Category Archives: teaching

Dilemma

“I’m desperate,” said the principal. “I don’t have anyone to teach seventh-grade language arts. Do you want the job?” Although I’m a special education teacher, I am also highly qualified to teach language arts in middle school.
 
“I need to think about it,” I said. “It’s important to me to keep working with the kids who have IEPs. Let me see if there’s a way to do both.”
 
“Let me know as soon as you can,” said the principal. “We’re already in the second week of school and I don’t have any prospects. “
 
“Are you crazy?” the school counselor asked, when I told her what I was contemplating. “Why would you want to try to do two jobs?”
 
Undeterred, I started to sketch out some possibilities.
 
Later in the day, I called a trusted friend and told her about the principal’s request. “What’s in it for you?” she asked.
 
“More work,” I admitted, “but no more pay. I’d have to figure out a way to balance my caseload and teach four classes a day.”
 
After I clicked off the phone, I asked myself, “Will doing this job help you or hinder you along your chosen path?” I started to entertain doubts.
 
I awoke in the middle of the night, unable to sleep as I weighed the pros and cons of accepting the principal’s request. I stumbled into the kitchen and turned on my laptop to listen to Pray-As-You-Go.
 
The Scripture for the day, from Judges, chapter 9, was a bizarre tale about talking trees. I couldn’t imagine why the producers of the podcast had chosen it, and I paid little attention.
 
But when the narrator read the story a second time, I heard clearly: “And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come you, and reign over us.’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to sway over the trees?’”
 
Quickly I paraphrased that question and applied it to my own dilemma: “Shall I leave the sweet moments of special education just to prove that I’m a good language arts teacher as well?”
 
I had my answer for the principal.

Praying in My Classroom

Wordle 16

 
 
A pilgrim looking for miracles,
I move from desk to desk,
reading the notes my students scribble
in their composition books,
their tender words
crawling across the page like lizards seeking light.
One of them writes of how he swept the horse stalls
before filling them again with fresh straw.
One writes of cement gushing from the chute of a truck—
the foundation for the family’s new home;
another of an early morning walk with his flock of sheep
before the sun ignites Tsé Bit’ A’í and it becomes
a fiery winged creature rising from the desert floor;
another of the rusty nails that pierced both his heels
three summers ago
as he scampered across a pile of old lumber behind his hogan—
he says you can still see the scars;
still another of how she torments
her younger sister without mercy—
“There’s something cruel in me,” she writes,
“and it wants Kelsey to hurt, hurt, hurt.”
And I pray:
Dear God,
even the prophets were not blessed like this!
I am standing on holy ground.
Do not remove my feet from this place
now or ever.
Amen.

 
 
© 2011 by Magical Mystical Teacher
 
 

More Monday Poetry Train Revisited #133 here
 
More The Sunday Whirl #16 here
 
More The Poetry Pantry #61 here
 
More Postcards from Paradise

School Starts Monday


 

Am I ready? Of course not!


 
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Holy Ground

And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

Exodus 3:5, KJV

Not too long ago, Pissed Off Teacher e-mailed me and said, “I’ve been enjoying your poems and pictures but worrying a little too. You don’t write about teaching anymore. I hope everything is okay.”

Everything is OK, Pissed Off. This story is for you:

Friday the 6th graders were being rude and obnoxious, as usual. As I tried to re-teach them how to write haiku, they simply would not shut up. They chattered to each other, they echoed me.

Finally, I couldn’t take any more of their interruptions, so I strode to the back of the classroom and sat down. Then I tossed my marker to T-Boy, the worst of the offenders, and said, “Here you go. Since you know so much more than I do, you teach.”

“I can’t teach!” he protested. I said nothing, but sat with my arms folded, and glared at him. I was pissed, and every kid in the classroom knew it.

After a few moments of awkward silence, B-Boy asked T-Boy for the marker, and went to the front of the room. I watched as he began to imitate me, asking his classmates to tell what they saw in the photograph of a sunset projected on the screen.  He prodded them to describe the colors in the sky, and then he began writing their ideas in three short lines.

B-Boy is a terrible speller, and he struggled to write “down.” Three times he wrote “donw”—and erased it each time.  Despite his floundering, I willed myself to say nothing. At last, an exasperated L-Girl, got up from her desk, grabbed the marker from him and wrote the word correctly.

The final product consisted of three pedestrian lines: sunset is going down/pole is by the sunset/the sky is blue and red
 
Their “haiku” lacked rhythm and grace, there was no figurative language, and they had miscounted the syllables. But they had done it all without my help, and from my vantage point in the back of the room, I shook my head in wonder.

Just before the bell rang, I took the marker from T-Boy and said to the kids, “You know more than you think you know. You can do more than you think you can do. You worked together this afternoon to accomplish a task, and I’m proud of you.”

Then I helped them count syllables correctly, and said by way of encouragement, “We can fix the haiku Monday.” The bell rang, and I sent them on their way.

