Friday, March 18, 2011

Why I teach....

Each August, I climb the silent stairs listening as my own footsteps echo with each step I take. In my arms is a box of teaching materials that I took home with me back in June. I've spent hours on end perfecting each unit from the year before, culling the material down, distilling the information that needs to be taught until it fits neatly on a sheet of paper. My mind worked overtime deciding how best to teach each skill so that my students would not only understand it, but could also see its value and how to apply it in real life. "I cannot stand next to you," I often remind them, "when you are taking that state test or when the professor asks you what you know about poetry or when life demands that you read something difficult in order to get that job or that house or that car that you want. What will you do then? Will you know what to do? You can cheat now, but you can't cheat at life and win each time."

I reach the 3rd floor landing and the air temperature, although warm and "close" throughout the building, is decidedly higher here. It's only 8:00 am but I've already got circles under my armpits. "And I'm going to wear a skirt and dress shirt and possibly a suit jacket on the first day of school? Next week? In these temperatures? So that I look professional and feel confident in front of my new students? Am I crazy?"

Once inside my room, I open all the windows in a futile attempt at allowing cool air in and hot air out. I click on a few electric fans hoping that will help, too. I cross the room to my closet and find the bent key on the ring that has been housed in an envelope in the vice-principal's office for two months now. I open the door and find the box labeled "Decorations". On the top of the box are sheets of acid free oak tag with pictures attached. They are Senior pictures representing many of the classes I have taught over my career. I hunt for my container of push pins and begin the process that I do each year. That first year I only got one Senior picture. Marc. A boy who wanted to become an automobile engineer. The next sheet holds the picture of a boy who shot himself on my daughter's birthday. I went to the funeral home to visit his friends and family. I introduced myself to his girlfriend's mom. "I was Billy's English teacher," I said in what I hoped was a tone that conveyed my deep grief and bewilderment. The girlfriend looked up at me in panic and corrected me. "No, she means she IS Billy's English teacher." How do you reply to that? How can you console someone who has had this kind of loss? How can you reach students who have this to deal with?

Each sheet comes out of my "decorations" box and each sheet has a memory associated with it. Some are memories that make me laugh. Others make me want to cry. There are faces that I never saw again once they left our doors and there are others that I see every year at the county fair or when I go to the mall or stop by to pick up something from the auto repair store.

The ones that stick with me are often the ones that make me come back each day and each month and each year. There's Molly who is in college now, working towards a degree in early childhood education. I ran into her a few years ago at a community picnic. She was with a Head Start class, chaperoning them, because she volunteers there in her downtime. As I hugged her and stepped back to get a good look at her I was reminded of where she had been just a few years earlier. Poor. Black. From a broken home. Barely able to read or write. But her spirit....that was something that set her apart. She was determined not to let any of that bring her down. She worked hard to overcome her setbacks. Looking at her now you would never guess that one of her closest friends in high school who was 8 months pregnant at the time had been murdered....her throat slit from ear to ear....and 2 other members of her family with her supposedly over a drug debt. And Molly was supposed to be there that night. By some stroke of luck....luck? or divine providence?....something interfered and she stayed home. It might have saved her life. And now she is telling me how much of an inspiration I was to her. Yeah...she's got that twisted.

At the same community picnic, a little later in the day, I run into Andrea. She looks much the same as she did just 3 years earlier only now she's smiling. When she was a Senior in my English class, she rarely spoke, didn't register much emotion, barely looked at me or her classmates. Now here she stands....beaming. I give her a hug too and ask how she's doing. She's in college, too. A psychology major. She wants to help others who are like she was. She wants to make room for those people to share their feelings like I did when I gave her those writing assignments and then wrote long comments back to her. And do I remember that? I smile at her. Of course I do. And I give her my best wishes as she thanks me for what I did for her. Again....I think she's got it twisted.

I have pulled out the last of the picture sheets and am tacking it up on my board. Looking at all those young faces filled with hope, I know that many of them will not do or be what they originally wanted to do or be, but I pray that what I have given them in some small part has helped them to get a little farther down the road towards that goal.

And the last sheet that I pin to that board is plain and white except for large words in my own loopy handwriting done in black permanent marker that reads: Why I Do What I Do.

And that is the truth of things.

(All student names were changed and some stories were altered or combined so as not to indicate specific students.)

A day in the life....

