Monday, March 30, 2009


I still haven't been officially observed for my annual evaluation. There was a food fight on Friday immediately before I was scheduled to be observed, and they couldn't spare the assistant principal. I think today he just forgot about me.

Still, today was one of those days that left me feeling pretty good about being here, even though I had to write two people up for cursing me out. (Seriously, if I have given you the teacher look, silently given you a "shh" gesture, attempted to use proximity, quietly asked two separate times that you face the front and stop talking to the girl behind you, and you are still turned around talking very loudly and distracting your classmates who're supposed to be taking notes, I have every right to ask you to move to a different seat of my choosing. I'm not out to get you, I just need you to stop interfering with the education of your classmates. If you'd been willing to do that instead of refusing to move and telling me, "S***! F*** you, motherf***er!" I would have been delighted to have you in class.)

One of my great seniors came in telling me that she got a scholarship that she insists she wouldn't have gotten if I hadn't helped her put together her resume. (Honestly, she's amazing so I hope she would have gotten it anyway, but it feels good to be appreciated.) My anatomy classes keep demonstrating that, despite occasional appearances to the contrary, most of them really have learned a lot. (Does this mean that my attempt to keep spiraling a set of core biology concepts into every unit is actually yielding results?)

As I walked down the hall at the end of the day, I heard behind me a murmur followed by a loud, impassioned, "Don't say that about her! That's my favorite teacher!" My champion was, to my shock, one of my less enthusiastic students. I wasn't aware that she likes me, and I'm not sure why she does. Last semester I caught her cheating on an exam, and the zero she received ended up dropping her grade significantly. She tends to grumble a lot about how much they have to work in my class, and she frequently insists that I expect way too much of my students. This semester, she's been rising to meet my expectations, even as she complains. Still, she doesn't seem to be overwhelmingly fond of the subject matter or my class.

I don't think I've done anything special for her. She isn't one of the kids for whom I've written letters of recommendation or with whom I've gone through revision after revision of college essays. I've lent her a calculator and an ACT prep book and have spent a few minutes here and there helping her with a bit of remedial algebra, but that's no more than I'd do for anyone. I occasionally ask about her daughter, who is in the terrible twos and is thus the subject of many funny and cute anecdotes. Mostly, I just come in every day and do my best to make sure that little girl's mother walks out of my class knowing more than when she came in. Maybe that's enough.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Worrying about the boy

My boyfriend turned twenty three on Friday so he headed down to his parents' and I headed up for the weekend. It was beyond wonderful to see him, but he was clearly very stressed out. The good news is that he has a new job. The bad news is that his job may vanish in June.

After he got laid off, he almost immediately swung into action and began hunting for a new job. He quickly found a company that offered him a couple of days' work with the prospect of more permanent employment after the trial period. It didn't pan out. He then proceeded to find call the roughly seventy five electrical contractors in the area, and a handful were taking applications for apprentices. He got a few interviews, and then he got offered a job. However, he was warned early on that if the company doesn't get more big projects after the completion of the ones they're working on right now, he'll likely be laid off. Having a job is better than not having a job, especially when you have bills to pay, but the whole situation is disheartening.

If he doesn't have a job at the start of the fall semester, he'll be unable to continue the classes for his apprenticeship. If that happens, he'll likely lose the credit for the two and a half years of coursework he'll have completed by then and basically have to give up on becoming an electrician. It's an utterly lousy situation, and I can see it wearing him down.

I'm powerless to help. There's no way to magically make the economy better and get people building things and hiring electricians again, but being so far away makes me feel especially useless. I can call, email, and be a sympathetic ear and a sounding board, listen as he muses about what to do next if layoffs hit at his new company, futilely try to reassure him that he's a wonderful person and the situation at hand is not a reflection on him, tell him dumb jokes, and remind him that he is so much more than just an electrician. I can't, however, make him dinner, hug him, or hold him down and tickle him when he's had a rough day.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Random school updates.

I started the day with a student informing me that another student probably wouldn't be at school because his father had been shot and killed. I spent five hours at parent teacher conference night and saw eight parents, five of whom belong to kids I don't have for anything besides homeroom. During parent conference night, I got called down to the office and informed that I'll be taking over a different class of physical science kids starting Monday.

There was a mother who was angry about the grade her child received in another teacher's class, and rather than back that teacher the administration decided to give into the mother's demands and have another teacher (me) take over the honors section. Then the angry mother agreed to sleep on it. So Monday I may or may not be taking over the class. If the switch takes place, planning will be interesting because the other teacher started with the chemistry half of physical science and hasn't gotten to any of the physics standards yet even though we have a mere eight weeks of school remaining.

I'm getting officially observed tomorrow for my annual evaluation. (Eep!)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Signs of the economic times.

The pizzeria where my mom and brother work is still doing well. It helps that they're located on the outskirts of a "nice" neighborhood filled with college professors and educated professionals, not exactly the groups hardest hit at the moment. However, my mother has noticed that there's been a significant drop in the number of people ordering sodas. At a $1.75 a pop, cokes can certainly jack up the price of dinner out with the family.

