The Reflective Educator

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Day: January 22, 2010

My first semester as a teacher – part 3

… continued from here ….

My first day of teaching I felt even less prepared for the experience than when I started student teaching.  I was very nervous as I waited for the students to trickle in.  Almost all of my students were on time though, and my 9th grade class started smoothly.  I remembered to introduce myself, set a good tone for classroom management for the semester and managed to get through my discussion with Brittaney whose name I still cannot say with the right accent.  Anyway, I was feeling pretty good and was pleased with my progress.

My M$AA class also went reasonably smoothly, but I had hardly any students.  Of the 17 students on my roster, only 10 or so showed up, which really should have been an immediate warning sign for me.  There were some hiccups.  I remember one of the students saying something to me and I had NO idea what he was trying to say, I wasn’t even sure it was English.  I later thought it might have been in Creole (when I learned later that student was bilingual), but whatever it was, the rest of the class cracked up.

After lunch, my M$C class started poorly.  I made a huge blunder.  The teacher across the hall was late returning from lunch, so I ushered his students into my classroom to safeguard them until he arrived which I thought was standard procedure.  It took 20 minutes, 2 security guards and an Assistant Principal to extract the M$AA students from the room so I could get back to teaching my grade 10 students.  Actually teaching is the wrong word to use.  Talking to a room full of people who paid me NO attention at all is much more accurate.  My M$AA class was difficult but at least I had good days with them.  With my 10th grade students, I didn’t actually get their attention at all (except from four dedicated souls sitting in the front, THANK YOU!) until near the end of November.

At the end of my first day of teaching I was feeling a little low, but I got some advice from one of the new teachers who actually had a fair bit of teaching experience from previous years.  She said, "Don’t try to make every day perfect just keep plugging away.  You’ll find that at first about 1 in 5 of your lessons works, and those are the lesson plans you should keep.  Throw the rest away."

The rest of the week, which in this case was two more days, went by pretty much the same as the first day.  9th grade class was okay, 10th grade and mixed class were pretty difficult. I felt like a failure a lot in those first few weeks, and at the time what kept me going was the fact that there were 12 other teachers going through exactly the same thing, and that every once in a while, I would connect with the kids.  These moments made me really happy and each of us who was experiencing the same horror story would share both our failures and successes during our Friday afternoon unwinding sessions.

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My first semester as a teacher – part 2

 … continued from here ….

When I stepped into the office, the teacher was in the middle of scolding a student and the assistant principal was chatting up a school assistant.  As I entered, they both looked at me, and the look they gave me did not inspire confidence.  Right away I knew I had made a mistake.

The teacher gave me some advice (once she had hit the student on the head with a rolled up newspaper and told him to stop being so stupid) that I don’t really recall but was along the lines of "Don’t let them eat you alive on your first day."  The assistant principal shared a brief story about his first day on the job back in the really depressing 70s era NYC education system and then did his version of a long tour of the school which took all of 10 minutes.

Back at the international teacher training we learned about some basic classroom management rules, the first of which was to never, ever hit a child.  We also learned that anything which involved either being physical with a child or making the child being physical was considered corporal punishment.  This meant that telling a student to write lines after school, or asking a student to move in class, or just picking up something they had dropped, these were all official no-nos.  I began to feel a little bit scared but my youthful optimism won out and I got over my fear.

One of the people I met during this first week was an interesting individual who was an assistant principal at a high school in the deepest baddest part of Brooklyn.  He had some encouraging words to say about our students, the first I had heard since being recruited.  "These kids can learn, " he said, "and they can do it well.  You just need to motivate them, excite them, and grab their interest."  He brought in some of his own students, who he convinced to come and meet some teachers during their summer break, and showed us some neat techniques for teaching math, including singing the quadratic formula to get the kids to remember it.  I think of all the people I met the summer he helped me the most get through the semester, and I only saw him for two days in the summer.

Very quickly school started and the beginning of the year started with two days of getting ready for school.  We were all assigned classrooms, it turned out that there were 12 new teachers that year, all of whom were fairly new to teaching, most of us were not from New York.  I was the only Canadian, but there was apparently one "on another floor so you’ll be alright."  I spent my first day preparing my classroom which needed a lot of cleaning.  I noticed that I had a bunch of ugly desks and saw some classrooms with nice tables, so I made my first mistake of the year.  I went to the Assistant Principal in charge of Supervision, even the name sounds ominous, and asked him for some tables, which I did not get.  Needless to say, he and I did not get on well that year. Or the next.  Or the year after that.

My next day, after I had done as much as I could, I found out what my schedule was.  The person in charge of curriculum for the whole school came by our school to give us a pep talk and give us a copy of the curriculum for the year.  He handed me a piece of paper with 20 questions printed on it and in a thick Brooklyn accent said, "Make sure they can answer all of those questions by the end of the year, and you’ll be fine."  He also took a look at my schedule and immediately walked off with it.  He came back about 10 minutes later and gave me a new schedule with M$A, M$AA and M$C on it, instead of M$A, M$AA, M$AA.  He said, with my first schedule they’d be looking for a new teacher within a few months, so he was doing the school a favor.  He also told me I was lucky, the new textbooks would only take a couple of weeks to arrive.

