Confessions of a Bad Teacher
There are lots of stories about good teachers who overcome the odds and inspire their students. This is not one of them. There are many teachers who are wonderful and some get recognized; most don’t. I think that if you look closely, most teachers’ feet are not on the ground, they are gliding like angels.
Yet it shouldn’t be this way. The system makes it so tough that most leave within their first five years, like me. Or it wears down those that do stay. Or produces illiterate adults. Or angry adults, bitter adults, etc. We all know the bad press that the public schools get.
I went in starry eyed. I’d be different. I’d be like Michelle Pfeiffer’s character and change the world. I came out bitter and hateful, wanting anything but public school for my children.
Here is my tale…
LESSON ONE: DECISION TIME
I didn’t have any career goals. I had to go to college because you just had to – that’s what they told us since preschool where I grew up in an affluent suburb of a major East Coast city. I didn’t even realize until later that not everyone grows up in an area where a college degree is nothing – a master’s or a PHD or a law degree is what really matters.
I did know that I liked to travel so my goals went from one adventure to another. In college I studied in Spain so I majored in Spanish. After the abroad program, I felt like I knew some Spanish but not enough to really call myself a “Spanish major” so when I graduated I volunteered and lived a year in Mexico. Now I knew Spanish. (Unlike most majors, languages take lots of time and even though all my classes were in Spanish, the more you hear and use a language, the better your fluency. My experience in Mexico did help cinch the deal on my first job offer.)
Of course, as a Spanish major there is the idea that “I could always teach”. But I was still busy traveling. Yet the more I worked between travel adventures, the more I realized that I didn’t like the chaos of working under bosses. I thought that maybe I could be a teacher and be my own boss (at least in the classroom). I also had always thought that I would like teaching since I spent most of my life under their control and played “teacher” when I was a little girl. I envisioned writing novels in the summer, in my time off. So I applied for another Bachelor’s, this time in Science – the science of teaching.
LESSON TWO: TEACHING THE TEACHER
I loved being a student. I always listened to the teacher and tried to get all my homework done. In high school I was on the honor roll. I never challenged anything or anyone. That’s part of the problem. Most teachers are good students, so what happens when you meet with students who are struggling or challenging? I was naïve.
I went to college right after high school like a good girl should. It was a Quaker private school and it took me years to realize how alternative, and great, the system was. Lots of discussion. Emphasis on justice and peace making. Positive confrontations for conflicts. Plus it was challenging. I never could keep up with the reading assignments but they were so interesting that I brought most of the books home and read them during breaks.
Then I went to a state school for the “fifth” year which is all the education classes and the coveted licensure. This time I had already been through college once, so it was easy and I realized I could get straight As. So, I did. It was also easy because most education classes are simple and a waste of time. I figure that what you really need to learn you could condense into one single class. Besides you get into the field and none of it seems to matter anyways. My opinion is that public school teachers are born, not made. You need a certain personality, which, I found out, I don’t possess.
Here is my list of Waste of Time Classes:
Introduction to Psychology: Why do I need to know these lists of theories by old men in the 19th century?
Education Psychology: A little better but not enough to grasp and really use, except for the ideas on how people learn.
Diversity in Education: These classes are important for teachers who have lived in a bubble and don’t realize that validating everyone’s culture is important. But even armed with “I’m going to accept everyone” it becomes another thing when you go into a system of institutionalized discrimination. The behavior problems make you start to hold your own stereotypes (for some). Plus, education classes make you think you are going to change the world and all it’s a social injustices. They make you think you are more of a social worker, than a teacher. Then you get out there and people actually expect you to just teach. I was shocked.
Classroom Management: This class was the most important. We role played different problems and read about all sorts of theories. But again, it was easier done in a class than in real life. Some of the theories blew up in my face when I tried them on kids already worn out by eight to ten years of sitting in a classroom.
Assessment and Lesson Planning: Very hands on – I liked it. They taught you how to write your lesson plans and how to figure out if the students are learning the material, or not.
Teaching a Second Language: I hope each state makes teachers take at least one class specific to their licensure and this was mine. It showed me that even though I know how to speak a language, it is different to teach it. We read through the research on which methods really teach people how to speak and understand a second language (and it’s not how most of us learned in school through grammar, but instead through more “natural” methods).
In general, you get out there in the field and all the classes and theories you had just spent hours and too much money learning go right to hell, literally. All the theories don’t help with students who argue back, parents who confront every decision you make, principals who are spineless, superintendents who just want to fill seats, and other teachers who stab you in the back. Forget teachers’ college, put people in the field and mentor them along the way, maybe with one class on planning lessons and assessment and another class on how to teach in their field. That’s it. The rest is a waste of time and money (which colleges will never complain about). But what do I know; I’m a bad teacher.
P.S I’m still paying off my student loan for those teacher prep classes.
LESSON THREE: IN THE BEGINNING – STUDENT TEACHING
I loved student teaching. That’s part of the problem. I had such a great experience that the only direction I could go was down. The teacher I worked under actually worked part time at two rural schools, and spent the middle of the day chatting with other teachers in the lounge. First I just observed her classes.
I was taught to teach languages in a natural method. This teacher taught the old way – grammar only. She gave the students a list of words. Most just took notes and didn’t ask questions. One student fell asleep. I’ll call him Sleeper.
So, right away in my young teacher enthusiasm I planned classes that meant fun – even within the bounds of her grammar only curriculum.
One thing she did do well that I never did, and which administrators love, is to have perfectly controlled students and classrooms. Of course now this makes me mad – controlled kids that were not really learning Spanish. Is that why people send their kids to school – to be controlled instead of learning in the best way possible?
One way this Spanish teacher disciplined her students should be a red flag. She admitted that she weeded out the “bad” kids. Later when I was teaching on my own I could understand; it’s easier not to have them in the classroom. The part I didn’t like was that most of these kids were part of the racial minority group. There were a handful of these kids left in one class and later with some cooperative group lessons I made them do, I was proud the whole class mix and talk socially even with other races in the class.
The school district was in a part of the country that had a lot of racial issues. All the teachers were white and didn’t appreciate being told how to be nice to the minorities. Later I could understand better when I tried to control my classes – just like police officers, teachers only seem to see minorities acting badly. Of course now that I question schools and their methods in general I think that the schools are the problem. They only reinforce the idea that you do not belong, you are wrong, you need to be controlled – I would learn this later. But as a student teacher, I just thought all the teachers were racist and, therefore, I understood why so many of the minority kids fought them and the system and a lot dropped out. One student’s dad was an expert in environmental science and I was surprised to see his son kicked out of science class every day. If only he could be home with his dad, he’d be in a loving environment and learn a lot more science. But what did I know?
Another racial lesson I learned when I did a lesson about articles (a/an or un/una in Spanish). I pulled up a student’s notebook to say it was “a notebook” and discovered a swastika on it. It even made me cry that night – worried I was teaching a class of racists. Soon when it was my turn to take over the class, I made a rule that no offensive symbols were allowed. They scratched it off and seemed to understand it was offensive. After that rocky beginning we actually developed a good relationship in that class and we had fun performing skits and making tortillas and guacamole.
So, since I came after a somewhat boring teacher, the kids loved me. There were a few who were uncomfortable with games and especially dance day when I taught them Flamenco, but overall I was a hit and brought Spanish alive even if I had no clue how to grade and didn’t even give one test. Even Sleeper really enjoyed some of the games. He became very enthusiastic. I loved teaching and thought my career would be fine. Honestly, what do you really learn in two months?
MEET THE TEACHER
I graduated on the Dean’s List but wasn’t sure if I wanted to teach or not. I really wasn’t thinking about work, more on survival mode since I had just had a terrible break up. I was depressed and spent the summer moping around my sister’s house. It was my Dad that gave me a kick in the rear and a sense of direction (isn’t that what Dad’s are good for?) He had found out that they needed a Spanish teacher in the coastal town near where he lived in California. The beach? Sounded great to me.
