Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nail me to the wall

My last class was by far my least favorite so far. Granted, I have completely adored all of my other classes, so a "meh" on one is not exactly tragic. However, my professor gave this great non-assignment to write a list of ten essential beliefs that you would fight to the death for. (Or, on another instance, ten things that "they" can "nail you to the wall for." Because people say that?) I love that idea. So here, in no particular order, are ten things that represent who I am as a counselor and an educator:

1. Every child needs and deserves love.
2. Every child deserves to feel safe in school.
3. Every child can succeed at something, and I am there to help them succeed.
4. Everyone is entitled to feel however (s)he feels.
5. Childhood is a special time in one's life, and it should be enjoyed and preserved as much as possible.
6. Not everyone has to love school. But we should make every reasonable effort to make a child feel connected to his/her education.
7. All children should have a trustworthy adult in their lives who they trust implicitly. 
8. Kids need breaks. Mental, emotional, physical... whatever. They're young, they can only handle so much. 
9. That being said, kids are strong and resilient. Age-appropriate honesty is the best policy.
10. If you give your best, you're more likely to get the best from a child. What you put in is what you get out.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Opposite Day

I spent the past two days in a row at a particular school, both times in special ed. Special ed can be fun because you're hopping around all day and each hour you find something new to do. Anyway, today I present to you: The Life of An Educator. You know, because I don't really do that enough in this blog. 


Scene 1:

The faculty lounge, conveniently located next to the door that the students use to exit for recess. A substitute with an oddly timed lunch break eats alone. Fifth graders wait in the hallway to go outside.

Fifth Grade Boy: (peering through the window into the lounge) It's that mean sub! (assorted groans from the rest of the class)

 (The substitute contorts her body awkwardly so the children do not see her laugh hysterically.)

Scene 2:

Teacher: (to substitute) And you'll have to be on guard with Mark* since he can get really out of control. I already filled out a referral for you to use in case you need it. I would show him that you have this so he knows.

(several hours later)

Teacher: (to Mark) Why are you working so quietly? You never do that when I'm in here! What, is she prettier than me? 

Mark: No, but she's a lot nicer. You're mean.

(once again the substitute turns to mask her laughter)


You know the philosophical approach that everything is simultaneously true and not true? Totally applies here. I was mean to that fifth grade class because they were acting out and not showing respect. And I was nice to Mark because I sensed that a softer approach would be more effective than being stern. In fact, one of the fifth graders from the day before was also in Mark's group, so I'm sure he was terribly confused seeing me be completely mellow. I'm sure it was a drastic change from the sub who wrote his name on the board two weeks in a row because he wouldn't sit still or shut up. Was I right to be "mean" to the fifth graders? Yes, but perhaps my method of meanness was ineffective.

I always feel a strange pull when I'm in the classroom: the teacher-for-a-day part of me is focused on classroom management and making it through the lessons and everyone leaving in one piece; the counselor part of me is a big softy and wants nothing more than to sit down with these kids and talk to them one-on-one until we make some breakthroughs. It kills me when I notice a kid who, say, clearly has anger management issues but is really a big teddy bear, or a kid who has great leadership skills but no idea how to harness them for good. I want to work with these kids and make things better for them. But I'm in a room with 25 kids who all need attention and all need to learn to divide fractions within the next 35 minutes. I think this is where my lack of education background becomes an issue: I'm still negotiating a balance between those two parts of me. This temporary career has consisted entirely of sink-or-swim, crash-and-burn on-the-job training. Some days I feel confident and in my groove, and then there are some days when I feel completely clueless. (And by "some days" I of course mean "twelve times every day.") I keep meaning to ask others in my program if they feel a similar tug, but I can't think of the best way to phrase it. You always hear horror stories of teachers who become guidance counselors to get the hell out of the classroom, but I imagine there is a population of counselors-in-training who, like me, are frustrated that they cannot form the relationships they want and accomplish the goals they have in mind when they are working with 25+ students at a time. Then again, maybe this is an attempt to normalize my own feelings. 

I suppose whenever I hear myself described as "nice" or "mean," I think about it as those two separate sides of me trying to work themselves out. I highly doubt that it's a good idea to internalize that feedback in this way, but I do. Don't get me wrong: I know that universal popularity is an illusion, especially when you're taking on an authoritative role that comes with the power to take away recess. But I think that sometimes the kids can tell when I wear my teacher hat and when I wear my counselor hat. I just hope that they always can tell that I genuinely care for them, regardless of which part I had to play.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Broken Windows, Shattered Expectations

So... today was kind of weird. Not bad. But definitely weird.

I was at a school I had never been to before, although I have driven past it on my way to other schools. (There is nothing worse than sitting in traffic and seeing three or four schools that you could be at if the fates had aligned differently.) I rarely even see this school listed on Smartfind, which usually means they have a small list of regular subs and only post assignments to the pool when desperate. I don't actually know much about the residential parts of the area, but I assumed that this school was fairly well-to-do since it's by a large professional establishment (I'm omitting further details to protect privacy, sorry for vagueness). This is why I should never play "First Impressions" for money. 

I enter the school. It is huge. And sad. It has those shiny white walls that make the standard institutional carpet seem even more drab and dingy. Okay, so they haven't renovated in a while. It happens, right? Then you walk into the classroom and notice that none of the furniture matches. In any given room there are three different types of desks and several different types of chairs (including the wooden ones that must be a throwback to the seventies). The desks aren't even the same height, so the kids are all sitting at drastically levels. This school clearly received whatever odds and ends the rest of the county was ditching. 

