Friday, March 26, 2010

Check Him Out

I recently stumbled upon a teacher's blog from the Midwest who today posted about his heart-wrenching decision to retire after thirty-four years of teaching.  He says he feels as if he's being forced out to some degree.  His district offered him a deal too good to resist so that they could bring in younger, less expensive teachers.  I've read through a number of his older posts as well and find his words incredibly authentic and very readable.  I've learned a lot from his blog so far.  Check him out at Live Long and Prosper...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Quick Comment Concerning the School Day Posts

At first, I was only going to write one of these, but after I got started, I realized there was so much more to tell. This is the best portrayal of a typical day at my former school in DCPS that I could muster. While I mixed and matched a few things and changed people's names, the events are real.

I decided to write the posts for a few reasons. For me, it was cathartic and serves as a reminder of my experience at that school. For others, however, I wrote it as a means of insight. I'm afraid that when people discuss education policy in this country, all too often you hear teachers complain that their job is hard and lawmakers, journalists (I'm looking at you Newsweek), and the public not only raising their expectations for teachers, but admonishing them as the bane of American education. Rarely, however, do many of these people take a look at the day-to-day realities of teachers in urban education.

The day that I write about is a TYPICAL day. It's exhausting, and it's not sustainable for more than a few years (if you can last that long). I'm single with no kids and no pets, and I've often felt like I can barely manage it. No wonder we lose most teachers within the first five years. We're simply not going to build and maintain a teacher workforce large enough and good enough to perform the Herculean task of overcoming the flaws in our system in this kind of environment. So when Newsweek or Jay Matthews suggest that the answer to education's problems is to find the best of the best and expect them to work longer hours, take phone calls at home to help students with homework, and tutor kids over the weekends, I get offended. Teachers work long enough hours as it is, especially first and second-year teachers. After a while, you begin to realize that your job has completely consumed you and you want something for yourself: a social life, a time to relax, a family. We can't expect teachers to forgo these things. They need them for their mental health and humanity. And the same is true for almost everybody in public education, from superintendents to administrators to school social workers. Almost everyone is overworked.

So before we continue our rant about firing all the bad teachers, let's remind ourselves (or learn about) what it really takes to do the job. Bringing in a whole new type of teacher without fundamentally looking at the way our society deals with poverty, housing development, property taxes, job opportunities, etc. is not going to solve much at all. Rather than focusing on firing bad teachers, we'd do significantly better to focus on revamping the way we train teachers, the ways we support teachers, and the way we hold ALL stakeholder in education responsible, which should include policymakers, administrators, parents, teachers, and students (an interesting aspect of NCLB is that while it has lots of ways to punish districts and schools, there's nothing about holding students accountable).

For anybody reading that's outside the system looking in, I hope this provides a little bit of clarity on the crisis that those of us in teaching are facing. And I hope that our country will begin to see some of the shortcomings of the focus Obama and Duncan have put on market-based solutions to our public education system. We'd all do well to read a little more Diane Ravitch and a little less Newsweek.

The School Day, Part VII: Wrapping Up

I make it down to the cafeteria by 3:35 and head toward the back to stand in the massive line for Cheetos, cookies, chips, and vegetable dip. There are those massive Post-It sheets stuck to every pillar and numbers at every table. Everyone is making polite conversation as the administration turns on the microphones and starts up the overhead projector. I begin preparing to feign interest in an hour's activity that will undoubtedly provide me with much less utility than what I could accomplish on my own in my room, which is not to say that staff meetings should not be held, but that their time should be limited and they should NOT be held merely for the purpose of holding one (which I'm afraid is often the case.)

"Hi Mr. RE. Take a number please."

I smile and select number six from hat. I make my way over to table number six and have a seat. We're given a short speech on the importance of DC-BAS.

"Make sure your welcoming to all students. Make sure to give out all of the calculators and explain to students when to use them. Make sure to follow all distribution and collection protocols....."

I look around and see three people typing on their laptops (almost certainly trying to finish up some paper they have due for graduate school), a few groups of people talking, and the rest either watching Ms. Administrator reiterate all of the things we've all heard 100 times or thinking about what they could be doing rather than sitting here.

Next we get the results of a survey that was conducted the previous year.

"The first thing we'd like everyone to do in their groups is decide what you're looking at, just the bare basics. What do you notice here? Don't make any inferences or judgements. Just tell each other what you see."

Table number six stares at the paper for a little while. It shows how three groups of respondents (students, staff, and parents) replied to survey questions concerning the school's effectiveness, it's safety, and it's climate.

"I see that we have a lot of work to do when it comes to engaging parents."

"No, no. Say what you see. Don't draw any conclusions based on the data in front of you."

"Oh, okay. I see only thirty-five parents responded to this survey"

"I see that only sixty-five ESL students said they feel safe at school."

"I see that a majority of teachers say that the climate needs improvement."

One of the administrators comes to hover over us the same way I monitor my students in class when I think they might be off task.

Ms. Principal brings everybody back: "Now draw some conclusions and connect your observations to your conclusions on the Post-It note at your station."

(Why are we doing this? I wonder if this is the administration's way of letting us know that they're aware that every staff member thinks this is a horrible place to work. Or is this to help us build our data-analysis skills?)

Ms. Principal brings everyone back again.

"Okay, let's share out. What did you notice and what conclusions did you draw? Mr. S."

