As the year ends, I’m looking toward next fall.

How do I do a better job balancing how to meet my students where they are and challenging them to do better?

I feel like I know most of my failings: I’m not as funny as I think I am; I’m too slow at getting things graded, because procrastination has always been my thing; I give too many chances; sometimes my attempts to help misfire; sometimes I forget to think before I speak; sometimes I just get cranky.

I think my strengths all relate to building good relationships with many of my students. Kids need to know someone believes in them; they need someone to believe in them. They also need someone to push them to try harder, get better, get ready for life. I’d like to think I do that, but I’m not really sure. I know I’m not the person students remember as “getting them ready for college”. I want to meet them where they are and help them get better. I want to encourage them to make smart choices. I want them to go on and become successful by their own measure.

Many of my former students have gone on to become great adults. My measure for success is whether or not they are taking care of their children, their bills, themselves. I love running into some of them around town. I get to see kids who were genuine jackasses in class as real adults who are taking care of themselves and their lives. I get to see kids who barely graduated working in job and careers that fit them incredibly well. I get to see kids who had bump after bump after poor decision bump figure themselves out and redefine success for themselves.

I’ve never really wanted to be anything other than a teacher. I have racked up many failures and I still have some kids who cannot stand me (which, fair) and I have moments that taught me a lot about people, myself, and I have learned from those moments. I just always end the year feeling like I have so much to fix, to do better…so many ways I need to be better.


Commonplace Book Project

GJW is a little confused about how to execute: One piece of information from any class that has helped you figure out what you want to say and how to say it.

It took me a long time to find my voice. It didn’t take me long to lose it again and again. Establishing what I wanted to say to the world and believing that my message would have value came and went like waves in December. More sand and rocks were torn out of the safety walls, leaving me with more holes. All of my notebooks between twenty-two and forty (finished and half-filled) are stacked in three small boxes that I rarely open—all the things I didn’t say still scream at me when I think about opening them up. During this time I also spent ten summers working with the Oregon Writing Project at Eastern as a participant, group leader, and co-director. I learned a lot about writing and myself as a writer during that time, but, again, I lacked confidence in my message and I didn’t really acknowledge the responses I got to one style of writing. I thought I was a poet for awhile. I wanted to write fiction. I still love writing poetry and teaching poetry, but I acknowledge that fiction may not (is not) my thing.

So, where did I find my voice?

One of the last retreats I went to with the OWP was a grant-writing weekend. I wrote about the impact the OWP had on me professionally and personally. I wouldn’t still be a teacher without those summers, without that program. My personal essay got the kind of amazing response I hadn’t been able to really acknowledge or believe in other situations. That’s when I decided to start a blog. Anyone who looks through the history of this sucker can see the fits and false-starts and attempts at redirecting myself. Recently, I decided to talk about what it’s actually like to be a public school teacher right now. I’ve wanted it to be a place where my students could find ideas, more information, examples of some assignments. I want people who are thinking about teaching or about bashing teachers to have a place where they can look and maybe get an idea about how much of ourselves teachers pour into what they do.

So, GJW, did this help at all?

Hanging On

Some years are great. Some years start out well and drift into personal anarchy. Some years start with a multitude of difficulties and you either deal with them successfully or you deal with them all year long. Over time we learn how to deal with all the same problems more efficiently or with the help of medication or you get out and move onto something new.

I’ve learned a lot over twenty-plus years of teaching. I still have a lot to learn.

For the first time ever I took advantage of my personal days to take a long weekend and visit family. I got a chance to see my grandmother in her fancy new digs (a nice little retirement community where she is obviously thriving), the Milwaukie branch of the family (my cousins have cute kids), my folks for a couple of days, my brother and his family (also adorable kids–I am not biased), and my TD family. It was really nice to get a chance to visit with so much of my family. It was great to go for a walk with my dad and the dog. It was nice to have some sit-down time with my mom.

I came back home feeling a lot less stressed out and drained.

I’m on a ten-month contract (as are all public school teachers) and we have negotiated with our districts to have our pay split over twelve months instead of ten. I don’t get paid for Winter Break, Spring Break, or Summer Break even though I still get paychecks. And, I don’t mind the way this is set up or the way it works. I have always felt like I am adequately compensated for the (minimum) six weeks worth of work I put in outside of my contract time. I’m a teacher, because I know my job doesn’t stop at 15:30 or start at 7:30—I actually love planning units, tweaking my notes and assignments, figuring out how to do a better job of making sure my students are solid communicators and critical thinkers. I’m lucky that a decent health plan has long been a part of public school contracts. I don’t take for granted the ways I am compensated.

