from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

ATeacher's Life - The school year begins 

I officially reported back two weeks ago, on Monday August 15. In this entry I wall offer a description and a reflection of the two week’s since. While I will not universalize my own experience, since there are aspects of both my schedule and my approach which are sui generis it is nevertheless my hope that this piece will help belie those statements which describe a teacher’s life as not particularly demanding, statements which claim that we only work 7.5 hours a day, 10 months a year, which numerous days off during the school year.

I will offer my experience of the first two weeks. I will present, you will read, and then (with a very slight acknowledgment to a certain conservative news organization) you will decide. I invite your comments and responses.

While officially the 155 teachers in our building reported back on Monday August 15, many of us were in the building the prior week, in my case for two reasons. First, I was helping the athletic director with checking in the many students coming out for fall athletics - we had to ascertain eligibility by grades and residence, ensure all permissions and medical clearances had been attended, and that they were not too old. And because I would already be in soccer practice as of the 15th, I needed to at least make a start on setting up my room.

On That first Monday, teachers began to arrive shortly before 8. We greeted one another and other staff, picked up our mail, and went to the cafeteria, where until shortly after 9 we were able to have a continental breakfast courtesy of the school, pick up our keys, receive various pieces of paper, and the like. We were supposed to in the auditorium at 9 AM for our opening official meeting, but the man who operates the audiovisual equipment and sets up the auditorium had gone to the hospital the night before (the first time since I arrive at the school in 1998 that he has been absent) and there was delay finding someone with a key. We then had our opening staff meeting -- remarks by the principal, by several key administrators and other leaders, and outline of the schedule for the week, and the introduction of the 21 new teachers (all of their pictures would be posted near our mailboxes by the end of the week so we could get to know them).

During that first day we largely worked on getting our rooms set up - decorating walls and bulletin boards, making lists of broken or missing items such as desks, light fixtures and the like (our building is used extensively outside of school hours - it was the main high school summer school for a system of 138,000 students, and the prior week had been used for training of teachers new to the system). We had had 5 additional temporary buildings added during the summer (for a total of 21), and we had to help new people find their rooms.

In my case by 3 PM I had to be outside for soccer practice. I had prepared tentative roster lists by grade of the students who had already submitted their paperwork, and had held slots for several I expected would be returning. We spent 3 hours on the field (I am the JV coach and assist with the boys varsity). We had additional students joining us during that practice, and from them I had to collect their paperwork, write down their information. We had surprisingly few freshmen this year, so it did not take time to learn all the names. At our peak we had two coaches watching around 60 teenagers practice. At times that first week only one of us would be out there because of off-site meetings or other activities requiring our presence - we are both teachers in the building. We had scrimmages set for that first Saturday, so we had to do some quick evaluations. By the second afternoon we were dismissing some players, some who were not in condition were leaving on their own. Each day we adults were practicing the kids until 6 PM, then talking between us, then I would go back to my room for about another hour to catch up on things I could not do during practice. During the rest of the week I would leave home before 6:30 and not arrive back until sometime around 8 PM.

In my role as teacher, there were multiple meetings and required training sessions. We are required to annually be retrained in sexual harassment, dealing with homeless students, and similar policies. We also had two departmental meetings. We have until shortly after labor day to turn in our updated professional goals for the year and our emergency lesson plans. In the case of goals, since I keep a copy on my home computer I was able to arrive with those already done. But as I am teaching AP government for the first time, I still as of now have that to work on. We had to get the books we needed to our rooms. In my case I had to get some National Honor Students to come in and help process books -- all of our AP Government books arrived that Monday (August 15), and had to be counted, bar coded, stamped with the school name and address and numbered. We had around 150 of those to process. For our other social studies courses we had well over a thousand new books to be processed. And then books had to be moved to the appropriate rooms. Remember that I am in an outside classroom, and without the help of the students the task would have been impossible. We also had to sign out our computer equipment, hook it up and make sure it was working, obtain our video equipment and our overhead projectors. For some of us, we were already scheduling our time in computers labs and the library for the first month or so. Finally on Thursday we we received our class lists, prepared on a central school system computer, but with that information not as yet (even as of this last Friday) downloaded to the in school system, so for those of us using a computerized grade book we had to type the information in by Monday, and for those still pen and paper, copy the information into whatever book was being used. Meanwhile there was an additional all staff meeting to prepare for the first week of students. Officially we were off on Friday the 19th, but almost 120 of the teachers showed up to continue preparation -- it is the County’s way of getting work for which it does not have to pay. For most of us we also set up seating charts. As I teach 6 classes, and I don’t want the computer (which could) do do this automatically, I had to to take into consideration what I knew about the students (most were 10th graders, and I taught 9th last year - of my 155 students I had previously taught or coached about 40)

And on that Thursday we had almost all of our freshmen ride the bus to school, obtain a copy of their schedules, and then walk their schedules. With 2,900 students in a sprawling building, if we did not do this, many would be wandering the building lost on the first day of school.