You know how in the movies young, idealistic teachers go to inner city schools and do a room makeover and suddenly the students feel at home and everything is better? It seems a little farfetched, doesn't it? But here's the thing: it's based on the same theory that Giuliani applied to crime during his time as governor of New York. The idea is that evidence of small crimes (broken windows, graffiti, etc.) gives the impression that no one really cares, so small crimes escalate into larger crimes. I think about this theory a lot in school. Budget limitations suck, but what are kids supposed to think when their supplies are collected from everyone else's unwanted odds and ends? I was depressed being there, and I'm a lot older and a lot more tolerant of crappy environs than your average six year old. I truly believe that school should be a warm, friendly environment where all students feel welcome and wanted. Most of that comes down to the faculty (more on this particular staff later), but I think physical surroundings play a large role as well. 

My suspicions were confirmed when I met the woman for whom I was subbing: she told me that she never has outside subs come in. The school has four permanent subs working for them (they're just like me... only they make more money and receive benefits), and for the most part those four individuals cover everything. When the morning announcements came on, a faculty member listed all of the teachers who were out and who was covering them (I'm guessing this practice is more for the staff than the students), and I was mentioned--by full name--as a "special guest" in the building. Wait, what? Apparently I was that much of a specimen. It was nice of them to make me feel welcome, and you could tell that this school was very close-knit and enthusiastic. But isn't that sort of like blurting out on a first date, "I don't date at all and it's most likely because I scare everyone off!" Just saying, schools: you're more likely to score someone's digits if you play it cool. 

Honestly, I could go on and on about today and the headaches and heartaches, but I think I will leave it for now. Maybe tomorrow I'll post a part 2... maybe not. For tonight, I am going to think very carefully about how the broken windows theory applies to my home. Anyone want to come over for a painting party?

Thursday, January 5, 2012


My fame has spread through the blogosphere! One of my readers My only reader, Keri, has a fantastic blog called Abescapades: Adventures in Lincolndom. The premise: Keri, a Lincoln enthusiast, visits Lincoln-related places and reads Lincoln-related books and then shares her insights and enthusiasm with the masses. I had the honor joy roommate obligation pleasure of joining her on an Abescapade lately, and she invited me to write a guest post on her blog. (It truly was an honor... five seconds on her blog will tell you that her posts are often thoughtful analyses of history, whereas my posts are... not.) Anyway, you can read about our adventures at Lincoln's summer cottage here. Enjoy!

Monday, January 2, 2012

I just don't even know who you are anymore

Today is the final day of a blissful 13 day respite. Tomorrow schools open again (maybe I'll score an assignment, maybe not) and my minimester begins. And then I will be going full-speed until May. 

The week before vacation was lovely. Well. The day before vacation was lovely. I was working with a kindergarten class I had been with before. I always lament that as a sub I don't get many chances to see the progress kids make throughout the year. I go to a classroom for the day, get a vague idea of what the kids are like, and then hope that everything works out for them if I don't get to see them again. But if I have a relationship with a school, then I can check in on kids every month or so. And in some ways, I think I appreciate the changes I see more than classroom teachers because to me they are so sudden and dramatic. 

Case in point: the last time I visited this kindergarten class was the beginning of October. There was a little girl whose family speaks primarily Russian (or some similar language), and this was her first time in an entirely English-speaking environment. The little girl speaks English very well, but the last time I saw her she would not speak to adults. You would hear her chatting with her friends during free time (she had no problems socializing with peers), but not a peep to any teachers or school staff. It was curious because she would raise her hand to answer questions and then... not answer them. She was engaged in the lessons, she just wouldn't speak. When I spoke with the teacher, she reported that the girl had met with the counselor and some other people, and the working theory was that the girl was a bit slower to process English and felt nervous about messing it up in front of authority figures. They figured that she would speak when she was ready, and they just went along with it since it didn't seem to impact anything else. The teacher still called on this girl when she raised her hand and would give a few seconds for the girl to answer, but the teacher knew that she would eventually have to move on to another classmate.

When I stepped into the classroom last week, the girl regarded me warily at first; this is typical of kindergarteners who are with an unfamiliar adult. For the first part of the day, it was the same as October: she hugged me, she held my hand, but she didn't speak to me. When I needed to speak to her directly, I knew to ask questions in a way she could answer by nodding or shaking her head. So when I asked, "Are you buying lunch today?" I was surprised that she responded, "No, I brought my lunch." For the record, it is the most difficult thing in the world to not cheer or overreact when a milestone like that happens, but I knew that would freak her out and make her clam up for the rest of the day. So I responded neutrally, and next thing you know the kid is spending the afternoon by my side, chattering away. There were actually a few times when I had to say, "I love talking to you, but I need you to go to centers now, okay?" I don't know when she made this turning point of speaking, but I was so proud of her and desperately wished her teacher were in the building that day so I could talk to her about it. 

I also had a snippet of a conversation with one of the boys involved in a previous incident. A simple, "How are things going?" and he immediately lit up and told me, "Good! I'm getting better grades now." Um, heart bursting with pride. We constantly discuss in my program that whenever a kid shares information with you unprompted, it is a big deal to that kid and should be paid attention to. This kid could have responded, "Good" and then walked away, but he took pride in what he was accomplishing at school. I get the sense (even during my two day stint in his classroom) that this is a kid who doesn't feel like he gets a lot of credit for his improvements. It could be because, even though he is a good kid, he's not one of those super quiet obedient types that teachers automatically peg as trying really hard. So I tried to make a big deal over it, and I'm excited to go see him in the classroom again to see if I notice any changes. (I only had him for gym class that day, and it's hard to notice anything when you spend a solid 30 minutes praying no one gets seriously injured.)

I am eternally grateful that my few days before vacation went so well; I'm hoping it will make it easier to go back tomorrow. (I know I know... there's no way I'm looking forward to waking up early again.) Today is devoted to reading three chapters about alcoholism before my class tomorrow night. Fun stuff, right?