Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Middle Schoolers Rock

When I made the decision to enter the teaching profession, I had a lot of cute images in my mind. Cubbies filled with stickered papers and lunchboxes. Handcrafted student artwork of rainbows and stars adorning my desk. There would be mini chairs and tables, juice boxes at snack time, story time (god, I couldn't wait for story time!) morning circle, and literacy centers. You get the picture, I was imagining a career in elementary school. That's not exactly what happened.

During my second round of education classes I took a methods in science class with a middle school teacher that was one of the best. He came to the teaching profession as some phenomenal teachers do, off a side road, and rather by chance than a deliberate decision. He started out teaching a different content area and age group than ever intended, but after a few years could imagine doing nothing else. He is a teacher that not only continues to stay informed on best practices but he has had a positive impact on kids lives aside from the content area he teaches. After taking a class with this teacher, I felt the first small itch that maybe I'd like to work in middle school.

It was an itch that I, very quickly, decided should be ignored. Nine out of ten people will cringe when you tell them you work with middle schoolers, most of them will at least credit you for your bravery. When the above mentioned teacher told me he thought I'd be great in middle school, I cringed too. No, no, I thought, you've got me all wrong, I'll take a booger eater tripping on his shoelaces over a pre-teen tucked inside his hoodie with a scowl on his face, anyday! Thanks, but not so much.

Well here I am now, a middle school science teacher, and I must tell you, it is not cringe-worthy. I've actually found adolescents to be raher endearing. Alright, appearance wise, they don't strike the "aww" chord quite the same way as a kindergarten kid does, but I see some form of cuteness in them, and I have a theory as to why.

Once kids hit about sixth grade, maybe sooner, they suddenly identify within themselves that they no longer have the "cute kid" factor going for them. Let's face it, adults are not drawn towards helping and interacting with pre teens. So, I have seen that they develop quirky little personalities, all of a sudden in middle school. As they lose the cute kid looks, they develop a sense of humor and character that allow them to continue interacting with adults in a positive way. Adolescents are very witty. Their problem solving skills also escalate to a higher level. The middle school classroom is an amazing place to watch critical thinking skills develop and huge interpersonal growth take place. The fact that I can be a part of it makes me feel like I have the best job ever!

There's another reason why I want to work with middle schoolers. Many of us remember this as a tricky time in our lives. It is a time for lots of changes and challenges. Social grouping and peer pressure feel more intense. Suddenly siblings are more annoying than ever and parents seem more stubborn. There's all the normal difficulties of growing up, but today they are exacerbated by the social system, which I believe leaves these kids vulnerable to feeling very isolated. Sometimes the only real adult conversation they have all day takes place at school.

As teachers, we put so much effort into lesson plans, assessments, classroom management and professional development. All of those things are really important. I want to see all of my students become scientifically literate and continue learning into college and their careers. But the real value in teaching for me comes from the relationships, which sounds a bit odd if you know me, I'm somewhat of an introvert.

As a consequence of our fast paced, digital iEverything age, we tend to forget the value of meaningful, face to face interaction.  I have to admit, that having a really great lesson with all students engaged is a motivating factor for me, it drives me as an educator. But the relationships fulfill me in a much deeper way. It's the difference between handing a student a graded paper that says 100% versus This is a really thoughtful paper, you're work is always improving! Which would mean more to you?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Professional Development: Newbie Perspective Part 1

I love professional development. An obvious reason is that there is a lot more information that I need to know to become a successful teacher. The right amount of unknowns paired with the opportunity to turn some of them into knowns can be very motivating. Also, educators love to chat about school, students, pedagogy and educational theory any chance we get, probably to the point where those outside the profession would get a migraine. But we just love swapping ideas, and professional development is the perfect opportunity to do that. So it is no surprise that I hunger for any professional development opportunities that arise. However, there is no guarantee that I always get a lot of motivation and great ideas out of them.

Most of our professional development in education is led by the best in the field, people who have had remarkable careers in schools for decades and have gone on to continue studying and working with other educators. So you might think it would be a display of the very best practices in teaching and motivating people. I'm sorry to tell you, that's not always the case.

In all fairness I have to say, that I never have walked away from a professional development not having learned anything, but the enjoyment factor is not always there. In a previous position, I was employed in a small school that was part of a union of 5 or 6 other rural schools. We all gathered together for some union wide professional days in one of these cute little k-8 schools.

