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Growing Pains

written Friday, 11/11/2005

Students on the fence

I’m so glad I did my homework.

Before getting into this profession, I talked to numerous teachers at almost all different educational levels. There was a common element in nearly all of their stories: The first year was miserably overwhelming, and it took a year or two before they felt reasonably competent at their jobs. My expectations were set accordingly as I started my new life here in Louisiana.

Of course, cautious expectations don’t completely prepare a person for the actuality of feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. Nonetheless, I preserve my sanity by reminding myself that these are the normal growing pains of teaching.

Being a new teacher anywhere is tough enough. Now I realize that I would not have been cut out for inner city Orleans Parish in my first year (or perhaps any year, for that matter). Considering the academic (in)abilities of my slowest Jefferson Parish students, and the few kids I’ve received from Orleans, I’ve really had to question my ideals. As much as I’d love to believe that any teenage student still has the potential to “succeed,” I do wonder how much a first-year teacher can do to counteract the circumstances under which many of these children have grown up: neglect, abuse, violence, drugs, poverty, and an environment of low aspirations. At best, there are some children “on the fence” who can be tipped in the right direction, but there are so many more who are stubbornly unwilling to budge from their familiar spots on the hopeless side of the fence.

At this moment, the Orleans Public Schools are still closed. If I were teaching in a typical Orleans school, though, I’d probably be struggling with the temptation to write off all the students as beyond help. One of my students is a transplant from Fortier High School, where even the 2003 class valedictorian was unable to pass the Graduate Exit Exam (Passing the GEE is required by the state in order to receive a diploma).

How do I decide that my time and effort is being well-spent? As things are in Jefferson, the verdict is still out for me. I’ll probably conclude that Bonnabel has a good balance of academic potential and need. However, I do find myself inclined to give up on certain low-performing students and “fence sitters.” This week, the moody girl in my second period class was as unstable and disrespectful as I’ve ever seen her. During one emotional outburst, she revealed that she’s pregnant again. In third period, my illiterate wannabe-mechanic from the 9th Ward (Lawless High School) now wants to be a comedian. No seriously, he really told me that’s his new career goal. He’s not particularly funny, and his behavior seems to get worse daily.

Is it too soon to abandon hope for some of these kids? Should I feel guilty if I do give up on them, or should I already feel guilty for not focusing my attention on the other kids who may be more receptive to learning?

Oh no… could it be me?

Guilty inclinations aside, I’m frustrated that I haven’t yet connected with many of my mediocre- and higher-performing students. I found math fun in high school, yet I’m not successfully transferring my joy of the subject to them. I asked my TGNO Cohort leader to come observe my classroom yesterday (Thursday) and offer suggestions.

Bonnie has taught math for many years at various elementary and high-school levels. She was teaching at a magnet school in New Orleans prior to Katrina, and expects that her former job will be available for her again in January. Back in August, Bonnie was assigned to lead biweekly meetings for 7 of us TGNO math teachers. The idea was that these meeting would provide a support forum through which we would discuss and problem-solve our experiences. Michelle, Nihar and I have unofficially met with Bonnie twice since we returned to our jobs on October 3, and I knew she could provide some valuable insight in my classroom.

Bonnie observed my third period class in all their hyperactive glory. She took 9 pages of notes, documenting all the happenings (misbehavior) and non-happenings (learning). After staying for the 90-minute period, we talked for another two hours. She offered suggestions that will hopefully prove to be very helpful. Her main criticism was that I need to interact with the children more. She commented that she had only learned four students’ names during the period. She heard several other students call Bigmouth #1 by name, and she heard me reprimand two other students. Besides that, I had only addressed one student individually! When Bonnie mentioned it, this shortcoming seemed so blatent. For some reason I had gotten it in my head that I should avoid putting students on the spot. As a result, I’ve been trying to interact with the class as a group. I ask questions and wait for volunteered responses, which naturally results in a small handful of students dominating the discussion while all the others tune out. How obvious, yet somehow the root of this problem was escaping me.

Bonnie gave me a number of other suggestions, which conjured up a conflicting reaction in me. On one hand, I was extremely grateful for the helpful input, and I felt encouraged to now have some specific tips for improving my teaching skills. On the other hand, I was dismayed by how far I am from being the teacher that I want to become. For the last month, I was allowed to believe that these rotten kids were responsible for the majority of my troubles. Now much of the burden has been shifted into my lap!

Oh shoot, that’s good I suppose. I can work on my own faults better than I can fix those lousy kids. Still, this humbling realization was mentally exhausting. I went home yesterday afternoon and took a two-hour nap, before ultimately crashing in bed early at 7pm.

Fine, it’s me

Fortunately, I didn’t have to prepare much of a lesson plan last night. Today was a half-day at Bonnabel for the students, since we teachers were scheduled to spend the afternoon entering grades for the quarter. The first “nine-week period” ended today, having been shortened to six weeks by Katrina. I spent the morning performing a mind-reading trick for my three classes, and gradually revealing the mathematical secret behind it. The arrival of a Friday afternoon put me in a merciful mood. While determining the final grades, I promoted many of them up a notch. There was still no shortage of D’s and F’s, but I won’t let myself lose sleep over them. After all, this weekend, I have big plans:

  • Objective #1 for the weekend: Rest as much as I want.
  • Objective #2 for the weekend: Implement some of Bonnie’s suggestions for engaging my classes more effectively.
  • Objective #3 for the weekend: Constantly remind myself that progress may not be occurring as fast or efficiently as I wish, but most of my students are learning Algebra.

I’m so glad I consulted all those teachers before starting this adventure. There’s comfort in knowing that they all suffered through this, and emerged from their early struggles as better educators. Sure, many of my students are knuckleheads, but I also have a long way to go if I’m ever going to become the kind of teacher that I know I could be. I guess every conscientious teacher has to experience the pains of growing.