Luckily in my student teaching I had to teach grammar and finally learned the hard subjunctive verb usage, which I practiced for the interview. It did the trick. I impressed the panel of teachers, administrators and even one student with my Spanish skills during my phone interview. The next day I had a quick interview with some county administrator and then I was offered the job. Wow, a job, a direction. I got packing.
So, my dog, cat and I actually found an affordable place a mile from the beach and with a roommate who was always out. Things looked great.
Before I started work, I had to take an aptitude test. It was a very basic test to see if I could read and write. I found it easy, and degrading. They are always testing teachers to make sure they aren’t too stupid (that’s the implication).
Well, I was shocked to get a call that I had failed the test. I felt really dumb. So, I drove over again to the county office and took their district version of the basic test again and was worried because I came up with the exact same answers. I told the secretary at the district office that I gave the same answers. That’s when she looked at both tests and realized they had been graded wrong. I had passed both times. Another fail proof test to show how dumb teachers are but instead it is the system that failed!
I was nervous about work. I went over to the school and was welcomed by the new vice principal whose job as Spanish teacher I was taking over. I heard he was a great teacher – most administrators are, it’s too bad they move on to get paid more as an administrator where some I found out later, are horrible at managing adults.
Then came the Tornado – another teacher who had interviewed me. The Tornado whipped in faster than the coastal tide and rattled off in Spanish about how excited she was that I knew Spanish so well and that she knew I would teach the right way not like some people in the department. I barely understood what she said, since I was nervous, but immediately knew I might fail her; there were obviously other people in the department who were.
Some of the first things she said to me were:
“We’ll have lots of planning to do together. I want the department to work cohesively this year.”
“You’ll notice that the students’ abilities will vary because some people in this department want to do their own thing. That only hurts the students in the long run.”
“This is my grading policy and handout for the first day. I made extras so you can pass them out to your students too.”
So with her guidance, or later I would consider it bullying, I tried to teach the way she liked. I did her welcoming activities, I did her curriculum. I felt I had to be like her, so that I would be liked. I didn’t know any better but I quickly learned that by trying someone else’s ways it always blows up in my face. She even wanted a contest to see whose Spanish Three class was learning more. Let’s see, eight years experience versus a first year teacher. I didn’t like this competition idea. Plus, at the registration for classes, she intentionally guided some kids she knew had behavior problems to register for my classes instead of hers.
At first everything seemed to be fine. I added some of my fun lesson ideas to her curriculum. The kids seemed to like me. When my Dad asked how was teaching I responded, “It doesn’t even feel like work”. I was happy.
The first day of school I told the students a little about myself, in Spanish, of course. I told them I was a DJ in college and loved it. One girl in my first class of the day, Spanish Three, asked why I didn’t become a DJ? I just laughed but that question haunted me later.
In my three other classes – Spanish One, I had them invent a foreign language and brainstorm how important it is to learn a second language. My Spanish Four class was small and I quickly found out that they didn’t know as much as I expected with the number four after their class label. They were kind of a tired dead class, probably worn out being Seniors and all. The administration ended up canceling that class since there was such a small enrollment (only a minimum of 20 students allowed in big public schools, and they wonder why they are so hard to control and teach?)
Of course the larger the class, the more problems I had. None of the problems took the cake more than those caused by the 16-year-old Juniors in my Spanish Three. I had them every day for forty-five minutes, the first hour of the day. It was the hardest thing to go to work because I had to see them everyday. The other classes were 80 minutes every other day and most of the Spanish One kids were still young enough to listen, i.e. control.
In the first week of class I tried to make the class rules with that Spanish Three class. That’s what the theories said – make class rules together, only make a few general rules, and everything will be great because you did it as a class together. They must be talking about elementary kids and rules like be quiet, do unto others, etc because these 16-year-olds knew how to play me. They said they wanted to be able to be a few minutes tardy. Since I was naïve, I said sure – up to five minutes without consequences – since they said it was the first class of the day and they were tired, and had to park and other good excuses. Well, Tornado heard about it and told me that it is a school wide policy that all students get detention if they are tardy. When I relayed that message back to my students and said that we would have to get rid of that rule, they didn’t take it very well. They said I should keep “their” rules and not listen to other teachers. They accused me of being wishy washy and when they saw how I would be bossed around, they decided to go for blood.
At first I thought things were fine but I soon found out otherwise. Trying Tornado’s lessons and teaching grammar wasn’t working for me. The Spanish Three class would attack when they saw I had made some error as I tried to learn the new skill of writing on a blackboard. I stupidly admitted to them that I’m not perfect at all the grammar rules but I am fluent at speaking and understanding Spanish. They didn’t think the games I did were academic enough. I thought they were brainwashed by school, didn’t know how to have fun anymore. They also would yell out “Not another dumb movie” when I showed the few that I did.
Juniors are vocal. This was a middle class to upper class area and these kids were motivated to go to college and succeed in life no matter what. They didn’t like the games I had made up to make Spanish fun. They just wanted to learn the grammar rules, turn in their homework, and get an A. They didn’t think the games would help them learn, especially when they compared my class to the Tornado’s, since they all seemed to have friends in her class.
I didn’t really know things were going so badly for the students until the thread began to unravel after months of “honeymoon”. It was October, two months into school. It all started after the weekend I went to the ER doctor with ankle pain. He overreacted and made me wear crutches (later I went to a foot specialist and it was only a running injury and he put me in a foot brace instead). Just like chickens in the coop pecking at the weakest one, there I was sitting in the middle of the room, my foot up on another chair, trying to read and animate a story in their textbook about a man with a doll that had a great surprise at the ending. The kids started interrupting me and asking why we were doing this and how dumb the story was. I was just in shock, especially since it felt like such a low blow, seeing as I was in crutches. Some of the students said, “Let her teach”, and others kept interrupting. Looking back I would’ve squashed the interruptions but I didn’t know then how dangerous the whole situation was. I still believed they were almost adults and could safely have a voice in a classroom.
Well now the flood was open. I was hurt. Some students were very vocal, and even got red in the face, and started daily questioning my class and methods. Others were quiet or caught in the fire. I kept teaching but it was hard. One time to stop the interruptions I said they could make their comments by putting them in a comment box. When they left that morning I read the comments. One of them said, “You suck”. That day I realized that I tapped into teenage rage. The students didn’t have patience with a new teacher finding her way and my non-consistent structure. But at the time, I just took it personally.
Now, California had a mentor program because they know that most teachers quit within five years, most after the first year. The mentors were veteran teachers who take a year off from teaching to mentor a group of new teachers – meeting with us from time to time and providing workshops. My mentor helped show me how the students perceived the class and suggested how I could help teach that type of crew.
Another thing that happened that fall was a teacher’s workshop. At the session for language teachers a man from Bakersfield, California told us about the method he made to teach a second language. It was perfect. It went along with all the research – it taught in a natural method. I tried it out on Monday but by then it was too late. I learned my first lesson – stick with what you start with – don’t keep changing, especially the rules. The Spanish Three kids fought me all year, no matter what I did. So, I went back to the grammar and textbook work like Tornado wanted anyhow.
Another day I assigned the kids to make a movie about the play we were reading that week. I told them to get into groups and plan their movies. All they did was stand around and talk for the whole 45 minutes while I took the moment to return the mountains of homework papers I had accumulated. I knew I was doomed. But actually their films ended up being amazing and I used them in future classes. One was film quality and now I know from Google that one of those kids did become a filmmaker. The Tornado had the kids practice and then perform the same play in her class. How boring, but what control. No wonder she has had a long career as a public school teacher.
On that note, the play involved a gun and they were going to need one to perform for Tornado, whose room I had to use (other big pain, using other people’s classrooms and not having any control over the environment and I found out the hard way that teachers are somehow responsible that no trash ever gets left behind, not even little scraps of paper that fall out of those notebooks the students rip off their papers from). She forgot to mention the play they were about to act out that day and when I came in I found a paper bag. Inside was a gun. I freaked. I had just seen “The Godfather” for the first time, these kids hated me, was this a message? Was it a give me an A offer I couldn’t refuse? I was scared. There wasn’t a telephone and class had begun. I didn’t want to walk around with firearms which I have no idea how to use, so I asked a quiet nice kid that I always trusted in that class of sharks to bring an important note to the office immediately. I wrote “There is a gun in my room, please come right away” They came and got it. I was terrified.
