Self Pep Talk

On keeping things in perspective...
First and foremost, I'm doing better. I'm doing better than I was before; I'm making progress--teensy, tiny, progress. I'm able to go for longer stretches of days teaching in a calm-ish, non-freak-out manner. My students are awesome. They're sweet, thoughtful, funny, and hardworking. They're figuring out teenager things--like what their friends and teachers think about them, their grades, not getting their parents angry. Many of them are figuring out big, life things--like balancing being a teen mom and a student, whether or not to stay in school, and in one student's case, heartbreakingly, genuinely wondering whether or not he'll live to see 18 years old, based on the number of funerals he's attended for friends and family members.

It's rough, kids. I feel for you. I'm trying.

But damnit if you kids don't give me a run for my money. FUUUUUU**... It's hard. It's so hard. It's so hard trying to plan something to teach and do for class every day. It's so hard trying to get everyone to do their work. It's so hard figuring out what to do when someone doesn't do their AND is being a hot mess. It's hard when SO MANY students are being a hot messes.


On getting students to try...
Dear students, put the phone away. Take the earphones out. Try the work. Ask me for help. Ask someone for help. Just try. Try. OK, you tell me you're trying, but try doing the work without chatting with others. Without talking about last night's party and who was drunk and who made out with whom. This is important information that I'm telling the class right now, please listen. Please stop chatting. You will ask me this exact question in about 30 seconds if you don't listen to this announcement right now. You want to walk out? Right now? OK, then don't come back. Some students want to be here, I can't chase you down and force you to stay. Who cut the cord to my computer mouse? Why did you do it? Who tagged this profanity about me into this desk? Why did you do it?

I see that the students are testing me. I feel their eyes watching for my next move when someone has a melt down. They wonder if I'll be back next year or next week or tomorrow. Students, please stop shooting yourself in the foot by opting out each and every day. Please opt-in today. You need to practice probability but you don't know how to do fractions? Oh, you don't know how to do long division? Let's work on it for an hour after school. You need to practice using lab materials but you don't know what volume is or how to read a graduate cylinder? Let's practice. Please stop throwing the equipment. Please stop hitting each other. Please clean up your mess.


On teaching skills other than the ones you actually meant to teach...
Teaching is full of so may surprises, good and bad. With limited resources, I made a last-minute decision to throw together a research project in which students had to research the chemistry behind a product of their choice and present their research in their own blog. Turns out, many students did not know how to use keywords for searching information online; many students did not know how to email themselves files or information for later use; many students did not know how to rephrase information and not plagiarize. I'm embarrassed to say many students also did not know what a chemical formula is or what physical or chemical properties are, even this far into the school year.

Managing time spent at the computers meant disciplining students for mishandling equipment or eating at the computers, keeping students from blasting music from the speakers, and kicking students off of Facebook or inappropriate sites... on top of teaching students keyboard short cuts and computer skills... on top of teaching them the actual chemistry part of the project... on top of persuading students frustrated at having to learn how to make a blog that yes, you can do this; no, you may not opt out of the blog and do a handmade poster instead.

In the end, I had multiple students tell me that they enjoyed making a blog. They had never made one before and were excited to start their own blog about make-up or cars or whatever they were interested in. They liked showing their own work off to teach other and checking out other students' blogs. And hey, some students actually learned something about the product that they researched.


On having a wide range of responsibilities...
One of my responsibilities at the moment is helping students pass the math portion of their high school exit exam. While tutoring one student, I realized: forget geometry and algebra--my student doesn't know how to do long division or how to add and subtract negative numbers. She's embarrassed about what she doesn't know and is stressed out because as a senior, passing one more semester and passing her high school exit exam are the only two things standing between her and graduation. I'm realizing that my official title for the school may be 'chemistry teacher', but my actual role is being there everyday for whatever need may come up--be it tutor in basic math, let a student cry to me about problems at home, or counsel another struggling teacher over a 10-minute lunch break.

Right now, at my job, in this moment, teaching chemistry is not a high priority--being there, doing what I can, and celebrating small, teensy tiny successes are.


On accepting challenges and pacing myself...
Sometimes, my sister and I fantasize about jobs we'd rather have than the one that have now. Note, these conversations often occur on Sunday evenings after a long, lazy weekend, while feeling lazy about having to go to work the following Monday morning. Yeah, it'd be pretty awesome to get paid while being lazy and having an easy job. But the truth is, I like doing something that I believe matters. I love my coworkers and my students; I get to interact with inspirational people every day. I've always liked challenging myself. And well, sometimes the difficulty of the challenge bubbles over and I have to tap out for a quick second--like today and yesterday. I left school crying two days in a row. I start thinking about how I'm not cut out for this job if this is how I feel and how I react after tough days and how I'm a shitty teacher and that's why I have tough days.

