Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Return of the Prodigal Mr. O

So my unpredictable route through the world of urban education has taken another curious turn. (As tangentially mentioned) I've returned to my school, volunteering part-time.

My initial foray into the classroom didn't go as planned; in fact, it went the opposite of planned,* and my departure was an unhappy one. But once the tremors subsided, I found myself deeply missing those kids, and though I'm in no great hurry to run a classroom again any time soon (if ever), I wasn't ready to put that world behind me. I e-mailed my principal and offered my services in whatever capacity might be useful.

Now I'm back. I can't deny, when I first returned to the building, I was nervous, but my welcome was uniformly kind and gracious—and in some cases, riotously jubilant: my 6th grade girls, my homeroom class who, when I was their teacher, regularly drove me to the brink (unless you've experienced it first hand, you cannot believe the amount of sass packed in some of these teeny-tiny ladies), mobbed me like the-Beatles-coming-to-America, almost literally knocking me over.

So I'm just doing whatever needs doing: reviving the neglected computer lab, helping them sort out their student data, I'll probably do some math tutoring. But it gives me the chance to see my kids again, chat with them, find out what they're up to and what they're thinking about (which was always my favorite part of the job).

I have no idea if the volunteering will just be what it is or if it will lead to further Adventures in Teaching Land. I just know it's nice to be back.

* I believe I owe you a "wax analytical". (How much are they charging for an analytical wax at the salon these days?) I'll give it briefly, in fine print.
The Big Picture:

Certainly, the Systemic Cards are stacked against any newbie teacher thrown, with essentially no training, into the hyper-challenging environment of the "high needs" classroom. Some make it work, but many don't. Good intentions and a college degree, unfortunately, aren't enough. Teaching is a profession (and an exceptionally difficult one at that), and it requires training. (Which is to say, good, legitimate, on-the-job training; not the sort of irrelevant cruft that seems to bloat many education courses. What little coursework I had was almost entirely useless, like throwing a drowning man a textbook on swimming and saying, "Here, read two-hundred pages by Tuesday.")

The Little Picture:

I discovered limitations in myself that made this trial-by-fire particularly problematic:
  1. I'm too nice. I'm as-strict-as-I-need-to-be with my own kids, but I found it very hard to translate that to a room full of other people's children. And a genial rapport isn't enough when you're dealing with some students who need very firm boundaries.
  2. I'm a slow learner—slow and methodical. Once I get there, I really get there, but just starting from day one trying to sort out the dizzying array of names and faces and learning styles and curriculum requirements and instructional techniques and required documents and... Ack! Too much, too fast.
The Medium Picture:

After the storm, the school became a charter, but for the first two years of its new incarnation, it continued to struggle woefully. (As mentioned before, our 4th-graders had the second lowest math scores in the city last year. Which is saying something.) Now, with a new administration and a largely new staff, we were trying to turn it around, but it was the charter's third year, we were up for review, and we needed to make dramatic improvement in test scores, particularly in math, or risk losing our charter and possibly being shut down altogether—a tough job for any teacher and one that, if all was as it should be, ought never have been tasked to a rookie. (My replacement is a force-of-nature veteran. It's a pleasure to watch her work.)
So there have you have it—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Any questions?


  1. "What little coursework I had was almost entirely useless, like throwing a drowning man a textbook on swimming and saying, "Here, read two-hundred pages by Tuesday.""

    That is a fantastic analogy!

  2. Anonymous11:38 AM

    The cost of an analytical wax? It depends on how hairy your analytical is.

    I’ve a friend who worked as an inner-city school teacher. I know her to be a soft-spoken soul, so I was alarmed to see her acting like General Blood and Guts Patton (along with every other teacher at her school) the day I visited. Scared, actually.

    At a much later date, I had expressed to her how shocked I was to see how rough and tumble she seemed to be that day.

    She had an interesting take on it, which was something to the effect of this: "Every teacher there would prefer to be gentle than militant. I learned in college about intrinsic/extrinsic motivation, positive vs. negative reinforcement, even different learning styles/multiple intelligences. But this is triage. I’m just acting on instinct up there - doing whatever it takes to keep control of my class and reach a modicum of my teaching goals."

    She couldn't go beyond that to explain what it was that she was doing and why, except to say that she herself found this way the most effective in achieving academic results.

    Upon reflection, I related what she said to a couple of different jobs I had in retail a while back. I remember at one of the first places I worked, you were to always treat your customers with a smile. Smile, smile, smile - even if the customer had blood coming out of their ears or a bone sticking out of their shin. Sales-wise, I did OK there, but never great.

    When I graduated up the ladder to a finer retailer, the advice was different. It was, "don’t smile unless they're smiling." This company spent a lot of money on knowing the latest in the behavioral psychology of their shoppers. At this place, you were asked to mimic the customers - their body language, their style of talk. Smiles alone wouldn't cut it. It really worked. Bonds of trust were formed faster, and these strangers - these customers, would be taking my advice on plaids, pleats and paisleys after an introduction of less than a minute.

    So this teacher was employing a bit of that - sassing back when sassed upon. She was talking their language, meeting them where they were, and getting results. It kind of relates to that Gladwell article, about how some of those teachers that are doing well and getting results are using a sort of feedback loop - though this gal’s had to include the very tough and defensive ways of talking that her students were used to.

    That’s a very hard transition, I think, for someone that prefers gentility - as she does. She eventually exhausted of it, and is now teaching in the suburbs.

    On another note, for a year I worked with an arts outreach after-school program for inner-city kids - and elective program...the kids were there voluntarily. Results were not in demand, except that they relax and enjoy something not offered to them in their school-day. The usual resistances these tough kids put up in their regular classrooms fell away - and very much what you were saying about the sass-queens that mobbed you in the hall on your return - they were very vulnerable in demonstrating their need for attention and nurturance. And also, they made themselves available to "learnable moments" regarding kinder ways of behavior than what they were used to employing. Those things ideally should take place in the classroom, but often don't when the teachers are forced into acting like Major Hard-Ass to just keep control.

    Any questions? Yes. Have you checked out what might be available with 21st Century Community Learning Centers for your school? You’re probably already familiar with a couple of the biggest beneficiaries: Urban Arts Partnership and Dave Eggers' 826 projects. Maybe you can get some money for your efforts, that computer lab, and other things I’m sure your HSP eyes have spotted a need for.

    Best wishes on your return, Mr.O.

  3. He has a great point about not having to teach in a high stakes position. I think you could kick some serious ass in a school by figuring out how to get a good computer lab up and running. You would be a hero to the kids and can really make a difference in their being up to snuff with the latest latest tech stuff. Not to mention you could help teachers integrate tech into the classroom, which, as you can imagine, could alleviate some pressure on their part.


    I used to teach at the New School re: integrating technology into the science and special needs classroom. I showed teacher with no budgets how they could view mitosis animation online, dissect cells virtually, create genetic experiments (like with Mendel and his peas and his charts, etc). And the possibilities in the math classroom with geometry apps are endless.

    I also have a amazing friend who knows how to get people to fall over themselves to donate resources to public school tech labs -I can tap him for some advice. And then there is donor's or com.

    I am here to talk over possibilities, which could be fun. I gots ideas and some experience to boot.

    And I think they are making the verification words more fun on purpose:

  4. and I went to an 826 conference last spring so I can answer questions and supply you with sample and explanator
    y materials about that VERY VERY cool and successful operation. It's actually Dave's pet dream to open an 826 NOLA, but he has to work with the board that was recently created as the organization has grown so much.