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Starting over, again

written Saturday, 12/10/2005

Transfer Limbo

Recap: Last Thursday I was notified that I had to leave Bonnabel High School. On Friday morning I signed on to teach at West Jefferson High School, and convinced myself to make the best of this new opportunity. By Friday evening, I received a phone message from Ms. Prudeaux at Jefferson Parish Schools Personnel telling me not to report to West Jeff on Monday. Apparently my only options now were to commute to Fisher, which is an hour drive away, or switch to special education.

I tried to reach Ms. Prudeaux, and by Sunday we had each left each other two messages without ever talking directly. Her second message directed me again to not show up at West Jeff on Monday. My last message to her explained “I don’t mean to disrespect or undermine you, but I’m going to West Jefferson on Monday morning.” Ostensibly my reason was to return the textbooks that I had picked up on Friday, but my real motivation was to get my foot in the door. Accepting that I had been pushed out of Bonnabel, I was becoming more and more eager to work at West Jefferson. Furthermore, on Sunday morning I talked to their assistant principal, Mrs. Varisco. I remembered her saying that she would be at school that morning to rearrange the students’ schedules. She was not aware of the latest developments, and agreed that I ought to show up Monday despite the requests otherwise.

Monday morning I arrived at West Jefferson and started learning some details about the current mess.

Ms. Lynch, a veteran English teacher from Bonnabel, had been sent to the teacher transfer procedure on Friday. She protested, since another less-senior English teacher, Ms. Domangue, was allowed to stay at Bonnabel. Ms. Lynch eventually got reinstated, and now Ms. Domangue was told to leave. Ms. Domangue, though, also holds certification to teach math. She ended up choosing to go to West Jefferson. With more seniority than me, Ms. Domangue bumped me from my slot.

If it were just that simple, I would have acknowledged that I’m low on the totem pole, and accepted the resolution. However, when I signed on to West Jeff on Friday, there were four total vacancies available: one at Fisher, one at Riverdale, and two at West Jefferson. If I got bumped from slot #1 at WJ, then why couldn’t I have slot #2? Why was I now being told that Fisher was my only choice?

I’d later find out that after all the “bidding” was completed on Friday, the remaining unfilled vacancies were assigned to certified middle school teachers. I still felt entitled to all my original options, minus Ms. Domangue’s late selection.

Another interesting twist: Neither teacher assigned to a West Jeff math vacancy showed up Monday morning. Ms. Domangue was permitted time to go clean out her classroom at Bonnabel, but I also heard that a teacher refused to come in until she could talk to her lawyer. Presumably this was the middle-school teacher assigned to the second vacancy.

So, there was one teacher who apparently didn’t want to be there, and someone else (me) who very much wanted the position. West Jefferson had tried to hire me after the summer job fair, and definitely wanted me there now. Hopefully the district would make the right decision.

Monday morning at West Jefferson, I completed homeroom period, Geometry for second period, and Algebra 2 for third period. The classroom had been scavenged for desks, books, and computer cords. Only a crumbling teacher’s desk, an old computer, and two broken student desks remained. I retrieved some desks from neighboring teachers, borrowed some chalk, and prepared to “wing it” through my first day. Only 12 out of the 20 kids on the roster showed up for Geometry, and only 3 out of 14 showed up for Algebra 2. I don’t know the reason for the low attendance, but at least I didn’t have to worry yet about not having enough desks.

During those several hours, I definitely sensed a greater maturity from the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders than from my darling 9th graders at Bonnabel. Even though I had barely skimmed through the textbooks, I could tell that I would enjoy teaching this more advanced material rather than the fundamental arithmetic I needed to review in Algebra 1. I spent the time discussing my background, explaining my expectations of my students, trying to get a sense of how far they’ve progressed in the course so far, and warning that the teacher shuffle may not be over.

Sure enough, my West Jefferson debut got cut short before the day’s end. At the beginning of fourth period, the assistant principal Mrs. Varisco came by with a message from the district office. I was told to report back to Bonnabel and await further direction. Mrs. Varisco would divert the students from my remaining classes of the day to other teachers.

