Summer Break?

We are in the last few days of our school year. Some districts have already let out (like my young daughters) while we are still in for about two weeks. As an educator I have mixed feelings about summer break. There is the traditionalist in me who waits with bated breath for the last bell to ring and the final bus to pull out of our parking lot. While another side of me obsesses over the children gone from my care for ten weeks during the summer.

A whirlwind of emotions begin to hit me as the last day creeps towards me. I can’t keep track from moment to moment. Excitement is the primary emotion for the simple fact that I’ll be able to sleep in – past 5:15 anyway, spend hot summer days at the pool basking in the heat, and reading my favorite authors. I am ambivalent about leaving my babies all summer. Who will make them read and practice math? Who will make sure they eat good meals and stop their innocent monkey play before it gets out of hand? I have been everything to these children while they are under my care and now what, I’m supposed to just let them go and not see them again for over ten weeks? I’m supposed to let my eighth graders go on to high school and not look back? But wait! I’m also happy to see the children go who made the last month difficult because of their lack of motivation and bad moods, those students who have become demanding and bad tempered, and those who are surly and talk back, glare, and even roll their eyes. The girl drama is so tiring, and the happy smiles are fewer. My mind wanders to next year and ways I’ll change my lessons, different books we’ll read, and new projects we’ll try. I start to get excited about the untold possibilities of next year. Then in the next moment I come crashing to the ground worrying that I haven’t taught these students enough. And what about Joey, sitting quietly in his seat NOT raising his hand? Did I do all I could for him? If I had more time, we could do so much more. But wait….I know we need a break. My aching feet, intense headaches, and short nerves speak volumes.

Are we doing our children a disservice having a ten week break? We know that a lot of educational research has shown that students loose their retention of core subject matter, content vocabulary, and simple basic skills.  What about the buildings that aren’t air conditioned (mine), or the vacation homes that wouldn’t be rented if we changed the school year? Are we holding on to an old and outdated tradition? Is it time to change things, shake them up, improve a broken system? Our students need more time in the classroom and less time left to their own devices. Not only to improve their test scores, but to improve their lives.

So you see? These are questions and concerns I have no control over, yet think about constantly when I’m lying on the lounge chair beside the pool. Just because I’m not with my students physically does not mean they are out of my mind. I miss their goofy jokes and teasing. These children are so open and truthful, not only with me, but with one another. They let me into their worlds and I know that I play an important role while I am with them. They plague my thoughts because they are not just students to me…. they are my children, my family, and my life. Each year these incredible people enter my life and it’s hard to shake them. During my break, I find out that I need them as much as they need me.

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This late in the year you don’t expect to experience too many moments in the classroom where you feel like you are accomplishing great things. Those times usually occur earlier in the year when you and your kids are fresh and ready to experience the joys of education. Lesson plans are more complex, imaginative, full of energy and innovation. The last two weeks, we educators strive to stay alive and start thinking of what we will do differently next year with fresh faces, open minds, and happy children.

I teach a lower level math class to middle schoolers. We have two days a week where we have a double block of time which lasts around 90 minutes. The rest of the week are 45 minute classes. My babies struggle with math. There is no other way to say it. When they first came to me I had to assess their level and the vast majority of them were working anywhere from a third to a fifth grade level. Simple multiplication was counted out on fingers and long division seemed impossible. We would start on a Simple Solution page and I would lose them after the first two problems. I was dumbfounded. This was a new position for me since I had previously been teaching fifth grade Language Arts, Social Studies, and Religion. I only taught math one other year.

I didn’t know where to start, so I began at the beginning of a 6th grade math book that wasn’t devoted to the all holy, “Common Core”. Reading the word problems were impossible so I started simple. I outlawed calculators and reintroduced drill and kill of basic math facts. I found computer programs and websites and started talking MATH. I used the terminology and explained to them – daily –  the importance of basic concepts. I explained that they were behind, but to remember that math is all about practice, practice, practice. We worked from the moment they walked in until the moment they left at the end of the period. I always gave them homework. It was a fight at first, but little by little they knew I meant business. Some students improved quickly and moved to a higher level class, but those that stayed learned quickly that my class was not for the lazies.

Slowly I began to see improvement. The students began to know their multiplication tables by rote memorization and this helped a lot. If students were struggling with certain concepts, I began to see sheepish smiles during Hassle Free Homework time searching for some extra help. We have made a lot of progress this year. Not enough….not yet.

But…..Today I was working with a small group of students who were ready to move on to a new concept. (Yes, we are still working every minute.) We were discussing converting fractions into decimals. I paused and listened. I slowly looked around the classroom and I swear I almost started crying. Instead I started giggling. You have to understand that my kids get me. We like to joke and yes we use sarcasm (a discussion for another time). They stopped and looked at me and one of my girls asked me what I was laughing about. Already a smile was growing on her face as she was awaiting the joke. All the children in the group stopped and looked at me. I just began to shake my head and then I looked at them square in the eyes.