"Our group noticed that the parents were overwhelmingly happy with the safety and effectiveness of the school."

"Excellent. Thank you for that excellent comment. How about you, Ms. Q?"

"Well........our group noticed that not very many parents responded. So maybe we need to continue our focus on parent involvement."

"That's very true. Mr. R, what did you see?"

"Well, it's not so much what I saw. I just wanted to say that of the staff members surveyed in this study last year, only fifty percent of them are here this year. That should be a cause for concern."

"Well, that's kind of beside the point. I think this still provides us with enough data for this exercise to be effective."

(And exactly what would make this exercise effective? What's our objective? I still don't know why this is more important than grading papers.)

The meeting ends with many of the staff members disgruntled by Ms. Principal's downplaying of our concerns and I get back to my room at 4:35. I take about ten minutes to organize my desk. A day's worth of teaching will inevitably lead to a messy desk that I need to clean before I can get any work done after school. I grab second period's Do Nows and go through them assigning points if they met my objective and deducting points if they didn't. I keep track of each student's progress in a matrix I've made to satisfy IMPACT's requirement that all teacher's keep track of student progress. When I'm finished, I grade a few projects, and by that time it's 6:00. I take fourth period's Do Nows and throw them in the trash. They're worthless since I didn't actually get to teach that class.

After gathering my stuff, putting on my coat, changing shoes, and signing out in the main office, I manage to leave school by 6:15. I get to the gym by 6:30, shower and begin to walk home by 7:45, arrive home at 8:00, eat dinner and begin working on tomorrow's lesson plan at 8:30. By 10:00 I've come up with a decent lesson plan for the following day and head to bed.

(I worked for nearly twelve hours today and I'm still ridiculously behind. I don't have a test for this unit yet. I don't have my objective calendars for both classes. I haven't called many of the parents I need to call. That reminds me that I forgot to call the parents of the kids who came in tardy today. Also, we still don't have any idea what we're going to be doing the rest of the week or what our next unit will look like. I need to read the textbook and figure out where to go. When the hell am I going to find time to do that?)

I try to remind myself that the school day is over and go to bed, but it stresses me out for a little while longer until I manage to close my eyes. Maybe the roller coaster will be back up tomorrow. Here's hoping.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The School Day, Part VI: Fourth Period

I begin arranging my room for fourth period, going over how I will improve on my lesson plan from second period in my head. Second period ALWAYS gets the short end of the world history stick. I mess up with them every day; they get their class cut for DC-BAS testing, advisory, and assemblies; they're a much lower achieving class, despite the fact that there are twelve fewer students in their than in fourth. Fourth period almost always has the benefit of my new-and-improved lesson plan that I can create after seeing the pitfalls of the original in second period.

As I pick up trash off the desks and organize myself for the last ninety minutes of the day, students begin knocking on the door. I keep it closed and locked until I'm ready to stand next to it with their Do Nows ready. I discovered a while ago that making contact with each student as they enter the room and providing individual instructions before the bell rings will always help class get started as close to the ringing of the bell as possible. So when the kids come in without me having the opportunity to greet them and tell them what to do, I rush to close the door and keep them out until I'm ready.

Finally the bell rings, I open the door, and the kids are lined up waiting to shake my hand and enter. They only line up because they know I won't let them in the room until they each greet me individually. If I hadn't forced them to do it every day all year long, I'm sure they'd all rush in at the same time.

"Good afternoon. Here's your Do Now; get started before the bell rings."

"Good afternoon. Here's your Do Now; get started before the bell rings."

"Good afternoon. Here's your Do Now; get started before the bell rings."

"30 seconds until the bell rings! Make sure your sitting down and quietly working!"

"You guys have like five seconds left! If you're not sitting and working, you're tardy!"

The bell rings and my class is quietly sitting and working.

(I love fourth period. They can be so cooperative, and they've generally come to like me, even if they hate the material sometimes and think that most things that happen in history are "racist.")

I take attendance and move around to monitor their responses. On the screen is a picture of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. The kids are writing down who they think he is and predicting what important things they might learn about him today.

"Alright. Tell me what you wrote," I say holding my hand up to indicate that only people I call on should talk.

"He looks like a mobster."

"That's racist."

"Why do we always have to predict. You always make us tell you who these people are. Isn't it your job to tell us who they are? Why do we always do this?"

That last comment comes from Marie-Elise, my Congolese student who spent a lot of time in schools in France. She never wants me to do anything but lecture. She's a smart and responsible kid, but hates to do anything but listen and memorize.

*The door opens and in comes Star.*

(Oh Jesus. Here we go. When's the last time Star was here? God, it's been at least four weeks. And she's already out of uniform and has a hat on.)

I stop the discussion and move the class on to the next activity while I take Star in the hallway and argue with her over dress code. After about three minutes I get her to take her hat off and get her uniform shirt out of her backpack and put it on. I give her the materials for the day and ask her to do her best even though she's missed so many days. I sit her next to some students I hope she'll have a hard time disturbing, but with Star, that's not really ever a possibility.

I get started with my Gandhi's Salt March Cornell notes when the phone rings.

"Hello, is this Mr. RE?"

"Hi Ms. Hernandez, how can I help you?"

"You have an IEP meeting with the mother of Emilio Gonzalez in ten minutes. I'm sending a sub to your room right now."

"No, no, you must be mistaken. That meeting was yesterday, but the mother never showed up. I gave up almost my entire planning period for it."

