August 2009

Turns out that I wasn’t done earlier. What a day.

I dealt with my plagiarist today, which was far easier than I had expected. It turns out that he/she was (allegedly) stuck on the assignment, and rather than turning in a subpar piece, he/she simply Googled a creation myth and modified it ever-so-slightly for the assignment. I provided more explanation in order to help the work get done and made my offer. When the student left the room, he/she thanked me. That satisfied me somewhat; we’ll see how the assignment turns out to see if I really am satisfied ultimately.

If I haven’t mentioned it already, my juniors are difficult to deal with. There are elements in both that make them incredibly trying (like the tendency for groups of friends to take the same section and some serious disparity in gender distribution), and (unfortunately) I haven’t quite learned my lesson about coming down with discipline to kick things into gear. (That may change tomorrow.) They aren’t totally out of control, but instruction for them is problematic.

So I was aghast when, during my more trying section*, my superintendent walked into the classroom.

I tried to use this to my advantage, since I saw him coming through the door before most of the class did, and greeted him, “Hey, Mr. Super.”† There was a noticeable difference in the way the students acted, but that doesn’t mean that there was anything exceptional about their behavior: they just weren’t as bad. The superintendent stayed a few minutes and moved on, but I was totally disarmed. Having the superintendent in the room is just about the easiest way to make me get nervous; I don’t even think I would get nervous if my principal was observing me (which will be happening in early October – can’t wait for that).

I don’t know what to think of the day, but I hope to God that tomorrow is more normal. I can’t take too many more days like today.

*Actually, I don’t know if this is true or not. Both are pretty bad.
†Name changed to protect the innocent: me.


Since I last wrote here, I have encountered my first instance of outright plagiarism as a full-time teacher, one so flagrant that it was almost immediately identifiable as something other than the writing of a high school junior and which I found almost immediately with a Google search as an Apache creation myth (the assignment was for an original creation myth). At first, I was furious about it, but now I’m just disappointed and have cooled down maybe enough that I can handle the student the way he/she deserves to be handled: firm but with mercy.

I say “with mercy” because I’m providing a second opportunity for the student. If he/she will turn in an original myth by tomorrow, I’ll accept it for a significantly reduced grade (but higher than what he/she would otherwise get: a zero), and if not, I’ll give a zero and inform the principal of the violation. I was perfectly clear on my syllabus that plagiarism is not something I take lightly, and I intend to make my example here for future violations. I think I’m being more than fair.

On a totally different note, I have felt like planning has come together very loosely, and I’m still working out details for instruction this week despite having the weekly assignments up for students. (I might have set a bad precedent by doing this, although it helps keep me accountable.)

But one thing that I will change – in a very positive way – is due to something I just found. In searching for information on the 1992 movie version of Of Mice and Men (starring Gary Sinise as George Milton and John Malkovich as Lennie Smalls), I found an online streaming version of the full movie on imdb (streaming provided by that great video site, hulu) that I can use today for my students. I had wanted to show parts of this but wasn’t going to be able to get it in time; it’s available on netflix, which we use pretty much exclusively now for movies at home, but it wouldn’t have arrived quickly enough, and it isn’t available for instant watching.

And I took a phrase that has been a part of my teacher’s toolbox for quite a while – Don’t panic! from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – and printed out an image of it with Marvin, laminated it, and put it in my classroom for easy reference (and another decoration for the room).

Another week, a mixed bag – but onward I press in this journey of teaching. As long as I enjoy it, I think it’ll be just fine.

In the time since I’ve been hired and teaching in this position, I’ve been able to cobble together a picture of the teacher my students had last year. Originally, I thought that the situation wasn’t pretty, and while I think that is still true, I have softened a little on the last teacher. Ultimately, her problem was really one that boiled down to classroom management; she let classes get too far, based perhaps somewhat on the fact that she hadn’t been as responsible for following through with punishments at her previous teaching positions. As another teacher told me, she wasn’t prepared to deal with “rowdy rural kids.” (And a lot of them are just that.)

And while I think that this teacher’s classroom practices were more than a little strange (her handout on procedures and discipline was bizarre in a lot of ways) and that she may not have been the most prepared teacher with it came to planning (that’s my principal’s opinion), I also have begun to understand that she was not incompetent in terms of pedagogical knowledge. (It goes to show that knowing good pedagogical theory doesn’t do a bit of good if you don’t know how to make the classroom run smoothly enough for it to work in practice.) When I taught my novels students about T-charts, many told me that they had used T-charts with the last teacher but still did not understand them well. I found a folder marked “SQ3R” when cleaning out the classroom, which suggests that she attempted to improve reading skills using this literacy technique.

