Monday, September 7, 2009

My first second year.

And so here I am. After an employment scare and a restful summer, I’ve returned to the same school to continue my venture as a high school English teacher. No longer can I claim the status of First-Year Teacher, which often and conveniently followed the phrase, “I don’t know.” This past June, it was seemingly clear to me that I would not return to the same school, if any school at all. There were simply not enough jobs to offer me a new one—the standard is that first- and second-year teachers are given what is called a “provisional” contract (or often more accurately known as a “limited” contract). The contract is designed to last one year and no longer. Normally, if an administration likes a young teacher, they are able to offer them a new contract when the initial one expires, without much of a struggle. But with national budgets that inform state budgets that inform school district budgets that inform school budgets—there just wasn’t any more money. As the school year disintegrated and stumbled into summer, I was met, a bit uncomfortably, with good-luck wishes, a few tears, and even a student-led petition advocating for my future return to the school. All of this was extremely flattering and humbling, but in the end, only made my leaving that much more difficult. A summer of fretting and nail biting lay ahead. Thankfully, however, after many dominoes fell, a job was made available and I was offered a new position at the same school. There was much rejoicing.

And now my job is secure. Until June. I have a bigger classroom. I have a working pencil sharpener. I’m closer to the office, the coffee maker in the teacher’s lounge, and the nice, clean staff restrooms. But the problem with being closer to everything is just that: I’m closer to everything. My room is on the main thoroughfare, easily accessible to principals, assistant principals, visiting school board members and superintendents. Anyone looking to “drop in.” Needless to say, the pressure is on.

Teachers and students have shared kind words, expressing their relief or joy to have me back on the team. Unfortunately, all the positive attention is, at times, more frightening than it is helpful. Have I created the image of an exceptional teacher? Have I fooled everybody? Need I remind everybody that I was a rookie a few months ago? Couldn’t I start the year off with the lowest of expectations? When it comes down to it, I don’t deserve any accolades or hyperbolic statements about my abilities as a teacher. There isn’t much I could point to last year that could be mistaken for exceptional teaching. Most kids ended up getting along, many passed. Some even enjoyed a book or two. Though I know there is pressure to follow through, I hope nobody realizes that I still have no clue what I’m doing. I’ve been given an amazing opportunity: hired back in favor of teacher applicants who have far longer résumés and much more experience than I do, into a school community that I love and feel immeasurably lucky to belong to. I assure you that a first second year is much better than a second first.

As the returning students file in on the first day, I can’t help but be emotional. The reality of my place in life is frightening to me. To have a career in which the young minds of others are entrusted to me is a responsibility I have trouble stomaching. To have a career where intimacy is built, whether willingly or reluctantly, day in and day out, in a way that few other careers allow frightens me as well. At this point of my life to have any career at all is terrifying. I do my best to force these thoughts away or at least cover them up with the stacks of new schedules and syllabi on my front table, still warm and smelling of toner. I have the privilege of teaching many of the same students I taught last year and I can’t help but feel like I’ve played some tragic prank on them by announcing my departure last spring and then standing before them this fall. Regardless, most of them greet me warmly. Some are taller. Some are much taller. A few have new elaborate layers of make-up, and many have comically dark tans. New hairstyles, new clothes. Some are unrecognizable. Some have the same clothes. The same hairstyles. The same looks of pride or shame or fear or isolation.

Some are thrilled to be back. To many, the school is some reality television show in which they are each a star. They brag about their summers, their families, their friends, their shoes. Everything is big and grand. For others, this place is prison. They carry the weight of a broken parole – some mix-up that landed them back in after three months of joyous freedom. Either way, they are all firmly aware of the fact that they are no longer freshmen. Last year, I constantly reminded them that it was my first year in high school, just as it was theirs. We were in it together. None of us knew where anything was or where the cool tables were at lunch or where to get a yearbook or who to ask about stuck lockers. We were in the same boat. But now they know unequivocally that they are in no way, shape, or form, freshmen. It can’t hold them back or be an excuse. It gives them freedom, but also trepidation. They are no longer at the bottom of the food chain. No longer “first-years.” As each class begins on the first day, I assure them that a first second year is much better than a second first year.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Winter Vacation #1

Part of being a new teacher in my district is going to a certain amount of new teacher support group “classes,” where seasoned veterans talk to you like an elementary school student and tell you what you are doing wrong. The meetings are once a month and include all first year teachers in the district (from Kindergarten through High School). Most of the time, these classes devolve into complaining sessions muttered under-breath or whispered out of the sides of mouths.

