Friday, November 22, 2013

Day 60: Those Doubts Again

After all this time, I finally added a joke!

I am at war with myself.

On one hand, my geometry class seems willing to go with me no matter where I lead them.  They will try any insane project and have absurd discussions with me about dark matter and gravity and what it would be like if the moon disappeared and how to build an electromagnet.  They fight with each other to ask better questions that lead us into more interesting depths.  I don't check homework, but they do it anyway.  They are curious.

On the other, the majority of students in my pre-algebra classes fight me every step of the way.  I try to find out what interests them and they put their heads down.  They don't do homework whether or not I check it.  They don't care about grades any further than "am I passing?"

We Skyped with Mrs. Neil's classes in Florida today and I was embarrassed by the way my students behaved.  I had hoped that it was simply the mix of students in my first class coupled with the fact that half of them are new to my room.  The second class, however, acted about the same.  For the most part, the majority of the students behaved very well.  A few, however, made it very clear that they were not ready to participate in such activities and, as a result, will be excluded from them next time.

It is a struggle for me not to be angry with them.  A part of me recognizes that they are teenagers and giving them new experiences is something for them to be excited about.  That same part also recognizes that our current educational system doesn't prepare them to behave in an appropriate fashion.  It rewards those who blindly follow at all times and those who don't are punished.  There is very little explanation of when they SHOULD simply do as they are told and when they should express themselves.

I spoke to them beforehand about my expectations, that if they shouted out no one would be able to hear anyone else.  I told them that the one mic was very sensitive and all background noise would be picked up and transmitted.

They carried on as though were on a playground.  I feel as though I spent half of the conversation telling them to be quiet so we could hear what was being said on the other end.  Mrs. Neil's students were sitting in their desks, politely listening while mine screamed at each other and at them.  I had to relocated several students because they were simply incapable of being quiet.

After the call, when we attempted to get back to our regular classroom, the students refused to get back on task.  After trying for 15 minutes to finish a single problem, I decided that I was simply done.

My 4/5 class received a 20 minute lecture about how school is boring because they make it so.  I explained how it feels to be a teacher who wants his students to be interested and engaged, so he spend time developing lessons and connections to help them express themselves and experience things that they wouldn't otherwise experience only to have those same students treat those efforts with a nauseating level of disrespect.

I took, and take, much of the blame on myself.  My early success made me cocky about my abilities to engage the group.  The level of rapport that I had built with them caused me to think that they would simply do what I asked, trusting that I was trying my best to make it interesting for them.

The statement that I have used in the past is that I have no problem meeting the students halfway as long as they remember that I've already gone my half.  During the last few years, it has felt as though the teachers go halfway, so we do, and the students don't move.  Then we are asked to meet the students halfway (again) so we do and the students don't move (again.)  Then we are asked to meet the students halfway, etc. etc...

As positive as I have been this year, those thoughts are starting to crawl back in.  My coworkers have seen remarkable changes in me this year.  Several of them have asked me what happened over the summer to completely turn my attitude around.  Many of them don't even recognize me anymore.  I had thought that with all of the changes I had made, this year would be different.

In many respects, it is.  My geometry class is doing remarkable things, but I don't know how much of that is actually me.  Most of those students have VERY supportive and involved parents who would be pushing them anyway.

The pre-algebra classes, however, are the same as last year.  I firmly believe that there are students who need help and an educational environment that I simply cannot provide with 25 other students in my class.  They will be able to excel in a place where they can receive more attention than I am able to give them.  I know that lots of teachers say things like "God, I wish I could get that kid out of here!" but that isn't what I'm saying.  These are bright and capable kids, but they are not in the environment that best serves their needs.  I would happily help them, but I don't know how.

It wrenches my heart to think about the amount of time and attention that has to be put towards those students when I have so many others who need me as well.  I don't feel as though I am serving my students well.

