Taking off my pack

Taking off my pack

This will sound familiar to many teachers. It’s the first morning of fall break, but my brain is still fighting to work on lesson plans, rework social studies units, and think of innovative ways to reward students for improving behavior.  We’re good at those things, but honestly, what we’re not good at is turning off those thoughts when our brains, our bodies, and our souls need a break. I’m struggling now to, as the military saying goes, take off my pack.

When the buses arrived to take away our students on Friday afternoon, I was exhausted.  It was the end of my first grading period as a middle-school teacher in an alternative ed program and I’ve been working harder than I did as a first-year teacher. Adding to the workload was the extra effort of helping steady vulnerable students facing nine days of chaos, hunger, and danger that comes with extended breaks from the safe, stable environment of school.

I recall how hard I worked for nearly every day during the summer break as I prepared to transition from teaching high school social studies classes to middle-school classes. It had to be done, however, I didn’t feel rested as I usually am after the “long” hiatus between mid-June and early August preceding a new school year.

Like most teachers I know, I love my job and enjoy the challenge of providing experiences that help students grow. Still, there’s a cost. Just as a student benefits from what I call a percolation period during which time information is organized in a student’s brain as connections form after exposure to new concepts, teachers need time away from hard mental work of crafting lessons.

I liken what I’m now experiencing to the challenge faced by anyone meditating – or fighting insomnia. How do you turn off those thoughts of the best way to solve not only your own problems but those of others? At first, it’s uncomfortable to consciously not harness your mind to brainstorming the means to an elusive end. There’s even some, (irrational), guilt I feel in the morning when I’m not honing a new idea for incorporating a promising learning strategy.

Age and experience serve as a rare comfort in this case. I know and understand the benefits – the necessity – of taking off my pack. My subconscious mind will still work on those problems, but the intentional rest I’m taking will provide, hopefully, the fuel for future epiphanies.

The balance of these next nine days will see me camping and enjoying the good company of close friends and aging parents. I’ll explore a few books, museums, and a movie or two, and while all of these may be tied to my content are, I plan to fight that urge to pick up my pack, to saddle up, and return to my teacher mode – until the night before school resumes.

Happy moments

My 7th graders had done a respectably good job using latitude and longitude coordinates to locate continents and oceans. They’d earned a short break from work, and being 7th graders, were bubbling over in excess energy. I offered a conditional reward of going to the gym if the entire class completed one more task and they comported themselves appropriately for the next thirty minutes.

About half-way through the assignment, two students began a bit of low-intensity horseplay. I cautioned the two, “you need to get back to work; you know I’ll pull the trigger on going to the gym if you don’t live up to our agreement.”

With that, one of the students asked, “what do you mean, pull the trigger?”

From the opposite side of the classroom came the type of response we teachers dream of hearing.

“Don’t you know what a metaphor is,” another student incredulously asked.

I immediately rewarded that student with a ticket.

I shared the incident at our staff meeting, the account receiving a spontaneous smattering of applause.

After school, I called the student’s mother who was delighted to receive the news about her son’s display of learning.

Putting the F in Failing Students

Putting the F in Failing Students

My first job after graduating from college was teaching in a new alternative education program. I learned many things during that time, but most of the learning didn’t happen until after I’d moved on to another district.

I use the term learned, as in what I learned, but there is a more precise, more forthright description. What I thought I knew about students and teaching wasn’t quite right. This isn’t an indictment of my teacher preparation in college. It is, however, an indictment of my perceptions that predate my enrollment.

Among my dead-wrong beliefs were:

  • Students assigned to alternative ed programs were bad kids.
  • Parents of students assigned to alternative ed programs were bad parents.
  • Academic failings of alt-ed students were the primary result of poor choices those students inevitably made.
  • Academically gifted students didn’t end up in alternative education programs.

Now, we all can laugh, (and cringe), at my new-teacher biases. However, it appears that some of those same wrong-headed assumptions are alive and well in district policies guiding their own alternative-education programs.

Student focused or student blaming?

One observation that surprised me some twenty-one years ago was how much progress students made in our alternative education program during just one semester. By progress, I mean measurable improvement in reading and math. Foundational to my present understanding of learning is that these students already had the capacity to learn and learn well. So what are the implications of this?