Could it be that people are actually learning to prioritize and exercise fiscal restraint?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

My brother has crashed his car. Again.

A few months ago, he rear ended a guy in a jeep. Before that, he hit a fence at some speed. This time, he went around a curve too fast on his way home from work on a wet night. The wheel is broken and the suspension arm and spindle are bent, but he was unhurt.

When my brother had his previous collision with the law student jeep driver, they agreed to keep insurance out of it. My brother's car, technically my parents', looked lousy but still ran. My parents paid for the guy's new bumper and expected my brother to work off the cost since he was fairly broke.This time they are, understandably, feeling a bit less charitable. Given that my brother has continued to drive like at twenty-one year old male who believes himself to be invincible, I think their anger with him is appropriate.

We're still awaiting word on what repairs will cost. My brother is driving my parents' ancient, rusty, Suburban in the meantime . My parents have agreed that my brother is now on his own when it comes to paying for repairs and for buying his own car insurance. If the costs of fixing his Taurus are more than it is worth, they expect my brother to buy a replacement, even if that means he has to make payments. He can continue working a couple of shifts a week at the pizzeria after he resumes college in the fall.

All this seems very sensible, but I can't help feeling a little strange that they were much nicer after I wrecked. I'm happy they finally let me have "my" Taurus back. If I'd had to buy a replacement, I would have been on my own, but my parents never got quite so mad at me, never wanted to find ways to punish me. My mom insists that this was because I'm generally a cautious, non-aggressive driver who got caught by bad road conditions when the temperature unexpectedly dropped, unlike my brother who makes a habit of driving stupidly. I suspect that my parents are right and my brother needs to be jolted into taking responsibility for his actions, but my masochistic tendencies keep whispering that I, too, deserve worse than driving a dinged up car for the next few years.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why, yes, I am silently judging you.

Having a roommate has meant getting a firsthand look at the finances of someone who was initially a near-stranger. We've been pretty open about financial matters; however, I do know more details about her than she does about me. I guess that maybe commiserating about looming student loan payments and credit card debt seem like normal 20-something behavior, while talking about investments and savings goals sounds a little too close to bragging.

Don't get me wrong, I like my roommate. She's bright, funny, and working really hard to be a good teacher. Sometimes, though, I just want to shake her. She talks about her student loan debt a lot and is considering staying in teaching a few more years so she can pay off a larger chunk before returning to school for her Ph.D., but she keeps living in a way that runs counter to actually accomplishing her debt repayment goals.

When we moved to the Delta, she'd taken a loan from her mother to get through the summer when she couldn't work and for moving expenses, had credit card debt (She's never said how much.), and her tens of thousands in student loans. She talked about living on one paycheck per month and putting the other toward her debts. She did pay her mother off fairly quickly, and then she planned to have her credit card debt paid before her graduate school loans came out of deferment in February.

Then lifestyle inflation took root. She started buying tasty and quick but very expensive convenience foods almost every night. She treated herself to fancy coffees at McDonalds. She hit Wendy's at the end of rough days at school, going four times last week. She burned a lot of gas escaping to the nearest largish town on the weekend and a bit of money buying miscellaneous stuff at the Target there. She started dating a very nice guy, and they eat out at least once per weekend and then often get takeout one other night. All perfectly normal middle class behavior that she could probably afford without any problem if she didn't have debt.

But she does have debt. Those credit cards that were all going to be paid off by last month are now going to get paid off by this summer. The student loans got switched to the extended repayment plan, costing way more in interest over the life of the loan. She talks about throwing extra at them once she finds a part time job this summer, but that part time job will likely involve commuting to Memphis where her boyfriend and further temptations lie.

Just before spring break, she was fretting about whether they'd give us the paycheck that fell due in the middle of spring break before or after the break. If they held it until after, she wasn't sure she'd be able to get it deposited in time to pay her bills, apparently a very serious worry for her. I resisted the temptation to chide her, "If getting paid a week late would send you into financial crisis, you cannot afford Chinese take out. You cannot afford new kitchen towels. You cannot afford more toys for your dog. You need to hunker down, live on beans and rice for a few months, and stop living on the precipice."

Really, it's none of my business. If she wants to spend the rest of her life enslaved to the financiers, that's her choice (and apparently a popular option these days). She isn't asking for my help, and unsolicited advice is almost always unwelcome. I'd never tell her I'm thinking all this, but I can't quite avoid thinking it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The life of a teacher.

It's the first Saturday of spring break. Naturally, I've been up since before 6 a.m. so I can go take a very expensive math test, partly so I'll be more employable elsewhere and partly because I've learned that our calculus "teacher" isn't bothering to actually instruct his students, offering to just give them all A's instead, so I'm plotting a very polite, very quiet coup. Then I just have a unit on the nervous system to plan, a stack of quizzes to grade, and a stack of essays to grade. The rest of the week is mine, and I hope my ninth graders don't forget everything they've learned about bonding in the meantime!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

You can tell a lot about a place by the vending machines.