"Right, but the mother....."

"Jesus - Star! Put your shirt back on and get off the desk! Have a seat like a normal person."

"Right, but the mother rescheduled for today. She's waiting for you down here now."

(Perfect. I have less than ten minutes to come up with a workable sub plan while I'm in the middle of giving Cornell notes that REQUIRE me to be here.)

Back to the students.

"Okay guys, let's breeze through the rest of these Cornell notes. I have a sub coming. I have to be at a meeting apparently."



I get through the Cornell notes almost positive that nobody took all the much information from them given the haste with which I had to get through them. I grab my book and make up a reading exercise for the kids to do while I'm gone. None of this is what I'd hoped for. This lesson is shot.

When I get down to the IEP meeting I find Emilio's mother, a translator, and the special education teacher. I explain that Emilio rarely shows up to school and rarely does any work when he does come. For the most part he's just a major disruption to the rest of the class. The school has been threatening to kick him out since last year, but they never do. I don't think they can. They have nowhere else to send him. So he comes when he wants and sucks learning opportunities away from the other kids when he is there. All the while our administrators lecture us about striving to close the achievement gap for every student. Well sure, I'd love to do that with a million hours in the day. When you work with only twenty-four, the rational person learns to concentrate their energy where it makes the most difference and cut their loses. Sounds bad to people on the outside, but most teachers with more than a few years experience will tell you the same thing.

The IEP meetings goes exactly the same as every other meeting we've had about Emilio. Every teacher says he's capable but not responsible. He's probably also on drugs. I try my best to withhold passing judgement on the mother, who seems completely uninvolved and often unwilling to communicate even with a translator. I don't know what this family has been through or how long they've been in the country, but I can tell they're not in a particularly healthy situation right now.

After forty minutes of listening to other teachers say exactly the same thing as they've said three times before and the special education person declaring that we'd made real progress, I return to my room to find Star throwing a tennis ball in the hallway, the rest of the class up and walking around the room socializing like it was a party, and the sub reading a newspaper at my desk. He smiles when I come back and walks out the door.

(Holy Christ. Is this for real? Yes. Yes it is. Stop being so surprised when things like this happen.)

I take five minutes to put the class back in the order I left it and ask them to fill out the exit slip. I'm not really sure why. I know they didn't accomplish the objective for the day. I wasn't here to complete the lesson plan with them. I guess it's because I don't have anything else for them to do and this will keep them orderly until the bell rings. I can hear my administrators' voices telling me how I've failed every one of these students, and how their futures will be bleak because of this failure. Or is that my voice?

The bell rings and I wish everyone a good day. I collect their exit slips and wonder whether I should reteach this tomorrow or just move ahead to keep up with pacing. I'd love to teach everything to mastery, but if I did that, I'd still be on the first unit.

My room is empty for a moment before the wave of after-school kids crashes through the door, and it's full again, mostly with students who just need to use the computers. They turn their music up and begin gossiping about their day. I tell them to turn the music off so I can think and ask my African village to calm down.

My African village is a group of seven girls from Francophone West Africa who like to congregate in the corner of my room. They can get incredibly loud and can seriously sound like an entire village. I remind them about every two minutes to quiet down before I inevitably ask those students who aren't working to leave.

I begin tutoring students, which really means that I'm giving them work that they missed due to absences. Rarely do I get to sit down with a student and really explain something to them. Nobody is ever interested in that. They just want to know what worksheet they have to fill out to get a good grade. I try to make my activities as dependent on thinking skills as possible so that filling out that worksheet means they have to really understand the concepts, but I think it rarely works.

I let students know that I have to leave early today to attend a staff meeting. They all groan. So do I. Staff meetings are never useful.

The School Day, Part V: Lunch

I grab my stuff and walk toward my room. I see Mr. Shrouder in the hallway.

"Lunch today?"

"Absolutely. I'll be back in my room in a minute, but the door's open."

Mr. Shrouder and I began eating lunch together during the second week of school as a way to build community. As the weeks went on, we gained a few other teachers. I began to cherish my lunches with my colleagues in Seattle as a necessary time of day to relax from the stress of the school day. If I hadn't found Mr. Shrouder, I might be eating lunch on my own every day, which is probably what the administration would like - less teachers talking.

I drop my stuff off in my room and grab my Amy's Vegetarian Chili that I eat out of a can and some almonds and head to Mr. Shrouder's room where I have a seat on a stool at a lab station and get out my can opener.

Two colleagues are already in there and chatting.

"Are you going to the transfer fair in March?"

"It's going to be here you know. You know they are going to be watching."

"I really don't care anymore. I've got to get out of this place."

"Did you hear about Mr. G's evaluation?"

"No. What happened?"

"I heard Ms. Principal saw Ms. Administrator's evaluation of him and told Ms. Administrator she needed to lower his scores."

"What?! Did she observe Mr. G too?"

"Nope, Ms. P just doesn't want Mr. G on staff next year."

"Well you know what happened to the union leader last year."


"She was fired, and was later found to have been wrongfully terminated."

*Everyone shakes their head.*

"Well how did your day go today Mr. Shrouder?"

"Today was better than yesterday, but not in third period. I don't know what it is with them. I just let them leave whenever they want now. I can't do anything about it. After Makale lit her shoe on fire today with the Bunsen burner and Trey threw a book at her, I just had to stop everything."

"Does Ms. Administrator know about that."

