Posts Tagged 'curriculum'

Managing my Burn Out Year

zombie_roller_coaster_by_okseart-d3cve8lBy Nick McDaniels — I’ve spent some time (hopefully not too much time) thinking about a good metaphor for my job.

Most everything I thought of was amusement park related. This is probably good and bad. So here’s what I settled on and then I’ll explain how this all relates to the title.

If you’ve ever worked in the roller coaster that is an inner city school,you know there are incredibly long, almost not-worth-it, lines at the copy machines, you know there are times when a bunch of kids are moving around really fast, yelling loudly, and flailing their arms, and you know that after each ride, when you get off the train, the people you see on the next ride might be totally different people. Of course the kids are different every year, but the staff changes from year to year in sadly predictable ways.

Just like when you’re on a roller coaster, there are people who get off the train, and then go get immediately back in line for more of the same, but there are also people that take one ride, realize the hassle it takes to enjoy the ride is too much, and go eat an eight dollar, three pound turkey leg from the concession stand (this is not part of the metaphor).

Oh… and because I know you were thinking it: Working in an inner city school, like the elevator business, has its ups and downs.

So why does this happen: changes of cast from year to year (in this way it’s almost like a Circus, but I didn’t want to have to decide who in a school is the person who follows the elephants around with a big shovel)?

Burn out.

We all know the statistics. Teachers, particularly new ones, don’t stay in the classroom, or at least not in an inner city classroom for very long. I see that. I see a lot of teachers complete their contracts with their certification organizations and leave, I see some others stretch another year out of themselves and leave, and I see a few more who are sticking with it longer. I have also seen some veteran teachers who reach a point when they know it is a enough and move on to other, hopefully greener pastures.

In my fourth year now, and already committed to a fifth, I am nearing the less traveled years statistically for new teachers, but I will admit that this year I felt the burn out creeping into my psyche in a way that I never have before. We all, or the sane ones, burn out a little bit every year. You’d have to. Summer generally heals all wounds. This year however, I felt that March feeling in November. It scared me then and I know it had an impact on my year.

I’ll admit to having a rough year, new curriculum, new grade level, new classroom, large class sizes, some particularly challenging students, and the impact of a generally low school morale. All of this contributed to my burn out feeling, no doubt and the cause, while important, doesn’t matter as much as the effect.

So how have I minimized the effect? I tried to get more joy out of my students rather than worrying about test scores and curriculum. I tried to boost the morale of my colleagues. I tried to spend more time with my wife and daughter. All of these things worked to some extent. But none of them worked so much as to keep me from looking elsewhere for a job as most people do.

But the moment I pulled up the employment vacancy list, particularly looking at non-classroom positions, I realized what I was doing. I was getting off the roller coaster and going to buy an eight dollar, three pound turkey leg (maybe this part of the metaphor does work a little). I decided at this point to reaffirm my commitment to children. I needed to get back in line for another trip around the track.

There is no trick here, no secret. Just will and timely reflection. I am managing my burn out year by owning it and not letting it consume me. After multiple burn out years, it will consume you, and you probably need a change, but for me, this is my first experience. What helps me, when thinking toward next year, is remembering that every year for an inner city student, is a burn out year. Things are worse for students than they are for teachers, generally, and we see the impact that it has when they let it get to them (terrible grades and attendance, violence, etc…). I realize that my duty to my kids, is to manage my burn out, and stick it out for them, because they don’t have college degrees that can allow them to change their situation as easily as a teacher can. In this way, we, as teachers, can shoulder their burn out too by being reliable and dependable.

From this, I have found a way to gain comfort. Burn out year or not, Summer will heal things, and next year will be better. I will plan to stand up straight and make sure I am tall enough to enjoy the ride, because as we know, the times when it is fun, it is really fun, and I won’t let one year derail my commitment to children.

Common Core: Curricular Choices Matter

common_coreBy Nick McDaniels — I blogged earlier this year about the restrictive application of the Common Core on my teaching.

It has limited what I’m allowed to teach. As the year has gone on I have found my annual burnout happening much earlier this year than in years past. I have had this feeling confirmed as mutual by many teachers I respect.

