Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Years Reflections

There are countless psalms and proverbs across many cultures about how adversity makes you stronger, how those that thrive in adversity gain the most.
I strive to be a person who becomes stronger out of my own trials and difficulties. I strive to choose the path I know will be most uncomfortable so that I can learn as much as possible from a situation. Convincing oneself that coming away from a challenge with nothing to show but the chance of growth can be a challenge in and of itself.
Last year, about this time, in the middle of my second year of teaching, I was told I would not be coming back to my current team the following school year. The reason was not directly associated with being laid off, as the budget-based-R.I.F.s had threatened the year before. This time around it was decided rather indirectly because a smaller budget meant bigger class sizes; we also had less students coming up from fifth grade (I had been teaching sixth grade, sharing a hundred students with three other teachers). Less kids and bigger class sizes meant we needed less teachers. To protect me from being laid off, I was asked to "hide out" in a lower grade for a while until numbers were back up, which I was assured would happen before the next year began.
This situation threw me into a flood of emotions. Sadness, for being torn from the teammates that had so willingly accepted me and worked with me through my first few years. Anticipation, in having a group of kids in one classroom that I could focus on in greater detail. Anxiety, in my perception of the team I would be moving to, and all the difficulties associated with meshing with a group of new people. Excitement, in the prospect of a new challenge.
I finished out my second year in sixth grade becoming familiar with another feeling: uncertainty. The limbo of the looming start of the next school year. Would the numbers go back up, would the numbers keep going down? I was informed weekly by well-meaning colleagues what the student-numbers were looking like for each grade. But by April, I went to administration and asked them to please just put me in fifth for the next year, for I couldn't live in such uncertain terms. I worked feverishly that whole bittersweet summer, worrying that I'd be thrown into sixth grade last minute because the numbers had gone back up.
My preparations for fifth grade were not in vain, as I had worried, for the numbers never got high enough for administration to put me back in sixth. I had my classroom set up, my curriculum poured over, and my students names and faces already memorized. That first day felt like my first day of my first year all over again, but worse. There was nothing, not observation nor internship nor student teaching, that could have prepared me for the madness that teaching one group of kids five subjects a day (opposed to four classes one subject only each day). Add to it the special needs within my group and district-mandated benchmark testing that had to be finished by the first Friday. I was shell-shocked, stupefied, and utterly exhausted that first weekend in August. I have never so urgently wanted to leave school after the kids left (despite still having work to do) before my first week with fifth graders.
What was I thinking? I couldn't believe I had been excited about this! The semester was filled with ups and downs, with my morale typically sinking lower and lower until the thoughts in my head and longings in my heart frightened me. When had I ever NOT been excited about coming to school? My typical arrival time in the mornings had always been very early, I was productive and eager to get to work on planning and setting up the classroom each day. This year, I was arriving in time for a quick checking of email, duty or meetings (on days that required), and enough time to put the morning work on the board. I began slacking on updating my website, began depending greatly on the vanilla-scripted curriculum (though I'd never stoop so low as to actually read it in its scripted manner), stopped supplementing the curriculum with enrichment activities and extensions much as I normally would. In reflection, I suppose one would conclude that I had finally hit that wall-o-burnout. After almost two years of elated, full-speed-ahead teaching, pleasing all parents/coworkers/admin/students in any way I could, it finally happened. I had learned about this, in college, from my mentor, and even in the new-teacher classes I was required to attend at district my first year. I didn't so much as scoff, but felt myself extremly lucky, that when the new teacher burnout was brought up and attributed to not enough real experience during student teaching, I was flying along on cloud nine. I loved teaching! My team was supportive of my ideas, my mentor had let me fall on my face during my practicum to gain the realistic view of teaching I entered my first year with, and she left me more than prepared for the groups of kids I were to encounter my first two years. While other first year teachers in my district vented about how tired they were or stuck they were on how to handle certain behaviors, I counted my lucky stars as I sat through those district seminars. I thanked God each and every day that my student teaching had been so rough and that my teammates were such a pleasure to work with.
Although currently, in fifth grade, I was experiencing what these first year teachers had probably gotten over and moved past already. Coupled with issues in my personal life, and the revelation (multiple times by admin and my old team) that a new teacher would be hired to take my place in sixth because the number of students had risen, I was counting down the days to each break. I loathed the teacher I had become, but lacked the motivation to change it.
December was the beginning of change to all of that.
Another round of standardized district benchmarking. What some may dread or simply hate what it means in terms of being scrutinized and having your weaknesses as a teacher being called out, I relish as a chance to have a newly refreshed direction. Don't get me wrong, I'm familiar with the cartoons and quips about how standardized testing puts kids in a box and isn't fair because it isn't differentiated. But, what it does allow me, as an educator who has developed her experience and method using data as not the only but one of multiple guidelines that guide her teaching, is a new starting point.
I've never been an extremist in my political views, my view on religious matters, and certainly not in my teaching. Teaching should be a patchwork of various pedagogies that an educator is successful in using and their students are successful in being taught with. It should change from year to year, student to student, based on everything that comes into and essentially effects a classroom. I may be sorely hated by many for this, but I could never say that standardized testing is the be-all-end-all solution to knowing your students, while, it also isn't the be-all-end-all root of what's wrong in our education system today. But that is a conversation for another post.
Data, in terms of these benchmarking tests my district conducts, is yet another tool I use, and in this current year, my saving factor in my downward spiral towards mediocrity. As I prepare to go back to my classroom and my sorely missed students after this delicious winter break I feel another flood of emotions, even the same ones I faced at this same time last year, (if only for different reasons): sadness in the time I wasted being mediocre, anticipation in having a new sense of direction, anxiety in my need to be the best I can be, and the crown of which is excitement. I am so excited again to head back to fifth grade. I know when I made the decision last year to tell administration to just settle the uncertainty and move me to fifth, that I looked at it in terms of a new challenge.
This year has been a huge challenge! I am excited to have my data sifted through, my students known better than before, some plans of action in place for behaviors, learning, and extending. I know which kids did their best on the benchmarking, and which kids I should look at their data with a grain of salt pressed on my tongue. I know which kids need extensions and which ones need remediation. I know what parts of the test I can use in balance with other methods, and which ones I should use as a more permanent illustration of where certain kids are. I also know having these ideas in my head won't make this year easier to do or group of kids easier to teach. I know there will still be struggles! I know it will still be a challenge, but bring it on! In the adversity that so brought me down, I've learned so much about myself and how to use data not so much as a biblical be-all-end-all, but as yet another tool. With only 30 kids opposed to 100, I've honed my use of data and intuition to form my current method. What I couldn't do with 100 kids, I've perfected with 30. And whether I move back to sixth grade next year or not, this challenging year has made me a better teacher for it. And that is what adversity is all about.
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