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Year Six Ends

written Saturday, 5/28/2011

In my first year of teaching, I posted to this website every week. I felt compelled to try to capture at least a bit of the newness and intensity of my brand new teaching career in post-Katrina New Orleans. The five months that just passed since my last substantive entry is by far my longest period of inactivity. Aunt Ellie, your frustration with my lack of updates is duly noted!

Yesterday afternoon I shut my classroom door for the summer (Okay, I confess that I’ll probably find some dubious reasons to go back into the building in the next two months, but let’s pretend). My sixth year of teaching just ended. A week ago Friday the students had their last day, and the Lusher class of 2011 graduated that evening.

Each year a new roster of students guarantees a new set of experiences, joys, challenges, battles, and surprises. Just like the first year, the job still contains a contentious mix of bad and good. There were times in the past year when I felt like I ought to look for change, either outside New Orleans or outside teaching altogether. There were times when I lost my patience – Perhaps slightly less frequently than in my earlier years, but I still dwelled on each incident for weeks just like when I was a rookie. I still can’t shake some of the same old nervous habits, like pacing across the front of the room and needlessly sipping from my water bottle or coffee cup.

Thankfully there were also times when I felt like there could be no more rewarding calling than this. So now is the time for all the negatives that accumulated in the course of the year to melt away in the sticky summer heat while the enjoyment and pride I feel for many of my students excites me to return in August for at least one more go-round. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.


The 1/31/11 Times-Picayune article (scan of print version)

Or, online version.

A few more minutes of fame

Following the bit of NYT attention I received in December for my parallel parking nerdiness, a reporter for the local Times-Picayune visited my class a couple times back in January. Here’s the article giving me some front-page props before I quietly faded back into the comfort of obscurity.

Honor Roll

Writing fond year-end recollections about my students is therapeutic. In trying to keep the list a manageable length, I know I’m slighting some other remarkable kids. At the same time, even though the list highlights individuals, it collectively represents all my wonderful students who’ve exhibited the qualities described within it.