The most disconcerting of these realizations came during class with one of my rowdier junior sections (one with a high distribution of male students), when they were telling me about all the things they did to the last teacher. (I really feel sorry for her – although some of it was genuinely funny.) And in the middle of talking about stealing signs from the room and hiding another student in the podium, one student says, “Oh, don’t forget about lit circles!” which was met with thunderous laughter from the other (male) students around.

Sigh. Are lit circles ruined for these students (and me) because the last teacher didn’t know how to use them well and/or couldn’t control the situation well enough for them to be effective?

I don’t know. I do know that I’m not going to give up without a fight, understanding that the only students who are likely to make this difficult are my juniors. The sophomores never had the previous teacher, and the seniors are mature enough for it not to be a problem. Maybe this will only be a problem for one class, and I will do what some teachers have to do instinctively for some groups and alter instruction to avoid doing activities that will be problematic (like using small groups, for one example).

I’ll give it a go and see what turns out. That seems to be what I do best anymore.

Despite the fact that we’re only in the second week of school, there has already been a fair amount of drama that has erupted at the small rural school I teach at, some including students of mine. A few days ago, the story everyone was talking about was about how two of my students (coincidentally, both in my 1st hour class) had gotten in a “fight” – one had hit the other in the eye, for reasons that I won’t disclose (although I will note that I could see both sides in the argument that was the catalyst for the altercation).

One of these students has had problems with attendance in the past, and she rather nonchalantly told another teacher that she found out she was pregnant. (I say nonchalant, but here’s how the teacher described the conversation: “How are you doing today?” “I’m pregnant.” With an awkward silence where the teacher didn’t quite know how to respond, presumably because you don’t want to say, ‘Oh, congratulations!’ because it might be seen as condoning an unplanned, out-of-wedlock pregnancy or because the student might not be favorable to this event. And I won’t even touch the idea of pooh-poohing it in front of the student, which has its own set of problems.)

The teacher was telling us this in the teachers’ lounge, which was probably appropriate enough since several of us have her in our classes and would benefit from knowing of her pregnancy in order to accommodate her special circumstance and to help her get through this year, which is her senior year. Well, at least, that’s what I thought when I heard this news.

Apparently not everyone in the teachers’ lounge during our lunch period felt so. One particular teacher commented, “Well, she should just quit now, because it’s going to be too hard for her.” (This teacher also happens to occupy the classroom next to mine.)


I had an epiphany today, rather suddenly. It happened to me in the middle of teaching one of my sections of sophomore English, and I have no idea where I came from. I thought,

This is my job. This – this is my job.

But it doesn’t feel like work…

It was an exhilarating feeling, just that realization that what I’m doing is my job. Not like student teaching – that was a job, but nothing that I felt was my real job, the one that would provide money to support my family. And I had a “real job” in between, so I had even forgotten to a degree what it was like getting up every day to go to a school and stand in front of a group of students and attempt to help them learn something new.

That’s my job?

Seriously, I know that teaching is tough, and I am under no pretensions that I am going to feel like this for very long. But I still think that this job, despite the effort that I do really have to put into it, is so satisfying and natural to me that even all of the work doesn’t wear me down like “real work” does. It really is a calling (just as vocations ought to be, in the spirit of the original Latin), and I am thrilled to be answering that call.

Teachers –  do you feel this way about your job? Even after the days of difficult students, trying moments, failed inspirations, and the burdens of a less-than-ideal system, do you find yourself realizing that this is a natural feeling?

Okay, that title is meant to be a little obfuscatory: I’m not really talking about model teaching in the idiomatic sense of ideal teaching (or best practices).

I agree with and try to practice the idea that students often need a model to follow before they go off on their own doing something. It has been painfully obvious to me that the autoethnography assignment that I gave to my seniors is definitely one of those things, since these students are new to the term and have probably never read an autoethnography (or if they have, they probably didn’t know that it was called autoethnography).

The problem: there aren’t really any models of autoethnography out there that are readily available. Certainly, I don’t have any writing resources for this assignment, having cobbled together an assignment from information available online from Susan Bennett (which was actually provided to me last fall by a professor at my alma mater who has, unfortunately, not returned my E-mail asking for assistance in finding a model).

So what’s a teacher to do when there is no readily available model? You make one.


I must have taken some of what I said before to heart: today was a great improvement.

