Tuesday, June 29, 2010

dying young

I had one day of overlap with the teacher before I'd be on my own with the class for the last month of school. And I showed up to terrible, terrible news. One of my students had died unexpectedly the night before. What a day of utter sadness. Stillness and quiet kids who didn't know what to say. No misbehavior. No goofing off meant to garner attention. Just a sense of being stunned. The teacher talked about her feelings a little and offered them time to talk with a counsellor, then had the students do a some work and left them to talk among themselves. I overheard one boy saying, "you know we just don't really believe that could happen. None of us thinks that could be us. We don't think about death, do we?" he asked his friend.

It was a heavy day for everyone, especially his friends. What surprised me was the fact that they all knew about his death before the announcement. When I asked them how they said, "It was all over Facebook." I know that was fine for most people, but I wondered what that experience was like for his closest friends. Did they log on to their account to discover that their friend had died? Bad news, life and death news, society has always delivered in person. There's an unwritten understanding that you wouldn't want to read in the paper or learn by hearsay about the death of someone dear, that it's news given face to face. But no longer -- and I'm not sure what I think about that.

At promotion, they left an empty chair for their fellow student, and when his name was called, his brave parents came forward to accept his diploma. The tearful, standing ovation was a fitting memorial.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

back to work

I'm headed back to work full time for one month only. I'm looking forward to being in the classroom every day just to see if I can deal still enjoy it over a sustained period. Same students every day. Grading. Four whole weeks of getting lunches ready at night so we can all be out the door by seven thirty.

One thing I love about being a sub is not having the same schedule everyday. I've noticed in my life that new places, new opportunities interest and enliven me. Can I stay interested and enlivened everyday? I know all these students well having subbed for them on and off for the whole year. So what I'm looking for is the newness that comes with knowing people more deeply, enjoying more of the nuances of the their character and personality.

It will be a little like enjoying music in our house. Chongo plays the same C.D. every day for about a month before he moves on. Right now it's Pink Floyd "The Wall" just because it was sitting around. Every day the music grows a little dearer, both more familiar and newer -- a musical motif, a lyric -- to perk up my senses.

So here's to the mundane, to the new becoming old becoming new again. I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Competance vs. Length of service

We have a budget crisis in our school district -- SURPRISE! Actually, we always have a budget crisis with our schools, but this time we have to make some big changes to stay solvent. One of those changes is to get rid of "class size reduction" which maintains class sizes at 20 students in kindergarten through third grade. Because of this, we're losing a lot of teachers, and unfortunately, a lot of good ones.

And here's the rub: teachers are being laid off purely on the basis of their hire date with the district. The newest teachers are the ones to go and no distinction is being made as to competence. Again, no real surprise because the teachers are part of a union. I've worked in a union and my husband works in a union. They can be great for many reasons, but they are terrible for this ONE reason: unions have not figured out a way to reward merit. And unfortunately in teaching, competence matters enormously. I am constantly reading about studies and plans for improving education and student learning, but almost all of them ignore teacher ability. I even read an article in the New Yorker that said teacher competence is more important than class size for improving learning. I've listened to a lot of rhetoric about putting the students first, and keeping the cuts out of the classroom, and I think these speakers are very well meaning (administrators and teachers union reps alike). However, it seems to me the best thing they could do for our district is to involve themselves in the very difficult and messy task grading teachers. (I'll write more about the difficulties of this later -- I've been asking teachers about it).

Why do I feel so strongly about this? I was sitting next to a principal at the meeting where this all got announced. She said to me, "I feel sick about the teachers I have to let go, but I feel even more sick about the teachers I have to keep."

Friday, April 16, 2010

The best blank

Once, when I had gone to church on Sunday morning very early and found myself with an hour to kill, I walked up boulevard to Starbucks. On my way out I passed by three men who lived on the street. "Are you going to that church across from the library?" one asked.
"Why?" replied his friend.
"They have the best..." and with that I was out of earshot. I wanted to turn back, but instead I kept walking all the way back to church with a smile on my lips, happy to know we had the best _____.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A bigger deal than cheating.

It happened finally. Cheating, in front of my very eyes. I was giving a test and saw a kid toss a paper to the desk behind him. When I asked him for the paper, he tried to tear it and crumple it. But he gave it to me, and when I opened it I saw the answers for two of the test questions. Not that they were correct, but there they were.

Our conversation after class left me shaken. I could tell he was a good student and had done this just to goof off, not out of any real intensity to share answers. Still, it was wrong, and I told him his teacher would be finding out. "Look," I said. "I know you're going to have consequences from this and they might be tough, but if you live through that now I can almost guarantee you'll never do it again." The student begged me not to tell. He asked and asked with a shy intensity. Finally I said, "I have a teenage boy and as much as I want to protect him, I would want him to learn this lesson now."
The boy turned away from me. His teeth were gritted tight together and the tears were beginning to form. "But would you beat your son?"
"Never." The word fell truthfully and blithely from my lips.
"In my culture they do it differently," he said bitterly and his words hit me in the gut.
Already the next class was waiting at the door, but I wanted to be clear about what I was understanding. "Who are you more afraid of, the school or your parents?"
He answered without hesitation. "My parents."
I knew I had to report him to the teacher. I also knew that when his parents found out, they would beat him. It was no good pretending otherwise. I felt trapped, but knew I couldn't just let this go now that it was out there. And the truth was, their method of punishment, although culturally acceptable, was one that required reporting to child protective services. I called the teacher, a lovely woman, who was so matter-of-fact and clear about what had to happen and the process she would go through to report the incident, that she gave me confidence the right thing would happen for this boy I was feeling so badly for.

And I think it has. At least I hope it's the right thing. After the counseling office met with the student, they did bring the state into it. Apparently they are working with the family to help them find more appropriate (and legal) methods of keeping their kid on the straight and narrow. In the process the school discovered that corporal punishment was indeed a practice among this cultural group. So what really gave me hope was finding out the school principal would be talking to the PTA club for that group and suggesting some parent training for those families. Maybe one boy's courage in speaking up about his culture's practice can make a difference for many students. I hope it will be a lesson well-learned.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

An op-blog-ed to an op-ed piece.

Look at this, an entire op-ed about substitute teachers:


Her basic message is that substitutes are not trained properly, are given obtuse plans, and are often uninformed about needs of the students in classrooms. She is concerned about absenteeism among teachers and feels substitute teachers are poor replacements for actual teacher.

I'm sure what she says if often true, but as a sub, I have also seen a different view as well. In the district I work in, I usually have strong, clear lesson plans left for me which include seating charts in middle and high school. It is always best to have the regular teacher in the classroom, but when they have to have a sub, I consider it my duty to enhance the student's education. Perhaps it means I wander and help with one-on-one tutoring for students who are struggling, something a regular teacher may not always have time for. When I'm explaining math, writing, history, science, I believe I bring another way of presenting information that might be useful or more engaging to some of the students. I try to use my strengths to build student knowledge or their interest in the subject matter. I always follow the lesson plans left for me, but bring what I know and who I am to what we are doing.

And, I work to build relationships with teachers so that by coming back again and again to the same classrooms I can also build relationships with students.

So while I understand Ms. Bucior's concerns about the state of substitute teaching, I don't choose to live it.