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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reflections on My First Week of School

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      If you are a new teacher or are wanting to be a teacher, the post you are about to read may send you away from the profession.  I have worked in 4 high schools, 2 middle schools and 3 community colleges and the first weeks of school only felt successful at the community colleges.  Why?  It was because I had nearly complete control over everything I did at the community colleges.  Teachers will never have that much control at a public school.

      Now that I've been all negative, I need to say that my present school is MORE organized than any of the other 5 middle/high schools.   Any of our teachers reading this are not going to believe that because, at times, our school seems incredibly dis-organized.  Are there better ways of doing things?  Absolutely.  Will we improve the first week of school next year?  I hope so.   Who knows, we will cross that bridge when we get to it.

   
        This year, as in last year, I am teaching two 9th grade classes and two 11th grade classes.  They are beautifully distributed.  Freshmen in the morning and Juniors in the afternoon.  Teaching Freshmen means you have to teach everything about school: how to work in a group, how to log into computers, how to log into, and navigate, our learning community (ECHO/Google Apps), how to understand our school schedule, the district/school/classroom rules or norms, where are the bathrooms, when is lunch?

     How can this be done better?   First, for some reason we NEVER have school log-ins for the students on the first day.  I understand any kid who just moved to the district during the week before school.  But why can't the system make this happen between the end of June and the beginning of August?  They would then have a very simple task of updating and adding/dropping students who arrive or leave after the 1st of August.   There have been dozens of people in the last 20 years who have tried to explain it to me but it never makes sense.  If this was the military we wouldn't be having this discussion today.
   
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     The computer log-in problem is especially true at our school.  We deliver materials for our projects through our Project Briefcases in ECHO.  We collaborate on work via Google Apps such as Docs and Sites.  Students communicate with their group partners via email and IM.  We are a connected classroom.  So, what does a teacher at our school do during the first week?  They prepare as though they are going to have no technology.
   
    That is where my rookie mistake made for one of my most miserable weeks ever.  I know I haven't had a worse 1st week in the 5 years I've taught in Texas.  I made the mistake of assuming we would have our computers to work with for the upperclassmen.  I planned everything for the first two days to be completed online.  I blew it - big time.  Students at our school expect a level of detail from the teachers.  If the level of detail is anything less, they will revolt.  Now, revolution at our school doesn't take the form of anarchy that I've read about from other schools.  No, what our students do is they become "normal" teenagers.  They do nothing.  They talk, have fun, but refuse to find a way to do actual work.
 
     What would this look like to an outside observer?  Well, there would be the teacher.  Frantically trying to get computer systems or programs to operate as needed.  There would be the students sitting around in groups getting more and more animated and loud.  Then we would see the teacher trying to suggest things for the students to do while he (or she) "fixes the problem."  The student response?
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Look at the teacher like a cow looking at a new gate.  Then the students would revert back to their conversations - only louder.  Then the teacher gets louder and more agitated.   The divergence would grow until either the teacher snapped or the class period ended.  Fade to black....

     One thing that always leads to this craziness is the fact that school districts demand to train teachers during the week before school.  How could this be improved?  Demand that teachers get professional development (PD) or take college classes during their summer.   To make this demand more palatable, districts should give credit for attending non-traditional trainings and un-conferences like Edcamps, Barcamps, and Mobicamps.  

     I've now gotten away from my main idea so let's look at this first week and do some self grading.  Teaching my freshmen about working in groups?  A- .  Teaching how to log-in to computers? A- (we finally had access on Friday).  How to log and navigate within ECHO?  A - .  How to understand the school schedule? A (but we haven't had our first Monday and Monday's are a different schedule).  Rules and Norms? C (lots more work to do here).  Where are the bathrooms and when's lunch? A (again, Monday lunches are weird due to schedule).

     So why was my week miserable?  All of the things in the previous paragraph were things with my freshmen.  I did great with them and I feel good about the coming year.  But, my Juniors?  Final grade for last week?  D- (would have failed if anything else went wrong).  Monday can't come fast enough.  I need to get back into the ring and get control of those two classes.  Wish me luck and stay tuned for updates in later posts.