"Not yet. She has been somewhat helpful in providing feedback though."


"Guess what Ms. Administrator told me yesterday: She comes up to me in the mail room and says, 'I have bad news, and I have worse news. The bad news is you're going to have to teach an extra section of middle school than we told you yesterday. The worse news is that they're standing outside of your door right now.'"

"Holy cow. Can this school not work out some sort of system for reasonable scheduling and appropriate notification of teachers?"

"I guess this is what happens when a teacher quits about every month."

"Well I don't know how those bastards get to be so lucky. I can't afford to quit. Plus I have to finish up these waste-of-my-time grad classes at American for DCTF."

(This sucks. I wish we could talk about positive things. But I bring up this negative stuff as much as anyone. It's hard not to with the amount of stuff you hear about around here on a daily basis. At least a lot of the stories around here are so outrageous that we can laugh really hard at them. The only other thing a rational person would do is cry.)

"I went for my planned meeting with Mr. Megalomaniac today. Guess who wasn't available."

"Well of course not."

"You know he hangs out down in the main office to avoid his responsibilities."

"Yea, yea, nothing new there."

I see we've got about ten minutes before lunch is over, get up to get some water before I have to get my fourth period ready.

"See you guys. Have a good fourth!"

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The School Day, Part IV: Third Period

With my computer bag over my shoulder, I lock the door to my classroom and begin to head down the hallway. I hear a voice yelling for me from behind.

"Wait, wait, Mr. RE. Can you hold on to my textbook?"

I turn around to remind Pamela that I don't hold onto textbooks for students.

"Sorry, Pamela, I can't be responsible for your textbook. You have to be."

"But it's so heavy and I don't have time to go to my locker."

(UGH....the amount of time I spend dealing with millions of minute teenager problems on a daily basis. When you look at it in terms of hours, I bet I earn at least a quarter of my salary trying to help students make better decisions about how to manage their habits and avoiding doing things for students that they should be doing themselves.)

"But I saw all the other textbooks that you keep in your cabinet. Just put mine in there with them."

"Sorry, Pamela, those textbooks aren't checked out to anyone, AND if I let you put yours in there with them, then I'd have to let everyone do that, AND then I'd have to spend ten minutes at the beginning of every period giving textbooks out (I sometimes do that anyway), AND then you'd never learn to bring your stuff to class, AND I don't have time to be talking to you right now because I've got to get to the computer lab at least two minutes before the bell rings, otherwise my seniors will never start class on time."

I can tell her eyes glazed over about halfway through the phrase, "Sorry, Pamela," so I'm not surprised by what comes next.

"Oh my god, Mr RE; that's so unfair. Remember when you let everyone keep their books in the room at the beginning of the year."

"I do remember that, and I also remember when ten of those people had their books stolen and then blamed me for not watching them every second they were in my room, and told me they would never pay for that stupid book anyway. I have too many other things to do to keep an eye out for everyone's books as well. It has to be your responsibility. Look, if you really want to continue this discussion, I'd be happy to do it at 3:30pm. Have a good day!"

"Ugh, this is so unfair."

She stomps away.

I push my way through the bottleneck of teenagers and security guards hanging out in front of our grade-level administrator's door. It's closed, locked, and the office is empty. Outside her door the security guards rough-house with the black students. The Latinos hang out in a different corner of the hallway. My tendency to be anal about dress code and behavior shoots my stress levels through the roof. I want to take every one of these students aside and get them in to shape, because every one of them is violating school rules in some way. Not all of the rules are rules I agree with, but if you're going to say something is a rule, then you better enforce it. Otherwise the kids learn quickly that the school is full of paper tigers (a favorite phrase of a former principal of mine). But I don't have time to deal with these kids right now (even though I'd be happy to) nor would it be practical to tell the kid the security guard is hanging out with that she's out of dress code when security has said nothing.

I get to the computer lab to find my entire class standing outside in the hallway.

(Locked again.)

The school's building manager can't seem to work out a plan so that either I can get a key to get into the room for my third period class (since we're required to be in there every day) or make sure someone else opens it. This happens about twice a week. My students aren't surprised. I send my grade-level administrator a text asking for a key and walk across the hall to the library to use the phone to call the building manager.

"Hi Ms. Librarian."

"Hi Mr. RE. Need the phone again?"

(Ahhhhh, I love Ms. Librarian. She's a person, a real person. She smiles; she knows my name; she's always happy to see me; and she knows how to work with kids. She also thinks that what happens at this school is a form of mind control. She's a thought criminal. Just like me!)

After leaving a message with Mr. Building Administrator, I wait in the hallway with my students to be let into the computer lab. Half of them ask to go work in another room with another teacher or go down to the front office to run some errands for their upcoming senior portfolio presentations. When I first got to this school, I would have said no and stood by it. I thought class time was inestimably valuable and that no student should ever leave without a really good reason. But I realized that wasn't quite the case here after having my third period switched on me four times in as many weeks; having my second period consistently cut for poorly planned assemblies, DC-BAS, and advisory (none of which actually add anything valuable to the students' educations); and waiting an average of thirty minutes to begin my third period whenever the door is locked. So I let pretty much any of my students go wherever they need to go to do whatever they need to do. They know as well as I do that we'll probably be waiting in the hallway for a while.

Some of my Latina students begin laughing and looking in my direction. I walk over and ask what's so funny.

"How old are you, Mr. RE."

