Year One, In The Bank

Cleaning out my room this week, it has been interesting to look at my accumulated papers from the past year one last time as I throw them in the recycling bin. Glancing at all of the informational papers I received from my administration during the first week of school brings back the feeling of looking at them for the first time, not comprehending their meaning, and then depositing them into my desk drawer, where many of them would stay for the next 9 months.

I remember being completely overloaded with information on school policy and procedures and pretty much pushing it all out of mind to be able to dedicate all of my focus on the physical process of teaching—the actual process standing up in front of the class and delivering a message or lesson. In the beginning, this, in and of itself, was a huge challenge for me. It’s a lot harder than delivering a speech, because in addition to remembering what you want to say and how you want to deliver it, there is the whole aspect of actively monitoring and managing the classroom at the same time. For the first couple of months, all of this took a lot of conscious effort, and I remember that it slowed my speech to a crawl.

I also get the dubious pleasure of seeing the horrible lesson plans and materials that I saved from September, none of which is even remotely close to being worthy of keeping. I used to hand out individual, unstapled sheets for each of the activities we’d do in class, and then hopelessly try to collect them for grading, with no real plan for organizing them myself or for having the students organize them. It was absolutely insane.

Looking at my anecdotal records, individual conduct sheets, and class monitoring sheets brings back memories of how chaotic my room was at the beginning of the year (at still to a pretty great extent up until spring break). I’m reminded of what it was like to have the dreaded 901 class for 30 minutes for homeroom, 110 minutes for math, and 60 minutes for intervention, all in one day, especially when back in October when it was stacked with some of our most dysfunctional students. We didn’t lose a whole lot of students this year, but the majority of them were at one point or another in my homeroom.

I’ll be hanging on to my folder of observations from throughout the course of the year, although I’ll likely never have the desire to read them again. Some of my worst afternoons were those when I sat down to read observation reports, which were rarely flattering, and often downright discouraging.

Leaving this room, I’ll cherish memories like teaching 110 minute classes in 90 degree heat, and when my water bottle froze because it was 25 degrees in my room.

It’s been a mostly gloomy year, but there have been some good moments. It was rare this year that I was the teacher I wanted to be, or that my students were achieving on absolute levels that I could be proud of. That’s not to say that I feel entirely negative toward the year. It’s just that the real positivity comes from remembering what it was really like in the beginning and reflecting on how much my students have matured academically and socially and how much I have improved in my job as a teacher. My students aren’t on grade level, but a lot of them have moved within reach. I’m especially proud of how far they have come in terms of their maturity.

I know am by no means a fantastic teacher, but at least I don’t still feel like the worst teacher ever. It was very validating getting a flattering end of the year review. I know I’ve still got work to do to feel as though I’ve earned it. In the end, my first year’s in the bank, and it’s one of my proudest accomplishments. I’m actually looking forward to having a much better, more productive, and more enjoyable second year.

End of Year Thoughts

Although my year is for most purposes over (thank God!), due to extremely weird district policy, I technically have a week of school remaining. It’s really bizarre; the kids have already taken their finals. My grades are due in Wednesday morning. And yet, the students are still technically supposed to be in class until Friday. You might wonder, why doesn’t the district just move finals until the last day of school? That’s a fantastic question. No one seems to know.

In any case, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the state of urban education, inspired by the fact that it is the end of my first year, there have been some pretty significant happenings in my district, and I have been reading a lot about urban education. Here’s what I wrote on my Teach For America end of year survey, which pretty much sums up my thoughts:

Urban education takes a focus on developing children in a very holistic way. When students come to my Algebra I class, they are often severely lacking not only in math preparation, but also in social skills and effective work habits. It is necessary to teach so many things that I took for granted that I expected of the typical 9th grader. In many ways, it’s necessary to be an extra parent.

Many of my students are not used to being held to a rigorous standard of academic work, and it has been a major challenge finding the right level of expectations for a diverse class. I have also learned that along with high expectations, I as a teacher need to provide I high level of support in order for my students to achieve.

The vast majority of my students really want to achieve, but that most of them are unaware of how much rigor and discipline success requires. I feel like this is probably the single most important thing I can teach my students, because with discipline, they can achieve in any subject.

The sad thing is that although pushing my students to a much level of achievement would be a major accomplishment, so many students graduate high schools in Baltimore only to be woefully unprepared for college level work. Very few of these students are going on to four-year colleges, and even fewer are finishing their degrees in five years or less. The book A Hope In The Unseen by Ron Suskind is a great illustration of this issue.

Many people criticize TFA for not being the answer to the problem of urban education. They argue that most TFA teachers come in to the classroom, leave after 2 years, before they become truly proficient in the classroom, and move on to something “bigger and better”. And to a certain extent, I agree. All students do deserve great teachers, and no 1st or 2nd year teacher has possibly reached their potential. But I’ve come to believe that even if you could put an excellent teacher in every classroom a low-income student visits, that student would still be at a major disadvantage. The inequalities go way beyond the classroom. I think the organization realizes this, which is why they emphasize the two-year commitment. They hope that corps members will go on to career areas where they can hopefully lead in making the systematic changes these kids need. This seems to be the growing consensus. Projects like the Harlem Children’s Zone are proving it. Still, teachers are the people on the front lines, and good teachers will always be necessary. Consequently, the issues of teacher retention and the controversy of Teach For America are not likely to fade away.

Check out these articles for some recent press on TFA in Baltimore:

“City wants to expand ‘Teach for America’ program”
by Liz Bowie
Mon, May 25,0,1460323.story

Inside Ed
Sun Blog
Tues, May 26

Baltimore Sun
“City Funds sought for Teach For America”
Weds, May 27,0,4909764.story

Baltimore Sun
“Teach For Baltimore” Editorial
Thurs, May 28,0,1892836.story

Mon, May 25 5:15 PM EDT
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Eyewitness News at 5
Mon, May 25 05:34 PM EDT
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Mon, May. 25, 11:04 PM EDT
Video: Play Clip
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ABC2 News Good Morning Maryland
Tues, May 26 6:52 AM EDT
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