Unlike some alt-ed programs, that first school was well designed in many aspects. Every student assigned to our program came with detailed records, not of what they’d done to be faced with expulsion, but of where they were academically. We had student transcripts, recent testing information, (against which we could later measure progress), and existing support services to include contact information of probation officers. This is the good news. Still, there was and is bad news that schools should face in order to improve learning.

Alternative Education is all about great teaching

Inescapable is the conclusion that students who demonstrate significant progress, (relative to the student), during a semester or two of instruction in an alternative program were not receiving something they needed in their general education program. By no means am I shifting culpability of bad choices or behaviors by the student, but then neither am I glossing over shortcomings implicit withing the general education programs from which our students come.

To be clear, mandated smaller class sizes are a true advantage for teachers working in alternative ed. Nevertheless, districts that permit class sizes of thirty or forty students need to take a hard look at even tight budgets and rethink every salary decision that results in unmanageably large classes.

Failing to identify and then remediate gaps in student skills and academic discrepancies is, contrary to practices, inexcusable. I’ve long since lost track of the number of high-school students clearly in need of testing referrals for deficits that had to have been apparent years earlier. Lacking agency, so common among impoverished families, is no excuse for a student to have special education needs ignored.

While it’s not within the scope of this post to wade into social promotion policies, it is necessary to point out what makes for very bad policy. A young student who fails to meet standards, especially reading and math expectations must have additional, targeted support in addition to content area instruction. The number of students I’ve seen assigned to alt-ed programs with records clearly indicating this did not happen is disappointingly high.  And with this comes my final observation.

How to build a behavior problem

There are, of course, always exceptions to generalizations. I get that. Still, I’ve yet to meet a student assigned to an alternative program due primarily to behavior issues who received adequate academic remediation for learning shortcomings.

If you happen to be interested in provoking humiliation, frustration, and rage in a student, make sure he or she falls behind their peers in learning. Too often, this is what happens to students assigned to alternative education programs. We practitioners know what to do when they arrive at our alternative school – but so should have those who preceded us.

New year, new assignment

For the past six years, no matter how trying the day was, I consoled myself with one thought: At least I don’t teach middle school.

Beginning in late July, however, I’m my program’s middle school social studies teacher. I’m actually excited about the new assignment.

Anticipated news

When word filtered out that Mr. Ferris had taken a job in his hometown, I was both happy for his own good fortune and concerned about the impending loss to our school of an excellent, middle-school social studies teacher.

Of the four members of our middle school team, two had accepted other positions. That level of turnover is tough on a grade-level team universally seen as strong. In an alternative program, having a cohesive group of teachers working with the most challenging population – middle schoolers – has critical implications. A strong team means the difference between an administrative team able to advance a program’s big-picture goals and one increasingly beleaguered by chaos.

While I thought about approaching our principal about the open social studies position, my satisfaction with teaching high school as a member of a strong cadre of veteran alt-ed teachers won out over my idea. Perhaps the principal had another vision for filling the job. So, when he did announce that he was moving me from high school to the middle school, I believe I detected signs of relief when I enthusiastically approved of his decision.

Bring your A-Game

Teaching at-risk students assigned to an alternative program requires at least two unique student-needs. For a variety of factors, these students are far behind their age-peers in skills. More specific to their socio-economic circumstances, they have learned behaviors that serve as barriers to a good education. Add to this the attendant issues with all middle-school students and the responsibilities of teaching become daunting. To borrow from the Scout motto, be prepared. Be very prepared.

I’ve come to understand that teaching social studies in the conventional, cookie-cutter fashion is no way to help alternative education students learn. Over the past several years, I’ve made the transition from the factory model comprised of district pacing guides and chronological approaches to the past. While teachers are required to teach specific standards, the use of thematic units come with the obligation for competent teachers to differentiate the pace of learning appropriate to each student.

My summer break has already seen the regular application of reverse-planning. From the standards come evaluation, from evaluation comes assessment. There’s no shortcut to doing something right.

My own best-laid plans call for the heavy use of stations in my classroom. By including skill-building activities in these stations, (so my current thinking goes), instructional time will be maximized to the point that I’ll avoid that terrifying experience of running short of meaningful activities during a class period. I shudder at the thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to recharge and relax during my break. However, I do understand the sense of urgency of joining a four-person team in which all of the licensed teachers are new to middle school.