“I want you to listen to the classroom. Don’t turn around, just listen.” They tried it, but they didn’t hear anything strange. I started pointing to small groups of students working together with dry erase boards, books, and papers. Some had multiplication tables to help with common denominators, some were scribbling equations, but all were working! They were talking math to one another! I reminded my group about where they started this year. The lack of attention span caused by low self confidence. “I now see mathematicians. We argue over problems on a daily basis. We discuss ways to solve problems, but best of all, you are helping one another learn.”

They ALL became teachers and students to one another right before my eyes. They caught my mistakes and other’s, but they didn’t belittle, they pointed out the problems in the reasoning and computation.

How proud I was at that moment and how happy I am even now typing this entry. This is power….This is joy….This is pride in one’s job….This is pride in my babies. They are all magnificent and incredible at this moment in time.

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At our school, we are losing a few incredible team members so we are looking fastidiously at applicants and trying to find perfect matches for our job openings. Is there anyone out there fitting the following qualifications because at our school we want more than a “teacher”.

  • People are needed to fill teaching positions ranging from kindergarten to ESL instructor to middle school language arts, science, math, and religion to intervention specialist.
  • Persons must hold at least a Bachelors Degree, but a Masters degree is preferred.
  • Candidates must be free of any crimes. They will be fingerprinted by the FBI and BCI. They will have to take a class called “Protecting God’s Children” and will have to go through a rigorous and lengthy interview process.
  • Educators must be willing to do anything and everything necessary to help said children succeed against all odds.
  • Teachers must open their hearts and minds to children that need more than excellent academic instruction.
  • Educators must possess incredible listening skills and have the ability to read children’s minds and expressions when words aren’t possible.
  • Candidates must be able to soothe away hurts and bring smiles to faces that wear tears and frowns caused by broken hearts.
  • People must inspire trust so that children can leave difficult lives and circumstances at home so they can concentrate on math, reading, and science.
  • Teachers must be willing to work (at the school) from 7:15 until 3:00 (HaHaHa) and at home from 8:00 until 11:00 (minimum).
  • People must give up free time to attend school functions to help support the children in their extracurricular endeavors because many times their parents won’t be there
  • Educators must develop lessons that not only convey educational concepts, but also excite while not inciting riots
  • Candidates need to have a high threshold for very loud volume and chaos
  • This educator absolutely has to be a team player since we are in this together. Only as a unit will we achieve survive and succeed!
  • Oh, and hey don’t forget that if you want to teach, you must be willing to visit the TEACHER store in your area that sells all the NECESSARY materials that you need to buy with YOUR own money in order for you to have the necessary resources
  • Educators must have thick skin to work at one of the hardest jobs in America with a huge burn-out rate, make far less money than those with as much education, listen to non-educators dictate what you must teach and when you must teach it, and listen to disparaging remarks from (once again) non-educators.
  • But most of all, the people who meet all of these qualifications must NOT look at educating as a job, but as a life choice, a calling, and they must possess and internal need to be with these children each and every day so that they can help these babies have happier lives.

Well, is there anyone out there?

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Man in the Moon

Have you ever been at the beach when there is a beautiful full moon? It illuminates the water, it is romantic, it is peaceful, ahhhh.

I am looking at the full moon tonight, from my porch, at home, knowing tomorrow I will not be at the beach.  I will be entering the 15th remaining day of school. So…the moon tonight, not so romantic, actually I think I see a face in the moon, and it is smiling an evil smile. It knows, the kids will be “extra excited” tomorrow. Oh well, I guess I like a little crazy.

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My amazing father lived out his final years in a nursing home. It, by far, was the most difficult thing in my life I had to experience and watch. I observed how the activities director, named Elaine, with unrelenting passion used to provide love, individual attention, spiritual support, and emotional encouragement to every patient in her care.

Watching her seemed so familiar somehow, then I realized something very ironic because I now teach middle school, an epiphany, so to speak. Let me explain.

Things said by the nursing home activities director:

“Bill get your hand out of your pants,” “No, Martha, you may not go to the bathroom again,” “Ethel stop pulling Sarah’s hair,” “Hey, Bob, get those bingo chips out of your mouth!” “Sit up and stop drooling on the table please.”

Things said by a middle school teacher:

“Pedro get your hand out of your pants” “No, Carmen you many not go to the bathroom again,” “Jordan stop pulling Laura’s hair,” “Hey, Tony, get those bingo chips out of your mouth!” “Sit up and stop drooling on the desk, please.”

I wondered why I felt rather at home there. 


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