Tag Archives: beginning of new school year

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: August 29, 2017

putnam

One of my favorite words in the English language is the word “penultimate.” It’s a great word. And this school year I will likely overuse it. Consider yourself forewarned.

Today began the (sort of) first day of the (maybe) penultimate school year of my teaching career. I say “sort of” in light of the fact that this typical first day for teachers (the week before students arrive) was preceded by one full day of staff development the week before, and then almost three days of professional development the week before that. So today was “sort of” my first day back after this exceedingly short summer, shortened by snow day make-ups on the front end and lots of bonus development on the other end. And I say “maybe” penultimate because it probably is but may not be; hence, the ambiguity.

But let me first tell you a little bit about how this day began, and you’ll have to help me to believe that it’s indicative of nothing, because it was, sorry to say, a shitty first day, or at least, a shitty beginning to a first day.

To wit: I have made a personal commitment to bicycle commute as much as I can this year without sacrificing my morning meditation ritual. To facilitate that new commitment I set my alarm clock a whole 20 minutes earlier from where it has been set for as many years as I can remember (2), and I sprung out of bed this morning to enthusiastically meet my new commitment. But when I got downstairs I could first smell and then I saw the horrendous mess our old dog made in the middle of the night–all over the hardwood floors.  Needless to say, I skipped morning meditation. Instead, I cleaned up runny dog shit and mopped floors while cursing.

I made it out the door on time and I did manage to climb on top of the bicycle. I didn’t bike nearly as much this summer as I wanted to. The ride up those two hills was kind of painful. Luckily, and for this reason NOT bicycle commuting is pretty much inexcusable, it’s only about a ten minute ride to work. Mercy of mercies.

I am happy to report that there was no shit to clean up at the school house, so the day could only improve. And mostly, it did. Here’s a list.

  • We met nine new teachers to our building this morning. I think it’s been ten years since we brought on as many new teachers. We had some fun watching one of our administrators play Jimmy Fallon’s Would You Rather game with the newbies.
  • Our principal reviewed for us the various driving forces of our work, namely, the the vision, the mission, the WHY, the HOW, and the WHAT. She told us an interesting story about growing up in Alaska, the point of which, I think, was to illustrate to us how she arrived at her own personal WHY for the work that she does, and how that manifests itself in her commitment to us and to students. It was one of the few times she has ever spoken about her life in this kind of public way. I appreciated that.
  • Another one of our administrators brought us (and all of the new kids) up to speed about why the NIKE corporation is helping us and how. There was the grant. There was the implementation of a thing called AVID. There was a rebranding and new art that turned an ominous armored horseman wielding a lance and charging forward into battle into the more protective metaphor of a simple shield, using the now ubiquitous solidarity slogan of I AM before the abbreviation of our school name. It’s clear now why they preferred the abbreviation to the full deal. As we are named after a dude and not a place, it’s easier perhaps for everyone to identify as RP. I am RP. I am not, necessarily, figuratively or literally, a dude named Rex Putnam.
  • And finally, our Jimmy Fallon administrator came back on to lead us into a deep discussion of what is perceived by our leadership and most of the teachers in the building as one of our biggest problems as a school: student absenteeism. How does it affect us, as teachers? How does it impact student success? Why does it occur? What causes it? What can we do about it? All worthwhile points for discussion and inquiry. No closure possible. No closure expected. All of us are likely frustrated by a general sense about this serious problem that we lack agency to make a difference. Too many variables out of our control. We have our classrooms, our spaces, our attitudes, the way that we express to our charges that we want them there, that we will do our best for them, that we care about their lives.
  • And then back to our rooms for a half day of individual preparation. For me, that meant getting my computer back, getting my speakers hooked up, listening to music, cleaning, moving the tables and chairs into place after getting them unstuck from the freshly and beautifully waxed floors, looking at a syllabus or two, recycling some old crap, having a little lunch with a couple of colleagues, helping my teacher friend across the hall adjust her crazy desk, learning about the Hood to Coast relay race from another teacher friend, uncovering the mysteries of two missing English teachers (one totally explicable and the other totally not), and then finally, getting back on my bicycle for a ride home in 100 degree heat. I’m not joking about that. It was 100 degrees out.

I will call that a day.

The first day. Sort of.

Of the penultimate school year of my teaching career. Maybe.

