Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Final Blog

       It seems like such a long time ago when I walked to the upper floor of the Union on the campus of Ole Miss to sit in a room with the people who would become my new classmates. I remember walking in thinking that I was such a big deal. I had received two bachelor’s degrees the previous May, was in a graduate program run by the school I had attended while still an undergraduate, and simply knew that I was going to be the best thing the program had ever seen. After the inevitably awkward introductions, we had a tour of campus. Of course, I was brimming with confidence the whole time because I knew where every single thing on campus was and could usually provide some additional factoids on the different sites that Dr. Mullins took us. 
I also remember meeting the second years. I remember them lounging in their chairs, looking smugly up at us as if they could not be more amused. As we filed into the room and stood before them, it felt like we had suddenly been unscrupulously swept into a police lineup for committing some crime unbeknownst to us. Even though I could not shake the eery feeling I got as their eyes bore into us with what seemed to be a foreshadowing of foreboding, I still felt confident as I went into my first day of summer school. 
That first summer at Holly Springs High School seems like such a blur now, but I remember it being, at the time, my worst experience with education I had ever had. It seemed to creep along forever. There were 30 students crammed into my room, I was terrible at planning and preparing, I was so nervous and unsure every time I stepped in front of the class, I had terrible classroom management, I was barely getting by on the summer school evaluations which were set up to let me do well, and I was getting thrashed on all of the role plays we did with the team teachers. Confidence had long flown out of the window. I was lost and simply did not know what to do. When summer school ended, there was no moment of clarity, no great awakening, no “fill-in-the-blank” cliché of me suddenly realizing how to be a good teacher. I had begun as a terrible teacher and had only budged in a positive direction by the time summer school ended.
Need I go into much detail about my first year at North Panola High School? Is it not already so painfully obvious how I fared? Summer school was a breeze compared to this craziness. Summer school lasted half a normal school day, I only had to teach one or two lessons per day, and I had an administration that would back me up every single time unless I did something way out of line. North Panola was a completely different type of nightmare. It was scarier, way longer, and by far more difficult than anything summer school could throw at me. It is a bit of a testament to how far I have come, but I look back at how challenged I was by my first summer school experience and just laugh at myself from that time. Granted, I still have a long way to go on this most arduous journey of becoming a good teacher, but I am light years ahead of where I was then. Anyway, I had the support of my family and friends, but they had absolutely no idea the hell I was going through. Not that it was their fault, though. Even when they asked how school was going, I could only get out small mutterings of something displeasing going on here or something unbelievably disrespectful going on there. They could tell that I was unhappy, but, without the ability to elaborate more on what I was going through, I was not capable of truly giving them a sense of just how bad my situation was.
As bad as everything was my first school year, when late May rolled around and I realized that I was actually going to wake up from my nightmare, that the light at the end of the tunnel I had been seeing since mid-March was finally before me, I could not help but feel a nearly overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I had faced and conquered (in my own bumbling way) the most grueling challenge that I had ever been put in front of me in my entire life.
The second summer was my turning point, though it did not happen right away. I came in with flashes of the previous summer going through my head. I actually had recurring nightmares of situations where my management got so bad that I lost control of the class. I was so worried that I was going to make a bad impression on my first year teachers and my team teacher. Titles of some nonexistent newspaper raced through my mind reading “Kevan Wright: Worst Second Year Teacher in MTC History!” I did the rules and procedures lesson to open our class for the summer. I was nervous, but it was  a lesson I had done several times during the previous school year. When my team teacher, the great Ms. Kuriakose, said that I had set a good tone for the class, I do not think she realized the great weight she took off my shoulders. I was amazed at how the students were so much more quiet during my lessons than I was used to. It was as if it was the most obvious thing in the world that I was a second year teacher and that my first year teachers were on their first go-around. Before this, my confidence had been completely shot, but now it had been given a shot in the arm. I only gained confidence and improved my teaching (due to a big improvement in my classroom management) as the summer progressed. That second summer was what really allowed me to plant the seeds for my continued improvement into my second year.
I suppose the above paragraph is sort of my pitch for the perpetual continuation of second year teachers at summer school. I have no intention of bashing the idea put forward by some of the MTC higher-ups that second years should no longer attend summer school because it certainly is not my place to do so. I also realize that my experience is merely anecdotal. However, if I had only seen my first team teacher, Ms. Hall, teach and not my second years, Ms. Sharpe (who was good enough as it was) and Ms. Lunsford, then I would have been even more lost than I was. Not because Ms. Hall was a bad team teacher; quite the opposite. She was ingenious with her methods, but they were things that I simply was unable to replicate. I needed to see how I might get to the point of being as good as Ms. Hall (still working at it!). To use a metaphor, if I was point A and Ms. Hall was point Z, then I think it really helped me seeing points L and S along the way to point Z. The idea that the first years need to teach as many lessons as possible their first summer makes perfect sense, but if you are like me and are bad to begin with, then getting an extra 5-10 lessons in the stifling environment provided by Holly Springs Summer School is more or less worthless in my humble opinion. At least in my case, I still would have been an awful teacher. What’s more, coming back to summer school as a second year teacher, being given the chance to restart a class in a protected environment, and seeing how much I had improved compared to my first summer allowed me to really begin to flourish. It’s an experience that I have found to be truly invaluable. Like I said before, I am not trying to put down the idea. I would just like to urge people in MTC to not forget that second year teachers are still under their wing and still need help themselves.
My second year has been a marked improvement, but still predictable. I set a good tone early for the class and kept up great classroom management for a while, but it slowly started to crumble as the year progressed. Still, in my mind I have grown from being a terrible teacher to an acceptably poor teacher. There is still a lot of work to do, but I am definitely heading in the right direction.
It feels weird writing a blog that is meant to wrap up my experience in MTC. Sure, I won’t have any more classes to take after this semester is over, but MTC is going to be a big part of my life for at least one more year since I will be teaching a third year at North Panola. One true blessing about being sent to the North Panola school district is that it has proven to be a big hub for MTC teachers over the past few years. This year alone we have 15 MTC or former MTC teachers in the school district. Having such a presence in the school district on top of all the support provided by these wonderful people has helped me to no end. I sometimes wonder if I even would have made it through my first year without all of their encouragement. Honestly, though, I feel like MTC is going to be a big part of my life as long as I am alive. My experiences, though sometimes unpleasant, have certainly been unforgettable. 
TL;DR: Teaching was the biggest challenge I have ever faced in my life. However, through the support of people in MTC and sheer will power I overcame that challenge, and even got to be where I wasn’t such a bad teacher. Who knows? With enough practice at this, I might even become good at it one day! 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Day in the Life

