Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Parallels and Paradoxes

Last Friday, I ran home (very literally) during my lunch back to my apartment to check to see if I turned off my hair straightener. Some might call it a senior moment, but I could not for the life of me remember if I turned it off. All I could think about was how the dog was there by herself and how if the apartment was enveloped in flames how terrified she would be... and it would be my fault. That was a responsibility I did not care to find out about after work, thus the frantic sprint home. 

****

Flashback to the morning. Heard on the morning news........

"Last night on a Brooklyn bus bound for Bedford-Stuyvesant, a 14-year-old boy rumored to be in a street gang allegedly spotted a member of a rival gang and pulled out a .357-caliber revolver.

Shots were fired, the bullets missing the intended target, killing a 39 year old man." 

Roommate #1: No! That's the area I work...... I hope it isn't tied to any of my students....

******

The uneven cracked sidewalks of Brooklyn flash by me as vivid visions of my apartment in flames spring to the forefront of my mind. I'm saying a million swear words in my head as I curse the most unhelpful pair of healed boots I happen to be wearing. At least the blue corduroy jacket with the pop up collar that admittedly makes me feel fairly bad-ass, isn't being annoying..... if there is a fire, at least I can say I saved my bad-ass jacket in perhaps my biggest accomplishment of idiot-icy. As I cross Flatbush Avenue with short breath, I realize I don't hear any sirens in the distance and premature relief falls over me. "Everything's going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine".... muscles strain.... I slow to a brisk walk.

I can see the apartment building. No sign of smoke, yet. Three flights of stairs later, I open the apartment door to find, Laika the dog, stretching her hind legs as she is waking from a slumber.  She's slightly confused by presence as if thinking "the human returned? It seems early? Do I get food!!!" My room is fine, the straightener is turned off. Crisis avoided!  "Well at least I know!" I say to myself, not knowing whether I should feel like a complete moron or  congratulate myself for in fact turning off my hair straightener

Laika's coat greets the mid-morning sunshine as she is treated to outside with my unannounced presence. Her business is taken care of and I hear children playing outside from the middle school across the street. Middle School. One of my NYCTF friends works at that middle school and sends out daily snapchats about how much he hates his job. It's one of the many weird comforting ways you don't feel quite alone. He won't choose to be a teacher for long.

*****
Back in the privileged neighborhood I teach, I check the time on my phone to see if I'll make my grade team meeting on time. I won't, but I do have 2 snap chats. Like clockwork I assume it's the same story of hating your job from the teacher mentioned above and wonder if it will be his packed lunch in the picture with the phrase "finally some peace and quiet" or an exasperated selfie with a look of exhaustion- it is Friday after all.

I'm wrong. As I open the news, a picture with his hand making the number 3 and the caption saying "3 kids in the hall are arrested. Three." I don't even remember the picture of the next snap, but it said "a student shot a man." 

Step, step, step, in my tennis shoes - Everything comes together. Texts are exchanged, it was the same kid in the news. Step step step, He will be tried as an adult. Still late for grade team meeting.... step step step. 

*****
Friday afternoon. It's my prep period and I'm sitting quietly in the main office printing things to make copies and making a few updates to the gradebook. The ATR that has been at our school this week looks over my shoulder while I have my gradebook open and makes comments about the grades. Not only is this completely unnecessary, but he feels the need to educate me about "other" high schools in New York City. "You know, in other schools teachers have it much more rough than you." 


Sunday, March 23, 2014

"For the people that put the passion before them being comfortable" -Macklemore

Being a second year teacher is like being a first year teacher except you can actually see the train in the distance accelerating to you, but you still aren't quite good enough to make the train stop or know exactly how to dodge it. But you see it coming - which in a way almost makes your second year harder than the first.
 
Let me explain, by the time you are a second year teacher you have a basic understanding of the very basics of basics of what it means to be a teacher. You can plan lessons moderately well, you can see the holes and limitations in your plans, and can expect and anticipate where certain undesirable behaviors will show up in your lessons (usually in the transitions), but you still lack the swiftness to make everything completely fluid - partly because you still don't really know how. You become much more reflective and critical on your teaching and realize nearly everything you did your first year teaching was horrible as you now have more tools to create better lessons.

So everyday becomes an experiment. You learn how to make your language direct and specific, you learn how to motivate students with your words, a timer in the classroom becomes your best friend, everything becomes about limiting distractions - or letting them perceive something like a personal story is a distraction so that it feels like a special occasion when really that too is thought out.

What I've come to realize this year is a large part of a teacher's job is to make routines and organizational systems so mindfully thought out so students never have to think about it. In this way the routines and systems don't become a distraction to students either. 