The last of these meetings involved a photocopied packet that explained the “Phases Of First-Year Teaching.” We were to read the packet and with our table groups, discuss which phase we were currently in. According to the California New Teacher Project, there are five phases (a similar format to the well known five stages of grief). These phases are labeled as the Anticipation Phase, the Survival Phase, the Disillusionment Phase, Rejuvenation, and Reflection.

The Anticipation Phase is self-explanatory. This occurs during student teaching, where future teachers romanticize about the profession. They start off idealistic and are committed to making a difference. Full of hope. This phase is supposed to last through the first few weeks of a teacher’s first year. The Survival Phase occurs when the first month becomes overwhelming. Teachers scramble to learn everything they can as fast as possible. Once the reality sets in, teachers become overwhelmed with the day-to-day business of teaching and spend all their free time planning and grading papers. Because it is their first year, teachers in this phase don’t have previous lesson plans and find themselves drafting entire units from scratch, sometimes daily. According to our handout, teachers in this phase maintain a high level of energy, although they feel overwhelmed.

Next is the Disillusionment Phase. This is supposed to kick in after six or eight weeks. This is where new teachers question their competence and commitment, and they have to deal with parent conferences, administrative evaluations, and a significant drop in self-esteem. This, fortunately, is followed by the Rejuvenation Phase, which takes place after Winter Vacation. According to the article, teachers are able to get back to a normal life on their vacation and accept the realities of teaching. The final stage is Reflection. This occurs in May. It’s a time to look back and see what worked and didn’t. It’s a gateway into a new Anticipation Phase. You see, it’s cyclical.

After reading about my scheduled phases, I was unable to determine which stage I was in, if any. Honestly, I go through all five of these stages daily. At some points of the day I feel disillusioned and frustrated. An hour later, I may feel rejuvenated, ready for whatever the students throw at me (literally). Without warning, I can shift into survival mode, just trying to make it to the bell without packing a dry erase marker into the eye socket of a fourteen year old. Soon, I am reflecting and anticipating. Some days I end with disillusionment. Some days I end with hope.

To think that any teacher’s experience can be boiled down to five phases that gradually and steadily unfold between September and June seems too limiting, too short sighted to accurately encompass the experience of being a new teacher. It overlooks the little joys and the tiny tragedies that you have to field minute by minute. It downplays the implacable challenges of truly knowing any student enough to crack the surface, while sticking to the game plan well enough to prepare them for standardized tests. It ignores the battle for rapport and the tension between being stern and being lenient.

I can’t imagine that any other teacher’s experience is just like mine, or mine like theirs. There are teachers that I longingly admire and teachers that I know in my heart I can outdo. In another six months I’ll be able to reflect on my first year as a whole and in six years I’ll be able to have enough context for any reflections to matter. Until then, the phase I’m in is irrelevant. It’s a day to day, minute by minute thing, and right now I’m happy to have a vacation, but even more thrilled that I have this job—this career that’s a mere four months old.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


In the six or more years that have passed since I have last experienced the spectacle that is a high school dance, I have all but forgotten the magnitude of these Exhibitions in Awkwardness. The spectrum of attendees is striking: students who look like they could be no more than twelve years old, wiry and draped in dress clothes, stumble through groups of teenagers that look like they could be thirty, with thick goatees and broad shoulders. The girls run the gamut too. Some are dressed casually, and some, for the lack of more eloquent words—let it all hang out. Some spend frightening amounts of time and money on hair, make-up, and dresses built for one-time usage.

While it’s been a fair amount of time since my last school dance, and I haven’t missed them at all, I agreed to chaperone Homecoming.

When I arrive, fifteen minutes early, crowds of students have already begun to crowd outside the cafeteria in the cold. Apparently some of the students were there as much as an hour and a half before the dance, when the sun was still in the sky. It’s now dark. And cold. Girls are wearing their dates’ jackets and everyone can see their breath.

Once inside, I’m told to simply make sure everything runs smoothly. The two rules for the dance had already been made clear to the students: “Bend over and your night’s over,” and “Face to face, leave some space.” A single bank of fluorescent lights has been left on, to assist with crowd control. In the dark corner, the DJ is warming up. Elaborate lights flash and bass-heavy electronic music thumps from the walls of speakers. Lonely tufts of balloons are tied to chairs sporadically around the perimeter of the room. One of the first students to enter the building walks swiftly and directly to the balloons, pulls one down by its ribbon, and begins sucking the helium deep into his lungs.