     Let’s see... my days usually begin after midnight when I am finishing up my powerpoint or worksheet for the next day, or simply winding down from finishing my lesson at 11:30 and enjoying part of a movie or a book before going to sleep. I wake up at 5:20 to my first alarm and keep hitting snooze until 5:50 or 6. I could just wake up right at 5:50 and get straight into the shower, but I think I enjoy doing that because it gives me the opportunity to suspend the reality of having to go to an at-risk school where good behavior and a high priority for education are not a common occurrence. From the time I get out of bed, get ready, and get breakfast at the gas station up the road, it’s about 6:20. I am supposed to be at school by 6:50 and it takes about 30 minutes to make it from the gas station to school. Suffice it to say that I have this down to a science. When I get to school, I load the powerpoint up to the Promethean Board and start printing out copies of the independent practice for the day.
School usually goes by as normal: notes, modeling, guided practice, and then independent practice. Second period planning usually involves me tweaking any errors or inefficiencies experienced during the 1st period lesson, finishing the week’s lesson plans, going to a PLC (professional learning community) meeting, or talking to our consultant about the kids’ test scores.
Lunch is always fun. First, I always seem to be starving after 4+ hours of walking around a room, trying to keep kids quiet while I put problems on the board, and hoping that the transmission of information occurs at some point. Second, I get to finally relax a little and complain with other teachers about the students, the school, and whatever else comes to mind.
The rest of school goes by like normal... oh yeah, except after lunch the kids are either too tired from eating a 1,000 calorie meal or are too wired from the sugary foods to be able to sit still. When it gets to 7th period in our extra long school day, trying to corral the kids and get them to learn is a next to impossible task.
Once school is over, and if we don’t have a staff meeting or after school tutoring until 5, the MTC teachers usually meet afterward to eat Chinese, Mexican, or play Settlers of Catan (don’t hate). If I don’t hang out with teachers after school, I will typically work out and prepare my lesson for the next school day... extremely exciting, right?

