Category Archives: I love my job

WHY Are You Here?

*Background; this semester, I’m teaching composition classes at Local U. and Not-Local Community College.  I’m also teaching a teacher intern seminar and fitness classes at two different places, so I’m effectively working five part-time jobs.  I’m so frazzled, I often have no idea how I make it to the end of the week.  That being said, I’m more than a little surprised by how well things are going in general, and I’m not sure what to make of that…**

So, this happened;

The other day, instead of reflecting on a quote, I had my Local U. composition students write me a brief note about how the writing of their first paper is going.  I asked them a bunch of questions to spark their thinking, ending with “is there anything specific – a grammar question or an issue with organization or comprehension of the source materials – that you’d like me to go over with you?”  That was the question upon which I based our post-writing discussion.

With the exception of a couple of kids who just finished an associate’s program within the University, every single one of my students in that class is a fresh-out-of-high-school freshman; that’s important to know.  The very first kid to volunteer to speak asked about MLA formatting and how much of it they were supposed to do for this paper.

None of it,” was my answer, and 22 pairs of eyebrows shot toward the ceiling.

“Look,” I said, “you’re working with two sources; MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and President Obama’s A More Perfect Union speech.  As long as you identify them in your introduction and are clear about which source you’re quoting from in your body paragraphs, you’re fine.  MLA citations in this rhetorical situation would be unnecessary and distracting.”

It was at this point that another girl chimed in with, “can I just say that you’re NOTHING like what my high school English teachers said you’d be like?”

If the preponderance of nodding heads is any indication, her answer to my query about what she was expecting was affirmed by nearly everyone in the class; they were pretty much universally told that they would have to hit the ground running with a full and competent knowledge of citation, structure and process, and academic vocabulary, and that anything less than skillful and consistent display of these qualities would have them shamed and ostracized in their classes.  From the sounds of it, fully half – maybe more – expected to fail out of college within the first few weeks.

It was at this point that I stopped them – literally held up my hands in the “whoa, Nellie!” position – and asked them what, exactly, they were doing here.  “WHY are you here, You Guys?  What is the POINT of your being in this class?”

Genius boy in the corner pipes up with a hesitant “to learn stuff?” (reminding me that I should probably show them Taylor Mali’s “Like, Um, You Know?” poem).

“YES!” I bellowed, making a couple of them literally jump in their seats.  “If the POINT of your being here is to LEARN STUFF, then why the HELL would I expect you to KNOW any of it ALREADY?!  What would be the POINT of this class if you already KNEW everything I came here to TEACH you?!  Can you IMAGINE how BORING that class would be?  Seriously; I’d want to gouge my own eyeballs out by the third class!  GAH!”

One of the things I’ve observed in my teaching practice over the last year or two has been the fact that students would rather sit in silence, confused – and frustrated by their confusion – than speak up and admit they don’t know something.  I can’t tell you how many times I read an article aloud to my classes and stopped after a particularly challenging concept or a $5 vocabulary word to check comprehension, only to have them assure me that they “get it” but not be able to explain it to me when I asked them to prove it.  At some point, the system the way we practice it beat out of these students the kind of curiosity that encourages questions.  It discouraged them from admitting that they don’t know something, which is devastatingly ironic given that the one place we should ALWAYS be able to admit we don’t know something is in a goddamned CLASSROOM.

So, now I’m on a mission.  I am crusading to get kids to start ‘fessing up when they don’t understand something, to ask for help if they need it, and to not let teachers get away with assuming that someone ELSE taught them what they need to know to do well in class.  I’m done with that shit.  I am a teacher; my job is to help people learn, not assume that they should already know everything.

4 Comments

Filed under analysis, concerns, critical thinking, ethics, failure, frustrations, I can't make this shit up..., I love my job, really?!, self-analysis, Teaching, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

The Post I’ve Been Promising

So!  I promised you all a post that recounted my experiences at Classical Private School.  I’m sorry I’m only getting to it now; I’ve been preoccupied with the (soul-sucking) job hunt and have kind of been avoiding thinking about CPS a whole lot.

The last thing I wrote about, if memory serves, is that I’d agreed to teach a writing workshop as a volunteer for six weeks.  After a heart-to-heart with Dr. Wong, I discovered that CPS had no budget and couldn’t pay me (or, Dr. Wong assured me, she’d have hired me by that point).  She gave me the impression that she was fairly confident that their budget for the 13-14 school year would be sufficient to bring me on board, though, so that was encouraging.