My first union P.D. day took place in a very cozy k-8 school that sported its own greenhouse and cafeteria composting program. School hadn't even started yet and I was pumped full of motivation as we gathered in the cafeteria-gym-auditorium for greetings and breakfast. I had my notebook and pens ready, guzzled a few cups of coffee and chatted excitedly with other new teachers as we waited for the day to begin.

I should note here, that even if everyone wore a bag over their head at one of these P.D. days, you would still be able to tell the veterans from the amateurs. As a stereotype, you might see the new kids chatting, smiling, raising eyebrows and asking questions. The vets, as a stereotype again, would be seen yawning, looking at their phones or laptops, shaking their heads side to side, or reading non educational literature. Please note, I am appealing to stereotypes for humor, Many of the veteran teachers that do not enjoy these large P.D. days are amazing teachers that still care about the profession and love to learn. But I had to ask myself, why don't they want to be here? Free coffee and muffins, and free education. Is it so bad?

To be continued...

Professional Development: The Newbie's Perspective Part 2

Yes! It turns out it could be better. On this particular day we had the commissioner of education kick off the morning with an inspiring address about where our state is in education and where we need to go. It was awesome! He appealed to something that I've felt all along, that there is clearly an URGENCY for change and improvement in education. Urgency for ourselves, our classrooms, our students, our schools and the system. He went on to say that we need to act deliberately and swiftly to improve this system, because unless you are in a coma or already dead, you can see it is not working as well as it could. He opened up our eyes to all the possibilities that are available to help us rework our outdated education system. He inspired us with a renewed sense of purpose and urgency and for the moment, no one had their media devices opened, and everyone wanted to help the push for change. For a moment.

That was the highlight of the day. The rest of it blurred into a mash of whole group "lectures" some small group silliness, and an aching butt. We sat in the cold cafeteria-gym-auditorium for hours, the length of a school day, as the fans droned overhead and the speaker's presentation droned ahead. We had breaks, lunch and a few moments to chat, but it was a really long day, and I left feeling really burnt out.

A group of highly motivated and educated professionals had all gathered together in this little school. We had usable classrooms and tons of resources available to us. But what did we do? We sat. We all sat and sat and listened and sat. Why didn't we break out into smaller groups. Why didn't we utilize the learning spaces before us. We interacted and shared ideas, but not on the level we were capable of. While the presenter was highly educated and knew her stuff, we were not allowed the opportunity to elevate eachother because the large group setting did not allow it I've come to the strong belief that unless you have paid a ton of money for a highly skilled speakers, the best professional development will never come in this format.

As far as I can tell, in education, we are each other's best source of professional development. Yes we need experts and guidance to challenge us and teach us. We need speakers to deliver messages to large groups, but without small group or one on one sharing, it is very difficult to take home and maintain any momentum. I think someone should really study the ratio of large group to small group to one on one time for optimal effectiveness. Or has it been done already?

I know it is easy for me to criticize something that I do not have to pay for and implement. It is expensive to continue to collaborate with and educate a group of professionals, so the fact that we get any P.D. at all is great. I realize that sharing one message with a large group of people would appear to be the most time and cost effective way of getting everyone on the same page. And this does work, to a certain degree. But, there is a fall off point, too. At the end of the day how many of us will walk away with that message intact and how many of those people will keep the message intact over a weekend? How many in the room will get an incomplete or incorrect message? How many of us could have taken the message further, personalized it and used it in their own instruction... but won't?

We are doing a great thing by continuing to learn and challenge ourselves. Educators are better than any group of people I've met at remaining committed to personal growth and learning best practices. So, true to my profession, I have found a way to turn those union wide P.D. days into a learning opportunity.

As I continue to reflect and compare different ways of doing P.D., whether it be workshops, PLC's or union days, I think of how this applies to my own classroom. How much am I asking my students to sit and listen? Am I responsive to their cues, that their butts are really starting to ache and my voice is droning on like an endless ceiling fan? Are my students talking and doing in class, or just me? If my memory serves me correctly, it looks like I need to tweak this a bit. I try to offer change during class, but I am not doing it enough. So, I must be thankful for those union wide P.D. days for at least helping me practice the most important teacher trait of all, reflection.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Do You See This Teacher?

Whenever I read blogs I always want to know more about the author. Maybe that is because blogs are so much more personal than books, websites and articles. If there is any chance to learn more about the blogger, I search for it.

