The Charter School Glory Days and the Title I Trenches

My first teaching job was at an upscale charter school for college-bound middle schoolers.  I loved it.  I was passionate about it.  I was great at it.

My current teaching job is at a public high school using Title I funds on an intervention class for at-risk freshmen (in this case, they are “at-risk” for dropping out).  I love it.  I am passionate about it.  I am sometimes okay at it.

They are the two sides of the education scale.  Soooooooooooooooo different, I need that many O’s to even start to get across the point.

 

Working with College-bound middle schoolers:

I ran my class with military precision, high expectations, and a non-negotiable pace. No unit lasted longer than three weeks.  Students turned in assignments almost daily.  My class was a well-oiled machine.  Even when I wasn’t present, my students followed directions.

When I asked for bookshelves, they delivered immediately.  When I requested a class set of books, they were provided.

The parents were so involved it was suffocating.  A parent emailed me on the second week of school to request that I move on to my next unit because it was “too easy” for her special snowflake and the girl was bored.  THE SECOND WEEK.

I had another set of parents that would email me within minutes when I posted an assignment grade and it was below a C.  Convincing parents to step back was my biggest chore.

The most scandalous thing to happen was a sixth grader caught smoking in the bathroom.  Another kid brought a pocket knife.  Both were expelled.

My students always had their pencils, they never asked to go to the bathroom, and most were pretty healthy.

I can honestly say that I taught my students important skills in the realm of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and behavior.

 

Working with at-risk freshmen in a Title I (AKA low-income) school:

My class is either a mad house of over-enthusiastic, off-task energy OR the students are literally asleep on the desk.  I aim for something in the middle and some days I hit it for a couple ten-minute bursts.  My units started out as academic powerhouses and have evolved into life-skills boot camp.  If I am not physically present in the classroom, nothing gets done.

The first time I walked into my room, I had to hold back tears.  It was a hot mess.  A window-less, eggshell white, cinder block mess.  Part of my ceiling is buckling and there is a crack running up the wall.   I immediately sent requests for furniture changes, permission to paint, necessary supplies.  Half of it was given to me no questions asked.  The other half, I was told by the district they wouldn’t provide, with no opportunity for negotiations.  How does one DENY bookshelves to an English class?

The parents are so distant, I have yet to hear from them.  I send emails and make calls every day.  Radio silence meets me.

The details I have gathered about students’ parents are dismal.  One student wrote on her Goals project that she wanted to be a “Dancer.”  And I’m not talking about ballet, I’m talking about stripping.  When I pressed for her reasoning, it became clear that “dancing” is her mother’s profession.

There are fifteen boys in my class.  Twelve of them come from fatherless homes.

I have a fifteen year-old girl who comes in every day smelling like cigarette smoke and I don’t say a damn thing.  Want to know why?  Because if she passes my class, she can go to an alternative graduation program and get her high school diploma.  If she doesn’t pass my class, she will drop out of high school.  I want to scream at her about the dangers of cigarette smoking, but instead I celebrate that she’s actually coming to class (because I know she ditches all her other classes) and hand her a breath mint.

A gun was brought on campus in January, so now the school holds random student-searches, where students are taken out of my class, their backpacks searched and their bodies wanded for weapons.  That’s the most scandalous thing to happen this calendar year.  It’s March.

My students are suspended so often that I had to make a deal with the disciplinary action team that allowed students in in-school suspension to still attend my class.  If I hadn’t made this deal, I would lose literally half of my class every day.  Daily, I have to have conversations about appropriate behavior.  I’ve derailed more than one fight in my room.

My students don’t bring anything to class.  One student doesn’t even come with his backpack, because it was literally stolen off his back two weeks ago.  I have a revolving supply of pencils and paper.  I don’t let them take supplies outside of the room.  Their journals, their worksheets, their pencils stay in my room because if they go beyond my door I know they will never come back.  I have to make double copies of everything I hand them because of this.

I have one student who has a skin disease so painful that he cannot sleep in his bed at night and struggles to stay awake in class.  How do you teach a kid about figurative language when their body is covered in scabs and he can’t keep his eyes open?

Some students are just apathetic.  They have been told their entire lives that they suck at academics, so getting them to even give half an effort is a giant win.

I can honestly say that every day is a different battle.  Sometimes I teach a student an important skill like using his words instead of smacking his neighbor.  Sometimes we have an amazing discussion about how our choices today are impacting our long-term goals.  Sometimes a kid voluntarily tells me that he’s sorry he messes around.  Sometimes a girl will hand me her cellphone so it’s not a distraction.

Sometimes, none of that happens and most times I don’t know why.

Most days, I try.  I can honestly say that I don’t know if they are getting anything out of my class.  I sure as hell am not teaching them Common Core skills, although I like to think a little academic skill trickles in.  I like to think that my frazzled determination sometimes pierces their thick apathy and a bit of wisdom gets in.  Perhaps, if nothing else, they have one adult who cares about them.

