Next time, on “Adventures in Teaching”…

Today was the last day of school for 2009, woo hoo!!!

Many students were absent from school today and I didn’t expect a lot of learning to happen today, but I was really happy about an interaction with one of my Algebra 1 students. I’ve been a bit confused by this student because his English skills seem extremely poor (can’t form even simple complete sentences in English) but yet he tells me that he understands what we do in class. He finally turned in homework for the first time on Wednesday and I realized that he is not doing his homework because he doesn’t understand the directions and problem statements. (DUH!)

We sat down today and with the help of Google Translate I was able to communicate with him and start a glossary of important mathematical words such as “expression” (the mathematical kind) or “order of operations.” He eagerly started working on homework problems that he had left blank. He also agreed to come after school starting in January for tutoring. Progress! Yay!


This blog will probably be quiet for the next few weeks as I go into hibernation. To encourage you all to come back in January, I leave you with a little cliffhanger…  Rumor has it that some teachers are going to be let go at our school at the end of this semester (end January). Our counselor talked to me about some possible changes to my course load. (I guess that means I’m not one of the teachers that will be let go?) I may pick up an entirely new Algebra 2 class. I’m really praying that I don’t have four preps. Stay tuned for the exciting resolution next time on “Adventures in Teaching…”

Happy holidays, everyone!

District’s new policy: Be tougher on new teachers

Today, the superintendent of our district made an announcement that the district will now try harder to weed out ineffective new teachers before they become somewhat permanent (after two years).

As much as I want students to receive high quality instruction, I don’t agree with this new policy.

First of all, we’ve got to find a way to measure teacher quality comprehensively before we start trying to define who is a good teacher and who is bad. There are many ways for teachers to be good, many ways for them to be bad. For example, imagine you’ve got two teachers. Teacher A is extremely dedicated, talented, and knows her content material but refuses to “teach to the test” so her students don’t do as well as her colleague, Teacher B, who isn’t as creative, smart, or talented but instead gives students near exact replicas of test questions before the district’s assessment? If teachers are evaluated based on their students’ performance on a standardized assessment, doesn’t that seem unfair?

Second point: we’ve got to find more effective ways to help teachers develop before we think about getting rid of them. Putting aside this economic downturn, all the reports I’ve read point to a continuing shortage of qualified teachers in California over the next decade.

Final point: TEACHING IS SO INCREDIBLY HARD!!! I have been teaching at the university level for over 10 years and had jobs related to teaching math for 28 years and so far this one year of teaching high school has been so incredibly difficult. I feel so inadequate all the time. A veteran teacher told me that the second year is easier than the first, but it’s not until the fifth year or so that one really starts to feel good about his/her teaching. How can we expect new teachers to be effective in their first two years of service?

The district’s new policy will focus on new teachers that get a “Needs Improvement” on one or more criteria on their evaluations. The way things have been going for me this year, I would definitely be one of those teachers that gets a “Needs Improvement.”

Bunch of updates

1. It’s hard for students to focus during the last week of school. I rewarded one of my classes with a pizza party for working so hard on a test. The students were playing their music during the party and it made my smile to hear them getting excited over music from the 80s.

2. One of my students has been behaving badly in class and I wrote a note to her basketball coach to ask for his advice on how to reach her. The note set off a chain of unexpected events. First, the student was suspended from the team. She was angry at me today, but I think we had a good chat and got over that. Then, the coach came to my class today and used up the last 15 minutes to lecture the entire class. He was trying to be helpful, but it definitely was not the way I was intending to end class for 2009. He even started giving them a mini lesson on how to calculate percent!! (?!)

3. Grades had to be turned in today. I didn’t have any problems with the computer system for grade entry this time. Woo hoo!

4. Magic erasers are amazing! I was able to remove some tagging (sharpie on painted metal door) with one. AMAZING! And all the scuff marks on walls–GONE IN A FLASH! Seriously, I can’t begin to tell you how much I love magic erasers. I need to figure out how to get them to underwrite this blog.

December test

A bit cruel to give a test during the last week of school in December, but our 15-week grading period is this week so it made sense to have another test on which to base this grade.

All of those thoughts about “teaching to the test” came back again. Even though our math department collectively wrote the assessments, they still included questions on material that I haven’t yet discussed in my class. I just told my students to skip those questions. But even on the material they should have known, students didn’t do very well again. I have to keep telling myself that it’s a process and that everyone is moving forward, even if the progress is very small.

Three more days.

Distributive property

It’s been a roller-coaster week. The beginning of the week was really rough but encouragement from friends helped me recharge a bit.

Some good progress to report today. Nearly all my Algebra 1 students were successfully applying the distributive property after a short lesson today. (Lesson involved cut out pictures of food stuck to the whiteboard with magnets.)

After a few examples like this, I asked students to work in groups and then come to the board to write out the answers to some problems involving the distributive property. Either they already knew about the distributive property, or the food analogy helped.

