Should teachers be jacks of all trades?

My English 8 students are working on a writing unit right now. Okay, I’m working on a writing unit and honestly my outlook is far more relaxed and better because it’s writing rather than reading.

I’m going into teaching for the writing — I’m a writer, I love writing, and I want other people to understand that writing is essential, easy, and nothing to be feared. Reading? Yeah, we all need to do it but there are people better than me out there to teach the students the ins and outs of reading and build excitement around it.

Which brings me to this: our first education reform should be to encourage specialization. I’m in a tiny school — one teacher per subject per grade (and then we need to teach something else, too, to fill in the gaps) — but I’d gladly teach 6th, 7th, and 8th grade writing if someone else handled the reading. We could collaborate and SHOULD collaborate on what writing/reading we’d each teach, but students and teachers would probably all be happier and more confident if we approached teaching this way. I’d likely need to grade more, but that’s okay. That’s how I learn what needs to be taught and how to teach it.

I’ve talked to other teachers, particularly science, who would agree. Most science teachers I know have a true love for some aspect of their curriculum, but not all of it. They had to pick up the rest of the info along the way. Letting a bio teacher specialize in genetics while another teacher specializes in anatomy (no, I don’t know exactly what’s in the core) would make everyone, including the student, more engaged because we’d all be sharing the thing that brought us to teaching. English teachers, too, have a preference. Most of the ones I went to school with dreaded the writing units. They were readers, lovers of literature. Why shouldn’t they be encouraged to stay that way?

Our current system encourages teachers to be jacks of all trades, but that often puts us in the category of master of none. If we fix the system, I’m pretty sure everyone would fare better.

 

Burnout and education

I’m too busy for burnout right now. That doesn’t mean I’m not there — it just means I don’t really have the time to process it yet.

I catch glimpses of a normal life — the one I used to have — and I know I’ll have it again … eventually. With every job I’ve ever held, it’s taken between 6-12 months for me to snap and take control because it’s my life, dammit.

Here’s the deal: the teaching industry itself does require a lot of dedication, work, and devotion, but the way it’s been set up is bordering on abusive. It seems like it harkens back to the early days of women entering the teaching industry, when schoolmarms were to be married to their jobs, not to an actual spouse. As the industry became female dominated, however, administration and regulation were still run by males. Somehow it became okay to continue to make the workers jump through absurd hoops in order to do their jobs, hoops that frequently had little relationship to the end goal — ensuring children were ready for the real world.

Regardless of sex or gender today, the teaching profession holds onto some of these archaic notions that teachers should hold a 24/7 devotion to their jobs. You’re always  on, regardless of your contract hours. In what other profession are you expected to give up your lunch in order to help someone? Where else are you expected to stay late because of someone else’s needs? Which other profession expects you to show up on the first day fully planned and ready to go, knowing full well that you couldn’t possibly create those plans in a few short professional development days, especially when most districts expect you to spend those days listening to an overpaid, inspirational speaker who has repackaged and rebranded some strategy that you’re already doing anyway?

I don’t just blame the administrators and regulators, however. I blame the teachers, too. Too many take the martyr role — “I have to give everything of myself” — which simply perpetuates the abuse. Too many also enter the profession never knowing how business operates. They teach; that’s what they know. They’re performing the most important job in our society. They should feel honored that we’re allowing them to hold this position. Yes, we’ll make you  get more education, show us a paper certificate, spend time on stuff that may or may not be valuable in your own classroom in order to earn $30 more on each paycheck. Yes, we’ll give you a partial pension so you can collect a portion of your $40k/year after you retire, but you’ll have put in 60+ countable hours each week during the school year — as well as plenty of time during your prescribed vacations — in order to get it, so you could really see it as deferred compensation. Yes, we’ll relentlessly poke and prod you during your day-to-day, ask you to manage a team of 150+, ensure you’re again jumping through frequently arbitrary hoops that simply may not make a bit of difference in how your students learn. Yes, you can have a sick day but you’ll need to ensure you’ve already done the work so that your class is occupied and learning. Yes, we’ll encourage you to try something new, but we’ll also place so many must-dos on you that rocking the boat simply can’t happen. While we’re at it, we’ll hold you accountable for students who opt not to engage. We’ll ask you to change your plans to ensure your team of students each receives a different education because we’re all different. We’ll expect you to be on your best behavior when you’re off the clock, although you’re never really off. We’ll check up on you every few years and threaten to take away your license if we find out you did something dumb. We may even put you on some sort of probation for a single screw up. And we’ll continue to expect you to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources.

