Log in  |  Search

Archive for the ‘New Teacher Diaries’ Category

Staying true to myself for my students

Art Bechstein is the pseudonym of a first-year English teacher at a high school in Brooklyn. To submit to the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org!

I am a very weird person. It’s OK — I’ve known it for a while now. I can’t contain myself when I get excited, my language is littered with turns-of-phrase and pop culture allusions that very few understand, and I willingly bought a child’s Spiderman backpack for an excursion to the Middle East.

I have spent most of my life figuring out how to be OK with me, but for now, I think I’ve got it.

Being a high school teacher in my mid-twenties, I am only a few years older than my students — and yet somehow I’m the one in charge. In the summer before my first year of teaching, I thought of onscreen teachers like Mr. Feeny in Boy Meets World and Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society — teachers whose pupils looked up to them and whose lives revolved around their teachers like moons around planets. In the classroom, like them, I would be stoic, exciting, engaging and all-knowing.

This all fell apart when my students saw that Spiderman backpack hung on my wall.

I had this conversation at least three times a week for the first two months of school: “Mister, what IS that?”

“It’s a Spiderman backpack.”

“Why do you have it?”

“Because it’s awesome.”

“But it’s for a kid. Do you have a kid?”

“No, it’s mine.”

“What? That’s weird.”

And then, the eye rolls. Epic eye rolls, roller coaster-esque eye rolls, as if their eyeballs would fall out of their heads. Who is this grown man with a kid’s backpack on his wall? And he’s gonna make me read what?

Of course, there was even more about me to activate a teenager’s weirdness detector: the Adventure Time hat hanging from a hook on my desk and Converse sneakers with hand-drawn crisscrosses on the canvas; the loud rock music I blast from my room in the morning; and the way I thread “y’all” through all my speech. Every single time this word popped out of my mouth, a group of girls in my third-period class (and then the entire class) would parrot back drawn-out southern a’s to remind me how out of place I was.

After school, I would reconsider my classroom presence and entire self. Why don’t my students like who I am? Why do I bother them so much? Am I ready for high school again, a crockpot of judgment and pack mentality? Wasn’t the point of graduating so I didn’t have to go to high school again?

And it all flooded back to me — that fear of being weird. How searing it was as a teenager to be seen as strange or different, how it could be a lot easier to say nothing and blend in than to venture something. And here I was, teaching English, the very stuff that was supposed to make you want to stand out and be different. Why was I afraid to be my strange self?

I knew I had to continue to be me, and to be me as loudly as possible. Sure, I wouldn’t be Mr. Feeny, but I could be something else. If even one student could see me wanting to be me, embracing every weird facet of myself and feel better about themselves, it would be a victory.

I still play loud music, get really excited about books, and keep my Spiderman backpack hanging on the wall. The students are even getting used to me now — they holler “y’all” back to me, but now with smiles. They float in and out of my classroom before and after class and during free periods, poking around my books and recommending music I should play next. One student even dropped off a list of songs she said I should listen to, her handwriting filling the entire page.

The school days pile up, and our relationships continue to grow. The students open up, venture answers and dare to be themselves in the community of our English class. In front of the class, I’m not an imitation of a teacher I saw on TV. I am honest, excitable, open and weird. I am who I am, for myself and for my students.

It’s test-prep season but I have hope

  Ms. R is a 4th-grade teacher in the Bronx.

It’s early spring, but instead of feeling lighthearted and happy, I feel stressed and tired.

Test-prep season is in full swing. This annual ritual of feeling intense pressure to prepare my students for state tests and boost their scores nearly drains me of hope.

But one thing gives me strength – my students.

Remembering how much I influence my students puts things in perspective. It reminds me that as a teacher, I’m not as helpless as the drive to raise test scores can sometimes makes me feel.

Last Monday, my principal said something like this: “If we focus on getting 3 percent of our pushables, I don’t care which 3 percent, to score a 3 or 4 on the state tests, we will knock down three quality review domains.”

Just in case you are not fully up on this teacher jargon, “pushables” are those students on the brink of reaching the next level. For example, a student who scored a 2.8 is extremely close to reaching a 3.

But do you see the problem indicated by my principal’s statement? It suggests that we focus on any pushables showing steady progress because doing so may help boost their scores, which in turn will improve our school’s quality review score.

I immediately wondered about my English language learners and my students reading far below grade level. Would I have to pause or minimize my efforts with them in order to focus solely on the “pushables”? The answer can seem to be an ugly yes. I’d have to focus more on those students who demonstrate promising achievement on tests.

No, my principal is not a jerk. His statement is the result of the immense pressure placed on administrators and teachers based on unreasonable criteria that force us to treat students as commodities.

Who is putting all of this pressure on us? What credentials do they have as educators? Why does our education system revolve around standardized exams? If our school does well on those quality review domains, what have we really accomplished? Clearly the quality review influences decision-making and the behavior and attitude of the staff. But does the feedback of the reviewers realistically even qualify as valuable insight?

I ranted about all of this to my mentor. His response was: “When you shut that door, it’s just you and the kids. You know what they need and what’s best. Shut your door and do it.”

Teachers are on the front lines with our students. We have say over what the way we teach in our classrooms. Standardized exams and other killjoy practices in education are obstacles that can be overcome through strategic practices.

Our students open themselves in order to learn from us. For their sake, we do our best to make the state tests as painless as possible and to make learning as enjoyable as possible. Yes, we struggle sometimes with this system. But it helps to remember that we matter to our students and we work for them.

Our classrooms have doors. Sometimes by closing a door I am able to open minds.

