It’s A Celebration

Well, HSA day came and went without much of a hitch, and I think it went reasonably well. The students in my homeroom, which is well known to be the rowdiest, generally took the test seriously, and without incident. This from the class where I once had to kick 9 kids out during an exam for acting like maniacs. I’m looking forward to seeing those scores!

They have definitely come a long way. Next year, I just need to get them there in half the time. But for now, I get to step out of the pressure cooker, breathe a little bit, and just try to finish these last couple weeks strong.

Incidentally, I attended a meeting the become a transition leader for some of the incoming 2009 Baltimore corps members. I guess the circle of life never ends!

The Hour Is Upon Us

At long last, Algebra I HSA Day has arrived. We’ve spent the last 2 days doing a Math Field Day, where instead of normal classes, the students competed in teams in math based competitions, designed around the topics they are going to be tested on. Planning for it took 2 solid weeks, and we enlisted the middle school math teachers to pull it off, and on the whole, it was a spectacular success. It was supposed to be a low-stress math review, and I think that mission is accomplished.

Today, my students get to show what they have learned. For some students, this will be the culmination of consistent hard work in class and tens of hours of extra practice at peer tutoring sessions and Saturday school For others, it might be their chance to show how far they have come from beginning the year completely unprepared. And for yet others, frankly, they will reap what they have sown. As much as I hope all of my students pass, I know that some really haven’t put in the effort. But for those who have, I hope it shows. The entire 9th grade team has burnt the candle at both ends to try and rectify the dismal performance on the Mock HSA. Almost every aspect of my class has been redesigned on the fly. I’m banking on a tremendous improvement.

Keep my students in your prayers!

I Must Be Out My Cotton-Pickin’ Mind

This is an entry I have been meaning to write for about 2 weeks now.

While I was out on break, far away from the daily stress of school, recovering from an absolutely brutal February and March, it really began to dawn on me how much I was dreading another year of potential misery. I had left for break on a bad note, and returning, it got even worse. I really felt like I didn’t have a grip on anything that was going on professionally. After a really rough week back, which had only including 3 days of teaching, I started seriously considering leaving Teach For America at year’s end.

I spent the final two weeks of April fighting respiratory illness and struggling to make the decision of whether to come back or not. Even though next school year is still a long way away, the decision had to be made as early as possible, to give my school the time it would take to replace me, if necessary. Deep down, I wanted to finish my commitment and to apply the lessons I have learned this year, but I just could not shake the incredible feeling of terror I had about repeating the experience of this year. Because the thing is, the end of this year would be the only chance I’d get to get off the ride. The one thing I’ve sworn never to do is to quit during the middle of the year, putting my school in a bad spot, and even worse, abandoning my students. Summer was my chance to walk away and put it all behind me.

On the other hand, when I signed up for TFA, I was serious about the mission and the two-year commitment. I never saw myself as a potential quitter. A big part of me wanted to hang around, although I wasn’t seeing how it could be feasible. And so, I spoke to nearly everyone who would listen, pretty much grasping for someone to say something inspiring or reassuring enough to get me to stay. I talked in depth to probably at least a dozen people over those two weeks, and I can distill the advice down to two main common threads: that A) my 2nd year would undoubtedly be much better than my first, and that B) I had to do what was right for me and my well-being. Well, the former piece of advice was nothing new to me, and the latter piece of advice was really leading me away from returning for year two. By the end of my two weeks, I had pretty much decided I was leaving. And then…

I don’t really know what changed–there wasn’t like a big Hollywood speech that changed my mind. But, I guess it could have been a couple things cumulatively. First off, during those 2 weeks, I feel like my 9th grade team and administration really stepped up to back me up. I got a whole bunch of equipment in my room and a lot of instructional support from our 9th grade English teacher that really helped reduce my stress. Also, our tutoring partnership with University of Maryland at Baltimore County kicked in, and I now usually have a couple tutors in my room at any given time. This has really freed my hands to do a lot more of the overall management of my class. And lastly, I’d started noticing since returning from break that I was was starting to get a lot more respect from that crucial middle demographic of the students that I teach. This contrasts with time periods where I’ve had upwards 80% of my class running rampant.

Any of these things could be a factor, but I think it was more a change in my outlook, internally. I can pinpoint the time it happened during the afternoon of Friday, May 1. All the sudden, mostly out of nowhere, it dawned on me on that if I just focus on the basics and work the kinks out of my routine, maybe I can survive the next year after all. This may seem like a “no duh” kind of revelation, but it really was a paradigm shift for me. It’s tough to overstate foreboding I had been feeling about the next year of my life.

And also, to make my life more livable, I decided I’d drop out of the Hopkins master’s degree program. After all, I’m only one class away from being fully certified, and I’m already on the master’s degree pay scale anyway. So although it would be nice to add some more credentials, it’s not worth it if it’s only to serve my own ego, at the cost of a not-insignificant amount of stress and time.

I took a weekend to think on it, and then I reported to my principal that I would indeed commit to returning for next year, and then spent some time with him discussing new ideas.

I guess, in the end, I joined TFA to make a difference in the lives of kids. I feel like I’ve done a pretty crappy job of it this year. If I leave now, then what have I really accomplished?

So the plan is to survive the remainder of the year, hopefully recover my physical and mental health this summer, and try to make next year a much more tolerable and successful year.

Limping On In

I’ve not done a good job of keeping up on my journal lately, although, there is plenty to write. I am so worn out after pushing these past couple months to get my students ready for the HSA, and it’s right around the corner, on May 20. My inability to keep my journal up to date is in keeping with my inability to keep my room clean, my clothes folded, and my classroom papers organized. I’m just so spent right now, physically and mentally.

There’s plenty I’d love to write about what’s going on in my classroom, some major personal decisions about teaching that I’ve made, and generally how everything is coming together for the test, but it’ll have to wait for another day I guess.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that this job is far, far too big for one person. It definitely takes a village to teach math. Or to do it well, at least. I think it can be done by one person eventually maybe, but only building on the work of a whole bunch of other people. One person can’t build it from the ground up though, which has pretty much been my situation for most of the year. But when things have gotten crazy, a lot of people have gotten their hands dirty to help me out.

Thanks is definitely due to:

  • the rest of the 9th grade team, who have each stepped in and sacrificed for my class in huge ways,
  • my ever-supportive girlfriend, who is, herself, an excellent teacher and provides great advice,
  • my Algebra-teaching comrade and Institute roomie, who has been the recipient of many freaked out, late night phone calls from me,
  • my fearless Content Learning Team leader, who provided me incredible instructional materials far more useful than what my district provides, and
  • the cadre of tutors who make effective instruction sooo much easier, and frankly, less lonely.

Blessings In Disguise

Under advice, I have decided to make the previous journal entry about my roommate’s school situation private, but suffice it to say that I am humbled by the fact that although my job has been a major personal struggle, at the very least I am blessed to work in an environment where I feel like every single adult has the best interests of the students at heart, first and foremost. It makes a huge difference in how I feel going to work on a daily basis, and on what we are able to do for our students.