The Adventures of Coach Johnson

While all the drama of the past month or so has been going on, I’ve still been coaching basketball, which has been a saga in and of itself.  We started the year off with our rag-tag group of kids, and lost 3 games in a row, right off the bat.  The kids, so used to instant gratification, started to get showing signs of giving up right off the bat.  Not only that, but our team took some major blows when some of our most talented kids were ruled ineligible, due to abysmal grades.  For a while, it looked like the team might disintegrate.  We had a group of kids who really didn’t know how to play at all, another group in the gray area of eligibility, and our most experienced players were proving to be extremely fickle in their dedication.  But our head coach stayed on them day and night, bring the kids in for meetings during lunch, holding practice every day after school, and calling them constantly to keep them reeled in.  I think the turning point was when Coach managed to get the kids into practice on the three snow days right before break, because over break, the kids one their first game at a tournament out in Baltimore County.  When I got back after break, we won three of our next four games.  We came back to win the last game of the first half of the season by about 12 points, after trailing the first 3 quarters.  I couldn’t have imagined a better note to end on, leading into the break in the sports schedule for finals.  Who would have thought at the beginning of the season that the play-offs would be within reach?
And then it fell apart.  Coach scheduled practice for every day after school during finals week.  It should have been easy for the kids to come, because during finals week, school let out at noon.  Yet, we were having practices with only 5 of our 15 players showing up.  Kids who had been leaders of the team up until that point were missing practice, with no explanation.  One of our players was kicked off the team entirely when he was spotted smoking pot a short walk from the school, when he should have been a practice.
All of this went down about a week ago, but Coach and I still don’t know what the heck happened.  Two of the players who disappeared haven’t even been to my class this past week.  The most bizarre thing is that this implosion happened just after we started tasting success.  You could say it went to their heads, but we really weren’t successful long enough to say that the kids started to get complacent.  It’s like something got into them all of the sudden and messed their heads all up.

Fortunately, the kid that is undoubtedly the heart of our team came back into the fold, as did his brother, who is our leading scorer.  Since then, it’s been as though we’ve started almost from scratch again, only with less raw talent and almost no depth on our bench.  The good news we don’t have to deal with some of the team drama queens anymore; the ones who are left are the ones who really want to be there.  And I have seen amazing growth in the skills, attitude, and work ethic of the players who have been dedicated enough to keep showing up.  I’m extremely proud of them.

The tough part will be getting the bulk of our mostly inexperienced squad on the same level as the two brothers.  We’re going to get some of our ineligible players back, but not until the very end of the season.  It’s going to be a bumpy road.

Get This Ball Rolling

I think I’ve finally got my head back on straight–for the time being, at least.  I’m going to be here one more semester, and I’m going to try to make these kids learn something.  This time, the strategy is simple.  The kids must learn by working.  I’m tired of designing gimmicks, and I’m tired of hearing excuses.  We’re going to grind out this work.  I’ve started out of the semester by working on how I break down concepts, to make sure that my logic is sound.  And every few minutes, I reemphasize the need for everyone to listen to what I’m saying.  We don’t have time for the side conversations and the childish behavior.  I’m trying to nip all signs of negativity in the bud.

My class motto is “Don’t leave class today without understanding”.  They can’t go another semester of covering just two chapters.  I can’t go another semester of covering just two chapters.  By the end of the quarter, I felt like a little piece of my soul was dying every day that we repeated the same elementary crap over, and over, and over, again.  That was BS, and it pisses me off just thinking about it.  We have to move faster, and I’m messaging that to the kids constantly.  I need them to develop a sense of urgency.

As of Day 3, it’s working out well.  I’ve got most of my students factoring monomials, a skill that requires or leads to a thorough understanding of some pretty fundamental concepts.  I’ve managed to get a several kids who are used to not participating on-board and doing work.  The only problem is that our attendance has been abysmal, so I have to find a way to get the kids who have missed this info caught up, and that is a shame, because I’m teaching as hard as I can, and they’re missing the show.

