Monday, November 23, 2015

Stepping into a new dementia

When I was at CISD, students who wanted to skip class were always looking for an empty classroom to loiter in. Unless I kept my door locked during my conference period, I could expect to be interrupted 2-3 times in a 50-min period: "Hey Miss, can Dwayne and I chill here witchu?" or "Yo, Ms. M! Wussup?" 

With my door locked, it meant my doorknob rattled a lot, but once students realized the door wasn't going to open they went on to check the next classroom.  So when I heard the doorknob rattle during my conference period one day, I ignored it. But the sound didn’t stop. In fact, the rattling grew more insistent. This was unusual enough for me to get up and unlock the door.

I immediately wished I hadn't. Ms. Washington, one of our assistant principals, stood there with a student at her elbow. I shivered. 

As you know by now, everything at CISD was cringe-worthy, but Ms. Washington was especially irritating. Imagine a person with the worst personality traits of the most unlikable characters from The Office, and you come close to Ms. Washington. She had Toby's blank stare, Angela's humorless personality, and Dwight's one-track mind. If she had Meredith's alcoholism or Creed's criminal tendencies, she might have been truly terrifying. As it was, she was just offensive.

I stood there with the door opened just a foot or so. “Can I help you?” I asked, in a way that I hoped sounded unhelpful. 

Ms. Washington cleared her throat and began speaking in her obnoxious monotone, putting emphasis on the most unlikely words.  “Ms. Gibbons says that SHE gave you a textbook for the TSP test.  We need it for a student.” She jerked her head to indicated the student standing next to her. 

“Um, I don’t have it,” I replied.  "Sorry." I waited for her to move on so I could shut the door. 

"You don't have a textbook for the TSP test?" 

Oh my gosh, I thought, here we go. "No, I've never met with Ms. Gibbons, and she's never given me any textbooks.  No one has ever given me anything for a TSP test. I don't even know what the TSP test is." I made a move to shut the door, but Ms. Washington had already moved into the doorway and was peering over my shoulder as if she expected to find the book sitting on one of the student desks. 

“Ms. Gibbons was very specific that SHE gave the book to MS. MAR-LANE for the READING class. Let me just see if it's here," she said and pushed into my room. The student she had come with stayed in the hall.

Irritated, I reminded her, "I’m Ms. Mar-LOWE."  I decided it wasn't worth telling her that we didn't even have a Ms. Marlane in the school.

Ms. Washington turned to face me and just blinked. “Yeah.  We need the textbook.” 

I sighed. "I think this is a misunderstanding. I don't have it.  I didn't even get the textbooks I requested for yearbook."

Ms. Washington ignored me.  “It’s got a black wire binder..."

I interrupted her. “I can tell you that I have no textbooks, and I’ve never gotten textbooks from anyone."

“Well,” long pause, “Can you check?”

“And where would you like me to check?”  I didn't know whether or not to burst out laughing or start screaming.

Ms. Washington motioned towards my desk.  “In there, in case someone put it in there.”

People hide textbooks in my desk?  Unbelievable. Walking to my desk, I noticed that the student in the hall had disappeared. Smart girl. Would Ms. Washington ever disappear so I could get some work done? I pulled open my desk drawers. “You’re welcome to look if you’d like,” I said, gesturing to them.

Ms. Washington suddenly pointed at my bookshelf.  “What are all those?”

I raised my eyebrows. Was she joking?  “They're yearbooks."

“These are all yearbooks? That's a lot of yearbooks."

"Well, you know, I am the YEARBOOK teacher." It was becoming skin-crawlingly clear that my assistant principal of curriculum didn't know who I was or what I taught.  But hey, it was only the second semester of the school year. 

She walked over to the shelf, pulled out a yearbook, flipped through it, then put it back on the shelf. I leaned against my desk with my arms crossed, watching her. She went through four yearbooks this way. Did she think I had hidden the TSP workbook inside one of the yearbooks? Did she even remember why she was here?  

Ms. Washington rifled through a few more books and then stopped, turning back to me. “So you’ve never seen it.”  This time, she phrased her question as a declarative statement. Was this progress? Unfamiliar as I was with her rules of engagement, I didn’t respond but just blinked at her.

