It’s been a long time since I’ve spent a full school year teaching. The last time I did so was from 2017-2018, and it’s now long since that time. My seniors are now college sophomores, my sophomores are now high school seniors. All of that feels weird to type, knowing how mature (and immature) some of them were, and the requirements and responsibilities expected of their new stations. But on the other hand, life moves on, and I was an in immature, selfish brat as a teenager, so I don’t have much of a leg to stand on.
When I think about what a full year amounts to, I get a bit intimidated. The last time I spent a full year teaching, I had a bit of a breakdown on the first day of school, and then again the next first day of school. It’s been a recurring theme for me, one that I hope to break this year. Among other factors to do with my professional self-esteem and more, I think it’s partially to do with the existential realization that, for the next 10 months, I won’t be able to relax as easily as I was over the summer. But it’s not like this is the end of the world; work is necessary, and money is important. I have to supply for myself, and the world won’t keep moving if I don’t keep working in some capacity.
When I look at a calendar, it’s hard not to think of how long each day takes. 24 full hours, with very little room in those hours for enjoyment. But when it comes down to it, I’m doing something that I love doing, and that’s all that matters. Doing what you love is what will propel you and give you the motivation to not worry about whatever comes next.
Returning to school after a long summer vacation has always been cause for anxiety. It’s the start of a new school year, but it’s also the start of a new, much longer routine system to resume. Over the summer, I develop new, more free habits and routines, related to sleeping, daily time spending, and clothing. I’m not always dressed in business casual at home, I get to spend time doing whatever I want, and I can wake up at a more reasonable hour. These differences are crucial, making the summer vacation truly memorable and worth celebrating.
Being someone whose whole life has been centered around the American school schedule, it’s hard to break the chains of tradition. I’m inexplicably tied to the school routines I had as a child. Wake up early in the morning, go to a high-stakes place of learning for some hours, then return home late in the afternoon and do it all again the next day, barring weekends. Octobers and Marches are long months without as many days off, and June is the fastest month by far. You learn to cherish December, for its long vacation in the middle of the year, as well as the holidays, of course. But you are forever tied to these feelings and traditions of how the year progresses. Normal adults, who don’t work in the school system, like Alex, work year-round and have vacation time on their own terms, and things like that. They don’t have the luxury of a summer break, but they’re also not still tied as adults to the summer’s joyful freedom as they were as kids. In some ways, I envy them. When I was unemployed in 2018, it felt like I was still reliving the school schedule, even through November and December. It was impossible to escape.
Being the “cool” teacher isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. On the one hand, kids like you and potentially admire you, and you don’t have to worry about being given tough treatment by anyone, at least the ones that like you. But on the other hand, you’re left without meaningful connections. You are forced to always be in nice mode, even when someone makes a mistake. It’s difficult to call someone out after they’ve gained your trust and believe in you as an adult. I know that’s a normal and expected understanding for teachers to have, but it’s a downside of being the “cool” teacher, for sure.
It is important to remember that your job isn’t to get them to like you, contrary to what people may say. Even though getting them to like you is a big bonus, and goes a long way to having a constructive, collaborative classroom environment, it’s not everything. It’s never everything. Their education comes first, and so too does your teaching. They won’t receive a quality education if you focus so much of your efforts on being “liked.” You need to separate that distinction in your head in order to be a good teacher, as it’s something I’ve heard from a lot of my colleagues as well. “Being liked is nice, but seeing their test scores go up is a bit nicer,” one of them said to be once. I know it’s a cynical perspective to have on things, especially the test scores comment, but there’s a grain of truth to it also.
Effective teaching does involve a degree of likability, though. You can’t be an omnipotent tyrant standing at the lectern, endlessly insulting students. Even if you have an unruly class, even if you’re still “teaching” them, that’s not effective teaching. There’s a balance between being liked and being likable.
Do you remember where you were on the last day of school? I have an image of sitting in the back of Ms. Sieviac’s math classroom, in homeroom, with my friend Jimmy. We were grouped in alphabetical order by last name, and we had close last names. Imagine if life were as simple as that; you could make friends with people in adulthood easily thanks to being grouped together by how close your last names were to each other. If only life were so easy now! I wonder where Ms. Sieviac is now, probably enjoying life in Florida or wherever she decided to retire to.
