Monday, August 09, 2010

All things must pass

My time as a teacher has come to an end, at least for a while.  I didn't like the idea of trying to hustle my way through another year without a full time job so I've managed to find a job doing computer training for NY State employees.  As straight jobs go, it's a pretty good one.  8-4, no work to take home, a 5 minute commute, relaxed office, good benefits...

But I miss being in schools and working with kids, I miss having a real sense of mission, and I miss feeling like I'm making the world a better place. 

I'm not exactly sure how long I'll be here or where I'm going after this, but the teaching career is on hold for a while.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

New Math: Redux

Some cold, hard facts:

  • In New York State, unemployment benefits are calculated with a byzantine formula, but top out at about $405 per week.  
  • Nearly every school in the Capital Region requires substitute teachers to have a Bachelor's degree, and many require a teaching certificate.
  • The average per diem salary for a substitute teacher is $85.
  • $85/day x 5 days/week is $425/week, before taxes.
  • Sometimes the math really sucks.

Half a Century of Rock'n'Roll

In the past 10 days I've had the incredible pleasure to help two of my closest friends celebrate their half-century mark. Even though I see or talk to both Ian and Amy pretty regularly, it was great to remind them (and be reminded) that they're like family, and these parties were just like family get togethers, only without the fighting and criticism—one of the great things about having family that you're not related to.

I also had the pleasure of reminding them that I wouldn't meet the same fate for more than 15 years.  I like the fact that most of my friends are much older than me.  It makes me feel young and thin and handsome most of the time.

The biggest surprise for me was running into my old bud Mark Norwine at one of these parties, who I haven't seen in a few years. (As a matter of fact, Mark, I think the last time was at Ian's jam, and you and the late Reverend Spanky and I watched the sun go down behind the trees and talked about damned near everything.) Mark is a great guy, and one hell of an electrical engineer and amplifier tech.  He's one of the few people on the internet who keeps the signal-to-noise ratio tolerable and occasionally cuts right through the static.

I can't honestly say that I know him well despite the hours we've spent on the phone in the past while he's helped me dig myself out of the messes I've made of a few vintage amplifiers, but one of the things I know about him is that he's one of the most genuine people I could ever hope to meet.  He might choose to say nothing if he can't say something nice, but he is not going to lie to you.  I'm not sure it's even within his abilities to butter you up, so there was no doubt in my mind that Mark meant it when he said he missed my blog, and nearly begged me to start writing again.

It's good to know that at least one person was paying attention, and sometimes one person is enough to do some powerful stuff.

Thanks, Mark, for reminding me of that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Exile and Saints

    I'm no angel, but you know I'll treat you right
      -Otis Clay

My life was in the shitter a year ago, prompting me to take this blog offline abrubptly, as well as nearly all of the rest of my internet presence. I made the mistake of leaving a myspace page up that I'd made specifically to flirt with a girl. As flirting goes, it was really pretty tame, and there is much racier stuff in some Disney movies and most sitcoms. I also thought it was set to be private, but it wasn't.

Regardless, it was a dumbshit thing to do. Parents expect their teachers to be saints, regardless of the fact that the kids don't relate to saints, regardless of how the parents themselves act. I knew this intellectually, though I hadn't internalized it.

I ain't no saint. Those that know me can attest to that, but I think those that know me would also say that I'm one of the good ones. Unfortunately, they couldn't be in the room to defend me when my principal had to tell me about some pretty serious implications made by some students and parents.

I won't go into any of the details. It's too frustrating and painful, and wouldn't do anyone any good, but think of all the movies you've seen where a student or underling decides to make life hell for someone else to draw attention away from their own shortcomings. That was my life last year. By the end of the year I overheard students say things like "If you don't like your grade, just go complain to [the house leader] and he'll make Mr. Gleason change it."

Let me tell you, it sucks. I spent most of the school year watching my back, wondering what else a student would exaggerate to get me in trouble, knowing that there were a handful of kids who were waiting for any misstep to use against me, knowing that not only was I not doing anything wrong, but that I was doing a whole lot of things right that people weren't seeing. Part of what makes me an effective teacher is that I'm myself around the kids and don't hide the fact that I'm a little rough around the edges sometimes.

I'm at peace with it now, more or less, but it made me awfully gun shy for a long time. It was as if I'd been forced into exile from my self, and I'm not half the teacher I can be when I feel like I have to be perfect, like I can't be myself. I could have done a lot more for some of those kids if I hadn't felt like I was always about to get in trouble for something. I still don't even like driving through that town, and feel like someone is going to report me for going 37 in a 35.

That feeling is starting to fade, and I'm starting to feel like I can trust kids again. I also feel like, with the sole exception of one high school I like working at, I don't want to teach in affluent suburbs anymore. The suburbs just don't make any sense to me. I don't understand the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses-and-keeping-kids-so-busy-that-they-don't-have-time-to-be-kids-and-whitewashing-everything-and-everyone-until-everything-seems-perfect-artificial-rat-race. I like it where the kids (and the adults) are sometimes a little rough around the edges. I like it where people know what it's like to not have everything you need, much less everything you want.

I'm a big fan of imperfection.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Teachers are overpaid: the new math

This summer I found myself at a party. I'm not a big party guy, so this was news enough. At this particular party there was one of those guys, the ones who are not enlightened enough to know that it's rude to denigrate someone's profession to their face. He started shooting his mouth off about how teaching is a half year job, and we make way too much for working half a year.

I've learned that it's better to ignore those sorts of people and not get into it, so I turned back to the angelically beautiful aspiring opera singer I had been talking to, but he did get my hackles up a little bit, so I need to to write about it.

His justification that teachers are overpaid: schools are in session 180 days a year, and 180 days is six months.

Time for some math, a little logic, and a little bit of fact:

First of all, there are about 20 or 21 working days in a month. I don't know many people who work 30 days a month.

A typical American professional works 48 weeks a year, gets 2 weeks of vacation, and 10 holidays, adding up to a total of 4 weeks off per year. Most professionals start accruing more vacation time, so by the time they've been employed 10 years they get about 4 weeks of vacation. Add in those ten holidays they work 46 weeks.

48 weeks x 5 day/week = 240 working days a year.

240 days a year * 8 hours a day = 1920 hours a year.

My contract requires me to be here 7.5 hours a day, but I'm here about 10 hours every day. Including the time I work at home, I put in about 60 hours a week. I also put in about 60 hours over the summer getting my classroom set up and planning curriculum.

While it is true that there are 180 class days, there are also a double handful of in service days and testing days, so we're really here about 195 days.

195 days of work * 10 hrs. avg/day = 1950 hours of work a year.

1950 hours of work + that 60 hours over the summer = 2010 hours of work a year.

Now, I know I'm new and that eventually I'll be able to get the job done more efficiently. Maybe it'll be down to 50 hours and only 30 hours over the summer.

If I were working in industry at a job with a similar amount of training, expertise, and supervisory responsibility, I'd be making probably 50% more than I do now.

I want to make it clear that I'm not claiming that teachers are poor. My salary is enough to live on, though it's not enough to buy a house on my own any more. But do you think maybe we can stop talking about how overpaid teachers are?

The New Meat

Once again, I should apologize to those who had been reading faithfullly. As always, there's been lots on my mind. I've just been writing about it less and less, and this is a bad habit I want to change.

My last post was 11 months ago, when I was in a bad situation. Not long after that I realized that it was the situation that sucked, so I got out of it and found happiness almost right away. Almost overnight I went from feeling like I might be a lousy teacher to feeling like a rock star.

And in that vein, I almost feel like I've got groupies already. New job, new school, and I've gotten more than my fair share of attention since I arrived. One of the women on my team here introduced herself by saying "It's good to see some testosterone here."

Thanks for the warm welcome.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Soul searching

Everyone gets to a point where they have to do some hard thinking about whether or not they're doing the right thing with their life, whether their talents are being exercised, whether their relationships with colleagues and friends are fulfilling, and whether or not they need to make a change.

I'm at that point again, and I didn't think I'd get her this quickly.

I'm not sure I spent much time describing the group of students I have now, but the short version is that this 6th grade class makes the juniors I had last year look like saints. All the tools I have to get these kids on track make minor and incremental changes in their behavior, so getting the class to act the way they should is going to be a long, long process, one I'm not sure we can complete in the 10 weeks or so before I expect to leave the charter school.

But that's a fight I think is worth fighting and one I think we can fight successfully. The 6th grade teachers are a good team of dedicated and talented people who I like working with. The problem is with the administration.

The begining of the end came last Monday. I came into work to find an email from the principal, saying that said she wanted two of us teachers to change classrooms. It was simply three sentences, ending with "Make the change by Friday."

She's concerned about the behavior of the classes and getting them back in line because they simply aren't learning much. So are we.

Instead of sitting all down and talking about the problem and at least talking about possible solutions and what we need to do differently as teachers, she just assumed that changing the classrooms would make the change and said "do it."

She even invited us to talk about it, but when we talked about it she said it was not at all negotiable, even after we expressed our concerns.

This came after a week and a half of me waking up every morning and really feeling like I didn't want to go to work, most of it because of apprehension about the administrators not backing us up very well when stuggling with a kid.

I really had to think hard about it, but in the end I decided that the writing is on the wall and it was time for me to bail out before I ride this one down in flames. Two teachers have left in the last three weeks, and I think that only one or two of the remaining teachers are at all happy.

