Two-sday Surprises.

Sometimes, a small surprise can mean a whole lot more than its face value might suggest.

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This morning didn’t seem any different than most when I left the house to head to work, but it proved to hold two lovely surprises.

The first surprise came in the form of a shop assistant who remembered me as her teacher from a number of years ago, and happily recalled the things she had studied and learned with me. An adult now, and with a different hair colour, I had not recognised her, but she knew me straight away.

It was nice to hear that she thought the books we read and the lessons we drew from them were valuable, and that history classes were interesting. It was wonderful to see that she had grown up into a confident, friendly and polite young woman with a lovely personality.

Of all the fond memories she recalled, though, one in particular had a profound effect on me: “You were the one teacher I ever had who showed me that it was okay to just be me, because that’s who I was meant to be. It’s something I have never forgotten.”

Wow! What a privilege to hear a former student say those words. I have struggled for many years with self acceptance, and as a teen I knew full well the agony of not fitting in with a particular crowd. Even then, I had the strength of will to resist peer pressure and not buy into many of the pitfalls that offered themselves to me at bargain prices and opportune moments. But that didn’t mean I was free of the wish to be someone or somewhere else – a desire that has recurred several times since.

Yet, somehow along the way, I managed to communicate something valuable about self acceptance to at least one teen in a similar situation.

I wonder if that knowledge would appease or satisfy those who think I push too many boundaries. Being part of a fairly conservative school, church and family, I take both pleasure and pride in not exactly looking conservative. I don’t intentionally break the rules, but I don’t mind testing their limits. My opinions often differ, and my willingness to assert them can make others uncomfortable. I don’t see that as a problem, though. There is merit in challenging people to see different perspectives and to accept differences. I’d like to think that people might become so used to my differences that I will need to think of something new to do to keep them on their toes.

My second surprise was a note on my desk from ex-students who had a reunion on Saturday night. I attended the reunion: it was a lovely evening of catching up and reminiscing. I didn’t realise, though, that they had left me a love letter on their tour of the school. How gorgeous that they still know how to make their English teacher happy and proud.

The Perils of Being a Teacher #23

Today I’ve been given a Year 8 Maths class to cover for a teacher who is away. 

Maths. Seriously? 

I struggled with Year 8 Maths when I was in Year 8. I have no hope of appearing to master it now, no matter how good an actress or improviser I may be. 

So I advised the class: “I expect you to work quietly and stay focused on your work. If you need help, I strongly advise asking one of your classmates, because I am not going to be of any help to you.”

One boy raised his hand and asked incredulously, “Are you saying you can’t do Year 8 Maths?”

“What I’m saying,” I replied, “Is that my career as a teacher should be an encouragement to anyone who struggles in one area or another. You can be successful, even if something like Maths defies you.”

The strugglers in the class smiled, and everyone settled down to their work. They seem to know what they’re doing. 

Phew. Dodged a bullet there. 

The perils of report writing.

After being a teacher for twenty-six-and-a-half years, I’m surprised that it has only just occurred to me that the effect of report writing on the body is much like pregnancy cravings.

I’m working away, absorbed in the delicate task of crafting a finely constructed, highly expressive report of the achievements and needs of each student when all of a sudden, my body speaks to me.
“Sugar. I need sugar.”
I think of ice cream, then of oreos. Ice cream with oreos. Awesome.

I’m about to get out of my chair and go foraging, but then I remember that I have an enormous amount of work to do and I don’t want to get too distracted. Instead, I look for sweets in the drawers beside my chair. An almost-empty packet yields two licorice allsorts which are consumed in quick succession, shortly after which I decide that this may not have been a good idea, even if the choice of licorice did seem healthier than the unholy amount of chocolate consumed while writing Year 10 English until 1.45 am. Feeling a little queasy, I continue working.

“Mmmm. Pickles. I’d love a pickle.”
Subsequent investigation in the kitchen leads to the conclusion that there are no pickles in the house and then to the discovery that a couple of large slices of tinned beetroot makes a fabulous substitute. Who knew?

Feeling surprisingly sated, I return to my work and let my creative juices flow.
The industry with which the words flow from my mind to my fingertips and onto the screen is impressive. This lasts for at least fifteen minutes, until the dilemma of how to write about young Miss Elsie Whosiewhich’s failure to submit any work at all for the entire semester leaves one wondering if there are any cheese and onion flavoured potato chips in the house.
These thoughts are set aside with determination to at least finish writing half of the Year 10 history reports before I take another break, but before long the jar of coffee on the counter is calling out to me and I’m powerless to resist. Caffeine will keep me alert and help me concentrate, right?

