Finally here. These last three weeks have been amazing at MTC summer school round 2. I remember why I’m here and why I want to be a teacher and educate. They have made me realize just how much I have grown AND that I haven’t stopped. The first years were an inspiration to the days of old-their bright eyes and insightful comments brought back to me that fresh take I had a year ago stepping foot onto Mississippi. The second years have been like family: supportive, fun, annoying at times, and full of love. The team teachers have shown me that even with the confidence and composure I may project in the halls and the classroom, I still lack those lightning fast reflexes and the god-like forethought to craft a perfect lesson.
As I lesson planned for new days, slightly similar topics this time around, I looked back at my first lessons and laughed at just how awful the students must have thought I was. I see so many similarities between myself and the first years in how I crafted my lessons and how I projected my teacher presence a year ago. They fall into the same traps the kids lure them into; they don’t plan thoroughly and overly; they have no idea of time management; they talk way too much; they don’t know how to talk with kids; they don’t know how to get 100% of the class on task; they don’t, they don’t, they don’t. They do, however, know how to ask for help (at this point), take feedback constructively, and try to implement advice in their subsequent lessons. They, as a whole, are excited and willing to be here, doing this. No matter the criticism, that to me means a lot.
This summer school has also inspired me to gather resources and plan hard for next year. Will there be no more midnight planning on a wednesdays this year? Perhaps. Will I have a pacing guide and several units flushed out and planned? YES! I’ve been deciding what kinds of things I like in my teaching and what things need the axe, as well as scouring for fresh ideas I’ve gotten from my colleagues this summer. It’s a wonderful feeling when you have (what are we down to now?)…23 like minded folks who have “been there, done that” in their first year, and are equally as excited to “try this new thing” for next year. If anything, I have a solid management plan for next year that brings a chance for students to redeem themselves within the day AND I have the confidence to implement brand new procedures that I believe in this second time around.
Here’s to next year family! We have never been better as we are right now.
If you are thinking of joining the Mississippi Teacher Corps, or any alternative route teaching program, please, consider the following:
Every day I wake up at 5:30, eat a little something, take a shower, and drive off to school. I am there before most teachers and the principal, getting things ready for the bright new day. Each morning during this time I have big dreams of how the lesson I spent 6 hours on the night before won’t be delivered to deaf ears, but will turn out amazing and the kids will learn and retain SO much in 50 minutes. It’s a peaceful beginning, that ends with unknown but typically frustrating pull-your-hair-out feelings of intense dissatisfaction and lack of fulfillment.
Let’s stop before we go on. Now, before you discount this advice as ramblings, remember you and I are really the same. If you are considering joining such a program to become a teacher and you’re trying to read up on the pros and cons, remember I was exactly in your shoes not too long ago. Except, my vision was clouded in a such a way that I discounted any negative sounding advice about becoming a teacher (teacher burn-out, under-appreciation, non-stop crying, etc. etc.) and replaced it with all the ideas of the positive impact I would be making on my children and the community by becoming that rock and safe harbor. I would whip this school into shape and shame those teachers for allowing their school to sink to such a level that allows such a young, under-qualified, big dreamer such as myself to enter through those doors.
Okay, back to how I feel, or rather, back to how you will feel as I do now. Exhaustion. You’ll be exhausted everyday. Everyday. And not the feelings of exhaustion that you are familiar with currently. Really, remember that one time you pulled that all nighter in college and how tired and zombified you felt the next day? Remember how you were sleepy all day and then you got done with classes and crashed on your dorm bed at 2:30 and slept until 7:00 at night? Grabbed something to eat and were just brain-dead for the rest of your night? Well, take away the nap, because you’ll have to plan for the next day in that time, and get ready to allow your mind and body to experience exhaustion like it never has before.
Let’s regress back to that frustration you will feel each day. You will not just feel frustrated all the time because your students don’t understand the gibberish that comes out of your mouth, but you may vary well even feel real anger and sincerely want to hurt someone. You will slowly realize that your students and no one appreciates you for the the long hours you spend making that perfect lesson, because it turns out: 1) it’s not perfect, and 2) even if it was perfect, no one cares but you, so stop searching for appreciation at this point in your journey (yet know that it will come, and is coming, in ways you don’t yet fully realize—spoilers).
