Wednesday, June 27, 2012

happiness & worth

Oh Forbes, you and your uppity attitudes. The other day you took one step too far when you decided to rank the unhappiest jobs in America: "These 6 professions have been ranked the least satisfying -- based on factors such as growth potential and compensation -- by the people who do them." And guess which one was #3? That's right, teaching.

Yeah, Forbes, because I definitely chose this career path for the big profits it promised me. I'm just so unhappy now that I've realized that I'll never make a whole lot of money.

People (generally) go into teaching because they are passionate about it. In my case, I wanted to share my love of literature and language with students. I also wanted to be a mentor to students, or at least someone they felt they could turn to and trust, because I was always lucky enough to have teachers like that. And if you've read this blog before, you know that I've been able to do both of these things. Am I as good at my job as I want to be? Absolutely not. Do I ever have bad days or weeks and wonder why the fuck I'm doing this? Of course. But then so many good things happen, both little and big, and I know that I've made the right choice. I have a job that challenges me and that is certainly never boring. I get to help shape these students during some very formative years in their lives, and I feel like, with at least a lot of them, I am making some sort of a difference. And that makes me feel fulfilled. I know that I want to keep doing this for years to come, that I will truly make a career out of it. And no, I don't plan on ever becoming an administrator/department head/principal. I guess Forbes would tell me that I lack ambition and that I must be dreadfully unhappy. However, the way I see it, my challenge is to become a better and better teacher every single year. Plus, each year I get a new crop of students to work with and help shape while they, in turn, help change my life too. Just because I won't be moving up in the ranks doesn't mean I will be stuck in some sort of a rut.

My parents told me that when I was attending Brandeis University, which is a good school and also very expensive, people questioned my choice. They asked, "Why is she going to Brandeis if she's just going to be a teacher?" My parents said that don't want to know who said it nor how many people. Just like Forbes, these people measured worth in money. I know, I know, the very nature of money is that it measures how much things are worth. But I believe that in order to live a fulfilling life, one must consider factors beyond that. I chose that school knowing full well that I would come out of it with a lot of debt. And yeah, it sucks to have to write a check every month for over $200, knowing that I'll be continuing to do so for quite some time. But you know what? It's managable, and I don't regret my decision one little bit. I had worked my ass off all my life and wanted the challenge of going to a great school. Brandeis certainly provided me with that. I wanted to become the best teacher I could possibly be, and I knew that this place would help me get on the right path. I had some really kick-ass professors, including the head of the Education Department who really helped me figure out my life. Furthermore, because the school is almost 50% Jewish, I found a community there that I really connected with. When I graduated, I didn't think about the debt--I thought about the amazing education I received, the unique experiences I had, the ways that my horizons had been expanded, and the incredible friends I had made.

I've talked to some of my students before about life choices. I remember a conversation I had with my seniors at the end of my first year of teaching. I told them to, above all, be happy. Yes, you need to make sure you have enough money to take care of yourself and your family. But you also need to be able to enjoy what you do. I don't care if it requires a master's degree or training in a tech program, just love it. One of my seniors this year is planning on being an electrician. Some years back I might have lamented her decision to not strive for more. But these days, I know that's the wrong attitude. This girl loves her field. She was actually one of the only girls in that tech program at the high school, and I admire her for going against the norm. I am proud of her for pursuing her dream.

My high school English teacher sent me an amazing video when I was in college, since she knew I wanted to be a teacher. I've included the link below, and encourage you all to watch it. It is called "What Teachers Make," by slam poet and former teacher Taylor Mali. It is incredible, and sums up my feelings better than I can do here.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

End of the year

Student quote of note: "I'm 22 in Connecticut!"

Sorry for not updating in a while. But here’s a big update: I am done with my second year of teaching! It is such a relief. In many ways it was a fantastic year, but there were also some very trying situations, especially in the last couple of weeks. The end of the school year is already quite stressful, and was made more so by some students who chose to lash out. For example, a group of anonymous honors students sent me a letter complaining that their final exam was unfair. I won’t go into details about the contents of it, but I found them to be invalid and, quite frankly, whiny. I addressed their concerns on our final day together, first explaining why I disagreed with their complaints. I then said that I had already been planning on slightly scaling the grades, as I don’t feel like what they produce in an hour and a half truly deserves to be judged as critically as what they have done all throughout the rest of the year (the final counts as 20% of their grade). I also talked about how I was very disappointed by the mistrust in the room, as I have never given them reason to believe that I would do anything to screw them over. I just felt really frustrated by this letter, especially since it was unsigned, so I didn’t even know who to be addressing. Our society has become so used to being able to say things anonymously, without fear of having to face a fair debate, and I consider it cowardly. I did give my students feedback sheets which I said they could leave anonymous, but that was meant for constructive criticism. In the case of the letter, I would have respected the students a lot more if they had come to me after school and shared their concerns, so as to allow for a productive dialogue.