One week left before Winter Break.

Teaching is hard

Teaching high school is so immensely difficult. I am too stubborn to give up, but lately that feeling of wanting to give up is getting stronger.

Lots of people have been asking me questions like “What is the hardest thing about teaching high school?” I still can’t fully articulate an answer to this question, but here is a first attempt.

1. It’s so easy to stop caring. Most of the kids at my school are disrespectful to me and each other, do not care about learning, do not seem to care about their future. For these first few months, I’ve been drawing on my enthusiasm for the job and compassion for these kids (many of these kids have rough circumstances, they need someone to care for them, they need someone to explain to them why getting an education matters, etc.) to make it to work every day and try my best. Lately, my “reserves” are running empty. I put out so much energy and get so little back from the kids. The moments when I feel successful are too few and far between, and sometimes seem like delusions: one day I feel like I’m getting through to a kid, the next day he/she is behaving worse than before. The ups and downs are emotionally draining. It’s hard to keep going like this. It would be far easier to just do a mediocre job, stop hoping that kids would achieve more and feeling disappointed, and quit caring.

2. It sucks to know you suck at your job. I am fragile, prideful and have an ego. It’s a real shock going from my university where I felt good at my job and felt validated, appreciated and respected for it, to a situation in which my skills and knowledge are inadequate and I do not feel respected by students. I am good at some parts of teaching high school, in other areas I am lacking (for example, discipline). The other day I wrote about how intrinsic motivation is strongly tied to a feeling of self-efficacy–well, that applies to me too. It’s hard to feel motivated when you feel ineffectual. And when you force yourself to do something when you’re feeling unmotivated, you lose the joy of it all.

Who in their right mind would take on a job like this? No wonder the public school teacher attrition is so high.

If it weren’t for a friend and colleague who reached out to me today, listened to me vent, and encouraged me, I probably wouldn’t have the presence of mind to write these words. Our schools need more teachers like this person.

Winter vacation can’t come a moment too soon.

Horrible Monday

Mondays are hard. Each class is roughly 40 minutes long and it’s hard to get anything done. Students were so restless today, it was hard to get them to do anything. Days like this when I feel totally exhausted but that I didn’t accomplish anything. Sometimes I really hate this job and I regret my decision to do this. Sorry to disappoint, but this is the truth and it’s how I’m feeling today.

Motivating students 2

In a previous entry about motivating students, I quoted an observation from the book Adding It Up that intrinsic motivation is a largely a function of two things: how much a student values the task at hand, and whether they believe they will be successful at that task.

In my Algebra 1 class today, I was reminded of just how true this is. Most students were happily solving linear equations and I was thrilled at how many of them were doing it successfully and independently. However, one student was off-task most of the class. I walked by many times to offer encouragement and help on the assignment with no effect. Then finally, he revealed why he wasn’t working: “I don’t want to do this, mister, it’s hard.”

Aha! So I brought over another assignment involving graphing. The worksheet had 4 linear equations and students had to fill out a table of x- and y-values, then plot points. I asked, “would you like to work on this instead?” Student replied, “Oh yeah, I’ll do that; it’s easy.” He whipped out that worksheet in no time. Funny thing is that there were equations on the worksheet such as 2y+x=5 and the table of numbers had values for x given but not y so the student had to solve a linear equation to find the value of y given x.

Part of this students’ motivation to do work might have also been due to the perception of being control over the situation–I gave him some choice on what to do. However, the two choices were relatively “boring” worksheets with “naked” problems. They didn’t contain interesting problems and I didn’t try to relate the problems to their lives. They were just plain math problems.

So at least in this case, it seems that this student’s motivation is very strongly correlated to how successful he perceives he’ll be at a particular task. I need to remember this key to motivating this student and exploit it next time he’s off-task. In retrospect, I should have suspected that lack of self-efficacy was the reason behind his reluctance to work because he was in a group with two girls who showed a huge amount of mathematical growth today. He may have been intimidated to try because he didn’t want to look dumb in front of them.

Overall, today was a great day at school. I am continuing to build rapport with students and am more frequently able to capitalize on their respect for me to influence their actions and behavior.

Don’t use pipecleaners to make triangles

Today’s activity in Geometry involved building triangles with various side lengths. Students were supposed to come to an understanding of why you cannot build a triangle with side lengths 2in, 3in and 6in. It’s standard to use straws, but I was short on time to go to the store and only had pipecleaners. Don’t use pipecleaners for this activity! It doesn’t work because the pipecleaners are bent too easily and don’t make nice triangles.

Will try again on Monday with straws. On the other hand, students had fun making silly things with pipecleaners.

Student of the month

Another first today: I attended a student assembly at RCHS today in which teachers announced their nominations for student of the month. Each teacher got to nominate one student and to say a few words about the student in front of the whole school. I chose a student in my Algebra 1 class who is a pure delight–he’s overcome learning disabilities and has such a great attitude. That was the highlight of my day.