I, like most Baltimore City teachers, especially ones from our corps, have been hanging on for dear life these past couple weeks, holding out for Thanksgiving break, as if it were going to be my salvation. I’m pretty much living on the edge right now, and the fact that it’s not just me, but most everybody, is a sad commentary on the state of this profession. For me, I’m not totally sure what’s gone wrong, but I feel as though much of what I’m trying to improve has really skidded backwards lately.

This gloom was the backdrop for our first Student vs. Staff basketball game.

The students have been fired up about it for weeks. I’ve had kids I don’t even teach run up to me in the halls to ask if I was playing, if I was any good, and what position I play. And the basketball team itself has been out for blood. Many of our basketball players are also our most challenging students, and they were definitely looking to embarrass us on the court. One player has been telling me every day for the past week about how they were going to hang 100 points on us.

I stayed coy about bragging back. Although I knew I could hold my own, up until the day before the game, I had no idea who we’d even be able to get to play for the staff side. It was my duty to put the team together, but that, like many far more important things, fell to the wayside until the last minute. And even if I had known who we’d be able to field, we’d still be a disorganized, unconditioned team playing against a team that’s been practicing together most of the days of the week for the better part of 2 months.

We took the court in front of a raucous crowd of students from our three grades. The FAST cheerleaders showed off their routines on one side of the gym, while the teachers jumped and cheered under the other hoop. The basketball team threw everything they had at us the whole first half, but we hung in there. We didn’t make a lot of baskets at first and I came out cold. I had just eaten lunch and it wasn’t sitting well. But we stuck to the game plan and things started to gel as we found the holes in their defense. It’s not an advantage we’ll have for long, as our upper grades start filling in, but that day, we had a size and strength advantage, which let us win the battle for rebounds. After going down by as much as 8, we went on a run before half time and closed the gap a bit.

Coach Burley sat their whole starting side at the beginning of the 3rd quarter, and we took full advantage. We sat our Principal, who was our most effective player, but my game finally settled in, and we shut them down on defense, while running up the points. I had spent an hour after school working on my mid-range jump shot, and without their best defenders on the court, I buried several. By the end of the 3rd quarter, the staff were up by 3.

Quarter 4 was intense. Coach put all their starters back on the court. They came out flat though, making poor decisions and losing discipline on defense. The game stayed close until the end though, partly due to the machinations of Coach Burley, who was also the ref, haha. We couldn’t get a call, but he managed not to see one of their players travel two plays in a row, and it seemed like every time they shot the ball a foul was called. They had a chance to win when, down by 1, their best player was sent to the line but missed both foul shots. We hung on to the lead for the remaining minute, and time was called.

It was sooo sweet. One of their players mixed up the numbers on the scoreboard, as if that would change the outcome, but we fixed it and took our victory picture. It was probably unsportsmanlike of us, but we spent a solid 5 minutes reveling instead of lining up to shake hands. I tried to organize a line, but the basketball team had already mostly started filing back to the locker room to get chewed out by Coach Burley. He must have read them the riot act, because most of them were completely dejected as they left the school.

It was interesting to see how conflicted the student body was. Some of our students cheered the whole time for us and came up to shake our hands before and after the game. Some of them were all for a faculty embarrassment, and had already thought up excuses seconds after the final buzzer. But most were there, just enjoy the show, cheering for whatever player did something flashy.

I hope the game was symbolic. The students are always talking about how they “run this school”, which isn’t far from the truth. We teachers are, after all, only human. But just like in the game, we fight absolutely relentlessly, undermanned and underequipped, to get by on the slimmest of margins. On the other hand, unlike the game, the real life battle continues on Monday.

One Battle Lost

One of my students was proposed for expulsion on Friday, and I have very mixed feelings about it. The kid is extremely troubled. His parents don’t know what to do with him, and neither did we. He just couldn’t stay out of trouble. If he wasn’t supervised constantly, he would be out of his seat, breaking something. He was a constant disruption in the classroom. At the same time, I know he’s not a bad person. He never argued with me, and he always came to detention. I’d make him clean my whole classroom, and it was like he was almost glad to be punished. It wasn’t that he enjoyed it, but I could tell that it meant something to him to be held accountable for the damage he caused. The problem was he just couldn’t help getting into serious trouble continuously. We didn’t have the resources to help him, but I’m really afraid for what’s going to happen to him now.