I walk into the kitchen to make coffee but get distracted by thoughts of a peanut butter sandwich. Suddenly it’s all too much work, so I pour another glass of Coke Zero and head back to my study. It occurs to me just how freaking awesome cold coke tastes and feels. Delicious, ice-cold bubbly goodness delivering caffeine to my brain with every sip. Then I realise that I am a bit hungry and I should have grabbed that peanut butter sandwich while I was up. Dammit. I hunt for one of my Reese’s cups that I’ve hoarded in case of an emergency, and almost cry with happiness when I find it. Oh, that delicious peanut-buttery goodness…

Oh, wait. The caffeine was supposed to help me concentrate, wasn’t it?
Right. Back to it then.

Sad pants off… Happy pants on.

It was a really rough week at school for a number of reasons. I had been feeling very low and quite emotional for a couple of days after receiving some quite negative feedback from some of my students who preferred I didn’t know who they were, via my boss.
I was struggling to get past that until some lovely things happened to remind me that my professional life is not defined by negative comments from one group of students.

Thursday morning was complicated by things way beyond my control. I was supervising an exam and nobody came to take my place, so I couldn’t leave to take my Year 12 class. Given that the day before I found it really hard to go in there, I was thankful for the reprieve despite the obvious inconvenience that went hand-in-hand with it.  I was worried that the Year 12 students would think I just didn’t bother; in that sense, my missing their class couldn’t have happened at a worse time.  While still in the exam room, I sent them a note to apologise and explain what had happened.  The good thing was that it gave me time and distance to decide how I was going to deal with the issues I was facing in there.  I wanted to talk with them about it, but not while I was still upset enough to cry or sound whiny. I didn’t want it to be a knee-jerk or emotional reaction.

Later in the morning I ran some auditions for the school musical. This year we’re doing “The Pirates of Penzance”.  Two of the senior students who have both had leading roles in previous years auditioned together – she played Frederick and he played Ruth. It was absolutely delightful. That was the first time I had smiled, let alone laughed, in almost three days. They had no idea of how I was feeling, nor did they realise just what amazing therapy they were for me.

That afternoon I had my drama class. The students were performing plays that they had written themselves.
Those kids were amazing. They wrote clever scripts and performed them beautifully. There were some fabulous moments of humour, some well-developed drama, and very clever characterisation.  I saw one young lady who started with little confidence perform with confidence and style. I saw three young actors with a lot more experience perform a highly comedic play with at least eight roles, achieved cleverly with the change of a hat, glasses, jacket or prop to denote a different character.
After their performances, we had a little time so we talked about the plays and what they thought of their performances. I was so encouraged to hear them praising each other and saying really positive and constructive things without any encouragement to do so from me. We shared some fun moments and we laughed together. It was one of those moments where we all bonded as a group and everyone left feeling great.

On that same afternoon, we had our ‘Professional Learning Community’ staff meeting. This is where we divide into groups and discuss things like assessment, teaching and learning strategies, motivation, and all that type of stuff.  I was so tempted to just go home and avoid the whole thing, but I went along like the good girl I am.
The “icebreaker” was to tell everyone the high point and the low point of our teaching in the past few weeks.
I shared about my drama class and their great performances, but also about the positive bonding time afterward. I shared my frustration about not having been relieved from exam supervision that morning as the “low point” because I was still hurting over the year 12s and didn’t want to tell anyone about it.
In the course of the discussion, I was reminded that everyone has low points, nobody gets things right all the time, and that those issues don’t mean we’re not good at what we do. They just mean we’re human. Another colleague remarked that half the time when we think things are failing miserably, the kids don’t even realise. I responded with the observation that it’s like a play on stage – we know the script, but the kids don’t, so half the time when we think we’ve failed miserably, they are none the wiser.

As I drove home, I thought about my year 12s. As I wrote the other day, I didn’t know if it was one, two or seventeen of them that had complained. What if it really was only one or two? I thought about each of the students and decided that it definitely wouldn’t have been some of them. I decided to talk with them the next morning at the end of my class – rationally, reasonably, and humbly.