In any event, I taught the writing workshop for the six weeks.  It was a little bumpy because the kids weren’t sure what the expectations were; some of them were under the impression that it was a required course while others were sure it was a volunteer deal, so I didn’t get consistent attendance.  Two of the kids were convinced that they didn’t NEED any writing instruction (though Dr. Wong made a point of assuring them that they did) and one boy spent most of the time goofing off (there’s always one!), but the rest of the group did really well.  Once they were reassured that I wasn’t teaching grammar, they kind of got into it (the adults in the school kept insisting on calling it a “grammar class” until I corrected them in front of the students – yes; I’d be teaching grammar, but it was a writing workshop.  The focus was on the writing process, not on grammar, per se).

I pulled out some of my more successful lesson plans for the course; we did a unit about the basics of the writing process (topic, purpose, audience!) and about the different rhetorical situations one encounters (you need to know topic, purpose, audience before you start writing so you can be sure you’re addressing yourself properly to the situation and the reader).  We reviewed some of my more stunningly awful emails (that’s ALWAYS a popular lesson).  We played the synonym game.

After I got them used to the idea that writing is a process and that it’s okay (good, even!) to start out really, really badly, we wrote.  I had them write personal narratives (tell me the story of your name) and, I think, it went very well.  The kids work-shopped their papers with each other (using some very clear and specific guidelines I supplied for them; workshops are only effective if you know how to do them, and they had never done them before meeting me) and ran through several drafts of their papers.  What was most fun was that a bunch of them didn’t really know their name story, so they had to go home and ask about it.  When I came back after we’d started these papers, a couple of kids were excited about the things they’d learned, and they reported that they really enjoyed the writing once they felt they had a good handle on what they wanted to say.

The one big hiccup was that, one afternoon, I was completely usurped in a really disrespectful and inconsiderate way.  I drove an hour each way to get to this place.  Keep in mind, as well, that I was doing this as a volunteer.  Well, one afternoon, I arrived and was asked if I would mind if Dr. Palmer interrupted my class for a few minutes to let the kids know about an elective he was going to be launching in the coming weeks.  Of course I don’t mind, so I say so.  Well, Dr. Palmer walks in five minutes into my class (we’d barely gotten started) and proceeds to take up more than my hour talking about the course he was designing around the acoustics of electric guitars.

Seriously.  I sat there waiting for him to finish, and I ended up having to leave well before he was done.  I was furious.

Beyond that, though, it went well.  The kids reported, in their evaluations, that they learned quite a lot about their own writing process in the short time we spent together.  They offered suggestions for what they’d like to know more about (were we able to spend more time) and expressed some satisfaction that they were noticing that writing felt a little less ominous to them for our having worked together.

I was sent off after my last class with a small offering to help offset my gas expenses, a coffee mug, and a CPS mouse pad.  Though Dr. Wong was not in the building that day, the Dean of Students offered me what I thought were heartfelt thanks and an eagerness that we maintain communications.  I left feeling pretty confident that someone would be in touch to offer me a position in the fall.

I haven’t heard a thing from any of them since.

Seriously.  Crickets.  No calls, no emails, nothing.

I’m not going to call them.  At this point, I’m reasonably sure that if they could have hired me, they would have, and I’m not in a position to accept a long-distance volunteer teaching gig.  I’m disappointed, though; CPS wouldn’t have been a perfect fit for me, but I think that I could have done some pretty significant good there.

I wish them all the best going forward.  Maybe our paths will cross again sometime.

4 Comments

Filed under about writing, analysis, colleagues, composition, critical thinking, failure, I love my job, Learning, lesson planning, rhetoric, Teaching, Teaching Writing Seminar, The Job, writing, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

Second Interview

My second interview for the high school teaching job is tomorrow at 12:30.

And again, inexplicably, I’m stressing about what to wear.

I’ve gotten some positive feedback about the administrative team from my source in the school, and I’m giving myself permission to feel a little hopeful about my chances of coming off favorably tomorrow.  It’s not conceit for me to say that I’m very good at what I do, I love the students and have more to offer them than just the material, and I’m invested in being the very best teacher I can possibly be

This isn’t just a job for me; it’s a calling.  I’m pretty sure I can make that clear when I meet the administrators tomorrow (in my cute linen trousers and sleeveless knit top…).