How a short story inspired my teaching

K.M. Jones is a second-year English teacher in Brooklyn.

“Perhaps Sedgewick Bell’s life would have turned out more nobly if I had understood his motivations right away and treated him differently at the start. But such are the pointless speculations of a teacher.” —Mr. Hundert in Ethan Canin’s “The Palace Thief”

After struggling with students’ behavior in my middle school classroom last year, I feared an uprising of students critical of my failings as a teacher. I imagined students collectively shouting, “I hate you!” and questioning my judgment. So when I first read the story “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin, I was hesitant to expose my students to the story, which is about a teacher who failed to help his student become a better person. Would this story bring on the criticism I feared?

To my surprise, when I did teach it, the students cared less about the teacher’s development and were instead drawn to the antagonist Sedgewick Bell, a troublemaker who cheats his way to success. One student’s reaction to Sedgewick really stuck with me. While the majority of the class deemed Sedgewick a bad character, my student D. continually stood up for him. “He was cheating to make his father proud, right?” the student said to me one day after class. “Wouldn’t his dad be mad if he didn’t succeed? So I think it was the right thing for him to do.” Interestingly enough, this student had a very strict father and a problem with rampant cheating.

The story communicates the messages that history repeats itself and that one can’t change another person’s character or even one’s own. But the movie adaptation gives the teacher a second chance. In the movie interpretation, the teacher’s positive moral development leads him to let go of his failure with his one corrupted student and focus on all the other lives he has changed and will change in the future. In a nutshell, the movie tells us: You can’t change every life, but through your own personal growth, you can have an effect on many.

It may seem that these two messages are polar opposites. However, the difference between character change being possible or impossible is surprisingly subtle: it’s the difference between enforcing behavior and developing character.

Let me tell you more of my story.

Last year, I felt like I couldn’t reach my students on a moral level at all. Our middle school was struggling with funding and needed to score well on the state standardized tests. Instead of teaching literature like I wanted to, I taught excerpts from CodeX textbooks. Instead of writing my own curriculum and letting my students’ needs inform the lessons I chose to teach, there was a schoolwide mandate for teachers to teach the same standard every day. I didn’t have time to answer any of my students’ moral or behavioral questions; I had to lay down rules and stick to them relentlessly just to get through the prescribed materials.

By March, we had been doing just test prep for two straight months, and my students’ frustrations boiled over into disgust — toward English as a subject, me, all their teachers and to the school itself. Even my students who were voracious readers at home were resistant to the curriculum, refusing to engage and tossing verbal hate bombs. Because of the systematic pressure on English to be skill-oriented, it seemed to me that helping them with their emotional and moral development was next to impossible. I started thinking about changing my career, like an embittered co-worker did when she quit halfway through the year.

This year, however, because of a new principal who has a positive stance on literature and the absence of high-stakes testing for 10th-graders, my faith in English as an avenue for emotional maturity is renewed. Instead of enforcing behavioral rules so I can teach skills for a test, I’m teaching critical, moral thinking through the lens of literature. My student D., who fought so passionately for Sedgewick’s moral uprightness despite his cheating, later confided in me, “I’d like a teacher like Sedgewick’s teacher who keeps pushing me to succeed, no matter what I do. That might actually make me do my work.” Through critical character study and personal character application, he was able to identify and articulate what he himself needs in real life to become a better student.

Due to my own ineptitude in the face of systematic pressures, I have not helped every student I’ve taught to become a more thoughtful and moral person. However, if teaching “The Palace Thief” has taught me anything, my past failures do not need to define my future. I may not have reached every student, but I have at least reached one. And that’s a good start.

Every teacher knows

by Ms. D, a 5th-grade ICT teacher in the East Village

If you’re interested in writing for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org!

Every new teacher knows that feeling when a new year starts — the glass-half-full Augusts when you dream of the boundless potential of your incoming students; the vow every year to work harder than last to make this the best year yet; the idealistic expectations you set for yourself as the school year begins.

Every teacher also knows another feeling — anxiety when the annual honeymoon period comes to a close and you realize imagination and reality couldn’t have been farther apart.

Nine days into the previous school year, my 5th-grade student Taquan was already on a schoolwide list for low attendance. I tried a few strategies, to no avail.

Attendance wasn’t Taquan’s only issue. Countless conflicts, angry outbursts and threats of suicide were also serious concerns. I began to pray for an answer, for a solution, for a change for him. I volunteered my time to tutor him privately after school. I contacted the Administration for Children’s Services repeatedly. Then, one night at 10:30 p.m., I got the phone call that changed everything.

“Ms. D? I don’t know what to do. I need help,” Taquan pleaded.

“What happened?”

“Those kids. The ones I told you about. I was at the park and I looked across the street and they were running toward me. They tried to jump me.”

“Wait, start over, why? What did you do? Are you OK? Does your mom know?” I flooded him with questions.

“I’m OK. I ran into the projects behind mine. But I’m scared.” I could hear the tension in his voice.

“How are you getting to school tomorrow?”


“I’ll get you in the morning. You’ll have to wake up early and I’ll call you when I’m outside. When we get to school, we’ll figure it out, OK?”

“OK. Thanks, Ms. D. Really, thanks …” His voice faded away.

Every new teacher is all too familiar with the next feeling: Defeat.

Feeling threatened after that night, Taquan’s flight-or-fight instincts kicked in, and he entered survivalist mode. He joined a gang at the school and began carrying a screwdriver. He insisted he needed protection.

After everything I had done for him, I began to wonder, “What can I possibly do for my students? What hope do I have for making a positive impact?” The answers were unclear until the day I read “Tuck Everlasting” to them.