In the end, it came down to money. See, I'm only making about $15 or $20 a day more than I would as a normal sub, and I'm putting in about 14 hours of work every day. I started asking myself "Would you trade that $20 every day for less stress, and shorter hours?" The answer is unequivocally yes. YES. Emphatically YES!

If I thought that I was fighting the good fight and had a chance of winning the fight and that we were all part of a team working together I'd probably stay. To be honest, I desperately want the sense of achievement that comes with overcoming such a huge challenge, particularly since I wasn't fully successful last year. With the disconnect between teachers and administration, I don't see that happening here, not before my contract is up.

I resigned Thursday. It was only my respect for my colleagues (and a healthy dose of guilt) that made me decide to complete next week too.

So I'm looking again. If anyone knows of a job in a good school, or a cute blonde with good hands, send them my way. I need a job and I still need a good back rub.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

...but it just don't work on you

That's how the chorus of Got My Mojo Workin' ends:
I got my mojo workin'
but it just don't work on you
Muddy Waters was one of the masters of mixing self-depricating lyrics into songs that have become anthems of virility and power. After listening to Muddy shout "I got my mojo workin" three times in a row with the band echoing the line, I'm not sure anyone really lets the punchline sink in. At first it sounds like a proclamation of male prowess, but in the end it's a song of lament and lost love, like a lot of blues songs.

The "it just don't work on you" part is what I've felt like for a couple of weeks now. It seems that so many promising things have come and gone so quickly now that I feel like I'm on a downward slide.

1. I interviewed for a teaching job that sounded incredibly promising: a half-year position in a high school, full salary and benefits, and lots of time to prepare. It's not often that I come out of an interview feeling like I had a job in the bag, but I really felt like it this time. A week later I found out that I didn't even make the second round of interviews.

2. A girl I was interested in is evidently not as interested as she thought she was, and she fell off the radar a couple of weeks ago.

3. The new job is really not working out and I'm seriously considering an exit strategy.

The job is the worst part right now, probably because it's also the most stressful and time consuming. Once again, I was thrown to the wolves to survive on my own. While I'm forming alliances an friendships with other teachers, it is not yet turning into anything that I would count as an improving work environment. The kids are beyond disrespectful a lot of days, the administration is slowly becoming less and less supportive, even slightly combative, and I am so stressed that I'm having to concentrate awfully hard on enjoying what little free time I have.

I need two things most right now: a couple of good, healthy meals, a good back rub from someone who cares (I'm partial to blonde girls, but the blonde part is negotiable), an extra day or two of rest, and a couple of good days on productive projects. Lord knows there are enough guitar projects in the basement to keep me busy for a while.

I need to recharge for a bit, focus on some me stuff, and then go back at it. Problem is that I had to pick up a Sunday job to help pay for the trip to Chicago for my Grandmother's 90th birthday party, so there's hardly enough time for the minimum amount of rest now.

Perseverence. It will pay off. That I'm sure of.

And I know we don't end sentences with prepositions.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Got my mojo workin'

A couple of weeks ago a friend wrote to ask why I hadn't posted to the blog in a while. I'd had this nagging thought in the back of my mind that I ought to post something, but the honest truth was that I wasn't feeling all that excited about teaching and didn't have a heck of a lot to say.

Not being offered a permanent job after doing a one-year leave feels like being kicked back down to minor league ball, even after batting .300 and hitting a few home runs in your rookie year. I guess sometimes you're just not on the right team. (Forgive me the baseball metaphor, but my hometwon Cubs are in the playoffs and I’m pretty happy about it.)

I spent the summer in a bit of a funk (and not the James Brown kind of funky). My car broke down and needed to be replaced, so instead of spending the summer working on guitars and lazing around with the dog, I spent it working as a temp in a cube-farm doing IT work. It was barely enough to pay the bills and there wasn't really anything redeeming about it. I had to work hard to get out of bed every morning to get to that job. Going into the new school year without a new teaching job just fed that funk a little more, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't feeling some anxiety about my teaching career starting to slip away.

I guess my penance this year was to spend most of September on the bench before getting called up again. I was finally able to land a long term position covering a maternity leave, and in the first week of the job I feel like I've already been able to shake any doubt I had in my abilities as a teacher. These kids are a tough crowd (more about them in another post), but there's no doubt in my mind that I'm making big headway with them every day. I had to take a day off yesterday to interview for another job later in the year, and the first two people I saw were a pair of girls who are the toughest cookies in their class, and they were almost happy to see me this morning. A few days ago I could sense outright hostility, so I'll take almost happy from a pair of 12 year olds. The third person I saw was one of the administrators, who told me that my presence was missed yesterday and that he can already see behavior improvements from my classes, who started to slip again in my absence. If that ain’t success, I don’t know what is.

Thanks, Mark, for letting me know that you missed my presence too. I'm back, and I feel like I'm already kicking ass.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


I started this school year armed with only two things that could really help me survive: Faith that it is possible to succeed where so many others have failed, faith that I am strong enough to do so, and faith that hard work will bring a bright future.

For the first week of school there was just one poster on the wall, just one word, really, and I wanted it to be the only thing the kids saw on the wall the first time they stepped in to my class.

When I inherited the room it was full of junk and had boring old English-teachery posters on the wall. I contemplated leaving all that junk for my successor, thinking that cleaning out a bit of old classroom junk is a right of passage for working in roo, D30. In the end, I thought better of it.

One of my deep-seated insecurities is that I won't leave an impact where I've been and that I won't be missed when I'm gone. So I left that one poster on the wall, partly in hope that it will inspire the next person to turn on the lights in D30, and partly so that person knows what kind of teacher I am.

It's a homemade poster, black ink on a stark white background, with just one word as bold as I could make it:



Ending the school year with a test of your ethics is one hell of the way to end the year.

Stephen was a senior and needed a passing grade in my class to graduate. Passing would have been simple; he just needed to get his research paper done. The same paper that he had every day of class for a month to do. The same paper that I offered to help him with after school many times, and the very same one that he refused to do. He did complete his research paper for his 12th grade English class, and at one point tried to submit a copy of that paper to get credit for my class.

During finals week he handed me a different paper. His assignment was to research an artist and their impact on the world, but the paper was on the history of the Ford Motor Company. It didn't read like his writing, either, but without being able to prove plagiarism the only thing I could say was that I didn't believe he wrote the paper for my class. After his earlier stunt, I was suspicious that he wrote it for a history class, or that another student did.

The next morning I arrived at school to find the dean waiting with a message: "The principal wants grades in this morning. And you know she wants him to pass." I filled her in on the details and why I didn't think it was going to happen for the kid, and she asked "Is this a hill you want to die on?"

"I knew in February I wasn't wanted back, so how more dead can I get?" It didn't matter, really, the paper didn't credit any sources so it counts as plagiarism by default, and the kid got an F. Two days later I found the paper he copied.

And you know what? I want to think that in other circumstances my answer would have been “Yes, I believe the kid plagiarized and I believe we fail as educators if we pass him>”

As much as I would rather not have ended the year failing a senior, it felt good to be in a position where I could stand up for what I believe in without political pressure from a boss. It's just possible that the kid will someday learn that the only way to earn what you want is to do what's required to earn it, and that there's no easy way out.

So what do you do with it?

I had an interesting conversation with another teacher during the graduation processional. We saw Mike, a kid who managed to turn himself around during senior year and graduate on time. Before this year he had a GPA of something like 1.5, but this year he turned it around and earned a 3.7. That's one hell of a change, and I'm proud of him for it.

This teacher and I talked about what changed in him, and I told her that his counselor told me I had a big part in it. At the time it surprised the hell out me because Mike is a really quiet kid and I had no idea I was so motivating to him.

It started with two things: a positive attitude in the beginning of the year, and a Jimi Hendrix poster. The kid loves classic rock and is learning to play guitar, so Jimi was enough to get him to want to talk to me.

The other teacher asked "What do you do with the posters?" I asked what she meant and she said again "As far as curriculum goes. So what do you do with it?"


This caused her to give me an intensely quizzical look. There are legions of educators who believe that every nuance of every classroom experience needs a direct tie into the curriculum, and she's one of them. I don't believe that's the case.

It's about creating connections. Personal connections. The kids have had their fill of curricular connections, and sometimes you have to let academic concerns go for a bit and make them believe that your classroom is a cool place to be. If you can do that, you can open doors for the kids who struggle most with a traditional curriculum.

I'll never see Mike or any of the other handful of seniors in my 11th grade classes this year again, but I'm proud of every one of them, and it feels good to know that I helped get them ready for the rest of the world.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

May Day

Note to self: finish all the important stuff by May 1st. The kids are just about checked out by now, and teaching anything new is real tough.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Walkin' Blues

Woke up this morning...

A dirty little secret of mine is that sometimes I don't have a lesson planned for the day until I'm dressing for work.

Feel round for my shoes...

It's idiotic, I know. But some days I need to be in the process of preparing to go to work before I can get my head in the place it needs to prepare to work. There are many times I sit at home and my mind is so separated from the context of the school that I just cannot think of useful lessons. Even worse, there are some days that I actually need the students in front of me to do so. It's a personality flaw, I know.

You know 'bout it baby, had them old walkin' blues...

