Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Teacher cycles


November is a tough month for me. 

Never mind that we had a death in the family, the school environment alone is enough to make November more than challenging.  To start, November is the beginning of basketball season.  This means that my days go from 6:30a.m. - 4 p.m., to 6:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m. (10:30 p.m. on game days).  That doesn't include the time I will spend at home taking care of prep and homework.  This makes the days very long and the time with my wife very short, which creates other strains that end up wearing and tearing on my psyche. 

But the thing that really gets at me is the doubt in my abilities by this point in the school year.  When you think about it, a teacher has been going non-stop for months and the only thing to show for success are grades, which are often fairly lousy.  Whether the general public believes it or not, this wears down on teachers, even really good ones.  The end of October is the end of the quarter, so teachers have a fairly good idea where the students stand in terms of academics.  Often, they don't stand on much because the low grades are very apparent.  After all the work, all the toiling, all the conferences and phone calls, some students are not getting "it".  The passion that was evident in the beginning starts to wane as the question enters the mind, "What am I doing wrong"?  Then the phone calls come from enraged parents that allow their kids to get away with murder, questioning your morality for giving too many quizzes, or insisting that the problem is the teacher because Johnny has "never had a problem with any other teacher".  Add to that the faculty meetings where administrators tell you to raise test scores for those borderline kids (that show up half the time), and to prepare for more cuts in education, and give other tidbits of cherry news that raise morale.  Top it with the usual social pressures from the media, government officials, and pundits couldn't teach a kid to tie shoes and the month of November brings a teacher to the point of "Why am I here"?

I still deal with this, although I'm past the point of the whole "Why..." thing.  I get stressed, eat, gain weight, and become a bit of a curmudgeon.  My temper becomes short and answer every phone call from a counselor with "What now", while dreading most parent conferences because I'm done with being blamed for the child's lack of ability to show up to class.  However the time this lasts is growing shorter and shorter, mostly because I look upon myself and ask "Am I really doing everything I can with the resources I have"?  In most aspects, the answer is yes.  I think my lessons are engaging, I'm teaching the information that is required, and I'm trying to make these kids prepared to be productive members of society.  Sure, things can get tweaked here and there to make it better, but what can I  and what can't I control?  That's why I have stopped losing sleep at night.  I have 14 kids on short term independent study, and I can't control that.  While it's going to look really bad when I have a substantial grouping of bad grades, that's not an issue that I can simply reach into the ether of the universe and change.  And no matter how hard I work, it won't matter.  So I focus on the things that matter, primarily in the classroom.  When the November doldrums hit, I ask myself:

1.  Am I really giving my best effort in the classroom?  Most of the time the answer is "yes", but basketball sometimes interferes with my energy in the classroom.  To change that I went to the theory of Diminishing Marginal Utility in terms of basketball.  I don't practice on weekends, I don't do two-a-days, and I make reasonable practice times for vacations.  In practice I focus much more on what we need to work on, making practice more efficient, not practice a lot, which makes me worn out.  In essence, I treat practice like the classroom, and have garnered better results from both the court and the classroom environments.

2.  Am I really prepared?  Classroom management, confident teaching, and quality of instruction all go up when teachers are prepped.  It becomes doubly important when doubt sinks in.  The flow will be better and the good knowledge will flow much better when preparation is evident.

3.  Is that homework really necessary?   In the end, you have to grade it, and often you will do more benefit to yourself if you go home and rest, not grade work.  Keep the class high intensity, but make the practice something that the kids can grade the next day, or have them study for a quiz.  Seriously, nothing makes you feel worse than the knowledge that the impending evening is nothing but grading.

4.  Is the classroom lesson really engaging?  Good student engagement gets me out of the rut pretty quickly.  Watching students get fully involved and buy into a lesson is a clear sign that education is going on, which in turn fulls up the teacher's tank to get through the day, or maybe even shake off the doldrums entirely.  In fact, I might take a little more risk during down times because the end reward is that much better.  If part of the lesson fails during 1st period, I'm excited for the next period and do my best to make adjustments so the mistakes don't happen again. 

5.  Am I forgetting what's really important?  Let's face it, if teachers were actually valued in society, would the pay we get really be that big of a deal?  I would like more money, but I would love some acknowledgement that teachers are not the only problem with education, and are more aligned with the solution.  Saying that, there is a point at which you might consider ignoring nay-sayers for awhile, even those you work with.  Stop listening to public complaining, stop listening to the media, ignoring the idiots in government, and hell, maybe you need to become a little bit of a hermit if the school atmosphere is too negative.  I omit certain blogs from my daily reading list when times get tough.  I'll pick on Joanne Jacobs in particular, whose blog was one of the first I started to read years ago, before it became outrageously popular.  Now it's an outrageously popular place to beat the shit out of public education, including teachers.  Like most media types that haven't a clue about what teaching is, Jacobs generalizes teachers as lazy, whiney, and not really out for the best interest of the kids.  Do you really need to read criticism from someone who doesn't know what you are going through?

So November comes and goes, and the month of December brings basketball tournaments, "Christmas cheer", and the statements "I'm going on vacation.  Can I make up the Final"?  My mood shifts to more from somber to more up beat as I realize that my teaching is actually quite good, and my focus to the classroom starts paying off for those that realize that I'm not going to change the way I do things to accommodate their social lives.  Reflection also starts to creep into my thoughts as I start to figure out ways to make things better for next semester as well. 

Just remember, moments of doubt are going to occur, but don't let them totally ruin the experience of good teaching.

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