Tales of Teaching 2004-2005

By Paul E. Schindler, Jr.


Tales of Teaching 2003-2004

July 5, 2004
Reflections on Teaching

I have been struggling to express these thoughts in this column for months. My teacher friend Kent Peterman managed to say it for me:

Congratulations on surviving a year of teaching. Not the snap job it seems to those outsiders is it? I have a psychologist friend who read a study about job stress. Air traffic controller is number one. Number two is teaching. You're not surprised I'm sure. I sympathize with you and with the complicated relationship one has with teaching. The highs are incredibly high. But it is exhausting. I relate oh so well to the countdown of days. It's not that you don't love what you do. You do. It's just so intense you're waiting for that break. An interim when your whole life and soul is not consumed by teaching.

I feel your pain about the recipients of your kvetching as well. Outsiders, civilians, etc. don't understand the angst or the need to unburden. You are not a whining sniveler. You have a need to share the incredible burden of teaching. It is mentally and physically exhausting. I have been doing it for 39 years and I still get totally wiped at the beginning of school and at other times in the year. They are not calloused people. They just don't understand. Early in our relationship, before my wife became more enlightened, she once said to me. "The beginning of school must be an easy low key time for you." To my credit I didn't shoot her and did marry her. But now she understands and is great about monitoring our social life for the first six weeks of school. One of our teachers is married to a middle school teacher. When she started teaching (long after he did) I was her mentor. One day in week two of school she came to me and said that she had been a rotten wife. I asked her why she thought so. She said that she had never understood why her husband was tired at the beginning of school. Now she did.

So carry on my friend. The rewards are there. They are great.

Take care of yourself. When they said to put your heart and soul into the job they didn't mean it literally.

Enjoy the well deserved summer. Relax. Read. Sleep. Don't feel guilty. You deserve it.

Your colleague (gosh that sounds good...I'm so glad you're a teacher),

Kent

By the way, on a similar subject: shame on me. I just took a State of California survey on the value of my teacher credential program. I learned a lot, especially from my supervisor and both my master teachers, as well as the classroom observation I did. Perhaps it was because I was already 50 years old when I started the credential program. Or maybe it was because I teach in a middle school in which, out of 180 students, there were two English Language Learners. Regardless, some of the material I mastered in the credential program was a pointless waste of time. At one point, that question was literally asked: was your credential program a waste of time. Well, parts of it were and parts of it weren't. Anyway, I didn't tell the truth.

The people who taught me worked hard. The school that runs my credential program does an overall excellent job, within the constraints of idiocy mandated by the state of California. I was not going to get it in trouble by telling the truth. It wasn't the fault of the college or its credential program. It is the fault of the fatuous fatheads who have never taught in a middle-school classroom, setting their absurd content standards and their "jump through the hoops" credential program that insures that almost no one in the right mind will make a mid-career switch into teaching.

Don't get me wrong. Prior to October 2001, when I began my journey into the classroom, I thought teacher credentialling was stupid and that we should simply invite content experts into the classroom. Well, as one of my wise master teachers once said, "Yes, you can write. But can you teach someone else to write?" The jury is still out on her question, but even in science and math, where the need for teachers is desperate, I am not at all sure that a sparkling résumé insures the ability to impart information to students. You do need pedagogy and classroom management skills. If only those were the areas upon which teacher education concentrated.

Craig Reynolds asks:

Is "Teach for America" a good thing (or some kind of evil plot)?
New ideas in teaching yield dramatic results (USA Today editorial)

My answer: it is a good thing to bring fresh blood into the classroom, but this editorial makes a common mistake. Ignorance of good teaching methods is not, trust me, an advantage for teachers.

July 12, 2004

I was describing my excitement to a fellow teacher over two recent developments among my hobbies; my move to the automated distribution of column notification and the possibility that the musical I co-wrote in college may actually be staged, someday, at Brandeis. Since no script or score exists, I have been transcribing them for the last week, and getting a big kick out of it. Anyway, the headline records the reaction of one of my fellow teachers, who noted, "I wish you had as much enthusiasm for teaching as you do your hobbies. Are you sure you're in the right line of work?" Sometimes, I wonder myself.

August 9, 2004

Am I a bad person because I am enjoying my summer break so much that I have doubts I want to go back to work? Even half time? An old friend wrote:

Back to school time is approaching. I hope you're facing it with serenity. Do I remember rightly that you're going to be teaching part time? Our old friend... finished her first year as a high school English teacher in Baltimore. She was very close to giving up her new career. It was that tough on her. But she's decided to give it one more semester to see if it's true that the second year is much better. My hats off to both of you. We need good teachers like you guys but it's got to be a hard, hard thing to do.

This note made me feel better than you might imagine. First of all, I believe I am approaching the new year with serenity, if not joy and enthusiasm. I can still sleep at night, something I had trouble doing all during the school year (except during vacations) because I spent all night teaching in my dreams, too. But secondly, I was interested to hear that I'm not the only mid-life first-year teacher to conclude a first year with doubts about the suitability of a career in teaching. I, too, hope that (since what "they" said about the first year of teaching was true) what "they" say about the second year of teaching is true.

