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My first semester as a teacher – part 9

…continued from here

Yes, I sold my soul to the administration of my school.  In exchange, I got to keep my job.

Well, actually how it worked out was this.  We had a special department meeting about a week before grades were due in which it was discussed that if our students did not pass our classes at a high enough rate, that it was clear we were inadequate teachers and maybe wouldn’t be asked to come back next year.  We were even told that about 60% of our students should pass our courses overall, that was the "expected" number in our school.

Whoa!  Wait a minute, I thought, that’s not going to happen!  I have one class where I don’t even have 60% attendance for the year, how am I going to make these students pass?  Am I going to be fired if they don’t pass?

I went back to my classes and made sure they were all aware where they stood in terms of homework.  We had sessions during class time when the students were encouraged to "work on" (read copy from each other) their missing homework assignments from earlier in the year.  All of my students got a full 20% participation score!  Almost all of them had 20% for handing in all of their homework!  I was getting there.  But wait! In NYC students need 65% to pass, not 50%.  Fortunately we did have a few tests from the year, and I did some quick math.  Let’s see 65 – 40 = 25 points.  Okay my students need 25 points to pass.  I shared the math with the students.  That meant that they needed to make up 25 points from the 60 points the tests were worth, which meant that anyone who had 42% or more overall on their tests could pass the semester.   Oh, and anyone who achieved at least a 60% was bumped up to the magic 65%, the rest were moved to either 50% or 55% depending on whether I felt they were trying or not making any effort at all.

Whew!  That worked out to about 70% of the students in my two strong classes and about 30% of the students in my weakest class.  I felt a bit guilty but decided that the attendance rate was poor enough in that class that I would be forgiven for the poor grades.  Besides, I’d carefully kept my phone call log from the semester with the several dozen phone calls I’d attempted to make to encourage my students to come to class.  That should cover me.

What sickens me about this experience now is that I was encouraged by the administration to be much more concerned about the numbers of students passing and my job security than the quality of work I was doing.  As long as my students pass at that magic 60% or greater mark every year, I felt like I was okay, I could keep working in the school.

Actually doing report cards in New York city was very easy.  Incredibly easy, I’ve never had it so easy since.  Every teacher gets bubble sheets from the school, with one row for each student in each of their classes, and carefully filled in the bubbles for the percentage grade, and then choose between 2 and 3 appropriate comments for the students, which were also selected by filling in bubbles.  Lots and lots of bubbles sheets, that’s what I remember from grading in NYC.

The end of the semester soon came.  I handed in my bubble sheets and looked forward to a fresh start.  I had survived a semester teaching in NYC.  I had developed some friendships which have lasted since.  The students had come to give me some respect and I had learned a tremendous amount about to survive in Brooklyn.  My life would never be the same.  Since New York I’ve had the confidence to face anything, and this experience will always stay with me.  I’ve lived and taught in 3 other countries and although I miss friends and family from those countries, only the city of New York do I truly miss itself.

My first semester as a teacher – part 8

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As the Christmas break loomed in front of me, I began to finally feel more confident in my teaching.  I had more classes which seem to run smoother, not many more, but a few.  A lot of these things though, in reflection, I really don’t think had to do with me.

First, in November our school’s cap on suspending students was lifted as we’d had our annual Title one attendance taken.  Students who were extremely disruptive, even dangerous in the school were now out of school on long holidays.  This meant that my classes were smaller, and that the most disruptive students were generally gone.  It’s not fair for those students, but it made it a lot easier to manage the other 90%.

The second thing that happened is that my 10th grade students decided to declare a truce and finally admit defeat.  They were neither going to make me quit, nor make me cry in class.  I found out from one of them that they had successfully made 3 teachers quit the year before I started and were going for a 4th.  This revelation actually made me feel better, I realized that some of their misbehaviour was deliberate and intended to destroy my self-confidence.  Why did I feel better? Mostly just because it wasn’t entirely due to my bad teaching.

And my teaching was bad.  I mean, you probably remember your first year, it was horrible.  You did everything wrong!  We all did.  We lacked the experience necessary to do our jobs right.  In some schools, the students are forgiving and will even make an effort to help you out.  In others, such as the one I was in, the wolf pack instinct kicks in and the students go for your hamstring.

The third thing that happened during the semester, which always makes me sad when I think about it, is that kids started dropping out of school.  My M$AA class (see an earlier post for the reference) started with 17 students by the beginning of the year.  There was another similar class with 17 students as well.  The second semester they combined these two classes, and by the end of the year I had 6 students who were still attending school.  6 students out of 34!  The only advantage to this was the students who were still attending actually had SOME interest in learning and were more willing to participate.  One of these students passed the state exam with a reasonably strong score for our school (he ended up in the honors stream the next year) and 3 others barely passed.

