Thinking Like a Teenager…

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So I’ve been reading Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, and I really like it. I’m only maybe 50 pages in and I’ve already found a lot of stuff I can really identify with.

It surprised me at first that he spends so much time talking about himself rather than the classroom, and what in his life brought him to teaching. But the more I think about it, this is integral. You are the kind of teacher you are depending on what person you are. Your life experiences definitely shade how you teach.

What is going on in your life before you get there, and during your teaching career, affect you, your students, the whole environment of your classroom. So for him to talk about the girl he had a crush on at teaching school makes perfect sense. Having that crush changed the person he was, and the way he taught.

It made me think that my mom dying of cancer during my first year of teaching definitely shaded the way I taught and probably how I treated my students. If that hadn’t happened, I’d be a different kind of teacher (ex-teacher now, that still stings to think it). My mom died suddenly and tragically, and so that probably made me extra caring about my students, about not wanting to “lose” any of them. This made me a better teacher, but also a much more fragile one, because if I did lose a student, I took it personally. Very personally, like it was entirely my fault. My mom dying when she did may have caused my burn-out. Certainly not the only cause, but who knows? Your life experiences definitely color what kind of career you have.

Another thing that strikes me is how he suggests that because teaching is so all-encompassing, it truly does become your whole life. It’s like being a parent to 200 kids. It shades how you behave, even how you think, because you are surrounded all day long by young people. You start to act like 8th graders, you start to talk like 8th graders, you maybe even start to think like an 8th grader. Your whole life is school, school, school, every minute of every day, so when you are finally around adults, they may notice you acting strangely.

It might be like a stay-at-home mom who spends her whole day interacting with children finding it difficult to interact later with adults. I have no idea what this is like, so I won’t even venture the comparison. But I could definitely identify with Mr. McCourt saying he found himself behaving strangely around adults because he was so used to interacting with teens.

I can recall faculty meetings where the teachers were twice as bad as the students they were yelling at. The facilitator would have to ask numerous times for people to be quiet, teachers would throw paper balls at each other, tell jokes, whisper behind their hands, even pass notes. It’s like after a day of being dictators and yelling this was their time to let off steam, to act like the kids, the “bad” kids they were supposed to be molding. And sure, I was right in there with them. Molding kids day after day is exhausting. You definitely need time to cut up and have fun……….and a boring meeting on a “Better Way to Teach the PSSA” is definitely prime time to do it.

I have found myself laughing at fart jokes more often, giggling, acting in a “hormone frenzy” like 8th graders do. I have picked up mannerisms, sayings (“Dab It Up!”), music, but thank god, not the clothes. So much of it seems recycled 80’s wear, and I went through that thank you very much.

During my early, insecure days of teaching I would even go so far as to wonder if I was “cool” enough for these kids. I shudder to think about it now, but back then it was important. I wanted them to “like” me. Now, I’m much more able to be myself and could give a shit whether they like me or not. But I admit, there were moments when I would reflect on an episode and wonder if I had handled it like a teacher who’s “young and cool and laid-back” or more like a matronly fuddy-duddy. Even outside of school I shudder inside when I hear myself sounding like my Mom.

I’m sure I’ll still have these moments now that I’m out of the classroom. Hindsight is 20-20, and I had no idea how much my life was “school, school, school” while I was in it. I really like teaching, but I guess I don’t want it to be my whole life either. I want to interact with adults for a while. I hope I never “grow up” entirely, life would be pretty boring, but being and doing and interacting with 8th graders can like McCourt says, “drown” you after a while. I need some air.

Teacher Burn Out

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So as of June 5, I’m an EX-Language Arts teacher for the 8th grade. I used to teach in Hopewell Area School District. They don’t know I’ve quit yet (the resignation is in the mail).

Why did I quit? Sigh. For so many reasons it seems like. Slowly but surely they have added up and added up until it was like a huge overbearing mountain wearing down on me. Being a teacher has been such a burden for the last 2-3 years; it’s a weight I can’t carry with me anymore. Teaching is hard, but teaching at Hopewell was harder. Why?

1. The distance – Commuting an hour or more (depending on traffic, weather, construction) wears you OUT. During nice weather it’s not so bad, but that’s when the construction starts up. Then cold weather comes, and the construction stops, but that’s when it snows. And Hopewell NEVER closes during snow. Never! Big Yuck.

2. The environment – I have never worked in a place where everyone isolated themselves so much. I’ve taught there 4 years and am still seen as “the outsider” or the “city girl”. It’s like I’m back in high school! So many cliques among the teachers and staff. Good grief people. At my school in Virginia the teachers would go out every Friday afternoon just to vent and “hang”. Here, everyone goes their separate ways. Just way too stoic for lil’ ol’ me 🙂 Yes, I realize I’m pouting and venting, and it’s probably not too productive. I just know that in four years I’ve tried every possible way to ingratiate myself to these teachers to no avail. I’m just tired of trying. It’s like banging my head into a brick wall; after a while you get a clue. It’s time to work somewhere else.

Is it somehow the culture here? I just know that “down South” we always tried to make new people feel somewhat welcome. Will someone pleaaaassse clue me in?

3. The district’s priorities – Two years ago due to lack of funds, the middle school canceled its Geography classes. Last year they canceled the entire Foreign Language program. This year they laid off 14 teachers, almost the entire sixth grade hallway. To very little protest. The principal didn’t even address it. The union didn’t even call an emergency meeting or anything.

