December 28, 2012 1 Comment
The last Monday before the winter break I had my first formal observation by my principal and was also required to video-record a lesson for my practicum course. Now that I’ve officially made it ‘halfway’ through my first year as a public school teacher…I find myself engrossed in a stream of reflection that feels a lot like the deep and urgent breaths a person takes after being submerged for far too long. Here are my thoughts.
It took me a while to sit down and watch this recording and another while to respond to my observations in writing because I am pinned beneath the weight of a looming and overwhelming inquiry: What am I teaching them? What should I be teaching them? And if I am to call in a ‘should’ then further inquiry storms my brain: ‘Should’ according to whom? The ‘should’of the Common Core? The ‘should’ of the NYCTF—as murky and unrealistic as it might be in light of my lack of experience along with the lack of resources available to support new teachers? The competing voices declaring what ‘should’ are at once cacophonous and debilitating. At this point I am hoping to cordon off a cavern of solitude in which I will routinely reflect in order to unearth the ‘should’ of common sense. Death by philosophy will surely seize me when I begin to question: Common to whom?
Here’s the truth: I have no idea what will best prepare my students for coping with their present and preparing for their future. From what I can glean—during the limited amount of time I make to read articles by other educators—folks much more intelligent and experienced than I are similarly unsure which ‘should’ to place their bets on. Before becoming a teacher, I’d read many times about education being a “contested space” but for the love of mental peace, when will the storm subside?
A lot of time is spent corralling, soothing, organizing, and convincing—my students and myself. By the time we get to the lesson I am tired and, admittedly, at times, resentful. The lesson in this video was delivered to my most well-behaved and highest-performing class and much of the above is not as prevalent with this particular group of students as it is with the others. There seems to be a warmth in the classroom—even though one girl (directly before the camera—the student I reminded a few times, “Don’t whine. They won’t take you seriously if you whine…”) spent half the class disengaged because she was frustrated with her groupmates’ inaction. Am I exhausting myself because I am endeavoring to ensure that every last student is engaged, working, and moving forward? Isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing? Isn’t that what is morally sound? The more time I put in the more a sad truth unfolds into my slow grasp: I’m not going to reach every kid.
Aside from my maddening ambivalences and uncertainties, I notice a few things in this recording that are worth mentioning. Most are things I want to work on and one is recognition of something I appear to be doing well…at least during this particular lesson. First, the good news: as above, there is an evident warmth and safety in the classroom. When I talk to the students I sound patient and even kind. Unfortunately, I do not successfully strike this note every day or with every class. Moving forward I am going to pray as I enter the building that I will be successful in achieving this throughout each class and the day as a whole. In order to achieve this I know for certain that I must do two things: make strong boundaries in regard to the number of hours I put in each week; and maintain my meditation and workout schedule (reliant on my success in making boundaries). I cannot continue working eighty plus hours seven days a week. It’s simply not sustainable.
Now for the stuff I need to work on: entry routine (warm-up), closing, and not talking so much. “Not talking so much” includes creating more opportunities for meaningful talk among students (bonus points for this! It also happens to be a citywide and CFN-endorsed instructional expectation), providing students with more time and opportunity to respond and or participate verbally, and ‘loosening my grip.’ My sense is that I talk too much because I’m a novice and it’s a control thing. If I were to count how many times I say, “Hey guys, listen up” it might feel like a self-inflicted waterboarding, drowning on my own compulsive expressions of anxiety. Do I really need the students to “listen up” as frequently as I request them to do so? How can I rearrange the dynamic so I am less center-stage and their own conversation and learning drives the lesson and demands their focus? My challenge with this—or their challenge—is keeping them on task. The few times I have tried to have students turn to a partner or discuss something with their group it seems one of two things happens: they ignore my request and continue on as they were; or, they ignore my request, abandon what they were doing previously, and enter into a raucous few moments of open social conversation unrelated to the subject at hand. Yes, they are young, they are wild, and they resist my ridiculous efforts to channel their energies.
Also needed (I suppose), an entry routine and a meaningful closing. Here’s what I’ve noticed with my students: They are very slow starters but once they start they do not want to stop. If I attempt to transition from the ‘meat’ of the lesson to some sort of closing or reflection they either ignore me or behave as if class is over completely. Now that I’m reflecting on and writing about it I realize my own feeling: good for them for ignoring me—they’ve spirit and aren’t so easily conditioned. Thank God. Imagine if my students took a newbie like me so seriously. However, I know that I am expected to begin each class with a warm-up and that I need to have some kind of meaningful closing. Too, many of my colleagues and I have noticed that a number of our students do much better when there is more structure. Indeed, I think that the number of students who prefer structure is greater than those who flourish when there is less. Although I am not experienced or educated enough to determine whether I agree that pedagogically this is the soundest approach (highly structured, clear beginning, middle, and end), I need to start somewhere. This last unit overturned our routines because we were working with computers most days, which meant (or at least turned into) not completing a writing exercise as a warm up then losing track of time because we were so into our work (score!) and closing by rushing to collect the computers. In short, I need to reestablish our warm up routine in a way that inspires buy-in from the kids—and me—and determine what kind of closing routine to implement. It must be meaningful.
I’m currently blind to all other weaknesses in my teaching because a person can only take so much self-scrutiny.