So…..I Want To Be A Teacher

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The following is a post that I wrote for my uncle’s website, http://www.choosingmycareer.com. He began this e-book store, and co-authored a book series, “So You Want To Be A…”. These affordable e-books are FULL of practically any information, advice and guidance that you would need to be successful on the career path of your choice. Read my post, check out the site. download an e-book for a high schooler, friend, family member or for yourself!

So…. I Want To Be A Teacher

I was fortunate enough to know exactly what I wanted to do with my life since I was about 5 years old. I wanted to stand in front of my teddy bears and doll babies and teach them everything I knew from A-Z and from 1-probably about 30. I would teach them how to write letters, sing songs, read stories and especially how to be nice to each other. I was a natural. I spent the rest of my elementary, middle and high school years perpetuating this as well; I volunteered at after school programs, tutored Spanish at the local elementary school during my high school study halls, and volunteered in classrooms from Syracuse, N.Y. To Quepos, Costa Rica. I was going to be a teacher when I grew up.

I knew what I wanted to do, but had no idea how to do it!

My parents had not gone to 4 year colleges and my older sister was the first of us to go. She was inherently independent and basically found a way to navigate the college admissions, student loan and scholarship process on her own. For me, this was not as simple. I found myself following the path of my sister for logistical purposes, not necessarily because it was the best path for me. I ended up going to an excellent private university in upstate New York (I lucked out here, I really only chose this particular university because it was about 3 miles from my sister’s university) and graduated with a teaching degree.

At the time, I did what felt right and ultimately my education got me to where I had always imagined I’d be: teaching in a classroom of my very own. In retrospect, I feel like I missed out on a lot of opportunities especially when it comes to finances, scholarships, internships and work experiences. If I had better guidance back in high school, would I be in this much debt? Would I have better experiences on my resume? Would I have joined that club on campus even though it interfered with my Thursday night plans? Would I have taken that class that was recommended, even though it was at 7:30am on Friday mornings? Would I have even gone to that college?

I know that I cannot answer these questions now, but I can tell you that if I am ever in the position to guide a student on their path to college and careers, I will be better prepared. There is research to be done, there are decisions to be made and unfortunately, we do not always know how to do this on our own. Our parents may be unaware, or guidance counselors may have unimaginably large case loads and our youth and inexperience may hinder our efforts to do the research on our own.

Years ago, I needed http://www.choosingmycareer.com. I needed some clear, concise information on what to do, when to do it and how to prepare for the future that I knew I wanted. I knew that I wanted to be a teacher, but I did not have the information readily available to make the best choices for myself. Deciding what you want to do is the first step, figuring out how to get there is the next—so why not be fully prepared?

Damsel in Detention

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Is detention appropriate for elementary school students? I find myself battling with this question on a regular basis. Detention in the elementary school, as far as where I work pretty much means that you take YOUR time (planning or lunch) and keep students in from recess as a consequence for the gamut of misbehaviors that can occur in the classroom. Such offenses at the elementary school level which may warrant detention include playing in class, not completing the work, fighting, talking back, being disrespectful and so on. Of course we teachers strive to be patient and loving, and we give the students a couple of chances to get themselves together, especially when we already know that mom works late, dad has recently been imprisoned, or the student was up all night babysitting their little brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews and the rest.

Here’s the thing, part of me feels sorry for the kids. Coming from a rough neighborhood, possibly not having the support needed at home to complete assignments or a role model to demonstrate the essential qualities to build character is disadvantageous and disheartening. Yet, the other part of me thinks: suck it up. It’s a tough world out there and once these babies pass out of elementary school, there is not going to be anymore coddling and lax attitudes when it comes to disrespect and not pulling your share of the weight.

Now, this problem has been relatively minimal this year, as we have implemented a classroom economy in which the kids are rewarded with “cash” for good behavior, grades, attitudes and they are fined for not completing assignments and acting wild in class. But, there are of course a few kids who are not “buying in” to the system and just don’t want to do anything right. Needless to say, these are the same few who go bounding out the door at recess and then most likely proceed to give me a hard time when it is time to come in from recess.