Alright, I hope by now, you have seen a glimmer of the depression you will undoubtedly feel—and no, you won’t be that 5% of teachers who are simply just born teachers, who don’t experience this, so stop holding out hope for that. And, stop. OK, let’s move on to some others things you might feel, or should be looking forward to feeling. Because if you don’t hold out hope for some happy thoughts, this job will consume you and you will quit before your time.
Everyday along with having a headache, getting frustrated, and being angry at my position in life, I smile, laugh, and love what I’m doing. I love spending six hours on a lesson the night before and getting the feeling of excitement that my little 6th graders will hopefully get just as excited as I am about Newton’s Laws of Motion, or any science topic that we’re learning about next. I absolutely love kids sneaking to my room in the morning saying, “Good morning Mr. H” to me in the morning, then running out of the room to their homeroom where they were supposed to be in the first place. I love the feeling of excitement that I get every time, it’s happening daily now, one of my children who I never expect to get the right answer answers a question dead on and I have them repeat it to the class, “SAY THAT AGAIN LOUD AND PROUD LAMARCUS!” “DID EVERYONE HEAR THAT?” “I SAID LOUD AND PROUD LAMARCUS!!” “YES, YES, PERFECT!!” I love that I can be a role-model and a confidant to my kids that I have earned trust from. I love those perfect management days I have when I’m on firing at the beginning of class dishing out the consequences, as the remainder of the period runs smooth like melted butter and the kids actually learn something. I love the anticipation of breaks, Fall break, Thanksgiving break, Winter break, Spring break. I get just as excited as the kids get at the anticipation of a snow day. I love that my room is my fortress that I’ve poured my life into and each student helps build it and break it down each day. I love that I try to make us family each period for 50 minutes every day, even though it never seems to work, I love that I can push my ideals onto these young minds just by the way I am naturally. We should all love one another and treat others with respect, be it the person sitting next to you, the bee that flies into the room, or the mouse that has found a home on the piles of writing assignments.
So, in short: should you join MTC? If you want to make meaningful difference in the lives of a couple kids who need someone like you most in their lives and want to learn how to be a good teacher, then yes. However, if your mission is to save some people from their situations, and be a superman, then no, please, no, you will not succeed at this.
Regardless your decision, if you do join you will fail miserably at what you set out to do. How you cope and grow from failing is what makes you a good teacher, a bad teacher, or just a quitter.
In March of this year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, when speaking of teacher layoffs and increased class sizes nationwide, said that he would rather have his children in a classroom of 28 students with a fantastic teacher than 23 with a mediocre one. I am in neither of these categories: I am a terrible first year teacher teaching science to class sizes ranging from 24 to 33. I teach in a classroom so overcrowded I have had students sitting at the small table in the corner that holds the National Geographic magazines and others who have to sit in the desk reserved for observing parents and administrators. So far, my teaching experience at a critical needs junior high school in North Panola these first 14 weeks of school has shown me not only that Arne Duncan does not understand the current pressures or the needs of teachers and schools, but more importantly, that teaching science in a classroom such as my own is quite difficult for myself and unjust to the students that I serve.
North Panola Junior High School is the nucleus into which all students in the district are funneled from three other elementary schools. This is the first time the different territorial groups meet each other. As a student, the two greatest factors determining whether you will be friends with another sixth grader is: 1) if they have the same last name as you, and 2) if they reside in your town. If they are neither of these, they are instantly an outsider and not your friend. My children constantly want to fight one another, and they typically do not want to work cooperatively in groups because of these divides. My classroom, which just barely accommodates six rows of desks and has no communal table space, has already housed a fistful of fights. Even on a daily basis there is arguing and hateful name-calling between students. Out of the three grades in the school, sixth grade is the one in which the students have to make the biggest transitions. It is understandably the hardest grade to get used to, and the 2011 class has been no exception. This year has seen the largest amount of 11-year-olds to date, 144 and counting, and with this increase in numbers comes more behavioral, capacity, and logistical issues.
