Yesterday ending the first complete week of teaching at my new school, the 3rd with students. Our first week we only had freshmen on Monday, to walk their schedules, and the 2nd week was interrupted by Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah. We see our classes on alternate days, A Day - B Day, each time for extended periods. That first week periods were a bit short because we saw our advisory students every morning, the past two weeks only on Fridays. On advisory days we have around 70 minutes with them, on others 90. And now, after 3 calendar weeks, I have meet with each class 6 times, equal to roughly 12 ordinary meetings. The year begins to get a rhythm.
I begin to get to know my students, not merely from what their parents told me in the phone calls I made home or from the information sheets they filled out the first day of classes. I have seen them enough, both in my room and elsewhere in the building to begin to understand things about them. I have seen some play soccer, watched others walk down the hallways hand in hand, answered their questions, and most of all, begun to see how their minds work as we engage in class discussion, sometimes on the assigned curriculum, sometimes on other things on their mind.
We have begun the process of building the relationships essential to productive learning, the development of trust. I demonstrate trust to them in answering their questions, in sharing things about myself that might effect them, and only then can I impose upon them my expectation that they will travel outside their comfort zone and take the intellectual risks where failure is possible, but from which they will most likely learn the most.
This has been a productive, but also a difficult week.
Let me explain.
I knew when I accepted this job that the culture of the school was different than what I had experienced in 13 years in the high school from which I retired. That school had a long-established Science and Technology program, and those parents were actively involved. They also tended to be more educated than the parents of my current students, and of higher socio-economic status. The culture where I now teach is in the process of changing, as our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program is still evolving, somewhat rapidly. The principal who led that change for three years (and who hired me) was himself a graduate of my old school. He is no longer there, although the new principal was his close associate and has the complete trust and respect of both the community and the faculty.
I experienced one part of that difference Wednesday Night, Back to School Night. At my previous school, I would expect parents of at least 2/3 if not more of my Advanced Placement students (mainly from our Science and Tech program) to show up, and perhaps 20-30% of those in my other classes. None of my classes had parents of more than half my students show up - the largest number of families was 8 in a class with 28 students on the role. The vast majority of my students are from our STEM program - of my current 86 AP students, I believe there are 7 who are not in STEM, and in my STEM classes all of course are.
It is not that they don't care. There is a fierce commitment to the school. But remember those socio-economics. For some families it is simply not possible - one parent works in the evening, the other has responsibility for other children. Or there may be only one car in the family and the parent with the evening job needs it to commute.
I saw families where the parent(s) who came also had small child(ren) with them, bringing them along to keep an eye on them but also to meet the teachers to whom they entrust their children.
I had multiple parents thank me for the phone calls home, including from some where I had merely left a phone message.
Wednesday was a long day - I arrived at school at 6:20 in the morning and did not leave the building until about 9:15 in the evening to drive home. The night before I had stayed up watching soccer and talking with my wife, so that in those two days I only had a total of 9 hours of sleep and was really dragging. Thursday a lot of us were dragging, but we got through our classes.
Our STEM program may be young and in development, and our socioeconomics may be different, but I still have many truly amazing and committed students. My STEM policy class requires students to prepare a policy brief on a policy somehow related to STEM issues as the culmination of their semester with me, and to present it an outside panel. A lot of those students want to see changes in their STEM program, so some are taking the initiative to propose changes to the program. When I informed the assistant superintendent whose brief includes both AP and STEM programs (and who was in our building twice last week and talked with me both times) she was delighted. Those students are juniors. One of my seniors is one of the county-wide SGA reps to the school board, so she gave up her lunch and part of an AP LIT class to meet with that policy class yesterday.
Meanwhile my 7 Environmental Media students have to do a media campaign on some environmental issue by the end of the year. Last year the two teams (four boys, three girls), entered a competition and each won money for a school-based environmental project. Those projects continue this year, and they will both do their media campaigns around them, and also present at a national conference. I claim no credit for the latter - their teacher last year is a real dynamo and has helped facilitate their success. As I saw the assistant superintendent Thursday while they were in my computer lab (I have 7 working computers in a lab attached to my classroom), I invited her to come in and meet with them. She made sure to learn their names, and dialogued with them about their projects. At the end she shook the hand of each and thanked them by name.
As I have gotten to know the faculty, I am confident not merely of their competence, but of their quality and dedication to their students. While I was told that I was brought it to challenge students and to expand their horizons, it is not as if their other teachers do not do that. I am shy by nature, but I have spent time talking informally, including with people in other departments. People feel free to offer ideas to those in other courses and the ideas are usually welcomed. I experienced this from our art teacher, who also teaches a STEM course (in the architecture of the art deco period) who suggested that I explore with my STEM policy students some current STEM related policies in depth, and suggested in particular issues around nuclear power. I have enough flexibility that he made that suggestion to me yesterday morning before school, and when I saw that class 3rd period in the middle of our day, I was able to devote about 40% of the class to that purpose - the senior from SGA had already volunteered to come in for the rest of the period.