Other industries are dedicated to finding time for employees to innovate and ensuring that the always-on mentality created by a connected society goes away. Private business, especially tech, VALUES workers’ time to think, relax, create. Education isn’t there yet, and based on what I’ve seen in terms of budgets and funding and the people we keep voting into our legislative branches, we’re nowhere close.

To me this says one thing: teachers need to push back more. Teachers and unions need to peel back the curtain and show legislators and the public exactly what it takes to teach a child — and multiply that by 100+. Spend a day in a classroom to find out what teachers are really up against. Until we do this, nothing will change. People simply don’t understand what our society is putting teachers through and how educators with the greatest plans ever are hobbled to the point of ineffectiveness.

I was warned by instructors at the college where I’m getting my teaching license to expect nights with little sleep — hell, even a whole year of sleep that most people would call a “nap” instead. Interns and student teachers sit through lessons in avoiding burnout. It’s no secret that this is a huge problem in the profession. But still, no one is doing anything about it.

The industry needs to change.

I see teachers who won’t make it past their first year. I see teacher who will stick it out and drop from the profession by year three.  I have friends who were amazingly dedicated teachers and who dropped out because working for a corporation was easier and paid more. I know they’re sad to have left the profession, but they’re happy to reclaim themselves.

It’s early days for me, I admit. Sometime between January and March, I will snap and take control of my life again — I know this because that’s just how I am. Still, I’ll be in a profession that may not see much value in me. Yes, I am working with unbelievably supportive administrators, the kind that I know teachers in two other districts in the area pine for (in fact, one of those other-district teachers has already indicated to me that he’d be willing to take a cut in pay simply because of the conditions at the school where I’m interning — yes, teacher crave that type of support). But the one thing those great admins can’t do is change the fact that education as a profession and education as a system MUST have an overhaul. Without this, we’ll continue to lose the best teachers and force the really great ones who do stay to never live up their profession. Pay more? Yes. But also look at the conditions because no increase in pay can fix the fact that you’re in a system where you’re being set up to never truly excel.

I’m making this my mission: to fix education for teachers and the students. And trust me, it will happen. Listen up, because I’ll be the squeakiest wheel you’ve ever heard … once I get through this year.

8th grade: I don’t know what I don’t know

I don’t know what I don’t know. I think that’s what freaked me out so much about teaching “theme” to my 8th-graders. I know what theme is, but I don’t really know how to teach it.

I read all of the advice online. It was … fine. But none of it was concrete, and I hate teaching when there’s nothing concrete to attach it to.

I already knew that theme was subjective. It’s dependent upon the experience, background knowledge, and perception of the reader. I also knew that most online sources recommended framing theme as the message the WRITER wants the reader to take away from the work. But as a writer, I can tell you that I never once considered theme while writing. It’s all very confusing.

I’d been advised by teachers to let students identify the themes on their own. I’d also been advised to give them a few themes that I found in the book and let them provide proof that these were themes. I was told to give them scaffolding, but also told to let them seek their own truth. No matter what I did, there was no real answer.

The best tip? “Theme is very difficult for students to understand. Expect to teach if repeatedly through the year.” Thanks to my principal for that.

That’s the funny thing about teaching English — the hard, fast rules are few. The soft, fuzzy guidelines are many. There are exceptions, of course, particularly when it comes to grammar, where we have specific RULES that are simply not intended to be broken, which is what made it so ironic that in the same week that I struggled to find a formula for my students to determine theme, I watched two of my fellow soon-to-be English teacher butcher some of the only rules the language actually has. The first involved word choice (“upmost” instead of “utmost” — seriously, how is that a thing?); the second didn’t know the proper placement of quotes relative to end punctuation.