“No connection, you would agree, but things can come together in strange ways,” wrote the author, Natalie Babbit. “The wood was at the center, the hub of the wheel. All wheels must have a hub. A Ferris wheel has one, as the sun is the hub of the wheeling calendar. Fixed points they are, and best left undisturbed, for without them, nothing holds together. But sometimes people find this out too late.”

This idea of myself as a hub in my students’ lives gave me the power to continue on.

“You did this for me, didn’t you?” Taquan probed a few weeks later.

I’d arranged for a group of six high school students to visit my class. Their task was to discuss gang awareness and offer advice for how to avoid the lifestyle.

“What do you mean?” I responded.

“You asked them to come here for me. You got sick of me fighting all the time and wanted me to hear this.”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said, smiling.

“I get it, in case you’re wondering,” he continued. “I’m gonna stop. I won’t do it anymore.”

“Do what?”

“All of it.”

It’s my hope that every new teacher sticks with the job long enough to know the next feeling: joy.

It didn’t happen overnight, but Taquan began attending school five days a week rather than four. He started going to an after-school program to do his homework rather than hang out on the streets. He learned to cope with his anger well enough to avoid physical altercations. And I recently found out he went from a Level 1 to a Level 2 academically.

Taquan still faces difficult choices, and I know his path ahead won’t be easy. But for now he remembers the things I’ve tried to instill in him and is receptive enough to the relationship we’ve built to seek advice and an escape when he needs it.

Every new teacher will go through myriad emotions as they set out on their journeys. But it is joy that new teachers should wait for with bated breath. It is joy, after all, that brings meaning to our profession and supports the belief that we can and will change lives.

Committees upon committees upon…

“Kelly” is the pseudonym of a 3rd-year high school social studies teacher in Queens. If you’d like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org!

High school teachers spend the entire year focusing on Regents preparation — especially this year, when Regents scores hold so much weight in our teacher evaluations. This year, like every other year, we are committed to improving student test scores. As part of our commitment, we’ve formed two committees focusing on how we can get our students to pass the Regents. So in effect, these two different committees are doing the same thing.

It sounds great in theory to have a literacy team and an instructional team, in addition to the school’s inquiry team. All of our teams are making progress: We’ve identified that low reading levels account for difficulty in test-taking for special education and ELL students.

But at a recent faculty meeting, the inquiry team presented essentially the same data that had been discussed at the literacy team meeting. Neither team has collaborated to discuss its findings or how its data can help us meet our students’ needs. Instead, each team has come up with its own approach on how to tackle the issue, with the result that not as much is getting done.

We struggle in education about how to make progress, but our multiple committees seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re so caught up in data and the other pressures of being a teacher that we think we exist in a vacuum, as if no one else in the entire school could possibly share the same concerns or have solutions.

Being on a committee is an honor, to be recognized for my skills and what I do. And it’s great to work with colleagues toward solving a problem.

But why is it that the same few teachers get picked for committees over and over again? Shouldn’t we all work together on everything, instead of relying on a few people? After all, we’re all accountable for results. Not to mention that committees create extra work for teachers who are already overextended: If I’m expected to prepare dynamite lesson plans that are Common Core- and Danielson-aligned, how can I do that in addition to serving on a committee?

Committees should be cohesive in terms of membership and focused on a specific issue, rather than overlapping with the same broad intentions. We should be encouraged to collaborate as a whole rather than attempt to tackle the same issue in small units without communicating. After all, the school’s mission applies to all of us, not just those on a committee.

Steve Jobs got it right; he ran a company that had only a few products, but they were high-quality. We as teachers should go for a similar approach; each committee should have a single, focused mission. As each committee begins to intensively address its assigned topic, other problems at the school might start to disappear.

How to read a poem (or how to teach)

Li Wenlan is in her second year as a middle school ELA teacher in Brooklyn. In this entry, she recalls analyzing the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” with her 7th-grade Integrated Co-Teaching class. If you are a newer teacher and would like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, please email edwize@uft.org!

The education reform movement has an obsessive adherence to rigidly structured lesson plans, bewildering algorithms to quantify teacher effectiveness and the relentless collection and analysis of student data. But in my second year of teaching, I’ve come to realize that a true education is messy — gloriously messy, like a Kandinsky painting.

A true education blossoms at the nexus of wondrous insight, courageous inquiry and dazzling tangents. It eschews the arrogant certainty of algorithms, the military precision of linear thinking and the uninspired conformity of logical progression.

Halfway through my 7th-grade class’s study of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, the adolescent Ponyboy runs away with Johnny after the latter accidentally murders a Soc, a member of a rival gang. While sitting in an abandoned church and ruminatively observing a beautiful sunrise, Ponyboy is moved to recite “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a Robert Frost poem about the fleeting nature of life. After his recitation, Ponyboy confesses that he “was trying to find the meaning the poet had in mind, but it eluded [him].”

Here was a chance for my students to help out their beloved protagonist by analyzing the poem’s significance.

I began the lesson by modeling a close reading of the first couplet of the poem on a document camera. I highlighted select phrases that stood out and recorded lingering questions and tentative interpretations in the margins to make personal text-to-self connections. Throughout the modeling, I invited my students to weigh in by asking them to contribute possible responses to my questions or to provide alternative interpretations. Then I asked my students to try to close-read the last three couplets of the poem independently.

When my co-teacher and I initially peered over the shoulders of our students, we noticed that many of them were reticent about jotting down their thoughts, understandably nervous about traversing into deep, unknowable territory. But slowly, questions — and interpretations cloaked in the safe, humble guise of questions — began to emerge.