At day’s end, when I told this story to the teacher across the hall, my voice quivered, and I blinked back tears. After three years of plodding through the wilderness with recalcitrant students at this school, I finally have one small reason to celebrate. I am Moses, the bush is burning, and I am standing on holy ground.

Seriously?

6WordSaturday

Saturday professional development for teachers—seriously?


 

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2nd Thursday in Advent

A Matter of Perspective
 
Better is a little that the righteous has than the abundance of many wicked.
Psalm 37:16, RSV

 
Most teachers are notoriously underpaid, and I’m no exception. Considering how important my job is and the number of hours I put in, I probably should receive a six-figure salary. However, one fourth of six figures is about what I get.

Although my paychecks are small, the intangible benefits are great. I am developing some priceless relationships with my students and they provide me with an abundance of stories to tell.

This morning, as the students filed into my classroom, one of them glanced across the hall and saw a retired teacher who now works as a substitute. The student looked at me and said, “I’m glad you’re here. I don’t want to be with that dude!”

“You’ll have him on Monday,” I said, “because I have to go to the dentist.”

And there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth!

During second period N-Boy asked, “How long have you had your cold?”

“This is day four,” I replied.

“I had mine five days,” he said.

“If mine goes to day six,” I said, “I think I’ll die.”

“Don’t die!” D-Boy chimed in. “You’re a good teacher.”

I could have hugged D-Boy for saying that. Sometimes it seems as though the work I do is a waste of time and energy, and that I’m not getting through to the kids at all. I hear a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth—and then there comes a spontaneous eruption of praise from one of the students.

These are the moments I live for. They don’t come often. But when they do come, they remind me that I am in the right place at the right time doing the right thing for the right reasons with the right kids.

In the Advent Psalm for today, the writer says, “Better is a little that the righteous has than the abundance of many wicked.”

What I gain from teaching—a handful of stories, some laughter, and a meager paycheck—may not seem like much to some people, but I feel as though I have been blessed with great abundance.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

1st Friday in Advent

Pleasant Places

 

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.
Psalm 16:6, RSV

 
TGIF—Thank God It’s Friday. Workers all over the world—especially teachers, it seems—like to chant that mantra on the last day of the workweek.

Teaching is hard work, and the pay hardly compensates for the demands of the profession. Yet, instead of saying TGIF, I say that I’m thankful that I have a job at all during these latter days of the Great Recession. For that reason, if for no other, the lines have indeed fallen for me in pleasant places.

No, not everything about the life of a classroom teacher is pleasant. I sometimes feel as though I am being carried away by a tsunami of paperwork. In fact, paperwork annoys me so much that it’s always last on my list of things to do—which, of course, makes the tsunami worse! l weary of having to discipline the same kids over and over again. And I find most staff meetings to be an utter waste of time. (My ideal school would have staff meetings no more than four times a year, certainly not every Friday.)

Still, the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. What other job would allow me to work with children, helping to sharpen their minds and shape their character? What other job would challenge me to learn something new every day? What other job has built-in breaks throughout the year? I’m so grateful that I can travel at Christmas and spring break and in the summer to reconnect with friends and family and see new places. (I’m looking forward to being in Guadalajara for Christmas.)

Yes, like many other teachers on this Friday evening, I’m tired. It has been another difficult week. But despite my weariness, I know that teaching is a privilege and a high calling, and if I were to turn my back on it, I would be rejecting my “goodly heritage.”

During the remainder of this Advent season, and beyond, I plan to accentuate the positive, and downplay the negative, aspects of the work I do. Instead of muttering, “TGIF,” when the end of the workweek rolls around, I’m going to be saying, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”

Because they have.

1st Thursday in Advent

For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent that I might know your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor would be in vain.
1 Thessalonians 3:5, RSV

 
To labor in vain can lead to feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy. Unfortunately, there’s probably not a person on Earth who hasn’t wasted time and energy on a project that has led nowhere.

Sometimes my work with children seems to be a dead-end street. No matter how well I plan the lesson and no matter how well I prepare myself, nothing seems to go right. The students look at me as if I am speaking a foreign language. Or they sleep through the lesson. Or they sit there and do nothing.

That’s when I find myself wondering why I bothered to become a teacher. Surely I could do something else that would be more productive—and more lucrative.

My students and I have been reading Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. One of the state standards calls for identifying the elements of poetry, including types of poetry, so I decided that writing haiku about the novel would be a good way to increase my students’ comprehension of the story. I introduced them to the 3-5-3 format of haiku, and for two days we practiced writing haiku together.

On the third day, I turned my students loose for independent practice, but they froze. Nothing happened. They wrote a word or two—but nothing close to the requisite 11 syllables.

The next day I decided to supply them with a “line bank”—phrases of three or five syllables taken directly from the text of Hatchet. They could mix or match the phrases any way they wished as long as the finished product was in the 3-5-3 format and made sense.