So here’s some more info about this new teacher. First, I am proud to think of myself as an atypical first year teacher. Here’s what I normally assume about other new teachers I meet. They are in committed relationships or newly married. No kids yet. Drive a compact car or station wagon. Recent college graduate. Organized.

I am not any of those. I have come to the recent assertion that I may choose to never marry and yes, I do have kids. Two of them, ages 2 and 4. I am ashamed to admit I drive a car that guzzles more gas than the little Toyota Corolla that took me through college. I finished my Bachelor’s in biology four years ago and my student teachng almost two years ago. I am over the age of 25 and most debilitating for the new teacher, I am not at all organized.

I tend to take pride in the fact that it may appear that I don't stick to the well worn path. However, the truth is that I have been meeting many colleagues that have taken the less beaten path into education. Educators are a pretty progressive group of people, and while it is still the expectation that you have arrived there right after finishing an undergrad, in your early twenties and well on your way to marital commitment, it is quite alright if you stopped for gas, snacks, a stint on a farm or a friendly visit with friends along the way.

The tricky thing comes trying to identify and sum yourself up quickly in a new workplace, or at least preventing others for doing this for you. However, the beauty of making yourself hard to define, is peopl have to actually get to know you.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Apologies in advance for the lack of editing. I am writing these posts with an almost 2 and almost 4 year old stumbling around me.

Here's a Start

Excitement. Nervous. Dread. Optimism. Fear. Ambition. Gratitude. Confused. Overwhelmed.

The first weeks, months (maybe year?) of teaching is a roller coaster of emotions. You painstakingly prepare for some things (your easily accessible homework collection bin), only to find you left huge and obvious gaps in other areas (how will you grade homework, and how much of it will you assign, and when it's not done?). You never have time for lunch. Energy levels are directly related to number of cups of coffee imbibed. When you stagger to your car at the end of the day, with bags full of stuff that you are too exhausted to carry inside nevermind open, you rest your head on your steering wheel and sigh. On those days, school is really exhausting and you enter survival mode. Get through this class, day or week. Not an inspiring place to be.

Of course there is a flip side. The best part of being a new teacher; freshness and excitement. These days you come to school full of energy, thrilled that you have the best job in the world, and ready to implement some new and unique ideas in your classroom. Being creative in a practical way is invigorating. Some days students respond to your lessons, and you positively. You walk to your car at the end of those days energized and thirsty for more information and ideas that will help you to be the best teacher you can. The excitement and feeling that you are doing something valuable for a group of kids that need you, far overrides the more numerous days that don't go as planned.

The hardest part about riding these ups and downs of new teacherhood, is that they can be so dramatic. At the low points the task of teaching without all the skills and knowledge of your more experienced colleagues, feels overwhelming. More than overwhelming, it feels crushing. At the end of one of those days, a colleague came into my room and asked me how my day went. I was so bummed about my performance and apparent lack of ability, my only response was to burst into tears. However, there is usually something useful or positive that you can hang onto at those low points. Sometimes, its just a peer saying, "don't worry, I remember I felt the same". Maybe it was that one kid that took the time to smile and say, "See you tomorrow, Miss V." Whatever it is, it is powerful enough for you to go home and work out your kinks and try it all again. If you are at least willing to try, you can usually catch a ride on the coaster again, and get back to that high point.

My worst fear is getting stuck in the lows. Feeling like the new ideas and creative work is not paying off and getting stuck in a rut. We've all seen teachers there, and as a newbie, that stick out even more. We wonder why they don't care, why they aren't having fun. But the truth is, they were new and fresh and excited once too. Perhaps, riding the ups and downs of the new teacher coaster became too exhausting. So they stick at a happy point. The coaster is no longer moving, and they try to avoid hitting the low points, but they won't get to the top, where it is fast fresh and exciting, either.

So, I guess for me, if I want to continue to enjoy teaching, learning and growing, I should hope that my career will continue to be a roller coaster ride. New ideas and practices have to be tried, and sometimes they won't go over well. You always end up with different groups of students, they come with their unique quirks, talens and issues. So there will probably never be a happy medium, you have to do something new, and fail often.

I guess I'll use the roller coaster ride as a career barometer. As I move ahead, I'll be sure I continue feeling those ups and downs of an enjoyable ride. They might not have to be so big, but they should be there. If I am in a place where I haven't hit a low in a long time, I'll know something needs to change.