Archive for May, 2012

One of those days

The first day back from a holiday break is always a bit unsettled in a school.  Students have to re-adapt to the schedule and routines of the school day after a period of what may have been more relaxed rules at home.  Bedtimes and hours of sleep were probably also in flux during a break, and returning from even a three-day weekend takes some adjustment.

I saw a lot of this when I taught in the middle school last year.  As a new teacher I had hoped my students would come back rested and ready to commence the study of U. S. History.  They weren’t.  What I learned early on was that my students used their time off from school to make themselves even more tired than they were before the break.

So, as school resumed on Tuesday after the Memorial Day weekend, I was ready for a day I knew would present challenges beyond those of a normal day.  I didn’t know how many challenges there would be, but within minutes of the first bell of the day I got a hint.

As I was walking the sidewalk around the bus loop, with children swirling around, a bus driver signaled for me to come to her bus.  One of her riders had been out of control during the trip to school (off meds, it turned out) and she asked me to take charge of him after all the other students had gotten off the bus.  I gently told him I would be “helping” him to his classroom.  I didn’t mention that en route we would be stopping off at the nurse’s office. During our walk, he freely admitted to his bad behaviors.

After escorting the student to the nurse’s office, where thankfully his parents were waiting with the missed medication, I returned to my classroom to discover that three of our students were absent.  We only have five in this special education room, so this was a serious loss of population. Two of the missing come from an adjoining school district which had extended the holiday weekend because they hadn’t used all of their “snow days.”  It was a mild winter here in upstate.  The result was: No school, no buses, no students. The absence of a third student would be explained to us within an hour: she had head lice.

Reports of head lice, while not uncommon in an elementary school, can send panic through the ranks.  Such a report also sent all of us in the room – staff and students – to the nurse’s office for a scalp check. It is standard procedure and it was also my second trip of the day.  We received the good news that we hadn’t caught it.

The rest of the morning went well.  Two students served by five adults will almost always go well.  We found other things to do: re-organizing classroom supplies, making photo-copies, and preparing materials for summer school. Then it was time for lunch, and the gremlins of the first-day-back reappeared.

I was sitting with my students when a nearby table of other kindergarteners lined up with their trays to begin what is usually an orderly exit from the cafeteria.  One young girl was distracted by a friend.  Her tray angled downward, and a mostly full carton of milk slid off.  As the contents emptied I jumped up and picked the carton off the floor.  Just as quickly, I stopped the line of students, pointed out the puddle of milk and asked them to carefully walk around the spill.  They obliged, though each one of them came almost to a halt to stare at the mess.

The ladies who work in the cafeteria noticed the backup and came over.  One went off to fetch a mop and others helped me get the remaining students moving.  We had no sooner cleared the area when, a commotion arose behind us.  I turned around just quickly enough to see a young boy losing his lunch.

He had tried his best to contain the vomit by placing his hands over his mouth.  The spray pattern that resulted would not have been a mystery to a forensic scientist.  Some of it landed in front of a young girl, sitting alone, holding an apple just an inch or so from her mouth. Her face was in shock.  I moved quickly again, trying to usher her to another seat.  “I have peanut allergies!” she protested. This was the reason she was sitting alone.

Again with the help of the cafeteria ladies, this crisis was addressed and we found her a “peanut free” seat at another table.  We didn’t need a child in anaphylactic shock to add to the chaos that was unfolding. No sooner had we moved the young girl from an area of vomit to an area of no vomit (and no peanuts) than another stir came from the area where milk and puke were still in evidence.

The situation was promptly assessed.  A young boy had peed his pants.  He must have been holding it for some time because he was soaked in it and there was a substantial puddle on the floor. Fortunately, our stalwart custodian “B.D.” had already been summoned. He arrived on the scene with several implements of cleaning, and the sight of him could not have been more comforting to me had I myself been in cardiac arrest and he was an E.M.T.

Somehow, the chain of liquid events ceased then, like a multi-car pileup that ends suddenly after the last car crashes in.  Lunch ended a few minutes later. My students were ushered out of the cafeteria and back to our room.  Though the remaining hours of the day went well, all of us who worked in the room were on edge waiting for the next event.

