I am listening to REM and all is well

Well, okay, that’s probably overstating things, but today went pretty well after a not-great run of a few days. Helpful facts: my midday knuckleheads were tamed through a combination of fortuitous absences and a couple of notable suspensions, and on top of that I had an unscheduled observation by my principal during 3rd hour. After eighteen years of teaching I have lost all fear of these events; I’m going to keep doing what I was doing before you came into the room, and sometimes that’ll mean I teach a really good lesson and sometimes it’ll mean I’m not doing a whole damn lot if, say, the plan was to have the kids on one of the various computer programs we’ve got them working on. If it’s one of those days I might seriously just be sitting in my chair monitoring their computer screens and not actively “teaching.” I’m not changing the lesson; you didn’t tell me you weren’t coming in. Some teachers panic and feel like they Have to Be Doing Something when the boss comes in. Me? Fuck it, I’ve been highly effective two years in a row and I don’t see a lot changing this year. I’m going to enjoy the slight bump in cooperation and good behavior I get from having an administrator in the room and keep on keeping on.

My student observer starts tomorrow, and frankly that has me more worried than formal observations– mostly because I genuinely want this to be a useful experience for the kid (he’s a grown-ass man, but … whatever) and I’m a little nervous about that. It’s not going to change how I do things with the kids or anything like that, and I’ve told him to have no fear about challenging me on anything he has questions or concerns about, so I hope it goes well, but as everyone who follows this site knows very well, one determined kid can blow up a lesson any time they feel like it, and I don’t feel like having my dude exposed to that just yet. The notable suspensions will be continuing through the rest of the week, which is awesome, so at least his first day ought to go reasonably smoothly, but who the hell knows. Watch, there’ll be a fucking fire or a power outage or some such shit tomorrow.

(There can go ahead and be a power outage tomorrow. I’ve decided everything is on paper for the next couple of days anyway. So long as I have access to the photocopier. The outage can happen after I have my photocopies done. Or, fuck it, I can just write the damn problems on the board. It’ll be fine. Dude can learn teacherly improvisation on his first day. It’ll be fine.)

Anyway. It’s 7:00 already, so if I’m going to be ready for tomorrow I probably ought to get my lesson written.

On scheduling and mental health

Have I mentioned how much I love my schedule this year? My district changed the timing of our day again this year, moving the start of the school day to an obscenely late 9:30 AM and the end of the day until 4:30, which … okay, I know lots of people work later than that, and I know about the research suggesting that a later start time is better for adolescent kids, but what I can also tell you is that still being in school at 4:30 is pretty clearly not an ideal situation for these kids. The middle schools have the latest schedule, which has led to some problems lately as the high school students have time to leave school and make it to the middle schools to start trouble before we dismiss our kids.

I have kids with me straight from 9:30 until 3:00, excepting only my half hour for lunch, which is more like 20 minutes once I get the kids there and wait for the cafeteria to be open and get my food and get back upstairs and maybe get a bathroom break, which … well, isn’t that bad, actually, as two groups and then lunch is perfectly manageable and after 18 years of teaching I’m used to eating lunch with a quickness. But that’s not why I bring this up; I bring this up because being done with teaching two class periods before the end of the day means that whatever bullshit I have to deal with is dealt with before I get home. Any frustration and stress that accumulates through the day has more than enough time to bleed off– most of the time, at least– before I go home. I have a team meeting 8th hour every day, which gives me 7th to get my head back on straight so that I can be useful during our meeting.

It’s great. It’s amazing how much less visibly exhausted I am than the other teachers at the end of the day, and it’s not because of my sunny fuckin’ disposition or my can-do attitude, it’s because I’m missing the students when they’re collectively at their worst and I have time to decompress and become human again before I go home and lock myself in my office to play video games interact with my wife and son. This has not been a bad year so far, all told, although it’s had its moments so far– more on that later this weekend, maybe– and part of that is that I’m not bringing it home. And all of that is based basically on a roll of the dice, since it’s not like the counselor consulted with me before she set everything up.

In which I pass on my skills

Man, the images you find when you Google “student teaching” are kind of hilarious.

I am doing something this semester that, somehow, I have never done before in eighteen hours of teaching: I am hosting a preservice teacher for thirty hours of classroom observations in my room, and he’s going to teach a few lessons as part of that, which I will then be on the hook for evaluating him for. He came by the building today during my prep period, and we did the first part of the stuff he’s required to do in the form of a formal interview, along with lots of me waxing poetic about the joys of teaching in an urban school system.

