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Archive for the ‘New Teacher Diaries’ Category

Creating a World That’s Safe for Even the Silliest Questions

“Mr. Thompson,” began Nelly, “How come you’ve got such a pointy nose?” He had an inquisitive look of pure wonder on his face.

Later that day, Tonya asked whether I’d become “a little bit more chubbier” over the summer break. There was no judgment in her tone.

So began my fourth year as a New York City elementary school teacher. In both cases I answered matter-of-factly: People have noses of all different shapes, and mine happens to be a little pointier. And, yes, I put on five or ten pounds over the break — very observant of you to notice. I wasn’t offended in either case. My students’ blunt queries brought a smile to my face, endearing them to me all the more.

I was forced to switch grades this year because of an administrative error four years ago that left my school without a class in my setting. I’m also teaching a brand new math curriculum without manipulatives and student reference books because of an ordering mix-up. Less than two weeks into the year, my reading and writing curricula were scrapped by the new literacy coach in exchange for “lessons on monitoring comprehension” without any more guidance than that. And my new guided reading program and literacy centers have been cancelled for an increased focus on independent reading to help my students prepare for the end of year tests. More »

“Everything Is Going To Be Fine”

The first day of school is adorably confusing for freshmen high school students. One earnest young man had already come to my class twice before stumbling in five minutes late to his actual, scheduled English block, and two young ladies tumbled breathlessly into my room at the end of the day, explaining that they aren’t sure what had happened, but that they had somehow missed English. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” I tell them over and over, “everything is going to be fine.”

When it comes to the sophomores, the first day of school is a day for fronting. Last year, we wrote, read, made meaning, cried, hollered and sweated together, and we forged a beautiful community. This year, they swagger into school, walking bigger, talking bigger. I still catch them, though, sneaking into the seats at the back of my room, seeking comfort and familiarity in the little space we shared so much in last year. They’ll build new classroom communities this year, with different teachers and different classmates, but I hope they’ll still seek me out for a hug between classes or an early morning check-in. Do they know that I need it as much as they do?

Don’t tell the kids, but the first day of school is a day of fronting for me too, of putting up a façade that covers all manner of concerns. How quickly can I learn the names of my 120 new students, and can I do it without any of them feeling the hurt I used to feel when a teacher just didn’t seem to find me memorable? Will these students be kind to each other? Will I be able to push each to their capacity, or more importantly, convince them to push themselves to their capacity? Will I have the energy to constantly modify for each class as they need? I am certain of how I will begin the first week, what I will bring to our class, but beyond that, as the classroom shifts from my space to ours, the uncertainties loom large.  Still, with a smile on my face: “It’s fine, it’s fine; everything is going to be fine.” More »

My Search for My Inner Teacher

Bathroom passYou don’t understand, Miss. I’m peeeeeiiiing,” Samantha says on the third day of school. Her request reminds me of Nora, a student from last year. Both Samantha and Nora chose to loudly request to go to the bathroom as they entered the classroom just the day after I explained to my high school students the process for silently asking to go only after the first 10 minutes of class had passed.

When Nora tried that move last year, I remember being caught without a proper response. I was torn. I did not know who I was as a teacher yet. I wanted to appear nice, but also unyielding.

I wanted Nora to know that I cared about her but also that I was the boss of my math classroom. I wanted to show the whole class that I was reasonable, but I also wanted to show them that the expectations I had put in place for them were real. The semblance of confidence in myself as a teacher that I had mustered together for those first few days of school withered in the face of this seemingly minor challenge.

After about 17 too many seconds of thought, I meekly asked her if she really needed to go right that second. She nodded with conviction, grabbed the bathroom pass from my hands and skipped out the door with a triumphant smile on her face, taking my dignity and authority as a teacher with her. More »

The Benefits of Extra Effort

[Mr. Foteah is the pseudonym of a fourth-year elementary school special education teacher in Queens. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where this post first appeared.]

Nearly 10 months ago, I embarked on my fourth year of teaching. I started in September in my elementary school special education classroom feeling, for the first time, that I had something to prove. To that end, I found myself working longer, harder, and smarter than I have at any point in my career. I reaped the benefits in many areas. I learned a lot. These are some of my most valuable takeaways heading into the summer.

One size can’t/won’t/needn’t ever fit all. There was a decided shift in my philosophy this year that I’m not sure I anticipated. On some level, I had previously believed, “If it works for one, it should work for all.” This evolved to, “If it works for one, what about everyone else?”

I made a much more concerted effort to differentiate process, product and most importantly, expectations. Because of this, students were, much more frequently than in my previous classes, able to work at their own paces, on their own levels, without fear of embarrassment and with the satisfaction of being able to do well. More »

It Won’t Be Long Now

[Mr. Foteah is the pseudonym of a fourth-year elementary school special education teacher in Queens. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where this post first appeared.]

It won’t be long now before the records are complete, the rooms cleaned, next year’s rosters distributed.

It won’t be long now before the last week of school, the last “Good morning!”, the last lunch, the last high-five, the last homework assignment.

