Break Every Yoke

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 09 2011

+s and Δs

Overheard during a CS session after the first day of teaching
CM 1: “I’m not articulating myself very well right now, sorry.”
CM 2: “I’m having a hard time understanding anything right now.”
CM 1: “Well, this is a bad combination.”

Week two of Institute–our first week of teaching–is officially over. Someone asked me to describe Institute the other day, and the best analogy I could think of was that every day here is like the day before my senior thesis was due. I’ve definitely also heard CMs around campus describe Institute using much more… colorful language. The key point to take away (hah) is that things are pretty tough at the moment, but I knew what I was getting into when I started, and I know that I’m going to persevere to the end because perseverance builds character, and character builds hope (à la Romans 5:3-5). Besides, I would expect that of my students, so why should I expect any less of myself?

Anyway, in the feedback style of many of our sessions, this update is going to be divided into pluses (+) and deltas (Δ). Pluses are experiences that have been encouraging or helpful to my growth as a teacher and as a person, while deltas are things that I would like to see improved by the end of Institute. So without further ado…

Spending time in prayer and the Word, as well as having awesome conversations with fellow CMs about faith, philosophy, and social justice, have really kept me grounded in my identity as a follower of Christ. It’s easy to get wrapped up with the daily grind of Institute when I have three lesson plans due the next day, on top of posters and printouts to make for the upcoming lesson, and general investment and management kinks to work out in the classroom. I begin seeking affirmation in the results of the next day’s exit slips, or in the praise of my fellow CMs, or even (comically) in my lesson plans’ TAL rubric scores. It’s been good to step back from time to time, reassess my reasons for being here, and keep my priorities straight. Paul puts it most succinctly: “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). And not that I know from experience, but I feel like the peace and comfort that come from knowing Him will flow into the classroom and encourage the students as well.

My discipline in this regard has been faltering as of late. It’s just so tempting to crawl into bed and knock out as soon as I put the finishing touches on my Key Points poster, or to wake up as late as I can and grab a super quick breakfast before heading to the school buses, but for the reasons mentioned above, I need to learn to set aside quality time during the day for distraction-free meditation, reflection, and God-centered conversation.

Classroom management has been surprisingly easy this past week. Granted, I only have eight students, but for the most part, they have not been engaged in the material so far because it’s too easy for some of them and too hard for others. So I think the fact that they are quiet, attentive, and generally well-behaved for the entire hour of my teaching block is an encouraging sign that they are at least invested in me as a teacher. In addition, my oft-expressed belief that every student can and must be successful at math has allowed me to build relationships with a couple of my weaker students, who have agreed to come in thirty minutes early every morning to receive tutoring and retake their exit assessments. I hope that having a teacher who genuinely cares about whether they learn and succeed will be path-changing for them.

Like I said, student investment is nowhere near the level that I would like to see it at. One of my students, M., is so advanced at algebra and so bored with my lessons that he challenges himself by trying to solve all of the exit assessments questions in his head and only writing down the final answer. Of course, he often makes careless mistakes at some point along the way, so his scores do not reflect his ability at all. Another student, Y., equates fairness with letting minor rule infractions slide, so she has pushed back every time my collab teacher or I have given her a consequence. I don’t know how to address all of this, but I hope that as the summer goes on and the material gets more rigorous, students will discover that it pays to maintain a strong culture of achievement in the classroom. (Oh man, Kool-Aid alert.)

The Behavior Management Cycle works! It really does! I teach the 8:30 – 9:30 am block, which is really early and right after students have eaten breakfast, so the biggest behavioral issue at the beginning of the week was that students were slouching or putting their heads down while I was teaching. But explicit directions and a little behavior narration fixed that right up, and now even M. (who at one point actually fell asleep during Wednesday’s class) doesn’t even try to put his head down anymore. Big shout-outs to Memphis 11 and G, who commented on my last post encouraging me to take BMC and make it my own.

Narrating behavior still doesn’t feel entirely natural to me, and I have a tendency to inadvertently make value statements (“I see that J. has her notebook open and is ready to take notes, very good.”). Hopefully it’ll just be a matter of practice and actively screening my words as I say them. At least I haven’t had the issue that some CMs have had, namely that of students mocking their narration rather than being influenced by it.

My CMA is the sweetest, most hard-working person ever. She wrote us another set of personalized notecard letters on Monday, and she leaves us little gifts and encouraging notes every time she observes one of us teaching. She also made the theme and big goal posters for my classroom since my collab and I have awful handwriting. Honestly, I don’t know if I’d be half as optimistic about the next three weeks as I am now if it weren’t for the time and energy that she has poured into making each of us feel welcome, supported, and capable.

I need to show my gratitude more. My lack of facial and verbal expression has always been an issue, but I feel especially guilty that my CMA (or any staff member who has supported me, for that matter) might feel unappreciated because of it. Today during our school group meeting, she gave me a shout-out for exemplifying the TFA core value of leadership, and all I could do was stand there and look kind of surprised as they put the “leadership” hat on my head. Alas. Also, I think I worry her a lot because I spend too much time planning and sending emails at 1 am and not enough time sleeping, so I should work on my time management.

Speaking of which, it’s time for bed. Weekend and week two, here I come!

4 Responses

  1. Kayla

    Thanks for all your encouraging words! I’ve been trying to keep up with all your exciting blog entries well. It’s weird cause we actually don’t know each other’s names, we are just two people going for the same goal in two different places haha. Let me know if you want to stay contacted via email and be friends!

  2. umma

    one small tidbit – post its! take 5 minutes out of your work periods when others are teaching your students.. write an encouraging note about that day (awesome job answering #5 – i was so proud of you!). walk in with the sticky and OH SO nonchalantly (bc you KNOW they’ll all be watching what you’re doing) go over and stick it on the corner of their desk. :D even the cool kids love it.

  3. Alice

    Hi James! What is your address at institute? I like your analogy to the day before thesis is due. Hope you are doing well! Thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

  4. Susie Park

    So good to read.
    G-Prov, James. Even though your life is not easy (wow senior thesis deadline multiplied?!), I am glad for you, you know? Keep running hard and enjoying the run!

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New city, same vision

Rhode Island
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