Texas Flood

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 24 2008

kids take first test = i write first update (in 1+ months)

A few things I’ve learned recently:

• Don’t use the conjunction “nor” in a sentence on a multiple choice test. Plenty of students who aren’t fluent in English will not know what this means. Plenty of students who are fluent in English won’t, either.

• Don’t be afraid to call parents who only speak Spanish, even if you really only speak English. They will appreciate the effort, and if the message is “I want your son/daughter to come to school. He or she is smart and good in class,” they will understand you.

• Sometimes “Your power will be restored by Saturday” actually means “Your power will still be off on Wednesday”.

• When your students’ average score (including your repeating ninth graders) on a unit assessment is a standard deviation or two higher than the average scores of all the veteran teachers you work with, it makes you feel good and bad at the same time.

Sometimes A lot of the time, teachers—especially science teachers—haven’t the first clue about the subject area they’re tasked with teachers. Sometimes this bothers them.

• Calling home is important. Making an effort to reach out to the families of your students will pay dividends in classroom management, and in the effort that your students exert to do well in your class.

• Accountability is important too. Your students will sometimes have lives exponentially harder than your own, but at the end of the day, they need to get to school, stay awake while they’re there, and do the work that is assigned to them.

• The prospect of increased income as a function of education can be a great motivational tool. However, the increased income that comes with education is millions of miles away, as far as your kids are concerned. A select few have had their eyes on the prize since day one. These ones will be okay. Work on the other ones.

• Following through on everything that you say you’re going to do is critical. It’s also almost impossible, especially if you’re the kind of person who instinctively likes to say “yes” to requests, even when they’re coming at you at incomprehensible rates. Work on this using a two-pronged approach: first, say “yes” less often. If a student can do something themselves, encourage them to do that. Second, find some way of keeping track of all that stuff you need to do—I use a notebook. I’ve got a killer memory, but it’s not as good as the student who you promise to get a printout of a PowerPoint by 5th period and then leave hanging when they walk across campus and show up expecting some notes.

• If you’re a college-educated native speaker of English, especially if you’re a mile-a-minute talker like I am, some of what you say is going to go over the heads of a number of your students. That’s okay. They’re supposed to think of you as a smart guy. It also will help build their vocabulary and content knowledge. But only if you learn to recognize the whoosh sound that a thought makes as it flies over the head of someone else—or, failing that, the slightly glassy-eyed gape-mouthed stare of non-recognition that your students will respond with. That’s a signal to back up and re-phrase, re-teach, or otherwise translate what you just said into a way that makes sense for them. I’m way still working on this.

• I’ve learned that if you wear a tie on a regular basis, speak with some pretense of authority, and are lucky (ha) enough to be prematurely losing some of your hair, your students will not think that you are a new teacher. In fact, they will not think that you are a day less than thirty years old. Seriously. (For the record, that’s a +8 year differential—only two students know the truth.) It’s difficult to say whether them knowing that I’m young would work against me or in my favor—I’m sure they’ll figure it out eventually.

• The strategies that Teach for America teaches us for classroom management work. To a point. Beyond that, the minds of some adolescents are as mysterious and darkly deep to me as those of most of the women in my life.

• On the subject of classroom management, if you can avoid outsourcing your discipline, I think that’s a good idea. I haven’t sent any students to the Assistant Principal, with the exception of one girl who violated our electronic devices policy and didn’t want to hand over her cell phone. She’s been a complete sweetheart ever since.

• On the subject of Teach for America, nobody cares. Especially at a school where you’re the only corps member. Many of them view TFA as a source of decent teachers, but they see a problem with the idea that it’s for two years (the predominating view is that every TFA teacher leaves after two years—not the case) and assert that you can’t build a staff with TFA teachers. I’m trying to lay down a track record of results before I start trying to win hearts and minds. In the meantime, I wear my Hastings lanyards and leave the TFA one at home.

• Also on the subject of TFA, once you leave summer institute, you are no longer surrounded by idealistic, energetic, uncannily-bright twenty somethings. Again, especially if you’re at a school where you’re the only corps member. Your co-workers will be a lot older than you, a lot less idealistic (to the point at which you’ll be biting your tongue—or not, depending on how stressed/tired/etc. you are—during meetings as they berate their students and blame their low scores on families, cultures, or anything rather than their own instruction or lack thereof), and a lot less likely to be “top college graduates”. This is all okay. But you need to realize this, and be ready for it, and find ways to hold yourself to the high standards of summer institute, even if nobody else is being held to that standard or holding you to it. Accountability is important.

• Not only is accountability important for you, it’s also important for your students. Hold their feet to the fire. Nobody else is going to.

• Holding the feet to the fire—read: having insanely high expectations—can work wonders. (See bullet four.)

More to come. Tomorrow we begin Unit 2!

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