What I’ve learned, and what’s to come


As the immortal Alice Cooper sang, “Schooooool’s out for summer!” Those snow days we had back in January about killed us. The kids knew school was supposed to be out a week earlier and most of them acted like they were already out that last week. It was nuts most of the time. But, now that I have a full semester as a full-time teacher behind me, plus a semester as a sub, I can look back at the good and bad and figure out where I need to improve.

The first thing, of course, is discipline. I went in wanting to be the cool teacher all the kids like. Well, some of them liked me and some didn’t. But I don’t think too many of them respected me. I was way too lenient right from the start. There was stuff going on that never should have been allowed. The only thing I was successfully able to stop was the use of words like “nigger” and “fag” in my second hour. I’m not sure why my rant about that being hate speech that would earn them a referral to the office sank in but other rants about staying in their seats, cheating, cell phones, etc. didn’t.

Anyway, discipline is the issue I most need to work on. I don’t want to go in being an asshole on the first day, but I figure if I’m a little mean at first I can loosen up later, if they show they’ve earned it. I’m not going to tolerate people talking while I lecture. I won’t allow cell phone calls or text messaging, and I damn sure won’t allow them to play music from their phones during class. In fact, I plan to just collect all the phones at the start of class so it won’t be an issue. That’ll cause them to howl, but that’s okay.

Another problem I had was silent reading. Most of my second hour simply refused to do it. That was the Foundations of English I (remedial) class. But, most of my science fiction class refused to read Fahrenheit 451, too, because I didn’t have the audio book. Western Heights requires I make all my students read silently for 90 minutes each month and write a summary over what they read. I’m not sure how I can make them read. It’s one thing if they’re disruptive during the assigned reading time, but if they go to sleep or do something else I’m not sure I can discipline them for that, other than giving them a zero for class participation that day.

I also noticed that I have a lot more tolerance for the shenanigans of girls than I do of boys. I’m sure that’s no surprise to Kim or Alex, who claim I let Sara get away with a lot (though I’m the one who keeps grounding Sara). Maybe it’s because the stuff the boys did was more likely to lead to someone getting hurt or something broken. I don’t know. But I never sent a girl to the office; I wrote a referral for one girl, but never sent it.

I’m also going to crack down on people coming to class unprepared. There was one boy who NEVER brought pencil or paper to class. Oh, but that kid … well, he was a problem all semester. From now on, if they have to ask me for supplies more than three times in a block, they’ll get a referral. That’s ridiculous. It’s school. They know they need that stuff.

I learned a lot about lesson planning, which was something I knew almost nothing about beforehand. I stayed flexible in the Foundations class because we just had to stop and stay on certain things until they understood it. We spent three weeks on pronouns. I guess that was fine, but it meant we barely covered things like themes in literature. I should have had a more aggressive plan in science fiction because I really wanted to read some fantasy and horror in there and we simply didn’t have time. The non-fiction class … that was a train wreck from the moment I saw I was teaching it at the Academy. The computer lab didn’t work half the time and there were no other reference sources. Plus, the kids didn’t want to write (and it was painful reading most of what they did write), and the school doesn’t have much of anything in the way of class sets of non-fiction material. The Diary of Anne Frank is the only non-fiction book I can think of in our book room at the moment. I asked the department chair to order In Cold Blood but she can’t do it over the summer. It looks like I’ll be teaching this class again, and it’s supposed to be an advanced class. I hope we can get Capote’s book before I teach it. It’s a long book and some kids will balk over that, but between that, the film and the two films about Capote there’s a lot that can be learned about writing interesting non-fiction.

Oh, there’s another thing. This will especially be true for the creative writing class. I’m not dumbing down my lesson plans for anybody from now on. Last time in creative writing I had to scrap a lot of stuff because I had a dumb jock and rejects from other classes dumped into my creative writing class. They didn’t want to write, while the one advanced placement student and several others did. Day One, I’m laying out what the class is and what we’re doing. If they don’t like it, they need to drop. Of course, that’ll only work for the electives, but that’s fine.

I learned it’s easy to get attached to some students. There are some I’ll miss this summer. A few I really worry about as they face issues in their lives. Some are MySpace friends now and already staying in touch. Truthfully, I only had a couple of students I would cringe over if I saw their names on my roster for a future class. Most of them are good kids, or at least are capable of being good. Some of them should never be placed in the same class with others, but …

I finally have my own room. Three English teachers left at the end of the semester, so I was able to hermit crab my way into a room. I think it’s one of the better English rooms. It’s a big room in a corner set off from the rest of the English classes. It’s going to be so nice not to have to carry around that backpack all the time, to have all my stuff with me in the room and not have to worry about the rules of the teacher whose room I’m in. The teacher who left the room didn’t do as much cleaning up as I’d like, so I’ll be sorting, cleaning and rearranging for quite a while. And decorating. I’m going for a rock-n-roll horror show look, with a framed vintage KISS 1976 tour poster, horror movie posters and posters I’ll make for contemporary horror, fantasy and science fiction authors. I’ll mix in some of the usual stuff you expect to see on the walls of a high school English class room, but really, kids don’t want to see photos of Fitzgerald, Hemingway or Faulkner. If an Evil Dead poster makes them feel connected to the teacher, that’s better than knowing what Carl Sandburg looked like, right? (Personally, I think Evil Dead is a crappy film, but I have two big posters for it, so I’ll put one up.)

The telephone interview we did with Deborah LeBlanc seemed to go over really well. The kids seemed to connect with the novel excerpt she sent us more than about anything else we read, so I’m going to try to do more of those interviews whenever it’s appropriate. Brian Keene has said he’d be interested and I know the kids will connect with him and his books.

