Yesterday was the end of 1st semester. Before I collapsed around 10:30 last night I had all my grades in (except for four students out the last two days whose grades I will update on Tuesday). We are now on a four-day weekend - teachers are on unpaid furlough for Monday. And now, maybe now, I have some time to look back and reflect.
I said I collapsed. I went to bed, and did not finally get up until 8:30 this morning. I am exhausted, and with one brief 10 minute break to get up and feed the cats at 5:20 so they would let me go back to sleep, I was out. I am still tired, even with a cup of coffee and some bagels behind me.
That level of exhaustion, and its causes, are li9ke a flashing red light - I now realize that I must seriously consider whether this should be my last year in the classroom. That is part of this morning's reflection as well.
I invite you to continue reading as I sort through thoughts and feelings from half a year in the classroom.
I have had to make major adjustments to how I am teaching to meet the needs of my students. Some of that takes time and energy. The time I can clear, but as I approach 65 in 4 months and day I no longer have the extra reserves of energy. In order to sustain a proper level of commitment to my students I have to do less and less outside the classroom. I no longer coach, for example, either sports or musical theater. This past cycle my political activity was significantly less than it had been the previous two. And still I run out of energy.
The changes have had some positive effect, as I could see as I examine grades. I have one class where first quarter 12 kids failed and an additional 5 had had Ds. Since I guarantee a C if they will simply do all their work on time, pay attention, and then ask for help if they don't understand, you can readily realize how many were not doing their work. This quarter only 4 are failing (one of whom, up for expulsion, is being withdrawn). One additional student is getting a D. I have been able to reach that class.
There is a similar pattern in my other lower-level class. There are 3 failing, one of whom was taken out of the country for two weeks to his parents home country for his birthday - it was an unexcused absence, and the work he missed caused him to fail. That class has 4 Ds, but all of those are kids who struggle, and passing is actually an achievement for them. Now that I have them believing in themselves, I hope to see further improvement.
My intermediate level class showed improvement overall, although some students have slipped since we returned from winter break. They all passed, and the only D is a student with real organizational problems. Still for the very first time he got a B on an exam this past week.
The three classes of Advanced Placement Students present a somewhat different picture. Out of 112 students, one actually failed this past quarter. Sadly, she is one of my few seniors, and this may well affect her college admissions. She never came for extra help - she cannot come after school, since she is only in school half a day, and has an internship in the afternoon. She did not do all of her work, and even when given a chance to improve test scores, did not make an effort.
I have changed how I do tests for both sets of classes. My non-AP kids do not get multiple choice questions from me, although to prepare them for the state exam I will begin using released questions for warmups, homeworks, and practice. Instead they get the questions ahead of time, but on the exam I ask them in a different order. This serves to reinforce the connection between definitions and terms, and they are starting to retain material much better, and thus are able to understand more completely.
In Advanced Placement I no longer curve the multiple choice portions of exams. Instead, they have an opportunity to look up the questions they missed and resubmit for 1/2 credit provided they can give me a proper explanation of why they wrong and why this answer is correct. It focuses them on learning and self-correcting. As a result their understanding is improving. This, however, puts more of a burden on me. Consider - I have 112 AP students. If they take a multiple choice exam with 50 questions, I can score all those by scantron in the space of perhaps 15 minutes. Now presume that on average they miss 10 questions. That's 1120 corrections I have to check that are (a) now correct and (b) properly explained. Still, seeing the improvement in learning, the lessening of tensions when they take an exam, it is worth it instructionally, even if it is exhausting.
Academically I can have a certain amount of satisfaction. But teaching adolescents, academics are not all I must address. I have to deal with behavioral issues, with self-confidence, and unfortunately with issues like bullying and harassment. That is less of an issue within my classroom - by now most of my students understand that when I look at them a certain way they need to cut out what they are doing. And if I get very quiet someone is in big trouble. Still, even though they by now know me and know the limits of what I will tolerate, some totally lack self-control and that creates problems. I have a few who think they get to pick and choose when they pay attention to rules and procedures. In one class, the really problematic one that had 12 failures first quarter, I finally had to point out the realities of the world to them this week. It was Thursday, the day our AFJROTC students are in uniform. I wound up explaining 4 things to them
- If a policeman gave them an instruction to move on and they refused and argued back, they might find themselves handcuffed for interfering.