"I'm sixty-two." (I'm twenty-six.)

"Whatever. Do you have a girlfriend?

(Oh Jesus - this is what I need today.)

"Nope. I'm married with 10 kids." (I'm not married and I definitely don't have kids.)

"Sheila saw you eating at that new Asian place on 14th with a Hispanic girl."

"Crazy, huh? Teachers also go places and eat food with other people."

When I was in Seattle, I actually heard a student who saw me at Safeway whisper to his girlfriend, "He has a life." I was shocked. Going to Safeway means you have a life. Now I go to Giant.

Finally Mr. Building Administrator brings the key. I look at the clock. Twenty-two minutes gone. Oh well. They'll just have to get their work done at home.

We go into the lab and everyone takes a seat.

"Anyone have any questions?"


"Okay, get to work."

I don't do any teaching in the class because it's just one massive project the kids are supposed to complete and then present on at the end of the semester. They have the guidelines and now all they do is work. I began by trying mini-lessons, but quickly realized that I had no idea what this class was about or how I was supposed to teach it. After asking around, I found out that nobody else did either. The administration just gives the section to whatever teacher is available during that particular advisory, so nobody ends up getting to teach it over and over again so that it's actually good. This news on top of having my third period changed so often led me to give up on trying to make this an excellent class. I'm definitely not doing anything stellar here. I watch the kids work, make sure they don't break too many computers, and then go to lunch. All in all, it actually ends up being pretty relaxing. Gives me time to talk to the kids one on one.

"Mr. RE, my computer doesn't have a mouse."

"Sorry about that. Try the library."

One of the administrators walks in and frowns at me like she's expecting me to be doing something interactive with the kids. She walks around and looks at the kids' computer screens. It looks like, if she had the chance, she would take me out in the hall and yell at me for being the sole cause of the achievement gap in the United States. As one my colleagues put it, I must have "I love the achievement gap" tattooed across my forehead to be getting looks like that. She would tell me to find a new job, that I don't have any enthusiasm for this one. She would berate me for not caring about the kids. She'd get so angry, she might even show me how to do it and take the class over herse......... no - she wouldn't do that.

Of course, this is from a person who did TFA and then ran off to a fancy admin prep to make 20k more than I do even though I (with my whole 3.5 years teaching) have more experience in a high school classroom than she does - oh wait, that's all the administrators I work closely with.

She walks out the door and the bell rings a few minutes later.

"Have a good day everyone. Don't forget to e-mail me your proposals."

Finally, lunch!

Friday, March 12, 2010

The School Day, Part III: Second Period

I double-check my white board to make sure everything is in place in case I get observed. I scramble to get attendance clipboards ready and race down to gather my handouts.

The bell rings to signal the end of first period on my way back to class and students explode out of the doors. The hallway is filled with teenagers, most of whom just mentally awoke about fifteen minutes ago.

"Tuck your shirt in. Take that hat off. No food in the hallway. Let's get that shirt tucked in. You want to look like you're a professional. That's how you'll get a job one day. Hey - c'mon. No hats; you know the rules. What do you mean you don't know what I'm talking about? How long have you been a student here? Whoa, whoa, whoa, where's your uniform? You can't be wearing that. You need to go down to the office and have a talk to them."

(I'm not following them down the hallway today. I have to get second period started. Plus, if a kid refuses to tuck his shirt in, what recourse do I really have? Just not worth it; not today.)

I make it to my door to find three of my students lined up and ready to enter.

"Don't worry everyone! I'm here!"

I hold up the key to the door.

"You all know what this is, don't you? It's the key to your education!"

They all sigh and grown.

"Ugh, I was hoping we were going to have a sub today."

"Haha, yeah right. Why would I let you off so easily. You know how I am"

"Yea.....we know....."

I prop open the door and tell the kids to stay outside the room until I'm ready for them to enter. I hold my "Do Now" handouts in my left hand and shake their hands with my right hand.

"Good morning! Here's your do now. Get started. Remember, if you're standing up or talking when the bell rings, that means you're tardy."

"Good morning! Here's your do now. Get started. Remember, if you're standing up or talking when the bell rings, that means you're tardy."

"Good morning! Here's your do now. Get started. Remember, if you're standing up or talking when the bell rings, that means you're tardy."

I stand in front of the door to block Kia's entrance. She hates shaking my hand and has a lot of trouble communicating.

"Hi, Kia!"

*No eye-contact from her*

"How are you?"

Kia looks down and says nothing, and it's not because she doesn't know how. She can be very playful at times, and we generally have a pretty good relationship. She was born to a drug addict and has to take care of her cousins on a regular basis though, so she has a real tough time sitting still.

"Well that's okay. I'm doing well myself. Here's your do now. Get started and don't be tardy!"

The bell rings and I close the door so that I'm immediately alerted to anyone who comes in late. I look at my class that should have twenty-two students. It only has eleven.

"Where is everyone today? Who would want to miss out on this valuable learning experience? I can't even imagine... Alright, well let's get started on our do nows."

I begin taking attendance while four or five of my students actually begin doing what I asked them to. I go around to the rest and ask them to get started. I stand next to them until they begin, but inevitably have to move to another group of students who are talking about the soccer match on television last night. I go and get them on track, but lose the concentration of another group.

"Mr. RE, did you see the game? Awwwwww, it was so good. It was Gucci."

"Naw, man. It was Icy. Soooo icy."