It won’t be long now before the chairs are placed on the desks for the final time, the lights shut, the door closed, the goodbyes said, the tears shed.

And then, you know it won’t be long before we’re enjoying our summer break – maybe on the beach, maybe on the couch, maybe in a class – and the gnawing question, “What’s that kid up to right about now?” creeps into our heads.

It won’t be long before we shake loose the memories of anguish, unfairness, and difficulty our students dealt with and instead recall and revel in the memories of their greatest triumphs. No matter the individual’s adversity, surely we can reflect that every student grew in some way.

It won’t be long before we start saying, “I’m not ready to go back!” It won’t be long before there’s just one week left in the summer, one last late wake-up, one last barbecue, one last day available for anything we want.

No, it won’t be long before we’re back at it, new charges before us, eager for our ears, wanting for our words, hoping for our help. It won’t be long, indeed, before a new class comes to us, ready to learn, ready to prove, ready to show, ready to work.

And it won’t be long before we’re ready to go back and do a better job, because we commit to that every year and because we know we can always serve our students more effectively.

No, it won’t be long now.

Test Prep Season

Scantron[Mr. Foteah is the pseudonym of a fourth-year elementary school special education teacher in Queens. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where a version of this post first appeared.]

As my third graders prepare to take the state tests, I imagine they’re thinking something like this:

I used to love school. I used to skip there every morning after breakfast. I used to run as fast as I could to get to my classroom (except when an adult was in the hall – then I walked as fast as I could).

I used to wait outside the classroom reading a book or finishing homework. When the teacher opened the door, he used to have a big smile on his face, brighter than the sun. He used to say, “Come in and let’s learn together today!” I used to smile back and say, “Good morning!” knowing I was going to have a wonderful day with my wonderful teacher in my wonderful class at my wonderful school.

I don’t love school anymore. I don’t think I even like it anymore, to tell you the truth. I don’t skip there anymore (but sometimes I think of skipping it altogether). I don’t run to my room (but sometimes I want to run away). More »

A Different Kind of Turnaround

New Teacher Diaries contributor Mr. Foteah writes that a positive change in his attitude toward a difficult student quickly resulted in a positive change in the student’s attitude in the classroom.

I thought about the majority of my interactions with this student and realized just how negative they were. So, I’ve gone in completely the other direction with this guy and have turned on the happy, bubbly positiveness.

Every day when he walks in, I tell him how thrilled I am to see him, saying things like, “I am SO happy to see you!” I always make sure to give him a high-five or fist-bump when he comes in. (Originally, I thought I might choke on the words. Now, I am genuinely excited for him and his Angry Birds hat to walk in each morning). In exchange he might give me a salute or a, “Yeah!” He comes in now and gets right down to business. Instead of being among the last to unpack, he is among the first.

In one week, he has gone from frequently being angry to frequently being happy. He is more invested in his work and more receptive to what I say. He seems to be focusing more, and I’ve noticed him looking to me in times of distress, finally understanding that I care and want to help him.

To Catch a Plagiarist

plagiarism

Pirillo & Fitz

[Editor's note: Señorita in the City is the pseudonym of a fifth-year teacher in a high school in Manhattan. She blogs at senoritainthecity.com where a version of this post first appeared.]

Recently I found myself identifying with these words spoken by Liam Neeson’s character in the movie “Taken”: “What I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills that I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.”

Now, my teaching career is not yet “very long,” but I have honed some particular skills during my years in the classroom. Spotting plagiarism is one of them. More »

Blessings in Disguise

[Editor's note: Miss Endurance is the pseudonym of a fourth-year teacher in an elementary school on Staten Island.]

It’s never a good sign when your principal calls during summer vacation.

In the summer of 2010 my world was turned upside down with seven words: “I have to move you to kindergarten.” Here I was, with just two years of teaching under my belt (teaching fourth and fifth grade), being forced to move to the “dungeon” (which is how the upper-grade teachers lovingly referred to the kindergarten floor). I panicked — I didn’t know the first thing about teaching four- and five-year-olds! But I really had no idea that a year later I’d be looking back on my kindergarten experience with fondness and a sense of accomplishment.

I felt ill-equipped for the job. I never considered myself a very patient person, and the idea of having to deal with things like “Johnny took my pencil!” and “I want my mommy!” made me break out into hives. I’m artistically challenged, and I dreaded kindergarten art projects. My biggest fear was selling my students short — it wasn’t their fault they had a newbie teacher.

On the first day of school the little ones looked about as scared as I was. I had done my best to prepare myself — I learned circle songs and absorbed as much as I could from the veteran teachers on the grade. Nevertheless, feelings of inadequacy haunted me every day.

Then, slowly but surely, I started to get into the swing of things. More »

Brainstorming and Re-imagining

[Editor's note: Ms. Flecha is the pseudonym of a fifth-year elementary school ESL teacher in Queens. She blogs at My Life Untranslated, where a version of this post first appeared.]

