A very long post taken in part from my final reflection paper, taken in part from previous posts, plus stories on individual students.
Raised by a teacher and educated as a teacher, I thought I understood the amount of flexibility required in a contemporary secondary classroom. I had no idea how much flexibility and differentiation would be required to teach a group of 11th graders, most of whom would rather see me drop dead on the spot than pay attention to my lessons. Disappointingly, I found that in many ways I am the teacher I always hated. Even worse, I found that this demeanor is, at times, necessary.
On my second day in the classroom, I was put in charge of two Basic 11 English classes at X high school in Y-town. Our first lesson was to write a standard persuasive letter. As I attempted to learn the students’ names and ability levels, I was also overwhelmed with learning the myriad reasons the students ended up in this class in the first place. At X High, Basic English classes are the lowest of four general population English levels. Several of my students will be in school well after their nineteenth birthdays, and several are fresh out of drug rehab. Some of my students should be in special education, while others are clearly at an advanced level except for their behavior skills. A handful of my students are placed in this classroom as a way to frustrate them out of school altogether. The class featured in the accompanying video started with seventeen students. At the time I filmed [the required video for the class], only eleven come on a regular basis. We expect the other two that are still on the books to withdraw before finals week. [They did.]
During the persuasive letter assignment, one student wrote a letter to his son’s mother requesting that they settle their custody dispute out of court. Another angrily wrote his parents because they won’t allow him to marry his girlfriend. Another decided to write to his parents because he can’t get his driver’s license until he passes his English class. Although this student has been recommended for the resource room for English, his mother won’t enroll him in special ed classes because she doesn’t like the special ed teacher. There was no way for him to pass this class. He did not have the skills or the points to even get a D.
I read his first draft in the teacher’s lounge during my prep period. He argued that his parince shood let him get his driver’s license because all his friends have it, and besides, he could take their car to the gestation to save them a trip, and maybe drive his littel brother to football practis. I cried, upset that his mother continued to set him up for failure, angry that the school could do nothing about his placement without parental permission, angry that no matter what this kid did in my classroom I could not pass him in good faith. My mentor teacher finally managed to convince his mother, with the help of two counselors and the principal, that he would be better educated at a level that matched his ability.
Other trials have been no less frustrating, though frequently more comical. One day, the electricity went out in the school when a nearby construction company accidentally cut the electric and phone lines. Of course, this had to be the day my supervisor came in to observe me teach. I “confiscated” a lighter from a kid to light a candle and we sat around and told scary stories until the lights came on again, but once the lights came back on, it was found that one of the kids, to be funny, decided to throw another kid’s stuff into the trash can. Of course he denied it, but not after winking at another student and telling him he knew who did it.
Over time I am became less and less understanding of minor behavioral transgressions. Many of the kids have yet to cross my line, wherever that may be, but have no problems whatsoever dancing an Irish jig right atop it. This alone may not be an outstanding issue but for their grades. Half the students don’t bother turning anything in. Those that turn in late work are angry with me for docking their grades as per my mentor teacher’s class policy. The average number of zeroes one needs to earn an F in my class is eight. Over the course of eighteen weeks, that isn’t much. Discipline, as one teacher reminded me after I fretted about my inability to manage the classroom, is as much for those who are following the rules as it is for those breaking the rules. It ensures that those who care have an environment conducive to learning. I was told to start handing out more detentions, and despite my reluctance to do so, I did.
Soon after this conversation, a student with ADHD that refuses to take his meds finally received his second detention after throwing a book. This was proceeded by talking over my directions, refusing to put away the candy he had from lunch, spitting the candy on the floor after I asked him to put it away, justifying that by saying he only had to cough, and finally, blowing his nose and throwing the dirty Kleenex on the floor. In addition, a few Smarties were launched across the room. Needless to say, the behavior management plan that we had discussed the day before was thrown out the window. I attempted to call his parents to have a brief discussion with them, fully aware that these detentions could affect his work program and probation, but was unable to reach them during the afternoon. When we later met for his case conference, I was clear with his mother about his behavioral issues and what could be done to improve his grade. His mother, a passive woman who claimed she had no control over him whatsoever, appeared to have thrown up her hands long ago. Then again, she came to his conference. Many of my students don’t even have that kind of support.
