How do you still love teaching?

because there is always light over the horizon, even when the river seems frozen. Image by me, available on flickr. Click to view source.

because there is always light over the horizon, even when the river seems frozen. Image by me, available on flickr. Click to view source.

Yesterday a friend and I had an email conversation on facebook. She has given me permission to reproduce it here.

friend: how do you still love teaching?
I’m in another tough school, and am starting to wonder if kids are just “like this” everywhere. i know they have issues, but they are incredibly rude, apathetic, and just MEAN to each other. the admin chatted with me today and basically told me to forget the curriculum, and as long as they’re not beating down the walls, it’s ok. wtf?

Ii don’t know how to ‘grab’ them. I’m teaching 7 language arts, and 7,8,9 PDR (personal development and relationships), which they don’t have to pass, and they know that, so they don’t care.
any ideas? or just hope in general ;)

me: give them a reason to not be mean.
give them some hope.

Maybe you do need to forget the curriculum for a bit, to get them caring again. But not for too long. They reach for the bar we have for them. If it is low, their reach is low as well.

Practical ideas? Hmmm…start by identifying the ONE major disrupt – the one kid who, if he/she isn’t there the class is a bit smoother. And spend time with him. Find out what he/she needs to keep occupied in class.

The one big idea I learned from Cliff [former principal of a school we worked at together about 4 years ago] – occupy them or they will occupy you.

What helps me sometimes is writing about it – a blog is great because you can get some feedback with the comments.

Let me know how things go :)
I still love teaching because of the challenge :) Beause there is no better place to learn about human relationship…

These are all the things that I know, but I don’t know how to do it.
I hate spending all my time planning and trying to come up with ideas that don’t work. I want to make things relevant, I want them to care, I want it to be safe, I want it to be FUN. I don’t know how to put all of that together into something that doesn’t look like chaos.

I guess I have to remember too, that this is my first time in a junior high classroom in a public school. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. But I’m exhausted and so, so, so frustrated already. So many people are trying to help me with the ‘what to do’ – the things that i already know – but not the ‘how to do’ – which is what i need. Actually, I shouldn’t say that. There are good ideas floating around, I just need some more time to figure out how to implement them. maybe i just need to accept that this is going to be a rough year, and the next one will be a little bit easier.
Maybe a blog is a good idea….
Thanks :)

me: – don’t go with…very inconsistent!


Are you able to go visit other classrooms? Sometimes an hour in someone else’s classroom makes all the difference.

Setting Limits in the Classroom – a GREAT book for management.

All kids, but more so for middle school kids, need loads of structure to feel safe and to be able to be productive. Make sure they know what is ahead for them. When they walk into the room, be at the door, handing out a mini-assignment to do right away. Then have the agenda on the board for them to see.

Blog blog blog about what works, what doesn’t. Visit my blogroll to see other bloggers/teachers who are doing great things.

In particular I want to teach forever, so you want to teach, teachers at risk, The Jose Vilson, dy/dan, Science Teacher, ..oh, they’re all good…

friend: I will look at that again… the mini assignment at the door is a good idea. I’ve been doing the agenda on the board – most of them notice it ;)
I’m spending all my preps this week in other classes – I know most teachers are having the same problems as I am -if nothing else, maybe the visits will help me not to be so hard on myself.
it’s fine if you blog about our chat – and jacq is over 40 as well ;) [in reference to my comment to her friend Jacq’s comment on her wall about 42 being THAT old ;)]

So everyone, I promised that my blogroll rocked. Prove it …

a) Can you give and/or point my friend and any others toward advice when it comes to the reality of teaching in a class like this? In particular practical, tangible advice that she can use in her classroom?
b) How do you still love teaching when it can be SO hard and disheartening at times?

Because there is always light over the horizon…even when the ground seems frozen.

Reasonable Accommodation

I have mixed feelings today. I am an empty tree, today.

