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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Teacher's epiphany - and long overdue at that!

Forgive me dear readers, for this extraordinarily long post. But I do hope you will read it and share your thoughts. The academic year is coming to a close, and I have a story and personal revelation to share. Ok, you're already snoozing, eh? Zzzzzzzzzz. ;)

This academic year, I taught two sections of a year-long, integrated reading and writing course. I very quickly, within weeks of the fall semester starting, dubbed one section my “class from hell.”

And I worked like hell to win them, to convince them to buy into the learning process, to step up to the plate, to abandon high school behaviors, and to become members of the academic community. This is no different, in many ways, than the work I do with any other “remedial” class - that is the task of the teacher in the first few weeks. And in past semesters, I have succeeded quite nicely in that first, crucial step. But not this time around.

I won my class from hell over only to lose them within days. It became a constant battle. I would win and lose them repeatedly over the course of the first semester. That semester, I had a 6-week observer, who was impressed with how I worked with this difficult class. Quite frankly, so was I. But they exhausted me.

By the end of last semester, I felt I had actually convinced them to step up consistently – I thought I had won them over, finally. I was wrong.

When we returned, after the winter break, the class regressed. And not just back to where they had been at beginning of the fall semester – but even further back. And I began the heavy lifting of getting them back again.

What a frustrating experience! I was investing all this time and effort, and only a few students were responding. The others kept throwing monkey wrenches into the process. I began to take it personally (never a good sign). And I began to really resent that I was investing more time and energy, on both an intellectual and emotional level, than my students. Yet still I persisted.

These last few weeks, as we move rapidly to the academic year’s conclusion, I have been eagerly awaiting the end, anticipating my freedom. And I’ve grown increasingly short-tempered and impatient with not only my class from hell, but my other class as well. I am burnt out and resentful of one class, and those feelings are slopping over into the other class.

Today, I had an epiphany. I should have had it long ago. This moment of truth was of course triggered by a student in my class from hell.

My class from hell runs 2 hours and 20 minutes, but today we started an hour late – something which the students were apprised of on Tuesday. And today was a peer review day - - in pairs, students read and critique their essays, providing each other with feedback. My policy is that if you miss peer review day, arrive quite late, or come unprepared, your essay grade is lowered by one grade. Students make a commitment to their partner to be there – if you’re not there, your partner is left out in the cold – without anyone to review her essay.

Even though class starts an hour late and there is, theoretically, no other place the students need to be, four students show up 5 – 15 minutes late. I start peer review on time though – reassigning pairs based on who is present.

One student, let’s call her Cindy, arrives a half hour late. I’ve already rolled her partner into another group (creating a group of three instead of two).

Cindy is stuck reviewing her essay on her own – I won’t impose on another group by adding a new and late member.

At the end of class, I ask Cindy to stay to talk. She was already at risk for failing the class any way, but she has really shot herself in the foot today. Because of her extremely late arrival on peer review day, her essay grade is automatically lowered by one whole grade. Cindy, of late, has not been writing passing essays to begin with, despite tutoring (which she is not really attending) and despite conferencing with me (she doesn’t follow up my feedback in conference, i.e., she doesn’t revise).

I explain to Cindy the damage she has done to herself today. She has a better chance of failing the class than passing it. She has been trying for a week to get out of coming to the class final next week. She realizes that even if she writes a C paper, the grade will be lowered and with this No Pass, she will fail the course, thus making her attendance at the final completely irrelevant.

The final paper is due next Tuesday. The final is that Friday. She asks me if I will grade her paper immediately and email her on Wednesday – letting her know if she has a passing grade, because if she doesn’t, she might as well skip the final.

Are you kidding me? I think this, but don't say it, of course.

I have spent the semester prodding, cajoling, and chasing not only Cindy, but half the class. I have met with her numerous times, responded to her emails, and helped her above and beyond the call of duty. I have twisted myself upside down and inside out trying to reach this class of extraordinarily reluctant and immature students. And this is the break point, finally. This is the epiphany.