“What did Frost mean when he wrote ‘So Eden sank to grief’?” “When Frost wrote ‘leaf subsides to leaf,’ did he mean that the leaves were dying?” “Isn’t this line similar to this other line about how the flower can only last an hour?”

My co-teacher and I agreed that it was time for our students to share their thoughts and wonderings out loud with each other.

Despite my students’ initial reluctance to delve into challenging poetic terrain, our whole-class discussion unexpectedly became a safe, nonjudgmental haven within which to share ideas. And though I had prepared a set of text-dependent questions that would guide my students to a more symbolic interpretation of the poem, I quickly brushed those aside as my students unwittingly took the lead.

Unburdened by my carefully-laid plans for a scaffolded discussion, students jumped from line to line, couplet to couplet, making unlikely connections amongst disparate phrases, peers’ remarks, and other works of literature. With only the gentlest of teacher guidance, the discussion flowed wherever my students willed it.

“Gold refers to something that’s valuable or precious, so I think Frost is trying to say that nothing good in life can last forever,” offered a student.

“Well, if that’s the case, what are some good things in Ponyboy’s life that don’t last forever?” I asked.

“Maybe the important people in his life. For example, his mom and dad, who died in a car crash,” suggested one student.

“Or maybe he’s relating it to the sunrise and his friendship with Cherry, because even though they see the same sunset, their friendship still can’t last because he’s a Greaser and she’s a Soc,” suggested another.

“But what about the Garden of Eden? What’s that got to do with anything?” a student asked.

“Maybe it refers to a character from the novel that’s grieving?”

Suddenly, another student who had been quietly observing the discussion excitedly chimed in: “I got it! It’s Darry, when Ponyboy runs away! Maybe Darry is the Eden that grieves when he realizes that he has lost Ponyboy!”

“I’d actually like to share a text-to-text connection I’ve made between that ‘So Eden sank to grief’ line and the myth of “Icarus and Daedalus,” said a student. “When Icarus dies after flying too close to the sun, Daedalus becomes so heartbroken that he literally sinks to grief because he gives up flying for the rest of his life. This situation is actually pretty similar to both Ponyboy’s and Darry’s that other students mentioned.”

I have heard teachers bristle at the prospect of teaching struggling students out of the mistaken fear that they will have to sacrifice sophisticated intellectual inquiry for mind-numbing, rudimentary mechanics. Though my students’ writing certainly suffers from its fair share of run-on sentences, nonexistent thesis statements and weak explanations of text-based evidence, I still wish those teachers could see my students. I wish they could see how their burgeoning insights and intellectual courage belie their test scores, see how they are able to escape the fetters of low self-esteem to take a chance on their brave ideas, see how they make breathtaking, convincing connections between “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and the myth of “Icarus and Daedalus” or the Bible.

The process of reading a poem is, I’ve come to realize, a lot like teaching. You don’t know where your mind (or your students’ minds) will wander, what questions will emerge or what imaginative insights will blossom, but you let go nevertheless.

And this can lead you to moments of buoyant incandescence, to life-affirming moments when both teacher and student become equally genuine arbiters of knowledge, to unreal, quite bittersweet moments, in fact, when life imitates art and you realize that this very moment is so, so “golden” that it certainly cannot stay.

And yet, it does.

The ABCs of a First-Year Teacher

by MsOui, a first-year 2nd-grade ESL teacher in Queens

Advance: Formerly just a category students were put into based on ESL assessment scores; now it is the name of a new teacher evaluation system we are all still trying to figure out.

Budget: Hopefully in my second year of teaching I won’t have to spend quite as much of my own money on classroom supplies as in my first.

Charlotte’s Web: The first text my 2nd-graders read in our ELA curriculum.

Danielson: Familiarize yourself with this teaching framework and you will be amazed at how you grow in your instructional practice.

Engagement: No matter how interesting and awesome a lesson is, there’s always one student who sits in the corner and reads a book.

Family: The relationship I have with my students. We stick together like crazy glue!

Gobbela: What we named our paper turkey, who was eventually replaced by a stuffed turkey acting as our class mascot. Fortunately, by “stuffed,” I mean with cotton.

High expectations: Because sometimes all it takes for a student to succeed is a seed of belief planted by someone they believe in.

Inspiration: Learn to grow, grow to teach, teach to learn.

Just kidding: Something I learned I can no longer say to my students – because after awhile they won’t take me seriously. I’m not kidding.

Kaleidoscope: Looking at my students is like looking into a kaleidoscope. I see so many bright possibilities. We as teachers have the ability to adjust our perspective to create high expectations for all students.

Laughter: Giggles, chuckles, snorting and bellyaches.

Mathematics: What’s odd plus even? Even odder. Math has become more than numbers. It includes word problems or riddles that calculators cannot solve.

Normalcy: Each student shows me unique and extraordinary possibilities, and this has become the norm.

Oops: Failure drives our success.

Princess: I have one student who frequently forgets to write her name on her test papers and assignments. However, her illustrations always include the same princess on a unicorn with a rainbow background. While other students print their names, she has her own signature!

Quiz: What used to be called quizzes are now called assessments. If you tell students they are having a quiz, you’ll just see a quizzical look on their cute faces.

Rainbows: See princess description above.

Sarcasm: Sarcasm confuses the students who are told their parents are going to be so happy to hear that they are misbehaving at lunch that day. I will just say what I mean and mean what I say from now on.

Tattle: Yes, because your partner spilling a drop of water on her desk will somehow have an astronomical effect on your learning.

Unicorn: See princess description above.