Kids always start semesters off strong, and teachers usually have a little extra pep, too.  I don’t know how I’m going to sustain my level of effort, or if it’s even possible.  But maybe, just maybe, if we can pick up some momentum now, it will carry us somewhere before it runs out.

Home Stretch

Well, I’m back.  We started the new semester today, at long last.  It’s going to be a long several months, but the end is in sight, I suppose.

I think my anxiety built up all the way until the very end of last semester, and then today, for whatever reason, I finally felt some relief.  Like a break in the storm or something.  I hope it lasts.

Class actually went well today.  I can tell that a lot of kids are trying to get their crap together, and I really emphasized positive change in my opening speech to each class.   If I can get more consistent, sustained work out of these kids, from beginning to end, I think this semester might actually turn out better than the last one.


In other news, everyone is on the edge of their seats in Baltimore to find out what 5 schools are on the chopping block.  My almost assuredly isn’t, but I have a lot of friends who work at truly dysfunctional places.

Just Not A Good Week

This week, I got more of a taste than usual of what some of these kids have to endure outside of school.

Yesterday, less than an hour after learning about our seventh grader passing away, I got a message from my girlfriend saying that one of her students was in the hospital.  He had been stabbed in the back by his mother’s boyfriend while trying to defend his mother.  Not much is known about his condition at this point.

This morning, when I arrived at school, I found a flyer in my mailbox seeking any information on the whereabouts of one of our middle school students.  Some of the evidence seems to indicate that she ran away, but obviously this is pretty worrisome, because this is a rough city period, let alone if you’re a 13 year old girl out on your own.

I had a number of students report today for exam make-ups.  Some of them had ridiculous excuses for having missed their original testing time, but some of them had legitimate issues.  Two of my students have missed time in school due to their mothers being locked up this week.  Another student missed his test date because he was moving his belongings from his mother’s house to his brother’s.  I don’t know the details, but it sounds like big drama.

As for me, I’m still on the ropes.  Maybe it makes me a crappy person to be inundated with so much strife, yet so wrapped up in my own personal issues.  I’ve been trying hard to see what arrangements could be made at a school level to make my job more manageable.  I’ve been lobbying hard for some relief.  To my administrations credit, they have my back, in principle.  I think they actually seem to understand how fragile I’m feeling at the moment.  They know I might not last the semester.   But in practice, there’s not much they can do, and I take them at their word for that.  And I believe they’ll do what they can to help me keep it rolling for as long as I can.  In some ways, I guess this puts us almost back at square one.  But, if nothing else, I’ve been very upfront with where I stand, so I think we’re all on the same page.

All this, and I still have another semester to go.  June seems so far away…

A Very Sad Day

As soon as I walked in the building yesterday, I could tell something was off.  I heard murmurs in the hallway about a middle school girl, one of those kids whose name everyone in the school knows.  Walking out of the main office, I ran into another teacher who was crying and I knew it was bad news.  One of our 7th graders died in a house fire the night before, with three other family members.

I don’t know most of the middle school kids, but everyone knows this girl.  She was seventh grade aged, but she looked old enough to be a high school student.  Last year, she was one of the most challenging students in the building, but this year, she was all smiles 95% of the time.  She’s become somewhat of a mascot for our entire school.  I never taught her, but she said hello to me every time she passed me in the hallway.  She spent a lot of time on the 10th grade floor, because that’s where the middle school special ed rooms are located.  Also, her cousin is one of my students and basketball players.  Every no and then, she would ask me if he was turning his homework.  I’m worried about him because he has an extremely rough situation to begin with, and he’s already riding that edge between trying in school and dropping out.

Reading the news coverage of the tragedy, as it turns out my basketball player’s mother survived a deadly fire 15 years ago, in which she lost three of her other children.  It said she escaped with one child, who would presumably be my student.  But two nights ago, she lost her mother and her niece.