During last year’s board meeting to decide whether or not to keep foreign languages in the middle school, many older citizens protested that they were tired of paying higher taxes for the school, especially since they had no school-age children attending Hopewell.

Don’t they want their future tax-paying citizens to be intelligent, well-rounded individuals? It’s bad enough that the music and art programs are “bare bones” but to cut out foreign languages entirely is just too much. I understand that many people are on fixed incomes. As a teacher, though, I cannot stand by and condone the elimination of any educational program. There just has to be another solution. It saddened me that the district didn’t even try to find one.

I can’t teach within a district where the only priority seems to be whether or not our standardized-test scores are up to par to the neglect of everything else! Eventually our students are going to be good test-takers, but know next to nothing about the world we live in! This is just so unacceptable and I’m so angry that everyone is just standing around acting like it’s “business as usual”. Creativity is stifled, critical thinking is stifled, problem-solving isn’t even addressed. But if you can fill in the right bubbles on a multiple-choice test, then you’re A-okay.

4. Conflict of Interest – Did you know that the head of the HEA is married to a member of the district’s school board? Could this be a conflict of interest, particularly when the new contract for next year is being negotiated and teachers are being laid off? Possibly.

5. Gasoline – Did you know that the district uses gasoline to kill weeds? I discovered (and complained to no response) that when they want to kill weeds outside the school, the custodian dumps gasoline on them. Which eventually will leach into the groundwater. Not only is this environmentally unsound, and probably illegal, but in recent days, I’m sure it’s very expensive! Maybe if they found a safer, cheaper way they wouldn’t have to lay off so many teachers? Who knows?

6. T-Shirts – Due to lack of funds, our union (HEA) was unable to offer our new retirees any sort of benefit/incentive package this year. Instead, they spent $25-30 a piece (by my estimation) on t-shirts proudly proclaiming the “HEA” label. I left mine in my faculty mailbox. What a waste of money. How many teachers are in our district? Times that by the cost of the shirts. I’m not sure how the funds work, but that seems like it would be a tidy sum for our retirees.

7. Tired – Lastly, and probably the biggest reason I’m leaving teaching (at least for a while) is that I’m TIRED.

Tired of parents telling me how to do my job.
Tired of administrators telling me how to do my job.
Tired of students telling me how to do my job.
Tired of citizens telling me how to do my job.
Tired of politicians telling me how to do my job.

Frank McCourt said, and I agree, that teaching is the only profession where everyone who ISN’T a teacher has an opinion on how you should teach. His book, Teacher Man, is terrific, by the way.

I have a Master’s Degree in Teaching. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Literature. I have taught in the Language Arts classroom for the past 7 years. Granted, there are more experienced teachers than me. But dammit, I’m a good teacher, and I’m so TIRED of people judging, suggesting, complaining, cajoling. How about a little support people? I’m not perfect by any means, and I’m sure I’ve got more to learn, but a little credit for performing “in the trenches” would be nice. When was the last time a parent, administrator, citizen, or politician spent more than 10 minutes in a classroom?

Walk for one day in my shoes, in any of our shoes before you even open your mouth. Guaranteed, you have no idea, unless you’re a teacher yourself, of the toil and sweat and worry and real WORK that goes into planning a school year and then seeing it through. As my cooperating teacher Roseann Blum used to say, there’s a REASON we have summers off. If we didn’t, we’d probably go insane.

Several years ago I was livid with my father when he had the nerve to suggest that teachers make too much money. I won’t even go into the argument, suffice to say he was speechless when I was done with him. 🙂

So I’m out. I am DONE. At least for the time being. I love to read, write, and I love working with young people and all the simple, pure and heart-wrenching rewards that come with that. I have learned to cherish those moments, to hold them close, to remember them.

But the “arena” in which I’ve been teaching is wrong. It feels wrong. My gut tells me to try something else, maybe volunteering, where the pressure of the dreaded “standardized test” is taken off the table entirely. To look for a situation where I can work with young adults and show them the beauty that lies in poetry, the worlds that lie in books.

I love when I can get through to a student and show them what it’s like to write something really good. I’m not giving that part up. Not by a long shot.

I didn’t mean for this to turn into a “tell-all” or a tirade, some behind the scenes look at how down and dirty Hopewell is. They mean well, they really do. I learned some valuable lessons there, I met some great students, as well as some students who made me a better teacher. I’ll take away nothing but good things. But I have to admit, this entry has made me feel better. I just felt like before I could start the next leg of my journey, wherever that may take me, I had to get rid of this baggage.

Travel light I always say. Thanks for listening. Big Love, jjl

Baby Ducks Update

I haven’t posted in a while. May is always a huge “rush” with the end of school, spring planting, etc. I did find out that the baby ducks died because of malnutrition. A vet did autopsies and there was no sign of trauma. Two news reporters were kind enough to email me with this information. They just believe that the ducklings were too small to climb up and out of the reservoir and because of the lack of rain, there wasn’t enough vegetative growth (algae?) for them to survive.

And today during my walk I was overjoyed to discover nine new ducklings paddling about. So tiny you couldn’t even see them unless you were right over them. And these were climbing up the side of the reservoir as well as swimming about and looking cute.

It lifted my heart beyond words.

I’ve joined my neighborhood’s mailing list, and am in the process of getting to know my neighbors and becoming a member of my neighborhood association. It seems so simple, but it has taken me a long time to “find my voice” instead of just preaching about speaking out. Baby steps, baby steps. I wonder if other people go through this kind of internal conflict?