One day last week I finally found the seed crystal that formed this idea as I was singing in the shower. We've been reading the play Fences, and one of the themes mentioned in the book is the idea of a dissatisfaction and wanderlust, particularly among black men in the post slavery world. The walking blues. The title of one of my favorite Robert Johnson songs.

I grabbed the guitar along with my briefcase and lunch on the way out the door and spent the commute rehearsing the lines. Next thing I knew I was tuning up as the kids filed in. I spent a quick couple of minutes reviewing the lines from the play talking about the walking blues, explained what it means in more concrete terms again, talked about the song for a minute, and launched into it.

I don't know if I've ever played to a tougher audience, but it worked. One of the classes liked it so much that we did it again, making it a sing along, and a couple of students in my other classes are asking me to bring the guitar in again. It's been a good week.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

All is not lost

In spite of my frustrating first year, there is a lot of positive stuff happening as I plan for the future.

First, my students started a petition to bring me back. It won't get anywhere, but it's really touching that I have students who care enough to do something like this. Unfortunately, only high regents scores could save my job, and even these guys admit that probably won't happen.

It helps that I'm not being fired. This is simply a one year contract that's expiring.

A friend is completing her first year at a small school that she loves, and she's put in a good word for me with the superintendent. She said that he's excited to hear from me, so that's a good, solid lead. It's a long commute, but it's rare to hear a teacher who actually loves their district and the administration, so a commute would be a small sacrifice. And it may help me that they have no male English teachers there now.

I also found that I have 4 people--including a principal--who want to write letters of recommendation for me. That will say a lot to other districts as I apply for new jobs.

So all is not lost. I have a solid resume, solid references, and a solid year of experience behind me. I'm not too worried about the future right now.

I'm gonna miss this place

This is something I've been keeping to myself for the last 4 months. Schenectady City School District has elected not to invite me back for another year.

The whole review process this year has been very frustrating for me. It seems that no one is willing to tell me what their expectations were until after they thought I wasn't meeting them, and by then it was too late.

I don't want to go into too many details, mostly because I don't know if I can describe most of it without sounding like a disgruntled employee trying to lay blame elsewhere. I certainly made my share of mistakes, though I honestly don't think any of them are much worse than rookie mistakes to be expected of a first year teacher, and I don't think that any of them are things that the district couldn't reasonably expect for me to better next year.

There are a few things about the review process that really bother me, though. The biggest is that my coordinator never said anything that would indicate that she was unsatisfied with my progress until she made the final report. Her final report also included a few things that were factually incorrect, things that she wouldn't have a way of knowing even if they were. The most frustrating thing about this is that these were items that she and I talked about. She wrote them in her draft of my interim review but removed them from submitting the final draft to the district. Somehow they reappeared in the year-end evaluation.

The final bomb, though, was a statement by my principal. "Eric has not shown the level of dedication that we expected for his job." The reason this bothers me so much is that it would be hard to show any more dedication to my job. I'm after school with students nearly every day, I've given up almost all of my personal life to survive this first year, I support a bunch of student activities, I make calls to parents more often than 90% of the teachers in the school, and by the time the report was made I hadn't taken a single sick day.

So I asked the principal how she determined that I wasn't dedicated enough, and she said that she wasn't satisfied with my planning.

I will admit that I have a long way to go with my unit planning skills. I even asked my principal if she knew of any other teachers who had plan books that she liked that I could use for a model. She named a few teachers, so I went to them and asked, and every one of them told me "I haven't done those since grad school." When I told this to the principal, she simply said "That's because they're at a higher level than you."

So it's evident that the principal just doesn't like me, and no matter what I do I just won't be able to please her. There's some speculation that she didn't like the fact that they only interviewed male teachers last year, and she might have decided not to like me before I even came into the building. Who knows. None of that's really important, the bottom line is that I'm not coming back.

It's frustrating, for sure. And to be totally honest, I'm a little disappointed in myself. A district like mine is some of the toughest teaching there is, and I took more than a little bit of pride in being able to do it. Though there were a lot of days I didn't want to get up and go to school, I found the strength to do it anyway, knowing that the work I was doing is important and that there were kids there who valued my presence.

I'm gonna miss this place.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The test

Luis is a likable kid. A big, lovable hispanic teddy bear. He likes to please and is fast with a smile. He's also very sociable, and since academic work is a struggle for him he gets distracted quite easily.

Thanks to the work of his regents prep teacher, he passed the English regents test with a 70. That's a pretty good score around here, so you'd think he has pretty decent language skills.

That is, until you saw the quiz he took for me last week. All he had to do was find an example of a simile, a metaphor, charicterization, setting, and conflict in the play we've been reading. He was allowed to use his book and his notes, but still only managed to provide an example of a simile. Folks, there's a page in the book labeled Setting! The setting is described in every scene, as is a brief characterization of each character. We talked about the similies and metaphors in class. This the sort of quiz that a student with the most basic skills should be able to pass easily, but he bombed it.

This is why teaching to the test gives a false impression of student success. The kid gets a 70 on a state test but barely shows competency in class. The prep teacher has developed a great system of teaching directly to the test and makes each task very formulaic. She just doesn't give them any language skills.

She's not the only teacher doing this. In fact, most teachers teach directly to the standardized tests, just because they want to get their tst scores up.

So what is the value of the test? Everyone--and I do mean every one--knows that most teachers teach to the test instead of teaching the critical thinking skills that students will need to be successful on any test. Anyone who denies this is lying.

As far as I'm concerned, the test is just about worthless. It doesn't measure competency, it doesn't accurately measure how students in one school compare to students in another school, and it eats up huge chunks of instructional time. We spend 10 days each school year just giving these tests, and about 1/4 of the rest of the year trying to prepare for them. That's too much time wasted.

Here's the one thing that tests do well: Tests provide an easy metric for politicians to use to support whatever agenda they have concerning education. That's it.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Old school

Gary skipped class for 3 days straight and was 10 minutes late when he finally came.

And then he made a call from his cell phone. In class.

"It was business Mr. G."

"I don't care if it was the Pope, the President, and your mother on a conference call. You do not use your phone in class."

He hasn't done it since.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Breakdown II

Shalonda was having a tough time getting to work on her paper. She surpised me when she chose Miles Davis as her topic, and I was excited because I knew I could help her make the link to 60s rock & soul, and from there to hip hop. I dig Miles and was excited that some of the other kids would get some exposure too.

It's not unusual for her to have a hard time getting started. She's not a good student and is very social, so when faced with something hard she starts goofing off. After a couple of minutes she just put her head down.

I went to talk to her to help her get started, and she just said "I can't concentrate today, I've got bad problems." After another minute or two of talking those tell-tale tears snuck by her defenses, and pretty soon she and I were out in the hall while she unloaded.

She's pregnant. Again. She had a miscarriage 6 or 8 weeks before. This time her biggest worry was that her dad was going to kill her because she promised it wouldn't happen again. Like most kids, she was convinced that her life was over and she had to drop out of school, and I kept telling her about all the programs we have to help her stay in school. She wanted to keep the baby, the daddy didn't want anything to do with it, her dad was pissed at her, and she doesn't talk to her mom. She's in a tough spot.

She didn't know that there are programs that guarantee her money for college, AND an apartment, AND acceptance to a pretty good college (I can't remember which one) if she just graduates high school and stays in the program.

For a little while, we had a breakthrough. I was able to convince her that every decision she makes has to be about the baby and how she can best take care of it, including graduating high school so she can get a better job, and maybe go on to college.

And it worked. She sat down and got right to work. She needed a lot of help, but for the next two days she seemed motivated to succeed.

Fast forward four days: She came in after a long weekend and blindsided me with a great big hug, saying "Mr. G., I'm not pregnant!" She started bleeding over the weekend and thought she was having another miscarriage so she went to the ER. Turns out that her period was three weeks late, but that she wasn't pregnant.

Crisis avoided, and now she's back to her usual nonsense. She has done almost no work and earned an F for 3rd quarter, and I'm pretty sure she won't pass for the year.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Be the teacher the students need you to be

One of the old timers in the school laid it out for me today. "In order to get their respect you have to prove to them that you're the alpha dog and you're not taking any shit from them."

Apparently, the first step in establishing yourself as the alpha dog is to put your desks in traditional rows and columns and make a seating chart based on alphabetical order, except for moving a few problem kids. I'm not sure that the actual rows and columns are important, but what is important is that these kids see that as a structure with known rules, and anything more progressive is seen as a new system that needs to be tested.

Problem is, rows and columns fit me about as comfortably as high heels. At 6'2" with size 14EEEE feet, you can imagine what an awful fit that is. I spent just a minute looking at the classroom after arranging the desks and cringed. It just ain't me.

As much as I don't like this, I'm going to give it a shot. It's entirely possible that the teacher I've become so far isn't the teacher my students need me to be. And if that's the case, it's entirely possible that this isn't the right school for me. I'm certainly not giving up on this gig, but it's something to think about.

I realized recently that everything I know about teaching is based on the idea of a group of kids who are at least somewhat obedient and cooperative, if not actually enthusiastic to learn. Most of my students are in the other camp. There are a couple in each class who are enthusiastic about learning and a few more that are cooperative, but the majority are there just to get credit or because they get in more trouble if they skip.

