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The second first week of school

written Friday, 10/07/2005

The reopening

The first week of school just ended… again.

Just like my first first week as a high school math teacher back in late August, I’ll be thrilled if my students are receiving half the education that I’m getting.

At Bonnabel High School and throughout the rest of the reopened Jefferson Parish schools, rumors and speculation and very shaky information from the “official” sources serve as conversation fodder. When will the school district decide whether they're going to lay off teachers? Is there already some master list of teachers who are going to get axed? Are they willing to keep us around to avoid a hiring scramble in a few months? After all, many displaced students are staying at their new post-Katrina schools for now, but are expected to flock back in January for the second half of the academic year. Will that really happen? I’ve heard that Florida let go many teachers after a major hurricane, and then found it extremely difficult to fill the positions when students later returned en masse. (I assume that hurricane was Andrew back in 1992, which had been the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history until Katrina blew away that record). One rumor suggests that Jefferson Parish officials have been in talks with Florida officials, trying to learn from those past lessons. Nonetheless it’s hard not to be skeptical that such an impoverished state as Louisiana will choke up the money to protect its investment of teachers if students aren’t presently filling the classrooms.

Thinking back to meetings we had the week before school reopened, I’d estimate that about 70 teachers returned to Bonnabel. Yesterday I believe I overheard someone say that 9 had not come back. I have no idea how well that represents the return rate for all of Jefferson Parish, but even veteran teachers are sweating over their job security. One teacher across the hall from me has 20+ years experience, but confesses that she hopes many of our colleagues retire. I’ve heard many grumblings from older teachers about retirement, but I don’t believe anyone at Bonnabel has done so yet. Perhaps they’re waiting for an incentive package.

As it stands this week, most Bonnabel students have not come back yet. Of the original 1800+ we had in August, about 40% (700+) have returned. Our principal says that more have trickled in every day this week, although my classes have held steady. I originally had an average of over 30 students for my three periods, but now I have headcounts of 18, 17, and 10.

Most of my early favorite students are back. These include a few who are simply pleasant to teach, a few who actively participate in the lessons, a few who speak almost no English yet still try hard to learn, and a few who keep me on my toes (Y’know, I have to occasionally remind them how to behave, but they’re generally respectful).

A few of the a--holes also returned. Interestingly enough though, I’m also glad to see them. None of my students are atrocious, so I expect the troublemakers to give me practice for dealing with the truly horrendous students that every teacher eventually encounters in their careers.

What an odd situation this is: In the aftermath of an unimaginable catastrophe, a couple bright spots have emerged. My class sizes would be any public schoolteacher’s dream. With the TGNO program apparently suspended, the burden of university coursework has been lifted off my shoulders. Two weeks ago we were told that school days would start 90 minutes earlier to make up for lost time, but that decision has been put on hold until further notice. Of course, all these favorable conditions cannot last for too long, and I can’t get too giddy when those small class sizes may directly result in the loss of my job. Nonetheless, as a brand new teacher still getting my feet wet, the “benefits” sure help make my job a lot more manageable for now.

Part of Bonnabel, looking clean again.
Part of Bonnabel, not looking clean quite yet (Most of this building got condemned).
Hallway of the 100 Bldg, looking at the doorway to my classroom.
Inside my classroom, room 111.

The students

On Monday, I had no idea what post-Katrina changes to expect in my students. I emphasized how genuinely pleased I was to see those students who showed up, and told them of the tremendous efforts all their teachers and administrators made to prepare Bonnabel for reopening. I did my best to assure them that they were welcome to talk to me about any problems they had inside or out of the classroom. If they weren’t comfortable with me yet, I suggested they find another teacher or adult or friend to serve as an outlet for their concerns. Per typical teenage demeanor, they stared blank-faced as I spoke, offering little clue to their emotional well being. I sincerely wanted to be available for them, and hoped that at least one would confide in me to share his or her experiences. However, I found my message difficult to deliver. Besides the fact that I had only been their teacher for one week back in August, my personality does not instantly exude warmth and approachability. Furthermore, I had spent much of my first week preaching rules, consequences, and procedures. I had focused on setting the ground rules, and not yet gotten to the point of connecting with my students.