Back at Bonnabel

I arrived back at Bonnabel, where the rest of the workday brought no updates about my employment. Meanwhile, I called the Jefferson Federation of Teachers (union) president to plead my case. I also took the opportunity to say a few more goodbyes to former colleagues and students. I continued to be stunned by other teachers’ accounts of how upset my ex-students were. One claimed that students have expressed more disappointment over losing me than any of the other transferred teachers. Another mentioned a kid who claimed to have never gotten an A in math until he took my class, and started to understand math better. I ran into a wide range of children, all the way from numerous ‘A’ students to several ‘F’ students. All greeted me cordially, including some of the “buttheads” and “bigmouths” who had caused me so much grief. Even “moody girl” ran up and gave me a hug. She mentioned crying upon hearing of my departure, and her sister commenting, “ I thought you didn’t like Mr. White.”

“That was just a front,” was her reply. Moody girl was gone for doctor visits during the end of the previous week due to her pregnancy. She plans to drop out after this quarter. All I could do is make one last plea that she reconsider, knowing that she most likely will leave school anyway.

On Tuesday, I reported back to Bonnabel once again to wait for news. Once again, news didn’t come. However, I continued to run into more students who were angry and saddened that I had to leave. Even Mr. Bigmouth #2, who had continued to clash with me as I cracked down on rowdy third period, said, “You need to come back, Mr. White.” He already “hated” his new teacher, who I’m sure wasn’t terribly fond of him either. This kid, who just days before was cussing me out under his breath as I dragged him to the discipline office, recognized that there are greater unpleasantries in life than being in my math class.

I reported to Bonnabel again on Wednesday, and tried to keep a low profile. “Moody girl” had mentioned that it was difficult seeing me hang around there, knowing I wouldn’t be able to stay. I agreed that my goodbye was becoming too drawn out. A couple other teachers mentioned rumors that Bonnabel’s principal was trying to finagle a way for me to stay at his school by getting me assigned to a special education position. As much as I wanted to stay, I would rather teach math somewhere else than teach special ed at Bonnabel. Numerous other teachers were telling me that Fisher, the school that’s an hour away in rural Lafitte, would be a fantastic assignment. The small community is close-knit and the children are very respectful. I started to warm up to this possibility, although I worried that such a “dream job” would spoil me in my first year of teaching. I don’t think I could handle the worst Orleans schools, but on the other hand I feel a need to pay my dues and struggle through the challenges of a rougher school than Fisher. At this point though, I was tired of hoping and speculating. I would just wait for the union, lawyers, and personnel department to fight it out and tell me their decision.

Finally, a decision

After spending much of Wednesday in the teacher’s lounge, I finally got a call from the union president right before the dismissal bell rang. I was signed back on with West Jefferson to teach Geometry and Algebra 2!

As I walked out to the parking lot of Bonnabel for the last time, I saw one of the troublemakers from my former period 3 (I haven’t written about him before, but let’s call him Bigmouth #4). I had battled him throughout the past two months, and finally wrote a referral for him on Thursday – a few hours before I got my transfer letter. I requested that he be suspended until I could have a parent conference. I had then called his mother and arranged to meet her before school the next day, so that he wouldn’t actually have to miss any school (but at least the discipline measure would be officially recorded). Of course the meeting never happened since I didn’t come to Bonnabel the next day. I felt bad about my last combative interaction with Bigmouth #4, since he wasn’t an unlikable kid. Like my other troublemakers, he just didn’t know how to act appropriately in a classroom. Seeing him in the parking lot though, it was clear that there were no hard feelings. We shook hands and talked for about 20 minutes. He acknowledged his butthead ways and praised me as a good teacher. I wondered why, if these students appreciated me so much, did they act like such horrible heathens? Deep down, I knew the answer: They’re teenagers. Mr. Bigmouth #4 and I likened our relationship to boxers who pummel each other for 12 rounds and then embrace. Unfortunately, that’s just the way school is sometimes. He told me that when Ms. Bigmouth #1 (the ringleader of the period 3 gang) saw the farewell note on my door, she nearly wept. Even the illiterate wannabe-mechanic from the Ninth Ward, who clearly was not ready for an Algebra class, allegedly lamented my transfer. Mr. Bigmouth #4 told me that he plans to go to college, and I asked him to remember that most of his teachers really want the best for their students. Please give them a break. We exchanged a big hug and went on our ways.

