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Mr. White is a ______

written 1/1/2015

What if

One recent day after quarter exams I noticed graffiti directed at a fellow teacher on a boys’ bathroom wall. Bathroom graffiti is not uncommon but usually our students demonstrate enough class to refrain from personal attacks. A couple times a year though I see something like this. I generally retrieve the Windex from my classroom and clean it off myself rather than leave it for a custodian to handle.

Every time I see such vulgarities, I wonder what if? How would I react if I had been the one targeted? Cowardly-anonymous barbs on a wall especially irk me. Would I be able to shake it off instantly or find myself unsettled?

How dare you!

My mind wandered in such directions as I scrubbed the black Sharpie ink. And then in the periphery I spotted “White” scrawled in much subtler blue ballpoint ink. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that my heart suddenly sank. In that instant I recalled occasions of being cursed out or flagrantly disrespected, particularly back in my first year of teaching at rougher immediately-post-Katrina schools. I endured those as well as could be expected of a new teacher. I wonder how much more my skin would have thickened over the years had I remained at one of those schools. Have I become shamefully soft in my current spot? I took a breath and leaned in more closely with resolve to let the positive relationships I have with so many past and present students overshadow anything that could possibly be scribbled on a wall.

I made out the word “stupid” and immediately felt disappointed by the uncreative word choice (My standards for graffiti eloquence are quite high). And furthermore, of all the criticisms a student may be inclined to level against me, does my intelligence really draw first fire? I continued making out the rest of the text and finally the entire potty-room proclamation became clear: “Whites are stupid.”

Oh racism, I can’t stay mad at you.

Rescued from having to fully evaluate the extent of my insecurities, I smiled and finished scrubbing off the black marker ink. And the message written in blue ball-point? If it’s still there when we return from the winter break, maybe I’ll make an attempt to clean it off too.

Ending 2014

This school year started with the added stress of major building renovations that required extensive classroom shuffling. With construction starting on the high school side of the building, the middle school teachers moved into portables in the courtyard and the high school teachers moved into the middle school side of the building. By summertime it’s anticipated that the high school will be able to move back to our original side. At that point construction will move to the middle school side, after which they will be able to move back.

As another source of stress, our school still struggles with having too many interests competing and conflicting with each other for too little time and attention (academics vs. arts vs. athletics vs. other extracurriculars vs. life outside of school). The tension is particularly taut this year from my point of view. I’ve had to consciously remind myself that every school has its struggles and in most cases the grass isn’t any greener than ours.

That being said, I find this to have been a good school year for the most part so far. When I narrow my focus from the bigger picture down to the day-to-day happenings within my classes, I’m pleased. As usual I enjoy my students and they keep life interesting. The number of students on my PreCalculus Honors roster is down a bit from previous years, so I teach only two sections rather than the three I’ve had for several years prior. All my class sizes are still 24 or less so I’m not complaining at all about roster numbers. Much of my efforts in recent years have been directed towards developing lessons and resources to accommodate the students who tend to struggle most with the course topics. That’s an issue that will never be completely solved, but this year I’m spending more time coming up with materials to keep the higher-performing students moving forward. I have about a dozen this year in PreCalc who I feel don’t get challenged by my standard lessons as much as I’d like. And naturally a subset of them want to get their pretty report card grade without having to stretch themselves. Of course that doesn’t sit well with me. Many of my evening/weekend/vacation hours have been spent writing and accumulating supplemental materials. I try them out with individual students, sub-groups, or offer them as extra credit after a test. In the second semester and in coming years I intend to do a better job of using these resources to compel students to grow at all levels of the skill spectrum.

I started the year telling both of my AP Calculus AB class that I didn’t think they were as strong as last year’s roster. I believe and hope they know me well enough by now to trust that this honest impression was not meant to insult but rather urge them to prove me wrong. The only other time I told a class I didn’t think they measured up to their predecessors was c/o 2011, and they ended up winning the “tattoo challenge (see bottom of page).

So far this group is doing an admirable job of convincing me that I may have underestimated them. I still don’t realistically anticipate AP scores averaging as high as they did last year, but there are numerous students who are showing tremendous growth since PreCalculus. Some have dramatically improved their study habits, some have adapted splendidly to thinking like a Math nerd, and some have managed to endure and overcome significant obstacles that at times threatened to derail their academic progress. Seeing the progress made from one year to the next is my greatest joy in teaching a majority of my students two or more years in a row. This AP Calc AB group does make me proud. During my beginning-of-year slight I ensured that if they can prove me wrong I will be their most enthusiastic fan.