- If they were in the military and argued back with a superior they would find themselves on the way to the stockade/brig.
- If they were working and spoke and acted that way to a superior, they might well find themselves unemployed.
- If they mouthed off in the real world it might be the last thing they ever said - that actually got the attention of a couple of kids. We are not a gang-infested school, but kids are aware of gangs in their communities and nearby communities. Some have seen or experienced significant violence. And one young man sitting in that class was suspended for 5 days last month because another kid bumped him in the hall and he lost it and beat the other kid bloody.
I know the kids I teach. By now I know those with family problems, like a young lady who has been sexually abused, or the kids with parents going through messy divorces. We have lived through the 2 of a set of triplets (the third goes to another school) whose father was dying of lung cancer in his early 40s - he finally passed about 2 weeks ago. Because I made the effort to contact all the parents at the start of the year - exhausting and time consuming with more than 190 students - I have a further connection in most cases with the adults responsible for them, and that gives me some ability to reach out to the kids. By now, most of the kids know that I care for them, which is why I am somewhat insistent on certain things.
I have 192 on my roles right now. There are more than 2700 kids in the school. Some I have taught or coached in previous years, or I have taught or coached an older sibling, a friend, a neighbor. But most know me perhaps by reputation or because I encounter them in the hallway. The behavior problems I see of kids arriving in my classes are a microcosm of the school as a whole. We have far too many students who lack appropriate self-control and discipline. And unfortunately not only is that problem getting worse, it is the near unanimous opinion of our faculty that we are on the point of being a dangerous environment - for students and for adults. When kids are supposed to be out of the building by 3:30 unless in an activity supervised by an adult, yet a 4:45 a teacher encounters two students in a hallway with a large grill working frying up a whole batch of bacon, perhaps you can get a sense of our concern!
It is not that the kids are necessarily bad. Some are, but there are not that many. Some act out because it is the only way they know how to get attention from adults. Some have never had their behavior properly corrected, and don't know any better. Some have learned that the adults responsible for them will not hold them to account for anything. Some desperately want a sense of belonging and they think their inappropriate behavior, their violations of school policy on dress, cellphones, MP3 players and the like make them cool. Some come to school only to hang with their buddies.
These are a minority. They are a relatively small minority. But they are a significant enough minority that they tilt the culture of the school to something that is not healthy.
Some we can turn around. If they are in ROTC their instructors have some leverage over them. If they play a sport, the coaches have and will use leverage over them. But take some who are athletes - they fail to maintain academic eligibility, so they are not on a team and at that point their coaches lose that leverage.
There are problems with some of our AP kids as well. We used to give letter grades. Thus I could get some of these kids to stop obsessing - if they already had a 94% in my class, it was going to kill them if it droppe to a 92%. For some reason our school system decided to go to pure numeric grades. Consider this, a simplified version since our kids take 7 or sometimes 8 classes at a time.
First kid - 94, 91, 90, 90 = A, A, A, A = 4.0
Second kid - 98, 89, 89, 89 = A, B, B, B = 3.25
First kid = 91.25
Second kid = 91.25
Now some might argue those new GPAs are a fairer indicator
But now here comes the problem. There is a difference between 94 and a 92, and kids now obsess about those differences - in fact, we are seeing some indication of a greater likelihood to cheat even among kids who have As because the one or two points difference now matters significantly.
So far I have reflected mainly upon my role as a teacher - in my classroom, and in my building with responsibilities for student safety.