Building of relationships is critical in the way I teach. So is continuity. I have some concerns about the latter, because it is looking like I might miss as many as 5-6 days because of ongoing treatment of my wife's cancer. Because she is doing so well, her medical team is seriously exploring being very aggressive. When a decision is made of if - and if, then how - we travel the next path, I will explain that to this community.
I have already explained it to my students assuring them that I will do all I can in such a circumstance to maintain continuity with them. I have the support of both the school administration and the assistant superintendent for the resources to ensure the academic success of my students. That support and the trust of my students makes it easier for me to properly balance my responsibilities, which of course begin with my responsibilities to my wife.
This weekend I will do two writing assignments only tangentially related to my teaching. One is a chapter for a book, 4-15 pages double spaced, that I must deliver tomorrow. The other is a review of the terrific new book by Diane Ravitch, which will be up on this site on Tuesday, Constitution Day, the date of official publication.
I have current commitments for reviewing three other books, one of which I have not yet read. I may accept a commitment for a review for a university publication in Canada, although that would not be due for 3-6 months. But otherwise I am cutting back drastically on my other activities - my focus will be my wife and my students, and to do justice to both I must largely step back from other activities. I will in the next few weeks attempt to get to Fall athletic events - I have already seen a boys varsity soccer game, and I have multiple students in volleyball, football, boys JV soccer, and girls soccer. Some are inviting me to their games, and before my wife would begin her next round of treatment, I am going to try to clear time to see as many of them as I can, despite the distance from home.
I will also be here far less frequently. That can be seen in the past week (as measured by the Jotter calendar, which runs Saturday to Friday) where I posted only three diaries. I will glance at the work of others, offering recommendations and tips, and occasional comments, but as important as this community has been and still is to me. it is of far lesser importance than either my wife or my students or even our cats. I know people here will understand.
I am also largely detached from the current political cycle, even though this is the most important year for elections in Virginia where I live. I am not attending political events and fundraisers, even for friends - although I MAY make an exception for the annual DC Netroots Nation event this next week. It is of course a matter of time, but it will also be of money - we may well be looking at thousands of dollars of unreimbursed expenses for the forthcoming treatment for my wife, which while they will be partially offset by our ability to deduct from taxable income, nevertheless limit our financial flexibility in the short term. Because I have returned to work full-time, it is not a crushing financial burden, and we are more than grateful for the access to the health care she will have as a result, but it does severely limit our flexibility for other things.
I drive 45 miles each way. Because I have a satellite radio, I usually listen to music, sometimes classical, sometimes older rock (50s-60s-70s). Occasionally I switch to FM to check the traffic and the news. I allow enough time not to feel rushed, even if as happened Tuesday I get stuck in traffic for half an hour when the road I am traveling gets closed so a helicopter can land to address an issue in the other direction, and I am just past the exit to get around it. The drive is more leisurely in the morning, usually taking about 45 minutes, but in the afternoon it will always be around an hour and sometimes more. Still, that time gives me the opportunity to reflect - on the way to school to prepare myself for the forthcoming day, to think about what I want to accomplish, on the way home to decompress, to reflect on what worked and what did not go as planned and why. It is not merely travel time. I do not shut off my teacher mind the second i walk out of my classroom.
I am 67 years old. I am still adjusting to what my new job requires of me, changing other aspects of how I live accordingly. I am happy to do so.
Students now greet me in the hallway and in the cafeteria. And when, outside the confines of my classroom where I know their names by where they sit, I can respond with their names, they are delighted. It is that, it is the invitations to watch their athletic endeavors, that begins to reassure me that in some way I am reaching them.
For better or worse, I am a teacher.
Working with adolescents is what most gives me energy, even as it demands the same.
I hope this year is the start of something, and look forward especially to the idea that i will see students in my care over more than one year: my advisory is all freshmen in STEM, and I will be their advisory teacher throughout their high school career, if they and I remain in the school. AP Government is sophomores, STEM policy is juniors, and my other two courses are seniors.
If I do continue in the classroom, my one commitment to this community is to continue to share that experience, not merely because it is who I am, but because it informs what I think and express on other issues - educational policy to be sure, but the rest of life around us, as I am blessed by being able to see the world in part through the eyes of the young people now my co-learners, to whom we will be passing on responsibility for the world.
Thanks for reading.