Besides being a pretty awesome Beatles song (my favorite one of theirs, too, btw), I felt this would be a good title for my very first Blog post here. There has been a lot of anti-teacher rhetoric in the news....even the atmosphere....lately. While I believe we have the right and the responsibility in this country to debate things like the government's role in education, I think that the attempts at villifying teachers are not only counterproductive but downright destructive to education.

So....for all those who think that teaching is an easy job and that I make a ton of money for a part-time job, I give you a day in my life:

5:00 am- I wake up to take my thyroid pill. I have a condition that requires me to take this pill an hour before eating and if I don't eat by 6:10, I won't eat again until 11:00. Not healthy. Once I've taken my meds, I go back to my bed and watch the news for about 20 minutes before getting my shower and getting ready for school. While I'm in the shower, while I'm getting dressed, while I'm doing my hair and putting on make up, while I'm eating my breakfast, I am thinking of all the things that I must accomplish by the end of the day.

6:20 am- If the weather is good, I'm walking out my front door with my purse; a bag containing my lunch, a container of water, and whatever schoolwork I took home the night before (sometimes this includes a teacher textbook that weighs over 15 lbs.); and the laptop that I earned through participation in a school grant program. If the weather is NOT good, I'm probably already on my way to school white knuckling it as I head down the mountain behind coal trucks, school buses, and other commuters.

7:00 am- I pull into the street next to the high school. There is massive construction taking place and parking...never a plentiful extremely limited. Those who arrive later than 7:15 can expect to circle a few times before finding a spot or to walk for a few blocks. Besides, I can't walk in and teach straight off. It takes time to prepare the classroom for a full day of instruction.

7:05-7:25 am- I set up my laptop, login to the school system, bring up a few video clips or a segment of text I wish to use or definitions to terms we'll be learning, write today's agenda on the board, organize the attendance cards, check yesterday's attendance against the bulletin, organize all the handouts I'll distribute for the day, and check my email to make sure I don't have any new instructions from my principal.

7:25 am- I go into the hall, clipboard in hand, to monitor student activity. I look for students using cell phones or iPods. I make sure no one is wearing a hat or a hoodie. I sniff the air to see if a fight is brewing. I yell "Let's go! Let's get to class! You're gonna be late!" when the 3 minute warning bell sounds.

7:40 am- As my 1st period kids begin work on the first assignment, I take attendance and place the attendance cards in a folder where they'll be picked up later. As late students enter, I have to remove their cards and/or make notes about this in my attendance record. I also have to check to make sure that each child has his/her district issued photo ID and that each is wearing it in a visible spot. Meanwhile, 15 of my 20 students are still working and the 5 who want to goof off have rushed through the assignment and are now kicking the backs of the seats of the people in front of them. God, if he is merciful, will put them all in one row together. I proceed to teach a lesson about poetry where I am more actor than I am instructor, creating an air of excitement in the classroom about something that elicited groans just moments before. 90% of the class appear to be amongst the living dead. Experts do say that the teenaged brain is not able to function sufficiently until about 10:00 a.m. so I tell stories. I rap....badly. I sing a little. I draw on the board....badly. I demonstrate skills by using "Mary had a little lamb" and the lyrics to an Eminem song. At the end of the period, I'm pretty sure my students know what I need them to know but I won't know until tomorrow's quizzes come back.

9:10 am- My first class is over and, as the students file out of the door, I go out into the hallway to once again monitor student movement. I wave hello to some of my former students, say "good morning" to others, and make short, polite conversation with most of them....all the while knowing that this may be the only time someone is excited to see them or is interested in talking to them all day.

9:15 am- Second period begins with the Pledge of Allegiance and school announcements. I struggle to keep the kids quiet because, inevitably, the kid who is the loudest will be the most offended when he misses an important announcement and I have to shrug and say "Sorry! I couldn't hear it either over all the talking going on!" Class proceeds pretty much like 1st period did only half of my students are still in a zombie-like trance and the other half are in a self-induced sugar high because the energy drinks they chugged before 1st period are finally kicking in. I am constantly walking a tightrope....trying to generate enthusiasm and interest while not losing control. That enthusiasm can quickly tip into the abyss of "off task conversation" and climbing back up that sheer rock face is treacherous and not for the faint of heart or the unskilled.

