Mississippi Teacher Corps

Thursday, November 23, 2006

"You can back out of it"

Almost all the schools around here had the whole week off for Thanksgiving, but mine was still in session on Monday and Tuesday (though I can't complain because we had a whole week off in October, when everyone really needed it). I've been going through a rough time the past few days and have been feeling very down for personal reasons completely unrelated to anything at my school. I called in sick on Monday because I couldn't pull myself together enough to face a day of school, and returned on Tuesday out of a sense of obligation but still feeling very upset. During first period, my planning period, I was talking to the guidance counselor about some of my problem students, and just before I left her office, she asked me if I was OK. I shook my head. In typical guidance-counselor fashion, she started to empathize with what she assumed was the problem. "I know the first year is hard. My first year, when I was at that school with the fourth grade boys, was the toughest year for me. And it's hard for you especially when this is a different culture, and this is such a rough group of kids that you have. You know, middle school is the toughest age group of all, it really is. And in this school, you don't have supportive parents, and these kids are really rough, and we don't have the support of the district- ahem, I didn't say that but you must have noticed it by now- and it's just a really hard place for you to come into. And I know that you committed two years, but listen to me, you can back out of it!"
As soon as she said those words, I snapped out of my nodding-and-agreeing mode and immediately responded, "I don't want to. I want to be here." (On a side note, I've been vaguely considering the possibility of switching school districts next year, but I am far from certain that I will even try, and I will be in the Delta, regardless). She seemed almost surprised to hear such a strong statement and began to pep-talk me about how I couldn't let the kids get to me. At that point, I mentioned that right then, I was feeling distressed for personal reasons, not because of the school or the kids. That got her off the subject of our school's troubles, but it made me reflect on the sadness of the interaction that had just taken place. With the exception of a couple of teachers, the guidance counselor probably understands where I'm coming from, and why I'm teaching at our school, better than anyone else in the school. I'm sure she's aware that my school is, by Delta standards, one of the better schools. And yet she reacted to my sadness that day by encouraging me to take advantage of the escape hatch! I'm not sure whether she was suggesting I quit after the end of the year or that I commit the exponentially worse act of quitting mid-year, but either way, it makes me sad to know that such an influential person at my school has so little faith in what the school is doing for these kids that she would actually suggest that I bail. It's not just the guidance counselor, either. More and more, I'm seeing signs that the other adults in the school have given up on the kids, and that makes me feel even more strongly that I need to be there and care about them. A few days ago, I was asking another teacher if I could use some textbooks for my class, and she responded, "Sure, take 'em all, I'm not even gonna bother trying to get my kids to use them because doesn't matter what I do, none of these kids do a darned thing in class any more anyway so it doesn't even matter what I try and teach." The same teacher reacted to my distressed state on Tuesday by assuming, just as the guidance counselor did, that I was upset about school, and commented, "So, teaching wasn't what you thought it would be, huh?" I'm starting to wonder how many of the people at my school assume that I won't last. Even though I frequently become frustrated with the school, my students, and the way that my own teaching often seems not to reach my students, I still maintain a hope that I will be able to make some small difference in the life of one of those kids. Though I don't seem to be helping the majority of my kids, especially given how many are failing my class right now and not making the minimal efforts needed to find out what work they are missing and make it up, there are the small moments that count. The girl who told me that she likes me because I'm different from her other teachers and I do cool demonstrations, the kid who's mom told me that I'm his favorite teacher, the girl who didn't do well in school and didn't focus on her work before this year but is making 100% in my class? They're reason enough to stick around here.
Now playing: Gillian Welch- Wayside/Back in Time

Friday, November 17, 2006

Required I blog: two weeks of consequences

In mid-October, I started cracking down on infractions of my rules relentlessly and issuing out lots of consequences. I did this in part to require the MTC assignment that we pick one class, enforce every one of our consequences for two weeks, and blog about the results. I also did this because I wanted to start the second nine weeks strong by cleaning up my discipline problems, so I more or less attempted to enforce all of my rules in all of my classes for as long as I could. I'll be the first one to admit it: I failed. I did a much better job of cracking down on infractions, but I won't claim that I gave consequences for every single one. I tried, but there are times when I just get TIRED! Sometimes, it's easier for me to just keep talking to my class instead of interrupting myself to warn the kid who made a quick comment to his neighbor; there are only so many times I can jump on those little things in any given day before I start losing my focus.