In the meantime, I am gradually clearing off my desk of tasks and ideas, some of which have sat on my desk since April. And I am writing this on Friday, not Saturday or Sunday. Much of what I do, I am sure, must seem trivial, but it is important to me and part of the reason I love life; always something new and interesting to do. I teach because it is new and interesting--and does something besides amuse me.

August 23, 2004

Here in Contra Costa County, the Kaiser hospitals offer a course in mindfulness. Its all about using relaxation techniques, yoga and Tai Chi to relax and reduce symptoms from various conditions. Many of the people in the class have amazing stories of pain and sacrifice; I'm just there to lower my stress in general, and to see if mindfulness can help me lose weight and enjoy my teaching job more. So far, it's been interesting.

In the meantime, Monday and Tuesday are prep and the students return Wednesday. I believe I am ready for them, and that both they and I will have a better experience this year than last year.

August 30, 2004

As I write this I've had three days as a half-time teacher of 8th grade U.S. history. That means a later start, and three classes with 78 students instead of six classes with 172 students. It is still too early to tell for sure whether my new schedule will improve my teaching experience. But I can already say that showing up at 10:45 am seems to beat the hell out of showing up at 7:15 am, except for the 50% pay cut (on top of the 60% pay cut I took when I went from journalism to education). Luckily, it isn't about the money. The cutback in hours was to improve my attitude towards my job and my students and to help with my health. So, that's how I will judge its success.

One friend of mine told another that she had "never in her life seen me trying so hard to rationalize a decision" as I was working to rationalize my decision to be a teacher. That's a tough critique, but a valid one. At this point, I have two years, thousands of dollars and a great deal of mental energy invested in becoming a teacher. If I can do it, like it, and maintain my health, I want to be a teacher.

Confounding things during this term is the on-line class I have to take--one of three credential courses which, if not completed by July will leave me with a state requirement for FIVE CLASSES! And the State of California wonders why it is having trouble recruiting and retaining teachers.

September 6, 2004

I've been trying a lot of things to get over my variety of health ills--really, everything except what I have to do, which is lose 100 pounds (I've finally lost 5, and that's a start). Anyway, I am seeing a homoepathist (mostly for allergies), and a nutritionist, and a cardiac doctor, and I am taking a night class in mindfulness. Plus, I cut my work schedule back to half time. I don't know which of these things is doing the trick--perhaps all of them had to work together. All I know is that the nutritionist tested my blood Saturday morning and for the first time in a year--I'm in balance! No bad pH, no toxins, no signs of stress in my adrenals or kidneys or liver. In fact, the results were so good they brought a tear to her eye. All I know for sure is that I feel better than I have since before I started teaching. I am relaxed, sleeping well, and controlling my appetite. I know this is good for me and my students both. I am not snapping at my students; a calmer me in the classroom is a better teacher, I am sure.

ALSO: I made quite a discovery in the classroom last week, which dovetailed with something I have known for years. People remember songs better than prose. The Animaniacs cartoon series used to do educational songs. One of them was all the state capitals. I played the song for my class, several of whom had heard it in 5th grade. Three of the students told me they got 100% on the state capitals test because they remembered the song.

This reminded me of something I discovered last year when I looked up Battle of New Orleans: "In 1814 we took a little trip, along with Col. Jackson down the mighty Mississip." It was a hit folk song in 1959, but I discovered while searching for it that it has been written by Jimmy Driftwood, a high school principal and history teacher who loved to sing, play instruments and write songs, who wrote many other historical songs.

Well, Wacko's state capital song, and "New Orleans" and Garrison Keillor's song about the Minnesota State Fair convinced me I should write a historical song for my class. To the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, here it is:

The Aztec, Inca, Maya Song
(To the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic)


The Aztec lived in Mexico: TEN-och-tit-lan Lake.
Religion told them they could steal the crops that they could take.
The guns and bugs of Cortez were much more than they could take, in 1532.

Aztec, Inca and Maya, you can learn them if you try-a
Don't just heave a great big sigh-a, Just learn to sing this song

The Maya built their pyramids, they're quite a sight to see.
In Central America they ruled from sea to sea.
We don't know just what happened, it remains a mystery from 900 A.D.

Did the slaves and farmers riot? Poor soil could not support their diet?
We know it just got really quiet when the Mayans disappeared

The Inca lived down south in the mountains by the sea.
They did terraces for farming and built stone-paved roads you see.
At Machu Picchu Incans felt religion come to be.
And Pizzaro killed them all

Aztec, Inca and Maya, you can learn them if you try-a
Don't just heave a great big sigh-a, Just learn to sing this song

The Mayans did a calendar based on astronomy.
Incans ran the biggest empire known to you and me.
The Maya and the Aztec they did things religiously
And that just ends this song.

