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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.

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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.

A day of firsts

June 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Waking up today I knew it would be a day of firsts: my first meeting to discuss a child’s IEP (individual education plan) was this morning and my first child study meeting (to discuss how to intervene with a child who’s struggling) was this afternoon.  What I didn’t know is that in between these meetings one of my students would provide an opportunity for another first: my first ride in an ambulance.

The student, AK, was last in line as we started to walk to music.  I was puzzled when I saw him run back into the classroom, but sent the class on, figuring he’d just forgotten something and would be right out.  He did come back out quickly, but he was crying and clearly panicky.  “I swallowed, I swallowed,” he kept repeating.  “You swallowed what,” I asked.  He finally gasped: “a quarter!”

“You swallowed a QUARTER?!”  I replied dumbly.

Luckily another teacher on my team heard me and said, “I’ve got your class, do what you need to do.”  So AK and I rushed down the hallway towards the clinic, with me asking him to keep talking while we walked so that I could make sure he could still breath.  About 3/4 of the way there he started throwing up, and another teacher immediately swooped in with a trash can to catch it.  We got to the clinic, explained what was wrong, and within about 10 seconds had the principal on the phone with 911, the assistant principal on the phone to the student’s mom, and a copy of his emergency care information ready for the EMTs.  The principal kept him distracted with long, crazy stories about other kids she’s known who swallowed coins and the clinic aide and I kept him cleaned up.  While I was at the hospital with him, one of the reading teachers picked my kids up from music, and another was ready to get them from lunch and dismiss them if I wasn’t back in time.

Despite some scary minutes of having the quarter stuck in his throat my student should be fine, and we left him at the ER in the capable hands of the doctors and his mother.

My takeaway from the day is an overwhelming appreciation for the other staff members at my school.  At every turn I had instantaneous, unquestioning help.  The only thing that mattered was taking care of my student, which included allowing me to be there to take care of him.  I know it might sound like the obvious or the right thing to do, and it is, but I’ve also worked in enough environments to know that this kind of matter of fact extension on behalf of another staff member or someone else’s kid isn’t always the norm.  I’m very grateful I ended up somewhere where it is.

Finding my place

September 22, 2010 Leave a comment

I still don’t feel in control in my lesson planning.  Transitioning from a fully independent, 4-week unit approach to a team-planned week-at-a-time approach has been very hard on me.  In math, especially, I feel out of step with my team and with the specialists.  I want to start out much slower, emphasizing number sense, problem solving, and understanding.  The team values these goals too, but our planning tends to bypass hard conversations in favor of daily activity planning.  To me, the end result feels random – a collection of things to do rather than a careful building of mathematical understanding.

Oddly, I started out writing this post because I was feeling better about our math planning.  In today’s meeting I brought some ideas to the table, pushed for us to focus on foundational skills, and got at least one co-worker on board with my thinking.  At this point, I’d say I’m still feeling a little lost and out of control, but I also feel like I can find ways to carve out space for my own math curriculum within my classroom.  If I want to use ten-frames and I can find the time, no one’s going to try to stop me.  If I’m being really ambitious, I think my next step would be to plan out my idea of how the next several weeks should run, propose these ideas in our meetings, and implement as many of them as I have time for.  It’s a little exhausting to think about doing that much independent planning on top of the school day and my freelance work, but I think it would make me feel more confident and competent.  Teaching math was one of the highlights of my student teaching experience and I’d like to get back the feeling that I can really teach kids to think and to have fun with math.

Everything’s okay (but it’s completely overwhelming)

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Day 2 of first grade is over and it went relatively well.  My kids seemed about as well-behaved as other people’s kids, and we started to do some learning.  While no moment of the day feels out of control, I have to admit that the sum total of the day is drowning me.  I go from activity to activity, running each reasonably well, but I have absolutely no sense of where I’m trying to go or how I hope to get there, so the activities end up feeling like just that – activities to keep both me and the kids busy.  My entire approach to teaching is based on knowing, caring about, and communicating the “why” of what we’re learning, and without that, I feel like I’m just going through motions – playing teacher without actually being a teacher.

On the surface, this seems like a fixable problem – I just need to figure out where I’m headed and I’ll be fine.  It doesn’t feel that easy in practice though.  I am overwhelmed by how much I have to learn – terminology, structures, procedures, state expectations, county expectations, school expectations, in every subject – and by how much I have to remember about the educational theory and practice I’ve learned but haven’t used in 9-10 months – or ever.

And amid this information overload I’m struggling with a tremendous sense of isolation and a sharp sense of loss for my social situation during student teaching.  I ran into a lot of classroom management, lesson planning, and general uncertainty while in Cambridge, but one important difference between then and now was that I had a built-in, highly-interested support group to help me process my day.  During the day I could talk with my assistant teacher, my mentor teacher, or chat with other teachers during the school’s morning break or the hour-long lunch.  In my new school I spend all day alone with my kids, or if I’m not with my kids I’m in a tightly scheduled meeting.  There seems to be very little built-in adult contact within the building.  And it’s not good for me to come home and spend the evening by myself.  I need time for solo reflection, but without some interruption or chance for social processing, I risk getting caught up in discouraging thoughts.  I knew in Cambridge that our daily dinners at the local pub were valuable, but now that I don’t have them I see just how important they were to my resiliency and success in the classroom.  I don’t know how I could replicate this social contact in my new environment, so for now, awareness of the differences will have to be enough.

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Office hours

May 4, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m in my last week of graduate school and yesterday I realized I hadn’t fulfilled a personal goal of grad school – talking to a professor about an assignment before I turn it in.  I certainly never did this in college, at least not voluntarily.  It seemed like a lot of students around me did – and do – but I’ve never understood how they do it.  There are so many obstacles to making it happen.  First, you have to remember the project earlier than the day or so before.  Second, you have to complete some amount of thinking or work on it to make your project worth meeting about.  And third, you have to get in touch with the professor and schedule the meeting.  Who can do all of that?  And on a regular basis?

Happily for me, one of my professors this year asked that we start thinking about our final projects from the very first class period, then scheduled a mandatory peer review session a week before the final version is due.  This meant that obstacles one and two above were taken care of.  I still almost balked at obstacle three (actually getting in touch to schedule the meeting), but somehow managed to get the two sentence email sent. And now here I am, waiting outside the professor’s office, final project draft nervously in hand, waiting to talk with her.

I’m not sure I even know what to say or do in the meeting, but I figure she’ll probably help me out.  After all, this isn’t her first meeting with a student.

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