Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Resurrection Blogfest - The Last Days of School

Oops I became sidetracked by some kind of minor news event and almost forgot the real big news of the day which is Mina Lobo's Resurrection Blogfest, of course. Don't just take my word for it. Check out Some Dark Romantic. This is the kind of blogfest even I don't find myself whining about because all it entails is re-posting a blog from my first year of blogging, that is as dead as the parrot in Monty Python, or, in this case, my short-lived teaching career.




I have a lot of regrets about my pathetically short career as a teacher.

But not parting with $29.95 to buy The First Days of School isn't one of them.

The book by Harry and Rosemary Wong is the bible for new teachers. You see them showing up during the new teachers induction, its perky green font sticking out of their shiny, new tote bags. If they ever forgot it you saw them turn pale and give the kind of look reserved for the first passenger on the Titanic who does a lifeboat count.

For the uninitiated the Wongs write about how being a teacher is the best career in the world. Turn to page 106 and there's Harry dressed for success resplendent in a waistcoat in the door of his classroom, his hand outstretched to connect with those of his students, radiating Oriental efficiency from every pore.

"I love to stand at the door on the first day with a giant smile on my face, hand stuck out in an invitational pose, waiting for those 'little darlings' to come down the hall," the caption reads.

I don't want to shatter any illusions here, but I tried a similar thing and gave up after the second spurned handshake. The sight of a tsunami of 12th graders rolling my way convinced me I would be crushed into a pulp on the first day of school unless I retreated.

It didn't end as suddenly as that but I was crushed over the next few weeks.

I can't pinpoint exactly how and why I failed but I found it hard to act like a teacher at times.
It takes a few semesters to click into the mindset of a teacher which is similar to that of a prison guard. Always be suspicious and assume the little darlings are lying or on the make unless you have evidence to the contrary in the form of a pass, an email or something else official.

I had some effective teaching moments but I failed to be a classroom cop.

And at the final reckoning I realized two months in I was already beginning to hate the humorless automaton I knew I had to become to keep order. It was hard to switch off at times. I was barking orders at my daughter across the supermarket aisle and middle aged ladies were giving me funny looks.

As Wong correctly points out, the most important factor governing learning is classroom management. On many afternoons the words of the great classroom Confucius would come back to haunt me at the end of another 90 minutes of hell under artificial lighting when I sat in the middle of a maelstrom of paper balls and mangled desks.

My head of department took a dim view and rightly so. Desks out of line and books thrown around were tantamount to an invitation to riot. From then on I was fastidious about lined up desks and paper on the floor, although they didn't always listen.

And my thoughts were out of line with my department head on one key area. I felt the uneven desks and papers thrown around were a symptom of a general lack of respect, rather than the cause of the chaos.

Wong says humans have a success instinct. I'm not sure this was the case with all of my 10th graders. Indeed some seemed to have a failure instinct and told me they saw their future in shoplifting. This leads me to conclude either Wong is wrong or some of them weren't human.

With this in mind I spent 10 minutes of one of my lessons looking to see if any of my students had small antenna pointing out of their heads.

It broke up the lesson and wasn't any more useless than some of the activities suggested in the local authority's curriculum guide; jigsaw activities; fishbone maps; sequential episode maps; thematic maps etc.

I considered doing a sequential episode map with my kids and changed my mind. This was, after all, a class that took 15 minutes to sort themselves into four groups.

But they were good at some group activities. Fighting for one. With no effective prior direction and little preparatory work two of my 10th graders successfully managed to beat each other to a pulp, while I hopefully pressed the red panic button.

"Why didn't you break it up? You played rugby back in Britain," one student asked me afterward.
Those exaggerations always come back to bite you.

So now my teaching career is practically over and although I'll miss the prospect of working without pay next year, it's not all bad. For one thing I have more time to read Wong's tome.

Wong said schools should organize a first day of school celebration where the teachers should stand at the bus stop and welcome them. "Wave and smile like it's aunt Mabel whom you have not seen in 14 years and the airplane has just pulled up to the jetway."