Later I found out that the student who brought it in didn’t even get a slap on the wrist. Tornado laughed it off that it was just a prop for her play. I didn’t think it was so funny, but that is how you get treated when another teacher (or coworker) is more in with the power central (and this was before Columbine).
The biggest problem with Spanish Three was grades. I had no idea how to do them and they seemed to always be due – every six weeks. I would spend hours every afternoon at work just trying to keep up with grading the nightly homework and then even more hours around grade time to put it into the computer. The kids would surround me and the computer and demand to know what their grades were. I always felt like they would literally steam roll over me just to get a good grade. And if it isn’t the grade they felt entitled to get just for breathing than I had hell to pay. I always wished I could bottle and sell the anger and energy these teenagers directed at me – sell it and use it for something good, unlike how they were using it. I tried to tell them to use it in more constructive ways and that went on deaf ears (until one day which I’ll write about later).
One student was an artist. A sweet guy who didn’t care about schoolwork. He reminded me of the artist soul in me, even though I always did my homework as a student. I knew who he was and he was cool. His dad on the other hand was scary (a bossy lawyer type). He called me upset about his student’s D. I wanted to tell him to just relax; he was an artist, not a student or whatever he thought he should be in the future. Other parents were upset about their student’s performances too. Like it was the parent’s failure, not their students. Parents didn’t seem to like anything less than perfect but I don’t remember being perfect as a teenager. I didn’t like being put in this position – consoling parents who were at least 15 years older than me, or fending off their attacks on how it was all my fault. They smelled the new blood of a first year teacher and attacked. Just like their 16 year olds.
Then there was the dozy of a phone call. On Columbus Day I had a friend visiting who happened to be an actor so I wanted to do something to teach about the real Columbus. I was giving a grammar lesson and he walked in saying he had discovered the classroom. Some students caught on right away that my voice had changed and I was acting but one student, I found out later, was scared out of her mind. Her mom called that night very angry with me because she had a hostage situation in a classroom with a stranger when she was a child and apparently had told her daughter all about it. How was I supposed to know the traumas in the past of these kids’ parents? But I learned a lesson; this student would come hate me the most. Any infraction like that, they’ll make you pay later (especially if you catch them cheating). She was the biggest leader against me and used her mother as the best weapon to call and complain to the administrators. Her mother was a public school teacher in another school. In my revenge brain I hope that the student followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a teacher and suffered like I did. (Later the vice principal told me to ignore them and their complaining- meaning that family complained so much that no one took them seriously. I wish he had told me that earlier when he sat in the office taking notes after the principal told me of all my infractions.)
My first class was the worse with those “confident” 16-year-olds – confident enough to talk back and use their parents as weapons against me. My other classes weren’t perfect either. The Spanish Four was small and that’s one key to education – small classes make it easier for everyone. I never had any problems – just trying to figure out the right level of Spanish to teach to them. I thought level four meant they knew fluent Spanish so the stuff I did at first was too hard. Then I just did what the Tornado told me to do – a boring grammar book. We went through that and then did some fun things like skits and then they canceled the class after the first semester because it was too small.
Instead they gave me one more Spanish One class – with ninth graders. Ninth graders are still young enough to listen and 95% do not talk back. But classes during the last block of the day are always rowdy and that can be energy draining. They replaced my mid-day Spanish Four class with a last period Spanish One. It was hard taking over from another first year teacher and I never really got to jell with that wild class. The previous teacher was only filling in and had always planned to teach one semester, so I got to take over when she left. It was a good class to try out new stuff since it was the day before all my other Spanish One classes.
Some lessons just fail totally, some do fine. The students might think you are weird but that’s life – some things work and some don’t. And some work in one class, or group of people, and not in others, as I would learn as I continued to teach a few years.
One lesson the other new teacher had told me about, I tried first with that class. She had attended some workshop where they took oil and some sand and put it together and the workshop leader, speaking only in a foreign language, told them to clean it up. They understood the foreign language gist and learned that it was impossible to clean. So I tried it for Earth Day. It ended up becoming a bunch of students sitting outside in the grass with a teacher and a pan with oil. They didn’t get the Spanish or the environmental part. So I didn’t do it the next day with my three other Spanish One classes and luckily they weren’t the grade grubbers and disgruntled students like in Spanish Three so no parents called to yell at me for wasting another precious thirty minutes just for trying a new lesson.
My Spanish One class that was second in the morning was fine. Nothing bad happened and they were quiet so early in the day. There was only one student who would sometimes talk too much and try to be a clown. He was a year or two older than the other ninth graders. I remember one test where he talked around the question and never answered the question (a cultural essay in English, not Spanish). I told him he should be a politician. Ends up he is one of the few students I actually saw later in my future career as a filmmaker at Sundance.
The third period Spanish class was wonderful. They were fun, we had fun, and we had a good relationship. I told them on the last day that they were my favorite class and they all cheered.
My fourth and last period class of Spanish One was always tough. My mentor advisor observed that class in the beginning and noticed their enthusiasm as they jumped up and identified Spanish-speaking countries but warned that I should try to make the activities more controlled. She was right; their enthusiasm bit me in the butt. My once enthusiastic student soon became angry and dropped out after being told to be quiet. He talked too much.
In general, this school had a block schedule which meant each class was really two 45-minute classes. Instead of every day you had a class every other day, except for that dreaded Spanish Three which I had to see each day, first thing in the morning, for only 45 minutes at least. The students ate outside, had their lockers outside, and there were few indoor hallways since it was sunny California.
NOW THE WORLD OF A FIRST YEAR TEACHER, AS IT HAPPENED – MY ACTUAL DIARY
I didn’t write for the first two months and noted that I was too busy. This is my actual diary, not edited. I have since added comments, now looking back. Those will be in italics after the original entry.
On the school front – it keeps me too busy and has big ups and downs. Now I see why the mentor project exits and I’m very thankful for it. The kids are usually great but it’s another teacher, Tornado, who drives me nuts. At first I thought she was great but now I know why I felt intimidated at first – she’s controlling, moody, and hard to work with. I just try to stay away and ignore her comments. But we did talk through one issue of cleaning up the room. It’s frustrating how so much of teaching is anal un-important stuff.
Like cleaning up the room, they don’t teach you that in teaching school. So much is not about education!
My mentor visited my last class of the day, Spanish One and this is what she said:
Observation during class:
I can tell from the first two minutes that this class has a lot of energy! What was pretty amazing was that when the bell rang, they were immediately quiet and listening. You gave instructions twice but there still seems to be some confusion. What could you do to help alleviate some of the confusion?
*Check for understanding
They are working on the translation but the noise level is pretty high. You tell them to do it silently and the noise level comes down but not by much. You tell them “silencio” in a very neutral of voice and again they came down for about 30 seconds. You seem to have a really good rapport with them, you’re able to joke a little and they seem to like you. What do you think about the noise level and doing a little more enforcement? What do you think would happen if you worked to calm down the kid next to me?
Wow! It got really quiet for a minute, but the kids next to me insisted on commenting on it. In fact, he can’t seem to resist commenting on everything that occurs in class. He’s really good at diverting the whole classes attention. What kind of strategies do you think would work for him and all the other kids who are vocally vying for you attention?
You gave the directions for the activity with lots of interruptions. Some students seem to get frustrated and tell the others to shut up.
The tape activity is really unique and forces them to be quiet and listen. You do a great job of selective ignoring the toilet question. You have incredible patience. I’d beat The Commentator right away! I’d also have a talk with the girl in the corner, though your idea of calling and giving them a zero might work during the test.
It really seems to me that this class is not that wild but there are three peepers who need to be gently but consistently reigned in and held accountable.
Why is Commentator over in the corner pointing a rubber band at that girl? Did you move him? Is it okay for students to move seats during class? He continues to shoot rubber bands while you’re going through the example quiz. He’s really trying to get your attention!