Before I have time to respond, five students out of dress code walk in late like it was no big deal.

"Whoa, hold on. Before you sit down..."

"Nuh uh. We weren't late!"

The whole class starts laughing.

(Good lord. Here we go.)

"Come speak with me in the hallway please so everyone else can finish their do now."

(How many of them will actually finish their do now? Probably about three. The rest will wait for me to go over it and then throw it away. Not a huge surprise that I'm only passing four people in this class right now. And do the admins help when I send them e-mails alerting them to my high failure rates? They say they'll meet with me and never follow up. But I will be marked down on my IMPACT evaluation for this. Guaranteed.)

After about thirty seconds of defiance, I finally get the tardy students in the hallway.

"We weren't late!!!!"

I point to the sign I have posted on my door that clearly states that all students must be sitting in their seats and working on their do now when the bell rings to be considered on time.

"I'm not going to argue with you. I just need to do what I'm asking right now. Take off the jackets; take off the hats; sign the tardy log when you go in the classroom; and begin working on the do now."

I can hear the students inside my classroom getting louder, and this raises my stress level significantly.

(I know I'm doing a poor job right now trying to manage this mess, but I'm surely not getting any feedback or support on how to do a better job of it. What can one adult do in the face of sixteen teenagers who know exactly how the system around here works? They can't be kicked out of class. I can't reach most of their parents. And they won't suspend anyone because that counts against attendance rates. Whatever. I'm not giving up on my expectations. Is that the right thing to do? I have no idea...)

"You can't make me do that. I'll just leave."

"You'll just leave? Where will you go?"

"I'm goin' to Giant. I'm hungry"

She walks down the hallway and down the stairs.

(Unfortunately, she's right. I can't make her do anything. I could call security, but I won't be able to reach them. I could write her up, but we don't have discipline deans since one quit and the other was fired. I could try to reach my grade-level administrator, but odds are it'd be a waste of time (since I can rarely find her), time that could be better used attending to the needs of the students that are actually in my class interested in learning. The best I can do is make a note of it and mention it to my grade-level administrator later.)

After a few more minutes of discussion, I finally get the other four students to do what I want. We head back in the classroom and find every single student talking about anything but school.

(We can never start our day when the bell rings. It never really begins until the last tardy student has entered the door. Until then, I'm constantly starting and stopping. I'll put the tardy students' names on the board and ask them to stay with me after school. I'll call their parents. I'll tell them that an accumulation of tardies will hurt their grade. But none of that matters to them. I'll be pressured by the administration to pass them regardless of their tardies and absences, even though lowering students' grades because of tardies and absences is THEIR policy.)

"Alright. Raise your hand if you remember what we talked about yesterday. Good. A few of you remember. Ricardo, could I have your attention please. Kia, I need to see your face; please pick your head up. Thank you."

I take the class through my Cornell Notes on Gandhi's Salt March. I give them three questions on the Salt March, and I answer each one of them while they listen. I don't let them write anything down until I'm done talking. Then I have them discuss what I just said and see if they can come to a conclusion among their groups of three or four as to what the best answer to the question is.

(Poor Bonita. She always ends up working with two partners who are total duds and end up copying right off of her. The girl's amazing though. She deserves a better educational environment.)

I end up having to group my students in such a fashion that there's only ever one motivated student in each group. I don't do it by ability level because in this environment motivation seems to have a much stronger effect on how much a group achieves.

(Should I just cut my losses and put all of the highly motivated students in the same group? They would be so much happier and more productive. The duds would get nothing out of it, but who can be blamed for that? Is the attempt to save all of my students really just leading to the unintended sacrifice of my most motivated? They already attend school in DCPS. How much harder am I going to make it on them? Ughhhh, I have no idea....)

"Ricardo. I need you to work with your group."

Ricardo ignores me and continues to talk about soccer. As I move closer to his table, he switches to Spanish.

"Ricardo. Ricardo. Ricardo. Excuse me."

(Typical Ricardo. Not a malicious kid. Really intelligent, but caught up in gang life and trying to be cool for his family and friends. Hasn't passed a class in a long time. He has twenty absences and the same number of tardies in my class. This is one kid who I will not be giving into the administration on. Despite his intelligence, he will not be passing this class.)

"Oh right. Sorry, Mr. RE."

(Sweet, I bought twenty seconds of his focus. As soon as I turn my back, it's gone.)

I turn my back and find five other kids who lost focus as soon as I focused on Ricardo. Over to them now.

We work on some other activities and the period winds down. I have my students fill out an exit slip to see if they accomplished the objective for the day. As students begin to turn in the exit slip, I notice that I still have about three minutes left in class.

(No way are they lining up at the door in my room.)

"Wait, hold on, everyone. I need you to hear some very important announcements. Put your stuff down; have a seat; we're not finished yet. I still have three minutes left. You all know that I make the most of every second I have with you."

(What announcements can I make? Ah, I can remind them about their homework. What else? Oh right, they won't be in my class for the next two days for DC-BAS. No problem there. These kids don't need more instructional time. Take all you need, DC-BAS. I'm sure your worthless data will be so much more useful than the knowledge I could impart to them in three hours.)

I make my announcements and the bell rings. I shake the kids hands on the way out the door and tell them to have a good day while they hand me their exit slips.

(Did I do a good job today? No. That was pretty worthless. Typical of my second period where I'm often much more of a prison guard than a teacher.)