Do I keep them in everyday (while simultaneously punishing myself) in hopes that they will “learn their lesson?” Or, is there really no lesson that is going to be learned here?

Is it worth it to try to instill the belief that good behavior and work will be rewarded and there will be consequences for poor choices? Is this even the reality of our society?

-Damsel in Detention (sometimes…)

“What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”

-Henry David Thoreau

Updates from a Fifth Grade Teacher (Yes- I have been moved, again!)

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As many of you may or may not have noticed, I have been on a lengthy hiatus from both the twitter world, as well as the blogging world. I suppose in part that the reason for my absence has been that I have grown too tired of what I previously wrote as The Constant Battle. Coupled with this feeling of complete exhaustion, I have decided to focus my efforts this school year on what I can do, rather than what I cannot change on my own. As I refuse to be the next exemplar of the high teacher turnover rate in DCPS, I must find ways to maintain my stamina as well as my piece of mind.

 

This school year has proven to be an uphill challenge, as is expected with the arrival of many new staff members and reeling on the negative events of this past June. For those of you that do not know, our school community was deeply shaken by accusations of cheating on past years’ standardized tests and many teachers had either chosen to leave or had been forced out of the classroom (You can read about all of that here and here). Whether the removal of these teachers proves to be warranted or not, we may never know. What I do know is that there are a lot of questions left unanswered and a lot of children asking those questions. Were the cheating accusations grounded on real evidence? Was the whole investigation a web of lies told by vindictive teachers and brainwashed students who were oblivious to the graveness of the matter, as well as desperate for approval from their beloved teachers? I know I am not the only teacher wondering if the money spent on all of these investigations were really worth it (and, I know that my classroom is not the only one that is still lacking necessary resources needed to educate 21st century learners-and the funding is simply not available).

 

Despite the recent absence of my candid tweets regarding my opposition of almost everything “DCPS policy”, my opinions remain unchanged. My opinions regarding current public education policy continue to be scathed by negativity, and frankly I have become tired of talking about it and feeling little support where it matters the most. My disdain for the pressures put on teachers in regards to standardized testing have most definitely not altered, and the sadness and helplessness I see when I look at many of my students who are being underserved or improperly served by the public education system still torment me everyday. To my readers and fellow teachers, I still stand with you in opposition for standardized testing and for more community-based initiatives to combat the greatest issue affecting our babies: poverty.

 

As this school year drudges on, I am somberly awaiting the mounting pressure that will continue to build as the DC-CAS test nears. We are warned that we are being closely monitored under the watchful eye of DCPS Office of Data and Accountability and any failure to comply with the strict guidelines of test administration will have serious and job-threatening repercussions.

 

In the classrooms, students panic as each and every benchmark exam draws near. Students cringe at their low marks, not realizing that what is holding them back from achievement is often out of their control. Teachers feel hopeless, lifeless and unprepared for the challenge of preparing severely low-performing students for an increasingly difficult exam that may or may not be a true indicator of their actual intelligence. Teachers are confused and overwhelmed at the push to differentiate instruction for the varying academic and behavior levels in the classroom, while the tests administered are “one size fits all.” These and other struggles remain a significant barrier to our students success as well as our success as educators, and without much change on the horizon, I can no longer spend hours reading, writing and dwelling on these injustices.

 

The glum reality of being a public school teacher in a disenfranchised area persists, however it is not enough to bring down many of our dedicated teachers and staff. The new teachers that have joined our fight to educate the youth of DC are heroic. Their drive and dedication are exactly what is needed and they are making this truly challenging career more endurable. I look forward to sharing some more upbeat and positive,“Tales of a FIFTH Grade Teacher” throughout the year.

 

 

Thanks for stopping by (or returning after a long break)!

 

“You can do what you have to do, and sometimes you can do it even better than you think you can.”