Vow: Because children have pretty darn good memories, keep those promises. Once a promise is broken, good luck!

Why? Curiosity sparks discussion. Get ready. Kids can say the darndest things!

Xerox: Another paper jam?!

Yo-yo: Days are filled with ups and downs…ahhh, and the worst is when the tricks are performed!

Zeal: If you still have this on day 180, then congratulations, you have survived your first year of teaching. Now the best thing about this year is what’s yet to come!

How I came out to my students

hudsynyc is the pseudonym of a second-year high school ELA teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to submit an entry for the New Teacher Diaries, please email edwize@uft.org.

Sixteen 14-year-old girls taught by one 28-year-old woman. It is my second year having an all-girls 9th-grade advisory class at my high school in Brooklyn. Advisory is a more informal class where students have the opportunity to build real relationships with each other and with their advisory teacher.

By the end of September, my group of girls knew many things about me: I am originally from the New Jersey suburbs. I have a cat and a dog. I play soccer every week. I am relaxed but like to get things moving and accomplished in the classroom. They knew I buy my jeans at American Eagle and that I am never without an iced coffee in the morning. What they didn’t know was that I am married to a woman.

Although our school does not yet have a gay-straight alliance or any LGBT staff members who are out to the students, gay or bisexual teenagers seem ordinary to many of our students, who speak freely about their own sexuality and that of their peers. We even have a transgender student who changed his name and now uses the boys’ bathroom and locker room (as per the DOE’s nondiscrimination policy and our principal’s unyielding support).

At the start of this year, I was out to only that group of 10th-grade girls who had been in my advisory class last year. Now I had a new group of 14-year-old girls who didn’t know. What would they think? How would they look at me? Would they feel awkward sitting near me? I remember how I was at their age. And their parents? Their grandparents? Parent-teacher conferences were only a couple weeks away. Many of their families were religious or from cultures less tolerant of homosexuality. Some of the students must be homophobic, I assumed.

But one Friday, a student from last year’s advisory dropped in to say hello to me. As we were chatting, she asked how my wife was doing.

After she left, one of my most bubbly and outspoken girls asked without hesitation, “Are you bi or gay?”

I tried to keep it cool. “Oh, yes. I forgot. I haven’t told you guys yet, have I? Now when I tell you this, I want us to remember our advisory family rules No. 1 and No. 2. Listen without judgment. And respect.”

Long pause.

“I’m married to a woman. I’m gay.”

Cheers and claps. “You’re married to a woman?” More cheers and claps.

Hands shot up into the air. “I just want to say that I hate when people bully gay people or have something not nice to say. Just let people live.”

“For me, being gay is just as normal as being straight,” another student said. “Every woman in my family is gay besides me and my mother. My aunt’s gay. Her girlfriend’s always over at our house. That’s just how it is. We all sit around together.”

“I’m fine with everyone,” a third student responded. “Love who you love. But my grandfather, he’s not. I can’t stand the things he has to say when someone gay comes on the TV. I’ve tried to talk to him about it, but there’s no point. He just doesn’t listen.”

“My mom used to be the same way,” a different student said. “I just kept talking to her when she made those comments. She’s still, you know, whatever. But she’s getting better. It takes time.”

“What’s your wife’s name again? Where is she from? Is her mother OK with everything? How did you meet?”

Looks like my assumptions were wrong.

The dip in the year

by J. Isabel, middle-school ESL teacher

The week after Thanksgiving is largely heralded as one of the most reviled times in the school calendar. After all the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pie, no one is in a position to come in and teach Common Core-aligned curriculum. No one wants to check for understanding, no one wants to use positive reinforcement to improve student behavior and no one wants to conference with students.

So let’s talk a little bit about a handy little chart that’s been floating around the Internet. It’s used frequently in first-year teacher seminars and professional development sessions.

Although this chart focuses on the feelings of first-year teachers, I really do think this is applicable to anyone who works in schools.

See where December is? Disillusionment. It’s the lowest point of the year — the time when teachers, administrators and school staff the whole world over wish to God they had chosen another career.

Well, let me tell you, I’m feeling it.

I teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to middle school students. On an intellectual level, I know why I’m here. I care about my students very much and I want them to be able to succeed despite a deck that’s stacked high against them. I know that ESL is not a field that many people take seriously or even consider to be a real subject (“Why can’t they just learn English?”). I know that my emergent bilinguals are some of the brightest and most compassionate students of all the kids I service.

Yet, if I were offered another job right now, I’d take it. Straight up. Quit in the middle of the year. Two weeks’ notice. To hell with all of it.

I know that’s some inner part of my id talking. That’s not rational, organized, hardworking J. Isabel talking.

My practicum advisor always says to get strength from your students. Let their energy infuse you, become part of you. I’ve been listening to some really upbeat salsa music, drinking too much coffee and trying to smile even if it’s fake. Because maybe eventually, that fake smile will turn into a real one.

J. Isabel is a second-year ESL teacher in the Bronx. This entry first appeared on her blog, Lessons in Teaching and Learning. If you’d like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org.

The price of testing

Miss Education is in her second year teaching 4th grade in the Bronx. This year, she’s found herself deeply affected by the challenge of seeing her students struggle with standardized tests.

In early October, I had to administer yet another pre-assessment to my students. I understood that my students were starting to feel frustrated and uncomfortable with all of this pre-testing going on, so I really tried to make it as painless as possible. I explained what had been explained to me. I said, “These tests will not affect your grade; the purpose is to help me, as your teacher, see how much information you know.” I explained that the results of these tests would help me be a better teacher because I’d know what I need to focus on with them.

