Friday, September 15, 2006

Three weeks and counting . . .


Teaching is hard work, physically and mentally. Exerting emotional control over a classroom takes as much, if not more energy, than the physical stamina required to get through a day spent on one's feet. Today was the end of my first three weeks back in the classroom after a lapse of 16 years. I am exhausted.

My position is not that of a regular classroom teacher. In fact I only have an office where I meet seven children for 45 minutes at the end of each school day.

I’m called a collaborative teacher, meaning I go into the classroom of other teachers who have my special education students and work with them to adapt and modify lessons, as well as provide physical remediation to the kids. It’s not must my kids, either. Because we don’t want the SPED (special education) students immediately identifiable, I work with anyone in the classroom needing assistance.

I also take groups of kids into pull-out sessions if they need skill development or some sort of alternative classroom assistance. Sometimes, the kids are behavior problems. Usually the behavior problems are caused because the students simply aren’t able to do the assignments and their frustration level boils over.

I am horrified at how the vocabulary levels of inner-city children have slipped since the 1980’s. Reading on any level above the 5th grade is almost non-existent, mainly because the kids can’t recognize the vocabulary. Some of my special education students, all mainstreamed now because George Bush decreed that “no child is left behind” read at pre-primer levels. I have one student who can only identify the beginning letters of words. This child comes to school every day. She always has her supplies. She is never tardy. She comes to me to try and get every assignment completed. She is never angry over her situation.

Many of the other students do get angry, though. They are highly frustrated by their lack of ability to move forward. Every class, every assignment, causes their irritation to grow. To cover their inability to function, even on primary levels, they act up. It’s better to be thought a trouble maker than to be called stupid.

The other portion of my job I’m less sure about. I carry a caseload of 19 special education students, mostly mentally and developmentally retarded but some with mild behavior disorders. I’m to ensure that their special needs are met and to develop individualized educational programs from them as they are included in the general school population. Special education students are no longer taught in segregated classrooms.

When I left teaching 16 years ago I was running a program for students aiming for college. We were trying to match our curriculum to that of the suburbs so the children could compete on a college level. My literature lessons included Twain, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, and Wright.

This week I worked with a pull-out group from a junior level English class on a short story by Bret Harte. The students needed to identify foreshadowing, point of view, and theme. I read the story to them because I had to. Nearly every sentence we had to stop and explain what Harte’s words meant. If Harte wrote “the skies were leaden” the students had no idea what to make of that. Once they understood that the skies were full of clouds, the color was gray, and that it was November, they realized that Harte meant it was going to snow. The story was four pages in length – and it took two 90 minute sessions just to read it.

Eventually we got through the story, but then we had to take the test to prove we understood the theme and the author’s message. The children could relate the events of story to me but they had no idea how to identify a broader theme. With a directed conversation we eventually got past details into a broader vision, but then they had no idea how to get their thoughts on paper.

Initially this group of juniors chose to come with me into the pull-out session because they believed it would be a fun experience. Two of the boys left mumbling that they never wanted to have to work with me again. My two SPED students, used to the process, suffered with stoic faces. One young man and two of the girls asked me if I could work with them on the next lesson because they finally “got it” – meaning they understood what they were supposed to do to pass one of the benchmark exams required of 11th grade English.

To get the kids through only four of the 360 benchmarks they need to pass this year I had to completely rewrite both their exercise sheets and their benchmark tests. The system does not appear to be designed for the level of kids we are actually dealing with.

Monday of this week I got up with the dreaded teacher’s disease. Every first year teacher knows they have to build up their immunities to all the student germs and until that happens they catch everything that comes down the pike. This time, for me, it was the sore throat, horrible headache, tight chest, and dreadful exhaustion. By Wednesday my head was so full of junk the bones in my face ached. Today, day five, I began to think I might be on the road to semi-recovery.

Today was also supposed to be my first pay day. I didn’t get a check. I have been told that the check “is in the mail” so I’m hoping that tomorrow I might be able to buy groceries and pay some bills. That sad little last check in mid-August from the construction company seems like it didn’t go very far or last for very long. After this first check from the school district, they will use direct deposit so this glitch is hopefully only a one-time thing

Tired, sick, and still unpaid, I must admit that my first three weeks of teaching have been exhilarating. I’ve met parents, I’ve attended workshops. I’ve waltzed into classrooms with my happy song-and-dance routine as the collab teacher everyone really wants to work with. I only want to physically murder once nasty, horrible girl. I want to cherish at least six other students. I like most of my colleagues. I love my school. Three of my post-grad assignments are complete and turned in and I’m close to finishing the fourth.

Nothing is a bed of roses. The most you can hope for is to feel fulfilled. I’m way beyond fulfillment on this one.

20 comments:

Bev Sykes said...

It's appalling the state of education in this country. I don't know how it changed so drastically, seemingly so quickly. Or maybe I just lived in a fool's paradise for years. I don't know. I so admire that people like you can be dedicated. Of course, I also realize that you're still in that honeymoon phase again, but I have a feeling that you're going to be very good for your students.

M said...

(-:
Smiles.

Sounds like a great experience, sharing Literature with kids!

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