Monday, August 11, 2014

"...It was the worst of times"... A Decade of Teaching: Part 2.

IT IS AUGUST!!!  Kids everywhere are eager to see their friends again while dreading the soon-to-fill-their-backpack homework!  Some parents are sad, most are rejoicing!  Back to school!  Back to school!

August has probably been my favorite month of the year for most of my life, and NO, it isn't because my birthday is on the 22nd (although, it definitely helps this month sail past the month of December in the contest)!  I have always loved August, because I have always LOVED school!

No, seriously.  Always.  Notice I didn't say that I always loved doing school work... but I loved school!

I was raised by teachers.  My parents weren't just teachers, but they both coached as well.  They taught summer school and had practices after school.  They had after-school meetings.  My dad was a football coach for the longest time, and I think I went to my first game when I was a week old!  There were others in my family as well.  My grandfather was a custodian and school board member.  I have several aunts and cousins who are or have been teachers.  

I have always been at school.  Writing on a chalkboard.  Banging chalk out of erasers.  Cleaning out assignment trays.  Counting quoted words in Senior English research papers.  Eating a snack in the corner and coloring during summer school.  Sitting in the bleachers watching the football players run plays at practice.

August means so many things!  As a kid it meant I was another year older, taller, smarter.  Another year of beginnings, possibilities, challenges, and opportunities!  A new teacher, a new backpack, new clothes, folders, and notebooks (it is always so difficult to make that first mark in a new notebook)... It meant football was starting!  And art class.  Being with friends again for several hours of the day, at least 5 days a week! And hanging out with them at the small diner across the street from school.

So, I became a teacher, because I loved school so much as a student. I just knew I would love school as a teacher.  And for 10 years, I did.  Not every single moment, but most of the time, even the bad days were days I was still thankful to teach.  To be in a classroom.  And to see "August" when I flipped the calendar page.

But as a student, I hadn't realized what chaos can occur in your life when you deal with other people on a daily basis like this!  I quickly learned that schools could become extremely rich if privacy laws were revoked and schools became reality TV shows... the ratings would be through the roof!  It has everything - comedy, drama, horror!  Conflict runs rampant in schools for a bzillion different reasons and different times, and I'm telling you that the world would be glued to their TVs each night watching, listening!  And for every conflict there are 3 heartwarming stories that would make the toughest guy cry!

You can't make this stuff up!

Believe me, bad years are real!  They happen about every other year.  I am not sure why.  Most teachers I have ever talked to have experienced this phenomenon.  You'll have a really great year, and then a not so great year.  And the reasons they are great or bad actually are rarely the same.

Of course, we tell you that they are all wonderful years, classes, etc... we do that because we are hopeful creatures by nature.  We don't always tell the truth, we tell the truth that we hope for and are working for.  We keep our eyes on the goal, because so much is a stake!

Some of the worst of times were due to what I was having to teach - subject(s), number of students, or curriculum/assessment materials I couldn't stand.  Sometimes it was because I had a classroom full of kids that if they were alone were great, but they didn't know how to get along with other kids.  And sometimes there was that one kid who made everyone else's life miserable.

For two years all I taught was Writing - to 80 5th graders a day.  That was so much grading, I thought I was going to go blind!  It wasn't just the amount of essays and stories; it was their handwriting too!  Inventive spelling and self-created handwriting leads to long nights for the Writing teacher!

For two years, I was self-contained... one of those semesters, I had a full-intern, and to be honest, it took both of us working all schoolday and some after school to get everything I would like to be able to do in a classroom in an ideal world as one teacher.  I hated being self-contained!  I am in AWE of teachers who do that day in and day out, year after year!

And then sometimes it was the students... and really the kids weren't the problem.  There is always something deeper going on, something that takes more than me, textbooks, a list of rules in order to get to the deeper stuff and still teach by 3 in the afternoon!

The student who had stomach issues and could make himself vomit on purpose to get out of work...  I would keep a bucket under his desk at all times in case he "got sick", and often he would puke in the carpet while looking at me and smiling.  I actually wanted to adopt him and make sure he KNEW someone cared enough about him to give him boundaries and know where he was or what he was doing.

The student who tested positive for drugs (yes, in 5th grade)...  He told me, "I might not be able to focus today, because I have been smoking pot."  When I asked him which counselor told him that that is what pot would do to him, he responded, "How did you know the counselors said that?".  I replied that the counselors told him about the effects of pot so that he wouldn't do it anymore, not so that he would use it as an excuse to not pay attention in class.  See, that kid was actually quite smart; but sadly he had been taught how to use his energy and intelligence for working the system instead of achieving something great.

There are those students who would throw furniture and cuss at me when they got mad.  Or carve my name with obscenities into the classroom furniture.  I was shocked to learn that this was not only happening in my classroom.

Or the student who stole constantly... so much so that she had to finish the school year in In-School Suspension... of course this was during research time.  And how does a student do research when they aren't allowed to go to the library?!  The teachers bring the library to her - under supervision of course, because she might steal it!

I had students falsely accuse me of abuse (but I was glad to see that one actually apologized for it to my face years later, which I thought was very brave and noble of him).  They were the same kids that had failed my class that term for not turning in their research projects.  What they didn't know was that it killed me to put those Fs on their report cards.  It broke my heart.  And it broke even more when they came against me.  I wish they'd known how much I hated to give them the consequence their laziness deserved.