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The Going-Back-To-Work Blues Is A Real Thing

back-to-school

20 blog entries later, and the summer break comes to a close. Teachers report back to their schools in my district on Monday. Time to take stock. Time to look ahead. It’s been a strong summer. I blogged, I wrote fiction, became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church, agreed to marry a couple of former students, taught my son to ride a bike independently, took a trip to the beach, a couple of weekend camping trips, writers camp in Moraga, California, attended my 30th high school class reunion, watched two seasons of The Walking Dead, one season of Orange Is The New Black, recorded vocals for the new Here Comes Everybody album, helped my wife paint the bathroom, and did some reading. No, I did not finish Moby Flipping Dick. But I did finish a novel by my friend Rob Yardumian, The Sounds of Songs Across the Water, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and a book by another friend, perhaps the best book on the writing life since the famous one by Annie Dillard, Joan Frank’s Because You Have To: A Writer’s Life, oh, and I drank some good bourbon.

It’s been, I suppose, a relatively busy, productive, satisfying summer.  Partly because of this, perhaps, because I’d love it to continue on forever, I am now coming to terms with a serious case of the going-back-to-work blues. I suspect even if my summer was not nearly so stellar I’d feel it nonetheless. The beginning of the new school year has always been bittersweet.  On the sweet side, the rhythm of the school year gives a structure to life once again, because, as I wrote about earlier regarding the summertime blues, unstructured time can be the surest way into the pit. I’m anxious to see my colleagues again, lucky and blessed as I am to work in a school where I am hard pressed to think of anything negative to say about a single soul who works there.  I mean, to be honest, I could do it, but it would be a stretch, and it would be minor stuff, never anything that makes being there anything but pleasant and happy.  And, with new systems and revised curricula and strategies, each year brings with it a healthy dose of adventure, novelty, and thrill. Finally, I’ll end the list of sweet stuff and begin the list of bitter stuff with the same item: it’s always a wild ride to meet so many brand new human beings who will now become a huge part of my life for the next 9 months.  You never know what you’re going to get.

Because for the past two years or so I have taught 11th graders and only 11th graders, when I go into the classroom on the first days of the new school year, I will be faced with nearly 200 individual students that I have never met before in my life.  So I would say that the thing that creates the going-back-to-work blues for me more than any other thing is this sense, a very real sense, of the monumental task I am about to undertake.  The amount of energy or gumption or confidence (and maybe skill) it takes to acquaint yourself with and direct the intellectual habits of 200 brand new human beings–and sustain that over a nine month period–is daunting, to say the very least.  That kind of power, if harnessed, could perhaps solve the energy crisis. Just wire up a bunch of teachers to the grid, man.  Problem solved.

I’ve got to learn all my students’ names.  I should like to know something about them.  I need to find out what makes them tick.  I need to figure out which ones of this group of 200 are on top of their skills and which ones will need extra help.  I need to assess which ones will be allies and which ones of them will be, not enemies, never enemies, but something like, uh, I don’t know, let me start over.  Which of them will be allies and which of them will provide particular challenges? I need to build a “community of learners,” supportive, respectful, safe, comfortable, and committed to the task at hand.  But then there’s this pesky thing called a curriculum.  I wouldn’t turn up my nose at any teacher who spends a full two weeks (which in our district is five 87 minute periods) doing nothing but community building activities.  But we can’t afford that kind of time!  With furlough days continuing to shorten our school year and absolutely no lightening of the load (in fact the load has become heavier than it has ever been and the stakes higher than ever), we’ve got to hit the ground running.

So, perhaps by October I will know all of their names.  I will never be able to pronounce some of their last names.  When we have our first parent teacher conferences toward the end of Autumn, I will be terrified of not being able to place students in my mind’s eye when the parent tells me their names.  In March, I guarantee you that I will mortify some student by calling him or her by the wrong name. And then next fall, when I see some of these kids for the first time after another lovely summer break, their names will have escaped me.  This is the reality.  I wish it were otherwise–because I believe in the core of my teacher heart that the surest way to help a student academically is to KNOW a student personally and meaningfully, and this is especially true of the students who need extra help.  The kids who are good at being students would be successful in spite of or despite almost anything I do. But the kids who struggle need me–but they don’t know it–and they will hide from me, try to disappear, and some of them will be successful at this–because in that single class of 35 kids amongst a teacher/student ratio of one to nearly 200, it’s easy to do.

So my going-back-to-work blues has to do with a certain amount of anxiety about how difficult the job is and how mentally and emotionally exhausting it can sometimes be, and also with not just a tiny bit of stage-fright.  A reality of the teaching profession, I think, even for veteran teachers, especially for those who care about doing a credible job, is that those first days are kind of scary.  And I think the thing that gets me through that fear every time is the knowledge and deep belief that what I am doing is the best thing I can do.  I am one of the lucky few that has found a profession that is rewarding, invigorating, challenging, and profoundly important.  So, despite the blues, which, as I’ve said, are hardly completely blue, I say to the new school year and to my colleagues and to my 200 brand new charges: bring it on, baby.

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