When I worked in a lab in New York City, I was slightly amazed by the vending machine that dispensed hot pizza. It was more expensive than and vastly inferior in flavor to the cinnamon raisin bagels with cream cheese I bought each day on the street outside the building, but I still thought the concept was pretty nifty: whiz-bang technology allowing people to grab a hot meal at 2 a.m. when the cafeteria's closed.

Now I'm in the Delta, and the gas station two blocks from my house has a machine outside that sells live bait.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Update on various job situations.

It feels like everyone I know is looking for a new job:

My mom

My mom has been able to pick up quite a few shifts subbing for people at the restaurant and will likely be making more money doing that than she was working in the insurance office. It's more physically demanding so she's been tired, especially after she slipped on melted snow at work and pulled a muscle, but she still enjoys it more than sitting at a desk all day. Getting laid off may actually be a very good thing for her.

My dad
My dad gets to keep his health insurance, but HR has been given conflicting answers about whether they're cutting his life insurance coverage. They're also expecting him to work a variable schedule, basically coming in for whatever thirty hours each week they decide on, so a part-time job is probably out of the question for him. He's annoyed with how his company is handling the whole thing. He's updating his resume and scouting out what's available in the area, but he isn't sure he plans to jump ship.

That guy I've mentioned before
I had a whole blog post about him nearly ready to go. It was all about the car wreck we were in last weekend while visiting his family. (Yes, another car wreck. Long story short, his car was totaled when the pick-up truck behind us ran into the side of the car as my friend was turning. Fortunately this happened at low speed so all of the people were unscathed. The insurance company will probably find the other guy to be the one at fault, but my friend's car was worth less than $1,500, which wouldn't go terribly far toward getting another vehicle. He's now driving a truck that belongs to his parents since he doesn't have the money saved for a new one.) Then last night he told me that he'd been asked to go to the shop rather than out to the job site he's been working on. Alas, he too has fallen victim of the country's economic woes. His company said they may want him back in summer, when construction generally picks up, but that doesn't do him any good right now.

I can't begin to describe how much I admire how calmly and efficiently he's handing this. My beau went home and immediately began searching for another employer. Within a few hours he'd found one good lead, applied, and been assured that he's be getting word from them tomorrow about whether they're going to consider him further. His emergency fund will get him through a month, but it should last longer than that since he'll be able to draw unemployment benefits, and his parents would certainly help out as a last resort. I do wish I were closer so I could hug him and tell him that everything will be okay, not that he seems to need the reassurance.

I'm starting to work on a plan b for next year. I'm not entirely giving up on the idea of a second year here since I still hold some hope that I'll gain skill and techniques, get more support from TFA and/or my administrators, and be able to continue improving things to the point where I'd feel comfortable staying, but at this point I also need to make sure I have some reasonable alternative. There are still a lot of things I love about teaching (which I probably ought to write about more often), but I don't think this is necessarily where I need to be doing it. All school districts have their problems, but I think I might be better off somewhere where I feel safe in my classroom and have a stable administration. Being closer to family and having a life outside being a teacher would probably also work wonders for my state of mind. So I've inquired about what I'd need to do to switch over to the state non-traditional licensure program and start seeking employment elsewhere next year, registered for the last test I'd need to be eligible to teach all science and math course from grades 7-12 to make myself more marketable, started looking at online listings, and plan to talk to a trusted mentor who teaches in the area where I'd be job seeking (my junior high math teacher, actually) about what I should be doing when I do start to apply.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Early morning musings after a bad day at school

I'm trying to start thinking of my job as, well, a job. There's this belief in our society that teachers should be motivated solely by altruism and the joys of spending their days surrounded by charming children. Within TFA, we're supposed to be crusaders righting the moral wrongs inherent in our country's separate and unequal educational system one classroom at a time. Despite the occasional lectures on work-life balance, it's pretty clear that we're to live and breathe student achievement for two years.

However, this leaves a lot of people feeling that we're utter failures. Maybe we are. I have some kids I'm really proud of, but overall, this seems increasingly like a losing battle. My seventh hour students are finally kicking it into gear and half of them made A's or B's on my last exam, but almost everyone in first hour scored below a 50% on the same test. One of my friends at school has confided that right now about 2/3 of his students are failing his class and he suspects that only a handful will pass the state end of course exam.The last time we went over the data from our region's corps members at ProSat, 19% of us were on track to meet TFA's criteria for significant gains this school year. That isn't the sort of statistic they put in the recruiting materials.

If I let this become my life, it will kill me. I've got to work on detachment, on forcing myself to think of getting up and going to school as something I do, at least in part, to earn my bread. I want to do a good job, but thinking that it's a moral failing on my part when I can't motivate students to do their homework isn't actually a useful mindset when trying to figure out how to improve my teaching.