Hmmm. I feel I need to contact Wong or find him on Twitter. I actually had an aunt called Mabel. She was objectionable and flatulent and last cracked a smile the day Prince Albert died.

My family never failed to crack open the champagne at the sight of her oversized backside waddling away to the bus stop.

On the subject of flatulence, Wong doesn't tell you what to do when someone breaks wind and the whole class runs screaming to the door.

I suppose if I'd had the classroom management thing down to pat they would have remained glued to their undersized chairs, their nostrils twitching, fearing my withering gaze more than the odor.

My kids weren't really like that but my fellow teachers told me it took time to get it right. Nobody listened to Lenin and Trotsky much at first. It took a civil war and a lot of upheavals before Stalin came in to impose some heavy duty classroom management.

Nor does Wong devote any lines to insects which, to my mind, is a grave omission in The First Days of Schools.

It only took an oversized fly to reduce my best class to chaos. Just when they were calming down the infernal creature would reappear to torment me. When one student tried to swat it on a girl's head, the victim wanted to see me outside to press charges.

They don't tell you how to deal with that kind of thing on the training course.

My fellow teachers told me there's a lot that you learn on the job. I have nothing but admiration for these heroes of the education system, who go into a war zone every day without complaint.

That's not strictly true. There was a guy I met sometimes at the photocopier who reminded me of Travis Bicker, the De Niro character in Taxi Driver.

He told me the conditions were getting worse, the kids were getting worse; nobody wanted to learn.
"I gotta get out of teaching," he told me in a New York drawl.

He was drawn and on edge. I wondered what he would do next.

The day I realized he was six years younger than me my mind went on a loop and those words kept circulating in my head. "I gotta get out of teaching."

32 comments:

  1. Teaching, esp. these days with the little monsters, is a thankless profession. One of my best friends is a 3rd grade teacher and started counting down to the end of the school year on the 2nd day of school this fall. She has her hands full with this particular class. I know I could never do it. Kudos to you for at least trying.

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    1. yeah I know JoJo and it's probably easier in New England than urban Virginia

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  2. This post cracked me up! I spent 6 years teaching high school and though it did get better, I felt I was always walking a thin line between "managing them" and "screaming uncontrollably at them." I NEVER felt that I could effectively apply The First Days of School, though I did try my hardest. I am a SAHM now and it feels like coming up for air after being underwater for 6 years.

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    1. lol Sandra - I heard it does get easier and could have stuck it would but it would have probably put 10 years on me in 5.

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  3. I admire anyone who can teach in a classroom. I know I wouldn't be cut out for it. Plus, I live in Chicago. Some of the schools in Chicago scare me.

    Undead: What Are They?

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    1. OMG Chicago would be even worse than Virginia - honesty you need loads of patience and I don't have it. Thanks for the visit.

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  4. Beautiful. I'm here via the Resurrection Blogfest: my post is about quitting teaching too, albeit at the university level. You are no doubt better off.

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    1. Nice one Elizabeth - I must check it out.

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  5. This is a great post, it cracked me up! Teaching is so hard, my hat's off to you for trying. I taught English as a second language in Mexico, but to entrepreneurs. Though they are mature enough to go to school because THEY WANT TO, still I had some students I could've killed with my bare hands... Nop, teaching is not for everyone.

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    1. Thanks Gina - easier if they want to. I liked the subject but it wasn't enough - hard to keep their concentration for more than 5 seconds on Macbeth let along 90 mins.

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  6. I have a lot of respect for most teachers. Some are as rotten as the students can be.

    Great pick for the blogfest.

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    1. Thanks Ranting Monkey - oh yep lots of teacher arrests round these parts.

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  7. Hilarious post, and great insights into what it's like as a struggling new teacher. I have nothing but admiration for those wonderful people who head into the front lines and try to impart education on a classroom full of kids. But not sure if I could do it.

    But maybe if I had that book -- 'cause it sounds like two Wongs do make it right...

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    1. thanks Chris - they probably do it right but I bet their kids were better..

