A Much-Needed Boost

My toughest class today was a bit of a high-wire act. As I’ve become accustomed to, I randomly had 3 observers. This could be very stressful, but today, this turned out to be a positive thing. A lady from North Ave. (our district headquarters) really laid down the law, which helped put down the rebellions that so often derail my class. Things were nearly out of control, but at least most of the kids were engaged, for a change, even if it was to unite against my instruction. It also helped that my observers really got their hands dirty and helped tutor students during practice time. And on top of it all, I got some uplifting feedback and a lot of ideas. Through it all, I learned a lot.

One thing that has really dawned on me is that a lot of the management and investment problems I’m faced with are as a result of motivation. I’ve been perplexed so much of the time as to why my students won’t do their work. For a while, I concluded that they simply didn’t care, or think it was important. But I’ve seen even my toughest kids do work this week. I used to think that my kids didn’t care about failing, but the truth is that they want to succeed, but they would rather not try at all than try and fail. And they’d rather appear to be a behavior problem than appear stupid.

So my new imperative is to design lessons that let each kid succeed every day. The problem is how I can design lessons that allow each of my kids, who are scattered across about 8 years of math ability, to succeed. One of the key takeaways is that this means most lecture is out. I’ll only be able to lecture on the most basic concepts, because extended explanations will either bore the advanced kids or frustrate the remedial kids. But one thing that can help is getting the kids to help one another.

I’m hoping that if I can carefully build confidence in my class, engagement and motivation will increase, which will allow me to really push, like I’ve been trying to. And maybe my disciplinary issues will start to diminish as well. Now, for the new quarter I just have to find a way that I can shorten the cycle of grading and plan 3 times as many activities with the same amount of time! And hopefully, I can find ways to stop annoying my administration so much, while I’m at it. Oh well, at least now I’ve got ideas to work with that I’m feeling confident about.

Harshening Times

Well, as much as I’ve been looking forward to putting October and this quarter behind me, things are getting markedly darker.

First of all, I don’t know what’s up with the kids, but crazy stuff is going down. Kids are trashing rooms, breaking supplies, fighting, and cussing at me. Another kid I teach just got suspended today for telling me to get the f*** out of his face, all because I told him to hand over the MP3 player he was listening to in my class.

In general, the kids are testing. I don’t get what would possess a kid to blatantly break the rules in my face, and then flip out on me for doing my job by enforcing them. The tough thing is that in some cases, they seem to be trying their hardest to get kicked out of this school, but I’ve got to find ways to keep them from accomplishing that goal.

But I’m also feeling the crush from the other side too. My principal and my teammates are taking the kid gloves off and starting to call me out on the things I have been unable to do consistently. I’m being perceived as not being responsive to my professional obligations and support. Of course it’s true, but it’s not because I don’t care. I just don’t have the time or organizational habits in place, and there’s simply no quick fix to that. I’m bracing myself a pretty thorough beating between now and up through my upcoming formal observation.

In other news, my roommate today found out that he was surplussed by mistake, but that since his papers are signed with his next school, they had to find a new social studies teacher to take his place. His replacement: a surplussed teacher from some other school, who worked at Dunbar last year and intentionally didn’t return. Brilliant. Also, another surplussed TFA teacher from Dunbar has been reassigned as the new Latin teacher at a high school. The catch: she does not know Latin.

Harsh Times

Don’t put yourself up on a cross. Your blood won’t help no one….Plus it’s already been done”
-Errol Duncan, brilliant English scholar and teacher

Today was a pretty brutal day at school. My first class went reasonably well, but my second class was “off the hook”, as they say here. Class lasts 110 minutes, and I couldn’t get them to be quiet long enough to even finish the warm-up. By no means is that acceptable.

When class goes that badly, I feel like I’m backed against the wall in a lot of ways. Often times, it’s tough to single out a kid when about a dozen of them are the root of the problem. I don’t want to issue detentions, because I know half of them won’t come, and then I’ll have to follow up with their parents, and what was a one-period issue becomes a two-day process I have to stay on top off. I can throw kids out, but at some point, I feel guilty dumping 10 students in one period. I can issue referrals, but it only makes me look bad when I send a kid out because I can’t get them to shut up.