In any case, the old dog is willing to take me under his wing and has already given me concrete advice I can put into action immediately, so I'm going to stick with his program and modify it only after I really figure out what I'm doing. Most of the other advice I've gotten has been somewhat vague, and rather than hearing "Eric, you need to do ______ to get the results you want," I hear a lot more of "maybe if you tried _____ it could help, but it might not so you might just have to figure out something else."

As the old dog put it: "Eric, first we're going to work on classroom management. Then, after you're really starting to get that, we're going to work on classrom management. Finally, after you've really mastered classroom management and you can I both think you've got it nailed, we're going to work on classroom management. You can have the most brilliant lesson plan in the world and know your literature inside out, but until you get these little bastards to jump when you tell them to, it doesn't matter because they won't hear you."

There may be more brilliant methods to do this gig without having to be the alpha dog, but nobody seems to be able to tell me what they are or how to make them work, and I know for certain I'm not going to survive if I keep trying to find them by experiment. Not with this population, anyway.

So for now, I'm going to learn to be the alpha dog.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"Experts" redux

Schenectady High School is being audited by the state, in part because of our consistently low scores on the English tests mandated by NCLB.

There are rumors that part of the reason we're being audited is due so the folks at the state capital 20 miles away won't seem like they're biased only against the schools in New York City. I've always felt that the people in the trenches have the least perspective and least accurate knowledge about this sort of thing, and that teachers rarely understand the politics that go on at the administrative level, so I really have no idea how true this rumor is. It probably doesn't matter. We're being audited, and that's that.

We're being audited by a team of people that does not include a single teacher or administrator. If you can explain how this team of people is qualified to judge the quality of work we're doing and suggest meaningful changes, you're a better (wo)man than I.

No Test Left Behind

NCLB has one basic premise: every child can and should perform at their grade level. Period. An implicit premise is that in order to make sure that this is happening, we need to test the hell out of them. Standarized tests. Every kid can and should pass the same one.

Here's the problem: it's bullshit. All of it.

If you've worked with kids, you know right away that they can't all perform on the same level, and that some kids just don't get it even after you exhaust every method you know to help them. Doesn't matter whether it's writing or spelling or math or sports, some just cannot meet expectations.

So it is with tests. In New York, in order to get a standard diploma each kid needs to pass a big test in each of the 4 core subjects, plus one or two other subjects. That's the deal, if you want a standard diploma, you pass the Regents test. Period.


Too many kids fail. They're easy tests to fail. A 3 hour test has a couple dozen multiple choice questions and a lot of reading and writing. If there's 20 multiple choice questions, you need something like 13 or 14 to pass the test, assuming that they do well on the written sections. Not a lot of room for error there, not if you're a struggling student.


You can't just fail kids because they can't pass the test. Too many would fail, and that would mean there are big problems in the school that we're not equipped to address, so things get fudged. First, they give the hardest tests in January, but if kids fail they take an easier version in June. If they still fail that one, they can take summer school and then take an even easier test in August.

And then if they still fail, they can qualify for an even easier version, given in components, one at a time.

See the pattern here?

Go back to the basic premise of NCLB. Are all of the kids performing to the same set of standards? It's obvious that they're not.

So what is it that we're doing? I mean, besides stigmatizing the writing and analysis process by associating it so heavily with a test, and teaching to the tests and hurting our chances of developing creative and dynamic thinkers, what is it that we're doing?

Vote with your dreams, folks, not with your fears.

Monday, January 22, 2007


this was started almost 3 months ago, i don't know why i didn't finish it off and post it then. -e.

Two weeks ago April couldn't get started on her class assignment. This isn't unusual for April. She's not a particularly good student, though she usually tries hard. Her occasional cooperativeness more than makes up for what she lacks in intellectual ability, and I think that's how she'll be successful in life. Combine that with a bright smile, big blue eyes, and a desire to please, she's got a lot going for her that others don't.

Usually when she's struggling with an assignment she'll either demand help or goof off and talk to one of the boys. This day was different. Instead of any of her normal tricks, she went off in the corner and put her head down. I tried to talk to her and get her to work, knowing it would be a struggle, but hoping that I could at least get her to accomlish a little bit.

I gotta hand it to her, she tried to get started. I don't now whether that's a testament to her desire to succeed, my ability to persuade, or what, but she tried. But then she started breaking down. A few tears sneaked out before she could stop them, and she started making vague references to having done something bad and it forcing her to drop out of school so she could go live somewhere else.

It's best not to ask for details. A student offering information to a teacher is one thing, but a teacher looking for it is another. Unless I actually see evidence of something that endagers a child, I probably shouldn't ask. I do know she lives in a group home for foster kids, and she intimated that she'd done something that would get her kicked out.

And she was panicking.

Like most kids, she thinks that she's alone and that there's nothing anyone can--or will--do to help. I don't know the system well, but I know there are a ton of resources available to her, and there are people who spend all day finding ways to help kids. In fact, one of the things I like about working in an urban district like this is that there are so many different services and resources available, and the needs are so high that there are people who know how to take advantage of them.

After 5 or 10 minutes of persistence I was able to convince her to talk to her counselor, calling ahead to let them know that a girl in crisis was about to walk in and to ask that someone talk to her right away. I checked in with her counselor after school and found out that she spend quite a while in there that day. The counselor didn't ask for specifics either, but told me that there are only about 5 things that can get a kid kicked out of a group home and she was pretty sure that drugs were the problem this time.

Fast forward a couple of weeks: April is going to a rehab center, probably for a month, and her counselor, principal, and teachers are meeting to convince her that a month out of school isn't the end of the world and that she's not throwing her junior year away if she goes to rehab. And we have figure out how to get work to her so she can get credit.

Fast forward 4 days: At the end of the day April walks in with her bright smile, seemingly ecstatic to be back in school. I said that I thought she was supposed to be gone for a month, and she replied "Mr. G, you don't understand. The people there are crazy! I couldn't stand being there." She was all smiles, like usual, but I had a feeling that this kid just took a wrong turn.

She didn't come to school much in the next couple of weeks, and then disappeared altogether.

Fast forward another couple of weeks: I caught her in the hall at the end of the day and asked where she'd been. All smiles again, she said she was just stopping by to drop out because she was pregnant. I tried to tell her that there were a lot of ways we could help her if she stayed in school, but I knew it was a lost cause at this point.

The kid's gonna have to find her own path, no matter how difficult it is. I'm sure I'll never see her again, but I sure hope she makes it alright.

Mr. G's black!

I want you to picture Josh. He's 6' 1" of hip-hop culture personified. Lanky, corn rows, most of his wardrobe consists of Boondocks tshirts. His research paper is on Jay-Z. He's a funny kid, but I wish to God he'd stop dropping the n-word all the time. (Note: It has been explained to me that "n***-ah" is different than "n***-er", but I'm not buying or tolerating it).

Detention in my room has proven not to be all that effective as a punishment because there are always kids that come to work, but they usually wind up goofing around, so the mood was pretty light when Josh showed up to serve his detention and said "Man, Mister G's black!"

I was helping a kid write an essay and didn't think I heard right, and neither did anyone else. We had to stop working while a couple of kids said "Josh, what the hell did you say?!"

"Mister G's black. He listens to all that old soul music, he sings and dances a little bit, and there's a wrapper from Popeye's fried chicken in the garbage. He black! Like he got a reverse tan or something."

That's praise, I think.

The chicken container wasn't mine, but I do love me some fried chicken!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A new one

My principal tore me a great big new one today. A "I wouldn't expect to get a job here next year"-sized new one.

Her first observation with me happened last week, and we debriefed it today. She didn't seem at all impressed that I still tried hard to teach normally while suffering from sever laryngitis and could barely talk, and that I'd managed to restructure my lesson in a way that let students work more on their own with less explanation from me (a model which I like and want to try to develop more).

I can take criticism, and I know I've got a lot of room to improve as a teacher. I'm a rookie, I'm supposed to. But the whole thing really rubs me the wrong way.

For instance, she criticized the lesson because students didn't have a copy of the essay they were responding to in their assignment. Well... it was a listening exercise. Kind of exactly like they'll have on the state test in June. She said that we talked about the content of the essay more than the craft of writing. Good writing comes from good thinking. Period. Empty minds cannot produce writing that is worth anything. These kids don't have a lot that they want to say in writing.

The essay I read to them was by Rush Limbaugh, and had them so wound up that a few could barely stay in their seats because they had so much to say. I was also criticized because the kids didn't know who he was (and actually, she mispronounced his name so I think maybe she was feeling self-conscious because she didn't know who he was). Well... the state test will be chock full of authors these kids have never heard of. In any case, it didn't seem to be much of an issue for these kids.

Now here's the real kicker: I was criticized for a high failure rate, about 33%. I talked to other colleagues and verified that this isn't exceptional at this school. So higher grades equal job security, whether or not the kids have earned them.

All hope is not lost, there are opportunities to show my administrators that I'm not the teacher they think I am, but it'll be tough. We're in the 3rd quarter of the game and I'm down by at least two touchdowns.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Anyone who has kids knows that it's a losing battle when a kid won't do something because they're convinced you hate them. I've tried my best to make sure my students know that I care about each of them and that I do my absolute best to grade fairly. When I slip, it's always in the kid's favor, and I also make sure they know that I don't get any joy when they get a bad grade.

When urban kids get into that funk, it's even worse. They won't keep quiet long enough to even look at their grades, and they're so self-important that they don't see any way they could be at fault.