I don’t know that I can rope anything down for sure, but I think that what I did with my students was more interesting in general. I know that my sophomores seemed to work much better with the work we did, and we easily filled the time. My juniors are still so rambunctious, and I need to come down harder on them, I think. There’s still so many disruptions that make it difficult to keep everything together, and I haven’t been as strict as I know I need to be about that. I’ve already predicted that my first detentions will come in a junior class, and I think I might just have to make it happen so that the precedent is set and the kid gloves thrown off.

[I have to make a side note here: the juniors have been incredibly open about some of the things they did to the last teacher who didn’t provide enough structure, including but not limited to stealing signs from the classroom and – almost unbelievably, to me – hiding a student inside the podium/lectern that’s still in the classroom. Even as disruptive and even undisciplined they can be for me now, I don’t have anything like that yet. I guess when I start to see pranks being played, that’s a sign that things need to change. Although, I did lose my doorstop today…]

In addition to coming down harder on classroom management, I’ve been thinking about ideas to provide some sort of incentive. Because the entire junior classes seem to be pretty unfocused when I have them, I’ve considered making a bargain for better focus and fewer diversions by using one of the tools in my teacher’s tool chest of experience: music. As I discovered last semester at the end of student teaching (and a little earlier for my juniors there), my students responded very well to bringing in a guitar and showing off my abilities as a musician, something that I think teenagers respect.

So here’s my idea – and feel free to give me feedback on this if you think I’m crazy and/or a genius: rather than making a deal outright exchanging the behaviors that I profess to be expecting for a reward (something that hasn’t worked well for me in the past), I would propose that in addition to avoiding the less pleasant aspects of disciplinary measures (i.e. consequences), students could earn the opportunity to nominate and vote on a song that I would then learn (with all of the selection happening well in advance) and play for the students. (Guidelines would be given on the nature of the song, of course.) My prediction is that this could get really silly, like voting for a rap or hip-hop song or some other song that would be somewhat embarrassing to hear me sing (my initial thought was Oops, I Did It Again by Britney Spears for such a song). I would also probably make this the result of a long streak, like setting a non-trivial number of days without any major diversions that are far too tangential.

Now, I might just be setting myself up for an inevitable denial of that incentive; I know that these students in particular tend toward being unfocused and even a little boisterous. (I think that certain classes are just this way, for some inexplicable reason. I’ve noticed it at other schools – my seniors during student teaching were that way in quite a few respects.) But I think that it might be something to help motivate students toward establishing habits that hopefully will make the class easier to deal with. It adds a social element as well, where students who actually think that this incentive is a worthwhile goal will put pressure on the other students who might not be as interested.

Nevertheless, I think it’s something I might consider. I even worked out an arrangement with the music teacher to see about borrowing the electric piano he uses for chorus in case it works out better. (The arrangement entails me doing accompaniment for the chorus for concerts, which I probably would do without getting anything. Conversely, I bet the music teacher would let me use the electric piano even if I weren’t accompanying the chorus because I’d only need it during hours that no one uses it. Still, it works as a nice little reciprocal agreement.)

Now, I just need to make sure that these improvements turn into a pattern, not allowing one good day to make me complacent about the amount of work I need to do. That won’t stop me from being pleased with the progress, of course, but hopefully it will keep my feet firmly grounded so that I can do the real work that I need to do, for my sake and my students’.

I am not in the greatest of spirits today, not because my classes went horribly – they really didn’t – but because they were dull. I mean it – I know I probably would have been bored if I had been sitting in my students’ place, and that doesn’t encourage me.

Some of the material is just harder to work with. I decided to start out with Native American creation myths with my juniors, and I admit that I haven’t had very good instruction planned. It’s been planned but not well – I just don’t have the kind of inspiring stuff that I want.

I’m not in bad shape, though. Everywhere I turn, I hear more evidence that the last teacher set the bar really low, so much so that it came back to me that some of my students have reported learned more in the last week than they learned with my predecessor all last year. (That’s probably unfair, anyhow.) I don’t honestly consider it a compliment as much as it is a statement of my current non-failure. It’s also not a statement of success, either.

I guess maybe this is somewhat like what I’ve been told the first year will be like; one teacher told me that he suggested to his dean that refunds be issued to his first class of students, and I’ve heard that the first two or three years help establish your “groove” in teaching. Okay, I’m not going to argue with experience on this one. Nevertheless, I wanted – and still want – to do better than the normal first year; I want to thrive, not simply survive.