Lately, I’m bemoaning the fact that I lack the apparent ability to get under kids’ skin. I know a lot of teachers that can put the fear of God into a child, but I haven’t yet developed that talent, and consequently I can’t control my students. Today, I was taking it pretty hard, especially because my grad school supervisor is so insistent that I be insistent on complete silence as I teach. So far, that’s been impossible to achieve.

I felt particularly powerless at the end of the day when as I was holding kids after to finish their work, one of my students physically pushed me out of the doorway, allowing the rest of the students to flood out, Ten Commandments-style.

Fortunately, Mr. Duncan, our language arts teacher, gave me one heck of a pep talk at the end of the day, reassuring me that it’s not all my fault. He says that I cannot allow my ego to take the kind of beating it’s taking listening to all the talking heads, because it’s not built withstand the abuse.

Part of the problem, he says, is that I’m perceiving what may be a very real mismatch between the pedagogy TFA and my school push, along with the rigor and pacing of my curriculum, and the reality in my room. I’ve been taking it pretty personally that I’m having a great deal of trouble implementing it and controlling my room. But much of what I’m facing is the futility of trying to simultaneously teach kids scattered across 8 grade levels of academic ability and with vastly varying levels of social adaptability.

So I’m going to try to stop beating myself up over my faults, and start doing the best I can to play the cards I’m dealt. But that’s going to be put to the test, with my two toughest classes coming up tomorrow.

Powering Through

Well, I’m almost finished with October, thank God. This past week hasn’t been kind, and I’m anticipating this coming week will be bumpy as well. The final week of October also happens to be the final week of the quarter, and kids are looking for the easy way out of receiving the lackluster (or downright failing) grades most of them are receiving. This means I’ll likely be spending a couple hours a day after school administering tests that up until now, no one has seriously attempted to come make up. Awesome.

Last week, two of my classes in particular got way out of hand. Highlights included me being cussed out twice in 3 days by two different students. Also, some of my students have shown a disappointing lack of respect for the class supplies, including those which I purchased with my own money. I’ve made almost 20 parent phone calls this past week in an effort to stem the tide of bad behavior. I’m hoping that between that and some lesson innovations, things will smooth out a bit.

I’m feeling like November is going to be easier to handle. I’ve only got one full week of school for the whole month, and the shortened school day takes effect the first week. They’re only planning to chop off a half hour of the day, but hey, I’ll take whatever I can get.

October Slump

The last couple of weeks have been a wild ride. They say October is the worst month for teachers. I certainly hope so, because I could use some relief.

One thing that I absolutely have to write about is the mid-year shuffle going on across the district. Wednesday last week, my roommate found out that come the next day, he might be out of a job due to over-budgeting. No detailed explanation was given at the time, other than the fact that the school under its enrollment target by 33%, and all new teachers were on the chopping block. As it turns out, my roommate did get “surplussed”. I’m sure the frustration I feel is nowhere near the sentiments he probably has, but to me this symbolized everything that’s wrong with the system. Dunbar Middle, where he works, was regarded as the worst middle school in the city last year, and that’s saying something. This year, due to the tireless work of the staff, it’s a working. And I know that my roommate must have been one of the hardest working teachers in that building. He works with barely any resources or support. He’s up later than me every night and wakes earlier every morning. During his planning period, he’s been acting as a quasi-administrator. He’s the coach of the girls’ soccer team, through which he’s built relationships with some of his toughest students. And come October 31, he’s gone.

We’ve since come to learn that the budget redistribution is going exactly according to plan, and that it is a necessarily evil of the complicated process of giving parents choice in the schools their children attend. My roommate will be transferred to a high school that, up until now, has been under-budgeted. After all, those kids Dunbar expected are going somewhere. But seriously, there’s got to be a better way. Are his 7th graders going to understand the intricacies district budgeting, or are they just going to think that yet another person in their lives is walking out on them? Can Dunbar Middle continue to deliver on its promise of rebirth with 1/3 of their staff gone?

