Friday, September 28, 2012

The Working Class

I had an interesting conversation today at school. One of my students came up to me prior to the first bell and said, "I'm so embarrassed. My mom is working here at school today." Within only a few seconds, I responded, "Don't ever be embarrassed that you have a parent who is willing to work."

To understand the passion with which I uttered those words, you must first understand the geographic area where I live and work. Owsley County, where I teach, is usually found somewhere near the top of the list of poorest counties in the United States. A bit of research helped me locate the median household income based on the 2010 census: $18,125.

True, part of the reason for this low income status is that we do not have much industry or business within a several county radius. The nearest Wal-Mart, oftentimes used as a reference point for how much commerce is available, is one county over, and that one isn't even one of the Super Wal-Marts. There is no McDonald's to hire students after school or parents through the week and if you want to get a prescription filled, you go to a locally owned pharmacy because there is no Walgreens or Rite Aid.

There are adults who would work, if jobs were available, but there has been a progressively growing number of people who have become dependent upon the government for assistance. This laid-back attitude has been filtering down into the generation of students who fill the seats in my classroom. Any discussion regarding future plans, future education, or careers garners at least a handful of responses like these: "I'm not going to finish high school.", "I'm going to drop out.", and most startling to me, "I'm just going to go home and draw a check."

It is because of this handful of students and their apparent lack of appreciation for a good work ethic that I responded as I did. I think that the young man was probably more embarrassed by his mom's presence at school than he was by the fact that she was working. This student understands that his parent is doing whatever she can to work at every opportunity that presents itself. I just wish that I knew how to help some of those OTHER students who have no vision of working, of earning a living, of the self satisfaction that a paycheck, no matter what size, can bring.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

It IS All Worth It

I must admit that there are days in my life as a middle school teacher when I find myself wondering, "Is it really worth it? Are all of the hours spent planning activities that students complain about and all of the time spent grading papers that get a cursory glance and then get thrown into the trashcan really worth the stress, headaches, and personal toil?"


I have those little minutes that make this job worthwhile.

A student shyly slips a handwritten note onto my desk as she walks from the room. As I glance at the paper between classes I see the words, "Best teacher" written in a wobbly, hurried script.

Another student asks if I am helping to chaperone a field trip. When he finds that I'm not because I have to stay at school for a training, I hear him mumble, "Why won't they let the teacher we REALLY like go with us?"

A parent runs into me and stops to take a few minutes to check on the progress of their child before telling me what a difference I have made for that child.

Lest you think I am bragging........... allow me to assure you that these moments are few and far between. It is because of this that I treasure each one of them. I try to somehow take that wonderfully warm glowing feeling that bubbles up inside me and store it away inside some hidden crevice in my spirit so that I can reach in and help it be reborn when I find myself feeling discouraged.

The last few weeks have been filled with just such discouraging times, but thankfully, I have also experienced those little warm bubbles of happiness that only my students can bring. Each little comment, note, or card is like an injection of encouragement that reminds me one more time why I chose this career in the first place.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

What's Wrong With this Picture?

As I have struggled to face this period in my life, with my son away at college and me at home preparing for an empty nest, one of the best pieces of advice I have received is to find a hobby to spend time on. There is only one problem---- I am not getting any spare time to devote to a hobby! I am speaking literally- I don't know if it just my chosen career in education that is creating this problem, but I am finding that more and more of MY time is becoming JOB time.

I am one of those teachers who truly wants to teach. I got into this career to make a difference. I will devote whatever time I need to in order to really do my best to meet the needs of my students. The problem is that there is now so much paperwork that I find myself working all of the time. I am up early in the morning and out my front door usually at 7 AM at the latest. When I get to school I sign in and head straight to my room to begin entering grades, preparing flipcharts, and printing supplemental readings. When my planning rolls around, I try to grade a few papers and enter a few more grades, that is, if I am not in a meeting. In the afternoon when the voice on the intercom says, "All students are dismissed," my students run for the door while I reach for more papers or attend another meeting. I don't think that I have left school before 5 PM on any day this school year and most of them have found me exiting the building at 6 PM. When I get home there is the typical routine: cook, do dishes, squeeze in some time for laundry, and try to help my daughter with some of her work. Bedtime is getting earlier and earlier, simply because I am so tired.

