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Heated molecules

January 28, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s been a hard week. One of my boys is in total meltdown (the counselor, who adores him, says, “oh yeah, he’s a hot mess right now”), one is continuing his desperate search for attention, and their combined meltdowns seem to be upsetting the very delicate balance I had found with my emotionally fragile child.  When relatively stable and healthy, these three boys take about 40% of my attention.  With all three crashing and burning together, they’re taking about 98% of my attention.  This leaves 2% for the 13 other six- and seven-year-olds in the class.  They’re a good group of kids, but no group of six- and seven-year-olds is good enough to go through an entire school day – let alone a full week – with almost no guidance or attention, especially surrounded by three constant crises.

So the rest of my class is melting down.  I have not taught anything new this week.  The only teaching I managed to do – introducing them to Eleanor Roosevelt – I did with one of the boys in crisis sitting on my lap, hugging my arms tightly and rocking.  It’s a good thing I can spin dramatic, spur of the moment stories about historical figures, because I definitely didn’t have a hand available to hold the book we were supposed to read.  And I managed to spin this story while one of the other boys shrieked repeatedly from a corner of the classroom (the third, miraculously, sat quietly and raised his hands to ask attentive questions).

The only bright spot of this week is that it’s been so incredibly bad that I’ve finally gotten the attention of other people in the school and we’re finally moving forward aggressively to get these boys help.  No more “have you tried giving him more one-on-one attention?”  “Have you tried teaching him to take some deep breaths to calm down?”  Now we’re bringing in counselors, we’re bringing in parents and translators, we’re getting formal documentation and referrals submitted, and – thank god – we’re skipping the rest of the 30 committee meetings that each suggest six-week interventions before I can talk to the next committee and we’re moving straight to “we need to figure out a solution for this child and his family.”

For the first time this year, I’m feeling optimistic that we may be able to get help for my three boys.  I’m consumed with guilt, though, at how little attention and patience the rest of my class has been getting from me, and worried about if and how we’ll be able to reestablish a peaceful, supportive classroom community once these crises are dealt with.  And I am tired.  Thank goodness for the upcoming teacher workdays; I need some time to take a deep breath and figure out my next steps.

The benefit of confidence (and experience)

January 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Part of the reason I love trapeze is because the teachers there are really, really good at teaching.  They provide constant, individual feedback that is almost always at the student’s exact developmental level.  While almost all the teachers are strong, a handful stand out from the crowd.  I’ve realized that the classes where I really move my skills forward and try new, unexpected things are the classes with the most experienced, confident teachers.  They’re the ones who ask, “have you done [skill] yet?  No?  Okay, you’re going to learn that right now.”  Or, like tonight, they see a skill I’ve been working on for months and say, “the reason that’s so hard is because your flying is more advanced than that skill.  I’m going to teach you the harder way, you’ll do it next time up, and it’s going to feel easier.”

Making a call like that takes confidence that you know what you’re doing and have the right to do it.  Dozens of instructors have helped me with this skill, but tonight’s teacher was the only one to say “wait, why are you doing that at all?”

I think about how this trapeze experience applies to my own teaching.  One of the big changes this year is the confidence I have in moving my students forward.  Last year I didn’t really know what was coming, and didn’t know what students should look like to get there, so I kind of tip-toed everyone forward, uncertain.  This year I know where we all need to be and I’m often dragging my kids forward, more confident now that I know what they should be doing.  Having experience lets me do more than coach them where they are – like the best of my trapeze instructors, I’m learning to question why we’re there, and make a confident decision about where we should be instead.

Validation

January 11, 2012 1 comment

Last year was hard. My boss didn’t like most of what I did in the classroom and let me know it all year.  If one of my six-year-olds was (gasp!) wiggling on the carpet, she’d write in her notes that the class was off-task and not learning.  This time last year, we had an hour-long meeting to explain that I might not be recommended for reappointment that spring.

Flash forward. I have a new evaluator who thinks deeply about teachers’ practices.  We’ve talked informally about my class throughout the year, we are in 2 hours a week of team meetings together, and she’s been in to observe a few times. We had a 15 minute mid-year meeting today in which she said that I am exceeding expectations on 7 of the 23 professional standards and she’s recommending me for reappointment.  She explained that she’d thought a lot about the observations she’d done in my classroom and even talked with my mentor to think through her evaluation of it.  She said that her first impression was that the kids were behaving rather “loosely” with me (yet would sit up ramrod straight when she looked at them), and that threw her off a little.  But then when she looked more closely, she saw that I was constantly checking for understanding, pushing kids to explain their thinking, and providing enough freedom for the “hard to fit in” kids in my class to feel comfortable and find success.  She said, essentially, that my management style is not her own, but that if it works for me, she’s fine with it, because she can see that it’s working for the kids.

Forgive me a flowery moment: this is like a balm to my soul.

I’ve spent the last year and half filled with fear, doubt, and a sense of incompetence because my classroom simply doesn’t look like the other classrooms.  I know my kids are learning, but when other people see or hear our room, I feel judged – that I can’t control them, that I don’t know how to keep them in line.  And the truth is, I don’t – not in the way other teachers do.  I cannot for the life of me get a class full of six-year-olds to line up straight and silent (though I’ve seen it done).  But I kind of don’t care about that, which is probably why I can’t do it.  It’s just not a battle I feel like waging when there are so many other things that matter more to me.  Honestly, the one major non-academic battle I’ve fought this year is to have students stop touching the levers on my chair.  Drove me nuts.  They stopped.  I’m sure if I really, truly cared I would figure out how to have a quieter, less wiggly class.  But I love the roly-poly, puppy nature of six-year-olds.  I love their random conversations and off-topic explorations.  I let them conspire with a buddy sometimes instead of reading because I want to see what they’ll come up with.  I watch them change the rules of the math games and invent totally new activities, then I talk with them about what they’ve figured out.  Not all of the freedom I give them is productive, and I definitely feel sometimes like my kids are less “polished” than many of the other teachers’, but they’re learning to think, to explore, to test boundaries.

For the last year, I’ve been taught to think of myself as a failed classroom manager and therefore a failure as a teacher.  Today’s evaluation reminds me that while I may fail to look like everyone else, I’m succeeding at putting my teaching philosophy into practice.  As I read what I’ve just written about my classroom it sounds exactly like the application essay I wrote about teaching and learning to get hired for this job.  My goal for the rest of this year is to approach each day with a sense of positive purpose for what I’m choosing to do in my classroom and let go of the needless guilt and worry about how things might appear.  If I’m happy, my kids are happy, and they’re learning, that works for me.

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