As for myself, I can’t help but feel like the hammer is falling–that soon, people are finally going to find out I’ve been failing miserably for 2 solid months, and I’m going to be summarily stoned, Old Testament-style. My principal came into our staff meeting swinging today. He’s not happy with some of us, although he won’t mention who. He keeps making these comments at meetings about how 5% of the teachers aren’t meeting the expectations, and I keep thinking he must be referring to me.

The good news is, after last week’s day off and professional development, I feel like I’ve come out of a daze. I still feel like I’m underwater, but I’m fighting again. It’s just so hard, because there aren’t enough hours in the day. There just aren’t. If I could physically get all my work done, I’d be better off certainly, but I still don’t think I’d be anywhere close to rocking it as a teacher. Maybe I don’t give people enough credit, but most of the time, when people say “just let me know if you need something”, I don’t really take them at face value. I guess I have just felt really guilty letting people know that I can’t handle my own load. But clearly, I need to suck it up and scream for help, because leaving things undone isn’t doing anyone any favors.

There is some light coming down the tunnel. There are lots of days off in November, which hopefully ought to make the month bearable. I get to see my whole family this weekend. I’ve never been so excited about that in my life. Possibly even more exciting is the fact that my school is getting rid of the extended school day. I almost thanked God aloud when my principal grudgingly announced it in our staff meeting today. Don’t get me wrong, a well-planned, well-staffed extended day could hypothetically be an awesome thing for our students, but so far, all it’s been is a massive thorn in everyone’s side. The extra hour and change (I hope) in my day is going to be HUGE.

Restoring my work-life balance

I took my first day off today, which I gave me conflicted feelings. On one hand, I have felt it was long overdue. I’ve been working like a dog almost non-stop since Institute started in late June, and I’m weary. On the other hand, it was really hard to take the day off, because it makes me feel like a quitter, even though it’s just one day. I have really taken to heart, nominally at least, the mantra that every minute of instructional time is sacred. As hard as I fight to make my class run smoothly, I’ve been more than a little stressed about what would happen without me in the room. And I’ve also taken to heart that if I’m going to hold the kids to the highest expectations that I myself must never give an inch.

I left Baltimore for the first time in over 2 months this week, and made a conscious effort to distance myself from teaching, if only for 36 hours. It gave me the opportunity to really put things in perspective. Really, taking today off was necessary so I could catch up on the work I didn’t do this weekend. But getting up this morning, I had a disturbing realization. I could barely move out of bed, and I was having major difficulty accomplishing even simple chores. It was like my whole body was protesting doing any work. It’s a feeling I know from tough times in the past–depression. I mean, I knew work was depressing me, but the surprise was the inner negativity I felt this weekend in the absence of work. And I know from the past that it’s a path I can’t afford to indulge right now.

Despite all the warnings from past corps members, I have been deluding myself into thinking I’ve been doing myself and my students a favor by compromising the non-negotiables in my life and working around the clock. But I’ve really only been slowly destroying my own mental state. I think part of the reason I have to work so hard is because I’m constantly exhausted mentally and physically, and the marginal productivity of my work is so low.

Stepping back from teaching for the weekend and taking a sick day to recover wasn’t really enough to come close caught up on work or relaxation. But it gave me time to really look at the things I need to fix in my lifestyle. I’m hoping that once I’m mentally healthier, I’ll be happier and more productive. This week should be somewhat therapeutic, since we have professional development days Thursday and Friday.

Go 2-day teaching week!

