Sunday, May 06, 2007

How We Are Changed II: I Can't Get It Up

Naw, not like that. The teaching man, the teaching.

[more at the end]

The most apt metaphor for my instructional adequacy is to the inconsistently performing male porn actor, but this blog is too closely tied to working with kids, and my veneer of anonymity far too thin to let loose with that one, so I'll fall back on basketball: I'm the small forward who just can't get on track. The jump shot isn't falling, even though I'm getting good looks. I'm taking it to the basket, but can't finish. The defense is spotty, and there have been embarrassing lapses, and bonehead mistakes. Except it's not all the time. If it were, coach would bench me, and I could figure things out from my spot on the pine. No, I have good moments, times when I come off the screen and nail the jumper, and every time I sprint back on D thinking, That was it. I needed that. Now we're gonna really get it going.

I can't get it going.

Some of it is unavoidable. My students need structure. As a teacher I need structure. But as a human being, the endless predictability of my days is draining. From an educational perspective, it's a good thing that I can tell you in exacting detail what will happen on June 7, around 1:15 p.m. From a personal perspective, it's disappointing and droll.

Some of it is avoidable, though. I'm caught in a stupid cycle of knowing I need to do a better job engaging kids, and building relationships, especially with those squirmy boys I want to put in intellectual headlocks, academic figure-fours, instructional pile-drivers. I know I need to build more dynamic practice, more satisfying assessment models, loosen the reins a little and let the ponies run. I know I need to do those things, but I trip over the cause and effect chart of the whole thing.

CAUSE: The kids act immature and weak.

EFFECT: I self-flagellate and work harder.

EFFECT: I raise the bar and reduce instances of immaturity.

EFFECT: I am embittered by the process.

Then wait a month and do it again.

I've fallen into the George W. Bush trap of seeking to avoid rewarding bad behavior, as if engaging lessons, effective teaching, and positive interactions were somehow a reward that students earn by putting up with me on the days when I produce none of the above. As if compliance with drudgery functioned as a prerequisite, granting access to something far greater. My brain uses phrases like giving in and playing their game. I'm trying to instill abstract quid-pro-quo contractual understandings with 12-year-olds, and that's just not a good idea.

Stepping further back, and I can see I've done good work this year. I have some rock star students, a number of kids who will test proficient next week when they couldn't even sniff it a year ago. There's W. and A., two girls who have been in this country about two years each, out-achieving just about everybody in my H.P. B class, soaking up vocabulary, syntax, and skills as fast as I can spit it. There's the fluency gains, already in excess of two years for over ninety percent. I've made good instructional choices, pacing things better, and making the decision not to teach certain skills to my lower groups -- an important choice, and a hard one, but also valuable. I've implementing a tracking and accountability system for reading strategies, and its functioning well and acting as a source of motivation.

But I lose the forest for the trees. All I can think about anymore is how J. and M. are checking out, how F. and V. and I. continue to ditch school, and how K. is just a damn train-wreck. I'm in that bear-trap of letting the negatives overshadow and dominate the positives, and that's a disastrous place to be.

We practice characterization, kids are acquiring grade-level skills, I'm making references to literature and Kelis' Milkshake song, the quizzes are tremendous, and I go home feeling empty because A. and M. made spitballs and had to be held after school indefinitely to clean and be castigated.

What the hell is wrong with me? Why can't I get over and past this?


I think some of this is the year five slump I've been slipping in and out of, fueled by the fact that too much of this year looked too much like last year. Some of the repitition is the nature of teaching, I guess, but every prior year has seen an increase in effectiveness and new innovations to instruction. I haven't innovated so much, and it's bummed me out. The cool thing I did to boost achievement is still a cool thing that effectively boosts achievement, but the seventh time through felt a little less cool than the sixth time, which felt a little less cool than the fifth, which felt a little less cool than... and it's not always about me, but it has to be a little about me, too.

I think I stalled myself out a little, conscious of last year's success and really hoping not to screw it up, to replicate it really, to not lose whatever it was that so powerfully raised achievement. Dig it, I got paralyzed by the pie chart.