There’s nothing like being together with all your classmates and peers throughout the years, sitting together in one or separate rooms, and signing each other’s yearbooks back and forth, exchanging phone numbers with people who care to keep in touch over the next few tumultuous years of college or whatever else lies beyond. I still look at my old yearbook from time to time, and I have precious memories thinking back on where I was when certain signatures and notes were left in there. I remember exactly what it was like to walk around the school looking for my friends, even though I knew I’d be seeing them again plenty of times over the summer.
The real separation of friends takes place later in life, after you’ve all moved to different areas of the world and no longer return home to North Branford as frequently as you used to. It’s a shame, but it’s to be expected, considering North Branford isn’t exactly a tourist town, and not everyone has fond memories of being at that school.
The last day of school is always like this. I always think back to my own last day, and what it was like to be alive as a teenager rather than an adult like now. What would it be like to be a teenager nowadays?
I hate talking over the phone. Absolutely hate it. Whenever possible, I avoid talking on the phone, unless it’s necessary, in which case I suck it up and call with my nose plugged. Not literally, but imagine me jumping into a swimming pool while afraid of swimming; my nose is probably plugged, my eyes are closed, and my fears are taking over me. That’s what I mean.
This is, of course, a symptom of my social anxiety. Not being able to read a person’s face and body language over the phone adds a layer of stress to the conversation, and it puts extra weight on auditory signals, like tone, volume, diction, and more, so that I have to pay more attention to them than I am used to. I prefer in-person conversation for that reason; there are more signals to pay attention to, but each one has its own layer of meaning to it, so it’s difficult to say one way or another what a person is feeling at a given time. There’s more complexity to an in-person conversation. It feels more natural, more free-form, looser and less restrictive. When talking in-person, I feel we are both laid bare and there’s no room for someone to make things up or hide their true intentions. You get the whole scoop from their candid reactions, rather than waiting for a jumbled answer three minutes later, if we were texting each other instead.
There are times when I have an in-person conversation, though, and I wish afterwards that it went differently, that I didn’t think through my words enough. I mumbled about something instead of addressing it directly, or I didn’t approach the conversation with the right attitude or respect for the other person’s feelings. That’s one of the reasons I prefer texting as a mode of communication, even though there are some obvious drawbacks to texting.
When I was in school, years and years ago, I hated field day. It was always a time for misery and disappointment, sadness and embarrassment.
As some of you probably know, I’m not renowned for my athleticism or physical fitness. This means that, when it comes time for exercise and sports-based competition, I’m usually the last person you want on your team. And for that reason I was picked less frequently than other people when it came time to choose teams in gym class. I didn’t mind, though; it meant that people understood me well enough to know I don’t want to have a weight on my shoulders as the first or second pick. That anxiety would be too much for me to handle.
I used to play little league baseball and participate in karate with my friends. During those years, you could maybe count me as someone whose athleticism matched the average of my peers. Nowadays, though, most certainly not. I sweat sometimes while going up the stairs at work, and that’s enough to tell me that I probably need some work. Field day, a time spent predominantly outside and in the blazing sun, will only make matters worse for me.
Here’s an embarrassing story to tide you over for a bit, from when I was in seventh grade. One time, while rearing up my leg in kickball, I slid on top of the ball and fell backwards on my butt in front of the whole seventh grade class. On the one hand, I deserved it for being kind of a butt to my friends beforehand, but on the other hand, I remember discussing World of Warcraft with my friends afterwards and learning from them what the game is about. So, it was a positive and a negative experience. Field day can bring about good things, I guess.
By the end of the school year, things start to wind down. Students feel less motivated, senioritis kicks in, and teachers await the allure of the long, restful summer break to come. Students and teachers alike begin to count down the days until vacation arrives. I used to have a countdown in my classroom, that the students would help me keep track of as the days went by. It was helpful and I appreciated it.