I grab my stuff, lock the door, and head to the computer lab for third period.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The School Day, Part II: Planning Period

I walk back to my room, make a point of leaving the lights off, set down the composition book and pencil I always bring to meetings to feign taking notes, and look at my white boards. They're blank. I print a copy of my lesson plan. I copy the standards off my lesson plan, make them size 40 font, and print them in Microsoft Word's landscape orientation. I grab some tape and post them on the white board in the back of my room in the box I've created out of painter's tape entitled, "Standards." I hold my lesson plan in my left hand and a dry-erase marker in my right as I write my daily activities in another tape box, SMART objectives in a third, essential questions in a fourth, and homework in a fifth.

I turn around and look at the empty desks in my room.

(This is what you wanted your whole life, and now you have it: your own classroom.)

"Hey, hitman! Turn the lights on in here. You're probably making a list of the students you're gonna take out today," yells the grade-level counselor as he walks past my room. He calls me hitman because I look like the guy in the movie, Hitman (and Billy Corgan, and Michael Stipe, and ever other white guy who shaves his head), and because I leave the lights off in my room during my planning period because I get plenty of stimulation during the day.

I take ten seconds to continue staring at the empty desks and then begin walking over to my computer. I notice a formless collection of some girl's (presumably it came from a girl) hair sitting in between the student computers. It's accompanied by a half-eaten bag of bag of Cheetos.

(These kids and their diets - and I need to pay more attention to the trash I allow them to leave in here after class. The custodian only sweeps the floors.)

I sit down at my desk with the intent of gathering the images I will need for my Cornell Notes, writing my Cornell Notes, grading quizzes to give back to my classes, and a number of other tasks. But before I hit up Google images, I check my Gmail.

There, at the top of my inbox, sits a lone unread e-mail. It's from my department head, and it's titled, "post-converence."

"today at 9:00 id like to review what we saw in your room yesterady. bring your materials. Meet me in room 101. Ms. administrator wil also be joining us"

I click on "show details."

(Exactly what I thought: he sent it last night - at 12:51am. Thanks a lot for the advance notice, Mr. Administrator. Sure, I have no problem using my plan period to listen to you tell me what a bad teacher I am. Maybe you can explain to me why you and Ms. Administrator felt it was necessary to take 45 minutes of your day yesterday to watch my fourth-period class. In a school where students are almost never held accountable for their actions, how is it that two administrators have time to sit in a single teacher's classroom. It's not because I disagree with you, is it? No, that can't be it. You wouldn't let your ego control your actions as a professional. You're too mature for that.)

I throw together a half-ass slide show of Google images to help aid my Cornell Notes presentation on Gandhi's Salt March. I write out my questions and what I hope the kids will get out of the notes in my composition book, grab my stuff, and head out the door to room 101. I poke my head in the door of the other world history teacher and tell her about the stuff I'm about to have to deal with.

"No way. Ms. Administrator chewed me out yesterday in my IMPACT evaluation for an hour because I wasn't doing things 'Mr. Administrator's way.' She asked me why we weren't studying the Cuban Missile Crisis during our World War I unit and acted like she knew what she was talking about. Then she rated me an ineffective teacher."

"Awesome. Can't wait. I'll tell you about it later."

I walk down the hall and see another teacher whose name I don't know (the fourth I've seen today) and begin to judge the appropriate proximity at which to make eye contact and say hello. No need. She's not even going to look at me. I smile.

"Good morning!"

"oh hey"

(What the hell is wrong with this school. People can't say hello; they can't talk openly about their work environments; they're afraid of losing their jobs. I feel like I'm Winston in Nineteen Eight-four.)

I take a seat in room 101 and wonder what Mr. Administrator is thinking as he types on his laptop.

(Has he seen my blog? Is that why he's been riding me so much recently? Is that what this is really about? Maybe I should take down some of the stuff I've said on there.)

"How do you think your class went yesterday?"

I respond.

"Here's what I think you did well: you wrote your objective on the board. Unfortunately, you did the following things wrong: your objective wasn't rigorous, you used the materials I gave you incorrectly, you didn't use the text book, you didn't call on every student in the classroom, you didn't explain why the the material was relevant to their everyday lives, you didn't engage all of your students, you didn't positively reinforce the students every time they didn't something correctly, you talked too much, your desks were arranged poorly, you didn't seem like you knew the material that well, it seemed like you were making things up as you went, and I'm not sure how relevant your assessment really was. I could go on, but I don't want to overwhelm you here."

*Stare at him.*

I make the decision to fight instead of just saying, "Yes, sir. I'll work on all of those things. Thank you." If I'd said that, I'd probably be able to leave and go back to doing something worthwhile. Instead, I'm stubborn and tell him why I disagree with everything he just said.

"I don't make things up on the fly. That strategy told me immediately what words were stopping my students from engaging with the text."

"What research do you have to prove it?"

"Uhhhh, it worked....."

"My strategies are based in research. Use them."

"Which of your strategies would you recommend I use when I want to quickly assess what words will pose the biggest challenge to my students accessing a text."

"Listen, we don't have time to train you how to be a teacher right now. That's what the summer was for. You need to be ready now. Let's move on."

(I don't believe that this is happening. Should I point out to him that he completely avoided my question, that he is not offering me anything but criticisms? No. I've been trying to prove myself this whole meeting. Now I just want to get back to my planning period and get ready for my day.)

