Tough to do a species distribution analysis or salinity profile, or even compose a few watery lyrics, when you’re kicking and pushing that water

10 Nov

First week of school at my new job as a science teacher at the alternative high school–four days and a teacher field trip on the professional development day. Hoping I can capture some of the essence without the scrawled notes from the many moments I took time to process during the four days with the students. The summary sentences I have used to answer the question, “How’s the new job?” include, “It’s all I had expected and more,” and “They are teaching me a lot.”

I have met and got impressions of my forty-or-so students, my dozen colleagues, my classroom space and the campus. First the macro focus, the course adjustment knob in play on my scope–what my students look like, general tendencies, noticeable edges, bright colors in terms of personality, behavior, knowing I’m going to have to gloss over details for now. Getting a read on their feelings about the change to a new teacher, how they interact with one another and with other staff, what they expect and want, the routine they’re used to. Which are the ones who have the most difficulty with the change? Learning their names using my seating sketch, a glance at ages–fourteen through eighteen, notes on the chart–IEPs, medical conditions, learning disabilities, without seeing the details (without wanting to, yet, as I form my own impressions), knowing nothing about the reasons that got them there.

My first impressions of staff is pretty much all positive, insofar as they like each other, care intensely about the students, are comfortable with being themselves, and have been welcoming and supportive to me. A variety of personalities, no brand new teachers, most have a good deal of life experience. A principal who doesn’t try to carry an aura of authority or professionalism about him like cheap cologne. I’m humbled at the trust they’ve all placed in me, the newcomer (even if maybe they had little choice), aware that it must be tough to be in that space of wondering what will happen in my classroom in the first days–will I say and do dumb things, lose my balance, need too much support that should go to the students, get off on the wrong foot?

I like my classroom, have decided I even like that I share it with several other teachers; I can come and go while other classes are going on, work away at my desk or set up activities in the back, meanwhile getting impressions of some of the students while they interact with other teachers. No sense of isolation in my personal domain that way–just a desk, a few cabinets and bulletin boards in a shared space. Portable floors easy on the feet, windows let in light on the west side, heat cranks out and no one needs a blanket like in the social studies room. I get a laptop for my own use, there’s a shared one that projects onto the screen, a document camera, enough white board space. I found the extra school supplies, files of previous assignments, student notebook bins. No lab facilities, exactly, but enough microscopes for all and a cabinet of supplies, plus colleagues at the school next door happy to lend things when needed. Haven’t figured out the class management software yet, but I set up a training for Monday, so I should be able to post a few numbers by Tuesday when I’m supposed to.

One thing is, there won’t be any surprised once the teacher evaluation comes around, for anyone. Everything is reported back and forth by the students themselves–a good number of whom don’t hold back at all when they feel something, worry about something, have a problem with someone, or an opinion one way or the other. The news travels as they pop out to the bathroom, which is in the main office a few portables down, to one another and the staff they trust.

How did I begin? I over planned, picking activities that didn’t depend on a set of previous knowledge and which fitted into the field of topics, had some hands-on, opportunity for question and answer, discussion, and group work. I was continuing with biology for most, but soon found out that about a third of the students had just started the class. Environmental science was a fresh start with students who up until then had been taking chemistry.

I made the first day introduction short, just greeted the students, told them I was glad to be there, a bit about myself, and acknowledged that this was weird for them, getting a teacher change like this. A bit about my expectations: the same as with the previous teacher, that they’d come prepared to work, be good to one another, and keep lines of communication open. I had them write their names on index cards with any information they’d like to or felt they needed to share with me about themselves. And so we began.

The microscope intro went okay, then the practice focusing, making wet mount slides, and drawing. The lesson was pretty dependent on me talking and them attending and participating, though, and I soon found that they were used to, and wanted to return to, a routine where I gave them a written assignment and they went ahead and did it on their on or in their groups. I was told that worked better for them, they were used to it, and that their previous teacher had done that and they’d all got A’s.

The second day I decided on instinct to read out a few pages I’d scrawled, just thoughts bubbling up early in the morning about teaching them about cells, how the traditional was was to draw from a diagram and label all the parts, then look at real cells in which none of those things could be reliably drawn and identified save the cell membrane and cytoplasm. How I didn’t want them to be turned off because real life wasn’t so photogenic and standard. Gave them an analogy–what if, when I was in teacher training, I was told that here is a diagram of a student (I showed them, a sketch), label all the parts: alert brain eager to learn, healthy body with the usual number of hands, feet, and senses, all ready to do what was required, tummy full of a nourishing breakfast…they got the point. There’s variety, exceptions, no real average. Several students in one class said that forcefully about themselves–that they were not like the students at the “regular” schools, and that what worked there did not work here. So forcefully that I had to let go of my intended point for a while just to listen–One said I should teach concepts step by step, another giving the big picture first. Some said I was going too fast, that it was stressing them out (lots of anxiety issues), and several said (or showed) they were bored because I was going too slow. In another class I was told that they preferred to be given their paperwork or instructions and left to do it with the teacher taking only a consulting role.

“So, I hear you,” I said, repeating back what I heard, “and do you see that what different people are asking for is mutually exclusive?” Yes, they admitted. “Just be Ms. ____ (former teacher), and it will be okay,” blurted one girl. To which I replied, should I ask you to be someone you aren’t? They weren’t really giving me orders, but I appreciated the perspectives, and I said I would bear them in mind and try to find ways for everyone to succeed, and hoped they could be patient when these things couldn’t be at the same time. Even though I could not, as they requested, give all tests as open notes as their last teacher.

While this was going on, a student slipped out to tell folks at the office that things were getting intense, and in sidled the counselor to hear the last part of the conversation. Which was fine, as I felt he’d get a pretty good sense of how I’d be handling such things. Talking afterward, he was good with it all, but said that he’d slipped in because the informant had said people were shouting at each other. Not compared to some days at my house, but there was high energy, and intensity (I was on high adrenaline, but mostly to zip my lips and listen, without taking anything personally). There were a few students who were stressed. I told them the next day that I’d felt the conversation had been valuable, and that I hope they felt heard. They had.

Of course–there are always sensitive, caring souls, several students came up to me afterward, one to offer a “collective apology,” another to assure me this wasn’t about me but they were just having a hard time with the change, because their old teacher had been a favorite. (The principal assured me later that they had given her heck!) I reassured them that I definitely didn’t take anything personally, and was glad to hear them out.

At the end of the week, i was still thinking, “I get to do his for money?” Sort of kidding, as I wouldn’t want to be undervalued that way, but I felt that I was going to really grow as a teacher, which I had wanted in my job, and be very useful, at this place. My main goals: at the end of the year, for each student to be able to say, “I learned a lot,” and “She liked me.” Which fit very well indeed into the ethos of the school.




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2 responses to “Tough to do a species distribution analysis or salinity profile, or even compose a few watery lyrics, when you’re kicking and pushing that water

  1. jdawgsrunningblog

    November 11, 2015 at 5:32 am

    I am impressed with your demeanor–your way of handling all this–and what you have to say about it–not just impressed, but humbled—that moment when the counselor came in–and you’re embracing it–i am awed by that….good stuff all the way around—hope you’ll continue to be who you are–impeccably so—and i know those kids will grow to appreciate it, value it, and ultimately be transformed by what you bring to their lives—in whatever way they’re capable of and up for.

    • toesinthedirt

      November 13, 2015 at 9:08 pm

      He was so good at checking in with me, asking about my comfort level with his dropping in, & clarifying that–and this really is the feeling–he was just wanting to lend support. He knows these students much better than I, too.


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