The end of the year is always the same, but the signals are different depending on what school you work at. At this school, after SBAC testing finishes, people start to wait until summer break comes. At the school I worked at previously, April break was the signal that got people thinking about summer break. For teachers, their last professional observation perhaps takes precedence over the other factors, knowing that they no longer have to worry about an administrator stopping in to evaluate their work. For that reason, I always liked getting my evaluations taken care of and finished early, without having to worry about anything else on the horizon.
As soon as students get their yearbooks, the year is officially over for them (although, for seniors, apparently, winter break is the end of the year for them). They’ll start bringing them to class and requesting elaborate notes and signatures from students and teachers across the hall. It’s one of my favorite parts of the year, writing signatures for students who request one from me. I love feeling appreciated, even in such a small way.
The end of the year is the perfect time to start reflecting on the year that passed. Many of my peers have officially finished their second full year teaching, whereas I’m in the middle of something else for myself. I’m just glad to have my head above water.
Distant humming, mechanical whirring,
a slight rumble and shake to the room;
The air is on, and I can feel it graze through
the hairs sticking up from my skin;
Computer screens, half awake, half asleep,
a beachside oasis wallpaper repeated
on every other monitor,
jutting rocks, a cavern of sand,
and it’s 1:46pm, to be exact;
Two more hours to go, until I am free to leave
and let my mind roam mindlessly elsewhere
and at another time;
Remember what it was like when they finally
turned on the AC, and the entire building
Remember how it felt when walking into a room,
a room you knew before, but now with
added comfort and luxury?
A room that once made you sweat until your
pits could drain enough water to fill a bucket?
A room that once made you cry tears of
complete exhaustion, from bullying or
heat or whatever else existed outside the mind?
Yeah, that’s it.
Paint a picture without photos
Grading papers is fun. I like examining students’ writing, I like assigning grades to them, and I like feeling like my comments will lead to some kind of educational breakthrough for students. You have to feel like your comments are useful in order to feel motivated to write them, right? Otherwise there’s no inspiration.
One habit of mine is writing lots and lots of comments. I’m very meticulous with my commenting, making sure to fill in everywhere and every thing with ink. I like to make sure that students know exactly why they got the grade they got, and I like to know that I fully read over and understood their writing. Sometimes, though, I can’t read everything; I can try and try to pore over the pages, but my eyes get all blank and foggy. Grading marathons are tedious even though they’re fun at times. They drown out every thing else from view, and you are lost with a vision of words upon words and numbers upon numbers only.
I like to grade while working on other things, like playing a round of limited in Magic: Arena or playing some ranked ladder on Hearthstone. Using games as a crutch is probably what allows grading to be enjoyable.
The advice I’ve always gotten from other teachers is to set every thing else aside, devote some time to grading, and not to fill up the essays with comments, because the kids will usually never read all of them and you’ll feel like they’re a waste. I completely understand where they’re coming from, because I distinctly remember picking up graded papers from the ground in my classroom last year, distraught at thinking of how much time I devoted to each paper only for the kids to disregard them like they were nothing. That’s just teaching for you.
I’ve never been a big fan of rubrics, and when I was in high school, I hardly ever looked at the rubric when figuring out what grade I got on a project. I always assumed it was just up to the teacher, and then they would fill in the bubbles on the rubric to match whatever grade they thought matched the quality of my project. I know that they’re useful, and I know that their uses are important and worthwhile, it’s just that when I was a student, nothing about rubrics really ever resonated with me. They just sit there, and they have purpose, but their purpose is incongruent with what I’m really looking for from a grade.
Here’s why they’re helpful, though. They are necessary for making sure that students have clarity as to where their grade originated from. Teachers who use rubrics correctly and appropriately are ideal models for students. As a teacher myself, I like the flexibility that’s offered by not using a rubric. I like giving students checklists with my expectations clearly marked on them, and then letting the grade come from the quality of the paper, not if it made enough checks in the boxes I wrote for them. I recommended, to one of my coworkers recently, that he use a checklist in his class in the future, and I think it was well-received. Maybe it’ll end up being implemented.
The reason I’m writing this blog today is, first of all, because I’m on a computer with a “Research Paper Rubric” sitting right next to me, watching me. It’s like it’s staring at me, telling me to write about it and pour out as many words as possible onto the page about this topic. I hope it worked out and I gave something worth reading!