Jimmy Carter  

What I Learned (and Re-Learned) This Year

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We’re always learning new things as teachers. We teach, we learn and sometimes its done right alongside our students. Some of these lessons I have learned cumulatively in the past few years and some are just recent revelations on my teaching journey. Regardless, I think that they are important lessons in teaching, learning, and in life.

Get the kids on your side. This is one point that I cannot stress enough. When I first started teaching I was in charge and that was that. I spent so much time trying to get the kids to listen to their lessons that I found that I never actually listened to them. In time, I began to realize how drastically wrong this approach is. Get the kids on your side first. Take the first week (or two) and bond with them, enjoy them, learn to love them. This way of thinking has changed my life. Once the students realize that despite the hard work and high expectations of the classroom, you love them and you’ve got their back-they’ll make it. Kids are emotional and they are beginning to learn how to handle their emotions and better manage them each day. Express your love and respect for them, and their feelings, and they will eventually love and respect you. Some kids take longer than others, but they’ll come around. Children are just looking for someone who truly cares about them. Prove this and they will be much more apt to work hard to earn your love and respect.

Stop punishing and start loving. This motto goes hand in hand with the previous. I stopped getting mad at the naughty behaviors and started getting sad and disappointed in poor choices. I stopped giving as many consequences this year for poor behavior and simply started recognizing and rewarding the good behavior. Kids want attention, and I have begun to refuse giving attention to poor anti-social behaviors. This can be tricky and there are definitely times when this is an inappropriate management technique. For example, any acts of aggression, violence or bullying should incur the necessary consequences. My point is, if a child is obnoxiously chattering, yelling out, talking in line, or not completing work-I take note of it, but do not give that child the attention in which they are seeking. I see the behavior, I know that it is unacceptable, but instead of recognizing that unacceptable behavior I acknowledge the students who are NOT partaking in those behaviors. This can be difficult and at first those students who are acting out will just become more angered by this. I learned this year that even the toughest shell will eventually crack when there are special erasers, new pencils and high fives at stake.

Kids can break down racial stereotypes. The only real way to rid our nation of racism and segregation is through diversity education and integration. Sounds obvious, right? There are entirely way too many misconceptions about people based on race and ethnicity, and children pick up on these misconceptions from an early age. Children of different races and ethnicities should not be taken by surprise when they encounter groups of children of other races and ethnicities. There should be no staring, gawking or confusion. If we can’t diversify our environments, we will hardly be able to diversify our thoughts, and vice versa.

I took my class on a field-trip and as it came to an end they were begging to go play on the playground which was sprawling (fortunately) with kids from other schools and other ethnic backgrounds. Of course, being a “play is an essential component of education” kind of gal, I let them play. At first, the separation was evident, the white kids played with the white kids, the black kids played with the black kids. When one of my students came over and acknowledged this, I was blown away by her observation when she asked; “Are we allowed to play with the (whisper voice) white kids?” I told her she could play with whoever she wanted, as long as they wanted to play with her. Her next question had me even more disconcerted; “How?” I simply told her to invite them to play with her the same way she would ask her classmates at school to play with her. Within a few moments, and a couple unsuccessful attempts, all of the children began to play together.

On the bus ride back to our school in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., many of the children expressed happiness and surprise over being allowed to play with the other kids on the playground. Exposure to new environments, new people and new places continues to be a goal in my teaching. It only took one brave kid to break the racial boundaries of the playground. Adults, what’s our excuse?

Always have food. You just can’t argue with this one. I have provided snacks for my students just about every day of my teaching career. I am STARVING by 10:00am, so I know my students are feeling the same way. As long as my students are on task and trying their best, they can eat a morning snack. Always keep some extra snacks in your classroom: pretzels, crackers, easy stuff. You never know when a child will come to you hungry and ornery. Save yourself the hassle of dealing with kids with low-blood sugar. Plus, a small snack is a great motivator. How much does it suck arriving at a PD Day with no refreshments in site? Womp, womp.