Tykima came to class the day after she got her report card (with an F in my class), threw her book on the floor, and said "I ain't doing no work in this fucking class cuz you don't grade fair!"

"Tykima, I think I did grade fairly. You missed a quarter of your homework, slept almost every day in class, and and did less than half of your daily writing."

I knew it wouldn't change her mind, but I had to say it anyway. Tykima stormed out of class. A few minutes later the kids were talking about grades again and one of the students who barely passed said it for me: "If you do your work you get a decent grade." There was a little relief knowing that at least a few of them got it.

And I gotta hand it to the dean on this one. I talked to her about Tykima to see if she knew anything about the kid and how to handle it, and an f-bomb and walking out of class has to be written up. The dean and I agreed to bring the kid down to talk, and she did a great job of being an intermediary and helped to keep the kid in class. And she backed me up 100%.

The really great thing was that I didn't have to fight with the kid like it was a battle. I don't think you can win those sort of battles anyway, no matter how right or how compassionate you are. I forget this all the time, so I guess this was my reminder.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Holy Christ, I could be screwed

My principal is coming to do a formal evaluation in the morning, and I've got laryngitis so bad I can barely talk. No way in hell am I going to be able to keep all these kids on track with verbal commands.

I don't dare call in sick. If you were the boss and one of your employees called in sick on the day of an observation, what would you think? If I'm lucky, she'll take mercy on me. Maybe.

I've got about 90% of the necessary work done, and here I am writing in my blog at 12:15 AM. How smart could I possibly be? I'm screwed.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

I love experts

"Experts," that is. Quotation marks are important.

One of the experts hired by the district to help make us better teachers loves differentiated instruction. It's a cool concept. It's also one I don't know a lot about, but here's what I do know: Typically, you have several "centers," each with different tasks, and the students go to the different centers to do the tasks they think they can accomplish best. The teacher is supposed to construct these centers so they focus on different skills, slightly different content, etc. so that each student has a successful learning experience. I like the idea a little bit, but this means that there are about 3-4 different lessons needed for each class, each day. And to be totally honest, I am barely keeping my head above water coming up with the 1-2 activities each day I have been doing. Maybe it will work better next year when I'm familiar with the books, but for right now I'm managing to keep a chapter ahead of the students, if that.

Here's the other thing: differentiated instruction requires students to be motivated to learn and get work done on their own, because with 3-4 different activities happening simultaneously the teacher can't be there each minute to walk them through it. Most of my students do not have this sort of motivation, and they drag the motivated ones along with them.

The expert also says that students hate to write so I shouldn't make them do it, and the minute I make them write I lose them. (This is English class...) She said the same thing about reading.

Let's recap. I teach English. The expert says don't make them read or write, but give them extra opportunity to create unsupervised chaos. Does the math add up here? Does anyone know how this promotes literacy?

Here's the thing, some of my worst kids have actually told me that they like the daily writing. They miss it when we skip a day. A couple of them are barely literate and can hardly string three words together, but they like writing. And the freshmen loved when I gave them free time in class to read. Best class we had all year. Almost all of them actually read.

Is it clear to you guys why I'm a little confused sometimes?

Vote with your dreams

I really don't want to use my blog as an opportunity to ridicule my employer because, for the most part, they're pretty good. But a few weeks ago we found out something new and I felt it was important to get this out in the open.

For those of you who haven't been keeping score, Schenectady City School District has gotten failing scores on audits related to the No Child Left Behind act for a couple of years running, so this year we're under the gun. All sorts of program changes and audits are happening. (Part of this process is a 60-minute survey that I will need to take, but before I can take the survey I need 45 minutes of training on it.) The district needs to show that they are improving the education we give our kids, and we need to do it ASAP or something bad happens. I can't keep track of all of it, honestly, but I suspect we'll lose money and have more nosey feds hanging around.

How do you show that things have improved? You improve test scores. How do you improve test scores immediately? Stop teaching anything that isn't directly related to the tests.

Word is that the 8th grade English Language Arts tests do not test any skill that would necessarily be learned by reading a novel-length book, so starting this year, we are no longer requiring middle school students to read novels. The focus is on short stories instead. The school still owns novels so a teacher could still choose to teach them, I suppose.

So it's not entirely unlikely that in a few years my freshmen will come to high school without ever having read an entire book. Some literacy program, huh?

This is the bullshit that happens when you vote with your fears, folks. Too late to remind you this year, but keep that in mind on election day. Vote with your dreams and hope your representatives find ways to acheive them. Don't vote with your fears, because your fears will probably come true.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Like... wtf?

I have to say that overall I am very happy with the administration in my part of the school, at least the lower levels that I deal with. We have a principal who is hands on and excited about learning, we have a dean who has given me a tremendous amount of advice, and a house secretaries who have done an amazing amount of work for me and the rest of the house. It really makes my job a little more bearable, even on the unbearable days.

I wanted to write that before I wrote this rant to give them their fair due.

One of my juniors has missed a ton of class, doesn't do much work, and when she does come to class she spends the whole time talking. She doesn't live at home and her mom already treats her like trash, so she's not threatened by any grades or disciplinary action you can give her.

Obviously, there's lots to worry about. She's definitely at risk of dropping out and I'm pretty sure no one's doing much about it.

So I talked to the dean. I told her my concerns and asked for her advice. We agreed that maybe the best thing would be for the three of us to sit down and talk and see what we can do to help keep this kid on track, and make sure that she knows that there are people who care about her success.

Well, the scheduling didn't work and the dean had the conversation without me. She checked to see if that was okay. Everything's going good so far, right? We've got coordination, we've got mutual respect, and we've got an act formed out of love and concern for this kid.

That lasted apparently right up until the time the kid got to the dean's office, where she said "Mr. Gleason's new here, put yourself in his shoes."

No kidding. There was no "we're worried about your absences and your grades" or "you're following a pattern that's going to lead to dropping out." WTF?! Apparently her talking is caused by me being new.

The dean's either backed me up on everything or given me good advice on everything else. This one is both frustrating and mind-boggling. I hope to God that it's not a sign of things to come.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"It ain't no stereotype, it's just the truth."

I grew up right next to the tracks. Not on the wrong side, not on the right side. It was kind of a unique place in that these tracks didn't seem to divide the town into "haves" and "have nots." Both sides were the right side. When I got to college on the South side of Chicago I lived near the tracks again, except these tracks didn't have a right side. It was bad news everywhere. I'm amazed that I didn't get my dumb white ass handed to me on the way to the El stop (they don't call it the subway in Chicago) a couple dozen times, or even just walking down the street by campus. It happened to a few people I knew, so I guess I was lucky (or maybe big and intimidating).

There wasn't much diversity in the town where I grew up. Most of us were white and I think there were maybe a few dozen kids of any color at my elementary school. I played with one black boy in my class a few times, but really didn't have much contact with anyone but the white kids. I was shy, and except for seizing every opportunity to be the class clown I couldn't figure out how to make my presence known in a crowd. The crowd of black kids on the playground was awfully loud and intimidating in this respect, so I never got to know any of them. All the loud shouting and carrying on made me want to run back to things I knew.

Fast forward a couple of decades with political correctness run amok, white people can't talk about race without both tripping over euphemisms and facing backlash from all sides. One of the things I love about the kids at my school is that race is so ever-present that they talk about it casually, like it were no big deal. One of the black kids in the class keeps calling a character named Elroy (a white guy from the rural midwest) with Leroy. So I can say to him, "Aaron, Elroy's from the sticks and Leroy's from the hood. The story is out in the sticks," and everyone laughs and we have fun.

The third time Aaron remembers the joke and isn't confused anymore. It's thin ice sometimes and you have to be careful, but as long as you're respectful no one gets their feelings hurt. We can talk about whether or not it's important that 95% of the staff is white while only about 30% of the students are. We can talk about the obvious differences in different cultural groups within a single class as well as the school. We can do it easily, without having to use the words "black" or "hispanic" (or whatever) instead of tripping over phrases that are even more politically-charged like "African-American" or "Latin-American" (a lot of these kids are anti-patriotic and don't like the "American" part, and a lot of black kids say things like "my family came from Brooklyn, I don't have any ties to Africa"). It makes it real easy to get right down to the heart of whatever it is we're talking about. And we do it without fear of mistakenly insulting someone, without tiptoeing around the topic at hand, without resorting to stereotypes, and without pissing each other off.

You might be familiar with the game Taboo. The object is to get your team to say a word by giving clues, but without saying any of the taboo words written on the card. So one of the black kids stands up in front of his team and says without hesitation, "Black people like this."

"FRIED CHICKEN!!!" shouts the team in unison, followed by an unproductive three or four minutes while they all talked about their favorite side dishes and couldn't think about anything but food. Funny how some stereotypes have so much truth in them that it makes it impossible to examine why they're stereotypes with these kids. "It ain't no stereotype, it's just the truth." That's how they feel about it.

My fault

The fight was probably my fault. Fortunately these kids all know each other so well that they know when one of them is about to lose it, so three of them jumped up to hold Daysha back when she started stepping towards Emily.

One of the things that really frustrates me about the culture at this school is that the kids never learn how to de-escalate a conflict. Every statement requires a response, every insult needs to be topped, every threat needs to be one-upped. Things that should be little conflicts at worst blow up quickly.