Slowly, the night picks up speed. The floor of the cafeteria becomes steadily crowded and almost everyone complains about the DJ, a baby-faced white guy in his early thirties, with his hair jelled to a crisp, a hairy chin, soul patch, and a pressed dress shirt, unbuttoned a little too far. He plays R&B and hip-hop from the early 90s, obscure remixes, and awkward modern rock songs. A revolt is eminent. During yet another unfamiliar song, the DJ stops the song and brusquely barks into his microphone, “Alright! Someone just threw something at my head! If anyone throws anything again, this dance is over!” Students laugh through the entire speech.

Eventually, things get better. Dancing spreads throughout the room, and the entire population has physically shifted to the dark half of the cafeteria, like vampires poisoned by the light. Students smile wide as they awkwardly dance much too close to one another. Teachers laugh and some step in to enforce dancing rules and regulations. The majority of the attendees stay until the end. If anything, the energy continues a steady growth until the DJ announces that time is up and the dance is over. Many students boo the announcement and plead for more music. Some beg for it.

The lights come on to reveal sweaty shirts, ties undone, meticulously coiffed hair fallen on foreheads, and much more hand holding than took place just hours before. By the end of the night, I realize that although a high school dance is nothing like what I might consider a good time, the feeling in the muggy cafeteria is nearly unanimous. Feet hurt and the air is stifling, but everyone is smiling.

As I lean on the heavy door and push my way outside, I’m met with crisp and dry Fall air and a parking lot full of parents waiting for their kids to get in the car so they can finally go home. I make contact with several of the wide eyes that surround me. Students ignore car horns. Girls teeter precariously on high heels and guys either stick together or look sheepishly at the concrete with their hands in their pockets, waiting for whatever comes next. Regardless of the context, I know the feeling they are fighting. No matter how trivial the night’s events, they soak it in and hope it never ends.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Stocking Up On Sick Days.

Most of my autumns are sustained by Nyquil, Sudafed, Ibuprofen, vegetable beef soup, and peppermint tea. Although I cherish Fall—its colors, scarves, and general crispness (like the first time you see your breath in the air)—my sinuses get thrown on the seasonal altar every year. And year after year, as my throat goes raw and my skull swells, I breathe a sigh of relief. There’s such a palpable comfort that resides in this season. Fall is the season of change—new sweaters and a new box of crayons. A new football season and a new school year. But the same old head cold.

In beginning a new career, I would hardly expect that perennial nuisance to leave me be. So, a few weeks into the school year, I’m hit hard with pained sinuses and a general fogginess about my head. In the past, when I’ve been sick, I’ve been able to zombie my way through class or work. Now, on the other hand, faking it has become harder and harder. My attention span is significantly stunted when my head is full. The odds of spacing out are drastically heightened. Sound and vision become increasingly smeared beyond recognition. Everything becomes a tired blur and I feel like I’m living behind cellophane.

All of this compounds itself into a messy ball of muddled frustration and fatigue as one student walks briskly up to me ten minutes before the first bell. He comes out of nowhere, like an ADD-ridden apparition. His oversized black hoodie is faded and he pulls the sleeves over his hands, sometimes chewing on the stretched cotton. His close-shaved head glistens in the morning. His eyebrows are high on his forehead and his dark eyes bulge and dart about the classroom.

“What we doin’ today, Powers? Huh? Nothin’? Good! HAHA! Jus’ kiddin’!”

His face is an intimate matter of inches from mine. I blink lethargically and my dry mouth makes a smacking sound. “Um…” I close my eyes and squint hard.

“Seriously though, Mr. Powers, what are we doing?!” His “Mr. Powers” sounds more like “missapows” when he spits it out breathlessly.

His boisterously nasal voice squeezes its way into my right ear and sloshes around a bit, but mostly ricochets through the empty classroom, directionless and muffled. The heat vent on the ceiling is pouring hot air over me in slow motion, and I feel like my entire body is red and throbbing. I look at the blank and empty whiteboard, where the day’s schedule can usually be found and blink again.

“Hey! How come we can’t have like jus’ three classes? I’d go to P.E., English, no wait…” He counts it out on his long fingers. “I’d go like, P.E. and English and Science. No, wait. P.E., English, NO Science, and, and…”

His voice trails off as I notice another student with an anticipatory look on her face.

She asks, “Can I get what I missed?”

Blink. Blink.

“Can I get my work I missed?”

“Um, what work? When were you gone?” I rub my eyes under my smeared glasses.

“HELLO!? POWERS! I was suspended, remember? I was gone? I need my work?

“Yeah, l’m… let me check...”

As I sit down at my dusty and outdated computer, awkwardly tilting the screen, I strain to remember her name. Jessica, no. Jennifer. No, wait. Lupe?? Other students file in, as the school day approaches. The bell rings.