10:30 am- All the water I've been drinking to keep my voice lubricated has made its way to my bladder. My eyes glance at the clock (that I bought at Walmart and put up on the wall using a plastic hook and some sticky tape because the only clock the school provided is in the hallway and has been reading 10:24 for the entire 12 years that I've worked here). I notice that I still have 20 minutes before I can safely use the restroom. I can't help but wonder what other profession forces you to go to the bathroom on a prescripted schedule.

10:50 am- The bell rings and, as my kids file out, I hurriedly lock the door and dash down the hall to the restroom. My bladder is on the verge of exploding but I make it. Thank God I work on a floor where the bathroom is just down the hall instead of a floor up or down.

10:55 am- I am walking back to class and reminding students who are still in the halls that the bell has rung and they are now late for class. They roll their eyes. I shake my head.

11:00 am-11:33 am- This is my lunch time. I manage to eat while checking out the online edition of our local newspapers as well as national news sites. I also shoot off a few emails to parents, colleagues, the lady in the payroll office, and an occasional student. While I put away my lunchbox, I start to organize all my paperwork from the morning. I gather together the student papers that need correcting and make a stack of worksheets that I need to copy for the next day. I grab a notebook where I'm planning next week's lessons. I dash out the door with a portable clock, the papers that need grading, and two writing utensils because at....

11:33 am- I am due for hall duty. Luckily, my duty is at a desk in front of the boys' and girls' bathrooms. Sure, it has its downsides. What other profession asks you to listen to people urinate, defecate, pass gas, blow their noses and throw up? least I'm seated and have a chance to get some paperwork done. I grade three classroom sets of papers and enter the grades into my paper gradebook. I spend the remainder of my time (about 25 of my 45 minute duty time) recording areas of weakness for each student as demonstrated in the last assignment. This is called "progress monitoring" and must be done for all 65 of my students on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

12:15 pm- Hall duty time is over and I now have 45 minutes to make copies for all 65 of my students (plus a few extra for the kids who will inevitably lose or mutilate their original ones), enter the grades into the online gradebook, type up next week's lesson plans and upload them to the school website, file away last week's materials, return phone calls from parents, fill out a form asking for permission to do a fundraiser to defray costs for an upcoming field trip, call the company in charge of the fundraiser, fax a form to our state department of ed. and....oh....go to the bathroom one more time before 4th period starts.

1:00 pm- 4th period files in and class proceeds in much the same way as the other two except these students are exhausted from an entire day's worth of work. Just as we get settled in, the fire alarm goes off. The dreaded end-of-the-day monthly fire drill! I close all the windows, grab my emergency folder and gradebook, and follow my students down the stairs. Once outside, I gather them all together and take attendance so that I'm sure none of them has burned up in the building. There's always one who ends up wandering away towards another classroom and I spend 2 frantic minutes looking for him or her. The all clear is given once we have all taken attendance and accounted for all our students so we climb the three flights of stairs back to our classroom. Energized by this sudden break in routine, I spend the next 3 minutes calming my students and refocusing their attention.

2:35 pm- The dismissal bell finally rings and the students leave. I erase the board, reset the attendance folder for tomorrow's records, pick up the papers and writing utensils that have been dropped on the floor and left for dead, power off the computers, lock up the cabinets, gather together all my homework, and head out the door.

3:30 pm- Home! Finally!! Time to get dinner started, check my emails, check my phone messages, let the dogs out to go to the bathroom, and get some time in on the exercise bike.

4:30 pm- Some down time. I think I'll get on Facebook. I have for personal friends and one for students and parents. I spend a few minutes answering students' questions on my "professional" FB page and then head over to my personal one so that I can play a few games and do a little chatting.

7:00 pm- Dinner is now finished and the dishes are put away. Time to sit down with my homework. I'll spend the next two hours reading the same material that I assigned to my students this morning, researching a few related topics, completing all the worksheets I'm asking them to complete, grading a few remaining papers, and preparing my ideas for tomorrow's classroom activities (mini-lecture notes, material for group work, hands on activities, etc.).

9:00 pm- I finally get to sit down and watch a little TV with my family. Yay!

9:30 pm- I'm heading to bed. As I lie there trying to sleep, I make mental lists of all the things I need to do tomorrow when I get to school and all the things I need to point out during class in the morning. My nightly prayers are often peppered with requests to heal the broken hearts of my students, to give them the strength and the comfort they need, and to prepare them for the life that will await them.

10:00-10:15 pm- I finally drift off to sleep.

Exhausted by reading this?? Try living it.