What I Want to Accomplish this Year

     Though I am already three semesters in, I still feel like there are many things I have yet to accomplish. For one, classroom management is still an area in which I try to improve every single day. While I am leaps and bounds better at it than I was last year, I can realize that it is a long road to mastering that area of teaching. One thing that I have come to realize about it is that, given my personality, quality classroom management is a dynamic technique. Perhaps, though, I should elaborate on hat I mean by “given my personality”. I see some teachers who are able to control their classroom with an iron fist from day 1 to day 180. I also think that the exact opposite, controlling a classroom with humor and “zaniness” from day 1 is, if even possible, extremely taxing on the soul. What I have found in my short career as a teacher is that I am best suited at the traditional approach of coming in hard and controlling at first, and then slowly easing up as the year goes on. I did a fairly good job at the beginning of this year, especially compared to last year, of being mean, but I have found that the process of effectively and efficiently easing up has become my new challenge with classroom management. As far as the rest of the school year is concerned, I hope to continue experimenting with how far I can ease up while still ensuring that learning is occurring. 
Another thing that I plan to accomplish is to surpass my state test scores from last year. Since we have two Algebra I teachers at North Panola High School, it was thought by the administration at the beginning of the year that splitting the Algebra students into a slow track and fast track would be advantageous for state test scores. I had, and still have, the pleasure of teaching the slower half of the students. Given this, I still feel confident that I can surpass my QDI from last year. From my end, my classroom management and teaching techniques have improved A LOT (mostly because they had so much room to grow). From the students’ end, they could definitely behave better, have a better attendance record, and care more about the work, but they show so much potential and untapped ability. If they hadn’t already shown me this, then I probably would have stopped showing up to work a long time ago.
Either way, I still have much to work on, and even a third year will not mean mastering these aspects of teaching

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Experience

I feel like my experience in the Mississippi Teacher Corps has been fairly typical of most of the participants. In a nutshell, I came in thinking that I would kind of know what to expect simply because I had had two friends try their hand at teaching in critical-needs districts and I had heard all of their stories. I was soon humbled after my first lesson when I realized that I sucked at what I thought I was going to be good at. Throughout the first summer, I felt like I continued progressing, and by the end of that time period I thought I had gotten a lot better. I suppose it is relative, but looking back on it now, it seems like all I had accomplished was to transition from being unmitigatedly inept to barely recognizable as a teacher. I remember naturally gravitating to the people who were at or who would be at North Panola High School with me. They would be the first ones that I would be able to call my new friends and, skipping forward to today for a second, I feel like I have become close with all of them. That actually says a lot since I am naturally somewhat introverted. The first year was filled with disappointment, frustration, and a need to be comforted. In regard to my first year of teaching, I have no problem being candid about two things. One, I am glad it is over and that I have it under my belt. Two, I honestly do not think I would have made it without the friendship, emotional availability, and overall positive teaching community offered by the Mississippi Teacher Corps participants at North Panola. I remember going into the second summer with my confidence shattered into a million tiny pieces. I was actually worried that I would be as bad as I had been the previous summer. Fortunately, and thank God this happened, my one year of experience had unforeseen benefits for me and I was able to rebuild some of the confidence that I so desperately needed. Even with a month off before real school began, that momentum stayed with me and I actually got off to a pretty decent start. Today (12/15/2011), it’s not as dandy as it was at the beginning of the year due to inconsistencies from both me and the administration, but I am light years ahead of where I was at this time one year ago.

Joining MTC

The Mississippi Teacher Corps offers many great life experiences. First, it provides an opportunity to network. What you will notice on the very first day is that when people are introducing themselves and saying which college or university they went to, there will most likely be several prestigious schools named. So, right off the bat you will come into contact with a whole room of motivated and intelligent people. Also, and the program director will most likely tell you this, the people willing to take on the challenges provided by the Mississippi Teacher Corps are unlikely to be ass holes, which makes making friends with the people you meet fairly easy. Second, the Mississippi Teacher Corps offers a chance to garner some very valuable work experience, especially for recent college grads. You will wake up at 5:30 every weekday morning, teach at your school from around 7 AM to around 4 PM (all while trying to remain sane, but that’s another story!), and plan for the next day/grade papers/do your MTC work/coach your team/tutor until you go to sleep anywhere from 10 (if you’re lucky) to midnight. Sure, the work isn’t exactly glorious. However, after two years of busting your butt not only will you have greatly strengthened your resume with work in a critical-needs school and a brand new masters degree, you will have also gained invaluable leadership experience. Lastly, and it might seem a bit cliche, but the Mississippi Teacher Corps truly offers the chance for some incredible memories that you will cherish for a lifetime. Whether those memories are painful (such as having a student curse at you for writing them up), comforting (such as going to a Halloween party with other MTC’ers to blow off some steam), or just downright hilarious (such as a student saying, and I quote, “Mane, your momma’s so fat, she squirt mayonnaise out her nurples”) you will remember them for a long time.
Since we’re being honest, there are also some reasons not to join MTC. If you are suffering from some delusion that teaching will be easy, especially in the types of school districts MTC places it participants, then you should not apply. If you are not willing to work hard almost every single day for at least two years, then you should not apply. And finally, if you are not willing to take advice, change things that experienced teachers tell you that you do wrong, and accept that you will not be very good at first, then you should not apply.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Last Year's Portfolios