Oh yes, and during this time many of us were working on plans, copying handouts, and the like. The copying is critical - we have only two xerox machines for our 155 faculty. The lines can get extensive, especially when the machines are consistently jamming, as they were that first week. One cannot risk arriving and attempted to copy before school the day one wants to use something - the lines might be too long, or possibly both machines will be down.

AP Government is a college-level course. The other teacher and I who have sections did some more joint planning (we had done some on our own during the summer), then we each had to make up a syllabus for the year, and get that copied. The county has not yet obtained the supplemental readers that are an essential part of our materials, so I was setting up links on a web page for those items we would used in the first unit. That is, for those items available online. And since these would be entire documents of which we wanted only selections, I had either to obtain versions that had internal hyperlinks, or else set up detailed descriptions of how to find the passages we wanted read. For other items, we actually had to make copies for the students to use - this is tricky with respect to copyright. We were not copying entire articles, but even so the students will have to return the material to us and we will destroy it after we are finished.

For most teachers they had their Saturday “free” in that they could not get into the school building (although the custodial staff was working very hard) - some would come in on Sunday, since the building is used by a Church group. Many teachers continued to prepare at home. In my case I met the soccer teams at a high school in Montgomery County for a set of preseason scrimmages. The host school had not wanted to pay for referees for 4 games (boys and girls, varsity and jv). For several years in the 1970’s I had refereed high school and college games in Pennsylvania, so I agreed to help. I coached my own boys’ jv, with a varsity boys player serving in my stead on the field. I refereed the other 3 games, two of 90 minutes and one of 70 minutes. Despite sun block I did get burned, and i pulled a hamstring and was doing a bit of hobbling around by the end. Since this was the first scrimmage for both schools and since both sides had players whom they were trying to evaluate, i felt it important that there be some control on the field so that no one got hurt.

Believe it or not, I took Sunday the 21st off, doing nothing for school. That will be my last non-school day until Thanksgiving.

Monday August 22. The students arrived, went to a room by name to receive their official schedules, and then waited until until most of the buses arrived. They were then dismissed to their first periods. Periods were a bit shortened this first day. During the 35 minutes I have each class, I got students to their assigned seats, handed out a blizzard of paperwork, explained class procedures, assigned textbooks, and answered questions. Soccer practice now did not begin until 3:30. But meanwhile those students who were assigned to the jv had to put their gear in my room - only freshmen had as yet been assigned lockers, and those were not big enough to include all their soccer gear. They would come in the back before school or during the first period, and would have to retrieve their things at the end of school. I would have therefore about 10 minutes between the end of the school day and when I had to be on the soccer field to get into the building to a bathroom and to relax.

One of the thin gs my students do the first day is fill out and information sheet. On it I have information about their parents and information about them. I used the latter for some brief remarks the second day that helps me to begin to learn about the students. it is not just learning their names. I may be bale to talk about what they want to do later in life, activities they do now, where they want to go to college. It serves as a way for me to reassure them that I care about them as individuals, that I value parts of the lives that don’t necessarily connect directly with my class. Also on that 2nd day they learn - if they do not already know by reputation or because I have taught an older sibling government in the past (last year as we changed sequence, I did not teach government) how crazy I can be. I ask them to write down what they think justice is, then tell them i have to do a quick errand. i step outside, put on a peruke (white wig) and black robe, then throw open the door while loudly declaiming “Oyez, oyez, all you having business before this honorable court, draw near, Kenneth J. Bernstein Presiding, Order in the Court” and slam my hand down on the desk. “The question before this tribunal is what is justice.” I ask someone to offer a definition. l Often I get something like “punishing those who break the law.” In that case I am likely to respond “so Harriet Tubman should have been punished for running away and for returning to help others run away.” The class for the next 20 minutes or so becomes an exercise in Socratic dialog. We will quickly look at Plato’s Republic, The Declaration (“deriving their just powers form the consent of the governed”), the Preamble (“establish justice”), Hobbes (including “and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”) and Locke (excerpts from the 2nd Treatise). Besides letting them know how crazy I am - and I truly am -- there are several purposes to this exercise. First, I organize the course - including the AP course - around the two themes of the nature and definition of justice and the nature of the social contract. Second, I KNOW they are going to talk about this class when they go home. It helps make a connection with the parents.