Calm down. Anyone who knows me knows that this is borderline impossible. I run at a fast past all day long, and I definitely take on way too much, on top of an already stress-filled job. With the high demands placed on students and teachers and the towering AYP goals (and all the nonsense that goes along with it), we are all on overload. Take a second, sit back and just remember that these are little children we’re working with (or medium, or big kids-you get the point).

This year we started meditating 10 minutes or so a day, every day, after lunch. The trick here is that the teacher has to do it, too! I can barely relax for one minute, let alone ten, and to really meditate when there are 26 antsy third graders in front of you is a feat in and of itself. It takes time, commitment, and patience. In time, those crazy kids will be begging for more…and you’ll be trying to convince yourself that perhaps math can wait.

What have you learned this year?

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.

-John F. Kennedy


A Constant Battle: Troubled Kids versus High Stakes Testing

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Teaching is made up of a bunch of little battles, struggles and obstacles that we must overcome each and everyday that we enter our classrooms. From lesson planning to classroom management, to building politics and parental involvement. As teachers, we must find ways to get it all done: to ensure that the children are learning, that their parents are content and that the administration is accepting of how you run your classroom. Of all of these little struggles that take place each day, there is one that is greater than the rest and has become my plight and my mission to overcome as a teacher.

Stemming from a deep-rooted belief that teaching children is much more than producing future millionaires, but nourishing and molding morally-sound and competent adults has caused me to push back against the district mandates and try to find a balance. Each day in my classroom I must balance my efforts to build character, goodness and bright futures for our most disenfranchised youth amidst the mandates and demands for more testing and more “accountability”. The kids that I spend my days planning for, preparing for and teaching deserve to be listened to, valued and cared for despite what scores they get on their tests and the color-coated label that they are referred to based on these test scores.

These are children that we are talking about! They hug me and cry on my shoulder after being disciplined, my students argue with one another over jump ropes, they yell out in despair when they cannot solve their math problems. My students come into my classroom every single morning without fail and make every attempt to let the troubles in their lives disappear for six hours in order to meet the high expectations that are set for behavior and learning. This is a constant battle to prove that these children are more than the scores that they receive on their standardized tests and that the help and guidance that they need is beyond the realm of reading and math practice.

My struggle each day is this: How do I reach all of these students, with all of their issues, problems and idiosyncrasies while attempting to fulfill the idealistic goals of ‘No Child Left Behind’ and teacher evaluations that are based on (poorly written) standardized tests? Do I take the time to nurture hurt feelings and teach the students how to properly interact with one another, or do I spend those extra minutes teaching them testing strategies and how to bubble in A,B,C or D? God forbid a master teacher or administrator comes into the classroom while we are doing meditation, journaling or discussing social problems that do not have a rigorous and posted objective.

My students have issues, deep seeded issues that are not just going to fade away because they received a mark of proficient on their state tests. I cannot possibly be the only one to realize that the greater concern is not whether a student receives a proficient mark on a reading or math test when they are going home each night to violence and drug use. When a student comes in on a testing day and has a psychotic breakdown from endless hours of abuse and neglect, will value-added figure that in? Will the statisticians really be able to find “students like mine” to compare this crying little child to?

Someone recently told me that the behavior problems, outbursts and disruptions in all classrooms would be eliminated if the instruction were more rigorous. For one thing, the majority of poor and antisocial behaviors do not occur in the classroom, but in the hallways during transition, on the playground, in the cafeteria and at the students’ homes. There is no amount of rigor that is going to eliminate problem behaviors of a fussy 8 year old on a Monday morning who hasn’t had a healthy meal or a bed to sleep in in days.

Many will argue that despite these conditions, a good teacher will teach their content so well that it reaches all students and their test results will show this, I am confident in saying that this is complete crap. My test results have less to do with how much effort and work I put into each lesson, less to do with how theatrical my lessons are, how hands-on they are or even how rigorous they are. Without a doubt these aspects are essential to quality teaching and learning but I promise that these aspects cannot counteract situations such as abuse, neglect, and exposure to “adult” behaviors and violence at home and in the neighborhoods.