Some of my readers have asked why I have not been blogging lately. The answer is complex. Part of it is I feel that if someone doesn't have anything positive to say they shouldn't say anything at all - at least publicly. I've been writing a lot privately about my frustrations with education that I'm not going to share publicly at this time. There's a lot to be angry about with education from impossible NY teacher evaluation systems to standardized exams to state examinations. The worst part is I can't believe HOW many people drink this kool-aid. I don't. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

To Sousa and the End of the Semester

Every year as a band student I would have to face playing a dreaded Sousa March EVERY year. See for some reason every conductor I have ever had the pleasure of learning from has had a love affair with Sousa - from middle school all the way through college. They go on and on about he's the father of marches and how actually his more brilliant work is found in the many operas he composed that are mostly forgotten. He's an American musical icon and every band student must play and recognize the brilliance of Sousa. It was a fundamental part of my musical training. You just don't mess with Sousa, the March King.

So every year as a band student I came to expect and dread playing a new Sousa march. It's not that I didn't like Sousa marches, in fact, I rather did enjoy listening to them, BUT playing them was a whole different story. See I played the oboe - a perfectly wonderful instrument; however, the oboe was not meant to play marches. So when I walked into the band room and saw on the board the list of composers we would be playing for whatever particular rehearsal, I would know if I would be spending my time counting rests and playing off beats OR engaging in a wonderful musical experience. 


When Sousa was the focus my rehearsals they went something like this: Warm up with the band, tune with the band, and then sit... and sit.... and sit.... and sit... Of course I was supposed to be counting rests -  you know for something like 50 measures AND then when I finally would come in... it would be the really important part of off beats! 

SO. Boring. Not only that, usually I was playing off beats with the French Horns who could perfectly cover the off beats by themselves that I would often think.. what's the point. I guess I'll sit here and be insignificant. If I don't play no one will actually notice. This is a waste of my time.

I had one of these frustrating moments as a junior college where I was playing Stars and Stripes Forever. I was pretending to count off beats meanwhile internally I was panicking over my physics homework that was due in less than 24 hours that I had not started yet. WHY am I sitting in rehearsal on a Thursday evening playing SOUSA when I have this massive homework set due that I have no clue how to start? This. Is. Pointless.

Disrupting my thoughts, the professor had stopped the band and shook his head. I don't remember exactly what he said, but the sentiment was something like this... "NO! You are doing it wrong! Sousa Marches are SO beautiful but SO difficult to do right. This is his MOST famous march. People know this! Messing it up is NOT an option! From the top." 

Meanwhile, my young adult self was like "yeah, yeah, whatever old man. I don't know about you, but I'm NOT majoring in music. You know that thing we go to college for.. to major in something and then go on and be successful at or something. YEAH. Well that major is kind of kicking my butt right now and this music business and getting this Sousa march right... SO not important to me."

With my bad attitude and annoyance with being forced to sit still and think something dawned on me. There will come a day when I will miss playing Sousa - off beats and all. I laughed at the thought at the time, but I remember distinctly thinking it. What an absurdity! How could I ever miss playing Sousa! Surely I never will.

****


I caught myself humming Sousa today while washing the dishes and nearly dropped the glass in my hand. It had happened. Somehow, through all those hours in rehearsal, Sousa had leaked into my subconscious and found its way into my ordinary boring routines 4 years later. 

The idea of playing a Sousa march in rehearsal sounded like music to my ears. I would give almost anything to go back to those precious and frustrating moments.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

For the Days when you want to walk into the classroom and say "I HATE YOU ALL"

 … it is utterly impossible for over-worked teachers to preserve an instinctive liking for children; they are bound to come to feel towards them as the proverbial confectioner’s apprentice does towards macaroons. I do not think that education ought to be anyone’s whole profession: it should
be undertaken for at most two hours a day by people whose remaining hours are spent away from children. -Bertrand
Russell’s essay “Education and Discipline”

I thought that quote pretty much summed up my sentiments toward teaching . In fact it's been so dismal I've nearly resorted to pulling out my multivariate calculus book just to prove to myself it wouldnt be so bad... to go back to school. I was sharing these thoughts with a friend and they pointed out how last year blogging was a sort of therapy for me and how I haven't been doing that this year  and maybe I should start that up again for my own sanity. So I'm giving it a try  again. I took a break because I didn't have anything positive to write about and I still don't. BUT maybe if I start writing again things will get better 

OR it might not.. and in which case this may turn into an "Amanda hates the world" type of blog, which although may be amusing might be much less helpful. 

I would be perfectly ok if the whole fall school semester was completely erased from my memory, not because it was particularly bad. It wasn't - there were no major disasters, nobody died, there were even a few laughs, but mostly it was filled with terrible awful unrewarding work with the added annoyance of grad school 10 hours a week. 