The most frustrating thing is that many of these issues are beyond his control. While refusing to take meds affects his behavior in the classroom, there are other kids who simultaneously pimp out his bad behavior to distract me while disparaging him for acting out. To top it all off, this is a smart kid who would be truly successful in school if he were on-task enough to finish his work. He argues that the meds make him feel gross, but he’s never been on them long enough as an adolescent to get through the nasty side-effect period that often goes with beginning ADD medications. I talked with him for a long time yesterday about my experiences in high school, how I was a poor student, how I would act out due to frustration and inability to achieve, and how ADD meds can be taken on an as-needed basis. He agreed to do his best and we developed a new behavior plan together, complete with rewards and punishments.
Then the next day happened.
Once my teaching responsibilities were reduced near the end of the semester, I had time to watch my mentor teacher in action with the students I had come to know. After several illuminating moments in which everything she had advised me to do was modeled for me in real time, I realized how many of my problems would have been alleviated if I would have had the opportunity to observe her teach for more than a day or two. Additionally, I think I would have benefited had she jumped in to teach a lesson here and there throughout the semester to model lessons and methodology instead of immersing me in the experience immediately.
I so enjoy interacting with these kids, but have found myself torn between the two extremes that I teach. On one hand I have a class of students, 95% of whom will go onto college, who don’t like doing, or don’t do their work. On the other hand, I have a class of students that will likely not go on to a four-year college, but find themselves enjoying the work they do despite all their complaints and resistance. One kid, a young dad, read the entirety of the Nicholas Sparks book I so hated and loved it. In fact, most of the boys I have adore that sappy romance novel.
That right there is my passion. Forget the literature itself; let me show these kids that reading is and can be fun. Let me show them that writing well, that expressing themselves to their best ability, is worth something, that words mean something, that they can tease meaning out of ambiguity. I am tempted to eschew general ed as most know it and aim for teaching remedial reading and writing to either high school students or adults. General education has too much emphasis on the survey literature course, a style of curriculum that irritates me because of its disconnect and inability to delve into the depths of meaning. Part of me thinks I’d be better off working with reading- and writing-challenged adults who are in school because they see a greater need for help with general literacy instead of students who are in school because of compulsory education law. Then again, it is these kids, as frustrating and crazy-making as they are, that have me falling in love and breaking my heart every day.
Many of the secondary classrooms intended for these learners are devoid of engaging activities and interesting literature. Though most of the students enjoyed the Sparks novel, reading the novel aloud in class ruined the reading experience for the more advanced learners. They frequently read ahead and found themselves frustrated with being forced to stay behind with the others, and this compelled me to come up with two or more activities per class period to keep the more advanced learners engaged with the material. Because many of the students needed the major themes and events reiterated every day over weeks of time, the more advanced learners became bored with the material and, over time, I noticed dwindling attendance on days they knew we would read. In addition, I noticed rifts developing between the poor and efficient readers. When students would take turn “popcorn” reading, the poor readers would be met with loud sighs and eye rolls, while the efficient readers would resist passing off reading responsibilities to others for fear of yet another dragging fifty-minute class period. This was most apparent during the week I lost my voice, as I could no longer jump in to pick up the reading during slow periods or effectively lead discussion.
Though reading a two-hundred page novel aloud was necessary to the department, I fantasized a classroom in which readings that were pertinent to the students’ lives that did not need to be read aloud as a class. More independent work with the flexibility to meet the needs of advanced and low-level learners was clearly needed, but the school standards stood in the way of doing any of this differently. Because of my attempts to break up the readings with more hands-on activities, our class finished the book a full week behind the other classes. Nonetheless, I think we maintained our sanity.
During the video mentioned above, I chose to record my time with my favorite class, the class of ruffians that cause me so much frustration, and was surprised at their lack of participation. During the video, one student claims this is because they are trying to make me look good. True to form, as soon as I turned the camera off the classroom breathed a collective sigh and our regular chaos ensued.
The discussion started slowly, a common occurence despite the camera’s presence. These students are reluctant to participate in class or show any shred of engagement with the material, but warm up to the classroom experience if I feign ignorance. They will not participate if they know I will hand them answers, thus I have to act ignorant of any answers and ask question after question. Any time two students talk amongst each other, I make a point of stepping out of the equation and only reinsert myself to guide their debates or get them back on topic. In addition, I always conducted a freeform classroom for them with plenty of group work and opportunities to move around. As this was a very structured assignment, I attempted to allow them as much collaboration as possible as long as they turned in original essays.