The next day, Wednesday, went well and by Thursday all of our students were present and accounted for.  Our lice victim did scratch her head from time to time, as I had done on Tuesday, when the events of a first day back from break unfolded and I knew it was going to be one of those days.

A calmer cafeteria on Thursday. The table with the red cloth on it was the scene of so many things. My students’ table is just to the right.

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Students, teachers, staff, and bus drivers, were all ready for this Memorial Day weekend.  Breaks in the school calendar seem to come at just the right time.

We’ve been having some warm weather, almost summer-like, and the landscape in this part of New York seems to change daily.  Hillsides and pastures have turned green, farmers are plowing and planting their fields, the first cuttings of hay have started (early, it seems to me) and the phenomenon of spring fever is racing through the school infecting everyone.

When we all return on Tuesday there will be less than twenty days left in the school year, and I know from experience that no other part of the year passes so quickly.

A lot happens in a school year, and it is especially noticeable in an elementary school serving grades kindergarten through two.  The students in my room turned six this year, and when you consider that they have been alive for about 72 months, the ten months they spend in kindergarten are a significant portion of their lives. Kindergarteners change a lot from September to June.

The first days of school in September are scary to most 5 year-olds.  They each wear a small tag around their neck announcing their name and the name of their teacher.  Both are important because, in the first week of school, some of them come off the bus in tears, unable to speak. The name tags help you get them to where they belong.

By now, in late May, these young students walk through the school with an air of confidence.  From sometimes crying, often cowering, mostly bewildered young children, they have grown emotionally, intellectually and physically. They have their circles of friends, know the school staff by name, and are brave enough to risk giving me a high-five when we pass in the hallways.

I suppose a year of experience does that to all of us, though not always as much as it does to a kindergartener.

Many years ago, I posed an odd question to a good friend who I knew would be knowledgeable in such things.  I asked him, “How far does the earth travel in its orbit around the sun?” Peter is someone who can identify clouds and constellations, is a consummate researcher, and loves finding answers to questions. I knew he would come up with one. He got back to me a day later via email.

The earth moves around the sun at a speed of 18.5 miles per second, or 66,490 miles per hour. In a year you will travel 582,851,340 miles. Enjoy the trip!

I can’t attest to the accuracy of his math but given the numbers, he could be off by twenty percent and it would still be astounding.

And that’s the way I see each year that we live, and each school year that my students go through.  They may think nothing is happening, but oh it is!  Or, they may think a lot is happening, and they have no idea how much.  It’s is just a trip around the sun, or a year in kindergarten, first or second grade. It is also enough time for so much to happen.

For the students I see each day, it might be time enough to learn the alphabet, learn to read, understand our base ten counting system, find their way to the bathroom, cafeteria, nurse’s office or gym. It is time enough to make new friends, get into quarrels, and solve differences.  Thankfully, the trip is also long enough to high-five Mr. H in the hallway.

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In my last post I talked about three schools I interviewed with in New York City.  One of them, Bronx Arena High School, called me back and asked me to teach a demonstration lesson before a group of students and school staff.  The lesson had to be five to ten minutes in length.  That’s not a lot of time to demonstrate teaching skills, but it can be done.

I’ve taught other demonstration lessons before, in my search for a teaching job.  I find that I am far less nervous about them than the formal interviews. Interviews can be filled with chances to slip up.  The questions usually fall into two categories: tell us about yourself, and tell us what you know about theories of teaching.

If I am asked to describe a challenge I have faced and overcome in life, my first reaction might be, “Just one?”  The theoretical questions require more thought.  Imagine being asked, “Can you describe your pedagogical approach to standardized and summative assessments in a blended classroom as they relate to instructional best practices?”  It makes me want to retreat to the first question and say, “Did I tell you about the time…”

In the interview I’m never sure what questions will be asked.  In a teaching demonstration I know exactly where I want to go and how I plan to get there. If my allotted time is ten minutes, then the trip will have to be short, but no less on target.

So Monday afternoon I walked into Bronx Arena High School with my mini-lesson firmly laid out.  Along with the school’s administrators, school social worker, and a couple of faculty members, there were nine students in the room.  In an interesting twist, two applicants for other teaching positions were also present.

