Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

Each of the students I teach has a gripe from time to time, and they are not shy about voicing it.  One which I have heard often is about a video that maybe part of one of the courses they are working through.  A student will raise their hand or call out to me.  When I come over to them they will point to the screen of their laptop and say something like, “This video is 40 minutes long, do I have to watch the whole thing?”

I have a stock answer: “No you don’t have to watch it. You can go back to your old high school and sit in a class for 45 minutes every school day from September until June and earn your credit that way.”

They usually watch the video.

In traditional New York high schools, students spend four years earning the forty-four credits required for graduation.  In Bronx Arena, the same number of credits are required, but how long it takes to earn them is up to the student. Some of my students have labored for months with a one-credit course and not yet completed it.  Yet another student completed a global studies course in just over five weeks.  And he watched the video.

I have students who love to do math, but hate social studies.  Some fly through an English Language Arts course but can never show up for gym. They have to complete eight credits of ELA and four credits of gym.  There will be no diploma until they have them all, a fact I constantly stress.

With just two months left in the school year I have been pressing my kids to finish courses they have started.  They often tell me that they don’t like the course or find it boring.  “Doesn’t matter,” I tell them.  “If you want to finish high school you have to do the things you like and the things you don’t like.”

I often use my weekly trip between the Bronx and my home in upstate as an example.  I tell them that by the end of the week all I can think about is being home.  When the school day is finished on Friday, I get in my car and drive the miles from Bronx Arena to my home.  There are parts of the trip I enjoy, but also parts I loathe. Getting out of the Bronx and north of the immediate suburbs is stressful on a Friday afternoon.  Then the drive becomes more civil and scenic.  The attitude of drivers and the enveloping landscape both change.

Farther north, when I have crossed the Hudson River, I enter a stretch of state highway that is punctuated with traffic lights, and my progress slows.  By then, my yearning to be home is an ache, and fatigue has settled in.  But after a while I reach the turn-off for the state route that will take me the last miles to home.

Then there will be one last traffic light, after which I drive onto my home road.  The last few miles take me past neighboring farms, a twist and a turn, and then the first view of home I have had in a week.

The lesson I am trying to teach my students is that every journey we take is made up of miles we love and miles which challenge. Okay, miles we hate.  But if we want to get home, if we want a diploma, we have to travel every one of them.

Home. Each Friday I have to drive every mile to get there.

Home. Each Friday I have to drive every mile to get there.

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With my life divided between two places, the boundary between upstate and the Bronx is still not determined.  Son, house, friends, banking, mail and offers for a free car wash with an oil change exert an enormous pull on me to my home in rural New York.  My students, Bronx Arena, a job, and a paycheck pull me back to downstate.  Today I skipped school to attend to an appointment I had scheduled months ago in my hometown.

I have to admit that it was fun to play hooky, to have another night of sleep in my own bed, and another morning on the farm, with coffee in the summer room while I looked out on the fields and mountains.  But as the morning progressed my mind kept wandering to my classroom in the Bronx.  What would my students be doing now?  How many were in attendance?  Are they listening to my substitute? Are they working? Do they notice I’m not there?

This afternoon, I received an email from one of my students, and my heart nearly burst.  He wrote:

“wussup bob why you not here today? well im not feeling good anyway so im not really going to do work but hope all is well see you tomorrow”

The student who wrote the email is one of my newer charges.  He is also the oldest in my room and he spent more than a year out of school before deciding to come back.  He has a tough exterior in dress and demeanor, but when you get beyond the tats and street attitude you find an incredible young man.  He is smart, quick, and able.  I liked him the first time we talked, and I think he could go onto college and eventually be a lawyer.

Last week, he was also involved in the tensest moment I have had in Arena 6. He made a comment.  A student next to him took exception to his comment, and then an argument erupted.  The language was foul and angry.  Half of what they said I did not understand.  I was sure a fight was about to happen.

I stood between the two angry students for what seemed an hour, hoping my slim presence would prevent a fight.  Okay, it wasn’t an hour, but maybe twenty minutes.  By then, I had silently signaled one of my students to go and get the Advocacy Councilor, and when she arrived she was able to take one of the students out of the room and the tension ebbed.  By the end of that day I was exhausted.

Arena 6 at work

Arena 6 at work

I know that I don’t teach in a place most people would consider safe.  When I am home in upstate and former colleagues see me, I sense they are glad I am still in one piece.  I often wonder if they think that by this point of the school year in the Bronx, surely I would have been set on fire and thrown down a staircase. I never miss a chance to tell them how wonderful my teaching experience at Bronx Arena has been.  I boast about my students and my school, and how much I love every day of teaching.

So, Monday was the first day of school I have missed. For the most part I have stayed healthy even when a variety of cold and stomach viruses have swept through the classroom and school thinning the ranks of students. The longer you teach, the better you are at warding off such afflictions.  Veteran teachers, I am sure, have highly advanced immune systems.

The  lucky teachers have students like mine.  For them, like me, it is hard to stay away from a day of teaching.  When they are absent from school, they also wonder what their students are doing as each hour of the school day passes.  They will be anxious to get back in the classroom and take charge.  (Good teachers are very possessive of their students.)  If they are really lucky, they will get an email from a student who misses them and it starts with, “wussup.”

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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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