By my own choice, my role is larger, as lead union rep. This is a time when teachers feel under attack, when our salaries have been cut - remember that forthcoming furlough day? It will be the third of 4, and we have had stipends for advanced training and national board certification eliminated. As school systems obsess more about student performance (an obsession that actually interferes with learning and thus with performance over the long term) teachers are increasingly feeling micromanaged, being buried with paperwork requirements that do little to help student learning or behavior. All of that comes to me, in representing the teachers to the county-wide union, in chairing the Faculty Advisory Council that tries to address in-building issues with the principal and other administrators. I am known to be able to communicate with top level administrators in the system and with several of the school board members.
Then of course these issues are not unique to our building or our school system. For better or worse, I now have a voice to which some listen, when I write, or when I talk out of view, by phone or email, with policy makers. I am asked to help organize groups of teachers across the country, to give voice to their concerns. I am approached by book authors and people putting out policy briefs and studies to make those visible to policy makers and the general public, to try to help people understand that there are real crises in education, and much of what our current thrust in policy does not only misses the point but makes things worse, in some cases far worse.
I have had to pull back from some of what I was doing. I was becoming so exhausted I was making errors of judgment in my teaching. I do not take a safe path in teaching - I am willing to push the limits in order to reach the kids. That requires me to be very alert, to pay close attention to what is happening with all my students. I missed some things, and that was very unfair to some of the students. I have to accept that I cannot do all I might want.
And for my sanity, I feel I must keep some contact and involvement with issues other than education. I teach government, and I need to model for my students what it means to be involved with and concerned about issues in the larger society in which we live. I need to read about human rights, about economics, and I often increase my own understanding by writing my reactions, hence some of my non-educational postings here.
But I am exhausted. I am frustrated. Yes, I see some improvements among my students this 2nd quarter. But at what cost? Can I sustain that for another half year? And then for another year beyond that? I simply don't know.
I am increasingly finding doing meaningful and effective teaching is becoming harder and harder. Much of that is for things outside of our school, although I can and will work on what we can do within our building to prevent teachers from being crushed by those outside forces. I feel as if I am bailing a boat in heavy seas using only a coffee cup - I am getting overwhelmed, and the task seems hopeless.
What is even more scary is to listen to students, in some cases very bright students who do work hard, who begin to question whether working hard and learning is going to make any difference. They see the economic pressures of their parents. They worry about government shutdowns. They feel the pressures they are under, and wonder to what end. I am supposed to help them with those concerns, and yet how do I do that while still being honest with them? I struggle with that constantly.
I do not make major decisions when I am exhausted. I do reflect, then step away, then come back to see how much of that reflection still holds when I am more rested, more able to think clearly.
And so I will do with this torrent of words.
Before I come to any decisions, I will still continue to try to make a difference. Thus my next posting on education will be about an event this summer being organized by teachers and parents and others to try to make a difference on our educational policy. I have stepped somewhat away from the heavy leadership responsibilities I was carrying, but I am still very involved in trying to help make it a success. I will post about that either tomorrow or Monday.
Yet even as I make no decisions right now, I realize that I must seriously consider the possibility I will not be in the same school next year, that in fact I might not even be in a classroom. That prospect saddens me. It frightens me as well. But I have to acknowledge that the possibility seems with each passing month this year one I must consider more seriously, even as I have not yet thought of alternatives.
In the background I hear a Dvorak String Quartet, I stop, and listen attentively for a few moments. As I stopped typing two of the cats decided now was a time to cuddle me. I am almost 65. How much longer do I have to listen to music, truly listen? How much longer will my life be blessed by the love of our felines? How much of these things, important to who and what I am, have I been missing? How much do I need them?
That, too, is part of my reflection.
Reflection is probably too generous an expression for this mess of words and feelings.
Having typed them, and now being about to post them, some of the inner turmoil is lessened. I can enjoy the music, which continues, and the warmth of the cats. I do not feel obligated to "do" anything.
Half a year . . . with another half to go.
Still here - in school, on the blogs.
But in the future? I do not know about either. . . .
Thanks for reading.