Monthly Archives: April 2010

>Discipline and Little People

>The thing about eighth graders that I (and they) often forget is that while they may be growing into adult bodies, in their minds and hearts they are still very much children.  Like any child (big or small), they may resent rules and discipline but they need it so much and will sometimes even tell you so themselves.

I had a conversation two weeks ago with someone who expressed displeasure at how schools are “all about” rules and discipline.  Prefacing his comments with, “I’m ignorant but…” he went on to suggest that all schools ought to be structured like Montessori schools, with lots of freedom for exploration and less emphasis on controlling students.  I just sort of blinked at him and asked if he’d ever been in an urban middle school.

Order is so important, particularly for students like the ones I work with who may not have a whole lot of structure and control at home.  I think it’s pretty much impossible to learn self-control without some sort of modeling and reinforcement from outside.  As I go through my student-teaching experience, I am coming to realize that discipline is not to be used for the teacher’s gratification or sense of power (and maybe that is where the backlash should really be directed), but to create a positive learning environment for the student.  If some students are shouting out answers, it’s impossible for the teacher (who is only one person, after all) to hear everyone at once.  If a few students are running around the room, other students may be in physical danger or will at least be distracted enough so that learning is very difficult.  The whole point of classroom discipline is to keep it safe and enjoyable for everyone.

I’m writing about this because I made a student cry today.  We were doing a lab involving raw eggs and beakers of liquid, and I turned around to see this student (let’s call him Billy) with his arm around a female student’s head.  Now Billy is a big, strong kid, and while Mimi is no pixie herself, Billy could easily hurt her or any other student in the room quite by accident.  They had been play-fighting before class the previous day, and I didn’t want to take any chances.  None of this really crossed my mind at the time, of course; I just instinctively reacted to the sight of one student having another in a headlock and sharply told him to stop and sit down.  He immediately slumped into a chair and put his head between his hands, not looking at me.  I calmed the rest of the class down and made sure they were working before pulling up a stool next to Billy.  I knew he was sensitive to people “yelling at him,” so I asked why he was upset.  He said, “I just got in trouble for no reason,” and I think it was at this point that I realized he was crying.  I touched him on the shoulder and said, “You’re not in trouble, and I’m not mad.  All I need is for you to do what you need to do.”  I repeated this once or twice, and then let him be.  After a few minutes he got up and started working with his group again, including Mimi.

When my supervisor came to observe me yesterday, she complimented my individual connections with students, which I rarely even think about consciously.  (I really don’t mean that to sound boastful!)  It helps in situations like this if students can see that I still respect them as people even though I have to lay down the law and maybe even punish them.  To me, discipline revolves around respect.  Discipline is my way of respecting the other students in the class by minimizing disruptions to their learning, and it is also a form of respect for a student who is not doing what they are supposed to be doing.  School is a safe place to test and establish boundaries, because if you cross boundaries like that in the real world, there can be much more severe consequences.  If I didn’t care for their success, I wouldn’t bother showing them right and wrong or the importance of hard work.  I wouldn’t bother setting and enforcing boundaries and teaching them how to respect those boundaries.  There are a lot better-paying ways to spend my time than wrangling 110 bundles of hormones on legs, but it is my desire to ultimately see and help them grow beyond the squirrelliness that drives me to do what I do.

A very wise friend once said of God, “It’s like He sees who you could be, and that’s who He remembers.”  I am working on doing the same thing for my students.


>Quite Possibly the Most Random Conversation with a Student I Have Ever Had

>Student: (in a mock scary voice) Give me your soul.
Teacher: …well, my soul already belongs to someone.
Student: (in his regular voice) Oh, have you been baptized?
Teacher: Yes, I have.
Student: Okay.  (after a pause)  I take the souls of people who haven’t done anything good and give them to God.
Teacher: (blinks) Oh.  Are you an angel?
Student: (smiles shyly) No…

Honestly, I used to be somewhat afraid of this boy because of past behavior issues, but he’s really warmed up to me and I, of course, love any living thing that remotely responds to my affection.

>My TeachOhio Experience

>Yesterday was the TeachOhio job fair sponsored (I believe) by Ohio State.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, since the Association of Christian Schools International job fair I went to back in November was very different from your typical education job fair experience.  I had some doubts about just how useful it was going to be, since many of the schools to which I have already applied were not even going to be at TeachOhio, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to go for the experience.  Here is a chronicle of my experience, hoping it will help anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation.