An Empty Tree from Garrowby Hill by tricky ™ on flickr

An Empty Tree from Garrowby Hill by tricky ™ on flickr

According to my collective agreement (of teachers of the school board where I work) if I want to take days off for religious reasons I need to request the days from my school board. Apparently this rule began last year, my first year at the board. Which I did. And after a few emails back and forth with human resources I was told that I would receive an official letter about the holidays, and that it would entail some kind of arrangement that would not result in loss of salary. Which I received. Today. That letter was somewhat different. The official notice is that yes, I am granted the leave, however I must make myself available for emergency substitution or another arrangement with my principal to make up the time I am taking off.

To me, that does not sound like leave without loss of salary.

I showed the letter to the head teacher in my department who was angry. Who went to speak to an administrator (not the principal, he wasn’t in) about it because he felt it unfair. Wrong. He walked away from the administrator in reaction to a statement about multiculturalism and how we can not accommodate everyone in a multi-cultural society.

My logical reaction – and by logical I mean the reaction that came from my head and not my heart – was this letter that I wrote this evening:

I received your letter regarding my request for leave to observe the Jewish high holidays and I must say that I am left feeling confused, insulted, and disappointed.

My confusion comes from the inconsistency of how the school board has granted such leave during my 2 years here. Last year I made the same request and was granted the leave to observe my holidays without having to make up the time. This year, while I have indeed been given the permission to not report to work on those days, I am expected to make myself available for emergency substitution or other work in order to make up the time you are granting me to observe the holidays, keeping in mind that these are not minor holidays, they are the most important holidays of the Jewish religion. Last week you wrote me an email that the requests would be granted without loss of salary, however being asked to work extra time entails that this leave is actually unpaid.

I feel insulted that, as a teacher who regularly arrives to work at or around 7:00 each morning and very rarely leaves before 5:00 pm, sometimes as late as 6:00 or later, I am being asked to make up time missed so that I can observe my holidays. Indeed, I am not able to fulfil the make-up time commitment as I spend my time at school, including recess, lunch time, and after school, with my students.

I understand that our collective agreement does not automatically allow us leave for religious holidays as perhaps it has in years past, however I do not understand the logic or compassion of the school board’s position on the matter.

The word that best sums up my feelings about this matter is disappointment,

Tracy Rosen

My gut reaction, however, was shaky. When I first read the letter from the school board I felt…wrong. Wrong for being Jewish. I felt that I needed to defend the reasons for the holidays. And I felt wrong that I felt I needed to defend my Jewishness. As I write this that wrongness is coming back to me and I feel emotional. I feel that the school board is being petty, and I also feel that I am being petty. The wrongness is attached to a feeling of being told that my religion, my culture is a privilege, an extra-curricular activity like a vacation. And it is attached to me feeling ashamed about that, feeling shame that maybe I am asking for something unreasonable. Feeling the need to defend how much energy and how many hours I put into my job as if that makes up for the fact that I am asking for time off to be true to my religious culture. And attached to the fact that my head teacher felt the unfairness before I did. For real.

I shared my responses – both logical and gut – with a colleague of mine who is in the same situation. He is livid. He is ready to go see our principal on Monday morning and put his job on the line. He says he refuses to be put on the bottom of the totem pole because of his religion. That unfairness and tolerance (Don’t tolerate me, just accept me) is not acceptable. That he refuses to be put into the situation where every year he has to beg for time off for a religious holiday and then work extra hours to make up for it. That by not fighting these things Jews (and others) have been persecuted and prosecuted (hated and killed) over centuries.

I love my job. I hate these feelings that this response from my school board has brought up in me.

I have mixed feelings and I feel shaky. My head hurts.
I feel like an empty tree.

Learning from my students as I rise

Listen to a podcast about this post here [audio: learningfrommystudents.mp3]


image from maniobras de escapismo by Ma Vera on Flickr

image from maniobras de escapismo by Ma Vera on Flickr


My students inspire me

“I have learned more math this week than I have so far in all my years of high school.”

“Today I don’t feel complete. I did not get to the gym yesterday because I was working on homework and I didn’t finish the homework because I didn’t get some of it. So I’m not feeling complete.”

