Saturday, March 17, 2018

Why the "Worst" Students Need the Best Teachers

Imagine having a daughter with chronic illness. Perhaps you have already tried medication or surgeries to no avail, and it is clear that resolving their ailment will be a struggle.

Naturally, you seek out the best physician you can find- an experienced specialist with an outstanding record of success. 

Now, what if upon examination, the doctor decided that they had "served their time" with difficult patients like your daughter and they wanted only serve the most amenable? 

Your little girl would be left in a state of "needs improvement" while the healthiest patients got expert, specialized care. While I hope the contrived scenario does not exist in the healthcare profession, it is certainly alive and well in secondary education. 

There is an unspoken hierarchy in high schools I've experienced during my 12 years in education: the newest teachers in a school get the hardest-to-handle classes, are more likely to teach inclusion courses, and have less power over which subjects they will teach.

As I have heard veterans say, only after "serving your time" (as if it were a prison sentence), can you work your way up to teaching advanced classes or the electives where classroom management is less of a burden and intrinsic motivation is high. 

The neediest (both cognitively and socioeconomically) children are often scorned by the the educators most qualified to assist them via increased pedagogical knowledge and well-established classroom management practices. 

"I can't relate to those kids."

"I just don't have the patience anymore."

"I want to teach students who actually want to learn."

I have shared these sentiments in the past, so no judgement.

Although a humorous meme, there is often a
sobering, underlying reason for "bad" behavior
I, too, am coming from a place of teaching all Advanced Placement and honors courses, and I formerly felt entitled.

I started my high school teaching career floating around the building with no classroom while working with the lowest pupils in the school, but I had "proven myself" and enjoyed no longer having to battle incessant talking, high absenteeism and student disrespect. 

I resolutely evidenced myself capable, and now "those students" were a task for the newcomers. 

In addition to pay and workload issues, I have no doubt that this practice contributes to the 20% attrition rate of teachers in their first three years.

As I changed schools mid-year this past January, I found myself to be the "new teacher" for the first time in over a decade, and as such, I was placed teaching the lowest classes. 

Been there, done that. 

I was so happy to have a job close to home and with decent pay and benefits that I put my ego aside and took up the task wholeheartedly.

I had forgotten some of the frustrations that come with at-risk students- taking work to ISS, contacting parents more frequently, having hallway conferences with belligerent kids only to learn of some fresh hell going on in their home lives, and most importantly, how to teach struggling learners with deficits in reading and prior knowledge.

Getting kids to pass the AP Chemistry exam is a cakewalk in comparison.

However, I had also forgotten the joy of really making a difference with students that need it most. In the last three months I have had the pleasure of the following experience with the kids in the "worst" classes at my school:

Seeing a English language learner student's face light up brighter than the bulbs in his circuit last week as he feverishly put the wires and batteries together and blew his friends away. Even though he has to use a translating app on his phone for the most basic tasks, he could probably teach me a thing or two about electricity.

Watching a young lady on probation consistently score the highest grade on tests and quizzes. She had told me of her time in jail, and I have rarely had such a gratifying experience in the classroom than telling her that she was working her way to freedom in more ways than one.

Seeing the look of pride on a gifted young man's face who had failed his two previous science classes as I tell him how wonderful he's doing and how certain I am that he could have a career in science. I was told he ruin my class by previous teachers, and he certainly tried to initially, but I can now add him to the list of children I have positively impacted.

I could share more, but hopefully you see my point.

So as next year's schedule is made, I did not use my glowing four-page resume as leverage to move away from teaching physical science. The test counts heavily in the state's adjudication of my school, and the questions require high-level reasoning- the same type I masterfully implemented during a decade of teaching AP. Instead, I enthusiastically volunteered. 

My skills and experience should be used where they are needed most, not as a justification for teaching the easiest classes and "best" students. 

The "worst" students are wonderful, kind, smart, and capable and they have already made me a better, happier teacher. If you have found yourself at the top of the instructional pecking order at your school, I would invite you to remind yourself of that occasionally as well. 



Friday, January 19, 2018

Why I Give My Students a Postcard the First Day of Class

When's the last time you received a honest-to-goodness handwritten correspondence from someone? I'm not talking about junk mail, bills, or Christmas cards, but a actual personal message penned just for you? 

How did that make you feel? Important, emotional, humbled?

Sure, email is more efficient and verbal exchanges can be powerful, but everyone loves a note of affirmation or thanks. 

And... that is why I give each new pupil a postcard on the first day of class.

Writing a note to each student in the formative days of a new semester can nurture fledging relationships and help your students feel seen and significant. 

This year, I used "Women in Science" themed 
cards I loved! (found here)

I figure I can make the choice to write a welcoming note to each student when classes begin OR write up discipline referrals once classes get into full swing. I prefer the former, especially if I have the opportunity to make a young person's day.

Sounds rosy and idealistic but too time-consuming, right? Not necessarily. 

Here's how I do it:

1. I give out postcards on the first day of class, and have students write their name and address as part of their warm-up. 

This will keep you from the tedious part of sending home mail*- looking up each kids' information in the computer. UGH!