The test was 90 minutes. It had five constructed response questions — all of which were worded in a way that was more complex than necessary, making the questions confusing and even awkward to read. Nonetheless, my students trusted me, so they accepted the pre-tests with an eager smile and a look of consent.

Ten minutes in, I started to see a lot of worried and insecure faces. After some more time, I heard paper rustling as if someone were madly flipping through the pages of a book. I scanned the classroom and noticed Adam. Adam was flipping through his test aggressively. His face was pale. Next thing I knew, Adam was waving the whole test packet in the air violently.  I nearly ran over to him to intervene.

As soon as I put my hands on his shoulder, Adam stopped waving the paper. “Hey, hey, hey! Relax, relax,” I said. I told him to stop and take a breather, to put his head down and take a break. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he put the paper aside.

Adam is 9 years old.  An unnecessarily stressed 9-year-old. I felt so angry with myself and with the whole system. What are people thinking? Why am I allowing myself to be used as a tool to impose these ridiculous and overwhelming tests on my students for the sake of statistics? I felt extremely guilty and sad about Adam. I wonder how many of those “intellectuals”  who created these tests and these methods have actually had experiences with 9-year-olds.

This whole situation made me question and reassess my role in the classroom.  These tests are not an accurate measure of student intelligence or learning. I know many people feel the same. I just don’t know why our public education officials don’t do anything about it.

Any progress is progress, right?

by Zack Simone, middle school ELA teacher

One evening, late in August, as the school year was fast approaching, I was reviewing the student surveys I had administered on the last day of school.  In an attempt to be a reflective teacher (Domain 4, anyone — hello?!) I was attempting to determine which new systems I’d put in place, what went well, and what needed revamping.  See, last year, according to my perception, was like my rookie year (even though it was my second).  I knew a better version of my teacher-self existed.

As I was reading surveys, I stumbled upon “Sam’s.” As I recently had found out that I was going to have Sam again, one of his responses flagged me, as if to say, “You may need to address this.”

In order to understand my initial reaction, you have to know a little about Sam. Sam was a student in one of my most (sheesh, not one of, the most) difficult classes last year.  It didn’t help that as a newbie of sorts, I allowed my emotions to get the better of me, and as opposed to just disciplining Sam, I actually allowed myself to be sarcastic at times, which ultimately didn’t correct Sam’s behavior, but actually, in a strange way, kept him and his classmates entertained.

However, there were moments where I surprised even myself and dealt with Sam’s ever-growing desire to creatively defy authority in new and inspiring ways. For example, I asked him to be my monitor.  At first he seemed taken aback, but later, when I asked, “Why do you think I did that?” he responded with:

“Because you wanted me to behave.”

He got it, he understood; that seemed like progress, right?

Flash-forward to the present: there I was at Dunkin’ Donuts, it’s fairly late, I should have been out enjoying the last few remaining days of relaxation, yet I was staring at Sam’s response.  In regards to my question: “Which lessons were most memorable this year?”  Sam responded, “The lessons Mr. Simone taught me when I got in trouble.”  The Robin Williams in me wanted to write a poem immediately about all the amazing things we as teachers can achieve!  The Michelle Pfeiffer in me said, “Smells like it’s placating season.”

During the first week of the new school year, I had students role play various scenarios regarding our classroom expectations.  Sam was playing a student who disrespects a teacher.  During the skit he called the other actor “stupid” and I immediately paused the skit, my way of showing Sam who was boss.  However, a colleague later offered me stronger advice: why not pull him aside, see if that survey comment was actually genuine, and try to get him on your side.

The day following the skit incident, I asked Sam to speak after class, but it was poor timing, so I mentioned we could speak the next day.  The next day, without my having to prompt him, Sam arrived at my door, prior to going to lunch.

“You wanted to talk to me?”

“I did.  I’m a bit surprised you showed up without my having to call for you.”

“I was curious.”

We sat.  I asked him if what he wrote in the survey was genuine, or was he trying to placate me. Except, he didn’t know what placate meant. Once I explained it to him, however, he responded with…

“No, it was real.  I meant it.”

He appeared genuine. When I asked if he wanted to be a captain or sorts for his class, be the guy to rally them when I needed him to, he admitted that he’d like that. To this day, I’m still a bit shocked about Sam’s change of heart, but I wouldn’t say that I was disappointed.

I have to admit, when it comes to particular things, I still have a lot to learn (balancing engaging lessons with not smiling until after Thanksgiving — can’t I just be engaging and have high expectations?).  I probably spend too much time planning in the evenings, and not enough time during my preps, but already the year feels better. And while I learned a lot about what I wouldn’t want to redo from last year, apparently some of my practices worked. After all, Sam went from drawing degrading pictures of me and writing inappropriate connotations of my last name on hallways walls to… admitting my teaching had affected him.

Moments like these remind me why…you know the rest.

Zack Simone is the pseudonym of a third-year middle school ELA teacher in Queens. If you’d like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org.

A new year in advisory

by Grace Lamm, high school science teacher

As a teacher at a high school in Brooklyn, you take on many roles. The role of classroom teacher is a given, and a challenge. The other role that many people take on is the role of advisor. As an advisor, you commit to mentoring 15-20 students from their freshman year through their graduation day.

I am very lucky to advise the students that I have in my advisory. My advisory is full of quirks, but as a group, we work well together. Of the 15 kids, I have the five most popular girls in the junior class, two of the shiest girls in the junior class, and four of the dweebiest dudes in the junior class. In addition, I have the pleasure of having a French foreign exchange student, and three girls who thrive on the drama created with breaking up and making up with their boyfriends on a weekly basis. Needless to say, my 15 students are some of the most typical high school archetypes you could find. In another decade they would watch The Breakfast Club and all identify with every part of the movie.