 

This is the battle that meets teachers on the daily grind.  Our jobs are demanding and fast-paced and tricky at best; they are heartbreaking at worst.  To my students, I have to be knowledgeable and available, loving and hard, silly and serious.  In the space of an hour, I can go from drill-sergeant to mother hen to nurse and back again to academics; while maintaining an awareness of my room so everyone can be safe both physically and emotionally.

I don’t know why I write all of this, other than to show the vast array of skill that is required of an average teacher.  This kind of nonsense is why teachers leave schools or the profession altogether.  And I’m not writing this for pity.  As I said above, I truly love my job, which is something I am proud to say.  I just want to offer a glimpse of my world.

 

How Preschool and Middle School are *Basically* the Same

No one listens.  Ever.

Kids use the bathroom to get out of shit. Giving a boring test to middle schoolers?  Suddenly everyone has to go to the bathroom.  Put a bunch of preschoolers in timeout? Suddenly everyone has to go to potty.

Parents are weird.  No, I will not check your middle schooler’s backpack every day.  Yes, your preschooler must wear socks to school.

Their clothes.  Both preschoolers and middle schoolers have decided that they can express themselves in clothing, and as a result wear pretty odd things.  Pajamas are frequently worn by both groups, as are strange graphic tees about TV shows I’ve never heard of.

Kids get sent to the office when they don’t behave.  Heck, adults get sent to their boss’s office when they don’t behave.  It’s a timeless classic.

The drama.  The cat fights!  Oh, the dramatic cat fights! “I’m not your friend anymore” is the most scandalous thing a three year old can say to another three year old.  Instant tears.  The same insult is used when the kids are twelve, but their parents deal with the tears. Which leads me to my next point…

The insults. No, preschoolers don’t use cuss words the way the preteens do, but the sentiment is the same.  I’ve heard the words “You can’t come to my birthday party” in both a middle school classroom and a preschool playground.

The tantrums.  When a preschooler is mad, they wail and refuse to listen.  Middle school kids do the same, only the wailing is (usually) less loud and tear-free.

Naptime.  Even if it’s not sanctioned, you know those preteens are sleeping right after lunch.

The boys smell. Thirteen year old boys have not discovered deodorant and showering.  Preschool boys haven’t quite mastered the potty.

Teachers gossip about the kids.  And we gossip about the parents.  It’s how we stay sane.

 

I taught middle school for one glorious year (plus my time at University).  Currently, I teach preschool, and it cracks me up how similar the two groups are.  There are some pretty significant differences though.  For example:

Cuddling.  Preschoolers hug and kiss, sit in my lap, and cuddle until they literally fall asleep.  In middle school I held them at arm’s length and usually put a desk between me and them.

What I can wear.  When I taught middle school, I wore a skirt almost every day, I always wore make up, and usually heels (I’m 5’2″ and look like I’m sixteen, I need all the help I can get).  In preschool, it’s all about the leggings.  The one time I wore a scarf, they asked, “What’s that?  Why are you wearing that?”

The intellectual level. My favorite middle school unit was the Holocaust.  I loved discussing the impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish peoples through the poetic prose of Elie Weisel.  Last week with a preschooler, I pointed to the number 8 and he shouted, “That’s a B!” Quite a difference there…

A Day in the Life of a Very Pregnant Teacher

I drafted this literally 16 days after my son was born.  Editing it now, it is such an accurate representation of that period of my life.  I was in my first year as a teacher, and I was super-duper pregnant with crippling sciatic nerve pain.  Turns out, pregnancy was really tough for me.  Also, turns out that the first year of teaching is not exactly a breeze.  Combine them and you have the following:

5:30a Alarm.  Snooze.

5:45a Alarm.  Snooze.

6:00a Alarm.  Seriously evaluate my stank and debate myself about taking a shower or sleeping a little longer.

6:01a Get up to pee for the 7th time since going to bed.

6:03a Get back in bed, promise to take an evening shower (which literally didn’t happen once).

6:30a Get up.  “Rush” to get ready, as much as one can rush with a watermelon strapped to their abdomen.

I call this hairdo the
I call this hairdo the “I-haven’t-showered-in-four-days professional.”

6:50a Beg God for the baby to come early because I am so done.

6:52a Rethink that plea and bargain with baby to stay inside because I am so not ready.

7:15a Pee.  Husband drives me to work and ignores my complaining.

7:20a Arrive at work.  Pee.

8:00a Lesson plan for the day with the following question: How can I teach this from my desk?

8:50a Pee before class starts.

9:00a Teach.  Be in a relatively good mood, exchange jokes with students about the bowling ball I’m carrying.

10:00a Pee during recess.  Try to decide if it’s endearing or annoying that the elective teacher giggles every time I waddle down the hall.