As science teachers, we strive for hands-on inquiry, critical thinking, exploration, observation, and serious analysis of the world around us. But how does one facilitate this dream effectively when there is no room and no opportunity for a student to leave their desk during a 50 minute science lesson? I want to be that fantastic science teacher that lights a student’s spark for the natural world and perhaps even motivates some of them into pursuing careers in science. Yet, each day when the mantra “I wish I had a bigger classroom” passes through my head, I fear I may be doing the opposite to inspire my students into science. My bell-to-bell instruction is confined to the board almost every day. My students take notes for part of the period, read a passage or two in their text books, and then work independently on practice problems and their night’s homework. My sixth grade students badly want lab experience; they feel compelled to get up out of their desk, they love touching and messing with props, and science becomes much more real to them when they are the ones making it happen. Currently, the experience that I am able to provide to them is a pathetic attempt but an attempt nonetheless, and I think the students know and appreciate it. When I do a demonstration in class or when we really do have “lab days at our desk,” those are my best days instructionally and my students’ best days behaviorally. Simply put: My students want to pour water into a beaker and measure its contents; they want to use a ruler to measure their pencils; they want to use pipettes and tweezers to investigate a penny or piece of candy.
Going off of this basic desire for participation, getting my students excited at the beginning of a lesson has turned out to be quite easy because they are ravenous for the science experience. Some of the best demonstrations in my classroom have involved very simple household objects and foods from the grocery aisles at Walmart. When explaining the phases of matter recently in class, my students became very excited with a handful of beans placed into a simple plastic bottle. The beans represented the particles of a substance, and the speed at which I was moving the bottle signified what state of matter the substance was in: solid, liquid, or gas. For the solid, I slowly vibrated the particles back and forth with as little movement as possible. The beans then slipped and slid around between one another a little faster, like a flowing liquid. Finally, gas particles chaotically shook and rattled inside the container to represent a gaseous substance, to the wide-eyed amazement of the students before me. They loved this phase the best, partly because of the noise the gas particles made, and partly because it was me, their teacher, making such a racket in the first place.
Even with the challenges that the lack of space presents in a science classroom, more and more I am realizing that it’s no excuse for not bringing any type of activity in for the students. When I can provide my students a glimpse of what they ought to be receiving as young science-minds, it encourages me to to keep trying to encapsulate entire labs in the confines of a desk space. And it also reminds me of why I became a science teacher. I love seeing children play, investigate, smile, and learn. I am encouraged for the rest of the year and for future years as I hone my abilities to engage my students any way I can and present to them the education they deserve.
At the end of school today I saw a student that I had first session. He was talking with a few of his friends and I sort of imposed my self on their group as they waited for their bus. I said hi to my former student and asked him what class he’s taking now, second session. “Algebra” he said. “Oh great!” I replied. I followed with a snarky, “what’s better? Algebra or GENERAL SCIENCE?!” Picking up on my snarkiness, he replied with a big smile, “General Science.” I said, “Yeah! That’s right!” and a more serious, “what did you like about General Science?” “Umm, I liked it when you had us make those DNA,” referring to one of my last lessons where I had students construct their own DNA models from pipe cleaners. I smiled and was a bit taken aback by his comment, unsure of what to say back. I simply smiled and said, “Ah, great, well, you have a good afternoon. See you tomorrow.” I didn’t know how to properly respond. It actually felt more like I was in a role play and had to pause to find the perfect reply because all my peers were watching and judging me. I have never before been put into a situation in my very short teaching career where a student actually, to my face, told me that they genuinely enjoyed something I planned for them.
This situation today, makes me reflect that, even though I’m a terrible-teacher-getting-better-every-day, I’m a teacher nonetheless, putting 6 hours or more into each of my lessons, working my tail off just to step in it time and time again. And I do it for myself, or at least that’s what is pushed on us new teachers; that in our first years as a teacher we are doomed to fail our kids. So, I do it for myself, keeping that mantra alive as I plan these lessons to perfection on paper, never really realizing that I did touch someone in the process of actually teaching it, maybe just one, because my vision is myopic…I’m waiting for that second year status—that metal of courage, that I made it: I persisted…Yet, until I can grasp the notion that I made some kind of a difference in one of my students’ lives (albeit, that difference is as little as he payed attention and enjoyed a moment in class), and that I am in fact a qualified teacher in the eyes of my students, then it will be rare for me to not only open myself up to my students, but for them to open up to me. There is certainly a lot I still need to learn from these kids. One of them being pushing myself to build relationships, and two being accepting myself and all that I bring to that school and to my students each day.
And what? This all started from him saying he liked my lesson on DNA? How cheesy, please. ;) A month in and this is my inspiration. One brick at a time.
On a side note, Mississippi is great, I’m very home sick, missing my wife and everyone. But I’m learning something positive each day and growing—oh, am I growing.