All offers of luck, confidence, and good energy are gratefully and humbly accepted.

3 Comments

Filed under doing my own homework, I love my job, job hunting, out in the real world

On the Eve

For the first time in more than a year, I have my first real interview for a job tomorrow at 11.

I’m finding I’m feeling the oddest combination of wicked excited and incredibly anxious.  I started having the weird anxiety dreams a couple of nights ago (had ‘em again this morning, too), and I’m actually stressing out about what to wear.

Me, stressing out about what to wear.  If you knew me in real life, you’d know that this was a sign that all is not entirely well.  Chili almost never stresses about what to wear; it’s just not what I do.  Here I am, though, worrying about finding the balance between professional and casual, classic and fun, pretty and comfortable.  Trousers or a skirt?  Capri pants or a dress?  Sleeveless and a jacket, or a button-down blouse?  Plain or patterned; colors or black and white?  And, oh, GOD, which shoes?!

It’s utterly ridiculous, and I need to stop.

For all that, though, I’m going in with no small amount of confidence.  The person who’s lead English teacher on the team has known me online for going on 7 years now, and in that time has had full access to all my blogs and my facebook page, so she knows exactly who I am and what’s important to me.  I also know – in a way that is not at all arrogant or conceited – that I am damned good at what I do.  I know it’s cliche to say that someone would be an asset to whichever outfit is smart enough to hire them, but I really feel like I have something valuable and important to offer.  Knowing these things is helping to buoy me.

So, should I wear the diamond earrings, or the pearls?

6 Comments

Filed under dumbassery, funniness, I can't make this shit up..., I love my job, job hunting, little bits of nothingness, out in the real world, really?!, self-analysis, winging it, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

Wordy Wednesday: A Shot of Hope

For a long time now, I’ve been worried that I was never going to be back in the classroom.  After all that happened to me at CHS, I was feeling pretty burned; for all that the place was pretty laid-back and permissive, I still managed to get into trouble, so it stands to reason that it’s highly unlikely I’m going to find someplace where my enthusiasm, passion, and ethics won’t be a liability.

I met Jay for coffee this afternoon.  He’s a teacher at a different charter school (and a hell of a photographer; hit that link and go on over and click around.  Leave some feedback; he’s looking for some interaction), and the parent of one of my former students.  We’d been tangentially in touch since before I was dismissed from CHS; he and I clicked when we first met, he was very supportive of my efforts to kick his recalcitrant daughter in the ass, and we share a very similar perspective on politics, spirituality, and the underlying purpose (and ethics) of education.  Anyway, I left a comment on his blog about a particularly stunning portrait he’d posted of Sweet Pea, and a few emails later, we’d set up a coffee date.

I left that hour feeling much better about where I am professionally.  He told me a lot of things I really needed to hear (though, let’s be clear, I don’t think for a second that he said them because they were what I needed to hear; he’s not like that at all).  He confirmed for me a couple of things that I deeply suspected but really didn’t want to admit (I’m over that now, by the way; I’m done telling myself stories to try to make it hurt less).  He told me that not only should I go back to teaching, but that I very likely had to; we share a proclivity of spirit that compels us to work with young people, and he recognizes in me the same drive that moves him to do the work that he does.  He essentially told me that I wasn’t going to be happy doing anything else – that I could do other work, certainly, but that I would never be as fulfilled as I will be teaching.  I don’t think he’s wrong.

Jay also offered me a glimmer of hope that there may well be a place for me in a classroom.  I’m going to chase down a couple of contacts tomorrow (and send out a couple of resumes, as well) and see what becomes of it.  While I’m not going to force myself into a situation where I have to change who I am to fit in with the culture so much that I don’t recognize myself anymore, neither am I going to give up entirely on the idea of being a teacher.  The truth is that I miss the kids too much to abandon the work, and I love who I am while I’m doing it.

Onward.

1 Comment

Filed under admiration, colleagues, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, debate and persuasion, ethics, I love my job, job hunting, Learning, Mrs. Chili as Student, out in the real world, parental units, self-analysis, winging it

Angry Love Letter

I subscribe to Letters of Note.  You should, too.

This was today’s offering.  It’s a letter from Pat Conroy, the author of, among other things, The Prince of Tides, in response to hearing that a school board in West Virginia had challenged the inclusion of that novel and another of his works, Beach Music.  The letter was published in the local newspaper, and the challenges later failed.