The lesson I prepared I’ve taught before, though never in ten minutes.  It is an analysis of a single sentence in the Declaration of Independence, a sentence I believe sums up the purpose for our country’s existence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

After a brief discussion of why the declaration was written, I asked the students to define words like self-evident and unalienable.  Then, I asked them to define Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.  I like this lesson because while the first two words are easily understood and articulated, the personal nature of happiness and the pursuit thereof gets a bit tricky.

In the last minutes of my lesson I asked all in the room (including the school staff) to write down their answer to the question:  What happiness do you want to pursue?  They went right to the task, and I was excited to hear their answers.  I’ve asked the question before, and you can tell a lot about your students from the answers they give.

Many of them wrote of finishing their high school education.  Some wanted to go onto college. They frequently mentioned earning a good salary, with one young woman saying she needed a good income to pay for her wedding.  Even if money can’t buy happiness, happiness is often a lot easier to pursue if you have the means.

One young man wanted to start a business.  I had my own business for many years (I sold it in 2008 when I returned to graduate school) and it did bring me a great deal of happiness. Being a business owner is very rewarding  but, as I cautioned the young man, it takes a lot of work and some weeks there is no guarantee of a paycheck.

As I was wrapping up the discussion, I told of my own pursuit of happiness and how it has changed over the years.  Furthering my education has been a happiness I’ve pursued more than once.  I’ve also given chase to having a family, serving in elected office, and buying a home.

Lately I’ve been pursuing a teaching job, and in the process, pursuing happiness.  I’ve worked in education for three years, one in my own classroom, and I know that it makes me happy.  Still it would be hard to say in an interview, “You have to give me this job! It is my unalienable right!”

In America, we are given life and liberty at the moment we are born. As Jefferson saw it, these rights were unalienable. Also inseparable is our right to pursue happiness.  The actual happiness, as I see it, is something you have to work for.

Pursuing Happiness: Self Portrait (2012) It took me days to get this shot just right!

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I am home this morning from two job interviews in New York City.  I’ve interviewed three times in Gotham in the last six days.  The schools I visited are partners with New Visions for Public Schools. They are trying to turnaround many urban schools which have inadequately served minority students.  It’s a tough job, but they are succeeding at.

Job interviews are always stressful, especially those you have to travel to, and more especially those that are in settings far different from the one I work in now.  My current school is in a very rural area of upstate New York. In geographic area, it is the second largest school district in the state.  Each day, our schools buses travel rural roads and county highways, up and down mountains, past farms and woodlands.  If I were to drive the equivalent of their combined, daily miles I could be in Tucson, Arizona.

My home in upstate is far enough removed from everything that when I told friends I had several teaching interviews in “the city,” more than one of them thought I was talking about Albany.  But it was “THE CITY” which I travelled to, the one with a physical and human geography so different from my home.

My home geography: a view along a schoool bus route

Two of my interviews were in the Bronx, and during one interview Edward Tom, the principal, listed the challenges his school faces and meets every day.  His closing statement came out like thunder.  “The poorest Congressional district in the country!  Right here!  You’re sitting in it!”

But his school, Bronx Center for Science and Math, was a 90-90-90 school, a phrase coined by Douglas B. Reeves in 1995 to denote schools where 90% of the students were eligible for free or reduced price lunches ( a measure of poverty), 90% were from ethnic minorities, and yet, 90% achieved high academic standards.

I’ll hope to say more about Principal Tom and BCSM in a later post, for now I will offer that I found him to be one of the most intimidating and inspiring educators I have ever met.  There were times in the interview when I was 90% sure I should get up and leave.

Mr. Tom made it clear that failure was not an option when it came to educating his students and I knew that he expected his teachers to feel the same way. “You will work harder here than you have ever worked,” he told me.  As I drove back home after the interview with Principal Tom and Assistant Principal Sharon John, I felt a growing sense of urgency in my dream to become a teacher.

The inspiration I took from my Thursday interview with Mr. Tom was fueled even further after an interview with Principal T. Rex and other staff at Bronx Arena High School. This school serves students who have returned to school after dropping out or who have fallen two grades or more behind their cohort.  At Bronx Arena the instruction is highly individualized and paced according to the student’s needs.  Relationships between students and teachers are of utmost importance, and a great amount of social service support is given to the student and his or her family.