I believe that my students have gifts, qualities and academic talents that outweigh anything that can be shown on a multiple choice test. I am not making excuses for my less than perfect test scores or the fact that I will probably never earn a highly effective teaching bonus. My students are very smart and are capable of accomplishing anything that they put their minds to. My students can write stories that will captivate a crowd and argue points with relevant information that the Great Debaters would not be able to conjure up. They can explain in detail what the lyrics of their favorite songs mean, metaphors and all. My students know what to do when someone is upset and are well prepared for any tragedies that may occur; their resilience is beyond admirable. But, there will always be those days when they have hit the wall and they cannot manage the emotions that go hand in hand with their turbulent and risky lives. It is at these times that we must remember that these are troubled children with a lot more than test scores to worry about.

When I sit through meeting after meeting and I am constantly asked to give proof of my attempts to raise test scores, I am at a loss. My goal as a teacher is so much more than raising test scores. My goal as a teacher is to raise children of great character, to raise innovators and critical thinkers and to raise these children up beyond the undesirable circumstances that they may be exposed to. My goal is to educate students academically, emotionally and socially. Raising test scores is surely an aspect of teaching and learning, but that is not why I wake up each morning. We cannot neglect the social concerns that fall into our hands each day in order to raise test scores for the sake of wealthy bureaucrats and test-producing conglomerates. The fight to raise test scores will always take the backseat in my classroom when broken communities, broken spirits and broken hearts are in my hands each day.

 

“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.”

-Mother Teresa

Ms Finished

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The following piece came to me from a retiring veteran teacher in one of the most controversial and low performing urban districts in the nation. This particular teacher has been in the same district where she is now retiring from for 37 years and has seen how socio-economic disadvantages, poor leadership and lack of resources have affected the community and the students. Please read and reflect on the following, with an open mind and a compassionate heart. Although I will accept comments, I will not accept negativity and destructive criticism.
As a current teacher in a highly disadvantaged urban neighborhood, I am truly able to see and empathize with this teacher’s daily struggles and her disappointment in the education system as well as the economic and social systems which govern our society. “Ms. Finished” is a highly respected and honored teacher; she is a dedicated advocate for all students, teachers and quality public education. Here’s her reflection:


Thursday May 31, 2012

Many years after I first set foot in a classroom, here I sit with 21 students under my charge: A reader is sharing a book about butterflies, Jayla is just about asleep and Kwame (who has zero attention span) has not focused at all since the story began. Throughout the reading, all of the students comment and shout out at once; evidence of a lack of social skills and training.

With clarity, I have long acknowledged that the majority of these children are experiencing some type of deep psychiatric troubles, and at times psychotic behaviors which have not yet been addressed by their parents nor properly dealt with by the school. They exhibit behaviors that are beyond the normal realm of acceptance in society. On a daily basis, I witness fighting, name calling, acts of hatred, disrespect, exceptional anger and more.

All of the children (except one) talk out uncontrollably, get out of their seats at random and speak in extremely loud tones when a conversational tone would suffice. They exhibit unusually low attention spans and more often than not they do not have the capability to sit in their chairs with all four feet of the chair flat on the floor. Students exhibit no knowledge of behavioral order, which has been a hallmark of school decorum since the dawn of public schooling. Please don’t think that I have not gone over the rules over and over and over again; I have, to no avail. I have expressed my expectations to the students, and with necessity have repeated these expectations every single day.

Why are teachers here? Are we to teach everything from the cradle to the grave? What good are we doing? How much disrespect are we to take? Are we not human and deserve a little respect?

Fortunately, I am extremely close to the end of my teaching career (just 9 ½ days left in this current madness). As I look back over the years that I have been in the classroom some of those years have been extremely pleasurable. Most recently they have been just tolerable and at this present time, this very year, 2011-12 has been pure hell.