Few things are better than a fresh start. To come at something with new eyes, new lessons learned, and a chance to do things differently than before — it’s reinvigorating. And teachers get one every September: a chance to re-imagine everything from how you teach to how you decorate your classroom. The opportunities can be endless, if you look at the things you hope to do differently with an open mind. Not many professions offer that. More »

‘Twas the Eve of the School Year

[Editor's note: Mr. Foteah is a teacher in an elementary school in Queens now in his fourth year. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where this post originally appeared.]

Twas the eve of the school year, and all through the town,
No teacher was sleeping, (sitting up or laying down).
They’d prepared their classrooms, so nicely, with care
Anticipating that the students soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of learning danced in their heads.
They thought ‘fore they slumbered, “How will it be?
Will my teacher be nice? Will my teacher like me?”

Next morning came ‘round, and there rose such a clatter
Kids sprung from their beds: school was here, all that matters.
Away to the bus they ran like a flash,
The walkers didn’t walk, but rather, they dashed.

The sun burning sharp on the glimmering playground
Made children squint looking for friends to be found.
When, what to their wondering eyes should appear,
But a group of old classmates, and their teacher this year. More »

Dear Me (On the Eve of My First Year Teaching)

[Editor's note: Mr. Foteah is a teacher in an elementary school in Queens going into his fourth year. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where this post originally appeared.]

I’ve noticed several posts recently in which people are writing letters to their first-year teacher selves. I thought I’d do the same.


Dear Me (On the Eve of My First Year Teaching),

Well, this is it. This is truly it. Two years ago you finished college with a degree that turned out to be useless, and now, after two years of graduate school in a totally different field – elementary education – they say you’re qualified to be a teacher. And you think you’re qualified to be a teacher.

Well, maybe you are. After all, you have a unique way with children, you can relate to them, you get where they’re coming from because you haven’t lost sight of what it’s like to be a child. But you won’t be dealing with issues like you experienced growing up. Oh sure, your students will experience family and pet deaths, the maddening powerlessness of being caught up in a parental argument, the frustration of struggling in school. They’ll come to you for help, and you will be able to empathize with these things.

But how are you going to deal with the kids who have only one parent and several siblings that they care for at the age of 10? The kid who comes in late every Thursday because he is helping his mom clean until 2 am that morning? The kid with the dad who sees you as a barrier to his child’s success just because you recommend continuation of services? The kid who threatens personal bodily harm because you indicate your disappointment? The kids who wear the same clothes everyday, not because they like them, but because when you wear hand-me-downs exclusively, your choices are limited?

How are you going to deal with all that? (Or any of the other stuff I didn’t even mention?) More »

Strengthening the School Community

New Teacher Diaries contributor Nick James writes about how his wish for a school-branded necktie led to a “School Culture Initiative,” which established new school colors, a mascot, and a logo. School t-shirts were distributed to students and faculty, and the initiative culminated in a pep rally that was “the first time in our school’s history that the entire school was in one place.”

After teaching for a couple of years, and especially since my high school glory days, my perspective on many things in education have changed substantially. Two years into my current position it struck me that the symbols, mascots, colors and various other school spirit pieces are incredibly important for many students and teachers to feel as though they are part of something larger — a community. Hopefully our rebranding is just the beginning of a major shift in the way our students view their school and school community. Hopefully the momentum that’s been started carries us into the next major stage in our school’s history.

When I Retire

[Editor's note: Mr. Foteah is a third-year teacher in an elementary school in Queens. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where this post originally appeared.]

I recently wrote about how having friends at work was never a priority. However, the fact of the matter is I have made some close ones — people I really respect and enjoy being around. That makes work pleasant, as we’re all dealing with similar challenges together, instead of battling alone. Of course, it makes you want to go to work everyday, knowing that you’re going to a place where you are liked and like the people around you.

Now, I’ve heard anecdotes recently from a variety of schools about colleagues not being so supportive of each other, saying nasty things behind others’ backs and the like. I hope no one is doing this to me, and if any of my colleagues have any kind of issue with me, that they can bring it to my attention and we can work it out.

Like everyone else, I want to be recognized for my positive attributes, and I want those to be my hallmarks and form my reputation. More »

Look in the Mirror, You Might Like What You See

[Editor's note: Mr. Foteah is a third-year teacher in an elementary school in Queens. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where this post originally appeared.]

Recently, I took the opportunity to do something I’ve never done before. I brought out the students’ writing folders, with all their published pieces from the school year. I called their attention to their non-fiction writing, and I asked them to pick the one they thought next year’s teacher should see. This forced some serious consideration and observation. Students were, maybe for the first time, attending to a tangible representation of how their work has evolved for the better since September. They recalled each book, and I was amazed at their ability to read them almost perfectly.

Most pleasant for all of us, especially me, was the way they reacted when they reached the very backs of their folders. There, they could see a writing sample from the very first day of school, replete with summer rust and lacking many conventions. The simplest words that they take for granted now were misspelled. People were drawn as sticks, some with legs coming out of their heads. For some students, a single letter represented a word. For others, pictures did all the storytelling. They could not believe the difference between September and June. More »