Thank you for reading www.maestrateacher.com! The site is back up and running (thanks to my webmaster Celsito Lopez!). I'm taking this week off from posting but stay tuned for a new post this Sunday!
Happy New Year!
I normally have pretty good control and management in my classroom, which is normally a calm and quiet (ish) learning environment. But, last Friday in my class I suddenly realized I had temporarily lost control. One student was sitting at my computer, looking something up on my computer. A student was chasing another around the classroom. Another was at the supply table, collecting colored pencils for a drawing. One left for the bathroom while another was getting water. Two were writing and drawing all over my white board. My newest student was sitting quietly, observing everything around her. Having come from a remote town in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I could only imagine what she was thinking about American schools.
My students found it really hard to focus that day, though eventually they settled down. I remembered the days when I had 5 classes of 25-30 kids, some of whom wanted to be learning Spanish, and other who were there because their parents made them or their friends were there.There were a lot of great things about teaching Spanish, but classroom management was not one, and motivating students who were not interested wasn't great either.
One of the things I love about teaching ELL is how motivated my students are. My student from the DRC is still a mystery to me in many ways. However, she has "ganas", the desire to learn English and to do well in school. She barely speaks English, yet she has already passed 2 social studies quizzes with 100s.
My student from Central America who is working with a bilingual tutor 4 days a week, 3 hours a day, cried last week because he was learning so much, it made him happy. Coming from an environment where going to school could be a dangerous venture, and where teachers might or might not show up on any given day, he's experiencing what might be the most consistent schooling he's had. He is having to learn everything all at once: how to be a student, how to read, write and do basic math in Spanish AND in English, and adapt to a new school. In one short month, he has made incredible progress but he still has far to go. He does not get discouraged; at least he doesn't appear to. He is slowly coming out of his shell shock,and his favorite class is drama, in which he has one line in a play, and his teacher raves about him. His tutor, though faced with huge gaps, is doing amazing work with him.
Learning all day in another language is exhausting. Existing in another culture is draining. So, if my students sometimes have an off day, it's okay. They make up for it every other day.
I used to think I would be a natural at parenting. And in some ways I am. But there are aspects of parenting that I never thought about. Now I realize that when I thought about having kids, I mostly thought of them as babies, not as babies growing into something else.
I used to think that all the rules I had in my head and the expectations I had for my kids would just be followed, no problem. That’s what I did - for the most part anyway. I used to think that a punishment would be enough to convince my child he or she did something wrong and then they wouldn’t repeat it. Now I know that each child is so different, and each situation has to be looked at differently as well, and that all the rules and expectations I had in my head can mostly be thrown out the window.
I used to think it would be easy, with some bumps in the road. Now I know it’s difficult and mostly bumpy, with some smooth sections. The smooth sections are the ones that make you forget about the bumps.
I used to think I would never, ever let my kids __(fill in the blank here!)__. Now I know there is no way I could have known enough to decide that before my kids were born. Example: my son refused to sleep in his bed, and slept instead on the couch, for almost an entire year. I realized a few weeks into it that while I did not like this fact, it wasn’t so important in the scheme of things. Was he sleeping? Yes. Why should it matter where he slept? I used to think I would be rigid about those rules because I also used to think my kids would just follow them, no questions asked. Ha!
Now I know. Being a mom means making it up as you go along, compromising, rethinking your stance all the time. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t.
Being a teacher is much like this. I used to think that teachers maybe just have a special thing that guides them every day and makes them natural teachers. After 20 plus years of teaching, now I know that isn’t completely true. Yes- teachers are often masters at the content of what they teach, and yes - some teachers are more naturally good at it. But finding what works with our students is a different matter. Teaching involves a ton of trials with failures and successes. Good teachers, in my mind, don’t always stick to something because it’s always worked. Good teachers try new ways and new lessons all the time. Sometimes they work - sometimes they fall flat. But they don’t stop trying. After all, our students are always changing, so we should change with them and learn with them.
Like parenting, teaching involves mostly bumpy roads with some smooth parts. And like with parenting, those smooth parts are what makes you forget about the bumps and keep us doing what we’re doing.
Each of our students is so different also. We can’t pretend to meet all of their needs all of the time, or completely know or understand them always, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Finally, teachers, like parents, are not perfect. Some of us have more experience than others, but all of us are learning as we go.
That title might have made you wince, or think, "Hello, no!" or maybe it gave you flashbacks of your own 7th and 8th grade experiences (The "Spaz Club"? Peg-legged jeans? really?). Well, you might not have enjoyed BEING in middle school, but I can assure you that teaching middle school is, well, fun! Most of the time.
Yes, it is true that middle school students can be snarky, and the tendency to roll eyes at adults can be annoying. Also, by the end of 8th grade, they usually are confident they know much more than the adults around them. And, they can be incredibly self-centered, just like when they were toddlers. By a Friday afternoon at the end of the school day, I am pretty much done with them. I need the weekend to recuperate. Having one teen and 2 almost teens at home doesn't make that easy.
But, by Monday morning, I am ready for them again. And I remember all the things that are great about this age. Last week, I had a few moments where I felt very lucky and thankful - yes, you read it right - to be working with middle school aged kids.
For one, they make me laugh. If you are able to let your hair down once in a while with them and let down your teacher facade, they are pretty funny. On a morning when I haven't had my second cup of coffee yet, I can appreciate their quirky sense of humor. And they appreciate when adults laugh out loud with them. They are in that funny in between stage - between kid and teen - and can still be silly and young, while 2 minutes later they can be serious and offer deep insight into a conversation in class.
Middle school students have seemingly endless energy. While they profess to being exhausted in class, take them outside and observe. Or, watch them at a middle school dance - they are constantly in motion.
Some of our students are incredibly talented, and at very diverse things - rock-climbing, conducting and writing music, playing piano, acting, crafts, cooking, sports. It amazes me that by this age some of them have already honed in on some of their skills.
At this age, students are starting to figure out what they believe in and what they care about. At my school, the Leo Club has adopted a family in a nearby town to help during the holidays. The LGBTQ and Friends Club posts posters around the school explaining what an ally does. The rock and roll club jams out in a classroom after school. A teacher organizes a food drive with the help of her advisory, donating hundreds of cans to a local food pantry.
Middle school students can take the initiative when it's important to them. About a month ago, 3 students came to me with the idea of starting a Creative Writing Club, where they work on their own writing. I suggested they write a proposal, which was approved by the principal and afterschool coordinator. It is pretty amazing to sit in a room with 12 and 13 year-olds, all writing intently, for 50 minutes, without any interruptions or complaints. These are, of course, students who already work on their own writing at home. Towards the end of the 50 minutes, students can share if they feel like it, but they don't have to. It reminds me of the Western Mass. Writing Project, where teachers are able to engage in their own writing. It's especially powerful because it was created and is run by the students.
Sometimes, as self-centered as they can be, middle school students are thankful for small things. Like having hot cocoa in advisory once a week. Or when you check in with them one on one, just to make sure they are ok. Or, when you discuss the best placement for a nose ring, or admire their pink hair ends.
The reaction I often get, the "God Bless you" for teaching middle school, or the "How do you do it?" along with the shaking heads? It's really not so bad. In fact, spending my days with 12-14 year old students keeps me young. Young-feeling, in any case.