10:15a Ask the teacher next door to watch my class so I can pee.  By the end of my pregnancy, I don’t even ask, I just wave and he knows.

12:00p Lunch.  Field semi-sympathetic questions from my colleagues about how I’m feeling, try to deflect with humor.  Eat as much as possible, because I know my mood is directly proportional to the food I have consumed.

12:30p Teach. Realize my patience is starting to wane.  I didn’t eat enough.

1:00p Baby interrupts a lecture because he’s hiccuping and the students can see my belly moving.  Now I have to deal with questions like, “How do hiccups work?” “Do babies have hair?” and “Why are you being so mean?”

1:20p Pee.  Seriously consider just staying in the bathroom.  Weren’t these kids so much more loveable this morning?

I may not have always been very sympathetic....
I may not have always been very sympathetic….

2:50p Try to decide if I can make it to the end of school without peeing.  I can’t.

3:10p Lazily dismiss students for the day and hope nobody bothers me.

3:30p “Only a half hour left.”

3:35p Email the science teacher.  I should walk to her room, but getting out of my chair seems like too much work…

3:38p … Until I have to pee.

3:58p Take elevator down, rehearsing my defensive speech if anyone attacks me for leaving two minutes early.  No one ever does.

4:15p If I don’t have a midwife or chiropractic appointment, I get home, angrily strip off my clothes (with some help from Husband because my feet seem to be getting farther away) and plant myself in the bathtub.

4:30p Get out of the bathtub because I am uncomfortable.  It takes careful balance and my Husband’s hand to safely get out.

4:35p Attempt to get dressed.  Ask Husband for help.  Try not to cry.

4:40p Try to get comfortable.  Either in the rocking chair or in bed with every pillow in the house.

Main concern: can I appropriately see the TV over this mass of baby belly.
Main concern: can I appropriately see the TV over this mass of baby belly? (Yes, that is literally my belly.)

4:45p Give up trying to find comfort.  I’m just going to have to pee anyway.

5:00p Netflix.

6:00p At some point, Husband asks me what I want to eat.  I’m hungry, but nothing sounds good.  He makes an executive decision on food, puts it in front of me and demands I eat it.

We ate plenty of fast food during these dark days.
We ate plenty of fast food during these dark days.

7:00 Netflix.  Make Husband get me some water so I can choke down the horsepills also known as my prenatal vitamins.  Bore Husband with dramatic opinions on whatever show I’m currently bingeing. (Lorelai is totally unsympathetic and creates her own problems, okay?!)

7:30p Mini breakdown.  Sometimes about my nerve pain, sometimes about my fears/anxieties of motherhood, sometimes guilt for how I am failing my students, sometimes just sheer fatigue.

8:00p Husband succeeds in calming me down.

8:01 Netflix.

8:30p Fast asleep.  Yeah, you read that time right.  Yet somehow I was still exhausted the next day.

I don’t recommend this kind of regimen to anyone.  And yet, I kind of appreciated it.  I learned how to prioritize, I no longer take my body for granted, and now I have this little grump.  Pic for attention 😉

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Build Your Tribes

My aunt recently asked me about the term “Tribe.” It’s a bit of a buzzword lately, and I see it pop up in a lot of the hippie-esque groups I follow. But what does it mean?

Here are some synonyms that come to mind regarding “tribe”:

  • Squad
  • Family
  • Circle
  • Community
  • Village

Sounds nice, right? Basically, it’s a group of like-mindedness, often where the members share defining life circumstance.

I first started hearing the word “Tribe” in connection with motherhood.

I’m pretty sure this is the exact image of the first time I saw the term “Mom Tribe.” Click on the picture to get to this wonderful blog.

Build your Mom Tribe. It was the first REAL advice I got on post partum depression treatment. Build your Mom Tribe? Like, what does that mean? And why is it important? And how the heck do I go about it?

Why Tribes are important

You know the saying “It takes a village to raise a child”? Yeah, that was just a saying before I gave birth. Now that I am fully responsible for a tiny, 100% dependent human, that saying is REALITY. Let me be clear: I CANNOT RAISE THIS CHILD ON MY OWN. I will go crazy. I did go crazy.

Way back in the dark ages before electric light and social media and all the stuff we can’t live without, raising a child as a village was reality. The community cared for the child as a whole, giving Mama lots of breaks, collectively teaching the child and ensuring they didn’t kill itself (because kids are really set on hurting themselves).  Now, however, the built-in Tribe looks like this:

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Even the baby is like, “Seriously? These people don’t know what they are doing.”

Yep, there it is.  Three people.  Mom, Dad, baby.  None of whom have a clue what they are doing.  How terrifying is that?