Sept. 13, 2004

I was at the doctor's the other day, and he asked me how I liked teaching. Last year, when anyone asked me that question, I paused a long time before answering, indicating some ambiguity. This year, without even thinking, I said, "I love it."

Is this because I teach half time? Did the luck of the draw give me easier students? Is it because this is my second year, not my first year? As my mother said, maybe it is all these things together. All I know is, so far I am having a much better year.

Sept. 20, 2004

Another thing I changed in my classroom this year (forgive me if I am repeating myself) is the lighting. I think fluorescent lighting stinks (figuratively, not literally). The literature on how bad it is for you is as long as your arm. Besides, we're not doing brain surgery in the room. So I bought three up-facing lamps, and I light my room with indirect lighting now. Bright enough to see, but not so bright as to be stunning. Also, I keep the temperature down around 68; very effective to cool down the students and me during the heat wave that may have ended last week (we'll see; it rained Saturday night, but that may just have been freakish).

I think the cool and the dark have improved student behavior.

Nov. 29, 2004
Wow! What a Cold

I got sick the day after the election. I know a lot of people who did. The letdown was palpable around here, as was the depression and fear. That's got to affect your immune system.

It was just a bother for the first week, but then it peaked and became a constant hacking cough during the second week. Wednesday of Thanksgiving Week marks the third week of this cough, which is so bad at night I have to sleep in the guest bedroom--partly to help Vicki get a good night's sleep, partly because it is easier to sleep sitting up in that bed.

I love my students, but Oh! Their germs.

I barely made it through last week--wouldn't have made it, except that we had a Potluck Thanksgiving feast on Thursday I wasn't about to force my colleague to run by herself. Plus there was a test and a quiz and mid-quarter progress reports.

This is why it fries my beans that administrators think we're constantly trying to cheat them with sick days; they never consider the days we drag in because we're professionals and feel we have to be there. I sincerely hope I didn't give a single student my cold, even though one of them probably gave me theirs. But I did what I had to; I'm a teacher. Still, it's heck to have a cold you can't sleep off because you can't sleep because you have a cold.

Teaching: Tying Up Loose Ends

In the process of compiling Tales of Teaching 2004, I was reminded of how I felt at various times during my first year, and how that compares to the way I feel this year.

I was up to the challenge of teaching, although I'm not sure I was up to the challenge of teaching well. I can listen and I can assess, but the question of inspiration is also still open. It was a bell-shaped curve; I moved a few students, left a few students in the cold, and merely annoyed most of the students in the middle by trying so hard.

I had forgotten that I really only wanted a half time job last year; I took what was offered then, got what I wanted this year.

I think I've learned enough never to have a section of my whiteboard entitled "Do Me First" again.

By Sept. 15 last year I was having back spasms, exhaustion, insomnia and anxiety. I was always tired and always sore I think weekly massages and a half-time schedule prevented those symptoms from being as virulent this year.

I still don't have a "look" as good as my mother's, but I am getting there. I yell less, glare more. And sometimes I blow my whistle.

Is still seem to be popular with my students, and I'm still unsure whether being beloved is an unadulterated good thing. It's a compliment, but not necessarily and assessment.

My luck continues; one prep, great students, great colleagues. There is no teaching situation in the world better than that.

Last year, my illness came a month later, in December; I used almost the same words (I made it through the week) as I did this year for last week (see item below). Don't know if falling ill earlier is a good sign or bad sign. I can't be sick for Christmas; we're going to Europe. The issue of "whether to take a sick day if you can still stand up without falling over," on which I mused last February, is still an issue; it is still probably true that if you don't take the time off, the illness will only drag out.

The gratification is still delayed. I am getting used to having a "got to be there" job with fixed hours and limited bathroom breaks. I am less frazzled. I still enjoy time off, but don't spend all my time thinking about it. I checked with my wife this morning, who informs me that my attitude has improved 100% since last year.

The joy quotient is higher and the stress quotient lower, which, I am told, is typical for a second-year teacher. Joy will never hit 100% and stress will never hit 0 while I am still alive. I accept that.

Harry Wong, a seminar-giving super-teacher defines the phases of teaching as Fantasy, Survival, Mastery, and Impact. Fantasy was where I was before I started, survival is where I was last year. I feel I am moving towards mastery. Who knows how far off impact is.

Kevin Sullivan isn't a fantastically wealthy teaching consultant, but I liked his description of teaching:

We used to say,
"in a teacher's first year, the teacher learns"
"in a teacher's second year, the student learns"

And the cynical added
"after that no one learns"

And I'm still fond of my own formulation:
Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. It's a baseball season, not a football season. It's a ground game, not a passing game--you grind out the yardage inch by inch on the way to the goal line. Don't swing for the fences every day--take a single if you can hit one.

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or to offer feedback, advice, praise, or criticism, email me. (pes-at-sign-schindler-dot-org)

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