And then I remember--nope. This is the reality of teaching where I do. It's tough. I'm not weak. I'm human. And I'm getting tougher. And people get tired, like I get tired. It's OK to feel run down. It's OK that things aren't going smoothly... it's normal that things aren't going smoothly. I show up and I do my best and I care. Seriously, kids, that's all I got. I'm not "enough" right now to fix everything, but fixing everything isn't my job.


I show up, and I do my best, and I care.

And my best is getting better. Little by little.


The Easter Eggs of Teaching

Chillin' with Ayumi on a fine December evening on the beaches of Oahu.

The Goods of Teaching

What comes to mind when you think about the highs and lows of teaching? Here's one for you-- two, full, luxurious weeks off for the holidays. Mine was spent relaxing at home with the boyfriend, going out to dinners with friends in the Bay; hiking, beaching, eating, and snoozing with family in Hawaii; going on outdoor and food adventures with my Japan-best-friend in Hawaii; partying it up with high school friends at a huge wedding (complete with dancing, a photo booth, and open bar); road-tripping from San Diego to the Bay; coming home just in time for bedtime before starting school again the next morning.

Learning how part of being a grown up means
investing in quality time with friends and family.
The Bads of Teaching

By that Sunday night/Monday morning (4:30 a.m., I believe), my mind, nerves, and stomach were in a tizzy thinking about work again. Somehow, after 16 days of stress-free, healthy days, I managed to get a bladder infection the morning of the first day back to school. What.

As I laid in bed Sunday night, my mind racing through its cycles of "What's going to happen tomorrow. I need to sleep. Why can't I sleep. It's going to be an awful day tomorrow if I don't fall asleep right now. It's late now. Now, it's definitely going to be an awful day tomorrow. My stomach hurts. I need to sleep. Why can't I sleep."

And sure enough, Monday morning, I was groggy and at the onset of a (nervousness-related, probably) bladder infection.

I went to work anyway because I definitely did not want to call in sick on our first day back. I felt OK for most of the day. It was, as my coworkers and I often say, a "normal hard" day. No fights, no outbursts from students--well, no unmanageable outbursts. The usual defiance. The usual scramble to make copies, grade papers, squeeze in a bathroom break, and gobble down lunch in 10 minutes.

In fact, the next two days went like this: students went through the routine I've been hammering down since August of picking up their worksheet by the door, sitting down, doing the opener (or, damnit, doing nothing and waiting for the answers...), taking down the class notes, and doing the practice work. Health class students went through the routine of writing in their journal, going outside for their walk/job/run 10-minutes warm up, and participating in a pick up game of basketball, catch, dodgeball, or jump rope (or, damnit... sitting on the benches and doing nothing). All the while, I went through the routine of taking cell phones, herding my own wandering students back to class, kicking not-my-students-but-friends-of-my-students out of my class, cycling through rounds of "I'll wait 'til everyone's quiet"/"thank you S for waiting quietly"/"you're eyes should be on the board, your pencil in your hand"/"all phones should be out of sight", and convincing (or not) my students to get on task (S: "whenever am I ever going to use significant figures in life" me: "when it shows up on your test next week").

On paper, in theory, woven somewhere in those routines should be things like meaningful lessons, a fair grading system, high standards for learning, cultivating basic skills, encouraging critical thinking...

Where is any of that in my typical day at work?

I could berate myself tirelessly for falling short on my own expectations in those categories. And I do, sometimes.

The Goods of Teaching

However, also woven into my days are little surprises and points to ponder that I never expected going into teaching. On Monday, during Health class, 4 different students asked for me to walk with them on during their warm up-- "April, walk with me," one would demand. "I have to talk to you, see I've been going through some stuff, my momma won't let me date this guy I've been talking to..." one student would open in one breath. Or "So... what's up? How was your break?" another student would cheerfully inquire. One quiet student, who almost never participates in sports, played catch with me with an old football that one of the students found. Turns out, she can throw a mean spiral. We played for 30 minutes straight. Two days later, I'm still sore. In Chemistry class, I laughed and joked with students about random things unrelated to the lesson. I got many hugs and fist bumps and "I missed you"s from students.

Tuesday, I had an impromptu heart-to-heart with my boss. I kind of hate the fact that I get so emotional and teary and anxious about my work, because it means that nearly all of my meetings that I've ever had with my boss have been more like therapeutic crying sessions than professional development. I blabbered about having a hard time with classroom management, putting together a curriculum for Health class, feeling guilty about not actually teaching anything on physical activity days but also not being able to manage the class well enough to teach anything on indoor Health-related lesson days.

