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On My 9th Year of Teaching – Looking Back at Year 1 August 19, 2012

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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This week I’ll go back to school. It will be my 9th year working as a credentialed teacher in a public school.

I took the scenic route to becoming a teacher. I taught art in NYC. I worked as a substitute on and off. I was a District Intern with the Los Angeles Unified School District for 10 months teaching in a modified bilingual classroom. There was no toilet paper. The jello made the kids sick. My own sons were acting up. I quit and sold my blue pocket charts at a yard sale.

Two years later, I tried another alternative program to credentialing and was placed in a classroom of high risk 5th grade students. I didn’t have the experience at that time to deal with them. Every day after school the custodian would push his broom through my classroom and say, “These are bad kids, very bad kids.” The enrollment numbers were down, so I was first to go. After only 15 days in the classroom, I couldn’t leave fast enough as I was done – or more accurately, done in.

Yet, no matter how many times I decided I was DONE with teaching, I always returned. No sooner had I sold those blue pocket charts than I was out buying more. Ultimately, I realized that it’s when I’m in the classroom that I feel most alive.

In 2004, I finally earned my California Teaching Credential. I was 50 years old. What can I say? I’m a late bloomer.

Did you know that half of all teachers leave teaching within the first five years? Looking back, it’s a wonder I even made it through my first year. It’s a year still seared in my memory as no class in pedagogy could have prepared me for what was in store.

It was only the second week of school when the principal came to the door of my classroom. This was not a good sign. Had I filled out the attendance incorrectly? He led me to the office where I met the father of one of my students. The man, head in hands, was weeping.”She was just so stressed,” he kept saying. I wasn’t quite sure what this was about.

It was only the next day that we learned his wife had committed suicide by shooting herself in the garage. And the kids? They were still at home watching TV as he had told them their mother was at work. I’d never felt so at a loss for what to do/say in my life. Several days passed and the boy returned to school. I bought a heart-shaped pillow where he could sometimes rest back in the library when he felt sad.

A new boy, Ezekiel, joined our class. He was adorable and so smart that he’d skipped first grade. He immediately befriended the boy who’d lost his mother. I remember thinking, “This is a good thing” as they were both such bright and kind-hearted boys.

But after Thanksgiving, Ezekiel did not come back to school. Could he have gone on a trip to see relatives I wondered? Then came the call. He’d collapsed at home and was at the hospital on life support. Could the children pray for him? They did – with all the strength their little second-grade hearts could muster.

The next day the principal and I drove to the hospital to see this precious boy. When a child was pushed by us in the hall on a gurney, the principal asked, “Was that him?” I honestly didn’t know. I was used to seeing Ezekiel in his school uniform with those big sparkly eyes. The family was gathered. The mood was somber. He’d just collapsed one evening at home. It all happened in the blink of an eye.

Ezekiel was taken off life support the next day. Crisis counselors from the district descended on my classroom. I’d never felt so at a loss for what to do/say in my life. But the words eventually came to me. We wrote a poem. We talked about how someone is never really gone unless you forget them.

At Ezekiel’s funeral, his first grade teacher was the first to speak. I will never forget what she said.

“Teaching is a dangerous job because you can fall in love with other people’s children.”

That’s the truth. And so begins another year.

Photo Credit: Jan Marshall

One Bad Apple May 30, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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The Los Angeles Times recently ran a story about how difficult it is to get rid of teachers, who’ve been deemed, for one reason or another, to be incompetent, but have tenure. Yes, I have tenure, and yes, the first two years I taught,  I made sure I flew under the radar and didn’t make any waves because I wanted that tenure.  That said, I’m a damn good teacher.  

Actually, the majority of the teachers I’ve worked with, and work with now are good, if not excellent, teachers.  Here’s the bottom line.  Teaching is TOO much work (without commensurate pay), to do this job unless you’re passionate about children and education.  (Being a Bleeding Heart or a Masochist can also take you far in this profession.)  But there are those who should hang up their spurs and ride off into the sunset.  I don’t pretend to have the answer to this problem, but I do have a story.  So, I give you Exhibit A (or shall I say Exhibit B, as in burnout).

I was in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD – Yes, it sounds like LOST and how appropriate is that?) Intern program back in 1997 when California was implementing class size reduction.  Teachers were in short supply, so anyone with a pulse was fair game. After six weeks of intensive training in classroom management, I was ready to be dropped behind enemy lines into a classroom.

My mission – Take over  a modified bilingual class (3 English speakers and 17 Spanish speakers) mid-year.   The teacher, “Dr. B ,” was moving to an administrative post at the school.  I was to observe him for three days (Think – Sitting at the foot of the master.)  Then the class would be MINE.  I was nervous, but excited.  I brought along paper to take notes, as I had so much to learn.  I needn’t have bothered.

Dr. B took immediately took a shine to me.  You should know that when you’re the only adult in a classroom all day, any contact with someone over three feet tall is a cause for celebration.   He pulled up a chair for me to sit in, then sat down beside me.  I thought I was going to see him in action, but he rarely got out of the chair.  There we sat side by side for three days – Sort of like a road trip only there were 20 others along for the ride whose final destination was supposed to be Knowledge.

Dr. B assigned the students a lot of seat work.  Copy this.  Copy that. Recopy this.  Recopy that.  This freed him up to regale me with stories about how he’d worked as a mercenary in Central America. Oh, the stories I could tell you!  I hadn’t realized until then that being a killer for hire was actually a career option.

These were obviously Dr. B’s glory days and he still played the part.   He drove an old Jeep and walked around the campus with an Australian outback hat that made him look like a deranged Teddy Roosevelt (sans monocle).  His hobby was hunting wild boar. When I mentioned I had a pet pig, I saw a glint in his eye.  I have to admit that I actually enjoyed talking to Dr. B.  But, what did I learn from the master?

When it was time for lunch, Dr B would tell the class a good 15-20 minutes ahead of time to get ready. He’d have them line up, but then tell them they were too noisy and needed to return to their seats. “We’ll just have to try that again,” he’d say and then have them line up again.  “Still too noisy. Let’s try that one more time.”

That’s when he turned to me, and HONEST TO GOD, said,  “A really good way to kill time is to draw out the transitions.”  I didn’t blink.  Then he rose from his chair and we walked the students to lunch.

Eventually, I dropped out of the District Intern program and left the school. Last I heard, Dr. B’s job as an administrator had been phased out.  So, he returned to the classroom.   And there he sits.

Photo Credit:  Mercenary by kojman47 on Flickr.