Part of being an advisor is preparing your advisees for college. This year is the first year that my high school has a junior class (we opened our doors in 2011) and all junior advisors are nervous. In a recent grade level meeting, some people started fretting over ways to give their kids an edge in the college application process. One of my colleagues suggested reading a book “just for fun” but in advisory. Another suggested visiting CUNY schools with kids during after-school hours. I thought my advisory would benefit from having very honest conversations about applying to college in addition to the visits, extra reading time, SAT and ACT prep, and essay writing workshops. Needless to say, I am setting myself up for quite a year.

On the first day of school, my advisees came bursting into my classroom all freshly scrubbed and perfectly pressed, ready for the first day of school. As we gathered around our “family” table, I began handing out the first day of school materials. Blue cards, lunch forms, MetroCards, and permission slips were all passed around the table, and I built up the courage to tell them what was ahead for their junior year.

“Over the course of this year, there are many things you will accomplish. You will have taken an SAT or ACT, begun the college application process, and participated in extracurriculars. And then you will have another year of high school left.”

One of my advisees, Alindra, shot me a look of pure agony.

“WAIT. You are telling me I NEED to do something outside of school?”

“Yes. You need to participate in a club, internship, volunteer program, or get a job, but you must work on becoming a person who doesn’t just go to school and then go home.”

Fifteen sets of eyes turned towards me at the head of the table. Junior year had begun. I knew that this year I would have to make the difficult transition from ally who is always supporting advisees to ally who is always pushing them to do more than they want to do. I did not know that I would have to start that transition on the first day.

Grace Lamm is the pseudonym of a third-year high school science teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org.

I’m a temporary teacher, and that’s OK

by Frankie Ursula, high school history and economics teacher

Punching my alarm clock again, for the last snooze around 6:55 a.m., I am dream-thinking. In that weird place between wake and sleep, I slowly recall that I am a high school history teacher. Every day I willingly return to the one place that I once wanted so desperately to flee from that I graduated two semesters early.

For several hours, I will teach street-smart kids how to prove people wrong by knowing where Cambodia is and how to express the gravity of what happened there. We get to talk about things that matter for a few brief moments between the whining and procrastination after I must transition into an obligatory assessment of their skills and knowledge. Teenagers have their voices heard, no matter how profanity-riddled, in my classroom, if nowhere else. I have become an anachronism of every awesome teacher that I’ve ever had. Students with learning disabilities or English Language Learners offer their opinions on controversial topics. Some kid started watching the news for the first time last week and then actually volunteered his hand to ask if North Korea was going to bomb us. I mix in a YouTube video or two along with traditional news sources to widen their avenues of perspective.

Nevertheless, the administration is on my back with a new jargon-peppered list of improbable things they need to immediately see upon entering my class for an observation. All students will be engaged and excited about learning the privileged stories of people who’ve changed the world, but have never been to Brooklyn. At least today, Jane Doe from the DR asked me how anyone knows which religion is really real if there are so, so many all over the world. That seed of doubt in the presumed infallibility of organized religion must count for something somewhere.

On a weekly basis last year, I was very conflicted and angry about my new job. Or I was amused. Or I was already over it, on LinkedIn editing my profile. I had my hands in my hair, begging someone to tell me what a monarchy was for the thirtieth time since September. I high-fived a kid who just finished an in-class essay early after skipping nearly two weeks of my class. I often handed out candy to condition thoughtful responses and this did not work as well as I was led to believe it would. The bell would ring, I’d be ambushed by the next group of students. I would sit at the back of my empty room at the end of the day, crying again after another derailed lesson full of verbal abuse. Harsh words that I was expected to deflect or ignore because there is no such thing as detention anymore. I was shaped from the clay of a new breed of instructors, expected to be an emotionally consistent robot and child behavioral psychologist. I made frequent calls to family, friends, mentors, lovers; anyone who would calm me down and give me some practical advice. They told me to quit or to toughen up. They said, why don’t you go apply at a white school, a private school, a “good” school. They said this without sarcasm or shame and I replied, no, that’s not it. It is just that I don’t feel good like they tell you martyrs are supposed to feel right before dying for what they believe in.

This year going in, I’m a bit more hopeful. I’m a temporary teacher (statistically, this is most likely true) trying to prove my relative effectiveness to the people who pay me. Some think that a daily Skype session could replace me. To society, I am the pathetic failure of “those who can’t do, teach”, or I’m bravely starring in the endless sequel to Dangerous Minds, or I’m the lazy overpaid troublemaker who won’t shut up about The Liberal Agenda. I’m reading another article about some idiot educator who has just abused their power on a profoundly inappropriate level. I’m looking for the articles about my teacher friend who taught an 18-year-old freshman how to finally write a five-paragraph analytical essay. Or my friend who dresses up in wigs and co-stars in the short videos created by her students with emotional behavioral disorders in the film club. Or any positive press about all my colleagues who don’t secretly think that their students are too stupid or too damaged to really give a damn about. I’m sure as hell not going to do this forever, and that’s okay right now.

That’s how this thing works, our education system. Some other fresh blood will soon seep into the broken machine of public schooling. It will be their turn to try to interpret and apply the latest band aid solution to our gaping wound of unequal outcomes. She will ask me for advice and I will tell her something that works on Monday but fails by Wednesday. By Friday, we will both be at separate bars drinking our way through a window of respite from our endless lists of things to do. Or we’ll be at separate gyms trying to work mental stress out through the vehicles of our tired bodies. Pick your poison.