Letters like this make my proud to do what I do.
To the Editor of the Charleston Gazette:

I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.

I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.

In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The Catcher in the Rye, under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of The Catcher in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.

About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in The Catcher in the Rye forty-eight years ago.

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book-banners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works—but writers and English teachers do.

I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against—you’ve riled a Hatfield.

Sincerely,

Pat Conroy

5 Comments

Filed under about writing, admiration, book geek, Civics and Citizenship, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, ethics, great writing, I love my job, Literature, out in the real world, parental units, politics, really?!, Teaching, writing

How Far the Ripples Go

Very long story somewhat short: I’ve got this kid… or, rather, I should say I HAD this kid.  Let’s call him Mitchell.

Mitchell and I never really got along very well.  While I’m sure there are a number of reasons for this, the one I come to first is that he’s a pretty insecure young man, and I think that my forthrightness intimidated him.  Regardless, he ended up leaving my class on ideological grounds; his mother, it seems, is a fundamentalist Christian, and from what I understand, she didn’t appreciate my challenging her kid in the ways that I did.

The truth is that I have nothing personal against the boy, and never have, though I don’t go out of my way to chat with him as his behavior around me makes it pretty clear that I make him uncomfortable.  That’s why I was surprised, and pleasantly so, when Mitch asked me this afternoon if I had a few free minutes I could give him.  I invited him into my room and gave him my full attention.

He started out by asking me some vague questions about how I handle fear.  I spent a little while talking about how different fear – fear for physical safety, fear about personal conflict, fear of intimidation, fear from shock or surprise – have different effects.  I let him know that I, personally, have difficulty managing my physical response to fear; despite going into a conflict armed with confidence and knowledge that I have a strong foundation upon which to stand, I still shake and my palms still sweat and I often find myself in angry tears.  I told him these things as a way of humanizing myself to him because, as I say, I know that his impressions of me have not been entirely favorable.

It turns out that, despite what else he may think of me, Mitch understands that I’m someone safe to go to with difficult personal issues.  He confided that he is having some pretty serious problems with a family member (not his mother), and that the issues are sufficient that he felt it necessary to warn the school about what’s been going on.  He asked me for advice on how to comport himself through these experiences, and I told him that while I could not counsel him – that I’m neither a social worker nor an attorney – I did know that, as an adult (he’s 18) he has absolute freedom of association; he gets to choose whether or not to spend time with someone, and that his fears of being compelled by court order to associate with the person in question are unfounded.  I recommended that he seek the advice of law enforcement about the possibility of a restraining order and that, if he feels it would do him some good, he should talk to a counselor to sort out how he feels about the whole mess.  I offered that I grew up as an abused child, and I understand that there are a terrible lot of mixed emotions that come with that legacy.  I also offered up confidence to the boy that I had faith in his ability to find his way through it, and told him that I would always be a listening ear if he felt I could be useful to him.

It turned out that I had some things to take care of a the end of the day, so I was on my way out the door when Mitch emerged from his meeting with administration.  He was clearly upset, so I hung back to offer up one last shot of support.  I took him aside, so that we wouldn’t be in the middle of the hall, and asked him how he was doing (though it was patently obvious the boy was on the verge of tears).  As I was giving him my “you’re not alone; there are plenty of resources; you’re strong and smart and I believe in you” pep talk, his mother came around the corner and stopped dead in her tracks.  I know, though I’ve never been told outright, that she has very little use – and even less respect – for me, but at that moment, I didn’t care.  Her son recognized me as someone safe to confide in, and I was not about to disrespect that for fear of what his mother might think.  She stood there, a respectful distance away, listening to every encouraging thing I had to say to her son.

Though I’m truly sorry for what’s happening to Mitch, this could not have happened at a better time for me.  After everything that’s happened at school these last several weeks, having THIS kid come to ME to address something difficult and painful and personal is nothing short of divine confirmation that I am doing a good job.  He sees me being a support to other kids; he recognizes me as someone safe and caring and generous, and came to ME despite our previous rocky history.  That tells me that what I do – and the way that I do it – are working.  This boy’s choice to seek me out for this personal issue is a vindication of the very public, open, and honest way I love my students.  ALL of my students.

Thank you, Mitchell.

Leave a comment

Filed under compassion and cooperation, concerns, critical thinking, ethics, I can't make this shit up..., I love my job, I've got this kid...., Learning, self-analysis, student chutzpah, success!, Yikes!