So yes, Mom Tribe is HELLA important; it’s the new Village.  Mom Tribe offers information.  How many times have I wondered, “Is that normal?” Almost every day, raising this little boy.  Mom Tribe offers me seasoned information, trusted because they are experiencing it.  Mom Tribe offers help.  Any parent knows the torture that is sleep deprivation.  Or even just the torture of not getting a break.  Mom Tribe takes the Little One off your hands for an hour so you can shower or nap or do something by yourself.  Mom Tribe offers support and love. And THIS is the big one.  Parenthood is the single most isolating thing I have ever experienced.  Mom Tribe fosters a sense of normalcy in something that really doesn’t feel normal for many women.  It helps you know that you’re not alone.

Maybe you know all of this, about Mom Tribe.  If so, great!  But I want to take it a step further.

We need Tribes.  Yes, that’s multiple Tribes.  We need Mom Tribe, yes.  But while motherhood is definitely PART of who I am, it is not ALL of who I am.

I need a Teacher Tribe.

And an Ex-Mormon Tribe.

And a Family of a Recovering Addict Tribe.

I need communities of information and help and support and love for many aspects of my life.  I need my metaphorical village for lots of giant, complicated messes because life doesn’t come with a manual.  And even if it did, I would want to read through it with someone.

So how do I build my Tribes?

It’s simple and not simple.  The idea is simple, the execution can be tough.  Like the word “build” suggests, it takes continual effort. My advice is this: Get out, Reach out.

Get out

Now, I personally know this is harder than it sounds because I am currently experiencing it.  Three months ago I moved a state away and I’m still having trouble building my Tribe.  Part of it is that I am resentful that I moved.  I miss my Tribes in Colorado.  Part of it is that I am terrified.  How do you even go about finding like-minded people?

Go to activities where common interests are shared. For me, this is storytime at the local library.  It’s free, they have one for babies, and other mothers will be there.  Actually, the library is a good place for lots of activities.  My local library has clubs and meetings out the wazoo, everything from the obvious (book clubs) to the not-so-obvious (board game enthusiasts and practice speaking Korean).

Attend support groups.  There are support groups for everything.  My support group is Al-Anon, which is for families and friends of alcoholics/addicts.  They have meetings all over the country.  In the building I attend these meetings, I see support groups for the whole gambit: sex addiction, food addiction, life with a terminal illness, grief.  Pain bonds people in a powerful way; and this bonding aids in healing.

Use social media but don’t let it become a crutch.  I loooooooooove Facebook groups.  I have a group for everything: big groups, little groups, Mama groups, teacher groups, family groups, buy/sell/trade groups.  My problem is that my groups give me the illusion that I have lots of Tribe.  But the reality is that Tribe must be experienced in person, in addition to on the phone or over a screen.  Groups can offer the gateway, though.  Local groups have get-togethers, buy/sell/trade groups force physical meet ups, even just admiring someone active in your group can spark a friendship.  Some of my husband’s best friends met through online games.

Reach out

Reach out and talk to people.  Some life situations already force us to “Get out.”  Work and family obligations force you to interact with people.  But “Reaching out” is different.

Offer vulnerability.  Vulnerability (like saying, “Hey.  I like you.  Let’s get coffee.”) breeds intimacy or connection.  The first person I added to my Mom Tribe happened just like that.  I knew her from a birthing class.  I admired her.  I asked her to coffee.  While at coffee, I decided to be open and vulnerable about my struggle with post partum depression. Now, she’s my best Mom friend.

I once worked at a place that had weekly get togethers at a bar.  At first, it was awkward.  I couldn’t even remember the names of the people I was sitting next to, let alone maintain a meaningful conversation.  But I still went.  And several weeks down the line, those that were attending the weekly bar sessions were closer than those who weren’t.  That alone, just being present, builds Tribe.  I took it one step further by inviting myself to one of these coworker’s house.  I believe it went something like this: “I’m going to come over to your house, drink your beer, complain about my mother in law, and you can play with my baby.” Now I consider that person’s family my adopted family.  Tribe.

If you are just attending things, that’s a good start.  Attending a support group, going to storytime at the library, those are good places to initiate connection.  But if you don’t reach out, true Tribe is lost.  Tribe demands vulnerability, and if you can’t get to that place, then you will struggle to feel the full benefits.

Rinse and Repeat

Keep at it.  I have a tendency to do something once and then act like I do it all the time, all while not actually continuing to do the thing. DO THE THING.  Keep getting out, keep reaching out.  With time, you build your tribes, and life gets a little easier and a little safer.  Sooner than you’d think, you’re not the one begging for advice, but giving the advice.

Mama Mini-Tribe
My Mama Mini-Tribe
My Student Tribe (when I was a student), My Teacher Tribe (when we all became teachers)
My Student Tribe (when I was a student), My Teacher Tribe (when we all became teachers)
My Teacher Tribe
Another Teacher Tribe *Yes, have several!