You were great at giving directions and giving that girl another chance. You were also very neutral when she blabbed out the answer again. She kept interrupting other students. What do you think you’ll do about this during the real test? If you want them to be silent, you relay need to be ready to enforce it. If you’re not ready to enforce it, don’t make it an expectation.
*Send them outside
*Send them to another class
*Fail the test
After quiz, you say, “If anybody talks, you will have to stay 5 minutes after class”. Lots of kids talking – are you going to keep them after? How do the students know that they have crossed the line? How do they know you mean what you say? This doesn’t mean you have to be a dictator, just follow through. You count and the class gets quiet.
What are your limits?
They seemed to do well with the video in terms of listening. It will be interesting to see how many have answered the questions that go along with the video and how accurate they are.
You move Commentator during the last few minutes of the movie amidst his constant protests like “Why don’t you move them? Why are you punishing me?
He finally moves now two other kids join in on the mimicking and joking around.
After the movie you collect movie questions and the translation of the memo. Students are noisy, talking, someone yells, “shut up” and it gets quiet.
You close with the calendar – where they say the date in Spanish. Commentator comes up to do it. You said you wouldn’t help but you did. Then you tried to teach them past and future tense but the noise level was too high. Again, another student said “would you guys chill for once!” and they got a little quieter so they could do it.
When you started asking for words, Commentator called out and you took his answer. When he got his audience and disrupted the class by saying, “work your mother in the bathroom” He really wants to be on stage, yet he seems to know a lot of the content. They all seem to like the mad libs.
You do a wonderful job of shifting gears, keeping the pace going and changing activities to fit the longer periods. You keep their interest during class.
“No one can leave if anyone is standing”, you say. This they did, but Commentator tore up paper. When you told him to pick them up off the floor, he pushed them on the floor and then picked them up.
I spent some time talking to a few students who said this class is too noisy and they get a headache. I asked them what should happen and they said you don’t do anything about it, that you’re too easy and too nice. Again, this doesn’t mean you have to be nasty, just consistent!!!
Wow. Nails it on the bud. I was overwhelmed by all the micromanaging of being a teacher. When I was a student in high school, my mom let me be responsible for my grades and behavior. So managing and pushing and pleading and controlling students was new to me. I can understand how quiet is needed to concentrate but I came from a crazy loud household so that never was an issue for me.
So, the lesson is these little things make a difference. As a teacher in a public school classroom, silence and control are the biggest issues and I just can’t do that. I wish I could have been “consistent” but it never happened. That’s why I don’t work as a public school teacher anymore.
Her advice is good, for those who are good at that and want to be successful secondary school teachers in a traditional setting. But I just started reading Alfie Cohen’s book Unconditional Parenting and he talks about the goal of most parenting books is to control kids and make them “good” as in, not a pain to the parents. But how much do kids lose by being controlled?
The Commentator, as she calls him, became more and more out of control and later when a cheating incident happened with his sister from his foster care home (the biological daughter) he ended up dropping my class, in a huff. I see the signs for the future now in these observation remarks.
I have no idea what the toilet incident was. Too bad I didn’t journal about that. At least you see now how teens talk in school.
My whole life has changed this past week. I’m totally on my feet again and I have direction, a goal, which always makes me happiest. Elizabeth was in town and we planned to leave at 12:30 for Los Angeles but I got a note to see the principal.
The principal sat me down and the vice principal took notes. I felt intimidated with the two men looking down at me. They asked if it was true that I had a cell phone in my classroom and asked why. I was kind of relieved to find it was about a phone call not about my dog in the parking lot. But the parent also mentioned other problem stuff and how the students feel like they are not learning anything. The principal was nice about it and said he would help me (and gave me things to read) but once we left and I got on the road I started to cry.
Here I put so many hours into this damn job and what do I get out of it? Slaps on the back, not pats. Tornado always bossing me, parents calling, kids yelling at me. I just hate it. Poor Elizabeth got sick of hearing about it. But I realized that my heart is not in teaching – it’s in radio, media, excitement, screenwriting. That’s the dream I’ve held for years and years. Show biz was my idea since I was five.
Anyways, this latest crisis started a few weeks ago when I was driving to work and on the radio they were talking about the game “the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. So I started thinking of obscure actors that I could trick the DJs with in their contest about the game. They had people call in. I don’t know if there was a prize or not but the challenge got me thinking and I could only think of that. So I went into the office and actually did call in and got through but choose Steve Martin, which was dumb – they were in “Planes Trains and Airplanes” together.
So, I had to go into the classroom and what a better source of movies than teenagers. So I drew up on the board the names of movies that Kevin Bacon was in.
The bell rang and I wasn’t that stupid not to start the day’s lesson but I was dumb enough to try to call the station with my cell phone, (which I had just bought and was still a novelty in the 1990s.) Then I even was dumb enough to have a student keep pressing redial as I handed back papers, which were tons. (I had no idea how to keep up with the grading and I hadn’t developed the systems to return the papers and all the other tasks of teaching that are new and they don’t tell you about in college.)
I didn’t think much about it and just figured it was a break that the kids probably enjoyed – not doing class work and just getting papers returned. I know I would’ve liked that as a high school kid but I underestimated how much they wanted to get me in trouble for anything. And now I’d been called into the office – like some bad student, but instead, a bad teacher.
To make it worse, Elizabeth has been visiting (which is nice) but I get jealous hearing of her job as a migrant health educator – she gets to use Spanish and I never get to speak it, just teach verbs to kids that don’t care at all, or seem to not care about learning it. I love speaking Spanish and these kids break my heart by not caring about it. She also works with adults while I’m finding out how hard it is to work with teenagers.
I thought I was in trouble for the dog because the kennel didn’t open until 10 AM so I couldn’t drop her off until after school to go to on our Thanksgiving vacation trip to LA. I just put her in the car since it wasn’t hot out. Then I snuck the dog into the office during my prep and the student helpers in there promised not to tell. So when I was called to the office I joked saying I was in trouble, for the dog. I was in trouble, but not for that.
So, since I don’t believe in coincidences I just happened to be on my way to Los Angeles. On Turkey day we visited NBC studios. I started talking with one of the workers; a page which is an entry-level job for those interested in show business. They help seat the audience and do other non-experience needed stuff around the studio. I was so inspired and realized – I can do that.
Plus, another friend just sold a screenplay and when I said I should write one about a teacher who kills her students, he actually told his agent and she likes that idea. So, I should write that, move to LA, and sell it and be in show biz like I’ve always wanted.
For the rest of the year I woke up first thing in the morning and wrote a few pages of the script. So no matter what hell I had to face with that Spanish Three class, at least I had written and released my rage and frustration and feelings of inadequacy through my creative writing. I could survive. But shouldn’t education be more than survival and a paycheck? Shouldn’t it not be a system that takes the love of learning (and teaching) out of our souls?
My mentor came and visited my first class of the day, Spanish Three.
This is what she wrote:
As I came in the students were working on individual work and you were checking with them and collecting homework. You stopped them to ask (in Spanish) if they wanted to listen to music, and then said it in English. They said yes.
How do you feel about the noise level?
Most students seem engaged and working. Most of your interaction with students at this point is in English. You model and correct their Spanish, but directions and classroom management are done in English.
A boy asks to go to the bathroom at 9:25 back at 9:27. You make him say it in Spanish then let him go.
As you’re going around the room students are calling out for your help. You tell some to work in teams and some to wait, then go back and help others while some wait.
On what do you leave these decisions?
Two girls put on some Spanish rock music and you turn it down a little. The two boys in front start bickering over grades calling names. Some boy yells out “Ahora! Ahora”
You don’t acknowledge it. It doesn’t seem to disrupt the class because they are all talking anyway but the girl to whom the comment was aimed frowns and hunkers down in her desk.
As you talk to students you ask them personal questions, make connections and even ask to touch the buzz cut on a male student. He smiles pleased that you noticed.