Tip: you may want to have an example on the board. Even some of my 16-year-old AP students don't know how to write their own address!

Message to an Earth Systems student who shared 
career goals including architecture on 
their "Getting to Know You" sheet

2. Next, I have each student fill out a "Getting to Know You" questionaire so I can get a idea of their attitudes about science and their aspirations and interests. Here's the file I use.

This will give you content for your message, help you to get to know your new classes, and immediately demonstrate to your new students that they are valued.

Bonus: it keeps them busy while you are taking attendance and showing everyone their seats :)

Sample message to a Physical Science student 
who I already LOVE- he wants to be a rapper, 
so I tried to make a connection with him 
using a (very corny) rhyme

3. After I have learned my students' names, I spend some time reading over their "Getting to Know You" responses and composing the postcard memos. It typically takes me 1-2 minutes per student. With a 4x4 block schedule and 3 classes per term, my total time commitment per semester is about 2 hours. I spread it over a few days. 

To make my Fitbit happy, I hop on my treadmill, throw a board across the handrails, and write my notes while walking at a blazing (ha!) 2 miles per hour. 

I get in a little cardio and a whole lot of warm-fuzzies as I peer into each kids' soul a bit. 

Multitasking at its finest!

I also imagine the smiles on their faces as they realize someone cares enough about them to send them a postcard. 

Y'all, this is what teaching is all about!

4. Finally, I take the cards to my school secretary and have them affix the postage and drop them off in the mail. Done!

If the idea catches on, your school can even have cards made such as the ones at my previous school. 

"Good News" cards courtesy of 
Woodland High School

If you missed the chance to start the new year with postcards, it's not too late!

 The first time I used this technique, I kept the cards in my desk and wrote a few each week as I "caught" each person doing something helpful, studious, or out-of-the ordinary. This is also a great way to cheer yourself up after a hard day or avoid an extra, bulky task at the beginning of a new semester. 

Either way, your students are worth it, and I promise you'll reap returns on the time you invest. Just try not to cry in class when you see a student has your note tucked away in their book bag or wallet.



*Props to the amazing math teacher, Melinda Wilder, who shared this brilliant time-saver with me a few years ago! 

A sample message for a student who shared 
no career goals, interests, or anything unique. 
This happens sometimes, and they are the 
ones who need the cards the most!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Classroom New Year's Resolution

After reflecting on my last post, Breaking in Your New Teaching Shoes

I can resolutely say that those shoes never fully got broken in. 

Other things were broken this fall: take for example my ability to stay active and healthy with a 70-minute commute or my bank account after paying tuition for my son. What teacher has $23,500 lying around for school for their 11-year-old? I digress...

My leadership and peers were supportive, my surroundings- complete with perfectly manicured landscaping and spotlessly clean facilities- were beautiful, and the food will be missed. Despite their shiny exterior and support, however, those "shoes" just weren't my size. 

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

To (literally) save my sanity, I was fortunate enough to be offered a science position five minutes from my house at my alma mater. God undoubtedly orchestrated this transition for me, and I am grateful I'll have time for my family and myself again. I'll let Picard explain my thoughts in making the move:  

Sometimes it takes losing something you took for granted, in my case working at a local school where I made a difference, to fully appreciate what you had. 

Almost immediately after taking the job, which is at a public school with large proportion of students receiving free and reduced lunch where I'll be teaching lower-level classes, I was told that my students were going to be challenging and hard-to-manage. 

After all, I did just leave an elite private school, and I had taught mostly AP and honors courses during last few years. Plus, I  apparently look young and a little too friendly to handle "rough" students. 

As a realist, I know there was truth and good intentions in what I heard. No doubt. 

But, I started my career in similar placement, AND having blond hair and smiling a lot doesn't mean you can't manage a classroom!

If this semester's students aren't affluent, I too grew up in a trailer park with parents that worked in retail and construction; I didn't always have lunch money, and I'm pretty sure I was the "smelly kid" from time to time. 

If they are tired or ill-behaved, I remember fighting to stay awake in class after working late to pay for my basic needs or skipping class because of exhaustion. I wasn't always the most positive or well-behaved young adult either.

Rewind the clock 17 years, and I was sitting in their same seats in the same building with the same stress of coming from a family where education was not always the top priority. 

I already love my new students because I WAS them.

So, here's my New Year's Resolution for my classroom:

I will pray over every single name on my rosters and ask to impact their lives as much as possible. I will wish each one success as I guide them toward getting a credit toward graduation.

That's it. 

Sure, I want to have engaging lessons and good test scores, but what really drives success as a teacher other than positive, structured relationships with students?

Every day I am going to greet them, speak to them by name, and work with them like their lives matter- because they do.

Let me be clear: my time with students isn't less valuable if they don't have aspirations of being a doctor or they are headed to technical school rather than college. 

If teachers hold this belief, they are in the wrong profession.

I don't know what the Spring semester will bring, but I do know these teaching shoes will fit because I have already worn them down the very hallways my students will travel on the way to my class in a few days.

Happy New Year,