I know Katrina displaced at least some of my students from their homes, and destroyed a lot of their belongings. Surprisingly though, a great majority attended school all week in their uniforms. Our principal had secretly told the faculty that the uniform policy would be lifted, but fortunately we didn’t end up having to address many issues of inappropriate attire. Material possessions aside, I got the sense that most students were finding ways to cope with the hurricane aftermath. Or, maybe they were hiding their emotions well. Maybe signs of post-traumatic stress will emerge in coming weeks. Maybe I’m just missing subtle clues. I did hold four students after class for behavior issues during the week, but three were already on my watch-list back in August. Only one demonstrated signs of being seriously overwhelmed by her new circumstances. She refused to lift her head off the desk for more than a couple seconds, despite multiple insistences on my part. Typically, a sharp kick to the desk leg is all it takes to remind my students that naps are not allowed in Mr. White’s classroom. However, this girl persisted in withdrawing from the class. When I spoke with her privately, I discovered that her family had lost their home, and is currently living in a trailer. She said that she is able to discuss her problems with her parents, but I still asked if she’d be willing to talk with the (highly recommended) school social worker. The girl agreed, and the next day Ms. Ballanco dropped by my class to counsel her for about 10 minutes. A day later, Ms. Ballanco dropped off a bag of food supplies to pass along. I wish I could have heard the conversation or conversations between them. The girl has been a great student for the rest of the week, participating in class discussions and volunteering to read numerous times.

I decided to be quite open with my class about our school’s situation, as I saw it. I thought they ought to know that classes may be combined if more students don’t show up. They ought to know that some of their teachers may be laid off in the coming weeks, and that they may get adopted into another teacher’s class. My message to them was: Be flexible, be cooperative, and be patient. Even though my lack of seniority puts me at the top of the layoff list, I hoped to model integrity and professionalism to them. I promised that I would still teach them to the best of my ability, as if my job were completely secure. I asked that they persevere with the same focus and attitude that I would demonstrate. I reminded them that the value of my education is what assures me that I can handle whatever fate lies ahead. On one hand, I earlier expressed hope that school could represent a return to normalcy for my students. On the other hand, I may have undermined that vision by sharing my sense of the school system’s instability. Was it advisable to be so candid about possible classroom upheavals? Was that unsettling for the students? Shoot, I don’t know, but that’s what I did.

The course

Finally I was able to really start teaching math this week. In August we reviewed number lines and integers, but I never picked up steam or felt like I was teaching the students anything new. Most of my attention was spent on establishing classroom management. This week though, I placed the class set of Algebra 1 books on the desks from day one. Our math department head directed us to ditch the remedial math and jump straight into Algebra, so that’s what I intended to do. On Monday we did a quick exercise from Chapter 1 to assess prerequisite skills. By Tuesday, I was telling the students to place the Algebra 1 books under their desks. Holy crap, their fraction skills suck! This did not come as a complete surprise, for we had heard all throughout the TGNO training that this is a major weakness for most kids. For the rest of the week I decided to make the best of the old remedial “Math That Works” books, teaching equivalent fractions, comparing fractions, adding and subtracting fractions, common denominators, improper fractions and mixed numbers, and multiplication and division of fractions. Even though the other 9th grade math classes were proceeding with Algebra, I think the time was well spent in my class. A few kids complained that they already know fractions and weren’t learning anything new. From what I saw though, only a handful of students demonstrated any competency with fractions, and those ones simply did the work instead of whining about it. If I knew I’d be able to keep my class for the rest of the year, I’d spend another few days on fractions. However, given the possibility that classes may eventually get combined, I don’t want to get too far off track from the other Algebra classes. On Monday I’ll give a quiz on fractions and then break into the Algebra 1 book.

I’m enjoying the ninety-minute periods so far. If for no other reason, I feel justified in spending 5, or even up to 10 minutes on a “ brain teaser” at the beginning of the period. These mind puzzles sparked much of my interest in math when I was in high school, and I hope they serve to motivate my students as well. As much as possible, I tie them into the current lesson. For example, today’s classic puzzle about cutting a cake into 8 equal pieces with only three straight cuts fed nicely into our lesson on fractions. Even though teaching fundamentals like fractions is not as fun as higher-level material, I feel like my enthusiasm for high-school math started to shine through this week. I think the students are also beginning to understand that there is no “free time” in my class. I put my desk in the back of the room, and didn’t sit there once all week. All my class time this week was spent either presenting material or walking around to help students with class work. I can only hope that any upcoming changes, or the general grind of teaching in a public school won’t drain me of my current motivation.

With only two weeks total teaching experience, it would feel silly generalizing about what kind of teacher I am. At least I’m starting to figure out what kind of teacher I want to be. It’s a little early for me to know how my students perceive me, but I think some of them already appreciate my youth, mastery of the subject, and sincere interest in their educations. Actually, I bet most of them appreciate me. Except for the few a--holes!