The boy in front bugs the girl behind him to hurry up. “It’s my turn. “ The girl in front of me asks why he doesn’t do it himself. He replies that he doesn’t know what it means. She exchanges knowing looks with another male student. You came over and try to redirect him by showing the section in the book. You say,” Try that one and try the next one” You go to the girls behind him. “How’s it going? Did you understand the translation? “ You give them some more directions, they look lost and you suggest they come in at lunch. The boy in front still doesn’t do a thing.
Other students raise their hands and you go over to help them. Students appear to feel very comfortable asking you questions and helping each other. The two girls in front of me have split the assignment, each doing half. You ask them in Spanish, then English if they are done. She tells you what they did. You smile a little and tell them “That’s no good” in a friendly voice. “You need to do all of it yourself.” You then direct them to finish the assignment, doing the part each has not done. They go to work copying each other’s papers.
If this strategy is not ok, how can you prevent it from happening? Do they know the difference between “doing it together’ and “copying”?
The boy in front who is not working asks if they can have a break. You tell him, in Spanish, in ten minutes. You ask a student to erase the board, in English. This same student writes a sentence on the board. Another boy student writes another answer on the board next to the girl. The boy who isn’t working asks if these are the answers. They say “yes” and he starts to copy them down.
Is this OK? How are you answering this activity? If you don’t want them to copy, how could you help prevent this?
You say, “Siete minutos mas!” (seven minutes more) About half the students are done. Those that aren’t are madly scribbling. Those that are done are sitting around, talking.
You come to give a direction to the boy who wasn’t working. You show him the page it’s on and have him read it, then tell him yes. You flip back to the first page as you walk away and he stares at the page, complexly, lost but trying to get it. A girl across the room asks him a question and “poof” the boy is distracted again and completely loses track of his thinking. The teachable moment is gone.
How do you think you can address this issue?
You say, “Ok, you get a five minute break and then I’ll give you five more minutes to work on this”. Students ask if they can go outside, you say only out to that line. They go past it and you go outside to monitor them. A boy and girl are flicking a lighter while sitting on the floor in back.
Did you see this? How do you monitor students while they’re on break? How do they get to go to the bathroom? What happens if they abuse the privilege of break?
You say, “Ok sientese!” (Sit down) In a loud voice, you say, “Who has finished or almost finished? Please write this on the board? They came back from break and you say once “You have 5 minutes to finish before we study for the test” Most people are just talking, some trade papers to get the work.
“ok, shh. I want your attention for just a minute” They quiet right down. You go over the assignments orally with some students talking in the background. You correct students’ sentences on the board, asking them some questions to get student participation. You say the names of the two talking students. They protest a little but quiet down. The boy who wasn’t working has changed seats since the break talking with a girl. You assign more students to write their answers on the board. They are engaged, the rest of students aren’t. Another girl goes to restroom. A loud pop goes off in the classroom. What was it?
A girl hits another girl on the butt as she passes by. You ask her to see you after class. You continue to go over questions on the board asking questions of the class. A few people (boy in front other side) answer questions and interrupt you quite often. You acknowledge his interruptions by answering his questions. You finally start choosing students to read them out. You give hints about what to expect on the test. You stop calling on people and just start go over them again.
Was it easier to go over them yourself or call on students? Which strategy gave you more information about student knowledge?
The bell rings and student immediately start packing up and leaving. You yell out a direction over the noise.
Were you done? How could you be sure they hear your directions? Did you talk to the scarf headed girl regarding the hitting incident?
I know I’m bringing up a bunch of little things and my point is not to overwhelm you. My goal is to give you another perspective. Just think about my questions and see if they mean anything to you.
Phew, I am overwhelmed just reading this years later. But they are good points to work on as a second year teacher, after the first year of being overwhelmed by planning lessons, grading, and trying to figure out all the details of classroom management. But it also makes me determined not to ever send my children to a traditional school where they will be managed by worksheets, writing answers on the board, and distracted by kids talking and playing around always having to be watched and “managed”.
I also see why teachers never feel success. Especially with evaluations (this was just a mentor helping) because the observer can see everything while it’s impossible for a teacher to see all over the room. It’s ridiculous to think a teacher is responsible for the behavior choices of the kids (the lighter – obviously not supposed to have one in school, and the butt hitting. I remember being harassed in the halls of middle school but never trying to blame the teachers; it was the kids). There are many problems here: teachers never feeling successful because even though the class did their work and some were lost (smaller class sizes made that easier in the Midwest), there are still things to always note to the teacher that they are doing wrong). Also, the fact that we don’t hold children responsible for their choices, actions, behavior, and study habits! Yes, the schools can help teach and guide them with that, but ultimately it is the student’s education. The more involved the parents are, the better kids do. No wonder homeschool kids do well, they have ultimate parental involvement.
Monday it was weird to be back at school. (After winter break) The kids were crazy. Thursday – Spanish Three was horrible. Friday – Phil and I started a yelling match that Tornado broke up. Saturday I called Phil’s mom and she was so understanding and great. The next day I talked with Phil and felt better about him being in my class even if he wants to transfer out. So (after seeing how nice and mature he could be) I made an appointment to talk with other Spanish Three problem students. Jane brought her manipulative mother along (the teacher who was upset about the cell phone and the Columbus Day actor take over skit). Jane was just as stubborn as always and says she won’t be an exchange student in Mexico because she didn’t learn anything so far this year. My revenge will be when she realized what a mistake that was and it was her choice not to travel, especially using me as the reason. I can’t deal with people who let things get in the way of living life to it’s fullest.
Then on Thursday I talked with Seth but he just wanted to tell me all the things I’ve done wrong, half because the Tornado had told him all the things she thought I did wrong. That day was crazy with grades due and all the complaining, pleading, and bargaining. Then Lucy and her mom met with me about her D grade. Her mom told me, for an hour, how to be a good teacher.
I couldn’t hold it any longer and started to cry because I felt so out of control and because of the Tornado, and the nastiness of the kids. I just sobbed. Lucy and her mom left but I kept crying. When some other Spanish Three students wanted to see their grades I couldn’t hold back the tears and they said they’d come the next day, which was kind of them.
I sobbed in the office and two of the other teachers were consoling. I worked at one of the other new teacher’s house that night since she invited me over and I got more grading done but I cried once I left and was alone in the car. I kept crying till I fell asleep. I can’t wait to leave this job.
Friday went fine in Spanish Three class. Kate apologized for their behavior which meant a lot to me. Hopefully things will get better. Kate was a delight to talk to after school. I don’t know what the world would be like without some kind teenagers. (Kate was a sweet student and right before winter break surprised me by leaving me a gift on my desk – the only gift I received from that class. I’ll never forget the few sweet kids in the class from Hell)
DURING EXAMS – the next week
Spanish One is in the midst of their mid term exams. As part of the exam, each student is called up to my front desk to answer some questions (the oral part of the exam). When I called up one girl, Samantha, she was nervous and her hand shook so I noticed it and on it was writing. I asked to see it and then her hand really shook. On it was Spanish and the English translation. She knew she was in trouble. I told her she failed the exam.
Her mother called that night livid that I had accused her daughter of cheating. Accused? I saw the evidence! We’re these parents never students themselves? I remember writing answers on my leg for a biology test but then not looking at it because I was scared of getting caught by the teacher, and my parents reaction. Nowadays that fear seems unwarranted.
She said her daughter said it was a mistake. She was helping her foster brother study for the test (he’s in my last hour class and that exam is in a few days) and that she forgot to take a bath and wash it off her hand. My answer; too bad, it looks like cheating. Next time shower.
Then the mother said, “I would expect one of my foster children to do this but not my child”. Ah, what a great foster mother.
Well I went to the big guns, to the principal for back up. The student and I went to talk to him. That didn’t help. I thought he would be strong and support a first year teacher but instead he was just wishy-washy and said it was up to me to decide what to do about the cheating. Thanks for the support!
Later I saw the first “Scream” movie with my younger brothers. I loved Henry Winkler’s character as the strong principal with a backbone. Too bad they stabbed him. I wished he were my principal.