“I’m weird. I get the math when it is in a word problem, but not when it is written as straight math.”

“Today I am tired. I had another fight with my mother last night and didn’t get to bed until late. Tonight I am going to party.”


Because I learned that even though the math scares me a bit, I can teach it. And I think that is because I teach my children first and then the math. I also learned that we do such a disservice to students when we stay focused on basic skills rather than going on to learning that requires higher-order thinking skills. If she had not told me that she was ‘weird’ I may have made her do more of that ‘straight math’ instead of letting her think. I wonder how many other ‘weird’ students are out there. I learned where my students are coming from when they put their heads down during study hall, the last 45 minutes of the day, instead of reading a short story or trying to figure out the equivalent resistance of whatever.

and I learned this:

To you, 17-year old Cody

Each morning we check in
in a circle we sit
we shoot the shit
we state where we are at
so we can clear the path to where we are going
so we can clear the path to the part of our journey that will take place today.

“I feel tired”
“I feel happy”
“I did not finish my homework”

On Thursday morning you, 17-year old Cody, said
Today I do not feel complete.

and you went on to say why.

all eloquent and concise.

And I learn that it is not my job to make
you feel complete.

I think to myself of what stops me from feeling complete – of my boundaries, my hard lines, my fears.

No, it is not my job to make you feel complete. It is my job to learn from you how to rearrange my own boundaries, reorganize my own hard lines into rungs as I rise to my own completeness.

And that is why I say to you, 17-year old Cody, thank you.
Tracy, Sept. 13/08


Everyday Real (moment of truth 2008) [audio:]
From The Pull Forward EP Vol.2 by Scholarman, available for free download here

First 2 days: the forensic report

Student teams building bird houses on the first day of school

Student teams building bird houses on the first day of school

Hugh asked yesterday, “So, how’d it go? :)

It rocked. For real.

So here’s the skinny – > I have found the pot of gold.

Directions Teaching Team

I work with an amazingly committed, dedicated, and caring group of teachers. Add that to the fact that they have a talent for teaching that includes an understanding of curriculum that is rock solid and flexible at the same time.

Walter – Grade 10 core teacher (brand new curriculum this year!) and Grade 11 remedial math teacher. His second year in the program. One of my students wrote that she never in her life thought she would meet someone who would support her the way he did last year. He teaches a straightforward curriculum with humour and caring. Every time I run into him in the hallway he says, “I love my class.”

Collin – Grade 11 core teacher, Grade 10 remedial Science teacher, and head teacher. He’s been with Directions for 7 years (I think). Always full of energy, no matter how tired. He’s been at the school until 9 or so each night, planning and meeting with kids and parents who may still want to join the program. I can tell he’s got a spark burning on the inside at all times for what he does. He’s a strong believer in tough love and performs it well. Every day so far this week at least one graduate of the program has wandered in asking, “Is Collin around?” and he gives each of them a big hug no matter how busy he is.

Marie – Our special ed technician and CEO :) She’s been working with Directions for 12 years (I think). Throughout the day you hear the phrase, “Where’s Marie?” asked constantly because she holds the key to everyone’s answers. She will be working with our students who need extra assistance. More importantly she’ll be working with us in our classrooms. How freaking lucky are we?!

Tracy – That’s me! Grade 11 core teacher, Grade 10 math teacher, and Grade 10 Remedial history teacher. 1st year at Directions. Exhausted after this first whirlwind week of meeting new students, working with a new team, and starting my own new semester at Concordia University (Here’s the course website for one of the courses – it is going to be a hot year of work and learning). I teach with a smile, yet I hold firm to my expectations. Trying to teach outside of the box for these kids who need it – though sometimes unsure as to what exactly the box is to begin with (in particular for math)!