  • A petite gal whose voice barely rises above a whisper. Yet she demonstrates the tenacity of a pit bull when it came to her academics. She almost dropped my PreCalculus class in the opening weeks out of fear that she couldn’t hang. With reservation I told her parents that I thought she could handle the struggle. Such advise can easily get thrown back in a teacher’s face. Thankfully she exceeded my expectations, becoming my most frequent customer for lunchtime office hours. She finished the year with the highest GPA in my class of any senior and a healthy boost in self-esteem.
  • A colorful young dude with boundless energy that sometimes needed to be reigned in. He knew better than to believe my pointed barbs that I don’t like Asian kids in general, and him specifically (O the rich humor of racism). He struggled through the trigonometry chapters of PreCalculus but eventually disciplined himself to seek help promptly and often. He foresees engineering in his future. Despite some serious mid-year discouragement, he finished the year on a very high note and is now planning to endure AP Calc with me. If he can stay focused enough to earn his success next year, I will be truly thrilled for him.
  • “Those theater kids” can drive me nuts, but at the same time some are undeniably endearing. A couple theater girls in one of my classes bantered endlessly like a vaudeville comedic duo (One as a pesky and hyper-energetic sprite constantly interjecting into the day’s lesson, the other a bold and brassy young woman to put the sprite in her place). Normally anything that threatens to disrupt the momentum of my lesson ignites my ire, but I couldn’t help enjoying their antics.
  • A laid-back “gentle giant” who perhaps felt entitled to put less than 100% into his academics due to his talents on the football field and in the jazz band. His excuses for not doing PreCalc homework or scoring poorly on a test often began with “Well, you see what happened was...” For those who don’t know the New Orleans vernacular, this preface is invariably followed by a steep pile of buuuulllll. I couldn’t help but like his affable demeanor though, and in his sparse moments of sustained effort he proved to be quite intelligent. He has his sights on engineering in college next year. His grades in my class never rose to the level that they should have. But if anything I said or did helped convince him that his brain is his greatest asset, then I consider this year to be a major success for him.
  • A trio in my last-block PreCalculus class who helped each other through the roughest parts of PreCalculus. For some reason their interactions conjured up a premonition of them some fifty years from now: three old ladies rocking in their chairs on a porch, bickering and fussing yet never wavering in their support for each other in times of need. They were loads of fun, saving just the right amount of sass to throw my way.
  • A gal who resisted addressing her math weaknesses and suffered emotional meltdowns during tests early in the year. My frustration with her eased when she finally stopped making excuses and started appearing for help. By the end of the year she was a consistent visitor to office hours. Her line in my gradebook still contained a sporadic assortment of hits and misses. However, the way she learned to face her greatest academic burdens head-on and maintain her composure through the ups and downs earned my sincerest admiration.
  • A gal who seemed to have a new way every week to reel in her rockin’ ‘fro. I thoroughly enjoyed the out-loud arguments she’d have with herself in the process of working through her PreCalc confusion (“... and then I... WAIT!... nooooo!...”). Most of all though, I admire her wonderfully-kind heart. Any time there was a food/clothing/money drive at school, she was involved. Truly one of the most super-cool kids I’ve ever met.
  • A phenomenal gal who joined our school this year for her senior year. Since almost all other Calculus students knew me from previous years, I forgot to mention to her class that I prefer a few quiet moments to myself before school. When she started showing up early in the morning seeking math help, I initially intended to suggest that she stop by during my lunch and after-school office hours. Instead, the math questions transitioned to casual chats, which in turn became a fixture in our routines and a highlight of my day. I marveled at her perseverance through trials in and out of school. Watching her graduate was one of the proudest moments of my year.
  • A gal who some of us teachers affectionately deemed “crazy.” She put up a thick barrier that kept me from knowing her as well as I would’ve liked. Her standardized test scores are off-the-charts. Confused and conflicted, she tended to give up on herself too often to reach the level of success that she could’ve had. I could tell there’s a good, well-intentioned person behind her facade. I deeply hope that some years from now I’ll hear that she’s found her way, thriving in college and beyond.
  • A gal who frequently wandered the halls during her freshman year with the aforementioned “crazy.” She entered my Algebra 2 class the following year with a minor reputation for trouble. I heard that she was involved in some bullying some years ago, but present day I find that nearly impossible to imagine. Over the three years as my student she exemplified kindness, attentiveness, and responsibility. Not to mention that she’s extremely bright in math. I expect that when AP Calculus scores are released in July, hers will be amongst the top of my roster.
  • Another young woman who just finished three years with me through Algebra 2, PreCalculus, and AP Calculus. Although passionate and accomplished in dance, I think her academic brilliance is what really sets her apart. While most students who helped with NHS (National Honor Society) tutoring specialized in one subject, she was a go-to person for a wide range of subjects. Silly errors and inattentiveness to detail occasionally cost her in my class, but I could always count on her to come to class with a fantastic smile and eagerness to learn.
  • A young guy who, hindered by a learning disability, tends to tune out his teachers in class (Of course this is a common teenage attribute, but his case was striking). His natural math smarts helped him adequately learn the material on his own when he was my student in Algebra 2 and PreCalculus. This year though, the especially high demands of Calculus and other distractions in his life led him to an abysmal start of the school year. I worried for his emotional stability at times, but he never gave up. While still struggling with attentiveness, by the end of the year he had become most enthusiastic in drawing connections between the AP Calculus and AP Physics content. His remarkable recovery in the second semester provided an awesome way to end our three years together.
  • Ahh, another one of my three-year students. “This is booty!” she would blurt in frustration, fed up after her third or fourth unfruitful attempt at a Calculus problem. Then following a brief moment of venting, she’d dive back in for a fifth or sixth attempt. I loved this gal’s tenacity. I know she was discouraged that the A’s she used to earn back in Algebra 2 were becoming more and more elusive this year in AP Calculus. To her credit though, she always appreciated that there was much more to the learning experience than the letter grades. She embraced the intense intellectual challenge as much as any student, and I’ll greatly miss her spunk next year.
  • Okay, one more three-year kid. He earned a reputation in high school as an academic powerhouse. With sights on the Ivy League and other elite schools, it was all the more humbling for him to struggle as much as he did in AP Calculus. Unlike the previously-mentioned student, this young man felt the key to his future rested on his report card. Stress from school and other sources weighed heavily on him this year. He developed severe mathematical mind-blocks that I never would’ve predicted a year or two ago. He grew frustrated with my unwillingness to loosen up my grading scale and I grew irritated with his protests. By the fourth quarter though, as college matters started to become resolved and he learned to mellow out a bit, his academic star began to shine again in my class. His journey this year was painful for me to watch and excruciating for him to experience. I’m proud of him for never giving up. He sees the value in the experience and is happy with the college path he now finds in front of him.
  • A gal with a ridiculously-unfair blend of braininess, talent, athleticism, leadership, and social grace. Her reputation at our school is the stuff of legends. I recently admitted to her that I resisted jumping on her bandwagon when she first entered my class last year. What ultimately won me over was her humility, unparalleled work ethic, and generosity with her time and skills. She assisted me with office hours every week, for which I and all the students she helped owe her a debt of gratitude. I can’t wait to see where the future takes this incredible young lady.
  • A junior who joined our school this year. At his last school he had already learned about a half-year of AB Calculus (which is supposed to be equivalent to a 1/2 of first-year college calculus, although I’d argue that it’s more like 2/3 of a year). Although our school only offers the AB Calculus course, he demonstrated tremendous initiative in pushing ahead with minimal instruction from me. At the end of the year he took the BC Calculus exam (equivalent to a full year of college calc) and I have no doubt that he did exceptionally well.


For all the struggle and agony students endure in my classes, I cling to the hope and belief that such trials do more good than harm. I stated on the last day of school that the growth and opportunity to be gained from my classes is of higher priority to me than mere enjoyment of the class. Of course the goal is to not have to choose between one and the other.

I wish that teenagers were more inclined to write thank you letters to teachers although in full disclosure, I don’t recall ever writing one in high school myself. On the other hand, it makes it all the more special whenever I do receive one. This year I received three, and they are absolutely the most treasured gifts I could get from a student. I know it’s sappy, but I tape them to my refrigerator. Beautifully written from the heart, they are guaranteed to make me smile every time I look at them.

When things go wrong in the classroom, the how-to-be-a-teacher books tell you not to take it personally. That’s a worthy ideal, but so far I’ve found it impossible to attain. At it’s best teaching is so intensely personal. The same students you love invariably have the power to exhaust your patience and weaken your spirit at times. I’m far from figuring out how to reap the rewards of the teacher-student relationship without suffering the stings. However, the letters from those three exceptional students restore my confidence that something special and worthwhile is happening here.

Pics from the kiddies I was able to catch after graduation, plus one of my Calculus sections.