I feel as if the deck of cards stacked against me was 2 inches high and at any moment some joker would grab a card, slick it back, and sling it at me at perplexing velocities and either I dodged the razar cutting card or it would slice through me breaking the skin and leaving a stinging sometimes blood stained paper cut. The worst part about it all is you would see the card coming at you about .5 milliseconds before it hit.. (if you were lucky) other times they would just slice you in the back. The thing about these card like paper cuts is they don't really hurt you enough stop - they just sting, fester, and annoy you so you can't really forget about it till the cut heals. So you bumble around being like "MAN I hate these stupid flying cards and who the HELL keeps throwing them because THIS is unnecessary." Or on second thought maybe I should just grow spikes that rip up the  cards before they hit my skin - becoming an apathetic teacher is sounding like a better option all the time. 

At least break is in 3 days. I think everyone needs it including the students.   I hope to write more later this week.


*I don't really hate my students, however, they certainly don't make it easy for people to love them.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Transitions.

Wow, what an insanely crazy new beginning of adventures the first month back to school has been for me! For those who have not kept up, I'm at a new successful school, much happier, working extremely hard, and mostly undergoing probably one of the bigger culture shocks of my life. 

 How can I say this......

Well after working a year under a principal who sexually harassed me and most of the women staff, who was arrested in the fall for stealing light bulbs (where the arrest and story was posted in the newspaper), had multiple affairs with women in the school building, bullied me about whether I was going to stay the following year or not, and over all was just a dysfunctional human being, my transition to a new school was bound to be a very different experience for me!

 I suppose its fair to share that the principal was fired over the summer, but I was already long gone.

However, my favorite new development to that whole story is the new principal has been finding envelopes of cash with hundreds of dollars at a time in them throughout his old office. Weird right? I'm not lying... you CANNOT make this stuff up. 

I hear rumors the DOE (department of Education) has not 1, not 2, but 9 investigations on him. Now granted that's all a rumor, but think about it.. if that's even half right that means there's at least 4 investigations going on. Regardless of what the actual number is, I think it's fair to say there is probably more than one. 


The stories never get old. My old coworkers always joke that I got more stories my first year of teaching than most people get in a life time.

We all laugh about it now, but the I think the custodians in the building say it best. "You know, when he (the old principal) was in charge, the sixth floor hands down had the most beautiful staff in the building."

Ha we laugh about it now. And it was true, I worked with a lot of beautiful, young women (who have all mostly left).

Sometimes I wonder how these things find me. 

*****

Flash forward to now. I have had an extremely difficult time transitioning to a functional school. It has lockers, the kids say please and thank you, they do their homework, they want to learn, and are smart kids! 

The culture of the school is 100% different (which is a good thing), but I've really been mourning a lot of my experiences from last year. I think when you work in a dysfunctional setting where schedules and polices are as inconsistent as the weather, you become incredibly close with your staff. My staff last year all shared this  attitude of "we are in this together, and no matter what we will make sure we all get through this." Sure there were people I didn't always like or trust, but we all realized that our fate as a school and teacher were so closely linked we made sure we all made it.

My 12th grade team last year was amazing and I miss them almost every day when I am at work. Looking back at all the work we accomplished with those kids against nearly impossible odds is truly amazing to me.... I do not know how we did it. It's hard to be ripped apart from something that powerful even though it was clear that a change needed to happen. Every 12th grade team member except one left that school and its clear to see why given the dysfunction of the situation. I'm not doing justice writing about it now. Maybe someday when I'm feeling particularly sappy I'll share the story of that hardship, but not now. I just really miss them, which makes the transition hard.


Every day at my new school is a reminder of the injustice in the education system. I'm thankful my new students get support and I'm thankful I'm able to teach, but I'm always thinking about the other kids in NYC, who are not at my new school or schools like it. I feel a strong disconnect from my new staff because often the loudest voices are the ones who have not worked in a broken school and see the reality of our situation very different from the those who have. I don't know what to do about that, so I sit in silence doing nothing, and walk back to my classroom to focus on what I think really matters - my students, one day at time.


Monday, August 5, 2013

A Tirade of Problems.

Confession: I've been struggling with something that has prevented me from blogging. It's this thing I call my white protestant blue collar/middle class guilt.

It all starts with my role as an educator. Currently, I am working on my Masters (less than a year left!) and teaching. However, my studies make me more and more restless especially when I mix that with my actual experience in the classroom. The research I'm working on is fascinating, miserably helpless, and exceedingly existential.

Lets just get a few facts out of the way. 

1. The number one indicator of a child's success in school is socioeconomic. Children in poverty tend to do poorly in school while children not in poverty do much better.

