Friday, February 25, 2011

Now It's Official

When I slumped into a chair in the teacher's lounge after breaking up my first fight, my co-workers told me that, yes, breaking up a fight was a milestone, but once a parent complained about me for no reason, I'd be a real teacher.

Today, during my last class, the principal entered my classroom and ominously asked to speak to me outside (response from the class: "Oooooooh!").  She informed me that a parent had complained of students, ostensibly in my classroom, leaning out the windows and shouting profanity at her.  This, despite the fact that my class had been calmly listening to my lecture and filling out worksheets for the entire time they had been in the room.

So it's official, State of California.  No need to make me keep attending night classes, paying tuition, and completing four online assessments that are meant to take 40 hours (!!!) of work apiece.  Hand over the credential.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Movie Moment

Later in his career, Jaime Escalante of Stand and Deliver led his students to defeat the Cylons.

            One of the “teacher moments” I most looked forward to was breaking up a fistfight.  In my Teach for America interview, I specifically said that I didn’t expect my two years in the classroom to resemble a cheesy teacher movie.  This was more self-deception than outright lie. I didn’t want to believe that I was doing TFA for the wrong reasons (i.e. glory), and my biggest motivation for becoming a teacher was how much I enjoyed tutoring, but I can’t deny that I expected to have a few inspirational, tough-loving moments.  I imagined pulling apart two bloodied, heavily tattooed young hooligans and sitting them down.  I’d yell at them for a few minutes, and then I’d meet their eyes and say “God damn it you’re better than this.  All I want is to see you have the same things in life that I had.  Maybe they’ve all given up on you, but not me.”  Cue tearful, yet still-masculine hugs between all parties.
I'm yelling at you... because I care.

            It didn’t exactly end like that when I broke up my first fight last week.  It began, fittingly enough, on the basketball court.  My advisory students were facing off against another freshman teacher’s class as a bonding experience, and half of the school was there to watch.  My team lost, but getting to play “coach” for half an hour – pacing up and down on the court, yelling clich├ęd phrases I had heard in (here we go again) sports movies – was fair compensation.
            It was the end of the game, and most of the students were filing out of the court, down the narrow staircase back to the school building.  As I was packing up the equipment I heard a couple of boys swearing behind me; thinking they were just engaging in typical adolescent behavior, I turned around to give them my practiced “disapproving teacher” look.*  What I saw could best be described as an “angry hug”; the two boys were in a mutual headlock, cursing and swinging ineffective punches at one another’s backs.

It wasn't even as exciting as the "jungle scene" in Mean Girls.

            Before I knew exactly what I was doing, I had physically inserted myself between the pugilists and forced them apart.  A few other students rushed up and restrained them both.  I was honestly surprised that I had the correct reflexes; it made me wonder if I would do the same thing if I weren’t in the teacher role (I was reminded of a psychology study in which people were instructed to give each other electric shocks; when made to wear nurse costumes, they chose to deliver a lower voltage; I then briefly reflected on how incredibly nerdy that pattern of thought probably made me).  Still, though, so far things were following my imagination’s script, and it was time to enter phase 2.  “Stop right where you are,” I said.  “I need to speak with both of you.”
            Unfortunately, I didn’t plan out the part where one student told me to “fuck myself” and ran off, shouting more obscenities back at the other, who then followed in hot pursuit.  I gave chase, but unsuccessfully; they ran, one after the other, in the school building.

Not quite the story of my career.

            Neither did the meeting the three of us had with my assistant principal soon after go exactly as I imagined.  The two students told completely inane and contradictory stories involving someone calling someone else stupid while putting on a sweatshirt.  Frankly, I lost interest when I realized that they weren’t from rival gangs and weren’t about to settle a decades-old vendetta by renouncing violence forever.  Still, though, I walked out of the office that day with a smile.  The events of that day were sort of a symbol for my entire teaching experience: not exactly what I expected, but never a dull moment.

*Disapproving teacher look.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How My Students See Me

            My girlfriend has come to pick me up after school on a few occasions.  The first time this happened, one of my freshman students saw me getting into her car.  “Was that your girlfriend yesterday, mister?” he asked, and I responded that it was.  “Damn mister!  She’s pretty fly.  I didn’t know you had it in you.”
            I think that pretty neatly sums up how they see their science teacher.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


            “Damn, mister,” one of my students during my summer Institute program said.  “I thought you’d have, like, a picture of you in a tie or something, but you got your shirt off!”
            When dealing with internet-savvy students, privacy requires some consideration.  Some of my friends opted to delete their Facebook profiles, or make them unsearchable.  I didn’t take this route, but the barrage of comments I was subjected to when my students saw one of my profile pictures (a shot of me, shirtless, grabbing a chicken out of midair; don’t ask) made me wary of giving students a too-accurate glimpse into my “real” life.
Not exactly like this, but you get the idea.

            It’s an odd thing having to create a separate persona for work and home.  Obviously everyone has to do this to some extent, but my youth makes it even more of a necessity.  I don’t particularly want my students to know that I am (in some cases) only 5 or 6 years their senior.
            My assistant principal told me, in my first week of teaching, “They’re going to try to pull you in and make you one of them, and then you’ll be lost.”  I understand what he meant, but I tend to err on the side of over-friendliness.  I occasionally answer personal questions (although never the most popular one, regarding my age) and I play video games with my favorite students on Friday afternoons.
It's a lot like this.