My improved enforcement of consequences did not have the intended results. It may have helped to get some kids in line, but where I saw the largest effect of my actions actually had nothing to do with my kids or their behavior. My attempts at being stricter had the unanticipated, unintended consequence of rustling the feathers of my administration. Sometimes, I question whether it's really worth it for me to keep cracking down on infractions. My first consequence (after a warning) is a homework assignment to copy words and their definitions from the glossary of the book (10 words for each checkmark on the board denoting an infraction). Since at least 90% of my students never do the copying assignment, I almost inevitably go to my next consequence: detention. This is what has landed me in some hot water. Every time I give a detention, I have to write the student's name and infraction on a form and submit it to the principal for approval, wait a few days for it to come back, fill out 2 copies of another form, get the student to sign one copy (the worst part of all- I have to take class time to do this, and even though I am authorized to add more days to detention if the kid doesn't sign the form, I still have to answer lots of, "Gah-lee! What'd I do? When did I do that? That wasn't me! When do I gotta go to detention? How many days I got?" and by the way, at least several of these questions could easily be answered just by reading the slip), give the OTHER copy to the student to take home, and give the signed copy and approval form back to the office, by which I mean hand it to the cranky, bitter secretary who's in charge of discipline. It's lots of paperwork and time for me, the secretary is annoyed that I give her so many detention forms, and the principal called me in for a meeting to discuss discipline. The principal is concerned that I'm writing so many detentions in the second nine weeks, and is also concerned that I wrote so many office referrals last nine weeks (by the way, according to her records, I wrote 46 over the 9 weeks- that's an average of one per day, and I don't consider that excessive, especially given that I didn't write kids up every time I wanted to). This is really where the understanding breaks down between me and the other adults at my school: throughout summer school and TEAM, just about everyone I encountered advised me that I would be a teacher that would need to use lots of consequences, since I'm gentle and soft-spoken and physically unintimidating. This makes a lot of sense to me, and to be honest, I'd rather give a kid a detention calmly and with minimal words exchanged than yell at the kid to shut up until she did. My approach is precisely the opposite of that used by many other teachers at the school, who bark at the students and walk around swinging their paddles in a menacing manner. However, it seems that my administration and fellow teachers see the use of hard consequences as a sign of weakness and poor management. My principal has more or less said that I should get the kids back in line without using an official consequence because I should be able to look at them or say something to them that makes them do what they are supposed to be doing. To me, this is a difference in style, and giving a consequence rather than scaring a student into obedience is not a sign of weakness. And let's be honest: even if I tried harder to get students to listen by scaring them, a petite 22 year old from the North just doesn't have the same kind of power as the other teachers at the school. Try as I may, I just can't communicate these sentiments to my principal in a way that makes her see my point of view. Furthermore, she has told me several times that I need to start paddling. The other teachers sometimes tell me the same thing. I want to hit the next person who says that. I told the principal at the beginning of the year that I didn't intend to paddle, and when she asked me more about it, and asked if I'd ever feel comfortable paddling, I explained that I am against it, and, when pressed, gave some of my reasons for feeling this way. My principal said that was fine and she respected my decision. Shouldn't that have been the end of the discussion? Why am I getting pushed on the issue when she'd accepted my statement before?

Also, the school says that they will give one day of ISD to any student who fails to report to detention on the assigned day, but given the number of kids I see in the detention room every day compared to the number that should be there, it doesn't seem like the school is following through on this rule.

So, in summary, negative effects of sticking to my rules more strictly: conflicts with the administration, pissed-off secretary, grumpy students, lots of paper work for me, mental tiredness and approaching burn-out for me. I need to wait longer to see if the positive effects outweigh all this, but right now, I have my doubts.