That’s the constant frustration. I’ve got at least a dozen other kids who have extremely serious psychological issues. They ruin classrooms, but they’re really screaming for help. I don’t know what to do to help them, and furthermore, their disruptions make it so I can’t do my actual job–teaching algebra. Even counting out that 10% of my students who are completely out of pocket, I’d say another 40% are in moderate crisis. The reality of it is that the math lesson I spend so much time preparing is just the backdrop to me trying to navigate the psychology of 100 extremely needy adolescents. It’s really more like triage than anything else.

There’s much more to write, but I’m scatterbrained right now–this topic is just one of many things on my mind right now. I’m hoping that the process of figuring out how to get it all on paper will help me get my act together. But for now, I’m going to try to get some rest.

Never a dull moment

The past week has been filled with the usual ups and downs. Monday was one of those days when I actually felt like I was teaching. One of my least comprehensible students caught me off-guard, showing up early to proudly present to me his homework and his signed monitoring sheet. I barely knew what to say, so I told him “good job!” as enthusiastically as I could. In general, everyone was easier to deal with, and my lessons went over with little difficulty. During the dreaded intervention period, I somehow ended up with 30 kids in my class room, and amazingly enough, I kept them under my thumb and at least somewhat on-task. I was practically waiting for the whole thing to blow up in my face, but it never did.

My bliss wouldn’t last though. Yesterday, my morning started off rough because my most manageable class was chaotic. Then all hell broke loose in the afternoon. One of our security officers literally pile drove at lunch in front of the whole 9th grade, which was a showstopper. If that wasn’t enough, I had to break up my first serious fight in the hallway minutes later during the transition. When my class entered the room for the next period, math obviously wasn’t on their minds. I couldn’t refocus them, and most of the period went to waste.

I hoped to recapture some of Monday’s glory today. Not so much. I had an awful morning class. It was reminiscent of the beginning of the year–me being so overwhelmed with managing misbehavior that I’d completely forget what I was doing during the brief moments of attention. Not to mention I was being observed by my IST and my principal’s coach during this whole mess. My afternoon class was equally unmanageable.

There were a couple bright spots though. I have a couple students that have really improved. One kid, who was a nightmare at the beginning of the year, brought me leftover homemade pizza this morning. Although, while serving detention at lunch, he told me he thought I’d probably just throw it away, like his old teacher. It almost made we want to videotape myself snacking on it after school to prove my appreciation. Also, I think that part of my dissatisfaction is that as I have good lessons, or even good days, I ratchet up my expectations. It’s tough to vividly remember what exactly my first couple weeks of class really felt like (other than being like drowning), so it’s probably hard for me to perceive the incremental improvements. The ups and downs are pretty rough. In the 3 school days we’ve had so far, I’ve bounced between the extremes of really feeling like I can do this teaching thing to wanting to run for the hills.

I’m still working hard to both establish authority and relationships, and I’m still not past the contradictions. I think it’s starting to work a little better though. I’ve made a point of greeting every student I see with a smile, especially before criticizing them for breaking rules, haha. It’s also tough balancing the necessity of asserting authority with the cost in time and credibility it takes to demonstrate it. Specifically, I’ve heard said before that there’s really no way to win in a power struggle with a student. On the other hand, it’s absolutely important to make it known to everybody that disrespect and misbehavior are not tolerated. It’s just so complicated navigating all the nuance on the fly…

Well, the countdown to Thanksgiving is on. Just gotta power through.

Something to celebrate!

Yesterday, I had the duty of distributing honor roll brunch invitations to students in one of my classes. I probably didn’t make as big a deal of it as I should have. During class, I made a small announcement and handed out 2 of the 3 invitations to little fanfare. The third student was at a rehearsal and wasn’t present to receive hers.

I ran into that missing student in the hallway after school, and it crossed my mind just as the conversation was ending that I still had her invitation. I went back to my room and grabbed it, and said to her, in probably an almost off-hand manner, “Oh, and here’s your honor roll invitation”.

