Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why Don't You Ever Write About Teaching?

Hi. I'm a teacher. It's in the title of my blog (which is, by the way, chronological, not in order of importance. Obviously.) I often write about work, as in, work is hard as a new parent, even if I'm working part-time, and I went to work and ... or pumping at work is... but do I actually teach? And what do I have to say about it? And why haven't I yet?

Well, it's complicated. I love teaching. It's rewarding, wonderful, frustrating, overwhelming, and never finished. It's been a part of my identity for a long time, since I was a teacher-entertainer in rural Japan, wishing and reaching for more responsibility. This year I have an especially challenging group to teach that I should've started to tackle before I was a parent, you know, back when teachers put in hours and hours of extra time at their jobs.

I'm teaching a literacy class, which is extra reading and writing practice for all students in the district (in addition to their regular Language Arts class) and my particular group, according to test scores, are a few years behind grade level for reading. That means so many things.

First, it means that many of them are disillusioned, disengaged, disinterested, and distracted. For most of them it means that the first seven or eight years of their school life has been frustrating and unpleasant, academically. It usually means that rather than the habits of success that we hope students have been learning, they have been instead learning how to survive in classes where they were not engaged. they have mastered the habits of fake literacy, distracting the teacher, getting others off-track to join their lack of engagement, and getting attention for something, if not for "getting it", then at least for being a distractor. Some have mastered the habit of checking out. Some bounce off the walls and are in some ways too engaged, they have no filter and shout out their opinions on everything, having a de facto debate with me with their peers as audience. I find myself saying way more often than I'd like: "sit down!" I wish they could run around outside, jump on a treadmill or something, instead of being expected to sit for six hours a day. ADHD or not, it seems unnatural to expect this, yet in our school system, the kids who can muster the strength to endure this are the ones who succeed. 

The concept of leveling classes is somewhat controversial. In middle school, the idea is that for the most part, students should be grouped by age, and ability should be taken into account by the teacher's curriculum and instruction--differentiated, so that there is an access point for every ability. This is very hard. On the other hand, grouping students by ability, while quite nice for the students "at the top", puts all students with learning struggles together to bounce off of each other and create chaos. And very little modeling of appropriate behavior goes on. 

That is what happens in my class, though I'd say I have three types of students. The first is described above. They are the disengaged, overactive, struggling students that are typical of many boys in middle school. Another type are just poor test-takers or have a different way of learning, or perhaps reading and writing just isn't their strength, but they still enjoy reading, barely recognize that their skills are low, and are perfectly willing to participate readily in class. 

And a few are like Shannah*. She was recently expelled for repeated drug possession. At age 14, she was already using pot as a coping mechanism, smoking pretty much every day, coming to school every other day, doing her best under her current condition (how often was she high in my class? I don't even want to imagine) and failing. Some of the girls in her situation are mature beyond their years, or at least exposed to things that take a maturity beyond middle school, whether they are ready for it or not. They developed early, didn't fit in to the "good girl" mold and chose the darker, more rebellious corners of school. They started by experimenting with pot or alcohol. They may have started having sex. They certainly aren't interested in reading some book about a girl in love with a vampire or a middle school boy pulling pranks on his friends. (Even Hunger Games didn't hook them.) I have a handful of these girls, and perhaps one or two boys in similar circumstances.  I had Shannah for a year and a half before she was expelled. She was placed in a new program that is finally available to middle schoolers, for students who can't find success after multiple tries in the regular system. I don't know if that's going to help her, but I guess I didn't, so I hope she can find some success.

So, are you getting why I don't write about teaching very much? Once I start, it's pretty hard to stop. Obviously on the weekends and in the evenings, I'd rather not contemplate all of this when I could be watching my baby grow up. I could be starting down a road of disillusionment with our current system and my job, even with the incredible support of my administrators and colleagues. I definitely feel the insurmountable challenges every day and do my best. Often I wonder if I'm the best teacher for this particular group of students. Sometimes I think they would do better with a really rad male rapper teacher with a beard who uses slang and can connect with them on a "cool" level. I know I have my strengths but I'm not him. This particularly challenging to engage group might not find me to be the one they most connect with. I can objectively see that AND still want very much to reach them. 

We have laptops. This year my classes (being the smallest and needing a lot of support) was chosen to work with Google Chrome Books. They are fantastic and they do draw them in from the edges. We are working toward blogging as a class, students getting individual blogs, online journaling, lots of videos, articles, digital literacy, and so much more. We use them almost every day. I think this will be positive memory and skill-set to work with. 

As for me, I still want to do my best every day, and often do. I still want to learn more tools for engaging these kids, I still want to find ways to reach them. I still reach out to my colleagues for ways to better my own practice. I still have really frustrating days where nothing feels it is going as well as it should for the moral imperative that teachers carry: each kid needs a teacher to connect to strongly, to really see them and reach them and push them, for success. How many kids will see me as that teacher? If they don't, am I wasting their time?

There. I wrote about teaching. 

*Name changed.