Finally, I think my teaching improved a bit.  I started to experiment with a larger variety of activities.  I used the time I had with my 10th grade students in the computer lab more wisely.  My classroom management was better, etc… I finally had enough experience with my students that I was angry less often when they were disruptive.

Of all of the things which I do miss from my time in NYC, I am certainly glad I’m not angry all the time anymore.  I used to spend at least an hour each school day angry at someone or just the system in general.  I shouted at students in frustration, and even at coworkers.  I was often very unpleasant to be around.  Since I’ve matured and the teaching I do is in a much more student friendly environment, I am almost never angry not even when students are deliberately trying to antagonize me.

Life was starting to become bearable.  That was until I sold my soul to save my job.

final part

My first semester as a teacher – part 7

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There were some really bright moments during my first semester too.  I remember the first time my grade 10 class was completely silent.  They actually quieted down and we working away diligently on one of my many worksheets that year, and then one student blurted out, "Oh my god we are quiet! I can’t believe it!" and broke the spell.  It was really nice while it lasted though because I felt like it was possible to feel successful.  I don’t know, but for some reason in my first few years as a teacher, I felt that silence in a classroom was critical to being successful, I’m less convinced now.

I also remember when one of my students who was extremely challenged learned something new in my class.  He was actually a nice kid but very disobedient because he was always bored.  He towered over me at 6 foot 4 inches and was in the 300 pound range, so he was physically intimidating.  He struggled a lot in school, and by the age of 21 had amassed 0 credits in high school.  His big accomplishment in math in my year?  Realizing that the symbols shown to him in a math question were instructions to do something.  I was so proud of him when he told me in class his discovery and the pride in his voice was evident.  Sometimes the small things stick with you.

There was also the time we played Math Jeopardy in class with my really low achievers and at the end of the class one of the students said, "I really learned stuff today!  Let’s do this again tomorrow!"  and two of the other students agreed with her.  Almost all of the students participated nicely and I really felt like I had engaged the class.

When my 10th grade students asked where I was going to be going for the Christmas holidays, I felt pretty good about that too, because it meant that despite their misbehaviour, they were curious about me.  Curiousity about a teacher in NYC is pretty close to respect in my books.

I also had a couple of laughs although not in front of the students when I could help it.  As part of a game, I asked the students to guess which city in Canada I was going to be visiting during the holidays (the correct answer was Vancouver).  One of them said, "Winnipeg?" then "Toronto?" and I was pretty excited, these kids knew their geography!  Unfortunately another student said, "Connecticut?" and it was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud.

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My first semester as a teacher – part 6

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Not everything about living in New York city was rosy.  Failure in the NYC schools was systemic.  It seemed that at all levels the system just didn’t work.  I spent nearly 3 months waiting for my first paycheck because it took that long to process all the new teachers each year.  There was the option for emergency checks, but these had to be paid off from your first paycheck.  So I remember getting an emergency check so I could buy some clothes and food, and then a week later getting $0 on my first paycheck.  I was not impressed.  A couple of years later, I would count myself lucky, another teacher who arrived in the system waited 6 months for his first paycheck.

I also had to pass these exams for certification in New York.  I had two years to do the exams, but I had heard that they were "super hard" and that I might need to do them a couple of times, so I signed up for an exam as soon as I could.  The first exam I took was the Liberal Arts and Science exam, which as I wrote it, seemed to me to be a glorified reading test.  I finished it in an hour and a quarter and walked out of the four exam feeling a bit bewildered.  When I got my results a few weeks later, it turned out I had earned a perfect score.  I decided to wait a year for the other two exams I would have to take to qualify as a New York state teacher, confident I would pass them on my first try.

Our school had serious organizational problems as well.  One year, all of the 11th grade schedules had to be redone.  In another year, we lost 3 of 5 administrators.  During the 3 years I worked in my school, I had 4 different Principals, and 8 different Assistant Principals.  Each year saw 3 or 4 teachers quit in the first month, and our final year saw a greater than 50% staff exodus from the school.

Just getting supplies was difficult.  Every request for every pencil and piece of paper had to go through a man named Mr. Santiago.  After a couple of months in the school, we copied the other teachers who just called him Santiago, having dropped the honoriam out of a lack of respect.  Some examples.  We used legal sized paper in the school, not because we needed the extra 3 inches at the bottom of the sheet which made everything we printed or photocopied look amateurish, but because apparently legal sized paper is cheaper.  We had pens for use on our exams which didn’t work at all, or ran out immediately, until I discovered that you could fold the top of the pen over once, and "kick-start" the ink in the pen.  Incidently, this discovery rescued our exams at the end of our year when we had 5 boxes of pens carefully dolled out to us to use for the exams, none of which worked until my fix.