Second Winds and Broken Winds

Today, oh-so-briefly, I felt like a real teacher. After a my first math lesson with my toughest class didn’t go so well, I went to lunch feeling a bit down and stressed. I honestly don’t know what happened between then and the start of my second 110 minute class, but I caught my second wind somehow, some way. For most of the period, I felt like I was in my own skin. I got fired up, I lectured well, I controlled the classroom, I cracked jokes, I helped students make individual breakthroughs, and I almost made it through a full lesson with a tough class. Unfortunately, it all fell apart in the last 5 minutes when some kid ripped a fart in the front row, and all hell broke loose. I didn’t even get mad. I just stared them down, as if to say, “Seriously? You’re going to let some gas stand between you and learning this math?”

The unspoken response was a resounding “yes”. Oh well, it was good while it lasted.

Concerning The Churn

I have learned first-hand about the ways the system I teach in is fundamentally flawed, but today, I’ll focus on one thing that has been on my mind in particular.

A major, major problem in urban education is teacher retention. I don’t know the statistics, but I’d venture a guess that the average tenure of a Baltimore City teacher is less than 5 years. I suspect it is far less.

I have tons of support from veteran teachers through TFA, Hopkins, and my school support staff and administration. But here’s the kicker: few of these people who are so full of experience still run a classroom. Now I’m not pointing fingers because they all serve very important purposes. But those purposes so often don’t directly include teaching children.

Are we to blame veteran teachers for leaving the classroom? Absolutely not. The system is pushing them out. This job demands your heart and your soul, as well as every waking hour of your day, if you want to be even marginally successful. You take abuse from kids all day and the administrative demands cripple you and tie your hands. You cover for the personnel your school should have but doesn’t, and you make do with what resources you have because the things you want aren’t coming. You would have to be a superhuman to put up with this for more than a few years. Sadly but truly, taking 30 minutes of my evening to write this is shortchanging my students of a better-planned lesson.

I can’t speak for any of the aforementioned veteran former teachers. But if I could try to place myself in their shoes, I would imagine that most of these people are desperately dedicated to the cause, which is why they have decided to stay in urban education in one way or another. Some of them have even decided to take what appears to me to be an insane step up in dedication by becoming school administration–as much as I sometimes feel crushed by mine, I don’t envy my principal or AP in the least. For those who become support staff of some form, perhaps they see themselves as making more of an impact by training the next generation of educators. Or perhaps, more cynically, they want to recover a semblance of a life, get paid more, and/or sidestep the abusive daily grind of classroom teaching.

One thing is clear to me: the revolving door of teachers cannot be a good thing. The fact that they would throw untrained teachers into the toughest classrooms in the country–the mere existence of my program–is indicative of how desperate the situation is. My school is blessed with a relatively experienced faculty, probably on par with high caliber County schools. But the same can not be said of the average city school.

Those of us on the ground are begging for mercy. Unfortunately, the screams are mute once they filter up through the administration, to the district, to the city, and finally to the state legislature. All the State sees are budget deficits and failing schools, and as we all know, giving us the resources we so desperately need is just “throwing money at the problem”.

Kidding aside, urban teaching has borrowed the model of the investment bank: you come in, you pay your dues, and, if you survive, you move out of the grind and up in the world. This must be changed. The need for the absurd numbers of support staff would be obviated if the City didn’t have to retrain half its teacher corps every year. The way I see it, urban education will not improve until the system stops treating teachers like garbage and starts nurturing and protecting them. There simply aren’t enough superhumans out there to save the schools.

Set Up To Fail

While I still believe that my principal did an incredible job of pulling the best group of people together to staff our school, there’s a growing feeling amongst us that we are being screwed over by somebody on high. Everybody at FAST was fired up about being a part of the vanguard of the revolution in education in Baltimore City. Our CEO of schools and a number of city hall dignitaries were on hand for our first day of school. Reinventing Canton Middle as one of the city’s top schools was supposed to be one of the CEO’s pet projects. And yet it feels like we are being sabotaged.

Our extended day is supposed to be one of our big levers for increasing student achievement. In theory, we should be providing more instruction than the average school. Why then are our 9th graders only receiving 110 minutes of math every 2 days, when the concensus is that they really need 90 minutes a day? Our hour-long intervention piece still hasn’t materialized. We are supposed to have tutors in the building working with the students and taking some of the load off of us teachers. Apparently, the tutors are ready to roll, but our funding from the city has been held up until mid-November. These kids need intervention now!