As much as I hate sudden, unexpected change, these poor kids are suffering so much more than I am. Whether they liked my class or not, they need the consistency. They knew what to expect from me. Now, many of their schedules have been completely reshuffled, and they will have to adjust to one, two, or three unfamiliar teachers. Without warning, they’ll have to get accustomed to new class rules, new procedures, and new teacher personalities. They’ll have to get used to new rooms and new classmates. I turned in my grades to the curriculum office, but most likely their new teachers will start their grades over again. Three months after Hurricane Katrina, the stability that we all hoped school could provide for them is crumbling.

Restarting at West Jefferson

On Thursday, it was clear the students at West Jefferson were tired of being jerked around too. Ms. Domangue (the Bonnabel teacher who had bumped me) had been their teacher for two days, and told them that things were finally settled. She stayed most of Thursday with me to explain the latest happenings to the students and say goodbye. She was headed to an English position at Riverdale High School. Many students grumbled at the switcheroo. I assured them that I would now be their teacher for the rest of the year, with as much certainty as anyone could expect during this unsettling time.

For the last two days of the week, I finished reviewing topics that Ms. Domangue had been teaching them. My early impression is that I’ll eventually enjoy teaching at West Jefferson, but for now I have to struggle through the adjustment period. The students generally seem more serious about their studies than my 9th grade Bonnabel students, but I sense that I will have to fight some discipline battles in at least a couple of my classes. In short order, I need to get accustomed to 150+ new students, new colleagues and administration, a new school, 60-minute instead of 90-minute periods, new course subjects, and new rules and procedures. Furthermore, the classroom flux is not over. Next week, some Orleans schools will finally reopen and many West Jefferson students will transfer back to them. Then in January, it’s anticipated that many Katrina-displaced families will return to the area and enroll their children for the second half of the school year.

With over six months living in Louisiana now, nothing ever seems to settle down. My ability to “roll with the punches” has improved tenfold, but all this rolling and punching certainly takes a toll. We only have one more week left until the winter vacation. The break sure couldn’t come at a better time!

TFA sidenote

My venture into the teaching profession officially started when I applied to Teach For America (TFA). Just one year ago, I received my rejection letter, and desperately questioned whether I would be able to find another route into teaching for the 2005-06 school year. As upset as I was for being turned down at the time, now I wonder what my fate would have been if I had been accepted. New Orleans was my top pick for geographic preference. The future of the Teach Greater New Orleans (TGNO) program that later welcomed me looks shaky at best, but at least I still have a job in education.

I’ve heard accounts from my friend Nihar and aunt Margaret about all New Orleans TFA recruits being pulled from their teaching positions. Some were sent to teach in Houston, but many have ended up being assigned to work for the infamous Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or other organizations. Amongst all the members of the various alternative certification programs such as TFA and TGNO, I am one of very few who remains employed in a Greater New Orleans school. Amid all the stress right now, I guess I should occasionally take a moment to count myself lucky, and enriched for all the experiences!

Silver Lining

Could my transfer be a blessing in disguise?

As hard as it is to see anything positive in all this mess, there’s one fact I can’t overlook: My removal from Bonnabel opened my eyes to my students’ fondness for me, and the affection I developed for them. Less than two weeks ago, I strongly questioned my ability to teach effectively or connect with my kids. In the midst of battling their persistent rowdiness and academic apathy, most of my students wouldn’t dare demonstrate any sign of appreciation for their teacher. Likewise, I probably didn’t take enough opportunities to praise them. Looking back on my previous journal writings, I’m not sure I even acknowledged to myself how much they meant to me until I had to leave.

Now I know.

For the first time, I feel confident in my ability to impact the lives of my students. What a powerful feeling. If I can hold onto it, this confidence will make me a better teacher, and carry me through whatever other challenges lie ahead.