That’s easy to say and hard to practice.

As always, I wish I had an easier solution to go from uninspiring to inspiring – hard work and more (and deeper) reflection, I guess. And maybe I should feel good about the fact that I don’t feel good about my teaching; awareness is not the problem, even if I struggle (only in the tiniest sense) with apathy.

Has anyone else ever felt like this during the initial stages of teaching? It would be great to hear that I’m not alone on this. Otherwise, I’ll just have to keep on pressing forward with the assumption that this is just the path I need to traverse.

This past week has been crazy for me, but I can say that I’ve completed 5 of 180 days for this school year. I don’t know if I have any more statements of knowledge to make – actually, no, that’s a lie; I do know, but they are largely inconsequential compared to the ones I’ve already made. My juniors are going to be my difficult classes, my seniors and novel elective the easiest, with the sophomores falling somewhere in between. The juniors are made difficult by a few choice students who are so far finding lots of ways to turn productive discussions into useless diversions, and I’m struggling to keep them on task. I will have to pull my “you have a lot of work to do to prepare for the PSAE/ACT” card more for them, although I know that at least one student won’t care.

So far, I’ve passed out syllabi and texts, discussed a few major projects, given a pre-assessment in all but one class (which I have not yet been able to look at in depth), and had some relatively minor discussions about issues that will get each class thinking about the material at hand. I’ve lost a student, had some switching happening, and got a little bit exasperated with a few others.

I wish I could fairly assess how I’m doing, but I think it’s too soon. I don’t feel like I’m failing yet, which is a good sign, and everything went according to plan for the most part this week. I still have a lot of planning to do for this week, and I’m slightly at a loss for what to do with my autoethnography assignment which I will be teaching to the seniors this week.

I also wish I had something more to say that would seem relevant to other people and not just like I’m blathering on about what’s happening to me as a first-year teacher.

Okay, I will say this: I love the people I work with. Our principal is great for a number of reasons, not the least of which is her unequivocable support for her teachers and her personable nature with students (which of course providing very firm boundaries). And the teachers I work with are equally supportive and just downright fun people – I’ve spent a fair amount of time getting to talk with them over lunches, in the hallways after school, and in other contexts as well. I knew the atmosphere at this tiny little school felt right to me, and I know it is.

It really makes me want to succeed even more – because then I can stay.

I’ll try to remember that as I finish preparing for the week ahead. There are students to teach and a great job to keep!

I know that I will have to watch out for my two biggest classes (which are still smaller than almost every other class I’ve taught before now) because they will have a tendency to run away with me if I’m not on my game.

I know that I will have to watch one of these classes in particular because of a high male-to-female ratio. (I had a similar composition with my problem group of seniors from student teaching, so I’ve experienced how bad this can get.)

I know that I will have to watch the other class because, well, they’re seniors.

I know that I have leverage over both my seniors and my juniors: the seniors need to be ready to step out of high school in May and into college or “the real world” (and by that, I mean “the workforce,” most likely), and the juniors need to be ready for the PSAE/ACT in April. Both groups know that they are way behind the curve, generally speaking.

I know that I will need to be strict in general.

I know that I will have to make at least one significant change to my novels elective: I got complaints less than a minute after handing out syllabi about reading The Scarlet Letter because the previous teacher taught it to juniors. There goes another book, and worse yet, it was the first one I intended to teach. Looks like Of Mice and Men will be first up instead.

I also suspect (what, did you think everything was going to be certain here?) that I will end up teaching one of the chick lit novels (Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights) because my novels course is virtually all girls – only two boys at the moment, I think. Still working on getting Frankenstein, but something makes me think that won’t cut it.

I know that the Easy Button™ I bought last semester was probably one of the best investments I’ve ever made. (Remarkably, one student was very confused about the purpose – or lack thereof – of the Easy Button™ and presumed that you had to make a wish before you hit it.)

I know that I will have to watch how I respond to the smart-alecks in my classes that make me respond with sarcasm, something that my principal explicitly warned against. (But come on, it’s hard to respond with anything other than sarcasm when a student notes that he goes by Joe, “with a J.” I guess I need to be more self-disciplined and to keep my razor wit sheathed for more appropriate moments.)

Best of all, I know that I can do this: that there are students who are looking forward to learning from me, that I have incredibly supportive colleagues and administration who are looking out for me, and that I can manage to keep things together. How well I keep together – well, that will be the test of my time this first year.

Look out tomorrow, I’m coming back for more.

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