So, I compromised and let her take another teacher’s version of the mid term exam. That backfired. She then decided it was harder and therefore my class wasn’t teaching the right way so she dropped out. She told her foster brother, “The Commentator” and he used that to tell the class how badly I’m teaching and to manipulate things. He dropped out too. Plus, lots of Spanish Three students are leaving my class too. As if exam time wasn’t stressful enough!
My mentor came by today and this is what she wrote. She observed Spanish Three again.
As I walked into the office to get your journal I met Tornado. She talked with me quite a bit about some of her concerns and I tried to give her your perspective as well. She is very interested in meeting with you next week to plan for Spanish Three. I would really encourage you to do this and I will be there to help mediate, but we need to set it up today. I’ll clear it with the administration if you two can settle on a date. I really feel this will help build some bridges between you two and reassure her of your competence. She was upset over the note you gave her regarding needing the test because she is afraid you are teaching only to the test. Let’s talk about this – it may be you just need to be careful how you word any communications to her. I don’t want you to start worrying about all of this – it’s a normal hurdle for any first year teacher to get over.
My reaction: Tornado should’ve butt out! She had years of teaching experience and I just started. Of course I was teaching to the test, that’s what she had told me to do. And when I tried teaching real Spanish the kids rebelled (and later in my career when I tried to teach Spanish in the “natural” i.e. best way, some administrators told me to stop). Isn’t school about learning? I thought wrong.
Her observation of the class:
As I walked into class, the students were working on some worksheets and using the book and dictionary to help them. One male student (in a yellow jacket) immediately wanted to know why I was here, what I was doing, etc. I told him I was here to observe. He said they were just doing worksheets today and I wouldn’t see the teacher doing any teaching. It’s an interesting perspective. They don’t seem to see you as “teaching” unless you’re doing a directed lesson.
Students started out working on their own but soon started pulling desks together to help each other.
One female student (very tall with brown hair) is asking you a question. You give her a clarification, but she’s still confused. You tell her to skip over it and you’ll go over it as a class. She turns around with a look of pure frustration.
How else could you help her right now and lower her frustration level?
-Direct her to another student
-Give her some other examples
-Tell her to put in what she thinks it means and you’ll go over it as a class
I think she felt brushed off or it could have appeared that you didn’t know the answer. Accurate or not the appearance of incompetence is usually all this age student needs to judge you and shut down. So you need to really work at coming across as a knowledgeable professional, which you are. It’s very interesting how these students perceive competence – lecture only, a teacher who is a very tough grader
They might also think of competences as someone who doesn’t give extra help, maybe even no personal connection with students.
I’m not saying you need to buy into their definition but you do need to start there and move them towards your definition of teaching.
My reaction: she is right on the money. With this class/crowd, perception was everything. They wanted traditional teacher lectures, asking tough questions and then they feel like they are learning, like Tornado was good at doing. That’s true for future classes I had too, and parents. It’s all the perception that “real” learning is going on, even if it isn’t. It’s hard to do, at least for me. Luckily I know it can be a façade so I won’t subject my children to it and I’m writing so other parents will be ware and start to think of what is true education. I even worked, later, for a whole school district that lied to middle class parents to make them seem like they were a technical school even though they had less technical stuff than a rural school I worked in. It was a publicity campaign without any real evidence. Parents, beware!)
You start a class review of the worksheet in Spanish, but the class takes a while to quiet down. You keep talking over them. The gentleman in the yellow jacked asks, “Why are we taking a test” and you answer him in Spanish. Then he wants to know if you’re going to review and you talk right over him. Did you mean to ignore him? I can understand if you did but the result to him was feeling frustrated and unheard /unvalued. How else could you move on and still have him feel heard?
You spoke to him about this after class.
As you continue reviewing you start interjecting more instruction in English. Throughout the lesson you used about 50-50 English and Spanish. Since this particular item seems to be a concern, how do you think you can encourage yourself to use more Spanish in instruction and monitor how much Spanish you are using?
One thing I’ve noticed is you seem to automatically repeat the answer in English as well as Spanish. Is this necessary? You do the same thing with directions. Maybe you only use English if there is a lot of questions on that. Otherwise have students help each other.
Also, I don’t hear students attempting to ask their questions in Spanish. Is this something you think you could try?
Your desk is swamped with kids when the bell rings. It must be the end of grading period.
My reaction: I was so overwhelmed by all the details of classroom management that using Spanish all the time was hard, since they might not always understand it. They couldn’t understand the directions. Teaching is all about giving directions and managing the class so if you’re teaching a second language this is very hard. I learned how to deal with it better as time went on, but the first year was tough.
Yesterday magic happened in Spanish Three. First off when Tornado cancelled our appointment to discuss curriculum that was the last straw. I decided Spanish Three is going to be done my way, for me and the kids own good and Tornado and her controlling ways can just kiss my behind.
So, the new semester began and I slapped them with new procedures and assignments. They asked why I’m so hard and others said this class wouldn’t be easy anymore – which I know they respect. The next day two more kids dropped – almost all the thorn in my sides are totally gone. Yeah! And I just realized that I shouldn’t feel guilty at all that they went to Tornado’s class because it’s at least half her fault. Thursday went smooth. Then yesterday I gave a lesson on giving commands and had a few extra minutes. I decided to take a big risk with this class and I told them they could tell me to do anything, in Spanish, and I would. They told me to sing, dance the Macarena, turn around 7 times, leave, bark, etc. They loved it! One student even made a point of saying after class; “Today’s lesson was good” That made me feel high all day. And, almost all the other students said the same on their daily response sheets (our communication since the comment box didn’t work out earlier – now every day they had to note what work they did, what questions they had, and add a comment). They said it was “fun”. I hope this means things are changing, especially in their attitude and my attitude of taking control of myself and this class (no more Tornado) and especially with pessimists like Jane gone.
Spanish Three and I are getting along better; at least we have a pattern. They do the exercises on the board first thing in the morning. Then we do a new lesson – grammar of course since that’s what Tornado wants them to do all year and I’ve given up on teaching real communicative Spanish. Then they do worksheets to practice that.
The best part is that they love the music I bring in. I showed them a video I got off of Spanish television of a new singer from Columbia. Her name is Shakira and she sings a song called “Estoy Aqui”. The chorus goes really fast and they are impressed that I can sing it all as fast. I even gave out the lyrics and they are learning it too. So, as they do their worksheets, they ask to hear her tape.
Today I forgot to bring the tape in. When Seth asked about it, I gave him a pass to the teacher’s lounge. He came back with it but with a weird look on his face. Later I realized why. It was in my bag, behind the maxi pads. Poor student to see those personal items of the teacher!
The vice principal is coming to visit one of my classes for an evaluation. Luckily it’s my best class – the second period Spanish One.
Yesterday I finished the first draft of my first screenplay about a teacher who kills her students. But I wasn’t as ecstatic as I thought I’d be. Maybe once I type the little part that’s left. Or maybe because I’m afraid of the next step – rewriting, analyzing, criticism, and perfecting. But today (just now actually) I’m excited about having this plot skeleton and now I can bring more depth. I’m very inspired from reading Spike Lee’s journals. I’m also happy I blasted the education system in the screenplay because yesterday my mentor told me how the vice principal is worried about my classroom management from seeing my best class. There’s no pleasing anyone as a teacher and I hate it. But I found my old passion – creativity.
Yesterday was good at the teacher meeting. Tornado and I get along now. I got home early and wrote a lot.
I’m bursting with creative ideas, stories, life experience and pure life to share. I can live on my enthusiasm alone. And what a coincidence that Tornado started in on her petty “you suck as a teacher” caca again.
What a whirlwind week! I basically dissed schoolwork as most I could and worked my tail off on proof reading my script – even doing late nights.
Before Spring Break began, I did lessons on Spanish dances. The students here in California definitely are too cool as opposed to the Midwest where they can risk more since they know everyone and are more unified – where I did dance lessons as a student teacher. But all in all each class looked great dancing Flamenco and the Tango.