But there's also this: I need to create an environment where kids can make mutli-year academic progress, significant gains in the TFA parlance. When you're three, four, and five years behind in seventh grade, there isn't a whole lot of time left to make high school graduation and college more than theoretical. And kids do it, lot's of them, more each year, and now some making more. But in setting up a class this way, kids making two years of growth start looking like they are underachieving, slipping, and not keeping up. That's a problem.

The longer you think about it, the bigger a problem it becomes, one that cuts across curricular design, expectations, communication of progress, reinforcement, pacing, student motivation, and instructional choices.

Or maybe it's a little problem: too many kids doing too well, and I just need to chill and let things work themselves out.


Anonymous Dan Meyer said...

Halfway through your fourth-to-last paragraph, it popped into my head that "TMAO can't see the forest for the trees."

And then this comment became very very unnecessary.

5:46 PM  
Anonymous Larry Strauss said...

I don't know if this matters to you but based upon what I've read here, I have great admiration for you.

I can only imagine myself trying to deal with 7th and 8th grade students. My 11th and 12th graders can often be reasoned with, a luxury you probably do not enjoy much....

Also, I get to teach literature I love to read.

You are right that students -- especially in MS -- need lots of structure, but they also need passion, the teacher's passion for the material and for teaching it, and they need they can use a little spontanaeity as a hedge against the intense bordome of childhood.

I'm not sure your basketball metaphor is quite right.Clanging a J is pretty unambiguous. Getting through -- or NOT getting through -- students to students isn't always easy to tell. I, for example, am often surprised when the students I teach in summer school, who seem barely awake most of the time and to do pretty much everything in their power to ensure that we all fail, tell me how much they've learned in six weeks.

I try not to let it go to my head -- because then I really will become useless to everyone -- and if it takes a little self-flagellation to keep my ego in check, then it's worth it.

9:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's Liz from I Speak of Dreams.

TMAO you are one of the hardest-working teachers in education. But my dear, unless I'm missing something:

You don't have much support or validation at home (I'm thinking you are still single)-- so nobody outside of school is regularly telling you what they mean to you.

More bluntly, it puts you at risk of thinking, if you aren't reaching 100% of your students, you are a total failure.

No one is there for you to say, "Well, dude, so J. & M. are checking out. You are present for me, and besides, didn't you say last week that J. was really with the program?" (or similar)

No one is there for you to say, "So your teaching sucked this week. Your partnership with me didn't suck, baby. You'll get back in the saddle in teaching next week -- I know it. Smooch, smooch, hug hug (or similar)."

And, you are in a bind. Most elementary & middle-school teachers don't have a "community of practice" for support. (I don't think many high-school teachers do, either, but that's a different story). "Community of practice" means a chance to connect on a real level with other teachers doing the same kind of work you do, but in a different school. You have nowhere to hear how hard it is for other teachers to "keep up the good fight", nor do have a place to talk about your own struggles with students and with fellow teachers and frustrations in general.

Next: you haven't yet been a parent to the age grouping you teach, so you don't have the benefit of hindsight.

More particularly, you don't have the benefit of knowing how that age group wobbles in a crazy-making way between toddler-hood & adult-hood.

(Just ask me--I had a 2 year old and a 12-year old at the same time (forehead smack! What was I thinking?!?))

I don't know how to tell you to find such social supports, but I can tell you that you are teaching (laboring) under the great burden of alone-ness.

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Jeri said...

I don't know when you posted your "more" but you're giving yourself the same diagnosis any conscientious, focused, student-centered, professional, reflective, idealistic, results-oriented, REAL teacher would give.

Oh, maybe 'cause you are one?

Keep working through it. On the other side will be additional insights you will use to help your students. You may just have recognized how strong the opponent is -- like toward the end of the first half when your lead is diminishing. Those long 3-pointers have indeed been valuable. There's just going to have to be more to your game than that.

All the encouragement that can zip through this internet connection is on its way to you.

6:18 AM  

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