Uptight? Yes. But here’s the deal: education IS uptight. That’s how we all land on universally accepted truths. Without these, we can’t possibly do our jobs as teachers. There absolutely must be universal rules that we accept and follow. For example, if you’re a U.S. history teacher, you should teach that the Civil War was steeped in racism and slavery,  not northern aggression. If you’re a science teacher, you must teach evolution and global warming, not some creation myth (unless you’re looking specifically at myths and how people used these to make sense of things they didn’t understand prior to having access to accepted truths). And, if you’re an English teacher, you should teach — and model — some of the only truths we know: word choice and grammar. And if you can’t remember them, just do a quick internet search to find them!

Society currently has a problem with trying to find the easiest way out. Let someone else give us the answers, and we’ll just repeat them. As teachers, that means our job is two-fold: first, we need to encourage students to think critically before they accept information as fact; second we need to ensure we’re providing accurate information up front. I can’t teach you not to smoke if I have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. I can’t teach you not to say things like “upmost” if I’m writing it all over my white board and on social media.

I’m all for encouraging students to find the truth on their, but only to a point. When a truth is universally accepted, like word choice and punctuation in American English, I’m still old-fashioned enough to believe that truth should be handed to students. Study it, learn it, know it, and use it. There are plenty of other things to mess around with in English education, like theme. Conventions, on the other hand, simply aren’t open to debate.

 

 

8th grade paranoia

I remember 8th grade. It was 40 years ago, so 1979. I hated my math class, which is probably the only time in my life I ever said that about a subject I still cherish. I adored civics, which I believe is now called government or political science and definitely not approached in junior high. My science teacher was … well I don’t remember who that was. And homework, yeah, I think we had some.

What I remember most about 8th grade, however, wasn’t the subjects I was taught. It was me. What it was like to be 13. It’s like … nothing. Teenage angst was still a few years away. You had some responsibility that you needed to wield during babysitting gigs mostly. Physical appearance was important but you could only fight it so much (face it, middle school years aren’t pretty for most folks). I think I read a lot, at least when I wasn’t playing some sport or participating in another extracurricular activity. Eighth grade was full of staying occupied.

What I don’t remember was malice or anything that went beyond the surface level. If I seemed happy, I was. If I didn’t, I wasn’t. If I was confused, I was genuinely confused. If I was tired, I just needed sleep.

All of this comes back to mind whenever I encounter an 8th grade teacher who’s, hmm, how do I say this … MEAN.

We work with kids — kids with their own lives and their own self-centered existences.  They’re pretty surface. The distracting ones are simply distracting, not because they’re trying to get back at you or ruin your career. They simply have no abilty to focus. The ones who don’t have their homework either genuinely forgot it or genuinely didn’t do it (even if they lie about it, it’s just to save their own skin, not make you look stupid in yours). There’s nothing to see here that you don’t really see when you look head-on at a 13 year old. They wear their heart, brain, and everything else on their sleeve. That’s what they’re capable of.

Yet I still, at least a few times each week, hear about the 8th graders who are trying to pull a fast one on me. And all I can do is wonder, really? I remember exactly two of my 8t grade teachers, one because she was so terrible that they disbanded 8th grade algebra that year, the other because she was amazing and cared about us as people. Honestly I don’t think I ever gave enough of a damn about a teacher to actually connive against him or her.

Still, encounter teachers in the profession frequently trying to convince me that their students are doing just that. They’re out to get me.

Maybe times have changed and 13 year olds are full of retribution but I don’t really believe that. I think it’s more likely that a 13 year old occasionally gets lucky and the stars align to cover something up and the world positions itself squarely on his/her/their side. Maybe…

Or maybe it’s that a teacher like me — someone who’s new and wants to fast-track my learning by consuming the experiences of others — catches wind of the criticism simply because I asked a question or made a comment. Yeah, I get it, that kid doesn’t turn in his homework or sits in class and plays video games all day and I should be on him like stink on shit to ensure he can’t find the time. But if I do that, I’m pretty sure I’ll lose track of all of the other students, so I ask if other teachers have found a good way to handle junior in the classroom. That’s when I hear how it’s junior’s goal to thwart any progress I might make. “Watch that one,” they tell me.