Upon watching the required video of me teaching, I noticed one primary thing (in addition to needing a severe haircut): I do not command authority very well. I am not sure that I want to command any sort of authority, even though it does, on occasion, lead to troubles with students respecting my place in the classroom. Because I see the teacher as a facilitator who leads students toward a more educated space, as opposed to the teacher as dictator, I adopt a more casual demeanor in speech and mannerisms. This might be problematic, though I noticed that when I take on a more authoritative tone the students are less willing to respond to the text during discussion and more likely to do paperwork. However, because this kind of class consists of students who do not respond well to worksheets and lecture, I am willing to take on the behavioral issues knowing that I will have greater class participation.
My student teaching experience was good and bad in many ways. I learned how to interact with various bodies in a professional atmosphere and how to prepare a week’s worth of lessons in one-fifth that time. I met some wonderful teachers and had the privilege of working with a group of amazing, frustrating, and heartbreaking teenagers. Although I still haven’t made up my mind about my professional path, I am currently exploring my options for work that will let me interact with this age group in a public sphere outside of the secondary school setting. Though I am seeking jobs in educational settings, I do not think the public school is the place for me.
Nevertheless, my last week at X High provided me with some heartening stories.
Muizza, whose multilayered act of defiance inspired quite a bit of discussion around here, has become more of a presence in the classroom. The other students continue to talk to her openly after nonconformity day, include her into regular activies, and joke around with her during class discussion. She told MT and I later that she wouldn’t have made it through the day without her scarf if she hadn’t left it at home, but she’s glad she did. I think the rest of us took far more from that day than she did, and I thank her for smashing a few paradigms for me as well.
I handed out the grade reports on Friday so that students could prepare for finals next week. One of my Basic students came up to me and said, “I think there’s something wrong. I have an A.” And? I explained to him that he had consistently done his work and had done it well, reiterated the quality of his classroom participation over the course of the semester, and had jumped at the opportunity to help his classmates. This kid earned that A. He was stoked — a grin spread across his face and he ruminated on how to break to his parents that he got his first A ever in an English class. Unfortunately once he figured in the first nine weeks, he found that it would be impossible for him to earn an overall A for the semester. I continued to tell him that he should be proud of himself, and after a few minutes of disappointment, he was. I am so, so proud of him, too.
Just last week a woman was interviewing on campus for a professorship. My supervising professor brought her to our final seminar where I and my fellow student teachers vented on our student teaching experiences. As it turns out, her primary interest — sexuality in the classroom — was on my mind after a Hot For Teacher experience earlier in the week. The visiting professor explained some of her research, specifically whether or not desire in the classroom can be productive. My student, D, maintained a pattern of subtle admiration until last week when he turned in a journal assignment about what makes a good teacher with a three-fragment entry: “Blonde. Well-built. Ms. B.” Skeeved out, I returned it to him without a grade, but noting that he didn’t fulfill the requirements for the assignment. The next day I was looking at the gradebook for the first nine weeks to see whether or not there were any massive changes in grades, which would indicate something on my part, and found that all of the grades were within a 1-2 point range of the previous nine weeks. Except two: The student mentioned in the nubbin above, and D, whose grade went from a D to an A during my stay. Apparently Hot For Teacher can be productive. But gross.
When I stayed home Wednesday with the puking trauma, MT took it upon herself to arrange going away parties during each class for me. The students decided who would bring what, and for the most part all of them remembered to bring what they promised. I was pleasantly surprised to see that many of the students took time actually making things to bring in, from cards to cookies to cake. It was really wonderful. The biggest surprise was from one of my most difficult, surly, negative students. This kid has the worst attitude I’ve ever seen in person and I’ve never seen him smile unless it was about something particularly mean-hearted. He angrily walked into the classroom with a big plastic bag full of Tupperware, angrily threw the Tupperware on the back counter, angrily took off the lids of said Tupperware, and angrily arranged the Tupperware for the class party. He made me cookies. The kid made me cookies, drizzled with melted chocolate, from scratch. The bottoms of these cookies were burnt completely black and tasted like crap, but I ate at least two and held back my yuck face. He tried not to seem pleased, but MT and I fawned over these horrible cookies.
These crazy-making students surprised me to no end. I never thought I’d fall in love and have my heart broken so many times in eleven weeks.
To cap my send-off, my mentor teacher gave me a wonderful present. I am now the owner of a $40 skein of red cashmere, my favorite color, and by god, I intend to knit it into the most beautiful lace scarf ever.