anyone else can do for you. Ultimately, so much of your job simply can’t be delegated, at least until your ship is really tight. And mine isn’t right now. But I think I’ve taken some important steps toward getting there.

Next step: starting to clean up the messes I’ve created for myself.