A few days before break began, Chris, in that last class of the day, Spanish One, told me “You can just suck my dick”. He got 2 days suspension. Yes! But he’s been acting out ever since the cheater’s energetic brother left that class. I guess when one leaves, another takes over.
When my dad heard about what Chris said and that he only got two days of suspension he was in shock. He said that in his day the kids would have never said that and if they had they would have been kicked out of school forever. Ah, how the times have changed.
Yesterday I woke up with a sore throat and not feeling well but it was too late to get a sub. I felt sick all day and my last hour Spanish One class really got on my nerves. I’m worried about that class. I decided there was no way I could work the next day.
Uncle Bob has cancer; they say he only has a month or so to live. So I drove way out to see him. I was so tired driving home and barely slept for school. Of course this morning Spanish Three started acting up again and my day was miserable.
I did something totally stupid this weekend. I was making a chicken sandwich and accidentally burned my hand from the dry ice on the freezer part of the old fridge. They think its third degree burns. It hurts so much. The hospital wrapped it up in gauze and bandages to ward off infection.
Today at school the kids were curious about my injury and one boy hit it by accident and I screamed, waking up the whole class.
This week was painful. The plastic surgeon sadistically cut the blisters, which killed. She wrapped my hand and it throbbed and hurt all week. I was not a happy camper. And everyone kept asking me what happened. Spanish Three teased me about it and they thought I was a complete idiot. They’re such a weird class.
I drove right to work and got there early. By 10 I felt tired, hand throbbing and stomach sick from all the Tylenol so I went to one of the other teacher’s house and slept. I tried an Earth Day lesson, which totally failed. Oh well, luckily I could blame it on their teacher last semester, the other new teacher, since it was her idea and her old class.
Later I realized I should have just stayed home. I never knew how serious burns are and if I had stayed home and rested I could have taken the codeine, instead of all the Tylenol I was drowning just so I could keep working. This district was nice enough to give us lots of sick days – why didn’t I take advantage of them since I was really sick?
My brother and I drove out to see Uncle Bob. A lot of family was there, even some relatives from Florida. So, we left around eight. We went in to say goodbye to Uncle Bob for the last time. I touched his hand and said “See you later”. He said “Goodbye Hon”. I looked at him a minute as his eyes shut but it was too hard to see his withering body. So I left the room and we left. After I dropped off my brother I felt so sad and even cried a tiny bit. I wanted to be alone.
That night I barley slept thinking of Uncle Bob’s ghost white, fragile, weak dying body. At school things were bad with Spanish Three but I taught them a good lesson about whatever they do comes back to them – details are in my education journal.
MY EDUCATION JOURNAL ENTRY
A success story?
On Tuesday afternoon I was boiling and ready for revenge. Spanish Three finally got my goat for good! First they were all laughing at me in class and I couldn’t figure out why. I thought the buttons of my dress had popped open. I hated seeing all of them talking about me and laughing. I couldn’t believe no one would tell me what they were laughing at.
My student assistant the next hour did have the courage to speak up and said it – it was something in my hair. (Later I found out it was a dead bug that one of the students dropped in my hair).
I didn’t think about it again UNTIL…
I couldn’t find my keys. I thought I left them in Tornado’s room but when I asked her she said no. I looked at the end of lunch. I was too distracted about the keys to teach and luckily my last class agreed to watch a movie. I looked more and more desperately. I had no phone numbers, money, or way to get in my car. I didn’t want to miss my appointment after school (doing an interview for research on a screenplay)
I didn’t want to think Spanish Three had something to do with it but it started to look that way. I saw two students outside in the courtyard and asked if they knew about the keys. I told them I would give a no homework pass as a reward for whoever found the keys. One of the students came into my classroom a few minutes later and said someone anonymous had hid them near the desk in Tornado’s room (where I have Spanish Three class). We found them hidden by the VCR. I firely vented to the student to tell the person it wasn’t funny. I was about to call road emergency to get into my car.
I drove to the café fuming. I wanted to cry and was even angrier at having that reaction. I tore the lay I was wearing instead. Some lay the students gave out during lunchtime.
On the drive home after going to interview my friend at the café, I was still pissed. I wanted to get them all. I held them all responsible for their rotten behavior and attitudes all year. I wanted to not help them when they’re missing work and come in all obnoxious trying to get me to change their grade scores. I knew I have NOTHING to lose if I just fail them all and go. I’m out of here.
But I also wanted them to learn something. I thought of comparing them to Nazis and how no one had the courage to speak up.
Finally, I decided to be a positive EXAMPLE and have them learn that way. I was going to share my anger and not be quiet about it. But I was going to tell them my disappointment in them and how I expect better.
So I wrote on my postcards from around the world. I wrote a note to each one of them telling them their best qualities that I’ve noticed, appreciated, and respected. I tried to be giving and let them rise to my expectations.
Yesterday I came in late and the principal was standing in for me like I had asked since I knew I’d be late from dropping off the car at the dealership for it’s oil change. Luckily they were already quiet from the principal being there. So I started right away and had each of theirs complete attention.
I said, “Let me tell you about my week. I’ll start with Sunday. I drove up to see my Uncle for the last time. He’s dying. It was hard to see his withering weak body and his eyes rolling back. It’s never easy to deal with death but it’s especially hard when it’s your family. So, Monday, somehow I got through the day. Then there was yesterday. I came in to class and everything was normal at first. Then you all started laughing at me and I couldn’t figure out why. I was afraid my dress had unbuttoned. You all have been through elementary school. You know what it’s like to be teased. I just couldn’t believe not one of you had the courage to tell me that there was something in my hair.
Then at the end of the day I couldn’t find my keys. You know how distracting it is to lose something. I tried not to think that it was someone in this class. I didn’t want to believe it. Then one of you found out that they were hidden just as I was about to call road service to unlock my car.
So, I’m angry and it’s hard to get me angry but now you’ve done it. Now, I thought to myself “those little shits” (they laughed when they heard that word)
“I’m going to fail them all. I have nothing to lose. Now, do you want me to have that attitude? I know you think you can have all your fun here with me, the first year teacher, but I don’t have to be so nice when you come in to change your grades. I know you get mad but I’m not trying to mess up your grades. That’s why I give you the printouts so we can go through it and fix the mistakes.
So, I decided, I don’t want to be like that. That’s not me. I decided to remember all the good things about each of you. I want to hold you responsible for what happens and for your actions. You can do better. Right now you’re worse than the ninth graders. What happened? You’re 16. Did you digress?”
(I told them this was hard for me to say)
“So I wrote down all the things I respect about each of you and I expect you to show me your best qualities in this class and rise to my expectations.”
One kid said “good idea”.
I passed out the cards and they quietly read them. Then, I changed the topic to their homework and they wrote in their journals.
One student loved her card and asked if I’d been to that place of the world. Another asked where I’d gotten all the cards. I said that yes I had been to all those places during my travels around the world and had collected the post cards.
They worked fine and somberly for the rest of the class. I couldn’t believe the intensity of their concentration. As I talked and told them how I felt, I hope they did learn something.
I thought they’d said something in their daily response sheets. Only one boy said he hopes the class works as well next time. And another said she was sorry she hadn’t said anything about the moth in my hair.
I found a letter in my box, it was sent by mail to the school and addressed with only my first name:
Sent by mail, had my last name and S for first name (they must have thought Senora was my first name)
Directly to the school, postdated May 15th
A nice surprise in my box:
You do not know me and all I know of you is what I have heard but I would like to take a moment to tell you how you have touched my life.
One of my friends is in your Spanish Three class. He relates to me the pranks you seem to be the recipient of almost every day. Some are harmless, some mildly annoying, but they are all childish and unprecedented pranks. Yesterday (Tues. 13) these pranks became worse than usual. My friend told me how someone put a hairball in your hair and no one had the decency to tell you and hid your keys. All of this after you had had a really hard weekend, visiting your uncle who is dying and who you may never see again. These would have pushed me over the edge. I can’t take meanness and would have quit right then and there.