Even with the “line bank,” however, most of the students still had trouble forming haiku. Some of them didn’t even try. It was beginning to think I had labored in vain over this lesson.

Then D-Boy asked, “Can I write my own haiku?”

“You mean you don’t want to use the ‘line bank’?”

“Yeah.”

“Sure. Go ahead.” He did—and though what he wrote about his video games wasn’t great literature, it was creative, lilting and easy to read.

Every teacher needs moments like these, moments that reassure her that she is not laboring in vain. Those moments may come during the season of anticipation known as Advent or they may come at some other time of the year. The important thing is to be alert, to recognize them when they come, and to savor them as affirmations that “Nothing you do for children is wasted” (Garrison Keillor of “A Prairie Home Companion”).

1st Wednesday in Advent

Encouragement

For you are our glory and joy.
1 Thessalonians 2:20, RSV

I’d like to think that I’m Mrs. Thelma Hill’s glory and joy. At the very least, I owe her a lot. Mrs. Hill, who taught English at East Denver High School, died years ago, but something of her spirit lives in me.

Like Mrs. Hill, I stand at the door of my classroom as students come in, barking “Spit!” if I see a student chewing gum. (I already have enough gooey globs ground into my floor, thank you very much.)

Like Mrs. Hill, I appreciate—and write— the enigmatic snippets of seventeen-syllable poetry known as haiku. (Unlike Mrs. Hill, however, I do not have a Siamese cat named after the Japanese poetic form.)

And like Mrs. Hill, I try to instill in my students a love for literature by reading only the best of books aloud to them, and encouraging them to check out books from the school library.

“I want to be a writer,” I confessed to Mrs. Hill one day as we sat on her living room floor, sipping iced tea and listening to Mozart. (I was one of a handful of students she invited into her home.)

“You can do it,” she said.

Those four words of hope have sustained me for many years. When I abandoned my dream for a while, thinking it was foolishness, I seemed to hear Mrs. Hill reminding me: “You can do it.” When I finally started writing again and rejection slips outnumbered letters of acceptance, I could hear her encouraging me: “You can do it.” And when an unexpected divorce shattered my heart and my self-confidence, leaving me wondering if I’d ever be able to write—or love—again, I felt Mrs. Hill cheering me on: “You can do it.”

Mrs. Hill slipped into the twilight zone of Alzheimer’s disease several years before cancer finally claimed her life. If she were alive today she’d be pleased, but not surprised, to know that I am living my dream. More than a dozen magazines have published my work and I’m currently writing an inspirational book for my colleagues in the teaching profession.

When I had an incipient vision for my future, Mrs. Thelma Hill’s simple words of encouragement inspired me to sharpen my focus and to persevere in spite of setbacks.

During the remaining days of Advent—and for the rest of the school year—will I inspire my students as Mrs. Hill inspired me? Whose life can I change with a simple word of encouragement? Which student will learn from me that a setback is not the end of the world, but an invitation to create an even better world?

Who will become my glory and my joy?

1st Tuesday in Advent

Moaning

I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.
Psalm 6:6, RSV

Unlike the person who wrote Psalm 6, I’m not weary with my own moaning. I’m weary of listening to someone else’s moaning.

The young third-year teacher across the hall complains a lot. He comes into my classroom during my lunch break and recites a litany of grievances against his job. “I’m going to be honest with you,” he says. “I don’t want to be here today.”

I listen politely, saying little. He continues.

“I can’t wait for this day to be over,” he says. “I just want to go home.”

Almost daily he tells me how much he doesn’t want to be here, how much the kids annoy him, how low-functioning they are, and how he tells them to shut up and get to work.

Sometimes I think I should take this young teacher aside and ask him, gently, “Why did you go into teaching? The kids seem to irritate you. Have you considered another career?”

But then I realize that he doesn’t want me to say anything, especially anything that will call his career choice into question. All he wants from me is a listening ear, and as long as I keep listening, he’ll keep complaining.

Finally, I weary of the daily gripe-fest. I slip out of my classroom and find another place to eat my lunch. Sometimes I even run home for a quick bite to eat, because eating alone is better than being subjected to a constant barrage of negativity.

In one of his letters to one of the churches, St. Paul writes (in venerable King James English): “But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.”

It’s easy to make the connection between “filthy communication” and four-letter Anglo-Saxon words. Yet I think “filthy communication” also includes the negative things we say about others or our situation: “I can’t stand that kid” or “I don’t want to be here today” or “I hate my job.”

Advent is a time when people of faith cultivate hope and joy and peace. Negative thoughts and feelings—and speech—can crowd out hope and joy and peace, leaving me feeling empty and distressed.

So here’s my Advent aim: to moan less, to listen to less moaning from others, and to find ways to turn “filthy communication” into words of hope and joy and peace.