She is fucking out of her mind.

But it is my own fault. I have set this up by caring more about her work than she has.

No, I tell her. I won’t begin grading the last essays until after the final. The final is mandatory, and skipping the final could cause her to fail the class. However, she is an adult and can make her own choices.

She sighs. Flips her hair, says, “Oh alright then” in a rude and saucy tone, and leaves the classroom.

The lesson for me is clear. As God as my witness, never, ever again, will I invest more time, effort, and emotion into a student’s learning than the student does herself.

And now, on to a pleasant bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, a chicken breast roasted with rosemary, garlic, and olive oil, and a lovely salad of red leaf lettuce, radish, blue cheese, and pine nuts. I think I will even smoke a bowlful, play the Grateful Dead (perhaps one of the August 1984 shows from the Greek Theater in Berkeley), and watch the cars drive up and down my street from the balcony.

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Blogger Little Lamb said...

It must be frustrating to be a teacher, but you do seem to care about your students.

May 10, 2007 8:11 PM  
Blogger she said...

i agree with your epiphany proclamation and think it wise. but i also think it will be hard to stick with as the next new group comes in. hope will spring eternal and you will give it your all. we talked about this before but some students will need to fail before it sinks in that their education isnt a joke. now your evening...that sounds like a winner. *deep long breath*

May 11, 2007 5:47 AM  
Anonymous CJ said...

June Greek Theater shows 1985 would be far more soothing....
Take it from Juan who knows....

May 11, 2007 2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

LL: yeah - i care too much - but not anymore. now i'll just care enough!

she: hah - i enforced my new-found boundaries today. cindy showed up a half hour late for a conference. and i simply told her, ï'm so sorry. because you're late, i have no time to meet with you now." hahahahaha - how liberating. put me in a very good mood and helped me focus my attention on the next three students who streamed into my office.

CJ: June 1985? hmmm..perhaps I'll listen to that show tonight - have to check if i've got it. i listened to 84 çause i was there - fond memories. i worried everyone i sat near as i was about three weeks away from delivery date of my son. (and i was HUGE! - at least two basketballs in front of me - hahaha). don't worry readers - i was drug and alcohol free - of course!


May 11, 2007 3:21 PM  
Blogger she said...

excellent news then! im pro good-mood.
(no rulers on the knuckles)

May 11, 2007 9:03 PM  
Blogger Jack K. said...

You care enough to want each student to realize their potential and fulfill it. Unfortunately, they don't always share the same view. It would be interesting to learn why Cindy cares so little about herself.

If you can continue to show a positive, upbeat view of their worth you will be surprised at how infectious that can be. Do not allow them to set themselves up for failure. They will any way but they know that you will be on their ass when they do.

I have to do this with many of my real estate students. Whenever they ask what will happen if they don't pass one or both of the required exams, I flat ass tell them that is not an option. They have to begin to believe in themselves. By setting the example of believing in yourself and believing in them, you are setting the right tone.

However, I also realize that they will do what they damned well please. So, set the rules and then follow them. You're late, no meeting/grade, etc.

You might want to rethink the idea of naming them the class from hell. They will live up/down to the expectations.

Teaching is fun. Don't let the bastards grind you down.

flap, flap, swoosh is right.

May 11, 2007 10:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i would never wrap she on the knuckles nor even hit her with a rolled-up newspaper. now, k9, i might have - hahahahahaha! ;) (oh, i think i did once!)

jack- of course, i never called my class the class from hell in front of them - and i also tried to treat them with love and respect - though i am sure as the weeks wore on (and on and on) they sensed my impatience and frustration).

individually, many of them were wonderful. as a group - they sucked. nonetheless, i had two students that were able to excell. most students are passing the course, and several are failing. but had the class as a whole not been so extraordinarily immature, we could have covered far more ground. i spent far too much of class time managing behaviors. i chose college over high school to avoid the behavior issues. this class was more immature than the high schoolers i taught last summer - and they were also surprisingly manipulative. sigh.

on a brighter note, i just finished calcaltuing grades for a class at another school, and although a few students failed, it was a pleasure to total up their grades and write personal notes to them all- they were troopers and worked hard. and they deserved the extra work i put into them. they returned the energy and dedication - thus quite a few earned As, and even the ones that failed moved themselves forward just a bit more.

flapping away now in to the dark night...