They all expect us to solve every socio-economic problem in this country through teaching the youth of tomorrow how to pass state exams. Our efforts are not the salve they seek. Teachers are not politicians, policy makers, economic advisers, and therapists, though some retired teachers do enter those fields hoping to bring in a privileged perspective. We are overwhelmed, earnest people clinging to the ideals that got us through our first year teaching. And here comes the fall again, licking at the last few rays of summer.

Frankie Ursula is the pseudonym of a second-year high school history and economics teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to write an entry for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org.

Choosing to focus on teaching

by Mr. Gillbury, high school English teacher

I am criminally overworked. “Preps” seem to be a thing of the past, as we now have department meetings or grade team meetings during the day. “Lunch” is no longer an eating period as the microwave in the teacher’s lounge seems to have been misplaced. In fact, the entire teacher’s lounge has been misplaced, and yes, that can happen. I’ve been staying late to decorate my room and make a sorry attempt at planning and grading, but it’s usually just a time to try and get some energy back.

I’ve had meetings with the principal and AP where I had to choose how often I will be observed. They seemed to be trying to figure out the new system, and are more confused than the brand-new teachers. We were passively threatened to have our sub lessons submitted with copies of the work for all students done, though the person that makes copies for us is overwhelmed with an insane amount of copies to make.

I’ve had meetings with my department. Meetings with my grade team. Meetings about what we should be talking about in meetings. No, seriously, we actually discuss how to properly have a meeting, what an agenda should look like, all of the stuff to make a school look like it’s a well run corporation. The humanity on that side of things is gone. Perhaps forever.

My new students are calm and respectful…for now. They say that every year you teach, it gets easier as your confidence grows. I do feel that way, that I have finally come into my own as a teacher. Too bad there are all of these new changes, so everything I have mastered over the past few years will be viewed as obsolete. I can hear the chaos in the hallway as I teach my drop-dead-silent classes, and I act as if I don’t hear a thing. The kids take their cue from me and stay focused. Again, I don’t expect this honeymoon period to last. Because…

I teach students I had last year. One group of them is doing great. Focused, working hard, respectful. The other group is not really disrespectful, but they’re wild. Oh, they are wild and they make me laugh, which is fun and we get along, but it’s not the best for teaching.

There’s a lot going on in the classroom, and I have planning, co-planning, and grading to do. But it just feels like there’s so much beyond what you’d expect from a teacher now. It’s hard to even keep track of all the emails and the vague threats if we don’t fill out forms and send emails to the right people and go to the right meeting, have the right things up on our walls, and, I suppose, even teach how they want us to teach. Though teaching itself seems to be the least discussed part about “teaching.” And yet…that’s what I’m choosing to focus on.

Mr. Gillbury is the pseudonym of a 4th-year English teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to submit a column for the New Teacher Diaries, please email edwize@uft.org.

According to Plan?

by Brook Lyn, special education teacher

A teacher’s life can be measured by a long chain of plans. We plan our days, our lessons, even our free time.  Teachers spend their lives helping young people plan theirs.  I find myself making plans only for them to be altered.

I walked into my District 75 school in Brooklyn on September 3 planning to build my classroom.  I planned on entering the building, seeing my roster, seeing my colleagues, and finally designing the room eight students and I will call home for 7 hours a day.  I had to re-assemble the furniture, do the bulletin boards, put up posters, and organize my files and the students’ IEP binders.

As I entered the freshly painted red doors, the principal handed me a folder containing an agenda.  I visualized the monkey wrench being hurled at my plans, shattering them.  The agenda had the usual welcome back presentation and meetings with assistant principals.  But after lunch, I expected to see classroom setup on the schedule.  All of my careful planning and lists on my Notes app couldn’t prepare me for this… an afternoon filled with a 3-hour meeting.

I had forgotten about the MoSL meeting.  I had been selected for the school’s Measures of Student Learning committee, along with four other teachers, to discuss the local measure of Advance [the new teacher evaluation system].  How could I have forgotten about this meeting?  I had taken a course given by Charlotte Danielson on Knowledge Delivery Systems in preparation for this team.

After the shock dissipated, my mind wandered to my classroom planning to-do lists.  I immediately began thinking about the late nights I would have to work in order to make up for the time I’d be spending in the MoSL committee meeting.

I was anxious throughout the morning sessions and even during lunch.  I envisioned the rest of the school having brightly colored bulletin boards and perfect classrooms that were ready for students to explore, while my bulletin boards showed only exposed corkboard.  However, my work on the MoSL committee was more important.

Ten minutes before the MoSL meeting, I met my staff.  I had one para educator I worked with the previous year and the other two were new to the 8:1:1 setting.   I quickly welcomed my paras to the classroom.  We briefly chatted about our summers, or rather the two weeks between Chapter 683 and the first day of school.  Then, I raced to my meeting.

At 2:50, I made my way back to what I was expecting to be a dreary, bare classroom.  I looked through the door’s windowpanes and was shocked to see one para standing on a chair hanging yellow bulletin board paper, a second para laminating the desk plates I bought for the students, and a third para stapling the borders around the perimeter of the bulletin boards.  The desks were in the neat rows I had planned, the classroom library was organized, and the computers were reconnected.

I planned every minute of my day, but I didn’t factor in collaboration.  I’m always the person others count on.  It was refreshing to feel like I could count on them.  They exceeded my expectations and set a tone of cooperation for the year.  All of my plans didn’t prepare me for teamwork.

Brook Lyn is the pseudonym of a special education teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to submit an entry for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org.