Thursday, June 30, 2011


It’s the end of June and the end of my fifth year (which I survived without tendering my resignation...though not without sometimes fantasizing about doing so), and I’m happy to have completed a school year’s worth of blogging.

As I had initially hoped, this task forced me to reflect on my practice, verbalize my frustrations, and savor moments, both amusing and annoying, as fodder for the blog. Every detail that made it to my sticky notes did not ultimately make it online, and exercising that filter (whether in the name of “better judgment” or simply for the sake of pith) presented a constant struggle that reminded me of the challenges of revision.

Since I was assigned an introductory creative writing class this year, I had anticipated that engaging in my own writing process would help me become more adept in that realm; however, I discovered that prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing for an audience of my own made me more patient and articulate in my advice to students struggling with formal essay writing in my honors-level English class. I reevaluated what was important for me to see in their work, I modified lessons accordingly, and while they may still not have subject-verb agreement figured out (yes, by tenth grade … horrifying, eh?), I did see a marked improvement in organization (which is admittedly my personal hurdle) and sentence fluency.

Finally, when I started Five Septembers last summer, I had wished for, at the very least, a humble readership. I had, frankly, two types of audience members in mind: misinformed people like my father, who has always had a hard time accepting that I chose to become “just a teacher” (but, to his credit, has tempered his remarks in recent years), and the pre-service or student teachers. I felt that both of those individuals could probably learn a thing or two or twenty about what educators do each day because, as a coworker recently put it, the public tends to “remember the dog-and-pony show” their teachers put on for them in school for an hour each day, and they think that is all we do. I hope that I’ve set those audience members straight.

But there were many other readers, as well. Some are educators themselves, so for those, I was preaching to the proverbial choir. Yet I hope that for a few, I made them feel as though they had company. I’ll never forget being stopped by a colleague in the hall after publishing a post on the recession’s effects on our school. She thanked me profusely, saying that I had written precisely what she was feeling, and it had brought her to tears. Teaching can be a deceptively lonely job, and hearing from others that connected to my anecdotes and concerns reaffirmed my effort at writing and made some tough moments at work this year more bearable.

Feedback from others has undoubtedly been the most blessed gain from this venture, and some has arrived from unexpected places. Thus, in addition to thanking my colleagues for taking the time (even when you didn’t have any) to stop by, I thank the strangers—those who read and silently departed, those left a comment, and those who are, thankfully, no longer strangers. I’ve had the happy opportunity to make a few connections with teachers and their spouses all over the country: I have a new friend in Albany, CA., and an enthusiastic tour guide if I ever visit beautiful Cape Cod.

My sixth September starts in two months, and I plan to continue the blog, because while much of the new year will seem routine and will unfold in ways similar to years past, a fresh crop of students means I never really know what’s ahead. Further, new challenges, both professional and personal, will undoubtedly play a role in my role as a teacher, and writing about those will, I suspect, be fulfilling for me and, hopefully, interesting and entertaining for you. Many thanks for visiting, and I hope you’ll return in the fall.

Monday, June 20, 2011

...and then they were gone

Last week was the last week of the school year. It was a tough year in many ways—not in the way that my first year was tough, when I suffered chronic abdominal cramps and occasional fits of exasperated weeping during my prep periods—but because of the budget. I’m so sick of budget woes that I’m not going to write about them here except to say that we spent the entire second semester in a state of doom, and it was exhausting. When the blue folders (a.k.a. pink slips) were finally handed out, we sought to comfort one another, struggled to focus on teaching, and scrambled to pack up our classrooms by the deadline.

When the final bell rang, the students dashed out of our rooms and, after some prodding over the intercom, left the building for the summer. When I came back from lunch (the third time all year that I got to go out to lunch on a workday—woohoo!), an eerie calm had settled in the hallway, the lights were dimmed, and every locker door was hanging open for an eventual cleanout. I marveled at the shocking array of left-behind scarves, notebooks, sneakers, toasters, and posters. The building itself seemed to release an exhausted sigh at its seams.

As I sunk into my desk chair, I found two emails from students who wanted to know what their grade on the final exam (taken two hours prior) was and what that would make their final grade for the class and if I would round up, and if so, how much. And was it too late for extra credit? Delete ... delete.