Apparently M$A meant first semester 9th grade, M$C meant first semester 10th grade, and M$AA meant, all of the students who were whatever age but had no credits in high school at all, some of them after 3 or 4 years.  I was really grateful later in the semester when I could hear the shouting and laughing happening across the hall.  My M$AA class would come back and haunt me time and time again, but as the year progressed it got easier and easier to teach.

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My first semester as a teacher – part 1

I’ve been thinking about my first semester as a teacher a lot recently.  I had a very difficult start to my profession, perhaps some of you can relate.  I can honestly say that the only thing that kept me in teaching was the money I owed my parents to move to NYC, and the cost of repaying my student loans.  At one point during the semester I was ready to throw in the towel and quit.  For some reason, I didn’t.

I grew up in British Columbia and spent most of my young adult life in Vancouver after moving their for university from my small town home.  In 2002 I finished my teacher training, and found that getting a job was going to be very difficult.  So after a friend pointed out an advertisement the New York Department of Education had posted in the newspaper, I decided to take a chance and put together my student teacher portfolio and resume.  I showed up at a hotel, looking professional in a new suit and with my ideas about education ready to share.  I easily got a job in a difficult school district in something called the Chancellor’s district.

At the beginning of August I moved to NYC after receiving special permission from the UBC Faculty of Education to graduate early, having compressed my summer courses into a single 3 week session.  NYC was hot, it was August and I was not ready! I had some time to rent an apartment because I was in New York early, so I promptly got myself ripped with a cockroach infested apartment in Williamsburg.

We had a week of training ahead of time where we given some preparation to what we were going to experience, and we were encouraged to go visit our school and find out what it would be like.  I was in a cohort with a few hundred international teachers, and nothing the NYCDOE could say would whole prepare us for our experiences in inner city Brooklyn.

I arrived at my school and it was a gigantic block, it looked like a prison.  Bars on the windows, horrible peeling paint, depressing atmosphere.  I had some trouble finding my school in the building because there were three schools in the building and no signs pointing to any of the schools, at least none that were obvious.  Eventually I found the unmarked main office for the school and had a chance to talk to one of the teachers and the main assistant principal for the school.

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60-Second Education podcast

Do you think teachers would download and listen to a 60 second podcast about education?  We’d basically take short bite size pieces of ideas, and turn them into interesting audio clips that teachers could download and listen to in their short amounts of free time.  Well, anyone who is interested in joining could participate, we all have some great ideas on how to make education better, we just need a wider audience.

If every teacher was in the same social network, or had the same preferences for how they received information, then I’d say "Let’s all get on Twitter" and share our information that way.  To be honest, I know this won’t work because our colleagues are so different.  We still need to reach our colleagues though and perhaps subscribing to a short podcast would be easier than learning a the mechanism for change that Twitter represents.

The podcasts could be great conversation starters for professional development for example.  Any thoughts?

Research based teaching

I’d like to be a research based teacher.  This means, if research comes out which is compelling and reliable and which suggests that an alternate approach to what I do will work better, then I’ll experiment and try that out.  If research tells us that people learn in a certain way, then I’ll need to look at my practices and adjust them correspondingly.

Here’s an example of one change I’ve made recently because of research I read.  The research is a meta-study of the relationship between the time between a learner makes a mistake and when they receive feedback on their mistake.  If there is more than a very small amount of time between making a mistake and getting feedback on that mistake, interference between the mistake and the feedback is likely to occur and the feedback may not be what is remembered, instead the mistake may be remembered.  "Teachers who want their quizzes to help students learn should try to arrange conditions so that students receive feedback as quickly as possible after they answer quiz questions." Kulik & Kulik, 1988

I don’t assign homework anymore of a quiz or exercise nature which doesn’t provide immediate feedback.  So this entire year, I haven’t assigned a single exercise from the textbook.  I still provide a textbook in case the students want to study, or practice with their tutor or parents, but we only use it during class-time.  During class I can roam the classroom and provide feedback when students are making mistakes, and I can make sure students are checking their answers with the back of the book on a regular basis. If I want students to practice assignments at home, they get an online self-correcting quiz.  Fortunately for me, all of my students have internet access at home.

One problem with this approach is that so much good educational research is locked up in the vaults of proprietary publishers and difficult to access. I am lucky and can access much of this material through my university, but I can imagine that this could be a major stumbling block for most teachers, and of course schools can’t afford to pay for the expensive subscriptions to all of the educational journals out there.  Just having access to the database to search through the journals is difficult.

We need to, as a profession, come up with a solution to this.  Either money has to be spent ensuring that teachers have access to the best educational research out there, or teachers need to become better researchers themselves.