Two years ago I had my first dedicated AP Calculus BC class (as opposed to several cases of one or two students studying BC amongst a larger PreCalc or Calc AB class). This year I have my second-ever BC class. Unfortunately, of the five students who enlisted in the course, only three were able to be placed into that class. Due to scheduling conflicts I see one student during my study hall and one during what is supposed to be my planning block. Teaching the same lesson three times for just five students isn’t an efficient use of my time, but so it goes this year. On the bright side, small-group and one-to-one interactions provide some of my favorite teaching experiences. Also, the fact that the BC content is less plentiful than the AB content offers welcome flexibility. (Some schools cram both offerings into a single year. This option was raised at an administrative meeting not long ago. I clearly voiced my opinion to my department head that this is a horrible idea for a school of our size and focus.) In PreCalculus and AP Calc AB, I have every single class meeting on the academic calendar accounted for. The goals for the year leave very little option for wandering off the beaten path once in a while, and I lament feeling like it has to be that way. However, there’ve been a number of times in the tiny BC class when a student’s question or an impromptu discussion took the lesson in a completely unplanned direction. These occasions have resulted in some fantastic learning experiences! Once in a while I invite student input on what direction we ought to take next. Sometimes the path we choose covers curricular content and other times it leads down the road of some interesting Math that doesn’t necessarily pertain to our main agenda for the year. I’ve thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to relinquish my tight adherence to a set timeline with this course. This group of students is academically strong and I have no doubt that they’ll all pass the AP exam. And for any of them that don’t quite reach the top possible score of 5, I’ll consider it a price worth paying for the chance to engage in some of the fun stuff we’re encountering.

Starting 2015

Stop! It's 2015 now. (Spotted sign near Tulane gym)

This year I’ve written college and scholarship recommendations for 25 students so far. Every year the number increases. It takes a tremendous amount of time and in previous years it’s felt quite burdensome. Every year the number of requests increases, so out of necessity I’ve set out to spend less than an hour on each one, or 1.5 hour at very most (In the past, my average was about 2 hours per letter). Thankfully I’ve gotten to the point where I not only don’t mind it, but to some degree I actually enjoy it. An abundance of mind-numbing chores get heaped onto a teacher’s plate and too often they don’t feel closely connected to student learning or advancement. In contrast, the task of celebrating individual students’ achievements and putting into words what makes them special is rewarding to me as well. The process causes me to recognize impressive things about many students that perhaps hadn’t previously crystalized in my consciousness. I commonly find myself admiring students even more after writing their recommendations than I had before.

The biggest disruption for me this school year resulted from a poorly-delivered flu shot in early October. Nothing seemed unusual on the day of the shot. As has happened in prior years, soreness developed in my upper arm around the shot location within a couple days. Unlike previous years, instead of fading over the following days the pain steadily intensified. The only visible sign of a problem was a very slight swelling, but a week after the shot the pain had elevated to a point where I visited an emergency room in the early morning before school. The ER doctor and later my primary doctor concluded that nerves had somehow been damaged. Now I am very aware that nerves can take a notoriously long time to regenerate. Medication brought the pain down to more tolerable levels but didn’t come close to eliminating the distress. Seven weeks later I finally weaned myself off the pain pills although some numbness in my thumb still remains today, three months later.

The unrelenting pain consumed my focus. I think I did a good job of not letting it affect my teaching too much, but it sure threw me off personally. My mood soured and my desire to do anything once the workday ended dwindled. If I’m the upstanding, reflective person I’d idealize myself to be, the whole ordeal will ultimately make me more thankful for my normally-great health. But honestly I’d love to just go back to completely taking my health for granted… at least for a while. I’m thankful to have almost reached that point upon starting the New Year. Other than the still-tingly thumb and some notable weakness in the gym, I consider myself recovered.

As always, catching up with former students is a reinvigorating part of winter break. The ones I’ve seen this year span the four years of the typical undergrad experience. I’m thrilled that a couple are declared Math majors, yet it doesn’t bother me at all that many say with a sense of relief that they’ve taken their last Math class ever. Some have headed off to grad school and some have just entered the workforce. Two who I recently caught up with over long lunches are new teachers. How fun to trade stories with them now that they’re switching over to the other side of education. Each school year contains moments that affirm my choice to become a teacher myself, but the encounters with students who’ve moved on past high school generally provide the most satisfying payoffs. I’m gushingly grateful to all of those who maintain connection to their ol’ high school Math teacher.