An hour later, as I entered a B for a student’s grade, I said wryly to my coworker, “I wonder when this kid’s dad will call.” He emailed me at 10:30 that night. This was a man who sent me a gag-inducing letter in September asking for my “help in molding this world changing young man into the person he was born to be.” He capitalized the s in son, and given the religious overtones in the rest of the letter, I feared this was no typo.

In his June 15th email (which began “First off, Cameron is the best Son a man could ask for”), sent after my grades were submitted and an 18-week semester had gone by and his son the Son had earned 88%, he wondered if there was anything else the boy could do. Would I allow a re-take of the final? It’s just that Junior was going to be devastated, for he had never gotten a B in high school before. I resisted the urge to reply with, “Don’t worry—there is still plenty of time for Cameron to earn another B” or “Lots of people have been world-changing men without a 4.0 ... look at George Bush!”

We get these last-ditch, desperate requests from students (and as evidenced above, from parents) every June, and while they’re sometimes innocent clarifications that nothing further can be done (after all, it can’t hurt to ask, right?), they often cross over into the Realm of the Absolutely Absurd (see: this horrifyingly accurate video dramatization of my life last week). It reminds me of Christmas Eve, and how the stores are always jam-packed with anxious, last-minute shoppers. I don’t get it. Was there some sense of surprise when December 25th snuck up? I use that analogy with my students around mid-May, when I’m delivering my “give-it-your-last-push-just-hang-in-there-don’t-give-up-you’re-almost-to-the-finish-line” speech, and they giggle knowingly.

But from a teaching standpoint, the year ended well. I instituted a three-way class competition (the prize: donuts and juice during the final exam) to bring in books for our school-wide book drive, and my students wowed me by emptying their shelves, bugging their relatives, engaging in some spirited trash talk, and ultimately donating 1,400 books. They were in good humor, despite gray skies awaiting them outside. Each of my classes finished their exams with about ten minutes to spare, which is an ideal window of time: it allows them to take a breath and decompress before they go, and I’m able to express my thanks for a year of helping me learn and making me laugh.

Teachers tend to be a reflective bunch—you must be if you hope to improve—but June provides the need and opportunity for an even deeper analysis. When the students are gone and grades are in and the car is loaded with dusty classroom fixtures, the year tends to cycle through my mind. I consider successes and regrets. Then I dwell on the regrets some more: a lesson that fell apart, a kid I kept meaning to check in with and never did, a phone call home that I never found time to make. Eventually, inevitably, I begin to wonder if I made much difference at all.

At a staff potluck on Friday, a coworker was describing her love of manual labor—of getting outside and digging all day, for instance. “Really?” I asked, thinking of my disgraceful front yard. “In our line of work,” she said, “we don’t see a product.” Gardening or drywalling a bathroom offers the chance to sit back and proudly view the fruits of her labor, but teaching doesn’t offer that type of satisfaction. Sure, we can sit at graduation and feel that we played a role in the success of those students, and we feel a sense of satisfaction when test scores improve, but those measures are not so clear, and as an individual, I cannot claim that I am the cause of those effects.

Yesterday, I finally sifted through my student surveys. Each semester, I pass out surveys for students to complete after exams (next year, I hope to do this more frequently). The questions sometimes change, but they typically ask what students enjoyed learning and what they dreaded, what they improved on and where they still need help, and what worked well or didn’t as far as my teaching goes. One response bothered me immensely. It read, “I could’ve come in for help, but if I can’t write, I don’t think that’s something I can learn. I either can or I can’t.” You CAN!, I wanted to holler while shaking this mystery student by the shoulders. I don’t know how I could’ve been more available for help, or how I could’ve more loudly and frequently communicated my availability or the benefits it would reap for their writing, but somehow, I didn’t get through to everyone. Another regret. That slip is on the pile I’m assembling for September.

But there were other slips.
“I haven’t felt this confident before in my writing.”
“Who ever said English was boring?”
“You make everything hilarious. That makes me want to work more.”

So I made it through my fifth year. I made it through budget cuts. And I made a difference, however humble. I need to do better next year, no doubt, but for now, I’m going to pick up a shovel and get to work.