We stared at each other in silence for a second or two, then she moved toward the door. "Well, Ms. Marlane, when you find it let me know." 

"Sure thing, Ms. Portland," I said as she left the room. I couldn't resist.

Ms. Washington stopped and turned back toward me. For a brief second, I wondered if she'd realized I was mocking her and my stomach sank. Crap, I'd gone too far. Instead, she gestured to the empty hallway: "Where'd Keisha go? She was right here." 

"You mean the student? I don't know. You could try Ms. Mar-LANE'S room. Kids usually hang out there during her conference period." 

Ms. Washington nodded and moved down the hall, looking for a student she would never find in a teacher's room that didn't exist. 

I shut and locked the door, remembering the last time Ms. Washington had come to my room. It was two months ago and she said she had folders for special ed students “who are in your first period.”  When I told her that I didn't have a first-period class, she shoved the folder into my hands anyway and left.  I opened the folder to see the IEPs of three students.  Printed on the outside of the folder in black marker was another teacher's name, Coach Willard.  He teaches social studies. 

Maybe the TSP workbook is in his room?  

Monday, November 16, 2015

No good deed goes unpunished, especially here

I've had people ask if I'm making up some of the experiences I, uh, experienced in public schools.  I'm not, but as you read this one, pretend I made it up if it helps you get through the post without an aneurysm.  

It’s probably a bad sign if, during a staff meeting, your principal tries to crack a joke, but no one laughs or smiles, even politely.

During our last two PD sessions, you could hear the Special Ed department coughing loudly throughout the principal’s “motivational” speeches.  The department members are exhausted and probably sick as a result of the administration’s constant interference.  And we all know that the best response to a bad joke is a loud, phlegmy cough. 

Since the school is leaking teachers like a sieve, the principal felt it was important to let us know that she is VERY disappointed in our efforts.  She expects a lot more from us, she said. 

First, Mrs. Gibbons said she understood that the staff is concerned about what's happening at the school, particularly in light of the latest state investigation.  *cough cough*  Then she tells us that we should ignore it and forge ahead because “it takes a village.”  *loud cough*

I’m not sure how that was supposed to motivate us, as the village is shrinking and the villagers are grabbing torches and pitchforks.  Next, she made a joke about how we all need to “be on her bus,” because a bus is a place where all teachers want to be – right? 

I sat in the semi-silence, staring at the clock, listening to the coughs and wondering how she got this job.  She doesn't seem to understand what teachers do, how they do it or what her role is in all of this. The students don’t even like her because they find her disingenuous (my word, not theirs.  Theirs rhymed with “witchy.”) 

The lights suddenly went out, and the overhead projector came on.  The entire staff was forced to watch a videotaped skit, in which the principal and some other members of the administration acted out the importance of “getting on Ms. Gibbons’ bus.”  Everyone was wearing clown wigs and heavy greasepaint makeup for some reason, as they all climbed onto the bus, only to be greeted by our simpering, winking principal, who was sitting at the steering wheel, yanking it this way and that to punctuate her lines.  All the actors were speaking in high-pitched, squealing voices, so I couldn’t make out a single word of dialogue.

A senior English teacher who was sitting next to me cleared her throat and muttered, “I really don’t think she knows how to drive that thing.  Is she trying to pull the steering wheel off the column?”

Spanish teacher stared in horror and said, “What’s with the winking?  I feel like someone’s about to get molested.”

Chemistry squinted and grimaced.  “Why is it HER bus?  Her personal bus?  And it's one of those short buses too.”

After several more unintelligible spoken words, everyone on the bus yelled “Yay!” The camera switched to a wide shot of the bus rocking from side to side, and then a frame decorated with balloons and the words “The End” flashed on the screen. 

The lights came up, and the principal smiled broadly.  “Wasn’t that fun?” she asked, and then encouraged us to give a “big hand” to the members of the administration who helped with the video.
Someone started coughing again, loudly, and then there was an uneven smattering of applause.  Most of the staff members looked down at the floor. 

For a second, I thought about raising my hand and asking if the video would be available on YouTube, or emailed out to the staff for review.  Then I felt it – a burst of inspiration.  It hit me so hard it felt like a concussion, but that’s the price you pay for brilliance.  