I’m not buying it, at least not at this age.

K, in all fairness, there are plenty of veteran teachers who will take my question and give me a real answer and help me figure out ways to work with  a student who isn’t engaged and directly or indirectly takes the rest of the class down with him or her. Those are the teachers I love talking to. I can learn so much from them, like how to accept the fact that I’m not perfect, how to try new techniques and strategies to improve engagement, clues to watch for that might make my task more effective and easier.

The others? The ones who are convinced they’re the subject of some 13 year old’s evil plan? I can probably do without them. While I’m sure they bring amazing insight into their own classes, I can’t possibly imagine spending my days believing my audience is out to get me. Even a 13 year old has PLENTY of better things to do. I say this because I DO remember life 40 years ago. And I also remember never thinking twice about the person at the front of the room and how I could make his or her life miserable.

 

8th grade: The one with the socratic seminar

I tried a socratic seminar today. Not sure why — I’ve never been impressed with the idea of a socratic seminar before since they always look/seem so incredibly dull, but we had a topic that I really wanted to discuss and it felt very appropriate. So I said “why not,” and did it.

It was scary. Actually, the scariest part was getting up the nerve to try it. But I’m cool with making myself uncomfortable or I wouldn’t spend five days a week with 13 year olds.

My classes range in size from 21 to 30 students. Behavior ranges from asleep in my first hour to a complete zoo in 6th hour. The others are somewhere in between. I decided that for this first socratic seminar, I would blend the concept with a group discussion. Rather than have the whole class contribute, which I see doesn’t work for some of the students in each class who would rather I jam toothpicks under their fingernails than call on them to speak (I have no toothpicks, so don’t worry), I decided I would split each class into three large discussion tables. I assigned a group leader and provided a set of questions for the group leader to ask. I created my rules and explanation — what students could do and what they couldn’t. I also, at the last minute, decided that students should spend 5-10 minutes before the seminar preparing themselves for the discussion by filling out some guided notes on the topic. This was the best thing I did all day (that shows you how novice I am, BTW; a veteran teacher would know that students need this type of preparation before any discussion).

Our topic was pretty focused. It stemmed from something that happened in the book we’re reading at this point, where a 13 year old sports phenom is suspended from play by his mother. I chose this as the topic because my wildest class — the zoo — is full of kids who play sports. I figured this was one of the few ways we’d get a valuable, focused discussion into the mix that these kids would engage with.

We started with my 1st hour class, which is small and unbelievably quiet. I went over the rules, assigned leaders, let them go at their own pace, and allotted 15 minutes for the discussion, although I decided I’d go to 20, if they needed it. I walked from table to table as they spoke and listened in. They used about 18 minutes, interrupted each other frequently but mostly stayed on task. In fact, it was the first time I think I heard some of the students in that class willingly say a word about school. Overall, I was okay with it but we didn’t have as much time left in the class as I had hoped so when I tried to start out instructional section on “theme,” it fell apart. I made a note of that.

Second hour — my 30-person class. We started quickly and the students focused pretty fast. It’s an incredibly diverse class with different learning styles, abilities, lexile levels, and more, and each group required a full 10 students, but most experiments like this work with them. The seminar was no exceptions. My takeaway from this class was that the pacing was off and that I still wasn’t doing a good job of getting each student to contribute, but overall I was happy with how it went. I chalked it up as a success.

Third hour. This is normally a really big class but there were a lot of missing students today. For this class, I required each question be discussed for two minutes with no exceptions. It took longer, so I gave up on the “theme” instruction we were planning after the seminar. Still the two-minute requirement meant everyone participated. Everyone. No question. Even students who I didn’t think were doing anything more than going through the motion of reading the book actively engaged in the conversation. Students questioned each other, and conversation felt natural.

Fourth hour went well, too. They’re a high achieving class, but can frequently get sidetracked when they’re moved into casual conversation environments. This was no exception — a few of the best and brightest were distracted to the point of incapacitation. We did, however, finish early so we ended the hour with a group discussion.