My Tuesday interview at Frederick Douglass Academy II in Harlem added to the sense of urgency I was feeling.  FDA II is an attempt to change a failing secondary school and like Bronx Center, the faculty and administration will do “whatever it takes” to help their students succeed.

I want to do what the teachers at BCSM, Bronx Arena and FDA II are doing, and I don’t care where that might be. A ninety percent success rate would be impressive in most suburban schools and in my part of the world.  If the staff of Bronx Center could achieve head-turning results with such disadvantaged students, shouldn’t I be able to do the same, or better, with students from less disadvantaged backgrounds?

To be fair, the students at a school like BCSM have something going for them.  They and their parents(s) have chosen to attend a school that demands from students nothing but their best, and that gives them a leg up. In order to succeed you have to want success. But very few motivated students will flourish if their teachers aren’t equally inspired and demanded to give their best.

I haven’t heard back from any of these schools, but it’s too soon to draw any conclusions.  If more than a week goes by I’ll know they passed on my candidacy.  There is always disappointment if you aren’t offered a job, but after my experiences interviewing with these urban schools, this will be one time when I won’t look at my application as a wasted effort.  If I don’t get a job at any of these schools I know that I got something else: a little more fire in the belly.

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For the past two months I have been working in the kindergarten wing of the elementary school.  My classroom is a self-contained classroom, meaning the children spend most of their day with the staff that serves them.  They do engage with other kindergarteners at lunch in the cafeteria and at recess.

I am a big fan of recess, and I missed it when I was teaching in the middle school.  In my current position I spend 30 minutes each day out on the playground with more than 100 or so kindergarteners.  My job, along with other classroom staff, is to keep track of the students from our room. They’re pretty independent however, running around or using the swings along with everyone else, so I have many chances to get to know the other students.

One of those was a girl named Annabelle.  She is a fun-loving child, quick to smile, and very confident. Her hair is often rumpled, and by morning snack time her face bears the traces of her food and drink.  She is also troubled.  In her short life she has already experienced too much.  The details aren’t important.

When I first met Annabelle, she was quick to pick up on the fact that I love swings.  I love to push the children on them, (“Push me to the moon Mr. H!”) and swing on them myself.  Annabelle also loves swings.  When she knew that I was an adult who her shared her passion, our relationship was cemented.

From the recess playground our relationship grew to include other moments in the school day:  her exit from the school bus, passing in the hall, lunchtime.  Annabelle is a student I would have loved to work with because there was so much work to be done.

On Friday morning I learned that this would be Annabelle’s last day in our school.  The details aren’t important.  I wanted to make sure that I at least saw her at recess, if only for one last push on a swing. I caught a glimpse of her in the morning, wearing a dress of all things.

Recess came, and I walked with my students to the playground.  Keeping an eye on them, but also an eye out for Annabelle, I did my customary walk around the grounds.  Near the climbing apparatus and plastic slide a boy came up to me.  “I haven’t gotten in trouble for two days,” he said.

When you work with children you have to be ready for anything.  I didn’t know who this boy was, so I can’t give you a name.  “That’s wonderful,” I told him, in an effort to encourage good behavior.  I also didn’t know why he was telling me of his high achievement.   Before I could complete the thought he told me. “You said if I was good for two days you would take me on a walk.”

My mind raced and posed question after question. Who was this boy?  Why does he think I promised him something for good behavior?  Where did I say we would walk to?  I tried to bluff and not to show any evidence of the questions swirling in my brain. You can do that with a kindergartener.  Sometimes.

So I asked him, “Where did I say we would walk to?”  He answered, with utter certainty, “The middle school.”  The middle school shares the same campus as the elementary school I work in, but it is still a long walk.  It is even longer if you are in kindergarten and under forty inches tall.

I was honest with the lad.  “I don’t think we have enough time to walk to the middle school, so why don’t we walk to the school garden.”