I am serving them better this year than I think I ever have in the past, but I'm nowhere near where they need me to be.  They need skills that I don't know how to teach.  I don't know how to reach them.

I don't know how to reach them.

Or maybe it has just been a bad week and things will be better next week.

This is a confusing job.

I left myself a note to find on Monday.


  1. You know, one thought I had immediately as I read this is this: there are seasons and cycles to the teaching year, and the seven days before Thanksgiving are particularly cuckoo. Also, your classes just had a huge seismic shock with the addition of a lot of extra kids.
    So it might not be wise to assess your entire self-worth as a teacher on how kids behave during a predictably nutso few days.

    One thing I've been thinking about a lot this year is something I learned from a colleague at my old school. She literally planned the cuckoo times *into* the curriculum map and pacing guide.

    The fact that topics and projects were aligned to appropriate "learning seasons" in the calendar produced a much less stressful learning environment.

    I wonder if this might not be something for you to consider with your PreAlgebra students. It could be less stressful for them and for you too.

    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

    1. I think another part is that my class at the end of the day is at the end of the day. The two or three major problems in that class are problems during most of the day but the rest of those kids are consistently great. They just get overshadowed.

      On top of that, the class in the middle of the day has been completely disrupted by the addition of 12 new students in the last week, one of which doesn't speak English!

      There are a ton of challenges here and I need to remember that, and keep moving forward.

      Thank you.

  2. Justin, Although my school setting is no where near as rough as yours (tiny private school), I've been experiencing some similar feelings about meeting them half way. I keep doing everything that I can do, and then more, and they continue to not pull their weight. I always ask "how could I have done this differently?" because I know that I can only change my own actions, but when I'm seeing so little in return, there's really only so much that my effort can do. I keep trying different things too, and occasionally seeing some small success, but this is a trying year with my ninth graders!

    1. I think you bring up a great point here. I have to respond to how they act, but I really only control my own actions. I don't know how I forgot this because I tell it to THEM on a daily basis. I knew this was going to be tough and I knew it was going to take a while.

      I do think that I need to remind them of what things COULD be. They do need to pull their weight and while I can't make them, I can help them understand why they should.

    2. Y'all's thoughtful reflections on "halfway" are great and have gotten me thinking. Halfway where? Along what axis? On what playing field?

      This is me with my "unschool" hat on, but school isn't a contractual agreement between two equals where good faith and equity of effort are in force. Kids are playing the game of school on adults' terms, with adults' goals, and on adults' timelines. Your students didn't strike a bargain with you; they're not failing to keep up their end of an agreement. They pretty much have to be in school and are just trying to get by in a powerless situation.

      Okay, "unschool" hat off. This is a wonderful reflection, Justin, and your optimism and love for your students is clear in every sentence. And what a great reminder for Monday on your whiteboard. That might be worth upgrading to sticky-note status. :)

  3. Justin, you are one of the most reflective educators I have run across, and I feel honored that you share your experiences here. I don't think I have any advice I could provide here that would be helpfukl; you are doing more than I would ever offer at this point. I only hope that you keep remembering that you are the best teacher for your students, remember that they are teens and are not quite people yet, and continue to guide them forward. The math will follow.

    1. I truly appreciate that. I have found that if I don't reflect quickly and honestly, then I forget the good things that the majority of our kids are doing and I wallow in the failures, like I did during the last 4 years. Down that path lies madness and misery and I can't go that way anymore.

      Thank you for your kind words. I don't know if I'm the best teacher for them, but I'm trying to be.

  4. From a teacher that has taught these same types of kids for 6 years..keep going. They've never had this type of learning experience so they don't know how to handle it. They'll come back years from now remembering these experiences. It tears you down, but always find the positive and keep going. What youre doing WILL pay off.

    1. Thank you. I will do my best to continue not because they want it, but because I know it's what they need. They may thank me, or they may not, but I truly believe they will be better off as a result and, hopefully, I won't lose my mind in the process.