Finally, we got to sixth hour, the one I fondly refer to as my “zoo” class. Everything about this class points to distraction. This is the class that I hate testing new ideas on because so many of them shut down at the thought of change. They were the only class to complain when they learned they’d be doing work in my class on computer rather than paper, the only class to be happy when I switched things up one week and asked for a paper reading log, even though it meant the students would need to complete the assignment a full day early. They’re the only class that wants everything to be familiar.

The class is also so full of “watch-me, look-at-me” types that I couldn’t separate the distract-ers and I had no fewer than three at each table of eight. Incidentally, creating a seating chart for this class is impossible. Even some of the really great students are incapable of remaining focused in here.

The experiment was meh at best for this class. It worked surprising well for one of the groups, possibly because their leader was this incredibly strong girl who is very capable of shutting down the clowns in the class. This exercise was no exception. Her group stayed on task the entire time. She is my hero.

The other two groups? Eh, not so much, but I can’t blame the leaders. It was an uphill battle that no one was going to win.

Overall, however, I never regretted trying the experiment, and we’ll keep working with the idea of the socratic seminar and ultimately build to a real one on a class-by-class basis. Some classes will be ready to try quickly. Others may take until May.

I felt like students got more out of this discussion than any other discussion we’ve had in class thus far. As I listened to each group, I had to restrain myself (not so effectively at times) from telling students how fantastic his/her/their answer was and how impressed I was by the depth of their thought. This, btw, NEVER happens when I’m running the show (depth of thought? Oh that’s out of the window).

Some students had incredible evidence from the book that they recalled to prove a point; one of my SPED students even grabbed a book to show other students the page he was referring to. Students who wouldn’t normally share a “why” were defending their ideas and beliefs publicly. I had one class about to start fighting, which I reminded them wasn’t allowed since this wasn’t a debate, but I was happy they were so truly engaged that they cared to sling empty threats.

The experiment worked far better than I would have ever imagined.

I also learned, however, that in some classes, I need to take a more active role in the discussion until we’re a bit more versed at respect. In my sixth hour class, for example, we’ll work with assigned seats during the discussion (it became weirdly handsy by the end for some of the students — all male, which I guess is what 8th-grade boys do. Hmmm.). I want to move to a bigger group, especially in that class, but my wallflowers aren’t going to have that, so I’ll need to determine how to make this work. Still, it’s only October, so there’s plenty of time.

Lessons learned (because I don’t want to forget):

  1. Add “don’t interrupt” to the rules. Bad oversight on my part.
  2. Ensure I’m overseeing each groups (if only there were three of me).
  3. Always have guided notes to work with.
  4. Pick topics that have a little controversy. That’ll be easy.
  5. Continue with timed questions — but bring a buzzer rather than rely on me shouting it’s time for the next question (a few groups moved on whenever they wanted to and it didn’t work so well).
  6. Hand pick the groups. That’s for 6th hour only.
  7. Work harder to find the right group leaders. Again, 6th hour. I can’t have my rockstar leader do everything every time, sadly.
  8. Try again in about two or three weeks … I think. If I can find the right topic.

 

Week 2: 8th grade

View from a 1st-year teacher.

Just one thought: why are teachers paid so little? Why are they poked and prodded and judged and scrutinized so much with virtually no “thank you”? Why are teachers trained so rigorously but put into positions where they’re almost destined to fail? Why are teachers the first to be blamed and the last to be credited? And why doesn’t the public listen to someone who knows — A TEACHER — and find out what’s really wrong with our education system?

Trust me, we don’t have failing teachers. We have a system built on a century-old framework that doesn’t fit the needs of society any more. Teachers, who have never been given the power to fix the system, are simply doing what they can to work within that framework and succeed. That a teacher can still accomplish anything within a flawed system built by people who haven’t occupied a seat in a classroom in decades is utterly amazing.

I’m forever in awe of what I see around me.

 

Day 1: face-to-face with destiny in English 8

I realize the night before the first day of school that I’m completely unprepared. I don’t know the names of my students, unsure what they even know about English. Last year’s 7th grade teacher retired and left town ASAP before I ever knew that I’d be interning, so I can’t really ask her what to expect. I’m the sole 8th-grade English teacher in the school. Tomorrow there will be 130-ish students expecting me to teach them something – or trying really hard to do anything but learn — I’m not even sure about that.