The boy whose name I didn’t know followed me to the garden. I showed him the apple blossoms, and raspberry bushes, the raised beds, and a couple of bird houses. The latter he found very interesting.  Near the bird houses we found a clump of dry, tall grass bearing beautiful spikes that had held the seeds. The boy and I each pulled off a long blade of grass.

We walked back to the playground and as we got near, he ran off to show his friends the grass. Just then, Annabelle came running up to me and tried to grab my blade of grass. I quickly pulled it behind my back. She ran around me again and again trying to snatch the blade.  “What do you have?” she shouted several times.  This was one of those too frequent times when Annabelle gets a bit out of control.

I finally held the blade out to her and explained what it was. I showed her the spiked top.  I could see that she wanted the blade of grass, so I gave it to her, and then she ran off.  That was the last time I saw her.

I wonder what will become of Annabelle, where her next school will be, and how she will adjust to a new home.  I also wonder if she will remember anything of the two months we knew each other and the times I pushed her on the swings, sat with her on a playground bench, or gave her a blade of grass.

I doubt she will remember any of it.  Still, I hope I had some impact on her life.  For a young girl who hasn’t had it easy, maybe the sum total of all our encounters will be a small remembrance, or maybe a sense, that there are kind people in the world who care about her.  The details aren’t important.

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I am looking for a new teaching job. Should I find one it will be my fourth or fifth (it depends on how you count them) position in the three years since I became a teacher.  I’d like my next teaching position to last a little longer than the prior ones, but in the current state of public education there is no way to be certain.

If you’re thinking at this point that I have an unstable work history, I understand.  Maybe you’re asking the question, “Who would hire this guy?”  My answer is, “Almost any school district.”  I hope.

I finished graduate school and earned my M.S. degree in adolescent education in the summer of 2009. Once completed, my graduate work allowed me to apply for initial certification from the New York State Department of Education.  I was thrilled when the certificate arrived in late August.  Of course, by that point in the summer almost all available teaching positions had been filled.

While I was waiting for my certification to arrive in the mail, I received a call from the new principal of the local elementary school.  I had never met her, so I was at first confused as to why she would be calling me.  I was even more confused when she offered me a position as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom which served children with communication disorders. Special education is not my area of certification but I welcomed the opportunity to begin my career. The experience was a wonderful one, and I learned a great deal about children with autism and the incredible people who work in the field.

A year later, I would achieve my goal to be a teacher when the school district offered me a position teaching social studies to seventh and eighth graders. But by February of my first year as a teacher in full, the dark clouds of the long economic recession began rolling in. The district I was working in is heavily dependent upon financial support from the state. It is a rural district, in a county with less than 33,000 inhabitants. There is not a lot of property – or at least high value property – to tax and money from the state capital in Albany keeps the schools running.

With the state facing an enormous shortfall in revenue, Governor Cuomo looked to slash school funding (as opposed to keeping in place the sold called “millionaires’ tax”) as a way to close the budget gap. The short story is my teaching position was eliminated.  Last hired, first fired. Or at least, laid-off.

The school year ended and I was faced with several choices.  Do I collect unemployment or figure out some other way to keep working in a school?  To be honest, the unemployment benefits were enticing. Most school districts were cutting staff so the prospects for finding another teaching job were bleak. I could work as a substitute, but I would never know from day-to-day where or if I would have a job.

By late summer of 2011 I had made a choice. I approached my former principal in the elementary school and said I would like to return to special education as a teaching assistant.  She welcomed me back.  At the beginning of the school year I was working with emotionally and behaviorally disordered students (job three) but about two months ago I was transferred back to ( job four) a classroom for children with communications disorders.

It’s nice to still be working in a school. There is a great joy that comes from working with children. I have health insurance and other benefits, but my salary is about one-third of what I would earn as a teacher. I love my work and the people I work with, but I am not a charitable foundation. Simply put, I need a higher paying job. Equally important is that the job be as a teacher.

I have some interviews coming up, including a couple in New York City.  I am hoping those schools who are considering me will look at my resume and see me as someone with a great variety of experience and not someone who moves from job to job.  There is a common theme in the work I have done in the last three years. It is my absolute dedication to working with children in a school.  All I need now is a school that will notice that and say, “Here is your classroom.”