We were playing a simple game. Two students sit next to each other with dictionaries, I say a word and they race to find the correct spelling. Emily has had some kind of verbal conflict with most of the girls in the class (I hear her say in a confrontational voice about three times a week "I'm dead ass, just try to prove me wrong"), but I don't think I knew the extent to which she was willing to take it. When Emily had beaten two opponents I thought she needed someone on her level to challenge her. Daysha is a bright kid and hadn't said a word all day, so I asked her to try it. Next thing I know Emily was walking away saying something, Daysha was walking towards her saying about the same thing, and then it was "I'll smack you in the face with a book" met with "I'll hit you in the head with a chair," and then shouting and clawing and the three-kid restraining team and the hall monitor and then it was finally done.

All because I thought Daysha could spell as well as Emily and thought some friendly competition might get them focused on something academic.

Stupid fucking mistake.

If I'm being honest with myself, the problem probably was really Emily's short fuse; the more I get to know this kid the more I think that she's a catalyst who needs just the right critical mass to cause a huge explosion, and that critical mass is not small. Too much mass and her explosion will get snuffed, too little and it won't have any fuel to burn. This kid needs an audience.

And she needs a teacher who can help keep her from getting herself in that deep that quickly.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Like most boys, I think, I always thought my father had some incredibly obnoxious habits, particularly when it came to how he dealt with me. Probably the most intolerable (and cause of the most fights) was how he always focussed on what I didn't do instead of what I did accomplish. If I'd bring home a math test that was a 95%, he'd say "why wasn't it a hundred?" Keep in mind that I was not a particularly good student throughout most of high school, even though every standardized test I ever took was scored in the 99th percentile.

That's one hell of a whammy to lay on your kid, always asking why a B wasn't an A and why an A wasn't perfect. There was never any real follow up to help me get perfect scores, I just had to live with the imperfections and constant disappointment. I think it's like catholics and guilt, and it's something I still carry with me to this day. If I don't do something perfectly I'm like as not to worry about that little bit that wasn't right and forget about the rest. Everything I wrote before about counting your victories is crap and I really don't believe it most days. I want to believe, but I really don't, not deep down.

I "only" got a 3.89 GPA in grad school. And I'm pissed at myself about it. I could have gotten a 4.0 if I'd worked at it.

Because I keep carrying this big whammy around with me it's tough to leave work most days with a sense of accomplishment, even though my dean and my mentor teacher keep telling me that I'm doing a good job and tell me the horror stories of other first year teachers. I keep looking in my gradebook and see that at least a third of my students aren't doing their homework, and I really feel like there's some way in which I'm failing them because I can't inspire them (or coerce them) to get to work. I've connected on some level with most of my students, but some of my struggling students are still deliberately keeping me at a distance and the frustration that I can't reach them at all is making me grind my teeth some days.

On the flip side, I know that the first year or two are supposed to be hard, almost hellish sometimes, and some days I feel like what should have gone incredibly badly was really okay and I'm trying to think of that as an accomplishment. A few of my failing students are starting to do enough work to pass my class but aren't working so hard in their other classes. A few others aren't doing any work but they're opening up to me, and I have a feeling that someday soon I'll find that opening that will allow me to convince them to put in enough effort to pass. Small victories.

That isn't enough to fill me with the sense of price and accomplishment I want to feel from the job I feel like I was born to do, but it's a start. Sunny days help a lot, too.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

How I got the job

I never knew what it was that caused the school district to call me out of the 100 or so applicants they had for the job, or how on Earth I managed to win the job when competing against at least 4 other teachers who had experience. This particularly didn't make any sense when they hadn't seen my transcript or recommendations.

It just happens that my new mentor was one of the interviewers and this came up while we were talking this week. She said "We thought you didn't really say very much," (no one has ever accused me of being brief or un-talkative...) "but you were the only one that didn't shoot themselves in the foot." So I got the job because I was the only one that didn't screw up in the interview.

Good enough, I'll take it. I would have rather heard something about how they liked my philosophies and pedagogy, but the bottom line is that I've got the job and I'm keeping it.

Monday, October 02, 2006

When you really know fear...

Kainen was absent from class one day last week. He's a good kid, plays on the varsity soccer team, real enthusiastic and seems to like class. He's one of the ones you miss when he's not there. For a lot of my students absences are almost as common as the days they're in class, so there are sometimes a lot of kids to miss.

I saw him in the hall at the end of the day and asked him why he missed my class. The story he told me was not one I was prepared for. He had an excellent reason for missing class. See, the police had to interview him to complete the report about the incident when another kid on the soccer team pulled a knife on him and held it to his throat.

Real slow, in case you missed that... One of his teammates threatened his life with a deadly weapon on school grounds.

Holy what-the-hell, Batman!

The police arrested the teammate and I heard that he was under house arrest, but word is that this kid is connected with a gang, maybe a new one in the school. There's plenty of reason to worry about retaliation, and Kainen was worried about it. They had an away game that night and he was worried about being on the bus with the knife-wielder's friends and I can't blame him. When a lighthearted and happy kid is worried, it shows easily.

So you can imagine what went through my mind when Kainen missed class the next day. Like I said, absences are common so there was no need to panic, but the worst definitely entered my mind. There's a different kind of fear that can start to set in when something like this happens, and it's not one I've ever felt before. Fortunately that test pilot side of me managed to keep things on an even keel while I got the right information, but this kind of fear is hard to keep at bay.

Our computer system allows us to track attendance througout the day and showed that he missed all of his classes. I spoke to my principal, but she never followed up on it. I just wanted to make sure the kid was alright.

Fortunately, a phone call to his mom after school was all it took to find out that the kid was stressed out so she let him stay home. (Why the principal didn't make that call in the middle of the day when I spoke to her about it is another issue.) In fact, it was heartwarming to find that both Kainen and his mom were grateful for the call and went out of their way to make sure I knew how much it meant to them.

But all that is really just back story, because here's what makes me really afraid. It was in the paper and someone in each of my classes knew the story so we talked about it in class. The sort of things I was hearing were "It was just a kitchen knife. What idiot brings a kitchen knife to school?!" and "I wouldn't have snitched on him. Snitches go down, that's just how it is. It's better to live with the fear than to tell the cops."

One more time: Holy what-the-hell, Batman!

Obviously, there's lots of work to be done with this community, and I'm not sure that either the school or I are well-equipped to do that work.

paper clips

It seems that nearly every other teacher I see has a highly complex system of organization that would make any mid-level manager of a state agency very proud. They are particularly good at the creative implementation of paper clips along with all sorts of other calendars, plan books, grade books, and files and files and files.

So far I have 6 files, a couple of spreadsheets, a calendar that I always forget to use, and have not figured out why paper clips are so important in a teacher's life.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Dayshawn is a good kid, as far as I can tell. He's quiet in class and doesn't seem motivated to do his English homework, but this isn't anything like his first love. He's a musician, and I'm going to guess that he spends every minute he can thinking about or playing music. The band he's in made it to the final rounds of competition at the Apollo last year. Haven't found out the details yet, but it sounds pretty cool. He started off in my class but was switched to a different section to solve a conflict. He asked to get himself switched back when he found out that I'm a Victor Wooten fan too.

Mike is more of a typical kid and just started playing bass as well. To look at him, you'd think he was more or less a typical kid into heavy metal. Lots of metal band tshirts, usually wears black jeans, long hair which he doesn't style... He doesn't have much to say in class, but every day at the end he manages to find something new to talk about with me, almost always about music. All it took was the Hendrix poster I put up on the wall to get him to open up a little bit.

It's amazing how it only takes a few small connections to start changing things.

The things they don't tell you.

I've been struggling with a couple of my classes, trying to keep some semblance of order so we could get on to actually learning some of the skills they'll need to pass their big test at the end of the year. I mean really struggling. When I talk they start talking louder so that they can hear me. The only effective way I have to get one class under control is to shout "QUIET!" every once in a while. I don't like doing it, but nothing else is working yet.

I was even beginning to have doubts about whether or not I could really handle being an urban teacher, wondering if I'd made a huge mistake and if these kids were going to suffer because I wasn't prepared to teach them.

And then one day a couple of older teachers stopped by after school to beat me out of my lunch money.

I'm kidding about that. They asked very politely for my money. I forget exactly what it's for, birthday cakes on our birthdays or something... They have each been teaching for about 30 years, and most of those years in Schenectady High School. We talked about all sorts of teachery things, including my two most unruly classes. That's when one of them said it always takes her at least 3 weeks to get them under control at the beginning of each year.

Why the hell didn't anyone tell me this before? All this time I thought I was screwing up big time and it turns out that this is normal!

Time to relax a little bit.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Small victories

Itty bitty little teeny tiny victories.

They come from out of nowhere. Right? Nobody plans tiny little victories. People who plan victories plan momentous events, worthy of mention in the local paper if not an interview on NBC Nightly News.

So it surprised the hell out of me when Chrissy stopped in after school today. Her class is out of control. And I was pretty sure that she hated me. This is the one that told me (without any sense of irony) that she thought it was rude when teachers interrupt conversations that students are having during class.

She was concerned about her grade on a quiz, but after talking about that I managed to steer her towards talking about why her class is out of control. And I think I got her to come around to the idea that the class is keeping her from learning and that they will respond when she asks them to be quiet. Not all at once or right away, but it will happen.

