One year ago I was done.
It was the end of my 4th year in my current district and, if I want to be completely honest, (which I try to do in this blog) I had never bought in. I think from day 1 of year 1, I saw it as a place to work and earn some money until something better came along. This wasn't fair to my coworkers, my students, my administrators, or to myself, but there it was.
My lack of buy-in over those years built up in ways that manifested VERY poorly. I was rude to my students, thinking them lazy for not conforming to my teaching style. I was rude to my coworkers, openly wondering why they cared about the things that they did. I was rude to my administrators, openly questioning their methods and motives in inappropriate ways.
I honestly don't know how I wasn't fired.
At the end of my second year of teaching in the alternative education program at the high school, I was involuntarily transferred to the junior high school.
I roared my terrible roar and gnashed my terrible teeth and rolled my terrible eyes and showed my terrible claws! And no one cared.
So I checked out even further. I saw the junior high school as a prison, a place where I was condemned to teach out my career until I either keeled over at my desk, or my frustration at a system that wouldn't conform to my every whim drove me out of teaching.
I was awful. I think that somewhere deep down, I knew it. But like most awful people, I wasn't willing to admit it to myself. I wanted to come in, have kids sitting in rows, eagerly answering my questions, clambering for my attention, desperate to impress me. I wanted my students to treat me the way I treated my very favorite teachers. (But only favorite teachers. I was a jerk as a student too.)
It wasn't happening and I was tired of it.
At the end of year 4, I was done. I was bitter, angry, frustrated, confused, angry, tired and angry. (Looking back now, I see that almost all of that was at myself.) I was ready to leave teaching. Truth be told, I HAD left teaching. I just hadn't left my job. But I couldn't leave yet. I was up to my ears in student loans and, if I stayed one more year, I could get a large chunk of that forgiven. But how was I going to make it through another year without losing my mind?
I devised a plan.
I was going to be THAT teacher.
|"What? No! I'm almost done with this level of Angry Birds."|
"Welcome to class. Today, please work on page 238, numbers...all of them."
I was going to let the year soar past me, phoning it in, "doing my time" until I could apply for my loan forgiveness and get out. Where was I going to go? What would I do? No clue! But I had 6 class periods a day for 180 days to figure it out.
Thankfully for me, my students, my school, my family, my soul, etc. this never happened.
In July of 2013, I attended Twitter Math Camp. It's hard to say exactly what happened there except that when I returned to school in the fall, I was unrecognizable to my coworkers. They wanted to know what drugs I was on that had turned me around so completely.
Yes, I was still the sarcastic, malcontent that they knew, but I had a new lease on life and teaching. The people that I met at Twitter Math Camp and in the subsequent months on Twitter (FAR too numerous to name, I'm so sorry to all of you!) had reminded WHY I wanted to teach in the first place. Not just why I wanted to, but how I could do it in a situation that wasn't my dream situation.
They showed (and continue to show) me how to make an amazing cake from whatever happens to be in the house, no shopping necessary. This is a vast oversimplification, but I've written a ton already and I haven't even begun reflecting on this past year.
One of the major ideas that I heard at TMC was the concept of the 180-Blog. In short, a teacher would post SOMETHING every single day that they taught for an entire year. Most teachers who do this will post a picture, or perhaps a paragraph.
I am verbose.
I decided that with my blog, I wanted to keep track of what was happening in my class, but more importantly, what was happening in my head. I needed to know that this change I had undergone was real and not just the results of someone slipping Zoloft into my coffee.
I allowed this blog to be a stream of consciousness. I wrote about my thoughts, my plans, my hopes. I only wrote about my students insofar as it related to my interactions with them or how I saw challenges. At least, I think so.
Instead of a picture and a paragraph each day, I wrote a novela. I didn't set out to. I just wrote what was in my head and it just kept falling from my fingers.
During the 2013-2014 school year, I wrote more than 300,000 words of reflection on my teaching practices and philosophies.
According to Amazon, the average novel is 64,000 words meaning that during this school year, in which I was supposed to put my feet up, update my resume, play games on my iPhone and relax, I wrote the equivalent of 5 novels.