I had students who thought it would be funny to sneak into my phone so they could have my number, and they would prank call me constantly.

I had a student one year whose mother told him if he went to bed on time, he didn't have to go to school the next day.  He missed a lot of school, obviously.  When he was there, he was usually in trouble.  And it broke my heart when he asked me during his state writing test where "the dots go"... it took me a while to realize he meant periods.  He was 10 years old and didn't know how to use a period.  I tried constantly to contact the parent, and the only time I ever saw her was the day after I took his cell phone away.

I have had numerous students that caused such trouble in my classroom, but they are just kids!  Sometimes I would get so angry and want to hold a grudge against them, and then I would realize... they are just kids!  So many of them had missed too much school, too many skills were lacking, didn't know how to respect authority, couldn't read, couldn't write, or didn't have any friends.  I  wanted to fix all of that for them, and sometimes I could help.  I'm sad to say that more often than not, I didn't fix much for them.  I hope I'm wrong.  I hope that in some way they felt more cared for than they showed me.

And that is one of the toughest things about teaching - many times we have no clue if we made a difference or not.  It is a job that requires a lot of hope and faithfulness.

I have had several situations where it wasn't the kid that caused issues, it was the parents.  I had a mother once cry and tell me she was afraid of her 10-year-old son.  I found that interesting, because I had never been scared of him all school year, but I thought he cried too much for a child his age.  I saw why when I realized that all he had to do was kick, scream, and cry, and she would promise him the moon just to get him to stop.

It is amazing how often a parent/teacher conference turns into a counseling session... except I am no counselor!

I have had students who were perfectly normal mentally, physically, and emotionally, but parents were trying so hard to get them diagnosed with something - anything.  I had a parent once ask for meetings constantly because she thought her son had a disability that he had been tested for by 3 schools and several doctors... and she was still looking for another opinion.

Or the family that harrassed me about teaching students about the Holocaust, slavery, and Americans taking Native land... the family told me that their son wasn't getting to read anything about his own heritage or culture.  It was not received well when I pointed out that all the bad guys in the books we were reading were white, and so technically we were reading "white history" too (I'm white, and I wasn't offended).

The hardest times were when someone experienced death during the school year.  One of my students died in a house fire.  She had been in an abusive home, and had just been moved to foster care... and then she died in her sleep during a fire in the middle of the night.  I hope those last weeks of her life were peaceful.

I have had several students lose a parent during the school year.  Car wrecks.  Cancer.  Drugs.  And I wanted to help them so much, but wasn't sure if anything was ever enough.  I attended funerals.  Told them I was praying for them, and asked them how they were doing more often.

I have watched numerous students' grades drop drastically after their parents get divorced.  Or go to jail.  Or just leave without saying where they have gone or when they will be back.

I'm telling you, teaching is not for the weak... and that first year I was terrified, weak, and on the edge of losing it!  Hopefully they didn't notice, but I'm not naive.  It was probably written all over my face every day!

The crazy part is that the 3 schools I worked for were awesome places to work!  These were not rough neighborhoods or inner city places with gangs and the like.  They were just ordinary places that now each own a special place in my heart and always will!  Yes, even with all these incidents and more... school is like a home away from home.  The family I have had when I was away from family.  And don't we take the bad with the good?

Many of my first 5th grade students are turning 20 this year, or already have, and I will say it is comforting to know that so many of them can at least read, get into college, hold jobs, etc!

Believe me, it had nothing to do with me being a great teacher, I am saying that I am relieved that I didn't screw them up for life!!! I had no idea what I was doing, no one really does in the beginning.  And as each year comes and goes, with its twists, turns, and celebrations, you learn the art of teaching.

To all teachers, administrators, and staff going back to school, I salute you!  May this year be your finest masterpiece yet!

And to those who know a teacher... show them some love for no reason other than you appreciate what they do!  Encourage them!  Send them an email, a card... send them some chocolate and EXPO markers!!!

Because almost every one of them would still say on the roughest day that it is worth it.  They love it.  A bad day only gets them motivated to get out of bed the next day to fix it!

If you knew what it felt to have people support you as a teacher, you would voice your support more often!  There is no telling what a teacher can do who feels like they aren't fighting the world to get these kids to learn and feel loved.

These were the worst of times... but the best times far outweigh them!  Part 3 is definitely the best of times!

Loved these kids!  Yes, even the ornery ones!!! This was my first homeroom class! I'm on the far right if you can't find me, since some are my height or taller!  Aren't they so adorable?

I read them the lyrics from "Fingerprints of God" by Steven Curtis Chapman on the last day of school, and I meant EVERY WORD!

I can see the fingerprints of God
When I look at you
I can see the fingerprints of God
And I know it's true
You're a masterpiece
That all creation quietly applauds
And you're covered with the fingerprints of God

Never has there been and never again
Will there be another you
Fashioned by God's hand
And perfectly planned
To be just who you are
And what He's been creating
Since the first beat of your heart
Is a living breathing priceless work of art...

I can see the fingerprints of God
When I look at you
I can see the fingerprints of God
And I know it's true
You're a masterpiece
That all creation quietly applauds
And you're covered with the fingerprints of God

Just look at you
You're a wonder in the making
Oh, and God's not through, no
In fact, He's just getting started...

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