On Friday morning, ten minutes before the recess bell, I asked them to stop working and listen as I had something I wanted all of them to hear.
When I told them that I had been informed that there were students in there who thought I didn’t like them and weren’t being treated fairly, a number of the students looked indignant and quite angry. They were as horrified as I had been. That was reassuring.
I told them that I’m aware I don’t always get things right. I told them that if I had caused offence or hurt anyone that I was genuinely sorry and had been unaware of it until this week. I said that I didn’t want any barriers between them and me. I want to do everything I can to help them finish school well.
I told them that if I seemed reserved or miserable, it was far more likely that I was in physical pain than that I didn’t want to be with them.  I told them that I don’t like to let on when I’m in pain because that’s my problem, not theirs.
I asked them to please come and talk with me, or write me a note, or send me an email, if they wanted to talk about anything one-to-one or if there was any aspect of their work they wanted help with.
I reassured them that I really do like them. I think they’re great – and that’s the truth. I love being in class with them.
I left the room at the end of the lesson feeling like a weight had been lifted off me. I had met the conflict head on and dealt with it as honestly and sincerely as I could.

The only kids who came to see me after class were ones who wanted to tell me that they knew I loved them and they had no idea where any of that came from. They told me it certainly wasn’t the majority view, and it hadn’t been discussed in the common room.  Nobody has sent me any anonymous hate mail, nor has anyone asked me to work on something specific with them.

I really hope that I modelled some good behaviour in terms of resolving conflict and apologising. I really hope that the reassurance I gave was all that was needed to set their minds at ease.  I trust that things will improve from here on.
All I can do now is wait and see.

They think what???

Remember the old joke where Billy says, “But I don’t want to go to school! Nobody likes me!” and the punch line follows: “You have to go… You’re the teacher!”

I always thought it was pretty corny, but that’s exactly how I felt this morning.

As a teacher, it’s a really awful feeling finding out from a third party that some of my students think that I don’t like them.
I know there are people who probably shouldn’t be teachers because they make their students and colleagues feel that way all the time.
I’ve always been sure that I was not one of those people.
Now I’m left wondering if I am.

I have no idea where all this came from.
Yesterday was bad enough before my boss dropped the bombshell: long, frustrating and plagued with physical pain.
Since then, I’ve been questioning myself and wondering where I’m going wrong.

I’m not trying to sound self-righteous or indignant.
I’m so incredibly hurt, and I’m fearful that I have had that same effect on other students who were just too nice to say so.
Whether or not it was what they intended, I’m devastated.

When criticism filters down from my boss and people prefer to not be named, it’s hard to know how to react because you don’t know if it’s one, two, or seventeen of your students who feel that way.
It’s hard to not take it personally. It leaves you questioning yourself and, at the very least, your professional integrity.
Am I not really the teacher or the person that, until now, I believed I was?
How did this happen?
Am I one of those hateful, hurtful teachers?
Is it even possible to be one of those people when I actually like my students and enjoy my classroom interaction with them? Or without even realising?
Why didn’t anyone tell me?
Is it so hard to say something to me?
Am I that unapproachable?
Am I past it?
Do teachers have “use by” or “best before” dates?

If only they knew how much I really do like them.
If only they knew how hard I work for them.
If only they knew how I agonise over marking their work and writing constructive comments to help them improve.
If only they knew how much I want each of them to do their best, not for me but because it’s an investment in their own future.
If only they knew the level of physical pain I endure without ever letting them know what’s going on under the surface, simply because that’s my problem, not theirs.

And how am I supposed to fix this?
Walking into the classroom and saying, “Hey guys, I hear you think I don’t like you. Well, you’re wrong. I do…” is just going to look and sound phoney.
If they can’t tell from the way I try to encourage them and give positive feedback, faking a smile when I’m hurting isn’t going to convince anyone.

Besides, smiling wasn’t really possible today. I was proud of myself for just holding it together and not crying in front of them. Talking about this with them in class wasn’t an option.

Maybe I should just give them the link to this blog. Or maybe that’s too impersonal.
Maybe I just can’t do anything right anymore.
Maybe I need to sleep on it… again… and hope that tomorrow is better.

The reasons I love my job.

I really love some of the people I work with.  I need both hands to count the awesome people that I consider to be my friends as well as my workmates.  I don’t need to name them. They know who they are.

There is a lot to be said for knowing that there is always someone who you can always turn to for advice, a shoulder, or a laugh.
It’s refreshing to know that when someone smiles at you, they mean it.
When they ask if you are doing OK, you can be honest because they actually want to know.
I can tell them when I’m struggling, and I can share my joys and victories with them.
They see humour in the things that make me laugh, and they will cry with me, or for me, on those days when that is really my only option.
They know, too, that I will do the same for them. It’s really great to know that I can make the difference in their day that they make in mine.