I know when I was in 8th grade, I hated English. It was the single most boring class I had. For the life of me today I can’t tell you who my teacher was. I can name other teachers — the ones who had an effect on me, the ones I liked, the ones I probably, inadvertently learned something from — but no clue as to who taught me English. It was 40 years ago, so maybe it’s all for the best.

I’m in bed before 1 a.m., which I think is late. Deep down I know that pretty soon this will seem super early.

School starts at 7:40a. I arrive around 7:10a and realize that I have no way to get into my classroom because it’s locked and I don’t have a key. Are there keys? I don’t even know. It’s not my real classroom; I’m unsure when I’ll be able to get into that one because of summer construction delays that are preventing occupancy of the entire 8th-grade wing. I’m in the art class, which sounds fun, but really it’s just dark and dirty.

I’ve decorated little — just a few borrowed posters for inspiration and to add life to rust- and brown-colored walls. I don’t want to get too attached, especially since I’m sharing this room with other teachers who will be teaching during my prep and the elective I recently learned I would be teaching. None of us wants to really claim these walls and we’re all hoping we’ll depart quickly. BTW, the elective I’m teaching — creative writing – I’ve spent far too little time planning for it. I know this will bite me in the ass soon, but hopefully not today.

Students start to pop into and out of the class around 7:30. They’re taller than me, with a few exceptions, but I already knew that this would be the case. I’m pretty sure the students don’t want to learn and would rather be doing anything other than sit in class. Right now I kind of agree.

I’ve seen the social media posts of some of my fellow education students who are also interning this semester.Some of them are completely mum about their impending plans. For all I know, they changed their minds and decided to wait tables this fall instead. Others have spent what seems like 100s of hours in the classroom prepping, decorating, being prepared.

I, on the other hand, have just been kind of wandering around confused and more concerned about personal stuff. My college coursework finished in May for last years, and by the end of that month, I was thinking seriously about delaying my student teaching gig until spring semester so I could either amass a stockpile of cash, which would give me one less thing to worry about or delay the inevitable decision that I didn’t really want to move into a public school classroom. Then, sometime in late June, the person who I would soon discover would be my new principal asked me to come in to talk to her. She and I formerly shared a fence when she lived in the house behind mine, or vice versa, depending on where you were standing. She was always lovely and nice but I never really had a discussion with her before.

When I got to her office, we talked. I learned the previous principal decided to retire unannounced at the end of the school year, and she, my former neighbor, had been tapped to take his place. In lieu of a new assistant principal, she wanted to add instructional support positions, one of which was a literacy coach and interventionist — the 8th grade English teacher. Would I want to do an internship and teach the 8th grade English class instead of simply student teaching?

I hadn’t really expected this. And, because I’m horrible at saying no to almost anything, I thought for a few minutes and said “yes.” It seemed like the right idea at the time. But on day 1 of school, I’m no longer certain.

The day, however, goes by pretty smoothly. Okay, that’s not actually true. It’s probably better described as a shit show, which I fear is how I’ll label year one, too. The students seem great … I think. My head spins so quickly, I really don’t know. We have an unannounced assembly, so all classes are super short. By the end of the day, I know maybe one student’s name. I feel like I talked at my students all day instead of with them. Bells weren’t programmed and never ring that day. I know students didn’t learn anything other than that my email wasn’t working, which has been the on-again-off-again problem since I took this job. Did I remember to tell them my name? At the end of the day, the school goes on lockdown because there’s a police chase through our sleepy little town, which is something that never ever happens. I have no idea which classes covered what, but I know I’m still holding the full stack of disclosures that I meant to distribute.

I make it out alive, which I guess is as much as I can hope for. But the questions race through my head. Why am I doing this? Am I actually the best person for this role? Do I really want to be teaching? Would students be better served by the former 8th grade teacher who has 16 years of experience and an incredibly calm demeanor when the best analogy I can muster for myself these day is “rabid badger”? Am I prepared for tomorrow because I’m pretty sure I already need to change directions…? Is 8th grade English really where I should be?