10:00 pm Wednesday: Leave the Digital Union after spending 2.5 hours burning my teaching DVD, which I didn’t even need for the job fair but just wanted to finish now so I didn’t have to do it later.
11:00 pm: Fall into bed after stuffing mini-portfolios.  Resolve not to wake up before 6:00 am the next morning.
5:54 am Thursday: Wake up.
6:15 am: Finally find link to print paid receipt on TeachOhio web site.
6:30 am: Decide not to wear a grey skirt with my pink sweater because then I would be color-coordinated with my resume.  That would just be too much, even for me.
7:20 am: Arrive at the building and see a line of ambitiously dressed people snaking out the door.  Contemplate turning around and going to school instead.
7:25 am: See friend Lauren from cohort in line and chat for the next 35 minutes about, among other things, gravity, cohort calling, mavericks, and refusing to wear suits.
8:00 am: Running of the Teachers, second only to Running of the Brides at Filene’s.  Again contemplate turning around and going home.  Large suburban districts get mauled by ambitiously dressed hordes.  I head for small charter school’s lonely table and schedule an interview at 10:15.
8:15-9:15 am: Wander around the auditorium trying to find more schools to pretend to be interested in.  Schedule another appointment with a random district at 1:30.
9:18 am: Miss a phone call from the principal of a school in northwest Ohio at which I interviewed last week (I’ll call it District A) and where I am scheduled for a second interview on Monday.  Voicemail expresses appreciation for the thank-you letter I sent and asks me to call her back.  Leaves office and cell phone number.
9:25 am: I call back and get the answering machine.  Thus begins 3 hours of phone tag…
10:15 am: Speak with a representative from a charter school (School B) in central Ohio.  I feel like he talked more than I did, which was surprising.  It does sound like a place where I would enjoy working, plus it is closer to where I live now than the school I’d already interviewed with.
10:45 am: Wonder out loud to friend: “What do I do if District A makes an offer before School B even calls back?!”  Friend’s advice: “Say yes, go home, and take a nap.”  My response: “But Iiiiiiii…”
11:00 am: Out to lunch with some colleagues who are awaiting afternoon interviews.
11:15 am: Peruse the Pei Wei menu and think wistfully about real Chinese food.
12:30 pm: Finally hear back from District A principal, who informs me that the committee was unanimous in its decision and would like to offer me a job.
12:32 pm: Regain power of speech, thank principal and arrange to visit the school on Monday.
12:45 pm: Cancel 1:30 interview, go home to take a nap.


The End.

I’ve heard from several classmates that they found TeachOhio rather disappointing, and I have to agree that it was rather useless for me except to complicate what should really be a straightforward acceptance decision.  (More on that at some point.)  Nevertheless, here is my advice for positive job fair and/or interview experiences:

  • Research ahead of time the schools that will be there to decide where you want to try and get an interview, looking specifically for districts that are hiring teachers with your certification.  Prioritize the list, keeping in mind that prestigious districts will have a long line.  Waiting in those may jeopardize your chances of getting any interviews at all.
  • Bring plenty of resumes and some mini-portfolios if you have time to assemble them.  My plan was to give portfolios to any school/district with which I had an interview scheduled.  At the ACSI job fair in November, I had a recruiter follow me out of the building to compliment my professionalism and intentionality because he’d seen the portfolios I brought.
  • Bring your own typed nametag with your name and licensure.  Our program supplied us with nametags in plastic clip-on sleeves and recruiters could see at a glance whether they were interested in speaking to us further.
  • Bring a subtle bag to stash portfolios and resumes in so you are free to shake hands.
  • Send real, snail mail thank-you letters, especially after interviews.

>The Power of One

>”There’s one in every crowd,
brings the party in us out,
good time charley with a Harley, whiskey bent and hellbound,
he’s got the next round, but he always drinks for free,
there’s one in every crowd…”
-“One in Every Crowd” by Montgomery Gentry

Today was Jayvon’s first day back from some sort of disciplinary absence from school, and goodness gracious great balls of fire, he turned second period upside down. I like him a lot as a person: he’s fun-loving, smart, and downright hilarious…but he often uses those qualities for the wrong reasons in class. Luke can be a handful at times, but he was doing well for the past few days until Jayvon came back and seemed to unleash a tide of squirreliness.  (How’s that for a mental image?)  I can think of at least one student in every class who does that, and while I enjoy some of their antics, I do realize that it is disruptive and I need to set limits. Seventh period seems chockfull of such characters, and Pat has expressed concern that they will “walk all over” me. Many of the students in seventh period are smart enough to know when they can try pushing the boundaries, and I had already been thinking about extending lessons to be more challenging. Today, instead of guiding them through the candy tectonics activity, I decided to see what they could make of it on their own. I cut down on chatter by treating the activity as a test. I want to help smart students use their brains to their advantage, rather than to the detriment of other students. I’m thinking about letting some of them be some sort of “project leader” after the OAA, but I admit that I’m scared that they’ll take the inch I give them and run a mile. On the other hand, I really want to see what they are capable of doing, and more importantly, I want them to see it too. I keep circling back to the question I asked in my reflection: Can I trust my students as much as they are coming to trust me?