Later in the day, after sending out a couple of emails, I had what I needed, which was the file of the bus video.  The assistant principal who sent it to me wrote, “I hope this helps.”

Boy did it.  As the media teacher, this was a godsend.  I finally had a good, short video to show my class that contained multiple examples of what NOT to do when videotaping a scene.  Everything I needed was in it - lighting mistakes, poor framing, bad editing cuts, poor sound quality and a lack of a coherent storyline.  Nothing could illustrate my points better than Ms. Gibbons and her message about “getting on [her] bus”.  I could even break it down and go over it frame by frame to show each error. 

You’re right, Ms. Gibbons, it DOES take a village.  I appreciate the village even more for helping to educate my class.

Monday, November 9, 2015

We're sort of ready for our close-up.

Another post from my time in public school - it's like I'm walking down memory lane, and I suddenly get trapped in the bushes.  So I'd like you to experience that feeling with me.

My school is in trouble with the law and the state.  Again. 

It’s not just the school; the entire district is under investigation.  Seniors across the district were put into certain classes and told that they would count as credit towards graduation. For example, students who failed AP level classes were told that because it was AP, failing it still meant passing at the regular level.  Where they got this idea, no one knows.  Unfortunately, the counselors were either lying or being lied to, because hundreds of seniors are now being told that they don’t have enough credits to graduate.  Letters are going out saying that students can graduate at the end of the summer if they attend summer school.  The front office is swamped with angry parents who want an explanation.

Several of the top brass in the district got canned as a result, and supposedly the district is just getting started cleaning house.  The state sent auditors to all the high schools, including ours.  The auditors are poring over the records or screaming about the fact that there are no records to look at. 

One of the local news stations is camped outside our school to report on the crisis.  The principal, who is sick of having a news crew out in front of the building each month and who is calling the crisis a “witch hunt,” told the reporter and camera operator to stay off the school grounds.  The crew parked the truck across the street.  It warms my heart to see the news crew; they’re like old friends of ours now.  I’d like to stroll past, wave and yell out, “Hey Paul!” to the camera operator.  Here’s hoping his name is actually Paul.

We’re always operating in crisis mode at CISD.  If it’s not a state investigation, it’s fights that lead to criminal charges, or criminal charges against teachers, or something else that the district blew off and is frantically trying to rectify.  A few minutes ago I got an email from one of our assistant principals, saying that my teaching certificate is set to expire this year and that it was urgent that I send the new certificate to an HR person immediately.  We get a lot of urgent emails like this.  One would think that the administration is wetting its pants in a panic all the time.  No wonder all the teachers avoid the main office.  

What’s weird is that my certificate doesn’t expire for another couple of years, so I pointed that out in my return email.  Maybe HR hasn’t been checking on teacher certification, and the state is about to shut us down for having unlicensed teachers.  That would explain why the email went out on a Friday evening, ordering us to send copies of our certificates right away.  Or someone’s email got hacked, maybe?  I’m hoping it’s the latter, but honestly, I don’t care either way.  I deleted the email, because this isn’t my problem, CISD.  I got my certification from Texas Occupations In Learning (TOIL) program fair and square.

Just once I’d like NOT to get emails like this, or to get an email that says, “Everything’s fine.  Just stay the course.”  Granted, that would be a waste of time to send and read, but still, one can’t live in a state of perpetual crisis.  Or shouldn’t.  But if CISD employs you, you do.   And if you work for CISD, you get used to making sure that you look good on camera for Paul.  I always turn to the side and suck in my stomach, because I hear the camera adds ten pounds. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

IWSG - Something we should all worry about

I have an unusual topic for IWSG this month.  My topic is something I'm concerned about as a teacher, and something that everyone else in the country should think about as well.  

I’m sure by now that all of you have seen the video from South Carolina of the white resource officer pulling a black female teen out of the chair after she refused to leave the class.  Honestly, this has been on my mind all week, but not for the reasons that you may think.

Everyone has their opinion on what happened – the officer was racist, the girl was a self-entitled punk, the officer used too much force, the girl got what she deserved, etc.  I’m not about to argue with anyone’s opinion on why the whole thing happened or how it played out because I’m pretty sure at the end of the argument, we’d both be wrong.