On a lighter note, some students were really sweet at the end of the year. One of my honors kids said that when he gets into the National Honor Society next year (which he surely will), he wants me to be the teacher he invites. I was so touched, especially after all the frustration with some of his classmates. A senior who was in my play came to find me on his last day and gave me a little thank-you note and a big hug. He is so so talented and is planning on pursuing an acting career, and I can’t wait to see what great things he does. My senior class also gave me a very sweet card they made. One student apologized for being a pain in the ass, which he reiterated to me when I gave him a hug at graduation. Another one said she now feels more confident about writing essays for college, and a third student said that I’m one of the best teachers he’s ever had. Their words truly meant the world to me, and that card will be saved for years to come. I know I’ve talked about this before, but I’ll say it again: it’s those kinds of moments that get teachers out of bed every morning. I had my advisory write letters to teachers they wanted to thank, and a couple of the recipients told me how happy the letters made them.

Exciting news: Next year I am getting a classroom! These past two years I have had to move around between three rooms, pushing around a giant cart/battering ram and having a shared office as my home base. I’m so excited, because I’ll finally be able to set up the room the way I want it, and won’t have to worry about my things being in anyone’s way. Plus, I’m already a disorganized person to begin with, and having an office and a cart full of stuff to wheel around only adds to that. Next year there won’t be all of the running around if I forget something, or the special restrictions I have had to contend with. I will admit though, I’ll kind of miss that little cave of an office….I love being able to just shut the door and have a bit of privacy, which classrooms don’t really allow for. Plus, I’ve been lucky enough to share the space with a couple of really fantastic people. That office has seen a lot of giggles and ridiculous jokes, loud music, unwinding with a Nerf football confiscated from a student, stories of angst, tears, and growing friendships. And that final item has been one of the best aspects of this year—since I’ve become more comfortable there, I have opened up and become a lot closer to some of the people I began establishing friendships with last year, and become good friends with some new teachers as well. I love having a group of people that I can depend on, share ideas with, and also have fun with.

Below, I have included the letter I gave to my students at the end of the year in case you are interested in reading it:

Dear students,

                 Just as I have had you do some reflection on this past year, as a teacher I am constantly reflecting on my practices, asking myself, “Am I doing right by my students? How can I improve? How can I make sure they are learning, improving, and enjoying what they do? What do I want them to come away from this class understanding?” Trust me, it’s not just students that question and doubt themselves; any teacher that aspires to be good at their job does too. Being a teacher does not mean that you know all the answers. More accurately, I think we need to be both teachers and learners, and to be open to learning from our colleagues and students. With this letter, I would like to share with you some of my reflections as well as some words of encouragement as you shift into summer mode.
                I know that this year has been challenging for you. I know that I have demanded a lot from you and constantly pushed you. However, I want to remind you again that this has all been part of my effort to make you better students, both of English and of life. And it’s not just you that I demand a lot of—I demand a lot of myself too. I am deeply invested in my students and get frustrated when I feel like I am falling short of their expectations and my own. I know that it can be frustrating for students when you don’t always achieve the grades that you want. Remember though, that the only way to learn and grow is to be challenged. My goal is never to break you down and discourage you, but rather to help point out your strengths and help you understand your weaknesses and overcome them. Every year, school is going to get more and more difficult, and this is the same for life as well. However, if you meet those challenges head-on, dedicate yourselves fully to the tasks at hand, and put forth your best effort, you will be ready and able to handle what comes your way.
                Some of you have consistently worked hard all year, and I commend you for that dedication. You have pushed yourselves to improve, even when you have already been producing quality work. Some of you struggled for a while, but then worked hard to prove yourselves, showing improvement by the end of the year. I am proud of what you have accomplished. Others have experienced quite the rollercoaster ride, and your ups may have sometimes been overshadowed by your downs. I urge you to think about your successes, however big or small they may have been, and think about what you need to do in order to meet with more success next year. Don’t give up on yourselves.
                I know that once your final is over and done with, you will start allowing yourselves to forget the books we read, the characters we got to know, and the themes we analyzed. But what I hope sticks with you are some of the ideas we discussed, such as the danger of power, the power of hope, and how to challenge societal norms, and that you will continue to ponder them. I also hope you have become better thinkers and communicators this year, and that you have an increased curiosity about the world. One of the reasons I love this subject so much is that is has the ability to foster those qualities. I have been truly astounded by some of the discussions we’ve had and some of the papers I have read this year. When you truly push yourselves, you are able to exceed your own expectations and to teach yourselves, your classmates, and me all kinds of new things, and that’s what makes me excited about my job. I’ve bragged to my friends and colleagues about how you have often taken our discussions in directions that I had not expected, and how it even forced me to expand my own thinking. I hope in the future to find more ways to encourage that in my students, because those are really wonderful opportunities for growth. In turn, I ask that you please keep talking about important issues that face our world, keep asking questions, and help make the world around you a better place in some capacity. Our community and world are in serious need of leaders and good people.
                This summer, I will be doing a lot of work both on curriculum (since I’m teaching mostly new material next year) and on figuring out how I can improve as an educator. Any feedback you have about what helped you or didn’t help you (and why) would be greatly appreciated. Like I said, I want to continue learning how to be the best teacher possible. Your input is just as helpful as what my bosses tell me, and I value it greatly. I have given each of you a feedback sheet, and I’d truly appreciate it if you could give me specific feedback on it. Leave it anonymous if you choose—I want you to feel comfortable expressing yourselves.
              Please be sure to say hi next year and keep me updated on your schooling and lives (and the books you are reading!).

Yours truly,

Ms. Greene