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  8. Wow. Great post and awesome insights into being a teacher. I know a lot of people talk about teaching and they have no idea that they're going to be doing a hell of a lot more managing than teaching. The rewards of the job are pretty much just getting the holidays and summer off. haha Congrats on making the decision to cut your losses!!

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    1. Haha thanks Tamara - I was rather pleased about the idea of the summer off and being involved in a subject I liked - I guess I had never thought of the other factor much ie kids argghh

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  9. I, personally, think you would be a cool teacher to have. We should start a school. Would you be interested in joining me in that venture? We could teach what we write about on our blogs!

    I interviewed a high school teacher over the summer and he said something that surprised me. He said that someone like me (i.e. a short, very young-looking 20-something girl) would have a difficult finding a teaching job in a high school these days. It's not legal, but apparently a lot of school districts are secretly doing everything they can right now to hire female teachers who look older. Because there simply have been way too many teacher-student sex scandals involving teachers my age. So, basically, a girl like me who looks 17 would be dangerous teaching in a high school. :S

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    1. yeah Ok Jen - lets do the school thing as long as we can weed out kids who have no interest in reading anything more challenging than the Burger King menu (which was what one kid told me was all he had ever read). Yeah you would be dangerous in high school lol..

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  10. Thanks for stopping by my blog yesterday! This was a very enjoyable post. I liked the bit about breaking wind in class. Not everyone is cut out to be a teacher, that's for sure.

    New follower!

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    1. Thanks for the follow LG - will try to follow back, have had a few technical probs following anyone of late. Breaking wind in class - yep another distraction.

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  11. Hi David. I'm stopping by from the resurrection blogfest too. This is a great post.

    I went to probably the roughest high school in Cardiff and I gleefully partook in what we affectionately referred to as "substitute teacher terrorism" on a regular basis and reckon I know most tricks of the trade. Back then though, the teachers weren't averse to the judicious use of a clip around the ear so we only picked on the weakest and least confident. Thinking back, we must have been horrors.

    I'm 40 now and (quite ironically) thinking about retraining as a teacher, but I'm not so not sure if I'd like to be on the receiving end!

    Cheers,

    W.

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    1. Thanks Wayne - really whereabouts in Cardiff? - I was at University of Wales for a year. Yep back in the day we'd get roundly beaten with a stick.

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    2. Hi David. Well done on making the final seven in the blogfest!

      I attended Fitzalan High School on Broad Street in Leckwith. They still haven't painted it since I left, though I hear that it isn't such a rough school now.

      Also EvilDM (or Mark as I know him) went there too but he was a few years above me. So there you are, Fitzalan did produce at least two pupils that could spell.

      Cheers,

      W.

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    3. Oppos missed this when I asked the question - don't know it that much. In my year working in Cardiff Ely was my beat which was kinda rought.

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    1. I know Pearl - I have lots of hidden talents, most of them that involve quitting after a couple of months :)

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  13. Great post, David. When I've done teaching, I've refused to work with kids beyond grade 2. Even then, it was a challenge. 10th and 12th graders would scare the crap out of me. And I hate those "How to" books written by people who don't have a clue. Maybe Wong isn't human.

    xoRobyn

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    1. true Robyn - or maybe he had Korean students or something. They are totally the best, eager to learn etc. I know I found out 12 graders were a bit big and scary :)

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  14. Antennae are typically removed prior to disembarking from the Mothership. Surely Wong mentioned it?

    Thanks for participating in my blogfest!
    Some Dark Romantic

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    1. uuumm will have to check Wong to find out - the pleasure is all mine Mina :) Great idea.

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  15. I've always wanted to be a professor. I knew I couldn't do the high school teacher thing. I did teach at a community college and it was hard, hard, hard! Even though these kids were paying for an education, they did not want to work for it. The older students were always grateful. I enjoyed it and would do it in a second!

    Thanks for stopping by my blog via Mina!

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    1. thank for stopping by mine Yolanda - I think college or uni level would have been better but lack a fistfull of PhDs...

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