Friday, June 17, 2011

Update Part 1: School

I've had a hard time finding time to write. What can I say? I have a lot of sitting by the fireplace and relaxing with my beloved Jeffry to fit in. Now that summer vacation is arriving, though, I'll try to catch up.

In general I find it hard to write about school in a coherent way, because so much happens every day. But since I only have 4 days left this year, it seems as good a time as any to record some thoughts.

I was surplused (quite usual for first year teachers), so I’m very likely going to a different school next year. On one hand, I’m excited about doing something new, on the other hand, I’m thinking about how much I’m going to miss my kids. And I’m really, really going to miss them.

I’m a little concerned about missing them. Part of why I had a successful year is that I really like my students, and they are able to see it. Connection is such a huge part of this job. But how do you disconnect from them when they move on? Maybe as the students pile up over the years there is just less room for them in your heart? I face booked with a former teacher of my own who said that your first students stay with you in a way that the rest don’t. Maybe that will be the case.

I’m also quite overwhelmed by how much I’ve learned in my first year. Some things, like relationships, connection and classroom management, I was good at from my first day. These things are completely transferrable from my previous career. I also know my content really well. I was more challenged by the pedagogical stuff and feel like I’ve made a lot of progress in that area. Since I am in a special needs school, the lessons have to be HIGHLY differentiated, and I had some trouble with that at first. I also have big plans to be much more deliberate next year. I felt like I was winging it most of the time this year. But I learned how to use the Ontario Literacy Skills Diagnostic Kit this semester and it made a big difference in how I approached things. I now know how to break down the literacy skills and to teach them explicitly. Much better.

What are some key achievements? I taught a 14 year-old who came to school for the first time at age 11 to read, taking his reading level from grade 1 to grade 5 in one semester; I turned on a truly inert young man to computers and watched him burst into bloom; I convinced the kid who was the “most admired by his peers for causing trouble” in the school to get involved in the restorative justice and peer mediation program and he transformed before our eyes from a negative to a positive leader; I got a gang of the most reluctant readers and writers imaginable (grade 11 Essential) to not only write poems, but to perform them. In front of an audience, no less. And then ask for more! I received an amazing accolade from my generally quite behavioural students that I was the “only teacher that treated them with respect”, which is something I tried very hard to do, so I’m glad they noticed. All of my students, because of their disabilities, have faced failure after failure as they move through the education system. I tried to help them begin patterns of success and in so many cases, all it took was a taste and they started to believe in themselves.

Key failures? They were definitely students I didn’t connect with and wasn’t able to make a difference with. This is a failure I’m going to have to come to terms with, because there will always be students that I can’t personally do much with. I guess I just have to have faith in my colleagues – that there will be someone out there that will connect with that student. Then there are the lessons that totally flopped and the days where I lost my temper, or thoughtlessly said something insensitive.

I also discovered that being a teacher isn’t just about course content. So many of my students have no idea how to behave, how to express their anger appropriately, how to apologize, how to make amends, how to give a compliment, how to ask for what they need, how to be tactful, how to resolve interpersonal issues, how to end a relationship. Although I missed some teachable moments in these areas, I caught quite a few as well. And you have to be a role model. Not just a role model of how to be a middle class white woman, but a role model of how to do all those things above that they don’t know how to do. I think the most important one is how to be human and fallible, and how to be ok with it. They watch everything you do.

I had some fun with the co-curriculars as well. I was on the Safe and Caring School committee and headed up two initiatives: Peer Mediation, and Restorative Justice. I also ran the yearbook club, which was a big job, but we had a blast. And our yearbook is really interesting and very beautiful and really different. It sure doesn’t look very “collegiate”. I know it’s terrific because I walked in on a staff bitch session where they were complaining that it “made previous yearbooks look bad, and the people who volunteered to create them in the past shouldn’t have to have their efforts ‘demeaned’”. Demeaned! Like we did a great job specifically to make other years’ books look bad. What nonsense! And as if I’m going to try to do a less excellent job on anything because people feel threatened. (here is one of the images from our yearbook cover below)

The worst part of the job is other teachers telling me how awful it is. It seems like a number of my colleagues really hate their jobs. And it is certainly true that there are issues with the bureaucracy that are annoying. But I learned in one of my first jobs that people get the workplace they deserve – not in terms of money and career advancement opportunities, necessarily, but in terms of how they feel about work every day. Each person has a finite amount of energy. You can spend it on complaining and lamenting. When you do this, you create a negative space for yourself, and you live in that negative space all day every day. Then, of course you hate your job. Or, you can spend your energy thinking and acting on what you can do today to make things better for yourself and others. You can focus on having a good day. And voila – everyday you come to work and have a good day.

I’ve had so many good days this school year. I’ve enjoyed professional relationships with my colleagues that have been quite wonderful, and I’ve enjoyed my students so much. They have such open hearts and so much potential. I can see a lot of possibilities in this career as well. At a large board like TDSB, there are many different career paths available, and I don’t see myself in the classroom for the next 20 years.

And mostly, I feel like I’m doing meaningful work, that I’m contributing something important to my community and the society I live in.

One year down.

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