            Still, I try to maintain my boundaries.  I was hesitant to allow students to call my cell phone, but Google Voice has an ingenious service through which one can set up a proxy number that forwards calls to one’s usual phone.  By using the service, I can block calls at certain times of the day, and record a more professional-sounding answering machine.  Plus, it allows students to reach me when they really need help.
I always get a text message or two when a project is due, asking last-minute questions, but occasionally I get something more amusing – a “whatz up” peppered with smiley faces, or a “yo mr. n howz it goin???????”  These texts are illuminating as a writing teacher, as I now know the source of their unusual ideas regarding punctuation.  By far my favorite call, however, was from a student I will call “The Anteater.”  Observe:
            T.A.: “Hey Mr. N.  How’s it going?”
            Mr. N: “Well, and you?”
            T.A.: “Good.  Did we have any homework tonight?”
            Mr. N: “Nope.”
            T.A.: “Okay.”
              T.A.: “Also I have another question.”
At this point his words started tumbling out at high speed.
Surprisingly delicious.

He was panting into the telephone receiver, deathly afraid of what he had done.  I began to laugh.  Earlier that day, I taught an ecology lesson about invasive species, and over and over again decried the evils of ants; I talked about their ability to reproduce and spread and destroy habitats, so he assumed that, given all of their terrible qualities, they must be poisonous to boot.  I tried to stifle my laughter enough to convince him that he’d be fine.
It is undeniably flattering to be the first person a student calls when he suspects he is overdosing on ants.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Comic: The Thesis

Another true story from the classroom, from my freshman Writing Lab class.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Overheard in the Classroom 1

True story, from a week early in the year when I taught sex ed in biology class.  More stories from this to come.

The title of this blog is a misnomer

…because I do not teach using a blackboard.  I use a digital, interactive whiteboard known as a SmartBoard.  I can project notes onto the board, draw with digital markers, and even draw over youtube videos, like a sports reporter.  According to the website, a full SmartBoard setup costs between 3 and 5 thousand dollars.
            Why I have this is completely inexplicable because I have barely any other resources.  I do not have a sink in my room for labs, nor test tubes, nor chemicals, nor scales, nor anything else one would associate with a science class (except, again somewhat inexplicably: 20 microscopes).
            Before working at my school, I had almost literally no experience of scarcity.  The high school I attended offered summer trips to Ecuador and boasted a multimillion dollar theater building.  My current school doesn’t even have any sports teams, save an intramural-style basketball team, nor, for that matter, do we seem to have tape and pens.  The gleaming digital whiteboard in my room is like a shrine to the poor business sense of my school’s previous leadership, and I look at it and think, My fancy, electronic kingdom for a set of scalpels.
            As part of my credentialing program, I get observed by a retired veteran teacher who comes to my classroom and offers feedback.  The last time she visited my classroom she took my lack of resources as a sign of my personal failure, helpfully suggesting that I march down to the front office and demand more money in the name of science.
            Instead of doing that, I signed up for a website called DonorsChoose, which allows teachers to make small requests for classroom projects and receive funding from philanthropists; in exchange, I give them a warm fuzzy feeling in the form of thank-you notes from my students and pictures of us using the materials.  My very first donation is in the mail right now: a classroom set of dissecting kits, and seven preserved goat brains.
            My students are absolutely desperate to dissect something, and once the pressure of passing the state tests is lifted, we’ll finally have the time to do it.  I still remember the first time I held a brain, in a college course, and how struck I was by how much less squishy it was than I expected. 
Of course, I want to prepare for this before I do it in class, which explains why I have several pounds of lamb brain sitting in the bottom of my fridge at present, to the chagrin of my girlfriend.

Two Years at the Blackboard

            To all those who get the Richard Henry Dana reference, and to those who don’t, welcome to my blog.  A little about me: I am a 22-year-old Teach for America “corps member” teaching at a small charter school in East Los Angeles.  I teach four periods of biology per day and one of writing lab (a remedial writing course; I have since been ‘promoted’ to creative writing).  The former I am qualified to teach, as I have a biology degree from Stanford; the latter I am certainly not, as I’m sure this blog will make clear.
            Teach for America, and America’s public education system, gets a lot of attention in the news these days, most of it hyperbolic.  The primary aim of my blog is to provide a very clear picture of what it is really like, day-to-day, to be both a young classroom teacher and a TFA member.  My cynicism makes me a far-from-typical TFA person, and I have plenty of criticism to share, but while I am not a cheerleader of the program, my comments will not be all negative.  I agree, fundamentally, with what TFA is out to accomplish, and I have plenty to say about that too.
            Teaching can be a crappy job at times, but it’s also a wonderful one.  I really do love (most) of my students, and I have a deep, incredibly nerdy love for the subject I teach.
            Most people seem to form their impressions of what it’s like to be a teacher from movies like Stand and Deliver.  I think that this is because when we are actually in school, it is impossible for us to conceptualize our teachers as real people, and hence they are forever mysterious creatures to us.  That doesn’t have to be the case, and while it’s not quite like the movies, I really do get to break up fistfights, teach sex ed to people who think “you can’t get pregnant if you, like, do it standing up,” meet chess prodigies from the ghetto, and (sigh) attend 5-hour TFA meetings on the importance of having free time.