You did the most mature, thoughtful, and touching thing I have ever heard. You wrote out one kind thing that you enjoyed about each of your students. You made yourself completely vulnerable to a class of high schoolers who have not been worthy of your trust in the past. This was so touching and kind, when my friend told me, I just came home and cried and cried to my mom over the whole situation. She said that no matter how the kids act now, you have definitely made a profound impact on their lives and futures.
I just wanted to say thank you for being so brave – for in your bravery you have taught me a lesson about love that I will never forget. God will bless you for this display of love in the face of persecution.
In Christ –
No signature and I never figured out who it was but it made my whole teaching career!
This afternoon Dad called me at work and I knew it was bad news. My Uncle Bob passed away. I was sad but it still doesn’t seem real.
It’s the last few days of classes so I told my classes that I won’t be teaching next year and instead I’m going to Hollywood. The Spanish One students were excited and gave me their addresses so I can put them in the movies. It was fun to tell Spanish Three. I told them they would recognize scenes and some things people said in the screenplay I wrote, when it becomes a movie. Now Seth says he wants royalties or will sue for likeness. I told him he deserves nothing. Yesterday I said a bitter good bye to Spanish Three.
A letter from a student who months earlier said she didn’t want to do her Spanish homework, just ride her horse. I said failure is a choice, her choice, and she would have to live with the consequences but now she wrote:
Here are some things that I made up, and found for you. The rest you should have and I would appreciate it if you could find it because I cannot make it up because I don’t have a book anymore. I know for a fact I have done the assignments, and I feel very frustrated because number one I’m not the only one missing assignments and I’m feeling discouraged because I have done and re-done so many assignments it’s crazy.
I hope you can find them because I’ve done the work and feel I should get a B in the class at least and without the work your missing I don’t.
Please find them,
I was shocked when two months later I got a call from the school saying her parents are trying to blame her failure on me and if I could send a detailed account of all her missing assignments and grades. I thought the principal should just tell them to bug off, but instead I said I turned in the grades; I live in Los Angeles, and no longer work for that school.
All the homework paperwork was hard to keep up with. That’s why the kids would complain if a completed assignment somehow didn’t get put into the grading computer system. I smarted up and stamped each assignment and if they could show me the stamped paper, then we would fill in the missing assignment box on the computer. Yet this student had said months earlier that she wasn’t going to do her homework, just ride her horse. Her missing assignments were real.
Yesterday was my last day as a teacher. Yeah! A lot of kids were nice and said good luck. One sweet student from Spanish Three offered to help me load the car and told me to have a good life. Even Phil said, “Hi” – after months of ignoring me in the hallways since he dropped my class. I went to the teacher’s luncheon and sat by the student teacher. Tornado asked if we were an “item”. Typical of her.
In Case of Emergency: Teach
I left teaching and moved to Los Angeles. I vowed never to return to a classroom unless I was a guest speaker (which I did return to the school the next winter and told them how easy it was to get started in Hollywood. Phil and Jane made fun of my presentation poster when I passed them in the hall but some sweet kids from Spanish Three attended and Seth seemed interested. Years later when I googled him, he is in the film industry).
You know what your teacher always said: Never say never. You never know what the future holds and mine had twists and turns.
I love screenwriting and filmmaking but when you boil it down it is still work. It also doesn’t always go too well with parenting (unless you are already successful and have a nanny and more “people”). I was just beginning so I was the “people”.
Then I got a great gig developing a major film. It was supposed to last five years – awesome pay and located in the Midwest instead of Los Angeles. I had to take the film from conception to production to distribution. Yet, like many films, it blew up some time between the idea and the filming of the thing. Unfortunately I didn’t see it coming so my husband and I had decided to go ahead and start a family while I had this great job.
Did I forget to mention that while learning film and jumping into Hollywood I also ended up leaving singledom?
So, I was two months pregnant when the film started to unravel. We moved close to his family and I needed a job. It was far from a big city where any hope of film or show business jobs are but there happened to be an advertisement for a Spanish teacher position.
I know I vowed never to teach again but that was before I had an impending child on my hands. My husband didn’t have a job since we had planned on me working and he staying at home, so I bit the bullet and applied.
I went to the interview at this small Mid-Western school. It was so small that the one building held the elementary school, preschool program, high school, and the offices for the entire district. So I met with the principal, superintendent and one of the special education teachers. They were very nice. I was honest that my weakness was classroom management and that I would have to work more on that. The principal said they have an in school suspension discipline room and that she thinks teachers shouldn’t have to deal with nonsense. I liked her immediately.
As the principal gave me a tour of the facilities she offered me the position. I knew it’s illegal to discriminate but I wanted to let them know that I was pregnant and would want at least the six weeks off. She briefly talked to the Superintendent in his office. They said it was fine and they had lots of teachers take time off last year to have babies. I figured they didn’t have any other applicants.
So, that summer I started planning the classes – especially with things they could do for 6 weeks while I was gone. I figured they’d do cultural stuff and worksheets with a non Spanish-speaking sub.
I met with the previous teacher. She couldn’t stay since she wasn’t licensed in Spanish. She was very nice. I mostly wanted to talk to her about what she had done in the Spanish classes and about the class I had to teach out of my field. Since most small schools don’t really need full time Spanish teachers, most teachers work part time. So, in this school I would have to teach a few classes out of my field. It was a lesson in how horrible that is! If they give us licenses and make us “experts” in our fields, why do they think they can just throw you another class?
I’m not trying to be ungrateful that I had a full time position and I am grateful that it paid for my bills having a baby and then supported my family; I’m just speaking from the teaching perspective and the fact that you should always check out your child’s teacher’s licenses (some states post it on the Internet).
This class would be about various cultures so we called it World Cultures Class. The teacher already warned me that she had a hard time with the dry and very hard to read textbook. I figure I’d have fun, finally able to teach culture and use my travels and experience (I learned later that what you love and are passionate about doesn’t always rub off to the already apathetic teens after so many years of ‘schooling”)
I almost cried when I picked up the Spanish textbooks. One was the exact same one I had used in Spanish Three in California. All the bad memories came back within those pages. Luckily I found out that was the previous teacher’s private collection and I would have to return that particular textbook. No problem!
The other thing that made me nervous was the emphasis this state put on learning standards. I remember learning about them in college but had never really worked with them. The school was developing them for their programs so I had to write up my own plans. I wasn’t too worried about Spanish since I had examples from college, but that World Cultures class, what would I do? I remember meeting with the “social studies department” which consisted of two male history teachers who weren’t worried about it. Luckily I figured it out, wrote some standards and did my best to stick with them, but it’s all just paper work. The great part was the district paid out a few hundred dollars for each standards package you wrote out so then I was very motivated and booked them out for each of my classes.
September arrived and back to school I went. I was very pleased to see that my classes were small. Immediately most of my management problems went right out the door because of the small sizes. My first class of the day was Spanish One and it only had twenty kids. I, again, didn’t have my own classroom at least not for all my classes. I had to use one of the socials studies department’s classrooms since my office/classroom was shared with another teacher who only taught in the morning. Luckily he let me put up a few Spanish posters.
Then I had prep, followed by Spanish Three class, which brought palpitations to my heart till I saw that it consisted of six students. No sweat. We never had a problem. We sat in a small circle and just did grammar and some skits and movies.
My main focus that fall was to keep the students in traditional Spanish class since they actually found a Spanish teacher sub who was into grammar and I wanted to make it easy for them (and me). I had to re-plan all my classes and organize everything which took time, but I was amazed the next year how easy and less time consuming my job was since all my classes were already planned out.
I also had a study hall, which was annoying since the kids never studied. World Cultures was the last hour of the day – which always spells trouble!
Things went pretty smoothly but I had forgotten how moody teens could be and the weird thing was that I was going through hormonal changes and was moody myself as a pregnant woman. I would never give kids slack for needing to go to the bathroom because I had the same five minutes between class to get through the congested hallway, go to the bathroom, then walk/run all the way back down to the end of the hall to my classroom and as the months went on it was less of a walk and more of a hobble with a bowling ball attached to my belly.