Teaching Without Vision. #IMMOOC W5.2

I teach in a tiny school. The 8th grade class is seven students – and they’re the “big” class. Despite the size, the upper grades are completely departmentalized. There’s a different teacher for every subject, and with the way schedules work out, I never see them. Ever.

Honestly, that works for me, even though I know it shouldn’t. Bouncing around the country for so many years gave me a bit of an independent streak when it comes to teaching. It was survival mode then, but now it keeps me from reaching out or initiating collaboration (I’m working on this now). And from what I’ve picked up in meetings, the overall vision of our school is vague at best. We’re a Christian school and Biblical teaching is given highest priority, but that’s where the vision stops, as far as I can tell.

What kind of academic education do we provide? What learning outcomes are we trying to instill? What are we doing to prepare these kids for high school and the world beyond? If there is an overriding vision, it hasn’t been communicated to the teachers well. All the teachers are very qualified, but we’re all doing our own thing in isolation.

The crazy thing is, by rocking the boat and changing how I teach, I’m now seeing those conversations higher up the ladder. Among other things, the board is talking about pursuing accreditation. Maybe that process will help us define a vision, not just in our religious beliefs, but in our academic practice, as well.


School Culture: It’s in your hands, kids.

“Quiet game, everybody!”  The speaker is one of the more vocal guys in the class, the one who usually riles up the others, but they have work to do today.  The quiet game was his favorite strategy to get himself to focus.  “Five minutes. One, two, three, go.”

And the room silenced.

The absolute silence only lasted for a few seconds, but the spirit of the game continued, with comments kept to quiet murmuring mostly on topic with their work.  They’re all seniors, this class full of students taking college writing.  They meet in my room, but I’m not teaching the class. My predecessor still teaches it, giving them their assignments online and occasionally coming in to meet with them in person.  On a regular day, third period is a glorified study hall for them (and me).  It’s a chance for them to meet together and focus on the work for this class, but they’re free to work on whatever they want.  If they have a more pressing assignment in another class, they work on that instead and save the college writing work for another time.  And there are days when they don’t have much to do at all, so they tend to converse and browse the internet instead.  I’m pretty “hands off” with this group.  I don’t even have a syllabus for the class, much less access to their individual assignments.  If they choose to focus on the course work, good for them.  If they choose to do something else, that’s up to their discretion.

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Dealing with Naiveté

I had already started writing this post when three students came into my study hall asking if they could survey some of the kids in the room.  As they circulated among the class and asked their questions, it became harder and harder for me to simply sit quietly and listen.  The survey was on racism in America today, and in my eavesdropping I caught wave upon wave of the naiveté that inspired me to write this post in the first place.  These kids have good lives.  Their families are well off.  Aside from the handful of Korean exchange students, our school doesn’t have much in the way of diversity.  They’ve never seen the impact of racism in action – which led them to conclude that racism is now a non-issue.  I cringed inwardly, already mulling over ideas for bringing up the topic in class some time.

I love my job.  I love this demographic, though not always for the reasons people expect.  For the most part, my students are awesome – respectful, trustworthy, and motivated.  But man, they’re naive.

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The Turning Point

Today’s post comes courtesy of a question that appeared on my Facebook news feed, from Marcus Buckingham:

What was your all-time favorite job and why?
If it isn’t your current job, why not?

It’s a timely prompt for me, because I came to my all-time favorite job when I was in a situation not too different from what I’m facing now.  I’d been subbing for a year and a half, struggling with my identity as a teacher and frustrated that I couldn’t find full-time work in the field that I loved.  Then I was asked to cover a maternity leave fill-in April through June at LCA, an upper-demographic private school in Massachusetts.  I worked there for only two months, but I still consider it the best time of my career and the job that turned the corner in my professional confidence.

I remember waking up eager to get out of bed and start my day, instead of groaning about having to go to work.  I remember the faces of those students even better than some students I’ve taught for a full year.  I remember the affirmation of a career I loved, the acceptance of professional peers who became my friends, and the joy of being in a room full of exceptional teenagers.

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Please Forgive the Mess

*Note:  This is a follow-up on my last post, On Teen Angst: Why It’s Ok to Not Be OK.

In the last few weeks, I’ve made my first professional foray into public schools.  All I’ve known in the past is private schools.  I went to two different private high schools as a teen and taught and subbed in countless private schools in all my travels.  But now I’m a substitute teacher at the local public high school, which leads to people asking me about the differences.  What’s it like being at the “big, bad public school” when all you’ve known is private school?

Honestly, I’m enjoying it.  Granted, I’m in a small-town community right now, not a big city, so don’t start imagining metal detectors at the door and policemen patrolling the halls.  We don’t have any of that.  But people still ask.  “Do the kids swear in front of you?”  “Are they rude and disrespectful?”  “Do they fight?”

Not all of them, but sometimes, yes.  Now ask me if kids did those things at the private school.  Because again, the answer is still yes.  So while I love private schools and whole-heartedly support the work they do, let’s stop pretending they don’t have their own problems, because they do.   Continue reading

How I Got Here

The Container Store in Schaumburg, Illinois

Organization is not my strong suit!

“You can be anything you want to be!  If you work hard, anything is possible!”

It’s an exciting, encouraging message for kids – a world where the possibilities are endless and dreams are attainable.  But as those kids get older, shouldn’t we help them narrow the field down a bit from “anything”?   Because no matter how badly I might want it, I will never be a rocket scientist, WNBA star, or organizational consultant at The Container Store.  Not gonna happen.  Ever.  I’m not naturally good at math or science, I’m 5′ 2″ with no aim, and organization is one of those things that I’m constantly… ahem… working on.  Clearly, these professions are not the right match for me, even if I really wanted one of them.

Obviously, those are some extreme examples, but bringing it a little closer to reality, I think I accidentally stumbled onto a fulfilling profession, instead of deliberately choosing it based on my interests.  You see, I was a nerd.  I read early and often.  As a homeschooler, I would look at my reading assignments and truthfully proclaim that I’d already read all those stories.  My parents have a picture of me in 7th or 8th grade reading Shakespeare at a Texas Rangers baseball game. Whenever I could, I built my high school class schedule around my English courses, and one Barnes & Noble salesman saw me in the store so often he started giving me his employee discount on my purchases.  So naturally, when I thought about my future career, I assumed it would be literary in nature. 

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Finding Purpose in College Prep

English: A Harkness table being used at the Co...

Ok, here’s today’s question:  Could we be doing more to help young people answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I can tell a “college prep” high school education means helping teens get into college and giving them the academic skills necessary to survive college-level classes.  And I’m not disputing the importance of those things.  College prep programs do a lot of good and I don’t want to take away from that.

I do, however, want to ask “why?”

People tend to raise eyebrows at me when I ask that, because they assume I’m asking as a challenge, but it really is just a serious inquiry.  Why is there such a strong push to get teens into college?  The standard answers I usually hear are “people need college to get a good job.” “College provides life experience.”  “Students need to be educated to get ahead.”  Or the all-too-generic “Because college is important.”

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