And starting this 2nd night, when I return from soccer I begin to call every single parent and guardian. I have on the first day sent home two copies of a letter which explains the course and my procedures and expectation, gives my email and the address of the web page on which parents can track assignments. One copy is to be signed and returned, the other kept for reference. not all students bring the papers home, and in the reams that do come home on the first day some parents do not realize that they need to keep the 2nd copy. I want to be sure that they know how to reach me and how to monitor what is going on in my class. Second, they may have questions, especially after that “what is justice lesson.” The call enables me to assure them that I know what I am doing. Third, I ask if there is anything I should know about the child to make his/her time in my class successful, any concerns or issues. There students legally entitled to modification, such as a 504 Plan or an IEP. The student often does not tell me, and it can be several weeks before the Special Ed department gets me the paperwork. This way I will know as quickly as possible if a child needs instructions repeated, extra time on tests, preferential seating, or anything like that. I also learn if parents have just separated, a grandparent just died, struggles with certain kinds of exercises.

I often have to say as I introduce myself something like “don’t worry, André is not in trouble, I am just calling to introduce myself.” Some parents have come to fear when the teacher calls. having called when there isn’t a problem, I am far more likely to get parental cooperation if I do have to call with a problem, because that is not the only time I call.

Also, by the time I am calling, my AP students have already had their first heavy assignment - 17 pages of Hobbes. By now some of them are panicking that they have bitten off too much. These calls let me assuage some of those fears, assure the parents that the student will be able to make it through the course, that I will offer some extra help, and to point out that this is excellent preparation for attending a rigorous college.

The rest of the first week goes by fairly quickly. We begin to get into the academic rhythm. There are interruptions - mandatory assemblies to cover the code of conduct. Additional students arriving, some being withdrawn because they don’t live in our attendance district (parents cheat to get their kids into our school because it is so good. Some get caught as a result of my phone calls - the phone number has changed to one in another jurisdiction, for example). The days remain long, but at least they begin to have some shape. I am simultaneously teaching my students content and technique -- how to read, how to study, how to take notes - as well as inculcating into them a set of expectations that for many are quite challenging. I begin to make some cuts to my jv to make the numbers more manageable, even as i get still more players. And I continue with the parental phone calls. By Saturday afternoon I have contact all those parents of students I have not taught who have working legitimate phone numbers, and have begun to contact those parents of previous students (a process I will complete this week). Since this weekend we did not have a scrimmage, I was actually able to take Saturday morning (and this morning) off and only do school related work for about 6 - 7 hours.

Does it get any less intensive? Not really. So far I am not collecting homework, but merely going over it in class. This next week I will begin to haven papers turned in. I turn all ordinary assignments back the next school day. Even using my lunch and planning periods efficiently, that often means 3-4 hours of additional work on a school night. I am also one of the two freshman class sponsors, so I begin to pick up some responsibilities with that as well. My average workday for the next 10 months will be 12 hours - when the coaching finishes, i get more duties as a sponsor, and then I also run tutoring sessions to help those students who are struggling.

If you have read this far, you will now have a better sense of how intense and demanding my work as a teacher is. I have not talked about the other reading that I must do during the school year - I do not count that as part of my school work, even though things like reading the papers and news magazines really is preparation. I do not have children of my own, so I am able to be as insane as I am in how much I give to my students and my school . I teach the children of two outstanding science teachers in our building, and both think I do too much. I do not know how to do it any other way.

I accept that I do more than many teachers. But there are others in our building who in their own way do as much as do I. They may not call all the parents, but the amount of time they give to overseeing research practica in science, or helping with science projects, is astounding. 2/3 of those who sponsor activities do so without financial compensation. When some students asked me about sponsoring a philosophy club, I steered them to a math teacher who is writing his dissertation on philosophy even as he teaches 6 sections of high school math.

So what do you think? Please be kind and offer some kind of response, so that I know my effort in writing this was not wasted.
Having read it, I'm nearly exhausted myself. And every school in the nation, in the world, has at least one teacher like you. The lucky schools have more than one.

I agree with your perception that calling parents ASAP after you have rosters is vital - it does exactly what you say it does.

The majority of the public would be amazed at how challenging it is to challenge students all day, every day.

Thanks for accepting that challenge!
Thanks for your kind words
I've just added a link to your comments to a little back to school post I'm putting together at The Endless facutly meeting. You are obviously a dedicated and tireless teacher.

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