Some of the greatest joys in my working life come from knowing who those people are and sharing part of my life with them. I am thankful for each one of them every day. To be honest, those people are often the difference between me actually being happy to go to work or not.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my job. I love working with my students and seeing them grow in confidence and knowledge. I thrive on classroom interaction and banter.  I have positive  student-teacher relationships with most, although not all, of my students. They know I do my absolute best for them.
When I am teaching, I know I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing.

There are times, though, when being at work and functioning properly is a really tough challenge.  Some days are just plain, hard work both emotionally and physically.
I hate it that I’m so weak and vulnerable. I hate it that my body lets me down. I hate it when my students see a glimpse of my pain or my inability to cope with it.
I hate the guilt that goes with all of that.

One of my greatest fears is that someone will decide I’m not up to it anymore, or I’m not good enough, or that I’m too broken to keep on teaching.
So I suck it up, put my sassy pants on, and keep going. I choose to invest my time and energy into my students and my friends. The days are much more rewarding and enjoyable that way.
A long walk up to the staff room doesn’t happen any more often than absolutely necessary, and that’s OK.
I’m not isolated because I am blessed to share an office with some of my friends. Others make a point of catching up with me through the day or by email or instant message.
It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself with friends like mine.

I really do love some of the people I work with.
Others… not so much.

Why report writing stresses teachers out.

We’ve all seen those funny things that teachers post about writing school reports.
Some of them suggest things we’d love to write, but we know we never could… no matter how tempted we might be.

Others are translations of teachers’ comments commonly found in school reports. Here’s an example:

“Murgatroyd is highly social and engages well with his classmates.”
In other words, Murgatroyd doesn’t shut up and distracts the entire class from what they are supposed to be doing.

“Murgatroyd demonstrates strong interest in science, and is very creative in his use of hypothesis and experiment.”  That is, Murgatroyd isn’t scared of bugs or creepy-crawlies, and was brave enough to put a snake in Prissy’s school bag and a venomous spider in the teacher’s desk drawer. He figured they would be upset, but he did it just to see what would happen.

Okay, so we can laugh at those examples.

However, it is really hard to balance the need for both honesty and diplomacy when writing school reports. It’s important to let parents know what their little treasures are doing at school and how they are progressing.   It’s important for our students to know what they are doing right, and how they can further improve their learning.

It’s also really important for parents to understand that writing reports is not an easy job. It adds pressure  because we are so keen to get it right. It adds stress because we are working to an extra deadline while we’re still teaching classes, grading exams, doing yard duty, marking students’ work, and attending meetings.  We go home to our homes and families, where all the regular things parents and spouses do needs to keep happening.  It often means late nights of unpaid overtime, looking at a computer screen until our eyeballs threaten to bleed or we get nauseous because we’re sleep deprived, not eating properly, and surviving on caffeine and sheer determination.

When kids are well-behaved, attentive, cooperative and soak up information like a sponge, their reports are quite easy to write.  The biggest danger is falling into the trap of making things sound like the kid has it made and just has to show up to get those As. It’s easy to praise, encourage and motivate those students.

Don’t let that fool you into assuming that every kid in every class is like that. It’s simply not true.

Writing a report for a student that hates your subject, or one  who doesn’t want to behave, or one who is determined to see just how many times they can be told off, sent out, given detention or how quickly they can make the teacher cry… that is a really hard job. Especially when schools all have guidelines and rules for writing reports that prevent teachers from telling it like it really is.

Sometimes you want to tell parents that their kid is a law unto themselves, and that they won’t take correction or discipline without a fight. Sometimes you want to tell parents that even though their child behaves like an angel, her self-righteousness and conceit make her really hard to have around… especially when she insists on telling the teachers how they should be doing their job, or on trying to do their job for them.  Sometimes you want to tell parents that their child has given them the term, semester or year from  hell, and that both you and the student in question are lucky to have made it through alive.  Sometimes you wish you could let parents know, just in case they haven’t realised, that their child is among the laziest human beings on the planet and he’s not going to make it into rocket science with his attitude and work ethic. 

Having to be diplomatic about those things is a really tough gig.  And there is at least one kid like that in every class.

Parents, for the love of everything educational, if there are things in your child’s report that you don’t like reading… please consider that perhaps your little treasure may not be quite as well-behaved and super-intelligent as you believe.  Please consider that the teacher isn’t making it up, singling out your child, or blaming a student for their own lack of ability or patience.  Please consider that maybe the teacher is saying something you need to know and understand about your child.  Understanding that might make a bigger difference in your parenting and in your child’s life than detentions, notes, consequences and meetings with teachers ever will.

And if you are lucky enough to have a child who brings home reports that glow with praise and encouragement, be very, very thankful.  You can bet their teachers are.