I read one study on children's success in school and the ONLY thing that was statistically significant for improving a child in poverty's success was giving their family enough money to over come the poverty line. YEAH. After reading that I was like, wow. My job as an educator closing the achievement gap is pretty useless.

But in all seriousness, maybe all children need are financially stable homes, where they can provide things like FOOD, clothes, school supplies, where families have time to spend together,  etc to be successful in school. The research seems to indicate that its the foundation at home that really matters, which honestly makes a lot of sense to me. I've seen too many students with parents who could care less about their child's well being and simultaneously watch the child flounder in an institutionalized academic setting. Why should they care about school when they are denied and rejected at home? If kids cannot get the support and love they need at home, then why can't a school provide the support and love these children need? Why is that so difficult to do?!?

I can't control what happens at home and I'm not expected to control what happens at home, BUT I am expected to close the achievement gap as a teacher and control my classroom. Ok. Let me do my tap dance at the front of the room telling them education is important and the gateway to opportunity (which is mostly true), but is pretty pointless when students are not in a place emotionally to even think about learning. They need the support from home first or at least for me to provide that for them so they can learn. That's a tall order.

You know what I find super ironic about all of this? Is that there's this idea that exists in the great nothing that if only children in poverty worked harder to overcome their poverty then they would. You know, because people choose to be poor and if they didn't want to be poor then they simply wouldn't be and would work harder in education/life/job etc.

But of course it's not as simple as that, the research goes on and on from things like understanding the dynamics of poverty, parenting style, distribution of wealth in schools, caliber of teachers, to skills people need to be successful, to getting a formal education, and so on and so forth. There does not appear to be a concrete answer for getting children in poverty to succeed in school and I'm beginning to think this push for education to solving the problem of poverty is the WRONG place to focus on. Are we maybe covering up a bigger problem? Are we perhaps not confronting something else that might make ourselves uncomfortable? I think we are.

Because at the end of the day we can blame teachers, we can blame the unions, we can blame common core, we can blame the government, we can blame administration, we can make ill informed policy legislation for this education "crisis" the media seems to think we are in. But really, honestly and truly does ANY of that matter? These agendas only matter if we give it power to matter and a lot of people, politicians and all seem to really think this matters. Hell, the general public seems to think education REALLY matters. I can't go any where telling people I'm a teacher without getting people's personal opinions crammed down my throat. I'm not sure I'm buying it, at least the part where education is the number one most important thing for young people.  

But where does that leave me? 

I do value education, but I value people more and I don't think our education system is not giving the people it serves what they need, which means the education model as a whole will continually fail. But I have no answers. And to be honest, I'm used to that, so I sit here and ruminate. Calculate. Research. Revise. And wait - but I'm not sure what I'm waiting for, perhaps, for politics to play their part or maybe a reaction or a big break. I don't really know.

My co-teacher once said something to me on a day that was particularly awful in the classroom. Her words deeply shook me, as she sighed in exhaustion "they (our students) are so hard to love." She's right. They are so hard to love because they are teenagers and they are messy and crazy. They laugh at strange things and sometimes make poor decisions.

Why aren't more people loving these kids?

They need it.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

More Blog Posts to Come.

For the first time in my life - perhaps EVER I have absolutely nothing to do over the summer. And by absolutely nothing I mean I still am taking 6 credits of grad school and "pretend" to plan for the next school year. It mostly means I sleep a lot, work out, and try to fill my time with something - usually stalking the NYC philharmonic free concerts.

Naturally you would think this would include blogging but.......

Confession: 

I haven't blogged in a LONG time because I've fallen into that spiral that goes something like this:

1. Guilt for not blogging in a few weeks.
2. Feel the unrealistic need that the next blog post must be exceptional because of said guilt.
3. Can't think of anything exceptional to blog about.
4. Ignore blog hoping something exciting worth blogging about happens.
5. Nothing happens and continue to feel more guilt about not blogging.
6. Cycle repeats. 

I fear my blog has lost more of its focus again. I had all these unrealistic goals over the summer of revising and editing all the drafts of blogs I wrote throughout the year that I never ever posted. Turns out now that the school year is over and it's summer I don't really want to revisit or think too much about my first year of teaching. What's done is done. I'd rather look to the future, which brings me to my next exciting point -

I will be working in a new school next year! This will be a really good change for me as I will be working with gifted and talented children in a neighborhood within walking distance of my apartment.

I have a lot of bittersweet thoughts about the upcoming change, but it will be a good change. It will be a change that settles me more, which both intimidates me and makes me more excited about my work. I am sad about starting over on relationships with students and teachers- at my old school I was close with the staff and the kids knew me. The good news is now I can hang out with my old staff outside of school and not worry about politics! So that's a relief!

But as promised more blogs are on the horizon. I have a few stories up my sleeve to share! 

Until next time,

Amanda