Hamid feels the same way. Two kids complaining about the behavior of their class may be enough to start getting the class in line. At least I know two kids who really care. That's worth celebrating.

Now, if I hadn't forgotten my wallet I could stop for a cold drink on my way to a late after school meeting. Small victories will have to be celebrated later.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Pop quiz

I am trying hard this week to take some consolation in the fact that every new teacher is supposed to have trouble their first year. Or two. Or four. My trouble classes are not getting better, though they may not be getting worse, either.

An older teacher saw my freshman class for a few minutes yesterday and said to me "It's not you, it's them." It's quite a relief to hear that there's nothing particular I'm doing wrong, but it seems like there's nothing in particular that I'm doing right, either. What I do know right now is that all the techniques that are supposed to work to modify behaviors (proximity, consistency, modelling respect, showing fairness, de-escalating instead of escalating, one-on-one counseling) are not. Raising your voice doesn't work. The kids just talk to each other more loudly so they can hear themselves.

Today's improvised solution: I announced a quiz tomorrow. None of them were listening. I'm not sure how many of them really care about their grades enough to learn a lesson from it, but we'll see.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Founded dumb

Part of today's 11th grade class was a discussion about respect, what it means to show it, what characteristics make someone respectable, etc...

A few of the students complained that a lot of teachers don't respect the students. Emily, chimed in with "Yeah. It's very disrespectful when teachers interrupt our conversations."

"Emily, do you mean before or after the bell has rung?"

"After. I mean it's not like we're going to talk for two hours or anything."

What on Earth do you say to that?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Loving every minute

I managed to land a sweetheart deal with this job. 2 preps, 4 sections of 11th grade and 1 section of 9th. Most teachers have 3. Some are asked to do 4 preps, though our union contract stipulates that they must agree to it and they get extra money. I have my own classroom and am in it for all but one class. I've been told to keep my mouth shut about this as more senior teachers are running all over the place. My classes are capped at 26 students, but only one class even comes close to this. Most are under 20.

This really seems like a cool high school. It's huge, but almost all of them are these days. So they followed the middle school model and broke the scool into 4 houses. I'm in the Fine Arts house, which has an audio and visual production studio, dance studio, instrumental music, choir, and seemingly all of the really cool English courses. Nearly every one of the teachers and staff has been both friendly and helpful. I'm a pretty good judge of when someone's genuinely nice and when they're just being polite, and everyone I have to work with is genuine. This is a biggie.

Here's another biggie: No one seems to care a lot about the specifics of what I teach. There are 3 required books and several more to choose from, but nothing else is defined. Everyone I've spoken to has incredibly helpful suggestions, but it's up to me. Which for me means that it's up to the students. I told them that there are a few things that we have to do, but that they get to have a lot of input on all of the rest of it.

I've got about 100 students and so far I seem to have made at least a small connection with at least half of them already, just by telling them that they get a lot of choice.

I really hate getting up early, but I really love going to work in the morning now. I've definitely found a great place for me.

I am an urban educator

I am an urban educator. I'm not yet sure exactly what that means, but I know I am one because the school superintendent told all of us teachers we are in his introductory speech on the first work day for teachers.

I also know I'm an urban educator because when I tell them that I'm working at Schenectady High School they grunt, sigh, grimace, or in some way offer their condolences. Teachers in suburban schools say things like "Wow. I couldn't do it."

They're right. They couldn't do it. I am doing it.

Getting up to speed

Here's how it happened.

Tuesday, 8/23, 4:45 PM: Voicemail message, you're wanted for an interview at Schenectady High School. Can you make it tomorrow morning?

Tomorrow morning: kind of a weird interview. Reminded me that educators are really bad at the HR thing. Managed to get a couple of key statements in, but it was clear that the interviewers were getting worn out from talking to people and I couldn't engage any of them very well. Was pretty sure I was out of the running.

Thursday afternoon: Eric, this is the school secretary. We'd like you to schedule an interview with the superintendent as soon as possible. Me: How early do you want me there?

Friday morning, 8 AM, interview with the assistant superintendent: He asked scripted questions, wrote shorthand versions of my answers on a form, then signed it before I was done talking. Ended with "You passed the test, you got an A. You'll be getting a call this afternoon."

Note that he didn't actually say that I got the job.

Friday afternoon: no call.

Friday night: I called the ELA coordinator. Nobody told her I'd interviewed with the superintendent yet. She hemmed and hawed for a bit, until I finally said "I understand you can't formally offer me a job until the whole HR process is complete, but where do we stand?" Her: "You're the only one we sent for a 2nd interview. I'll double-check Monday morning, but I'm sure everything's a go. Orientation starts Tuesday at 8:30."

I still don't know exactly what made them give me the first phone call, or what it was that made me beat out the 5 or 6 other people they interviewed, but I'm not letting them take it back.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Sorry for the delay....

It's been almost 4 months since I posted anything. My sincerest apologies to everyone who has been reading and offering support. There was always plenty to say, maybe too much, and sometimes when there's too much I get studck and don't do any of it. The end of the 2005-06 school year was frustrating, to say the least.

1st frustration: I didn't even get an interview in the district where I finished my student teaching. I knew everyone in the English department, had recommendations from the current and past department coordinators, the principal liked me, and I knew the curricula for two of the openings they had. Out of 4 or 5 total positions they filled this year, I didn't even get a call. I didn't push it because I really didn't like the department, but it's disheartening to see that the people you worked with won't even give you the courtesy of an interview.

2nd frustration: Not one of my new batch of students had any motivation to succeed. No matter what techniques I tried, I could only get them to do the barest minimum amount of work, and not nearly enough to pass their finals or regents tests. And I did try every technique in every book I could find. For one reason or another, they were determined to fail and there wasn't much I could do about it.

One of them had a legitimate excuse. Her parents are drug dealers and she has a horrible home life. She also has some sort of emotional disturbance that she lets get the better of her. She actually made the biggest strides and I was incredibly proud to see her starting to succeed at math, something she hasn't done in three years. But she melted down during finals week and failed to show for two of her tests. No good reason, she just didn't show up. Our meeting spot was a quarter mile from her house and the weather was nice. She just didn't manage to make it that day. She did show up for her Math final, but melted down at the end and refused to use all of the alotted time for the problems. I think she could have figured it out if she tried a little more, but she gave up and missed passing by 7 points.

The other two just didn't want to work. One of them actually said this to me while we in the library to do research for his essay: "Mr. G., I didn't know we were going to have to use, like reading books." I'm not sure what kind of books he had in mind.

By the end of the school year I was simply glad to be done. I miss all of my students, but it is a relief not to have to teach them now.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


You will change the world. Are you going to make it better or worse?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Dear Hiring Manager,

Dear Hiring Manager,

Certain individuals have informed me that the mere existence of a blog can be enough for a potential employer to deny a candidate a job. I sincerly hope that this is not the case in your district, and I believe that if you take a few moments to read the contents of my blog you'll see that it contains the sort of reflexive analysis that a professional in any industry should engage in, even if it does sometimes expose the less-than-desirable aspects of a school.

With love & pedagogy,
Eric Gleason

Leash laws

Spring has come here in full-force, which means that Jed and I are itching to get outdoors as much as we can. I kind of miss being a student myself, but I sure don't miss the homework and am really enjoying having my evenings free again, which means there's plenty of time to take Jed to the park instead of a quick walk around the neighborhood.

Those that know Jed know that he's a big mushball and scared of his own shadow. He was a stray and around 3 when I got him, so I don't think he learned to play or socialize much when he was younger. He really doesn't know what to do around other dogs most of the time. He'll sniff and act interested, but his stance is always fully erect and it's obvious that he doesn't quite know what he's supposed to do to act like a dog. And like a lot of dogs, he's so distracted by what's going on around him that he can no longer listen to commands, which means I've been very leery of letting him off his leash in open areas.

But two days ago I took a chance. We were surrounded by probably 20 other dogs at the park, and after he finally took an interest in a couple them I let go of the leash to see what would happen. What happened was that Jed had the time of his life. He and a husky chased each other back and forth for a while and he and two other mutts kept sniffing and bumping each other around a bit. And the most surprising thing was that he actually came back to me when I called him.

This got me thinking about what might happen when we finally let go of the leash we keep on our students. Most teachers keep that leash incredibly tight all the time and anything but strict obedience has consequences. So what happens when we let go of that leash, and maybe let students choose the path they want for class sometimes?

I worry that too much direction creates people that can only follow strict orders and can't think for themselves when that leash is gone.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

I'm a test pilot

I sat down for another mock interview today, this time with a real educator and not an HR-type that's pretending to know what they're looking for when they hire someone. It's nice of the college to do this for us, helping us find the faults that will come through so that our actual interviews are more successful.

The interviewer mentioned something about me being poised and not appearing nervous, even though I talk fast. (I do talk really fast. Southerners usually can't understand me.) And it occurred to me that the reason why I'm not nervous in interviews is because I just don't get nervous much. Like a test pilot.

I have been reading a lot about the early space program lately (one of my passions since early childhood), but I don't think that's the reason why I've got test piloting on the brain all the time.

It just happens that I'm the sort of person that likes to test new ideas, techniques, and technology, and see if it's practical. Just like a test pilot. And like a test pilot, I'm not dumb enough to test something that's obviously dangerous to work with, and I'm smart enough to stop the test if it looks like it's going to get out of control. Each test is an experiment, you need to stick to the test plan to get good data, the test plan needs to be planned, but you also need to be willing to abandon it if it's going to blow up on you.