>First is the Worst

>By all outward measures, my first day in the captain’s seat was a rather spectacular flop. I probably should have realized from my own reaction to the alarm clock this morning that jumping straight into content would be difficult with the students. Add an admittedly lackluster lesson plan to students wound up from spring break and already antsy for summer vacation, and you have a recipe for classroom mutiny. I can hardly blame K. for falling asleep in second period and then asking, “Why do we always have to write stuff???” Standardized testing has really frustrated me since last quarter’s issue with common exams, but it’s even worse when it involves high-stakes testing and underperforming schools because there is so much pressure on this test. I tried to work in some general test-taking tips with the practice OAT questions, but I’m not sure how much anybody absorbed today. My supervisor and mentor teacher from winter quarter both cautioned me against being too negative about standardized tests, but I think students can probably pick up on it anyway and will mirror whatever attitude the teacher takes toward her content. Tomorrow I think I will tell them that, while they are certainly worth more than their grades, they also aren’t less than those grades, and because the world will judge their success by how they do on these tests, I will push them to do their best.

My mentor teacher Pat [pseudonym] and I performed lesson triage during fourth period and decided to take an extra day tomorrow to review my expectations for the next two months and go over what we did today for the earth science review. Eighth period was the worst; try as I might, the students would not settle down. They are pretty wiggly on a regular basis, but today Pat was not there to run interference for me, and so I felt at a loss for what to do to regain control on my own. I really do not like being “mean” and threatening, but I reached the end of my rope today. Students are always asking to go to the bathroom during this period, so after the third or fourth request today I told them that their behavior most certainly did not merit any bathroom privileges at all. This was immediately met with a chorus of, “That’s not fair!” I told them that it was indeed unfair that a few people could spoil everything for the class, but it really was more than a few people who were acting inappropriately. I tried a few more times to proceed with the lesson, but when I realized that it was going nowhere, I called it quits with about ten minutes left in the period and told students that we were just going to start over tomorrow. I think all of us were relieved, and I don’t feel bad about doing this because we have tomorrow, and everything really is an experiment and a chance to learn.  I realized that I do need to be significantly firmer in my approach to discipline and when Pat and I debriefed after school, she shared her arsenal of disciplinary tactics and reiterated the importance of consistency and connection, especially with middle school students.

She also asked why I didn’t start off with my class expectations today, and there were two reasons. First, I assumed that I would be “grandfathered in” under Pat’s classroom management system, but I failed to take into account the fact that it is now April, there are fewer than 40 school days left, and the OAT, which some students regard as the end of their academic responsibilities, is just around the corner. The kids are very different from when I first met them in August (and even from a week ago!).  Second, I honestly felt it was my duty to cover as much science content as possible before the test and did not feel right taking review time away when Pat is still being held accountable for our students’ performance. Pat sympathized with this but very wisely pointed out what I had learned the hard way by the end of the day: without a classroom culture of respect and intent to learn, none of the content will get through anyway. Last quarter my mentor teacher Betty expressed doubts that my content coverage was sufficient and questioned the usefulness of my efforts to connect the lessons with students’ lives, and this shook my confidence to the core. Hearing Pat say that connecting with students is more important than covering content was extremely reassuring and gives me the courage to try again tomorrow.

>An Introduction

>I am resurrecting this blog as a chronicle of my experiences as a teacher-in-training.  Teaching is perhaps the only subject on which I can write anything meaningful on a regular basis (which I have only now realized after years of blogging drivel in high school and early college!)  I also hope to find others like myself and share the triumphs and tragicomic moments of teaching.  Nancy Sommers puts it best in her essay, “I Stand Here Writing”:

With writing and with teaching, as well as with love, we don’t know how the sentence will begin and, rarely ever, how it will end.  Having the courage to live with uncertainty, ambiguity, even doubt, we can walk into all of those fields of writing, knowing that we will find volumes upon volumes bidding us enter. We need only be inventors, we need only give freely and abundantly to the texts, imagining even as we write that we too will be a source from which other readers can draw sustenance.

The title of this blog comes from a quote by Sydney J. Harris: “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows,” and I feel like this captures the purpose of my writing.  My desire is for my reflections to shed light for and on other teachers, students, and anyone who is concerned with children and young people.  I want this to be a conversation, not a monologue, so please feel free to leave any questions, comments, concerns, equipment problems, or issues for the good of the order.