A good year

I am having a good year (I guess) and promised to write a post. The problem with me specifically writing about a good year is it is grounded in what were some really bad years, long before the pandemic, and don’t want to become mired in contrasts. But perhaps it’s embedded in the comparisons and contrasts that we can further our conversations about what it means to have a good year in our careers. Because, right now, sure ain’t it for most of the public school teachers. And while I have no advice, I can hold space and recognize the nightmare of our times. This is just what I’ve managed to do, and some days it’s not enough, and some days it is.

Context: This is my sixteenth year teaching, my third at an alternative/credit recovery high school in Washington State. I am endorsed in ELA, SS, ELL, and Visual Arts. The first year I was there was great — my first year flexing my EL/ML endorsement (English/Multiple Language), and the staff seemed receptive. Because of the size of the school, they had an EL district leader come in about once a month to do the paperwork and check in on students. My principal then hired me to be a full-time EL teacher. Yeah! Fresh start! Brought my usual exuberance, expertise, and enthusiasm. (Insert record scratch.) The second year was the building closure due to COVID, and everything turned…weird. But we went back into the building in April 2020, and one thing that happened was in the two graduating years I had influence over the EL/Hispanic populations, the graduation rates soared, something like 10% to 45%. This is a direct correlation to the work I put in place in the building, in spite of many teachers pushing back hard to allow me to support EL students. I just rolled up my sleeves, shut the door, and did the work in my room. More on this later.

This year, with the building open, I still have to do the work in my room. I started teaching a Drawing class last year remotely, and it was, well, actually pretty fun. This year in person it’s also been one of the highlights of my day. My admin bought out my planning, and since we teach four classes a day w/70 minute blocks, I honestly don’t need planning time (and haven’t in years). I was also an ASB facilitator last year and this year, but my admin just sent me a message it’ll be someone else next year because they’re adding a leadership class. (Yes, I have a few things to say about this–I begged all year to have meeting times with ASB, but alas– and also just found out a colleague had no idea it was me who set up all the drive-through goody giveaways the year the building was closed.)

So–those are the mechanics of the day.

Here is what works:

  1. Small Class Sizes
  2. Longer class periods
  3. Four classes a day
  4. Quarter system
  5. Drawing, Woodshop, Jewelry, Health, Life on Your Own, and next year Personal Finance as a math credit
  6. Weekly PLCs that include intervention discussions
  7. An amazing admin who sees what is happening and does her best to address inequities

Here is what doesn’t work (and why):

  1. Small Class Sizes– due to a great deal of absenteeism, the culture of the classroom is challenging to gain momentum in discussions, continuity, and transference of skills and learning.
  2. Longer class periods: some staff does not fill up the longer time with any breaks, brain breaks, or just time to sit and talk. Students congregate in the bathrooms, and this has caused the usual disruptions and tension in the building.
  3. Four classes a day: this is actually pretty cool – but I can see in other buildings this would not be sustainable. Even with alternating schedules, teenage brains struggle with maintaining their pre-frontal cortex thinking about their time. But because we change on the quarter, students work towards credit quickly, often graduating early.
  4. Quarter system: a few teachers feel forced to squeeze in a semester’s worth of curriculum/content into a quarter. This has resulted in an abundance of worksheets or embedding one day’s assignment with multiple parts. I feel this is a wasted opportunity–teachers should be doing one to two PBL units per quarter.
  5. Drawing, Woodshop, Jewelry, Health, Life on Your Own, and next year Personal Finance as a math credit–students love these classes, and wish there was more of a guild approach to these crafts.
  6. Weekly PLCs that include intervention discussions–I have some colleagues who take up a lot of oxygen in the PLCs, so yes, it’s personal.
  7. Admin can’t do everything.

Within my control:

Let’s start with what is not in my control: what other colleagues do. I’m too new to the district and the building and mutual trust were shredded just a wee bit during the closure.

I can/do:

Some discussion questions from All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Keily
  • Ask students what other academic language they are learning about in their other content areas
  • Provide structured time in my ELA class to allow them to work on other assignments (since they don’t get to come into my check/connect structured time — long story)
    • The structure is me providing the reading skills and strategies in real-time — the benefit of small classes
    • I never ask if they need help — the answer will always be no. I just jump in. (Years of retail customer service taught me this.)
  • Provide space and time for discussions, even with one or two students
    • These discussions are captured and shared with students who are absent
    • Take the stance I am a student in the class and what would help me learn the material
  • Provide a wide range of questions and scaffolds
  • Provide grading policies that are equitable, clear, and sustainable
  • Teach them how to read (yes)
  • Embed word study and context clues in conversations
  • But most of all: I craft and create my own curriculum. I give myself projects that will serve the students in front of me. I will formalize my Burning Questions and Box of Destiny units someday. Someday.

Someday.

What I miss and long for:

I do sometimes wish I taught ELA in a comprehensive high school. Just — teach all that I know about reading, writing, and creativity. I do that now, and it’s also okay to recognize I miss larger classes, impacting more humans, and just stretching my craft versus covering others’ holes. Because while I feel and do some pretty cool things, often I feel regarded as something ‘lesser’ –just like some teachers see ML students — with a deficit mindset.

But I can’t care what others do or don’t do. And that’s really the key, isn’t it? And the tragedy. Because until teachers truly come together and agree on students’ humanity, it will be left to a small number of teachers in buildings doing the work. I have always relied on myself to create the mental space where I dwell, sometimes to my emotional harm or health.

And finally – just stopping once in a while and buying a handmade candle or hanging with my friend, Sharon.

Sometimes this is as good as it gets.

Leave a Reply