It is going to be very interesting to me to see how well I tread the line between being honest with this kid about what this job is like and preserving his continued desire to actually become a teacher. Y’all know me well enough to know that I’m not sure I think people should be teachers any longer. About half the time I feel like we should let the entire institution collapse and then see how society manages without us. But that’s neither here nor there, and if I’m going to be relentlessly positive with my students this year I’m sure as hell going to be relentlessly positive with him too. It’s not my job to talk him out of anything; it’s my job to model how to do it well.

I’ve also never had a student teacher, but I think that particular pleasure is one that I’m going to continue to deny myself. So long as my test scores are tied so closely to my evaluations, the idea of handing my classes over to a student teacher is going to be something I’m going to be very reluctant to do.

But yeah: between now and Thanksgiving, I’m going to have someone who, for three hours a week at least, is actually obligated to listen to me yammer on endlessly about teaching to him. Isn’t that going to be fun?

On giving up

My kids took the NWEA this week, which ate up my Tuesday and Wednesday, and will knock another couple of kids out of class on Monday while they finish up. I would, in general, prefer not to have to worry about standardized tests, but as such things go the NWEA isn’t bad. It hits most of my checkboxes for what I want for these things: first, it’s a growth test, meaning that it’s keyed to individual students and it’s possible for a very low student to demonstrate a lot of growth and have that treated as a positive thing even though they don’t do objectively as good as a more advanced student who stayed the same. Second, there’s no notion of passing the test. Their score is keyed to grade levels, yes, but there’s no cutscore where a student is arbitrarily determined to have “passed” or “failed” regardless of their grade. And while we administer it three times a year, any given administration doesn’t take very long– I was able to get most of my kids tested in a single block, and two blocks got basically everyone who was present to take the test in the first place done. That’s not that bad. Realistically, we’ll lose more days this year to me being sick or absent for training than we will to the NWEA.

The median percentile score (also: percentile scores are more useful than arbitrary scores, although the NWEA generates both) of my three groups, nationwide, was 19, 16, and 13. Meaning, in case you haven’t studied measures of central tendency recently, that if 100 randomly-chosen kids took the test, 81 of those kids would outscore half of the students in my first block, 84 would outscore half of my kids in 2nd block, and 87 would outscore half of my kids in 3rd block.

Eight of my students are in the 1st or 2nd percentile, meaning that 99 or 98 of those randomly-chosen kids would outscore them.

Let us, for the moment, simply postulate that there are a number of possible reasons for these scores including but not limited to that a large percentage of them effectively took 1/4 of 6th grade and all of 7th grade off and then lay that aside. I’m not especially concerned with why for the purpose of this post.

We are supposed to discuss these results with our kids, which for the record is something I support. If we don’t talk about how they did, the test becomes meaningless to them, and there is absolutely nothing that is more of a waste of time than a standardized test that a student isn’t taking seriously. So it’s useful to let them know how they did, what it means for them, and what they might want to do to improve.

Where I am struggling right now, though, is this, and forgive me for another post whose point gets boiled down to a single sentence after five paragraphs of lead-in:

I do not know how to tell a fourteen-year-old kid “99 out of every 100 people who took this did better than you” in a way that does not sound functionally identical to “You should give up.”

I can couch it as as much of a pep talk as I want, and I already know that at least one of those eight kids is going to work her ass off for me this year because that’s who she is, and if I have her at a third- or fourth-grade understanding of math by the end of the year it will be a triumph. And unlike many years, I think all of these eight kids are at least potentially reachable still. There have definitely been years where I had a kid at 1% who I was privately convinced was going to stay at 1% out of sheer spite for the rest of the year, and these aren’t those kids.

Similarly, it is difficult to communicate those median percentile scores to a classroom of kids without a number of them concluding that they’re just dumb and should give up. When the highest-scoring kids in the room aren’t past the 60th percentile (which is the case) they all need extra help, and I can’t provide “extra” help to 27 kids at once. One of my classes can barely get through a basic lesson right now because of the number of behavior issues I have. And that’s before I have to give them information that demoralizes the hell out of them for what are, unfortunately, entirely reasonable reasons. In most circumstances, if 99 out of 100 people are better than you at something, you are probably going to stop doing that thing! So what the hell am I going to do in a situation where not only are 99 out of 100 people doing better than my kids in math, but many of them don’t even want to be good at it? Remediating this would be a Herculean effort from someone fully invested in improving. And right now I just don’t know how the hell to ask for that kind of effort (and expect to actually get it) from people who, to be charitable about it, don’t have academic success as a high personal priority right now.


One, two, three, four, one, two …

It may be that you can predict why I have chosen this particular video to grace my humble website tonight.

The other reason is that it was 104 degrees outside today and at least ninety in the halls at my school, and I am tired.