Back From Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has come and gone, marking off the first third of the year, or so.  Break has been relaxing, but entirely too short to energize me for the 3 1/2 weeks until Christmas.

The state of my classroom this so far is improved, but unsatisfactory.  I am breaking things down to the simplest possible steps, but still many of my students aren’t executing.  It’s frustrating to put energy into planning lessons that just aren’t going anywhere.  I really don’t know what it would take to get my students to exhibit the motivation to switch into a higher gear of performance.  I’m so tired of spoonfeeding kids Then there’s a small handful of students who throw the whole operation off when they show up.  At this point, this group is only about 10 percent of the kids I teach, but I’m out of patience with them.  I won’t tolerate them throwing off the marginal progress I’m making with the rest of the kids.  But this is all basically old news.

What’s new lately is that I am now an assistant coach for the JV basketball team.  This has been an interesting experience.  In general, it’s been a lot of fun, but I experience some of the same frustrations as I do on a daily basis in class.  Kids generally don’t believe that we adults know what we’re talking about, and they have no apparent concept of how hard they really need to work to be successful.  Fortunately, unlike in class, they will get the chance to see the fruits of their labor every few days when we play games against some pretty hardcore teams.  Hopefully, getting stomped by the staff in the student-faculty game last Wednesday has taught them a lesson.  I’m anxious to see who among the players is going to persevere as we demand more and who is going to lead.

I am quite grateful that we have Coach Mitchell as head coach.  I think he brings an intensity that I really just don’t have, and he seems really knowledgeable about coaching and city athletics.  Plus, I don’t have the time or energy for a lot of the work he has taken on.  Also, he seems to have a better natural authority over the players.  The one day he was out and I had to lead practice was a nightmare.  Much like in my own classroom, I have trouble asserting my authority on the court, which unsettles me.  It makes me feel like maybe there’s something flawed about me personally that makes me a weak leader.  I don’t know.

Anyway, it’s back to the grind.  Christmas break is a real break, and I’m looking forward to being able to forget about my job for a full week.  On the bright side, when I look back a year, the late-November/early-December was an absolutely horrible time for me.  This year, I’ve got a lot of basketball to look forward to, homecoming, and plenty of out of school activities with my friends and my fabulous girlfriend to look forward to.  On the whole, I am in way better shape!

Frustrated and Insomnolescent

I have been so exhausted this week that I took a two hour nap today, and because of that, and also because of my extreme frustration, I can’t get to sleep.

I have come to the conclusion today that a lot of the issues I have with behavior stem from the fact that many of my students simply don’t believe that what I have to say is important to them.  It’s not necessarily that they don’t like math, or that they think the work is boring.  Kids will be quiet, even when bored, if they think that the consequence of not being quiet outweighs the incentive to do whatever it is that’s on their mind at the moment.  Most of my students, even the well-intentioned ones, have no idea what sustained, rigorous academic work is.  Their bar for what constitutes reasonable effort and self-motivation is so low that it’s hard to get the vast majority of my students to do anything that’s not spoonfed to them.

I’m not hitting it out of the park with any of my classes, but I am having a hell of a time teaching my last period class, because about half of the kids in that class come to my room just to chill out all period.  Most of the other half want to learn, but will gladly join the fray of kids who are off-task, rather than standing up to them.  I gave them possibly the easiest quiz I have ever given on Friday, and the class managed to average barely 30%.  The past two periods with them, I have given up after a half an hour of trying to get them silent enough that I can instruct them, and told them, “fine, if what I have to teach you is not important enough for you to listen silently, then you can do the worksheet on your own.  It’s due at the end of the period.  Best of luck to you.”  Only a couple of kids can do it on their own, and everyone else is receiving failing grades each day.  The hope is that eventually, the kids who actually care about their grades will get tired of failing on account of the jackasses, and will stand up for themselves.  Unfortunately, I will probably have to find a different strategy, because only a handful of the kids in that class actually seem to care at all.