I arrive back at my room five minutes before class is supposed to start. I feel my blood pressure rise knowing that I'm not ready the way I want to be.

(The desks aren't in the order I needed them to be. My copies are still waiting for me downstairs. I haven't changed into my work shoes yet (I wear tennis shoes to walk to work). I haven't eaten my protein bar yet or gotten my bottle of water for the day.)

I take a deep breath, loosen my tie, unbutton the top button of my shirt, and prepare for second period.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The School Day, Part I: Morning Meeting

I walk into the building after the mile walk from my house to school with my gym bag over one shoulder and my computer/textbook bag over the other. I take off my scarf and toboggan (not the sled, but the winter hat) and make my way around the metal detector and into the main office. I check the clock to see that I'm only seven minutes early to work, which will undoubtedly mean that I will be late to my morning meeting because I need about ten minutes to print handouts in my room on the second floor and run them downstairs to leave them in the to-be-copied tray in the main office.

I sign in and head down the hall, up the stairs, and to my room. I unlock the door, dump my stuff on the floor behind my desk, turn on my computer, plug in my USB, pull up the handouts I created the previous night and print out a copy of each. I fill out the instruction slip for the copy guy and paperclip it to each handout. I leave my jacket on my chair and make my way out the door back to the main office to leave my handouts to be copied. On my way there, I see my administrator who gives me the stinkeye because she knows I'm headed in the opposite direction of the meeting she's holding and it's already two minutes past the time it was supposed to start. Nonetheless, I smile and say good morning. She looks at her cell phone.

(Why is that woman so mean to everyone?)

I enter my morning meeting five minutes late after dropping off my copies and find a seat. The tenth-grade teachers are discussing the final exams that we've created for each of our classes. Our administrator looks pissed because a lot of people didn't bring their tests. I run to my classroom and grab a test I created over World War I (not a final exam because I haven't had time to make one yet). I'm asked to follow a incredibly vague protocol that requires that we share each others' exams and decide what we can learn from each other.

We look at each others' exams without any real idea about what we're supposed to be taking from this. After about five minutes, we begin to talk to each other about the exams, but not with any direction. We don't know what the point of this is. She hasn't given us an objective or explained how this is going to practically help us. So we make comments to thwart the awkwardness of sitting across from colleagues we don't know on any sort of personal level.

"I'm sorry, I can't really give you much feedback on this test. It's been a while since I took geometry."

"Yeah. Your World War I test looks good, but I bet I would've failed it."

This worthless discussion goes on for about three minutes, and then we inevitably begin to discuss things we're not supposed to be discussing.

"Did you get a chance to go to the basketball game last night? You should have seen Mr. Hackett; he was going crazy."

"Haha, really? That's crazy."

*Silence. Glance at test. Worry about being awkward.*

Our administrator looks annoyed as she looks at her cell phone's stopwatch. Her face seems to say, "How does the principal expect me to raise any test scores with this group of teachers. They can't even follow a simple protocol." Of course, none of do what she's expecting because we don't really know what she wants, what the point of this is, or why we can't be preparing for our day instead of being treated like children.

The stopwatch goes off and our administrator solicits our thoughts on the protocol.

"What can we learn from this? What can we take back to our classrooms?"

*Silence. Look at different teachers in hopes of a response that will satisfy her.*

(Ugh, what can I say that would sound like I actually got something out of this.)

"Yes. Mr. Shrouder."

"Well, I learned that the math department is testing on a few ideas that I attempted to cover with my science students about a month ago. Maybe if, in the future, we coordinated our courses a little more, we could help the students understand this a little better."

(Yeah, like that will ever happen. When will we have time to coordinate our courses when we spend our mornings in meetings, our days in the classroom, our planning periods grading, our afternoons tutoring, and our evenings planning?)

"Good, Mr. Shrouder. That's a great idea. Who else?"

"I guess I noticed that a few people are trying to test on critical thinking skills."

"And how can we use that information to better our instruction?"

(Good lord. Did she plan this meeting five minutes before it started? When is her IMPACT evaluation?)

"Well we could spend some time collaborating on how to better teach those skills."

"That's right. Let's make that a goal for next semester."

(Hahaha. Oh my god; are you serious?! Do we even know what critical thinking skills are, specifically? Do you know how to teach them, Ms. Administrator? Do you know that a lot of studies have said that there is no such thing as a "critical thinking skill." Whatever you say, Ms. Administrator, but we all KNOW that is never going to happen. Anyone writing this down?)

Our administrator straightens her jacket, stands up, puts on her most professional face and says,

"We're all aware of the tremendous work we have ahead of us. It's our duty as educators to do everything in our power to close the achievement gap. Let's remember to incorporate what we learned here today into our everyday classrooms in order to achieve this mission. Also, don't forget to hand Mr. Arnold your tardy logs. We need to be making every effort to stay in constant communication with these students' parents."

I take my World War I test and walk back to my room. There are thirteen minutes until first period begins, my planning period.

(I will use nothing I learned in that meeting because I didn't learn anything. I guarantee you that a) we will NEVER talk about that again, and b) she made that protocol up sometime this morning because she was struggling for some activity for our required meeting. There went thirty minutes of my life.

Remember when you heard about having morning meetings every day to discuss student progress and address curriculum? Remember how great it sounded, like this was some super school that did everything you thought a great school should? Hahaha.....what a joke....)