  5. Justin,
    Thanks for this blog. I am struggling with several of the same issues, and have tried so many things this year. Two of my students have been hospitalized for attempted suicide attempts, one is in Juvenile Hall, and the rest are somewhere in between. I have tried to make the learning more accessible to them, creative, interesting and explorative, etc. and have found them to be nearly unresponsive to anything. At one point they begged me to go back to the old lecture style teaching because they said they understood it better. What I heard was, "I really don't want to have to work this hard".

    I appreciate your reflection because it helped me to look at some of the things I haven't wanted to look at or think about. I was allowing myself to become very frustrated, and I too have to remember, these are kids from some very tough backgrounds, and I just have to keep showing up and offering something each day. At some point I hope at least one will realize I didn't have to keep trying.

    Stay with it. You are learning and doing some incredible stuff. They'll remember the skype lesson, and be grateful they had that experience.

    1. This blog has made it so much easier to stay positive because it allows me to step back and rethink what I've done, and more importantly, what I think about it.

      My students have begged me for the same, but instead of "I really don't want to work this hard" they are saying "I'm not doing any work regardless, but the other way I can claim is boring."

  6. All these wonderful comments should show you that your passion for your students is still strong. There isn't a seasoned veteran teacher out there that doesn't struggle with these same issues from time to time.

    My class really enjoyed visiting with yours today. There were all kinds of lessons learned today. I can't wait to see what your class does with their projects.

    I appreciate all you are doing for MY students 901 miles away.

  7. Justin--thank you for becoming a celebrity! In doing so you generate this awesome comment thread. I love what Justin L says in making you question the "meet us halfway" construct, and I love what Bob says about how you are the most reflective educator ever--I love that about you because it encourages me to reflect. Today I got called in to my AP's office to discuss some complaints about me ... and I totally went to that feeling of inadequacy. Like you, I have a pre-algebra class. I am trusting God that they will not add 12 students to my Pre-Algebra class in the middle of the year. But anyway, we meet after lunch, and a lot of times I just feel that class raging out of control, and I get ... beleaguered. And today that definitely happened, and I guess I get pretty critical of them when that happens ... but today after the initial despair and despondency, I kind of lived through that, didn't yell too much, re-directed a couple students, got a few others to do a few little things, and started complimenting a few for following directions, and ... the lesson still wasn't great, but I managed to pull myself out of hopelessness. I don't know, where I am getting with these "low" students is to realize that sometimes, I do just need to loudly and directly say something to re-focus them. And it's only that doubt of which you speak in your title--it's that doubt that keeps me from doing that as quickly as I should.

    I can really relate to feeling improvement and yet not always being entirely confident in that improvement. I took to telling people this week that I think my performance is like the stock market ... Actually no, I said it about my emotional balance: it's a roller coaster short term, but I think it's getting steadily better long term.

    Sorry for rambling. Thanks again for sharing.

    1. I completely agree about that emotional balance. I am, on average, MUCH happier than I have been in years, but it means that since my highs are higher and more frequent, my lows SEEM much worse. On reflection, these downs are still usually better than the average days last year.

      Don't lose heart, brother! You know you can call me if you need to talk, or vent, or just chat about whatever. Without the community, this would actually be an impossible job, rather than just an insanely difficult one.

  8. Even after 34 years of teaching, I have these same moments of self-doubt and find myself "preaching" and being frustrated. As teachers and lifelong learners we spend a lot of time in self-reflection and wanting to do better for our students. Sometimes, they are just not at that same level of commitment! I hope your note to yourself today kept you grounded - they are children. No matter what they might make you think temporarily! As one student of mine told me last week, "Don't you know my prefrontal cortex is not fully developed!?!!" Exactly. It's not an excuse, it's why we don't want you driving, testing drugs and alcohol, and doing scary stuff! We have to keep making connections with kids, offering them the best we have to offer, and hold each other up. It's a different world for these kids. They need teachers like you!

    @valarion #MTBoS


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