Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Insanity of the First Year of Teaching

The amount of work involved in teaching is unbelievable. I and nearly everyone I know had heard about how many hours teachers work, but the descriptions I received didn’t really cover it. Maybe the teachers that told me about their work loads weren’t as whiny as I am; or maybe it doesn’t matter how well you describe something that is impossible to believe—the hours actually spent working on teaching tasks does not seem possible, and it further does not seem that anyone who is sane would continue to do it year after year, making the claims of outlandish amounts of time spent on the job even more unbelievable.

I’m here to confirm the claims. All the stories are true. I get the chuckles now when I think of all of the people I know who fantasize about teaching as a way to have a flexible lifestyle with summers off. HAAA! The joke’s on them if they ever decide to teach for that reason, because by the time summer rolls around about all you’re physically capable of doing after working the way we work is to hold in your hand nothing heavier than a fruity cocktail with a small toy sticking out of it.

It is Thanksgiving weekend, and now that my frenzied day of cooking and company is over I am settling into day two of the four day weekend trying to work up the energy and enthusiasm to grade, calculate, record and update records for one hundred and twenty nine students by Monday morning at O’Dark-thirty AM. My mother probably had no idea that when she agreed to come up here for Thanksgiving that she’d be spending a large part of the weekend helping me to grade papers, sort and organize.

The pile of “to do” items never shrinks. No sooner do I get caught up on the grading than there is another stack even bigger than the one I just finished accumulating.

My typical day begins at 3:00am when the alarm goes off to wake my husband who drives a school bus in the same district in which I teach. The beeping wakes me up, I wake him up, then I go back to sleep until the alarm goes off again at 4:30am to get me out of the starting gate. My husband leaves the house about the same time I get out of bed. I get up and go downstairs for a cup of coffee (from a pot he made when he got up). Then I sit at my computer, check my email, and begin lesson planning, either for that day or a few days ahead. (It would be ideal to begin lesson planning about a month before school starts and then always be writing lesson plans a month ahead of time, but since it is my first year and I’ve never done this before I find that if I can plan one week ahead I’m doing phenomenally well).

At the beginning of the school year the best I was able to hope for when it came to lesson planning was to get a lesson planned for that day. Now, two and half months into the school year, I’m finally able to have a whole week of lessons planned ahead of time. I’m hoping that next year, since I will have already done this once, that I will be able to recycle everything I’ve used this year (everything that was successful, that is—some lesson plans were flops) into a curriculum that I’ll have written ahead of time over the summer. If I’m able to pull that off all I will have to do ahead of time is prep materials and I’ll be able to just show up every day and teach, and then do the grading. That is not the story this year.

After I have spent a solid two hours lesson planning for the three distinctly different classes that I teach (Fundamentals of Art, Graphic Design, and Advanced Design), then I take a shower and get ready for work and am usually at school between 7:45am and 8:00am. I only live a mile from the school (which is a blessing and benefit) so I am able to use the time that my hundreds of thousands of Charm City neighbors use commuting to do my lesson planning in the morning—awesome.

Once I arrive at school I spend the next forty five minutes to an hour getting the date, my standards, warm up assignment, daily objectives and any other “what we’re doing today” stuff up on the board. I tape large, blank, un-lined sheets of flip chart paper to the board for all of the demonstrations that I’ll be doing that day throughout the six classes that I teach (because I have found that my students are not able to translate chalk-on-black to black-on-white on their own paper—they see everything in reverse tone and are unable to visually translate it, so I try to make my demonstrations as similar to what they are actually doing as possible).

I am fortunate enough to not have a homeroom this year. My principal is particularly kind to all of us first-year teachers and takes as much of the extra stuff out of our lives as she can get away with. I have no homeroom period and I have a planning period that is adjacent to my lunch period. This makes my day a little less insane than it would be otherwise.

When homeroom is over the marathon race through my day begins. There is no passing time between classes at my school. When I was in high school, and when my daughter was in high school, the way the change of classes happened was like this: a bell would ring at the end of class, you would have four to six minutes to get to your next class (depending on the school and the era—it seems like schools that do have passing time make that time shorter and shorter every year), and then another bell would ring at the end of the four to six minute period to signify that the next class had begun.

No such sanity at my school. My class periods are forty five minutes long, the first one starting at 9:00am (homeroom is from 8:45am to 9:00am) and running until 9:45am. The bell rings at 9:00am and does not ring again until 9:45am, which is the beginning of the next class period. Teachers are expected to go out into the hallway at the sound of the bell and gather their students into their classes for the next period. I think the reasoning behind this is that it will get the students into class faster, but that is not what happens.

Because there is no bell indicating that students who are not in class are now considered tardy, students hang out in the hallway, taking their time, wander all over the school, go visit their friends, all the while their desperate teachers are hollering for them to get out of the hallway and into class. The process of getting students into the classroom usually takes between ten and fifteen minutes because this method is so inefficient.

What I finally started doing was to explain to my students the concept of “passing time” between classes, and then tell them how that worked in my high school, my daughter’s high school and (presumably) in other high schools that actually still use it. I then explained to them that they needed to take responsibility for getting to class a lot faster than they were doing, and that from now on I would leave the hallway and head into class at five minutes after the bell, at which time I would take attendance, and anyone not in the room by five minutes after the bell would be considered tardy. In this way I was effectively giving them “passing time.” This has worked extremely well, outside of a few chronically tardy students wanting to complain that my clock is fast and that they really weren’t late (which doesn’t fly with me).

Perhaps you begin to see the insanity of my situation. The lack of passing time does nothing to create for the students a sense of urgency about getting to class. Instead, they (like the teachers) see how utterly impossible it is to be at your next class at the same time that you are in your last class, so they just deal with it in their own way by lollygagging around the school.