But no matter what way it is sliced or at what level a teacher works, this job is stressful and draining. I chose English which means I chose essays—essays written by high schoolers; essays written in fifteen minutes; essays written by people who hate school and/or English. Those are some painful essays to read, because the worse the essay is the more time it takes to grade. I can’t just not mark the problems I see; although, some kids only get fifteen versions of the same comment even though they have numerous other problems (don’t want to totally make them cry). I’ve also started building in a second draft that is for points, because the process of rewriting or revising is important.

Maybe if more people took a breath between what they write and what they post (myself included), there would be fewer genuinely stupid or stupidly thoughtless things on social media. Sometimes that I applies to my outside voice in any format.

I plan on teaching for a full forty years. Taking a much needed break when I was at my most stressed out helped me so much. I came back with more patience for the drama, trauma, and bs of my students (and others associated with public schools). I came back feeling like I could breath again. When I really think about the fact that I am able to do something like this once a year, I think about all the people who can’t. A lot of my students’ parents are working their butts off at low-wage jobs just to make ends meet–they don’t have the luxury of taking a long weekend once a year when they really need it. Or the parents who run businesses which means they work insane hours to keep the business going strong and to provide for their children. My job is to provide their children with a skill set that will help them out in the future, one possible outlet for the things in their heads, an understanding of how information is shared/used/misused, and, sometimes, my job is to listen.

I appreciate Winter Break, Spring Break, and Summer Break. I appreciate even the students that cause me the most stress. I like students that have given me every reason to loathe them (through their attitude and actions). I like seeing kids improve. I live for epiphanies. I love it when they realize that everything (and I mean everything) I teach is connected.

I really appreciate having times when I can be a person or dig into becoming a better teacher.

Commonplace Book Project

It’s time for the “What I learned in maths?” prompt for BB and any other seniors who are confused.

My regular answer for “What am I going to use Algebra/Geometry/Calculus for?” is “Because high level math and poetry help create problem-solving pathways in your brain.” Apparently, a few of my seniors are a little tired of that response. So, let’s try a little different answer—I use math when I drive to guesstimate whether or not to slow down depending on traffic and weather. I use math when I guesstimate how much time it will take me to grade papers (first drafts and crappy drafts take 20-30 minutes a piece) or clean my house (a much dreaded task for which I occasionally hire my god-daughter to help). I use math as a fun distraction when I’m totally stressed out or feel the beginnings of a panic attack. As much as I love stories, there is something soothing about math.

There are all the obvious uses for math in life after high school: budgets, taxes, painting rooms, or buying a house.

This is less impressive than the rest. I’d like to blame the loudness of my class, but I get that this can be difficult prompt. I still want my students to do it (suck it up, buttercups!).

Commonplace Book Project

Another example paragraph for my seniors to take a look at. This prompt is “What did you get better at this year?” Most of these prompts are really about self-reflection, so my students can see how much they actually have learned in high school between bouts of trying to stay awake in boring classes, being overwhelmed because of course all the big projects from every class are assigned the same day, and other frustrations.

I have always been very aware that I have lots of room for improvement as a teacher. The nicest comment I heard from administrators during my first “trial by fire” five years was “at least you really know your content area.” As time has passed, two areas of weakness have stayed with me thanks to my desire to always give a second (third, fourteenth, twenty-seventh) chance: grading and classroom management. I try to get better in both of those areas every year and, sometimes, I even succeed. My tough classes now would have been my rockstar classes ten years ago, so I count that as improvement. My seventh period class was functional first semester this year and became significantly less functional when two “catalyst” students transferred in at the semester; now seventh period is the class where I regularly lose my temper (although it’s in a much kinder way than when I first started teaching), where I regularly want to throttle even the students I like, and where I am sometimes a little too honest about what I think–this is a bit of a problem.

So, what have I improved on this year?

I’ve gotten a little better about getting things graded (but not much faster and putting things into the computer). I’ve gotten better at streamlining my comments for improvement. In most of my classes, I’ve found my inner peace when dealing with the chaos and drama and self-sabatoge and grade-chasing. I’m definitely doing better at giving them examples (even though I don’t expect them to actually write quite as much as I do for the prompts).

More importantly to me, I have managed to keep close the knowledge that what I know about my students is limited to what they show me and this allows me to be more flexible in dealing with them. It also allows me to keep in mind that they are in the process of becoming the people they choose to be and I am just planting seeds.

Mostly, I am looking for quality of response. It would be great to see kids get creative, but it isn’t really going to hurt them if they stay basic and stick with paragraphs responses to the prompts and nothing else. The creativity will probably help some students who don’t necessarily have the quality of response I’d like.

This one was for MK.