One of my fellow teachers asked me the other day, "So what were the good old days like?" (This is the point where I should tell you that I am the teacher in our building with the largest number of years of experience.) This forced me to compare the two time periods: back then and now. I remember grading a lot of student work back then; I actually probably do less of that now because the student work has gotten more in depth, with more final projects and writing pieces rather than skills worksheets. What I don't remember are all of the extra meetings or teacher paperwork. We had our faculty meeting as needed and we had the professional development sessions, of course, but we didn't have all of the add-on trainings. I think that some of that can be blamed on the extra programming that has been added on through the years. Every time we begin a new program there is a new training. As far as paperwork goes, I remember having a red gradebook and the green "Bird Book" where we kept attendance. We didn't have the several assessment tracking sheets, the pacing guides, and other forms.

You would think that technology and computerization would make all of this paperwork easier, but it hasn't. I find myself spending more time in front of a computer screen: typing parent newsletters, answering emails from students or parents, creating lesson plans, entering grades into the online gradebook, and analyzing student data. Just when I think I have learned a program and I can maneuver it, someone decides to update and I find myself learning something all over again.

I am sure that things will smooth out at some point....... I will get myself organized, I will learn to let some things go, or I will just have to stop and take a breath. I can only hope that the day I am speaking of comes VERY SOON!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Let Them Me Little

As I age, I am discovering that my views about certain things are changing. Within the past few weeks I have found myself developing a very sound opinion regarding our youth and the rate at which society is expecting them to mature.

While teaching middle school over the past couple of decades, I have seen a major shift in the expectations that we are inflicting upon teenagers. We flood them with images of young models with perfect skin, waistlines that are atypically tiny, and pounds of makeup. The fashion industry is creating clothing for girls that has become more and more revealing with messages written in very inappropriate areas. All of these things have helped reinforce the idea in our young girls that such things are okay and what you want to do if you plan to "fit in" with your peers.

More shocking to me, the teacher, is the amount of pressure that we are putting on our teenagers regarding college and careers. True, I graduated from high school quite a while ago, but I can remember taking the ACT a single time, and that was when I was a senior. That score, whatever if was, got submitted to the one or two colleges that I selected. My transcript that accompanied that college application did not contain ANY college credit. Instead, I attended the typical 4 years of college and lived the typical college "experience" for that time period.

In contrast, my son, who is a college freshman, entered college with 21 hours of credit that he had obtained through dual credit and night classes. My daughter, who is a high school junior, is already enrolled in classes that will, if she is successful, glean her 15 college credit hours. While the parent in me appreciates the fact that these hours are being achieved in such a way as to put less financial burden on me, I find myself contemplating the emotional toil that it is taking on her. I remember junior and senior year as two of the better years of my high school experience. I was on the college "track", so I did take classes that were a bit harder than those of some of my peers, but I still had plenty of time to be in choir and perform in the many concerts that we held. I recall being in a senior talent show, participating in Future Homemakers of America, and even several 4H events. I also recall enjoying those things. The time that my daughter is putting into these classes is keeping her so busy that she is not able to truly relax and enjoy many of the things that she loves. While she is still an active BETA Club member and cross country participant, the energy and enthusiasm with which she does these activities is diminished, largely due to the fact that she is mentally exhausted from the stress of her class load.

I talked with her about the schedule and whether she wanted to change it, but she almost feels like she is obligated to continue. I think that a great deal of this is because she is so focused on the "expectations" that have been placed on students like her in recent years. Students are taking the ACT earlier and earlier and school districts across the country are intent on getting those college and AP classes started as soon as possible. As a junior in high school, she is already focusing on her chances at college acceptance and scholarships. "I don't want a dropped class on my transcript," she said.

While thinking the whole thing over, I remembered a country song, "Let them be little," by Billy Dean. Maybe it's just the melancholy mother in me....... but the words of that song are becoming more and more a part of my personal mantra.

Let them be little 'cause they're only that way for a while
Give them hope, give them praise, give them love every day
Let them cry, let them giggle, let them sleep in the middle
Oh just let them be little

So innocent, a precious soul, you turn around
It's time to let them go

So let them be little 'cause they're only that way for a while

Maybe it is time for society to step back and rethink this. Is it too late for us, as a society, to change things and just let our children be "little" for a little while longer?