But there’s a question that’s floated through my head whenever I encountered the story in the news, on social media or the like.  Despite all the articles I’ve read (trust me, there were many), absolutely no one answered this question.

How SHOULD this situation have been handled? 

Yes, I’ve heard people say, “This girl was out of line, but the officer had no right to put his hands on her.”  Okay, that seems fair, but it’s still not answering the question.  What should the teacher, principal, and officer have done to take care of the situation?  A student is disrupting the class and refusing to follow the rules.  The teacher can’t teach, and the students in the room are deprived of the right to learn. 

What should have happened and who’s qualified to answer that question?

I think it’s fair to weed out those who have never worked with teenagers in a professional capacity before.  Having teenage children doesn’t qualify you because your sweet little Maggie probably has never acted like this, nor ever will.  Plus, you’d have to have worked with uncooperative, belligerent teens or adults before.  I’d say that eliminates everyone except teachers, teacher’s aides, principals, psych ward workers, therapists, juvenile officers, cops and possibly SWAT team negotiators.

I can tell you two ways I’ve seen situations similar to the one in South Carolina handled. And they worked. 

1. Hire security and resource officers of color.

When I worked at CISD, the majority of the students were black and Hispanic.  So the campus security and resource officers were black and Hispanic, too.  Two of them were female.  Problems identical to those captured on the video—students refusing to leave the class—were common, and the resource and security officers had to pull belligerent kids out of class regularly.  I’ve seen security officers slam kids up against the wall to handcuff him or her, but guess what? The issue of racism or sexism never arose. Why would it? Black students were pulled kicking and screaming from class by black security guards and ditto for Hispanics. Were white kids pulled out of class? Yes, they were pulled out by whatever officer was available.  No one seemed to care what color he or she was. The sad truth is that white security guard in South Carolina was doomed the minute he was called in. If he’d refused for fear of being accused of racism if things got ugly (they usually get ugly), he’d have been labeled a bigot. If he went in…Well, he did go in, and we all know how that turned out.

2. Take the class out of the room.

This is a solution I’ve seen used successfully by your better teachers when they have a student who refuses to leave the classroom.  They take the class out of the room.  They taught their class outside, in the hallway, in the cafeteria or an empty classroom and let the student have the room to him or herself. At this point, the student is trespassing, and the administration can figure out how to handle it.  That way, the class isn’t hijacked by a single student and if things do get ugly (I spent years in the trenches, and I can tell you things always get ugly) innocent students aren’t put in harm’s way. The thing is, teachers need to be able to run their classes.  Students need to be able to learn in relatively calm environments.  A student who will not comply with the rules is a potential danger to everyone else in the room.  This isn’t a situation that a teacher can ignore, or handle later because it sends a message to the other students about how they can also behave.  If you think I’m overstating this, then you’ve never taught in a public school before. 

And unless you HAVE taught in public schools, or worked in law enforcement, sit down and shut up.  You’re not offering a solution, you’re just adding to the noise that’s making it impossible for me to teach. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Let's slow things down to a complete stop

It's time once again to read some of the "gems" I've gotten the fabulous opportunity to grade for the last month in my class.  As a writing teacher, having to read some of these sentences means spitting out my Coke Zero, choking on my Coke Zero, or opening a new Coke Zero to avoid making eye contact with the student who wrote it.

By the way, I'm all out of Coke Zero.  So send some over if you have any spare cans or bottles because I have papers from two more classes to get through.

Abortion is legal in the first three trimesters.

Look at the Communist leader of the Nazi Party in Germany (Fidel Castro).

Jeffersen knew he was a leader destin to make the world better.  He made electricity for the whole word.

Kim Jong-Un is the leader of the only self-reliant country on earth.

A real leader is one who does not care of the situation and is always willing to help.

Experiencing leadership as a senior has been diffcult to grasp.

In order to be a good leader, you shouldn’t be uptight and block out ideas given by people. 

Many laws have also been used to justify why they did something.

The people live in this society and they would be living their life there. (This one is my favorite.)

To work hard and have a good job that pays good makes you feel good because your not as worried about paying bills or taking your wife and kids to eat a nice place and then watch a movie.

Reading this, I think we can all agree that stuff is bad.

He's right.  Stuff is bad.  We all agree, right?