Just because I’ve instituted a sort of “passing time” for my students, please don’t misunderstand—this does NOT mean that they all arrive on time. I still have a handful of stragglers (enough to disrupt the class every single time) who wander in after the allotted five minutes, usually after I’ve started teaching, and then want to argue with me in front of the class about how unreasonable I am to require that they show up to class on time (despite the fact that the majority of the class was able to do this with no problem). After I manage to shut down the arguing, I go back to teaching my lesson.

By this time we are about fifteen minutes into a forty five minute period. I am able to teach and they are able to work on their projects for about twenty minutes before I have to begin the exhortation to clean up and prepare to leave. I usually assign a short written reflection on the lesson that only takes about one to five minutes. This schedule means that with a forty five minute class period we only get about twenty minutes of quality instructional / hands-on time.

At the end of my second period my planning / lunch period begins. Because I have eaten my breakfast at 5:00am (while I did my lesson planning) I am usually ravenous by that time (10:30am) so I eat my lunch first, and then proceed to grade papers and do more lesson planning. (Sometimes I even remember to go to the bathroom, but that’s never a sure thing, since I am usually too busy to think about it.)

At 12:30pm my third class begins. I teach four “Fundamentals of Art” courses, and this is the third one of the day. Each Fundamentals class is progressively more poorly behaved than the one before it. I don’t know if this is the luck of the draw, or just the students getting antsier as the day moves on. Whatever it is, there is definitely a steep curve that climaxes in my fourth Fundamentals class, and then drops dramatically with my Advanced Design class in the last period of the day.

Again, there is no passing time between classes, so I charge through four class periods in a row to the end of the day without any breaks or setup time—all setup for all of my last four classes of the day must occur in the morning or during my planning period. My fourth and sixth periods are Graphic Design and Advanced Design, respectively. Both of those classes are populated (with only one exception) entirely by senior students. This makes the classes decidedly calmer than the four Fundamentals classes, but the time constraints and tardiness issues are the same.

The day ends at 3:35pm, at which time my coach class schedule begins. We are only required to offer one coach class a week, but I offer four so as to accommodate the varying needs of my students. Coach class is nothing more glamorous than time spent before or after school by students getting help with homework or other assignments, making up quizzes and assignments, or just extra study time. I have had exactly five students out of my one hundred and twenty nine students ever take me up on coach class time. I am like the Maytag repairman: I’m always there but rarely does anyone show up to keep me company. On most days I just use this as more lesson planning and grading time.

When I finally get home around 5:00pm, I have been up for over twelve hours. I always have grand plans and ideas about lessons that I want to plan, grading that I’ll get done, a home cooked meal that I will prepare from scratch (aaahhhh….the good ole days when I was able to cook a meal every evening….), etc.; but by the time I get home and have fixed myself and my husband something fast from a box, and then allowed myself to sit down just long enough to watch something mind-numbing on T.V., I am usually conked out for the duration.

And then there’s the lesson planning. This is, of course, a monumental task for me in my first year of teaching, because I’ve never had to do unit or lesson planning for an entire year before; and of course there’s the small detail about having no curriculum—I’m making it all up as I go. This is getting easier to do a lot faster than I thought it would, but it still takes a lot of time and energy. Mostly I rely on the Picasso adage, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” I spend massive amounts of “spare” time surfing the internet for lesson planning ideas that gracious veteran teachers have posted for sharing with poor unsuspecting first year teachers like myself. I’ve gratefully taken some of these lessons and modified them for my own purposes and used them to great success.

But I’ve also learned that finding previously prepared lesson plans on the internet (or in books) is not the cure all that it may sound like. Every school has its own required format for lesson plans, so at a minimum you always have to modify the lesson plan to meet the formatting requirements of your school. And then there’s the variable of how the lesson plan you’ve “stolen” fits in with the unit you are teaching, and whether your students have mastered the required skills for beginning the lessons that you find, and whether you have the supplies required to execute the lesson, and so on.

So, where “stealing” lesson plans is concerned I have found that the best thing to do is not look for previously prepared lessons. What I have learned to do is to look for finished products that demonstrate mastery of skills and concepts that I am trying to teach, and then write a lesson plan that gets my students to that finished product. That way I do not get bogged down in trying to follow a lesson plan that doesn’t exactly meet the needs of my students, nor do I have to worry about whether I have the required supplies. I just design the lesson and finished product using the supplies that I have and building on skill sets that my students have already developed. The fancy education-speak for that latter item is called “scaffolding,” but it is so important to not leapfrog over skill sets and concepts that the students have not mastered yet—that is key to having a great lesson that the students enjoy and excel at.

Snoooooze…..zzz….zzzz…..Wake up! Don’t you know that it’s rude to fall asleep while someone is telling you a story? Seriously….I know that this chapter must be terribly boring compared to the previous death-defying accounts of teaching in the inner city that I’ve sent you, but from my point of view what I’ve been relating in this “chapter” is way more stress-inducing than the other stuff. The demands made on teachers in the current educational environment in our country, and particularly in underserved areas like Baltimore City, are beyond what is humanly possible to deliver (unless you are a machine, or don’t need sleep or a life outside of your job). I have met veteran teachers in my district who do manage to juggle it all, but I have yet to meet anyone who is able to do every little thing that their job requires of them; they all admit that they have selectively chosen to do the parts of their job that they think are important, and let the rest go. As a perfectionist, I find this horror-inducing—it is one of my many idiosyncrasies to at least attempt to do all of the things that my job requires of me, and then to do them well, so I’m hoping that I find some way to balance all of these responsibilities and sort out the essential from the superfluous before I make myself insane. I’ll get back to you in a few months and let you know how I’m doing.

No comments: