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written Sunday, 3/19/2006
Wishing for predictability
Like any job, my engineering career had its good days and bad days. Teaching is certainly no exception either. One big difference though, in my experience, is that I could typically forecast what kind of day I could expect to have at Lockheed Martin. Even during bad spells, there was an odd comfort in at least being able to predict and brace myself for the dreariness.
One of my major annoyances with teaching is that I have no idea what lies ahead on any given day. Some of the days that I expect to go well are horrible, and some of the days that ought to be disastrous turn out not so bad. My main consolation is that the ugliest times don’t seem to last so long, although neither do the peaceful moments.
Thankfully I don’t find myself longing to have my old life back, but I do miss being able to rely on a little more predictability.
A good support group
While I don’t expect teaching to ever offer the predictability I once had, next year should be so much easier. Everyone keeps promising me that, and I tend to believe it. I appreciate my colleagues at West Jefferson, and plenty of them have been more than willing to offer advice and support whenever I’ve needed it. Just like at Lockheed Martin, my good relationship with coworkers can keep a bad day from becoming unbearable.
Keeping a positive outlook is by far the greatest challenge for me. Even the helpful advice and reassurance I receive is often tinged with disheartening overtones.
For example, several teachers have reassured me that the overall teaching experience at West Jefferson is normally much better than this. In fact, a few contend that this is the worst year they’ve ever had at the school. On one hand, such accounts do convince me that the future will be much brighter, but that doesn’t really put a put a positive spin on the present. Some of the older teachers aren’t willing to wait for the brighter days ahead. Mr. Falcon, the Algebra 2/Advanced Math teacher next door, plans to retire a few years early in June. Since Katrina, he’s lost the enjoyment he used to have in his job. Science teacher Mr. Jagade, my carpool partner who also transferred from Bonnabel, just signed his retirement papers last week. He had originally planned to return to Bonnabel for several more years next August, but this year has taken its toll on him. He hates coming to work each day at West Jefferson. He’s clashed with the school administration regarding grading and discipline, and is extremely frustrated with the student behavior and work ethic. Claiming to no longer care, he recognizes that it’s time to leave the profession.
While venting my own frustrations over my inability to reach certain students, veteran teachers assure me that I’m doing a fine job. They sometimes remind me that only about 10% of the West Jefferson students will go on to college. I’m told to keep on presenting the information, to the best of my ability, but don’t suffer the blame for students who choose not to receive it. This deflection of culpability is comforting, but again, a little disheartening at the same time.
I also gain some perspective from my TGNO friends.
Robert demonstrates a quiet professionalism at Edna Karr High. Three months after its reopening, students are steadily trickling in. Robert’s classes are overflowing now, with not enough seats for the three-dozen students in some of his classes. A couple weeks ago, a student shoved Robert after being called into the hallway to discuss his misbehavior (The principal happened to be walking by at the time, and the student has been expelled).
Over at John Ehret High School, Nihar has endured threatening outbursts from some of his students. Reports of the threats to school administration were being ignored until other teachers witnessed one such verbal assault. The student was arrested, and Nihar was persuaded to press charges.
Suddenly, my whiny, apathetic students at West Jefferson don’t look so terrible.
Michelle still battles her out-of-control sixth graders at Marrero Middle School, and struggles to fight off depression. I pass on some of the consolations that others have offered me (“Next year has got to be better!”) I try taking my own words to heart as I repeat them out loud to Michelle, and usually end up feeling a little better myself.
Meanwhile, Sunday has completed her first month at Nelson Charter School. On Friday, one of her students claimed to have a knife in his backpack (true), as well as a bomb (thankfully, not true). Despite this, and various other crises in her classroom, she loves her job. Yesterday we argued over the ethics of “lowering the bar” to allow more students to pass. I contended that lowering the bar is occasionally necessary to prevent some students from giving up at the start. In my eyes, it’s a losing cause to demand 10th or 11th grade work from students who are three or four grade levels behind (Yes, I saw Stand and Deliver, but still…). Sunday argued that teachers ought to set an unwavering, high academic standard for their grade level, and persistently challenge the students to reach it. It would be a disservice not to report Fs for all students who fall short of those lofty standards. She echoes the sentiments that I strongly held not long ago, and I wonder if her views will change with a few more months of experience. I’ll be a little envious if she’s able to maintain the level of idealism that I’ve apparently lost, but I sure hope she does. If she can make it work, I’ll be glad to learn from her successes.
I’m extremely grateful for my support group out here. Many older teachers offer the valuable perspective and insight that only comes with experience. Others demonstrate the pitfalls that will alert me should this career start veering in a terribly wrong direction. The younger veteran teachers show me signs of what I might anticipate in my near future. My fellow rookies let me know that I’m certainly not the only one struggling right now, while not letting me forget the idealism that brought me into this field.
Classes at UNO
When the University of New Orleans reopened in late January, I was enrolled in two courses for TGNO. One is a weekly class addressing the role of technology in education. It’s hard to implement much of what I learn when technological resources are sorely lacking in many of our classrooms, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The other class is our teaching internship, for which we meet in cohort groups every two weeks. We math teachers meet with our cohort leader Bonnie, who has almost 30 years experience teaching math. We discuss our successes and problems, and try to offer each other solutions. The written assignments for each class feel like a nuisance, but this is the price we must pay to become certified by December. If nothing else, it’s at least an opportunity to make sure we all stay in contact with each other.
As part of the internship course, the TGNO director, Karen, is required to observe our classroom. I scheduled for her to visit on Friday, and my students actually didn’t make me look too bad. Beforehand, Karen talked with the West Jefferson principal, Mr. Geer. He’s a former marine with a gruff exterior. I haven’t conversed much with him beyond short pleasantries. I hadn’t been able to gather a strong impression of what the administration thinks of me, so it boosted my spirits when Karen told me that West Jefferson very much wants me to stay next year. Furthermore, Mr. Geer asked her if TGNO has any more teachers like me. Even though I’m slightly more inclined to return to Bonnabel, I was flattered by the comments, and pleased to find that I’ll probably have options.
For the most part, I’ve given up in the battle against sleepers in my class. I’ve found that no amount of pestering seems to keep some students awake for any more than a couple minutes, so I typically focus my energy on the students who are able to keep their eyes open.
Occasionally I experience a guilty pleasure in my 5th period Algebra 2 class, right before lunch, and my 7th period Geometry class, at the end of the school day. Once in a while a student will fall so deep into slumber that the dismissal bell doesn’t even wake him up. In those cases, I’ve gotten in the habit of letting them continue their nap well into the lunch period, or after school. Finally I’ll wake them up with a loud slap on the desk, or by pelting them with crumpled up pieces of paper. The perplexed look on a student’s face when he wakes up to an empty classroom is priceless.