Gut Check

As this semester (finally) ends,  I’m facing the fear that I don’t have enough left in the tank for the next 5 months.  Already, I feel like I’m barely getting through my weeks, and this is January, which is arguably the softest month of school.  What in the world am I going to feel in the brutally long stretch until spring break?  My experience tells me is that it’s not gonna get much better.

I’ve had to man up continuously this past year and a half to keep renewing my commitment.  I really, really want to finish the job I started.  I don’t want to be a quitter.  I don’t want to be the one 2nd year who walked out mid-year.  And I especially don’t want to hang my school and my students out to dry.  But, I can feel my well-being decreasing, and it’s getting harder and harder to do just to do the same amount of work, let alone improve.  I know this job is hard on everyone, and I know I’d be a big-time punk for walking out, but I really don’t feel like people are understanding what’s going on in my head right now.  On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that there’s so many people in worse situations than me, so why should I feel so bad for myself?  After all, I joined the corps by choice.

I’ve been spending the past week or so marshaling my resources again, trying to find ways to keep going.  This time though, I think the only way that’s going to happen is if I can work something out with my school to get my workload down to a much more manageable level.  I’m trying to figure out what that might look like.  But business as usual is not going to get it done.  In the meantime, I’m swallowing my pride and asking for whatever assistance I can get, even though a big part of me says “dude, just let it go, finally”.  If I do walk, I want to know that I tried every avenue before I made my decision.  I just don’t know how much more I have left to give.

I feel a lot different from how I did this time last year.  There’s no doubt about it, I’m way more effective than before.  But I’ve also lost a lot of the sense of possibility that I used to have.  Deep down, I just don’t believe I’ll ever be much more successful with my students than I am now or that I’ll ever enjoy teaching.   We’ll see if this is really my last stand, or whether I’ll live to keep fighting, as I have somehow, so far.

I feel like that knight in the Monty Python movie that just won’t quit, despite having his limbs lopped off, one by one.  Big decisions are coming down the pipeline within the next week or so.

A Break From the Madness or Taste of Normal Life?

For whatever reason, I seem to find every break from school does the opposite of what it’s supposed to.  Much like during the days after Thanksgiving break, I have returned from winter break feeling more worn out than before.  And this time, I actually made a concerted effort to focus on recharging my batteries, not just cutting loose and running myself ragged.  But ultimately, I think returning from break is so depressing because my teaching life is just so far off from anything that’s healthy, happy, or sustainable.  For two weeks, I let myself forget, so that I could hopefully rejuvenate myself, but the chickens have come home to roost.

All I know is that with my feet back in the fire, my head is just not in the game right now, at all.  I think my confidence is just gone–my confidence that I really have the power to make a difference through my job.  I have got to find a way to break out of this, and I think some radical changes are going to have to be made.  I feel like I’m at the center of one huge mess that I’ve created, and it’s just too much to fix and there’s no time to fix it.  Everyone wants something from me, things I’m obligated to supply, but I’m completely overwhelmed.  And I’m mad, because I’m supposed to be better than this.

On a longer term note, I bounce back and forth between guarded optimism and fear.  On one hand, I think I’ve learned a lot about myself from the experience that will make me stronger as a person.  And I look forward to being a happy person next year.  But on the other hand, I fear that what’s really happened is that my faults have been exposed, and that I’m not only a fatally flawed teacher, but that I will be fatally flawed no matter what career I choose.  And I also fear that by the end of the year, I may have done lasting damage to my mind and body.  I experienced some concerning moments last summer that I hope were random things, not warning signs.

Tomorrow, my main directive is to figure out what I need to do to 1) survive the rest of the year (or month, for that matter) and 2) hopefully make a positive impact somehow on these kids.  Sadly, I think the most obvious first step is to resign as assistant coach, which is where I actually feel like I am making a positive impact.