Mississippi Teacher Corps

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The First Week of School: last year vs. this year

I was asked how the first week of school last year compared to the first week of school this year. In short, they were nothing alike. I'll elaborate a little bit.

As a whole, the first week of school this year was much, much easier than the first week last year. The one exception I’ll make to this general assessment is that I had much worse anxiety preceding the first week this year. Having taught at my school for a year, I’d experienced the full spectrum of horrible things that can happen to teachers who are struggling to keep their heads above water: the vandalism, the thrown objects, the cursing, the defiant students, the utter chaos that described most of my “class” periods by the end of the year. Before school started this year, I would think about last year and never think of the happy things that happened, but recall instead all the awful experiences I had, and would constantly dread having to go back to my school and maybe face all of that again. I wanted nothing more than to go back home and forget about my school, and if I weren’t so stubborn, I probably would have. Last year, I was (very) nervous before school started, but a lot more optimistic.

Last year, when school started, I barely knew which way was up. I think back to that week now and wonder how I survived it: due to a problem with the previous owners of the house I was renting, I was homeless for the first week of school. I spent my nights crashing on an air mattress in the corner of the room of a second-year MTC teacher who was kind enough to take me in until I could move into my house. I would show up at school completely scattered, not sure whether what I needed was in my car, in my classroom, at my landlord’s house, or at my friend’s house where I was staying in the meantime. In the evenings, I would go to my new house (which I still couldn’t move into) and work on painting the walls and cleaning out the two years of dust that had accumulated in the previous owners’ tenure. At school, it took me several months to figure out that I could take an overhead projector from the library to use in my classroom. I remember being so discombobulated one day that I couldn’t even find a pen or pencil to write with and had to borrow one from a student. I hadn’t had enough time in my classroom to clean out the random items left behind by previous teachers. Seriously, how did I survive that week? This year, I came in and had things organized. I had my classroom set up, had my materials in place, and knew exactly what I was doing every day for the first week. I even had it all together enough to do a crazy little demonstration that involved soaking a five dollar bill in acetone and setting it on fire. I think that part of why I’ve had an easier time with the students so far this year is because they could sense that I was more confident and organized, and knew where I was going.

As I’ve told several people already, I’m really glad that I came back to my school for a second year rather than switching districts, even though I had such a difficult time last year. Before the students even showed up, I noticed that the other teachers were much warmer and friendlier to me, unlike last year, when I felt that they were all looking at me and thinking, “Who the heck is this weird little girl from up North, and why does she have all these crazy ideas?” I automatically gained a lot of respect from teachers and students just by showing up for a second year when other teachers left, and I could tell the difference as soon as students showed up. While none of my students this year were at the school last year (aside from the ones who failed), they had some sense that I’d been around and questioned me a lot less. During the first week of school last year, I can’t count how many times I was asked, “Are you 16 years old? I thought you were a student!” ‘Have you taught before?” “Do you speak Spanish/Chinese/Japanese/insert other random language resulting from misperception of my race.” This year, I haven’t had any of that (aside from a few of the kids asking me if I speak Spanish, etc., but I’ve even had less of that). Instead, kids ask me how many years I’ve been at the school, and sometimes seem surprised that this is only my second year. I have had one student comment that I look 18 or 19 years old, but no one has asked my age. They ask me if the Indian student at my school is my daughter.

It’s been nice to return to school this year and see so many of my former students, all the little ones who shot up half a foot in height over the summer. I love walking down the halls and having these kids recognize and greet me, and a few have even given me hugs. Last year, no one knew who I was at the beginning of the school year, and I felt out of place.

It’s hard for me to remember at exactly what point last year I started feeling that my classroom management sucked, and I know that it didn’t set in until long after the first week of school, but I remember having some smaller problems that early on; I remember becoming frustrated with my third period class on the very first class period I had with them because they would not stop blurting out, and I ended up threatening detention for the next person who interrupted me, and having to actually back that up by giving out detentions to kids whose names I hadn’t even learned yet. I’m sure I was already sending kids to the office, too. This year, I’m proud to say, I haven’t had to deal with any of that. When students aren’t doing what they are supposed to, I call them on it, and for the most part, they listen and I don’t even need to follow through with a “hard” consequence. In two weeks, I’ve given two writing assignments, one detention (to a kid who is taking my class for the second time and had already failed to correct his behavior after I gave him a writing assignment; he’s been doing beautifully ever since he served detention that day), and no office referrals. My classroom is silent when I need it to be, and when we do labs and group work, the noise level is reasonable and the students are on task. Of course, the kids will challenge me more as the year goes on, but I remember having kids who wouldn’t shut up during the first quiz I gave last year (which was probably in the first week of school), and I’ve had no problems like that yet.

What made the difference in my classroom? I think there are a lot of factors. For one, I have a new classroom where I can seat students in rows, supervise them at all times, have an enforceable seating chart, pass out papers in a matter of seconds, and move around the room without dodging ill-placed tables. I automatically earned more respect by coming back to the school for a second year. After a year of teaching, I am more comfortable in my role, and am better at putting authority into my voice. I’ve realized that instead of telling a student that he has a warning and then moving on to consequences if he doesn’t start behaving, I need to have a conversation with a student to explain why his behavior was a problem and, most importantly, exactly what I want him to do instead. Maybe high school students don’t need that, but middle school kids do. Unlike last year, when many of the “procedures” I’d come up with before school started were bunk because of things like my school’s 2 minute passing time, my classroom’s resemblance to an obstacle course, and so forth, this year, I knew exactly what routines I wanted my students to follow. Last year, I had a lot of trial-and-error with things like passing out notebooks at the beginning of class and sharpening pencils, and the fact that I tried something, realized it failed, and then had to introduce a new way of doing something meant that I was constantly becoming frustrated when a new routine caused confusion. This year, we spent the first few days of school doing nothing but discussing and doing activities on procedures, rules, rewards, and consequences. It was boring as all heck, but it was worth it because now, my students come in, take their notebooks from the crate, and start the do-now with no prompting from me (except with a few of the rowdier ones who have to be “reminded” to start their work once they get to class). I never have more than one student up at a time, unless we are doing a lab. If school had been this tame last year, I wouldn’t have spent most of the year wanting to tear my hair out.

Now Playing: Joel Mabus- Gerald and Jerald Lee


Post a Comment

<< Home