August 27, 2011

How Little It Takes

As many of you know, I teach at a full time at a middle school during the day, and in the evening, I teach two classes at an alternative high school. I teach the accelerated (what we call advanced, guess) during the day, and at night as, you might imagine in an alternative setting, my students are at a much lower skill level. In fact, one of the classes I teach is writing/reading proficiency, which is specifically for students who have not passed the the state proficiency exam or have been deemed in need of to help to pass. Sadly, my 8th graders are often better writers than my 12th graders. I blog about my high school students more often because the highs and lows are so extreme. Because of that, I probably experience more intrinsic rewards. (To balance out how much they drive me to drink.)

Last night, we met for the first and only time we will during the year. It was a two-hour meeting where the principal reviewed the most important rules and procedures for the school. With this, he also provided pep talks and professional development for our success at the school. He finished early, so we could pick up our keys and get ready for Monday. Most of us left with 30 minutes to left of the allotted two hours. How can this be? In an less than two hours, we did what has taken me three contracted days (plus two more on my dime) at my full time job.

Of course, my principal rides on the coat tails of others. All of us teach at other district schools during the day (it's a requirement of the job), where we all have had plenty of training on how using our grades, preparing our students for testing and life beyond high school, and all the other stuff.

The interesting part is that the principal never says, "Oh, you have heard this all at our other school." He doesn't labor over test scores with us. He doesn't remind us to use the standards. (What else would we use?) He just wants us to come in each night and use our best practices to teach our students. "Remediate the whole class if you have to! They don't know it. They missed it somewhere. Just teach them!" Of course, we are trying to get our students to graduate, with hopes of sending them to post secondary school or training, but he doesn't beating us with it. Furthermore, his pep talk on how to be effective in our classrooms has a ring of, "You all know how to do this, but here's a reminder to get ya going." I feel respected as a teacher. He has faith in our abilities. Although, we don't get a formal evaluation from him each year, he knows our abilities because he comes into our classrooms everyday. Every. Day. No joke. He knows what's going on. If he didn't like it, he would tell us. If it was terrible enough, he would say, "This isn't working out," and we'd be on our way out the door. We all know it's the truth. It's happened. Am I threatened with the ease of which we could be fired? Nope.

It's not that my daytime principal does not have faith in our abilities. She does. She even told us in her back-to-school spiel, and I believe that she believes in us. However, sometimes actions speak louder than words, and the hoops I am compelled to jump through--the trainings on the latest buzz words, the newest programs that will make the students learn, the documentation, the test analysis, and all the rest--belittle me. (Many of these hoops from the higher ups.) I appreciate how we are always trying to make learning better for our students, but when will I ever be good enough? Am I doing anything right?

Comparing my two schools is certainly like comparing apples and oranges. My middle school has 1400+ students, while my high school has 100-200, depending on the quarter and how many concurrent students attend. (There are students who only go there, which are the ones I usually have so late at night, and then there are others who have a regular day school and just come for a few classes.) During the day, we have five administrators and three counselors to assist with student troubles, while at night we have one principal and one counselor. At night, I hardly know my colleagues, and I do not have to plan and meet with them on a weekly basis. It's just me, in a classroom, usually populated with fewer than 20 students, helping students learn, often with individualized instruction that is difficult for me to manage with my 30+ middle schoolers. Things are really just too different to ponder, but I sometimes I just can't help it.

For years, I have marveled at how little it takes for me to do my job at the alternative high school. I walk into the school, minutes before class starts, tag-team the teacher who uses the classroom before I do, drop my bag, get out my materials, write the agenda on the board, and start teaching. It takes about three minutes--if I have it to spare. Sometimes, I just have to start teaching. I have no paid prep time, and when the students walk out the door at the end of the day, I'm right behind them, racing them out of the parking lot onto the dark streets. A lot goes on during my two hours (I'll perhaps paint a picture another day) of teaching there, but give me a classroom full of student, some paper and pencils, and we're ready go to. A whiteboard and marker help, but I could do it without.

That experience, night after night, drives home that teaching students does not have to be so complicated. Think about it. How little do you need to teach?

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