Still here!

Week 4 of school started today, and I’m glad to report that I’ve been so quiet lately because things are generally running fairly smoothly.  It’s far from perfect, but things are going alright.

I have benefited greatly from having better management structures in place in my own room, and team-wide, although I know I still have work to do.  I need to be more consistent about giving immediate warnings.  Kids are getting too many chances to disrupt before receiving consequences.  Also, it’s tough to keep an eye on the little things like uniform issues, that slip my mind.

My main issue right now is investment.  The first couple weeks, I was really impressed by how motivated my students seem to be, but now I can barely keep them awake.  Sure, my lessons are dry, but even when I try to mix it up, I’ve got a lot of non-participators.  I think I might try to instate a daily points system again, although I am a bit leery of the additional paperwork that would involve.  Paperwork is my Achilles’ heel right now.  I am seriously lagging on my grades, and that is exacerbating the lack of student investment.

This year, I am trying to take a more active role in my school, and it’s going alright.  I feel like I’m producing more, as opposed to last year, where I felt like a drag on the system.  It definitely helps that the school day has is shorter and that I don’t have Hopkins class to worry about.  Still, I don’t feel I’ve escaped the grind, and I probably never will.  Back to work!

I’ll leave you with the speech I delivered at the TFA retreat yesterday.  I thought I’d be in front of 100+ people, but turnout was awful, and it ended up being more like 20.  Still, it was well received by the corps members and staff, dark humor and all.

Welcome Teach For America Baltimore Corps of 2008 and 2009.  I want to begin by expressing how extremely honored I am to have been chosen to address you today.

To the ‘09’s, if I calculated correctly, you have been in the classroom for only 14 days, but I bet it feels like a lot longer doesn’t it?

Even though it seems like forever ago, I still remember clearly driving up Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time to begin my TFA adventure at Coppin State during Induction.  I also remember how impressed I was with the rest of the ’08 corps and the energy you all brought that week.  It felt like if any group had the brains and drive to take on the achievement gap, it was us.  That Induction experience was also what motivated me to get so involved with Induction for the ’09 corps, and it was amazing to get to know you as well.  So once again, it’s a tremendous honor to stand in front of you.

Had the regional office wanted to pick a TFA cheerleader to speak to you today, they certainly would have picked somebody else.  I’m not going to name any names.  But the only reason I imagine they would pick me is because they know I’m not going to sugarcoat it.  It sure isn’t because I rocked the achievement gap my first year.

In fact, it’s no secret that I had all but decided not to come back for Year Two.  I know I didn’t have the worst placement or the most difficult administration, so I really can’t pass on the blame to anyone else.  I just got dominated by the challenges of the occupation day in and day out.  My first year of teaching required me to absorb more constant failure than I have ever experienced in my life and I didn’t think I could handle it for another year.

Like all of you, I sometimes get frustrated with teaching.  And I’m not just talking about the daily aspects of classroom management, planning and paperwork.  What I mean is that some days, I feel like the entire profession of teaching is faulty, and that I’ve been set up to fail.  I mean, anybody can show up every day and babysit, but my school and Teach For America expect me to be preparing kids for college.  And I take that charge completely seriously, because these students absolutely deserve every opportunity that the kids out in the top school districts have.  I feel that the occupation of being a successful classroom teacher is more than enough work for a small team of people, let alone one person.  And following that logic, if the game is rigged, then why play?

I am sorry to say that I really don’t have a canned story about Teaching For America for Little Timmy, who entered my Algebra class on a 2nd grade math level and passed the HSA.  To be completely honest, Little Timmy doesn’t get me out of bed at 6am on a Monday morning.  No offense to Little Timmy.

I decided to come back for two reasons.  First, I knew I had signed up to do a job that needed to be done, and I knew I could do it better.  I also realized that there were changes I could make to my routine to make my lifestyle more sustainable.  And secondly, I came back because I’m still trying to find my role in changing the system.  The only way I can do this is by continuing to learn through experience.  I’m not sure I’ll ever be the teacher I would like to be, but I know that the students are systematically being shortchanged.  It’s clear to me that, despite the efforts of many hundreds of well-intentioned people, the system is completely messed up, and I want to be a part of the process of creating permanent change.

In the meantime, I am excited about a lot of things this year.  I am taking a more active role in getting involved in the lives of my students outside of class.  I am starting a computer programming club, coaching basketball, and tutoring students to get them ready to retake the Algebra HSA.

I don’t have much in the way of inspiration, but I can pass on what I have learned.

To be mentally able to return for year two, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was never going to be completely in control of the job.  I’m going to drop the ball on a regular basis, but that’s okay.  It’s also okay for me to say that I’m doing the best I can do.  So my first piece of advice is that when you mess up, it is okay to tell students, parents and administrators that although you haven’t gotten everything figured out or finalized, you are doing the best you can, and that you will be glad to take their recommendations into account going forward.  Because, simply put, you are not going to get everything right the first time.  And if you’re like me, it’s going to be mostly wrong.  To try to be a superhuman is to set yourself up for failure.

My second, and more important, piece of advice is to never forget that your purpose is to provide these students with an excellent education.  You may fail to live up to this, but if your decisions are driven by this vision, you will always be moving in the right direction.  For example, when Little Tonya is in your face and maybe not saying the most complementary things about yourself you’ve ever heard, you will be tempted to “get smart” back at her.  And while doing so might actually make her back down, it will also permanently damage your relationship with her.  It may feel less satisfactory, but if your only response to her is that your expectations are in place so that she can get an excellent education, you will always preserve your own dignity.  The same advice goes for interactions with parents and other adults, in the face of difficult and complicated interactions.

Last, but not least, maintain your work-life balance.  I know I’m preaching to the choir, since you are here at North Bay on a school night.  But seriously, although there is always work to be done, unless you are well rested and healthy, mentally, physically and otherwise, you are not capable of doing your best work for your students, no matter how awesome of a lesson you planned at 2am.  So let’s have some fun!

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