As students transfer schools (or get expelled), we have to keep our enrollment numbers stable in order to keep all of our funding. Word on the street was that since we aren’t hitting our enrollment targets, the district wanted to take one of our teachers, when we don’t have enough as it is! Fortunately, our principal successfully fought that, but the fact that it even came up makes me very nervous.

I don’t know who decides what students attend this school, but whoever it is, they’re putting an incredible amount on our plates. Out of about 95 students in the 9th grade, over 20 have IEP’s and require special ed accomodations. For privacy reasons, I don’t want to get very specific, but almost every new student we have received has major documented educational issues. We were supposed to be a model school for the inclusion model of special ed teaching, where a content teacher and a special educator teach side-by-side, using various strategies to make sure all of the kids are being served. The way it is now, our overworked special educator is bogged down in the paperwork for her enormous caseload, and is also in charge of teaching our ever-increasing population of students whose IEP’s require them, by law, to separated from the general education setting. For weeks, we have been waiting for another special educator, but at this point, no one is holding their breath.

We have 5 ELL students but no real ELL program. They get 70 minutes of time with the ELL teacher a day, which happens right smack in the middle of one of their classes. Supposedly the city says that we don’t have enough ELL students to merit a full-time ELL teacher to travel with them, but right now, they are not getting the equal opportunities they deserve.

Apparently, the district has also been letting go of custodians, because our formerly ever-present custodial crew has been dwindling. Most days, I show up to find that no one has come by to pick up the trash or clean the hallway floors. It might not seem so, but I really think a big part of being an elite school is looking like one.

I could go on and on about the unfulfilled promises and obligations, but I’m going to leave it there. Everybody is stretched so thin, and overall frustration is increasing. I work day and night, and yet there’s not one person in the school that I feel has got it any better. No one said it was gonna be easy, but man, it sure doesn’t feel like we’ve got a lot of friends out there.

Random Anecdotes

This week has had its ups and downs. Overall, it went way better than last week. Or, at least, it felt way better. I mean, I didn’t lose all my data again, so that’s definitely a plus.


On Tuesday, I showed up to school to learn from one of my harder-core students that I had earned, and I quote, “mad street cred” for being able to play basketball. The day before, I had played one of my students one-on-one, and lost 7-6. I maintain that I would have crushed him if it wasn’t for the fact that I was sleep-deprived, malnourished, and in poor conditioning. Nevertheless, I made my point. My point was further made when I absolutely schooled 3 of my students in 21, including another of my more defiant students. It was a fun and worthwhile experience, and I think I’ll make it part of my Monday routine. Just one front of the battle for the hearts and minds…


I just watched Hard Times at Douglass High, an HBO documentary on Baltimore City schools. It’s so true! I recommend it to anyone who wants a glimpse at the paradoxes and challenges of urban education. I’m not sure it really captures the constant feeling of being crushed between pressure from above through the district, the school, TFA, and Hopkins, and the demoralizing disrespect and defiance from below from the students.


I got my student data back on the big standardized test they took at the beginning of the year, and it’s another reminder of how much my work is cut out for me. Out of 78 kids tested, 26 are in the lowest 10th percentile for 9th graders nationwide. On the bright side, 5 of my kids are above average, and 2 are in the top 25th percentile, but I’m at a bit of a loss as to how I’m going to engage my top students and remediate my lower students at the same time.

The big buzz word in teaching these days is “differentiation”. So far, to me, it mostly means doing 3 times the work as you normally would to make up for the fact that there aren’t enough teachers to teach the students on their individual levels.


Tomorrow could be a clown show. It’s a half day, and the schedule is really goofy. Naturally, the kids are probably going to be wild. Then, after the kids are released, we have progress report pickups and parent-teacher conferences. What a crappy time to not have my data on hand. So far, my students’ parents have been very supportive, although I must say, I’m still nervous about dealing with them.