Genevieve – Grade 10 and 11 French teacher. She is a godsend because apparently last year the Directions teachers had to teach French as well as everything else (read – had no breaks during the day). She seems to be already making even the students who can not (and don’t want to) speak French comfortable. She is also very open to the flexible scheduling we need in the program, agreeing to meet with us each Friday after school to set the French schedule for the following week. She admitted that she was wary of the Directions groups at first (other teachers told her they were the ‘bad’ kids) but she is bubbling over with enthusiasm after having met each of the groups once so far. (Especially compared to her 38 student regular Grade 11 class! THIRTY EIGHT students who need to pass a Provincial French exam at the end of the year IN ORDER TO GRADUATE FROM HIGH SCHOOL! That’s a whole other post…)

Kara and Max – the Physical Education teachers. 2 more godsends as Phys Ed was also part of the course load for Directions teachers last year! The kids haven’t yet had a Phys Ed class, but so far they both seem eager to work with us as part of the Directions team and we’re working together on ways to provide appropriate learning situations and consequences for the students when they are at gym. (We don’t use the principal’s office as a consequence in Directions.)

Directions Learning Team

55 students – 19 in Grade 10, 16 each in the two Grade 11 classes. My Grade 11 group is the best :) hmmm…but my Grade 10 math group is also the best…and I’ll be meeting my remedial History group on Monday and they’ll be the best too I’m sure ;)

Seriously, these are kids who have not been successful in the regular public school programs for one reason or another. Mainly they are kids who need more support and care on a daily basis than a teacher with a class size of 30+ can generally give them. One of my girls was asked to leave her classes 4 out of 4 periods a day last year. Other students left theirs on their own accord (skipped), others were quietly failing, though standardized test scores showed they had the ability to perform at or above grade level. Many of them have already learned how to self-medicate in order to survive.

I have one student who just may be the most hyperactive student with ADD I have ever met – and I’ve worked with special needs kids in alternative settings for most of my 12 year teaching career. Yesterday as he came bouncing back into class after the millionth Friday afternoon errand I could think of to send him on I announced that we were so lucky to have his energy in our classroom. As the other students looked at me in disbelief (some were already frustrated by his constant movement after 1 day) I added, and we need to work together to find a way to channel it!

I have another student who immediately warned me that he couldn’t do math, and then proceeded to demonstrate (unbeknownst to him) his logical-mathematical mind when we did this activity (scroll down for the cup stacking activity) as our first math class. In fact, I quoted him on the follow-up handout I gave out the next morning. Following that success he actually worked on the algebra review with another student who understands it a bit more than he. And he asked me to teach him how to ‘get’ algebra. Good thing because we are meant to be starting linear equations next week…

One of my girls’ best friends called the school on Friday morning to let us know that my student had had a rough night, including a fight with her mother in which she was afraid of getting physically hurt. My student looked tired, but showed up on time, kept her head down, and did her work. This is the same girl who last year was asked to leave just about every class each day of the school year. I can tell already she is committed to changing her patterns and I love her for that.

I can go on to tell you about my quiet math student who came up at the end of the 2nd class to make an apointment to meet with me after school on Monday to do extra math, and how my big tough loud almost 18 year old, who failed just about everything last year but is committed to graduating this year, instinctively knows to include the shy quiet boy in our class when we break down into smaller learning or work groups. I can also tell you about my student who told me that an activity I asked them to do was retarded…and you know what? it ended up being a pretty ineffective lesson. He gave me some good feedback and I let him know it. (I also let him know that we are going to be working on more tactful ways of providing feedback).

I can tell you about all of them, but I think you are starting to realize by now why my classes are the best :)

First day … on your marks, get set…

image from: Sports Bloopers and Others

It’s 5:30 am and I have…

…met my students

…planned day 1 and 2

…cleaned my classroom

…hidden the computers that don’t work and aren’t plugged in (read – NO computers in my classroom…)

…prepared some tight opening day activities

…slept through the night, though don’t feel as if I did. Stuff must’ve been going on behind the scenes :)

…looked over my reading (a bit) for tonight’s class at Concordia (Human Performance Technology)

…fed my dog

…had a sip or two of coffee

…packed my bag

I’m good to go. I’ll let you know how well it went tomorrow.