Or the length of Game of Thrones.
|Or about this many pages...|
I don't say this to brag. It was a completely insane thing that I did and I don't think ANYONE should write that much.
I say it because, as a numbers guy, it clearly illustrates my commitment to becoming a better teacher. I even titled this blog "Relearning To Teach" because, clearly, I had not done it before, regardless of what I thought.
I didn't have a plan for it beyond allowing my mind to spill onto the pages. I never dreamed that anyone other than my mom would care about it or read it. But here it is. The year is over and I need to think about how it went.
It was better than last year.
What? You want more? Fine!
This was a year of risk-taking for me and I think that it paid off. I moved much closer to the teacher I want to be, but that has come with unexpected consequences. My various discussions with other teachers have lead to the conclusion that I don't know what I'm looking for in terms of progress among my students.
I know what I want them to be able to do. I want them to have better logical and reasoning skills. I want them to be able to analyze problems and develop solutions. More than any of this, I want them to be able to create their own problems out of concepts and topics that interest them and be able to pursue those to the end.
But I have no idea how to assess any of this. I have looked into the idea of standards based grading and think (90%) that I want to move that way. This is because of the fact that I cannot explain the difference between an 89% and a 90%. How could I justify giving those two grade to two different kids? An A, a B, what's the difference and how do you justify that?
I still have much progress to make in terms of my interactions with students and parents. As I'm sure is true for most teachers, I get along and am liked much more by students who are from backgrounds similar to my own. I am making strides to broaden that group. I am taking more time to put myself in the place of my students and ask different questions.
I am listening more. Not enough yet, but I'm getting there.
I had some pretty amazing lessons and pretty great discussions with students this year. As the year went on, I found myself slowly falling back into some of my old mental habits and tried very hard to pull myself back out. Everything between Christmas and Easter was hard. There were a ton of disruptions and it was tough to get a class rhythm going. In several cases, student resistance broke me down and I went back to work sheets for my own sanity. After a few days, I started up again, trying so hard not to quit.
I used to think that phrases like "I discovered 100 ways NOT to build a house" were platitudes from idiots who couldn't be trusted with hammers. In the past year, I have learned how to embrace my mistakes and even celebrate them. I want my students to be willing to make mistakes, so how could I expect that of them when I wasn't willing to do it?
After discussions with my mom, my wife and other teachers, I think that my main source of frustration with myself this year was my inability to change the mindsets of many of my students, mostly the students in pre-algebra.
Specifically, getting them to understand the difference between work and productivity.
Because I love analogies, I thought about it this way:
We are digging a ditch. My goal was to help my students understand why we were digging it, where it was going, the purpose it served and hopefully have them develop efficient ways to get the job done.
A problem that I ran into, however, was that many students would spend the day digging, but not in any specific direction or with any goal in mind. Many of these students, while digging at full speed, were throwing their dirt on other students, usually by accident. When I tried to redirect their efforts into the direction we needed, they pointed to all of the work they did and were upset that it was a waste.
This, too, is a vast oversimplification of the purpose of school and the goals of my class, but I couldn't find a way to convey the idea that putting numbers on a page is not the same as solving problems. This is something I need to work on.
I also need to be easier on myself. This is a journey. I can't expect immediate results, no matter how badly I want them. If I keep my goals in mind and work on them, then maybe in 10 years I will be the teacher that I want to be.
I am deeply thankful to everyone from Twitter and beyond who has helped me to find my path again. There are, as I said, WAY too many to name, but if I've interacted with you at all in the past 12 months, know that I'm talking about you.
I hope that I will continue this blog next year because I have come to believe that reflection is the best way for me to examine where I was, where I am and where I'm going. Doing it so publicly has helped to keep my words in the forefront of my mind. I knew that if I had a bad interaction with a student, I was going to have to write about it later.
This is, I suppose, the reflective practice equivalent of a food journal.
While I have always written this blog for me, I greatly appreciate all of the feedback that I've received from my readers, a list of which turns out to be longer than "my mom."