May 12, 2007 12:09 AM  
Blogger Infinitesimal said...



I know a bit of your pain

I taught at a school of "rejects" for a year.
The real "bad" kids that were incapable of learning according to other teachers.

They were maybe a bit easier, than your class... because they still had some of the kid left in them, they were all 15-18

And I also then tutored at a place that only accepted at risk kids who were literally begging to be let in. Their policy was to only allow an interview if the kid made 2 follow up calls after the application. If there were no follow up calls, the kid was not serious and they did not consider him/her.

I learned from that place, exactly your epiphany, do not give, but provide.

does that make sense?

I dunno.
But I sigh in solidarity with you.

Have a nice Summer!!
Maybe the next semester will be more mature.

May 12, 2007 7:47 PM  
Blogger Infinitesimal said...

I saw one of my old students today inside of the subway in walmart (um, my friend needed ONE automotive supply thingy)
anyway, he also wanted coffee,
she was making sandwiches alongside her baby daddy. They had just got an apartment, she said she hated the job. She looked like she finally understood why it was important to have finished highschool.

I just finished my homework BTW teach.

and am waaaay overtired.

May 13, 2007 2:39 AM  
Blogger Mrs. B said...


I am so sorry that they taxed you so badly. I am in the same boat, although with high school seniors. My entire department is trying to rid these "kids" of their childish, rude, and manipulative behavior. Sadly, I work in a district that still calls 18-year-old a "child."

Until the schools start treating the students like adults, they will refuse to act like adults.

I know that next semester will be better for you, and you will probably have many epiphanies, but that is the life of a teacher.

May 15, 2007 9:30 PM  
Blogger Aunty Belle said...

Ah, Sweet Bird Beauty...I'se grieved fer ya'---know that it taxes ever'tahng when ya give 1000% they give a fig.

Looky, darlin' Aunty knows somepin':
an earned failure is very instructive. If ya fail early enough, ya learn how to avoid it fer the long haul. Ya done right, Birdy.

Will soon post Eye-talian photos...

May 20, 2007 9:24 AM  
Blogger onandon said...

I think you may have recognised the beginnings of 'burn out'. I think that is far more important..and your epiphany of course.

My son teaches in South Korea. He teaches university students who need English to get the job they want.
He says he never ever does more than is necessary. After all it is their life, future and desire that is at stake. He will be paid anyway...(he tells them)..so if they want to work, he will help them...if not...shrug.

For those who care it is hard..but a necessary point to reach so you can be there for those who do want it badly.

You are a wonderful teacher..not only to those students but to we who read you.

May 20, 2007 6:11 PM  
Blogger Jack K. said...

bird, teaching is a wonderful experience. Actually you are only helping folks discover what they already know. The problem is that they do not know that.

As long as you can keep a positive attitude and don't let them pursue a negative view of life, you will have a much better time.

It drives me nuts when my students seem to be programming themselves for failure. i.e., what happens if I fail one or both of the required tests?

I really get after them when they do that. They know that I am coming a from a loving perspective. One of the first things I let them know about is that one must serve others, care about those you serve and share the love in your heart. When I believe that, I live that. I am absolutely positive that you do too, by virtue of the posts you write. Like this one.

Thanks for being there for them they will appreciate it later.

Remember also that life is all about choices and consequences. We do our best and they will do what they damned well please. You gotta love it.

May 21, 2007 9:53 PM  

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