I'm pretty sure I'm not exactly the Chuck Yeager of the classroom, but there's an equivalent breed of teachers and I'm one of them.

Gettin' it done

The past few weeks have been rough on me, health-wise. I don’t get sick very much, but have managed to contract two colds in just over a month. Both of them have dragged on interminably. The one I’m recovering from now started almost two weeks ago, and I’ve still got a lingering cough and congestion. As if that weren’t bad enough, last Thursday I became infected with cellulitis, a skin infection that progresses so rapidly that it scares the hell out of you. In less than 24 hours it went from something that looked like a pimple to an infection that covered nearly half my face, making me look like I’d just been horribly irradiated. Some strong antibiotics are taking care of it and now I’m left with what looks like a little bit of sunburn.

For the first time in quite a while, I took time off of work because I was actually sick. I’ve used sick days before, but rarely because of anything worse than a lack of sleep or need for a “mental health day.” There was plenty of work to get done while I was home, but I did little besides nap, read, and watch TV. Even after the fever faded and I really felt okay, I still goofed off and napped constantly. I didn’t even get my laundry done over the weekend

All this makes me feel like a big fraud. A while back I wrote about the need to teach our students to get the job done, even when there’s a significant obstacle. And one thing I’ve always taken pride in is practicing what I preach. So why the heck did I fall down on the job this time around? I’m just feeling a little tired from this illness, just a little run down, not like there’s some unmovable mountain between me and what I need to get done.

I don’t have any real answers, except for maybe that I’m not finding this tutoring work as enthralling and consuming as I did classroom teaching. No excuse, I know, but I can’t think of much else.

Maybe one of the great things about classroom teaching is that at any given moment there are twenty-odd chances to engage someone. Tutoring one on one with kids that really don’t want to cooperate and are absolutely unenthusiastic about learning doesn’t give you this opportunity nearly as much. That engagement comes more rarely, and the moments are fleeting. It’s hard to keep your energy level up when you’ve got a kid that will rarely do more than shrug at you when asked a question. Those moments of engagement in the classroom always gave me goose bumps, and were a big part of the reason I was able to push through those tough days in the classroom.

It’s 2 PM now, and like many days I can’t think about much but getting home to take a nap.

Greatness is getting the job done when it’s hard work. This doesn’t feel like greatness.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The new batch

Luckily for me (and the mortgage company!) I am staying really busy. I've been keeping my schedule full with 4 kids. Each gets two hours of my time every day, so I'm working 40 hours every week. Working feels good. Paying the bills feels good too.

The two boys I had before are still with me, and with no standardized tests on the horizon we've been able to relax a little more and get work done without much stress. The lazy one is a funny kid, and has the potential to be a good writer. Unfortunately, he seems to want me to tell him that his writing is already great and doesn't want to work on the writing to make it great. Even for an 11th grader, his writing is not remarkable, but the leap from average to outstanding won't be a hard one for him if he wants to make it. The biggest challenge is that he's decided that he wants to write love poems about a girl he's too shy to talk to. Shaky ground here, for sure. Even though I studied poetry in college, I always avoided reading and writing love poems (much to the disappointment of all my girlfriends). So if any of you have some sugestions for some really good 20th century love poems for us to read and use as a stepping stone for him, I'd sure appreciate it.

I don't know quite what to say about the other boy. He will never do what's asked of him. Give him a complex task and he'll get it half done and complain about how much he can't handle it. Make the complex task a series of simple tasks given one at a time and he'll still only get half of it done. This is the one that may have a learning disability. I did a lot of leg work with his counselor and the school psychologist to get him set up for testing, and his mom won't make the call to start the process. She just needs to call the psychologist and he'll start the testing process, but she won't do it. This is the same woman who told me that she begged before to get the testing done, and even offered to have it done without school resources on her own nickel. I'm at a loss with this one. It's pretty clear to all involved that Mom's a bigger part of the problem than a possible solution, and we may just be stuck with that.

The other boy I have is an 11th grader who was kicked out of school for fighting too much. People in the school who don't know him well tell me he's a gang banger, but his teacher didn't think so. He wears the clothes, but so do a lot of kids who aren't in gangs. And so do a lot of kids that get in fights.

I don't want to over-generalize or stereotype too much, but the constant fighting and conflict seem to be products of the blue-collar culture that pervades this school. There's an awful lot of kids (and their parents) who have an attitude of "I don't have to take shit from anybody." I know a lot of their parents have that attitude, I hear them talk about their bosses, their neighbors, the jerk at the grocery store, etc. I don't think they realize that displaying this attitude translates to their kids applying the same attitude towards their teachers and other students. A lot of them have a hair-trigger temper and are more afraid of looking weak than a beating, so they're ready to fight at the drop of a hat. That's what this kid's like. He's always great with me, but I can sense it when he gets frustrated with his school work. He starts getting tense and ready to snap. I won't let him snap, and I won't let him give up, either. I don't think it's something he's used to. He seems to be in the habit of walking away from things that frustrate them. He won't be with me for the whole year, the school is trying to find him a slot at one of the local schools for troubled boys, so in the couple of weeks he may find himself in a better situation. If nothing else, I think keeping him busy all day would be good for him.

My newest student is a freshman girl. Her older brother was in my class while student teaching, and his special ed. teacher told me that his parents have been selling crack out of the house. (The story is that they've had Child Protective Services in there a couple of times in the last year or so, but never found a situation so harmful that it warranted removing the kids from the home. I'm not sure they have any place better to go, other than foster care, which may not be helpful.)

Some students get tutored in the home, most get tutored in the town library or some other place. I refused to go into this family's home, and her mom raised holy hell with the school because they didn't want the kid to have to walk so far, using the excuses that it's cold and there may be convicted rapists living in the motel across the street. I see her at the Burger King 1/4 mile from their house. The girl walks to downtown Albany to see her friends (a good 5 mile walk), but somehow Mom thinks the 1/4 mile walk to meet me is too unsafe.

I think that the next parent I hear complain that the teachers or the school is the problem is going to regret voicing their opinion to me.

It's been a while

A lot of time has passed since my last posting. I'm not even going to check the date on the last post, it's been an embarrassingly long time. I'd wanted to post something useful for the spring's batch of student teachers since I knew at least a few would be reading, but I think that time has passed. Most have probably discovered whatever I could have said for themselves already.

I returned from the park with the dog this morning to find that someone had sent a reply, and that's what it took to finally make me sit down and write again. So thank you, whoever you were.

There was never a problem of procrastination, or having nothing to write. The problem was the exact opposite; there's been so much to write that I couldn't decide where to start. The fact that when I'm overwhelmed with too many choices I often fail to start probably says a lot about my personality. Probably not anything particularly good, either, I'll have to reflect on that more another time.

For those that have been reading frequently, I'd like to get you caught up. In mid-January I was preparing 3 students for the NY state regents exams. For those of you that don't know, the regents exams are a ridiculous set of standardized exams for every major subject area, spread out over 4 years. The "standard" diploma kids get in NY now is a regents diploma, which means they're supposed to be ready to go on to college. Without passing these tests, kids can get a local diploma, which is about half a step up from a GED. I'll probably write more about these tests later, but for now I'll just say that the only thing I think they're effective at is spending a lot of taxpayer money, eating up school days, and crippling effective classroom education. I haven't seen any evidence that they do anything useful for the curriculum, and I'm quite sure that they're anything but standardized across the state.

So, the scorecard after the regents tests: The girl passed all but one of her tests. Considering the amount of work she had to get done, I think she did amazingly well. I think she bombed one on purpose, knowing that she'd be very lucky to pass. Apparently she showed up to the test 1/2 an hour late, started distracting other students on purpose, and then had an argument with the teacher. Since students put their names on their exams and the exam is graded by the teacher, I'm not convinced that the teacher didn't fail her on purpose. The good news is that the girl decided not to drop out, and the principal offered a deal so that she'd come to school just 4 hours a week to prepare for that last test. The bad news is that she's very good at telling adults what they want to hear to get of out a situation and I'm not convinced that she'll hold up her end of the bargain. The other bad news is that the teacher she's working with has no love for her and believes strongly that the girl can't pass anyway. You can't save them all, I guess, but I'm keeping a good thought that she'll pull through this.

The boy that had convinced me that he would fail managed to pass all of his exams. I have no idea how; he refused to do his homework and we'd only managed to get halfway through the material for the Global History exam. But he passed, and that's what's important.

The other boy passed, and I knew he would. The weird thing is that he got lousy scores on the tests, but when doing review work he knew the material. This turns out to be somewhat typical for him, though. We've been catching up on a lot of math work, and he always picks up on the concepts quickly and easily. He'll do any number of review problems correctly. I even do review with him for 15 or 20 minutes before giving him a test. But then he'll make mistakes on the test on concepts he explained to me just a few minutes before. It's frustrating, for sure.

It could be simply because the kid is so lazy. He's even too lazy to figure out a simple way to do things. Last week I told him to do the odd numbered math problems on a particular page, figuring that half of the exercises were more than enough for him. He proceeded to do all of the problems and when I asked why he said "I didn't feel like thinking hard enough to skip the even ones."

You figure it out, it's beyond me right now.