“Can you ask me later? I can get it for you later…”

Being sick is an easy excuse to use. People tend not to argue with it. People use the excuse every day. It’s used to get out of work, family gatherings, awkward dinner parties, and other unwanted engagements. But for the first time in my life, being sick is genuinely affecting what I do. At the end of the day, if I don’t feel healthier, I can honestly say that I haven’t done my best. That bothers me more than anything. The frustration of not being able to excel at something is far more distressing than the frustration of knowing I haven’t tried my hardest. The wall that being sick builds around me actually gets in the way of a job that requires me to be frenzied and frantic. There are elements, of course, that are still manageable. Some aspects of teaching seem to come so natural at times. Yet the minutia of teaching—the housekeeping and bookkeeping and jarring surprises—make me feel like I’m spinning plates (a task made increasingly difficult with a head full of mucus). The scary thing is that I don’t know if I will notice if a plate drops while my back is turned.

Some days are better than others, but it is clear that I need to find new ways to stay healthy. More hand washing, more vitamins, more juice, more sleep. Sometimes these needs manifest in the form of more coffee, more sleeping in, more getting to work later than planned, and more unplanned evening naps.

Regardless of my health or stamina—whether I like it or not—students will learn new words, copy their friend’s homework, fight for a 4.0, skip class, get dumped, fall in love, bring pot to school, get elected freshmen class representative, get in fights, dye their hair purple, make the football team, get suspended for bringing pot to school, get new cell phones, break their arm skateboarding, get kicked off the football team, get chosen as the student of the month, and show up way too early to talk incessantly at an unsuspecting and unprepared teacher.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Goodmorning, class.

When the first bell rings at 7:25, I know I have ten minutes until class begins. At this point, I am still taking chairs off of desks, writing directions on the board, or making photocopies in a stuffy, windowless room that smells of toner and hot paper. Otherwise I am picking up miscellaneous trash from the stained and tattered blue classroom carpet—balled-up notes, empty chip bags, and the chewed up, empty caps of ballpoint pens. From wall to wall, the floor is peppered with the white paper strips that get left behind when a sheet is torn from a spiral notebook. Some strips are the full eleven inches. Some are mere centimeters. Invariably though, these nameless nuisances are present like fallen leaves in this new season.

The first student in the room always has an air of disjointed embarrassment about them—as if they are simultaneously ashamed of being first, afraid of looking eager, and confused by the still silence that seems so out of place (especially on a Monday). The reaction of the following four or five students is similar, unless of course, one or more friends accompany them. In this case, the students are often cheerful and carefree. Sometimes however, this lightness abruptly collapses as they enter the classroom and adopt the same embarrassed manner of their peers, as if they have harshly interrupted the sanctity of seven-thirty AM.

This trend steadily shifts as more and more students trickle in. By the time the class is half full, the mood is buoyant and blithe. Naturally, a handful of students slink in slack-jawed and somber, with heads down and eyes half shut, but the general disposition is agreeable. As the babble in the hallway becomes a rushing torrent, I greet as many students as I can—by name if possible. The energy is palpable now, and the torrent becomes a flood. I remind them to take off their hats and hoods, to put away their iPods and phones, to stop shouting, to keep their hands to themselves, to watch their language, to hurry up the bell’s gonna ring!, and that yes, they do need their textbook today.

After periodically checking the glowing red numbers on the digital clock at the back of the room, I take an overanxious gulp of warm black coffee, flatten my tie against my chest with the palm of my hand, and stride to the front on the room just as the electronic bell expels a leisurely five chimes. At this point, I do my best not to sound like a teacher, but every day it happens the same—I take a deep breath, and over the sounds of animated adolescent chatter, I exhale an overanxious and overemphasized, “Goodmoooorrrrrning.”

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Just over a week into my teaching career and I already heave a wealth of stories to tell. Do I "know" what I'm doing? Not yet. Am I "confident" in my strengths and abilities? A little. Am I enjoying myself? So far.

When I initially found out I would be teaching freshmen, I gulped audibly. My palms beaded up with sweat and my face felt hot. Not only are freshmen somewhere around fourteen years old (in dangerously close proximity to the purgatory of Middle School), but I also felt some strange weight of helplessness. I assumed that the glory and the life changing and the truths and verities of American Lit came later in the high school process. While all of these things are most decidedly true, I'm starting to find a great deal of comfort in being a teacher of freshmen.

Being green with inexperience, high school is once again terrifying. I don't know anybody’s name, I don't know where the band room is, and I don't know who can fix your broken locker. Here’s the thing, though: freshmen don’t know anything either. So I share the boat with these folks who were born after Kurt Cobain died. I spend my days with these people to whom Zach Morris is a stranger. So far, so good.