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While attending graduate school to pursue a career as a teacher, I had to write many reflection papers.  For my first post, I have chosen to use an edited version of the last of those papers, written in May 2009 as my teacher education was coming to a close.  It was titled, “Late to Teaching”  and it is the inspiration for this blog.

Early in my education at The College of St. Rose, a professor told me, “You’re a non-traditional student.” I wondered if it was a polite way of saying “you’re old,” or at best, you’re a lot older than most students pursuing degrees in education and initial teacher certification. The truth is, most of the students I attend classes with are of the same age as my older children.

There have been some advantages to being a non-traditional student. When I am walking through campus and into buildings I often have doors held open for me. When I hold a door open for another student, they often respond. “Thank you, sir.” Sir?  I imagine they think I am an instructor, a teacher they may have for a class next semester, and it does no harm to start being polite right at that moment.

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My experience at The College of St. Rose started in January of 2008. I am often asked if I am pursuing a second career, and my response is that teaching is my first career, I am just doing it out of order. Years ago when I entered graduate school at the University of Vermont, my goal was to become a teacher. Life had other things in mind for me: a career in map publishing, a foray into local and state politics, and raising four children.

After my former wife died suddenly, late in 2006, the idea of returning to school grew steadily. She had been there at the start, and had often remarked that she wished I had finished my graduate work and become a teacher. It was a wish I shared.  In May of 2007, the last of our three children graduated from Yale, and it was during his commencement ceremony that I made the decision to return to school and pursue my “first” career. My life has not been the same since.

All of us have said at some point, “If I had known then what I know now,” and I am tempted to begin describing my experiences over the last two years with the same phrase. But I don’t think I will. For one, none of us ever do have such prescience, and secondly, to have known how my education and training to be a teacher, indeed, my whole life, would unfold before it happened would have cheated me of the wonders and challenges that have occurred.

When I returned to college to pursue my education – to become a teacher – I wasn’t entirely sure of how I would do. It did not take many weeks to discover that the work would be rigorous and I would be intellectually challenged as I had never been before. At first, I faltered, and my early grades were not the best. I quickly realized that graduate school would be a full-time undertaking, and that if I tried to balance it with all the other occupations and preoccupations of my life, most would not be done well. So, I let go of some things and focused on my studies. It worked. The fullness of my education opened to me and I became more aware than ever before of what it means to be a teacher.

Throughout all of these experiences, there were always my studies, and I never lost sight of what I was trying to achieve. I maintained my perfect grade point average, and was nicknamed “Bob.0” by my friend Brad. I logged the observation hours required by my program, attended the workshops, wrote unit and lesson plans, researched and wrote, and researched and wrote some more. I am proud of what I have achieved.

There was a very special evening in my first semester, cloaked in the long night of winter, and a snow that was quietly falling. My two classes of the evening were over. Enervated, yet preparing for a long drive home,  I was walking across the St. Rose campus. I stopped to absorb the moment: the cold, the snow, the muffled footsteps of students passing between buildings, the sound of a church bell. A wonderful feeling came over me, and I asked myself, “How did I ever become so lucky?”

In his poem The Day Time Began, the late Eugene McCarthy, United States Senator,  presidential aspirant, Irish poet at his core, wrote of his younger life, and arriving at a point where the eternity of time, not the infinity of space was his concern. The poem closes with these lines.

Now I lie on a west facing hill in October,

The dragging string having circled

the world, the universe,

crosses my hand in the grass. I do not

grasp it.

It brushes closed my eyes, I do not open.

That world is no longer mine,

but for remembrance.

Space ended then, and time began.

Now I lie on a similar hill, though mine faces east. I have worked nearly two years to ascend it. The sun is rising. I have spent hours studying and preparing to be a teacher, perhaps more than I would like to think about. I have imagined and typed the words and sentences, too many to be counted, that have become my research papers, reflections, and lessons. I have woven together the threads of life and learning, and now I wait to become a teacher. Should the string cross my hand, I will grasp it and say, “Let time begin.”

I am not certain of what lies before me. I imagine that as in all of life, there will be love and loss, failure and triumph. Yes, I am a non-traditional student.  I come late to teaching. The practice will not get all the years I might have been a teacher, but it will get my best.

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