Why does everyone (administration, the media, stakeholders) act as though everything is great and we teach wonderfully behaved children who are just waiting to soak up all the knowledge they can hold? Teaching this “new” child is not considered a profession to be proud of. Rather, you find yourself being a warden, an overseer, whose pleasure in teaching has faded away and whose conscious thoughts can barely remember a better time. This “new” school environment has sucked the known joys of teaching from our very souls.

I will take my leave on Thursday June 14, 2012 without a fragment of regret and will leave without any desire to set foot in the presence of these children again. I leave these children to those who have the stamina and the will to prove to the world they can conquer what the world has presented them to tackle. One school year in the near future, the “powers that be” will FINALLY figure out that these children need full-time professionals to accommodate their needs. Schools need to be staffed with competent well-trained teachers, teacher assistants, psychiatrists, psychologists and various other clinicians for each class. Perhaps this will help and perhaps this will begin to scrape the surface of these students’ issues. Wow, what a revelation that will be!

Until that day…the best of health, success, and luck to you all!!
“Ms. Finished”

*All names have been changed in order to protect the identity of the students, the teacher and the school

 

“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”-Teddy Roosevelt

Being Positive, Building Character

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One of my favorite parts of the school day is the end. No, I am not referring to the moment I walk out the door of the school, but just before that. As stressful as some of our days are, I think that it is very important to end the day on a positive note. Finding the patience to do something special and nice with your students, especially at the end of a rough day can definitely be a challenge. We all have those days when we can barely gather the strength to walk them down for dismissal.

I have made a habit of ending each day with some type of activity where the kids can say how they are feeling—good, bad and unexpected answers are always accepted and acknowledged. One ritual that we do is called “Peak and Pit.” This may sound familiar to you if you’ve ever watched “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” They mention using this method with their father at family dinners (and no, I am not ashamed to admit that I watch trashy reality television after a long day!). “Peak and Pit” is a way in which all of the students can share the best and the worst parts of their day. I often get responses as simple as “the peak of my day was lunch” and “the pit of my day was math.” Other days I get more detailed responses like “the peak of my day was when we got to act out our vocabulary words and my group got to act out the word ‘wrath’ and that was cool because….” and “the pit of my day was when I got in trouble for talking, but it actually wasn’t me talking, it was…”. Not only does this activity let the students get some thoughts off their chests, but often times it also gives me a read on what the kids enjoyed throughout the day, and areas where I need to improve the quality of my lessons or discipline procedures.

Another way to get the kids expressing themselves in a positive and socially acceptable way is an end of the day activity that we do called “Character Clothespins”. The students take turns pulling clothespins from a cup that say things such as “friendly”, “considerate”, “helpful”, “brave” and “intelligent”. The students then shout out a student in our class who exhibited that characteristic and explain how they did so. This activity really reinforces my belief in how perceptive children can be. As absent-minded as some of them may seem throughout the day, they notice what goes on in the classroom and they are able to acknowledge and give accolades to their peers. I find it especially enlightening to hear about the niceties that occur outside of my classroom and then are shared with everyone at the end of the day. Not only does the students’ awareness of one another please me, but the confidence and the smiles that are evident on the faces of those students who are acknowledged are priceless.

Lastly, as I dismiss each student I give them one final parting message for the day, everyday. They exit one by one and usually my message is as simple as “good day today” or can be something like “we need to practice self control tomorrow”. I believe that it is important to end each day in this way so that the children can briefly reflect on their day and have something to take home with them to think about. Often, the parents are close by as I am dismissing and they are privy to the messages as well.

It is almost daily that I run into a teacher who is having some type of behavior problem in their classroom. Usually those behaviors stem from students’ lack of social skills and problem solving skills. Although every year we are swamped with new instructional strategies, new standards, new assessments and new mandates that we must implement, we must not forget that character building is a cornerstone of our students’ education. Many of our lessons would go much more smoothly if the students were better socialized and better able to express their feelings, thoughts and ideas. I strongly believe that if we as teachers implement character building rituals throughout the school day, eventually they will have a positive effect on the overall behavior of our students.

What are some of the ways that you stimulate character building and positive social interactions in your classroom? 

“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.” MLK, Jr.