I wish I had a video camera so anyone–you, my adminstration, the students’ peers, their parents, or anyone else–could see the things these kids do and the vileness that comes out of their mouths.  It is unreal.  Honestly, I the chunk of students in that class that drives the insanity is comprised of individuals who are deeply miserable and don’t see a future for themselves.  So why would the bother trying?  In their heads, they won’t pass anyway, and even if they did put in the effort to pass, they don’t honestly see themselves going anywhere.  But in the meantime, before the hammer finally drops, they’re going to party like there’s no tomorrow.

I am at a complete loss as to what to do to motivate these kids, and they are ruining the education of the one’s who come wanting to learn.  I can’t kick all 10 unruly, disillusioned kids out on a daily basis, but when they’re in the room, they are absolute toxic, especially in combination.  It’s so sad though, because the kids who come wanting to learn show respect in little ways, like putting all the chairs up at the end of class.  It’s almost like they’re saying, “I know you’re trying Mr. Johnson.  I’m not learning anything, but at least I’ll respect the environment.”

Honestly, part of the problem is that it’s okay to show up to my school and do no work.  If I ran a school, rule number one would be that you work hard, always, no excuses.  Not working would be considered the a serious behavior infraction, and I think most of the more serious issues would be mitigated.

The most bizarre part about this whole experience is that I feel like in some twisted way, my experience mirrors those of my students.  To a large extent, almost every day, I feel like a failure and like my task is impossible, and it makes me want to give up.   I don’t think I can put in four years of effort pissed away.  I wonder how many of them can, who feel like their effort is misspent.  I guess the difference is that if I don’t come back, I’ve got other options.

Slogging Along

I’m really not doing as good of a job of keeping this thing updated as I did last year 😦

I realize my last post was kind of a downer, and things are going somewhat better now.  But not before they got a bit worse.  I had an awful week two weeks ago.  Every day, it was a struggle to get out of bed and get to school.  I think a big part of it was the fact that I had been ill for a couple weeks, which was really sapping my energy, and I think my lack of energy made my mood so awful.  I was beginning to get concerned that if things didn’t change, I wouldn’t be able to keep it up.  Fortunately, this past last week went a lot more smoothly.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about TFA and education, in general and in the inner city.  I don’t think I’ve quite reached any conclusions, but I’ll probably start writing my thoughts down to really figure out what I’ve really learned from this whole experience.  I haven’t quite boiled it down to something concrete yet.

But one thing I feel pretty confident in saying is that I don’t see myself teaching as a career.  That probably seems painfully obvious if you’ve read anything I’ve previously posted.  But I have tried really, really hard to make this whole thing work out.  Last spring, I had all but decided not to come back, because I knew then that even if everything went more smoothly, just like everybody promised, I could still see that it wasn’t for me.  Well, everything generally is going better, but even on the best days, this job is a more-or-less joyless struggle.  But while I’m here I’ve still gotta try to do the best for the kids that I can do.

My TFA program director and my administration have been very supportive ever since I got put on my improvement plan.  In the City, at many schools, an improvement plan is nothing more than the first step toward booting your butt out the door, so I’ve got to hand it to them for actually putting in the effort toward literally trying to improve my skills.  And I’m trying, but I just feel bad that people are doing their jobs backing me up, but my heart’s really just not in it anymore.

It’s not that I don’t care about the kids, I just don’t believe that I could do a much better job even if I put more effort into it.  And I don’t think I have much reserve effort to put in.  Either my job’s not built with the framework for the students to ever possibly be successful, or I’m not built to do my job successfully.  I know I’m supposed to be framing my thoughts on what I can do for my students, increasing student achievement, building relationships, and so on.  And I really do try to do all of that.  Maybe I’m just selfish, but I have trouble seeing past my own unhappiness.

In any case, I’ve got two 5-day weeks until Thanksgiving.  Time to get my head back in the game.