Over the past week I’ve bought over 80 books in lots on eBay to set up a class room library. Everything from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Stephen King. A lot of King, actually. There are a lot of young adult books, plus adult mysteries, westerns, etc. Hopefully something to appeal to everyone.

Well, this has gotten really long, so I guess I’ll pinch it off here. I do have a few other things to do today.

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11 thoughts on “What I’ve learned, and what’s to come

      • My first year, I recall thinking….just 45 minutes, I can make it through 45 minutes of anything…then I would start again at the beginning of the next period. Just 45 minutes…I can make it….
        It was that bad. For the first several months, I took emetrol every morning because I was sick to my stomach. I missed one day because my department head sent me home (I started crying about 2 in the morning and couldn’t stop. That was the only time I cried.) On the plus side, I never cried in front of my students, I never had a day when I didn’t teach, and I never yelled or cussed at a student.
        Year 2 really is MUUUUCH easier.

  1. Seconded. The first year is about survival, and figuring out what works, and what doesn’t. For you and the kids. Reading through your ‘adventures’ made me smile, remembering my favorite teachers, as well as making me scream internally, “Why couldn’t I have a teacher like you!”

    • Also, in regards to the creative writing parts of class, I kept imagining you jumping around, brandshing your books like a sword and shield and yelling, “Listen to meeeeee! I’m published! I know what I’m talking about!”
      I dunno, just a funny image I had throughout reading about your adventures at school.

      • Eh, most of them weren’t impressed that I’d published anything. And, in many cases, the struggle was more basic, as in subject-verb agreement, than in details of plotting.
        Hopefully the kids will still like me, but understand they’ll really have to work in my classes.

  2. If you’re having trouble with classroom management, check out the Love & Logic resources. And you’ve learned a valuable lesson, they really don’t want you to be their friend. They need an authority figure. That doesn’t mean you have to be a drill sergeant, but don’t go out of your way to be their friend. They will walk all over you. After you’ve set the tone for a few weeks, you can begin to let up a little. It’s much harder to get tougher on discipline once you’re into the year than it is to back off a bit.
    Pencils are such I problem that I don’t usually bother anymore. I pick up any pencils or pens I find around the school and put them in a jar. It’s much less of a distraction to just have them go to the jar and get a pencil if they forgot one. If it’s a recurring problem, I will address it. But for the vast majority of cases, it’s not worth it. You might also give suprise materials pop “quizes” where the students get 1 point for a pencil/pen, 10 for notebook, 10 for folder, and 15 for their textbook. If they don’t know when you’ll spring it on them, they should be more likely to bring them in. I also do an open book notebook quiz once in a while so they get in the habit of keeping the stuff they need. I have a missing materials assignment and a courtesy assignment for things that they need some punishment for, but they aren’t really serious enough to warrant a write-up. I put it on file, and I don’t call the parents. It’s like a mulligan. If they refuse to do the assignment, it’s willful disobedience, and an automatic referral (with calls to parents, conduct cut, etc). Most choose to do the write-up.
    A big thing I have found to help is the daily planner. If your school doesn’t give them one, require that they designate the first section of their notebook to a dily planner. If they miss a day they can get the agenda from a fellow classmate. I also have a Absent Folder with the leson plans, bellwork, etc; so a student doesn’t have to bug me to get missing work. I keep a stack of any handouts next to it. It covers your ass so they can’t say you never gave it to them.

    • Those are great ideas, Aaron. Thanks! The pencil thing makes a lot of sense, and will be easier to do in my own room. I carried extras around with me, but I’d run out sometimes and that’d create a problem with the kids going to the teacher whose room it was asking for stuff … or just taking it if that teacher was out.
      I like the materials quiz idea, too. And the courtesy and materials assignments. Thanks for sending those. I’ll definitely use them.
      The planner idea is good, too, but gets tangled up in the school’s paperwork. If a student has an unexcused absence, they’re supposed to get a Z in the gradebook for any work done that day. (It’s like a zero, but shows it was an unexcused absence.) Of course, they have up to two weeks to bring an excuse, so in the meantime I have to give them the work, then go back later to see if they can have credit for it. It’s rather crazy.
      Oh, and I meant to tell you I used some of your online horror study material when we covered horror in my Foundations class. The horror author interview questions were especially helpful.

  3. “I’m a little mean at first I can loosen up later, if they show they’ve earned it.”
    I was a drill sergeant at first, and by the next week or two I was able to be more myself – it’s a strategy that works well 99% of the time.
    “a lot more tolerance for the shenanigans of girls than I do of boys.”
    Be very careful about this – kids WILL notice and favouring one over the other will only become a bad thing. Have a line, if they cross it, that’s it, swift and quick no matter the gender. Girls tend to be quieter, but can be nastier. Boys were not as sneaky as girls when I was in school. Quiet does not always mean behaving. ๐Ÿ˜‰
    “I’m not dumbing down my lesson plans for anybody from now on.”
    Good for you! This is very hard to do, by the way. Even I would find myself slipping and giving in to a slower class or curving a slower student’s marks a bit. I hope you can stick to it – use that stubbornness and you should be fine. ๐Ÿ˜‰
    “I finally have my own room.”
    If you’ve never taught before, you don’t know the bliss and joy of having your own room. Congratulations! That’s awesome. Big sigh of relief, eh? However, I would not put up the vintage poster – no collectible items or anything that you do not want to see ruined – even by accident. I like the poster idea, but don’t do it to win them over – do it because that’s the way you run your classroom, dammit.
    This response is way overdue – I’m just catching up. Sorry. I think you did a great job this year, and it really is about surviving year one. Now you know how you want to run your class, what must and must not happen, and how to deal with most situations. (We never stop learning, just ask G lately.) Ya done good, big guy, I’m proud of you. It can only get easier from here on out. ๐Ÿ™‚

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