Attendance had to be done by pencil on bubble sheets at the beginning of every 3rd period of the day.  We waited until then to do attendance because it kept our numbers up as many of the students were chronically late.  We were a title 1 school, with 90% of our students eligible for the free crappy school lunches.  Every year I was there we also saw no suspensions at the school until some magical day in November when our allotment was calculated only because the suspensions counted against our allotment.  One day in January I remember 2 out 17 of my students showing up for class, and the following day, not a single student came.

Our school had very prescribed lesson plan structure.  I had to have an "AIM" written on the top left hand corner of the board, and my name and the date in the top right hand corner.  Every class was supposed to start with a discussion of the homework, and end with the assignment of more homework for the following day.  If I didn’t do these things, then I would receive an "Unsatisfactory" (or U in teacher slang) rating for my lesson, regardless of the success or failure of my teaching. 

My first U came in my first lesson.  I started the lesson with having students complete their presentations from the previous class (with the aforementioned information visible on the board already) and then when they finished after 10 minutes or so, got up and taught a short mini-lesson and assigned some exercises to do.  When I got my report back from my Assistant Principal, who incidentally didn’t work at my school but was actually covering two schools, he claimed that I had "started class" 10 minutes later than I had.  I pointed this out, he said that the presentations didn’t count.  He didn’t even include anything about the presentations at all in his write-up of my lesson.  It was a hatchet job, pure and simple, with no way to win.

That was one of the lessons I learned well while teaching in NYC.  There was no way to win, the problem was too big, and it was always someone else’s problem.  It still sickens me that people who do not care about the children of NYC are allowed to manage its schools, patrol its hallways and teach in its classrooms.  The people who really cared spent everyday being beaten down by the system and encouraged to quit or move on by mindless bureaucracy and rules.

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My first semester as a teacher – part 4

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One of the things I learned about early was my power to kick students out of class.  I was amazed, no one would have done this on a regular basis in British Columbia, you’d make the kids stand outside the classroom.  Not here though, I had this god power that could make a kid disappear, at least for 20 minutes while he was processed in the Dean’s office, and more than likely, sent back to the purgatory that was my classroom.  I abused this power at least once a day that first semester, although there were times when it was warranted.

The first time I had a fight in my classroom, it erupted without warning.  I was shocked.  Two girls were suddenly shouting at each other about something and their classmates held them apart while they verbally sparred.  I ran to the door and yelled for security, as per my training during the summer.  I remembered well the warnings not to get between the combatants because you never knew if one of them was going to draw a knife.  Within seconds of the call for security, two security guards and one of the Assistant Principals ran into the room.  The Assistant Principal was not a large woman but she carried herself with amazing confidence and when she entered the room, some of the children shyed away from her.  The first thing she did was to place her body between the two girls, but she made sure never touched either of them with her hands.  The two girls tried their best to get past her, reaching their arms around this tiny woman, but she stubbornly kept them apart until the security guards managed to get them under control and out of my room.  I stood their in stunned silence, having never experienced such hatred come out of such young people before.

That year fights were commonplace in my room.  By the end of the year I felt a bit more confident and began to get a feeling for when it would be safe for me to intervene while I waited for security and when I should stay the hell away from the fighters.  I knew already that most of my students were pussycats in wolves’ clothing but a small number were predators in training.

I also remember the first time I connected with my students really deeply.  I was attempting to teach the students how to solve quadratic equations.  After unsuccessfully attempting to show them how to factor, and then failing to show them how to solve by graphing, I decided to go for 0 for 3 and teach them the quadratic formula.  I wrote down the formula and remembered the advice of the cool Assistant Principal from the summer, "Make it memorable."  I told the students that using the formula was pretty easy, and they mostly ignored me.  I then said that the hard part was remembering the formula itself and I was going to show them a trick.  As I started to sing the quadratic formula song, the students started to quiet down.  By the end of the song, they were hooting and hollering and begging me to sing it again.  I sang it 4 more times, and by the 4th time, 3 of the students joined in and most of them were keeping time to the music.

Now I can’t saw that the tune was very good, but I’m pretty sure it was the first time most of the kids had ever seen a teacher act a bit silly.  They were impressed.  So impressed that every single class for the next three weeks, the three brave students would enter class singing the song.  I’m in contact with some of my students from this year and they tell me they still remember the song.  It might be the only thing they remember from that entire year.  Not surprisingly, it was one of the few topics where most of the students were able to use the formula, as I made promises to sing it again after every time the class finished 3 or 4 exercises.

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My first semester as a teacher – part 3

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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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