My boss reminded me of points in our last conversation a few months ago--how the challenges I faced were so different from the challenges I face now. And as 'bad' as things seem at times now, it's actually a lot better than before. She reminded me that no one--no teacher, no adult, and especially no young, beginning teacher-- can do it all at once. "Be kind to yourself," she said. "Write down the good things that happen each day," she said. "If you burn out, that's no good for any of us." "The fact that you expect and want so much out of your teaching tells me that you are going to be a good teacher--and you already are better teacher than you give yourself credit for!"

I left that conversation feeling more confident in what I do do rather than bogged down by what I can't do--yet.

The Bads of Teaching

By Wednesday, I was feeling the pains of a full-blown bladder infection. Unrelated? Maybe. Psyco-somatic? Probably. Exacerbated due to work stress? Perhaps. Exaggerated due to an unwillingness to work harder? I hope not. I don't think so.

Regardless of the cause, the pain was real.

I hate being the one to weigh out whether or not I'm sick enough to stay home from work. It's such a hassle to try to prepare everything for a sub, to place that burden of an absent teacher on my coworkers, to feel like I'm undoing weeks of effort at establishing a daily routine with my students, to lose a day of extra tutoring with failing students, to thinking about the mounting pile of papers to grade left on my desk at work... Ugh, so much guilt. And well, to be honest, added guilt for not being able to handle my emotions/nervousness enough to stave off a bladder infection...

I finally decided to call the doctor for some antibiotics and go home sick. My third sick day in a semester. Is that normal? Is it excessive? I was stressed out, in pain, feeling guilty, and feeling stressed out for feeling guilty, and all those cycles again and again.

The Goods of Teaching

As I walked to my car to go home for the day, I ran into R, a student who was on his way to class. He isn't one of my students--in fact, I've exchanged less than a dozen words with him over the course of the semester because of our seemingly insurmountable language barrier. 

I first met him at our school retreat. He signed up to go on a hike with myself and a few other teachers--or maybe he didn't sign up and was unwittingly hanging out at the meeting spot for the hiking group. He was sitting off to the side, kind of by himself, which was normal for that time of year because we have so many new students, all of whom were still feeling each other out. After introducing myself, we quickly came to realize our communication obstacles. I recalled my time in Japan and my daily struggles with having simple conversations with anybody. I remembered how I appreciated whenever someone would try speaking to me in broken English (as they were able) or broken Japanese (for my benefit). I was so thankful to them for reaching out to me in any way that they could--there were often says that I felt like I was in a bubble, cut off from human interaction. The tiniest of greetings and "how are yous" would sometimes be the highlight of my days. Now, it was my turn to attempt to pay it forward. R and I used an online dictionary to learn a bit about each other. He taught me some simple phrases in Spanish. And we mostly hiked in silence.

That was the extent of our introduction. For the rest of the semester, he'd sometimes pop into my classroom to say hello. We've never been able to advance our conversations past "Hi! How are you? Good!" Nevertheless, for reasons unknown to me, he continues to stop by to -- literally -- just say hi. 

Back to today. I saw R as I was crossing the parking lot. I brightly greeted him (despite my inner continual struggle of guilt and pain in my lower abdomen). I asked him how he was doing. He gestured so-so with his hand. I stopped and waited to see if he wanted to expand or if he wanted to continue on his way to class. He struggled to find the right words. "My cousin..." he said. He searched about as if expecting the right words to be written on the asphalt by our feet or on the cream-colored walls of the portable building beside us. He had tears in his eyes. I had a sinking feeling about what he was trying to say, but I didn't want to assume. R pressed his hands together in a prayer gesture. Then he placed his hand on his chest. With me still not wanting to guess the word he was looking for, he finally drew his index finger across his neck. "Your cousin died?" I asked. R nodded. "I'm so sorry. How old was your cousin?" I asked. When R didn't respond right away, I tried asking in Spanish. I suppose I said it correctly because he answered, "18". He then started to cry. I gave him a hug, and he started sobbing. We stood like that, me, a 5'1" teacher, him, bigger than me and crying on my shoulder, for a while in the parking lot. I wished badly that I could speak Spanish and be of more help to him. When some time passed, I asked him if he wanted to speak with another staff person in the office, someone who does speak Spanish. He said yes, so I brought him to his advisor.


After that, I left to go to the doctor and home to rest, with more to think about with regards to my role as a teacher. Later, I confided with Brian about hating having to go home, hating being sick, and hating having to decide if I'm really sick enough to warrant going home, Brian reminded me that yes, everyone gets sick; no, nobody gets to choose when they get sick; yes, you should go home if you're sick; don't stress about work, don't stress about being sick, just focus on betting better.

So now, finally, here I am at home with my laptop and a pile of unit tests to grade. Time to rest up for tomorrow and all the bad (mediocre teaching) and good (opportunities to try to be a better human; trying to help younger humans grow up to be better humans) it may bring.

And there you have it, a snapshot of the goods and bads of teaching over the course of just 2.5 days. Here we go, 2015! I'm somewhat ready for you.