I almost jumped out of fright when she, out of nowhere, shrieked and tore off, running zig-zag down the hallway.

“I made the honor roll!!! I made the honor roll!!!”

She ran up behind a random kid in the hallway and shook the heck out of him, while screaming at him that she was on the honor roll.

Tears of joy streaming down her face when she came back and told me, “Mr. Johnson, I’ve never made the honor roll before! My sisters are on the honor roll every semester, but me, I’ve never been on the honor roll before. I’m an honor student!”

Granted, this particular girl is super emotional all the time, but I was still taken off-guard by how excited and surprised she was. I guess I kind of assumed she already knew how she had really gotten her act together, and how much butt she was kicking in class.

I guess looking back, she has made an absolutely incredible turnaround. This girl was a handful at the beginning of the year. I don’t think I can take much credit for it; she’s been kind of a team project. And I know she’s put in extraordinary effort, all on her own. Still, in the daily grind and chaos, it’s easy to miss out on some of the great things that happen.

And I think the lesson for me is to make big deals out of the good things, because you never know how much a little recognition might mean to someone.

Judgment Days

Right now, the least of my worries is my own judgment day, my formal observation on Thursday. Unit 2 testing starts tomorrow, and excepting my all-star class tomorrow morning, I don’t have much reason to be optimistic. I gave a quiz last week on the concepts that are at the heart of the unit, and the results were abysmal. There’s not much reason to expect a major change. Even so, the show must go on. We’re way behind and we have to move on to new material. Plus, I don’t think rehashing the same old material would solve the problem.

I’m practically begging for kids to come in for the help they need, but almost no one is taking the initiative. For some kids, I honestly don’t know what they’re thinking is going to happen when the end of the year comes and they don’t pass this class or the state exam. The saddest thing is that some of these kids are so bright, but they’re pissing their potential away. I’m hoping that since it’s report card week, I’ll get the chance to issue some wake-up calls to kids and parents. It’s too bad most of them won’t receive them before they take this test.

Oh well, I’d just as soon shelve this material for now and come back to it later. I’ve got a few test days and a long weekend to think about how I’m going to make Unit 3 far more effective than my first two have been. I just pray that for those who don’t do well, this test comes as a reality check, not a knock down.

So much for the light at the end

I am so stressed. Thankfully, we had election day “off”, but I spent the entire day working on my massive backlog of unfinished business, and it feels like I haven’t made a dent. I must say, it’s pretty demoralizing that I can work really hard most of the time, and occasionally, work literally non-stop, and yet still never be on schedule. No lie, I could probably take a full week off teaching and still not be caught up. It’s like swimming upstream.

In other news, it’s time to rethink my approach to misbehavior. I originally thought the root of my problem was my approach to misbehaving students. But now, I think I’ve reached a point where I am fairly consistent and assertive in confronting misbehavior in my classroom, and still I have classes that get out of control. It’s time to bring in the big guns. I haven’t been proactive enough in calling parents and issuing referrals. The disrespect I put up with is pretty ridiculous, and up until now, I’ve taken it too lightly and taken too much of the enforcement aspect on myself. The fact is, I simply don’t have the time and resources to keep up with numerous detentions and phone calls each day. Once I’ve exhausted the consequences I can issue in class, parents need to regulate their children, and if they can’t/won’t/don’t, then it’s up to the administration. Because ultimately, I need to be able to teach class, and in a couple of my classes, it’s just not happening and it’s hurting all students. The bad part is that now, some of my more compliant students have really started following the example set by my defiant students and have started testing the boundaries. It’s really gotten out of hand. Partly because of behavior, I’m more than 3 weeks behind schedule, and I’m still pushing things back.

I feel stressed and occasionally pessimistic, but for the first time in a while, I think I’m actually ahead of the general mood in the corps, and that’s probably not a good thing overall. Things are pretty bleak. Although my administration can be somewhat oppressive, what with their unrealistic expectations of me, they are highly effective, and I’m blessed for that. Not everyone is so lucky. And I don’t mean to dog anyone, it’s just that being an administrator–let alone an effective one–in this environment is an extraordinary task, and there just aren’t enough superhumans for every school to get their own set.