Now playing- Grateful Dead- Ripple

Friday, November 10, 2006

Required blog: classroom management

My original classroom management plan went a little like this. Expectations: no gum; keep arms, legs, and objects to yourself; raise your hand to speak and listen while others are speaking; be prepared; respect others. Rewards: verbal praise, high five or high ten, cookies for the class, letter home, stickers, star student award. Consequence latter: warning, detention, office referral. Other consequences: move seat, phone call home, loss of priveleges, pop quiz for the class. I've stuck to it, mostly, with some changes.
I'm still trying to work out a good warning system. A few weeks into school, I started writing names on the board as warnings, and placing checks next to names to indicate detention. It helped me keep track of everything, it made it clear to the students that they were being warned, and it meant that I didn't have to interrupt myself to verbally warn a kid. I like this system, but I've been trying to move more from using the board to using the overhead projector, which means that I have to walk around to write names on the board and lose time and focus. About a month into school, I realized that I was letting too many minor things go because I couldn't issue detentions to half the class every day. I added an intermediate consequence between a warning and a detention: copying definitions out of the back of the book for homework. Ten words for every check next to your name, double the number of words if you hand it in a day late, detention if you still don't turn it in, and it's your responsibility to remember to give me thte words. I'm thinking about abolishing this consequence, since so few kids do the assignment. My principal actually suggested that I skip straight to detention because of the lag time involved: I have to submit approval forms to the principal every time I write a detention, then fill out two copies of a detention form, get the kid to sign one copy (which sucks because there is no good way to do it quickly without the inevitable, "What I do? That wasn't me! How many days I gotta go? What day I gotta go?" and my school does not have enough passing time that I can just ask the kids to stay after class and take care of it all right then) and give the other copy to the kid, send the whole thing back to the office (and possibly get evil looks from the secretary) several days before the detention gets issued. Bottom line: lots of paperwork, lots of delay. I'm giving out detentions like crazy but really wish I could figure out something else to do because of all the paperwork involved.
I had some clear ideas about how I would like the procedures in my class to work, many of which didn't work because of the weird half-class-half-lab setup of my room. I recently rearranged the room so that kids are sort of sitting in rows (albeit facing sideways and cornered on one side of the room), which makes it easier to enforce ideals I had like feet on the ground, bags under your chair. A recent procedure that I instituted that's revolutionized the start of class is a 6 minute time limit on the bell-ringer from the time the bell rings. In other words, 6 minutes to get your binder, sharpen your pencil (these were huge time-wasters), settle down, write the question and answer. After 6 minutes, I stamp the ones that are done, and I count up the number of stamps each kid has at the end of the week. The first day, almost no kids finished in some of my periods, but now they are almost all doing it.
Office referrals are the hot topic of the moment for me, since my principal has recently expressed concern about the number of detentions and referrals I write. At my school, teachers are supposed to write an office referral, not send the student out, and wait for the office to call the student down (which may take hours or days), unless the student is "an immediate threat to the learning environment". With almost all of my office referrals, I end up sending the kid out because if I could conduct class with the kid in my room, I wouldn't need to be writing an office referrral in the first place. I've been frustrated with how little the administration has done lately with the kids I've sent to the office: reprimand them, paddle them, and send them back to my class the next day, and have consequently been writing up the same kids over and over again. I tried to discuss this with my principal but didn't find the conversation particularly fruitful. We are allowed to send students to the guidance counselor for behavior issues, which I may start doing more if the administrators aren't doling out adequate consequences. I've also been sending students into the hall and making them wait to talk to me. More often than not, I'll just hand the student an office referral and say, "Go," but I'll sometimes step out and have a talk with them about their behavior and letting them back in the room on the condition that they stop whatever it was they were doing. The biggest problem I have with my consequences is that I have no serious consequence that is immediate, other than office referrals.
I've added a reward that I really like. It's very simple and informal: a student does well in class one day, I call the kid back as the rest of the class is leaving, I give the kid a piece of candy. This one is really fun because I call the kid back in a serious tone, see the kid some back with a really concerned look, ask me, "Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket, am I in trouble?" and then get to smile at the kid and say, "No, I just wanted to tell you that you did really well in class today. Here's a piece of candy. Can you do that again tomorrow?" Letters home are similarly fun.
I've been lazy on my classroom reward system. I have a line drawn on my board with a sad face on one end and a happy face on the other, and have a construction paper cut-out of a car for each period. Good behavior moves the car forward and bad behavior moves it backward. Hit the sad face, I give the class a pop quiz on behavior expectations, hit the happy face and I bake cookies for the class. Part of the difficulty with this is that I haven't figured out consistent increments or anything of the sort, so it's all fairly arbitrary whether I move the car and how much I move it, and I've been largely ignoring the cars. Third period has never really moved past the sad face, and no one has earned cookies yet, although sixth period has been lingering close to the happy face for quite some time. I'm wondering if I should figure out a more consistent system for moving the cars or if I should just focus my time and energy on other things.