After looking over half of the portfolios from last year’s class, I can’t say if there is one specific formula for what makes one great. There were several who decided to make their different sections very wordy and it worked for me, while the longer sections tended to bore me in others and I would find myself losing interest quickly. Admittedly, biases probably played a bit of a role since the first ones I looked at were teachers with whom I had taught the previous year or whom I had gotten to know through other circumstances. It should probably be no surprise that the people with more verbose sections in their portfolios who could also keep my attention tended to be English teachers. I suppose they are naturally more magician-y (word?) with words. 
Perhaps this speaks more to my ADHD personality, but I that found the portfolios with chunks of words in short mini-paragraphs were much more enjoyable reads. Pictures also helped out with keeping my interest. The photo essays were done in one of two ways: individual shots where you could scroll down and look at them all or in a slideshow format. Of course, both ways had room for their own creative twist. I think the best way to approach that would be to offer both methods. It has also brought to my attention that I need to be thinking of different types of pictures I want to take that include my students, colleagues, and community. 
Videos are also an intriguing aspect to these portfolios. Of the portfolios I looked at, the videos were well-done. I can understand the allure of simply doing videos in most sections so as to save you the time of writing things, but none of the portfolios overused any videos. Every time I came across one in a portfolio, it seemed novel and a nice change from reading the text. I saw that when students were involved, it threw in a humorous twist because they either ham it up or try to act real tough on camera. If I were to interview students, it would probably have to be at the end of the year when things become a little more lax. I will definitely incorporate at least one video into my portfolio, though I’m not sure where, but I will also be conscious that they should be used carefully.  
Viewing last year’s portfolios has really brought a lot of ideas to my mind, but it has also let me know that I have a lot of things to think about.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

First Day Back, Second Time Around

How should I describe the first day of school the second time around... hmm... I believe the best way for me to sum it up is to say that it was different, and that is a good thing through and through. The night before the first day of school this year, I was in my room at school until 11:20 at night still trying to finish setting it up. I inherited a smaller room with less storage space and more materials than the previous year, and I had the hardest time trying to figure out what to do with it all. While my room still isn’t where I want it to be, it’s still SO much better than my set up from last year already. To compare, the night before the first day of school last year I remember that my mom had made a nice dinner and had dropped me back off at my place when I got the sudden feeling that I was going to vomit all of my stomach’s contents onto the grass in front of the door. Even as she wished me luck from the rolled-down window of her car as she left, I knew that it was going to take much more than wishes. Granted, I still felt nervous before the first day of school this year again, but it paled in comparison to last year. 
Another difference was how comfortable I felt in the school, in my room, and around the kids. It’s perhaps needless to say that the opposite was true last year. I could best describe my efforts as bumbling, unconfident, and uninspired. It was just SO weird and unexpected how easy it was to exude confidence in front of the class this time. I remember sometime last March finally “waking up” so to speak and realizing what I wanted to do in front of the class to gain their respect. Obviously, it was too late at that time and I had to suffer until late May, but it was great finally knowing exactly what I wanted. I had to suffer through depressive states, fight and claw just to survive in the classroom, and will myself awake most mornings up until that point to finally see the light, but that was just it, I had seen the light. I finally knew what I wanted. Of course, I still had to fight depression, fight and claw, and will myself awake for the next two months, but knowing what I wanted made it all just that much easier. When I finally got back to summer school this past June, I was given the opportunity to start fresh with a new classroom. I had the opportunity to try out the new things I wanted to try out and do the things that I was so sure would work. That first day was comparable to the first day of my first year. Feeling so nervous that I could clear my stomach of anything inside of it at any time. After finally giving a Rules and Procedures lesson where I knew what I was doing and knew exactly what I wanted and after getting a thumbs up from my awesome team teacher, AK, I felt like a near infinite amount of weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. Each lesson thereafter I gained more and more confidence in myself and my teaching abilities. Things that I knew were there, but had never had the chance to come out due to my ineptitude during the previous school year were finally showing. Though I had a month off in July to lose that steam and have nightmares of being helpless in front of a class of students, that confidence only proved to spill over into this year. I feel like I have digressed a little, but the point remains that I can now teach in front of a classroom of kids, be confident, and make them feel my confidence.