And then, in a stroke of wisdom, another English teacher said to me, as we were trying to figure out how to get ourselves out of our attitude funk, “Yes, our class sizes have gone up, but that has happened before, the students seem less prepared, but they always do, the amount of work that is put on us in addition to teaching is increasing, but we can generally handle that. What is really making me sad, it that I am not at all invested in what I’m teaching.”

She metaphorically hit the metaphorical nail on its metaphorical head.

This year I am entirely teaching material that I am not invested in. So are my colleagues around the district. It is not that the books that we are teaching are not good, though they are certainly far from great. It is that we are not even given copies of the book and the mandatory related curriculum until a day or two before we are to begin teaching it. At best, we are reading the books a chapter ahead of the students. It is no wonder we aren’t invested in it. We don’t have time to be invested in it. That saddens us because we love teaching what we know and love.

English probably more than most subjects provides a huge amount of flexibility in terms of materials, which has generally allowed teachers to select texts that they enjoy, know their students will enjoy, and know so well that they can teach it thoroughly. This year, my colleagues and I have none of those options. The worst part of it all is that the students know it.

Being passionate and knowledgeable about the subject you teach is one of the only ways to succeed in an urban classroom. We can, for a while, fake passion. And we tried. We can’t fake knowledge and because of this prescriptivist curricular thinking, our teachers are set up for failure, and in turn, so are our students. Fortunately, we teachers, like our students, are a resilient bunch.

Rethinking the Classroom to Prison Pipeline

By Nick McDaniels — In the winter issue of Rethinking Schools, Linda Christensen, one of my teaching heroes, wrote an article titled The Classroom to Prison Pipeline. As with all of Chistensen’s work, this article is insightful and engaging, proposing a central flaw in the disciplinary practices of schools. Her writing forced me to take a look back at a post I wrote about a year ago in which I discussed the possibility that there may be a few students who infringe so deeply on the rights of other students to a quality of education that they might deserve to lose their rights to a quality of education. I am constantly an advocate for all students, but, as many teachers will tell you, there are some students, in an era of relaxed discipline and dwindling alternative programs, who make the job of teaching very hard and the job of learning almost impossible.

Christensen posits that removal from class for disruptive students, or worse, suspension from school is part of what she calls the classroom-to-prison pipeline. She is right. And in truth, it is clear that we cannot suspend our way out of behavioral problems in school. After removal from class or suspension, students whose behavior is so problematic that they required removal from the educational setting rarely come back as changed persons, or worse, they don’t come back at all.

Christensen argues for a curriculum, not just teaching, that is student-centered, which will engage students, cut down on problematic behaviors, and reduce the risk of dropping out or incarceration. She admits that through her patented student-centered poetry activities (see her amazing books here) to “cracking the class,” but also that there are still struggles to overcome. In her defense here, as Douglass taught us, if there is no struggle, there is no progress. Christensen and her co-teacher are surely making progress.

Now though, I am about to say something that I figured I’d never say after years of reading Christensen’s work. On this one, she is too conservative. She is not pushing hard enough or far enough in describing the revolutionary curriculum we need. Her ideas will slow the flow through the classroom-to-prison pipeline, but this is simply inadequate when the lives of our children are at stake.

Instead of simply making students the center of the curriculum, we need to make their struggle the center of the curriculum. We need to capture the waves of enthusiasm our “apathetic generation” of students has found with tragic cases like Trayvon Martin’s and those brought to light by the Kony 2012 video. We need to design a curriculum that exposes our children to the injustices they face and that those like them around the world face, and we need to give them opportunities to do something about it. This winter, an inspiring group of students, teachers, and activists built a protest one room school house on the grounds of a proposed hundred million dollar youth jail in downtown Baltimore. The experience for all involved, from those arrested in the protest, to those who read about it from across the country, was incredibly empowering.

These experiences, though newspapers, literature, or real life activism must become part of our curriculum if we want to break down the classroom-to-prison pipeline. We need to teach students to be activists, to be fighters, to embrace the struggle. If we want to slow the flow through the pipeline, we need to engage students and keep them in class as Christensen suggests. If we want to stop the flow completely, we must give our children the inspiration and skills to crush the pipeline altogether, to dismantle an unfair justice system, to smash racism, and to demand schools, not jails.

Refocusing on the Little Things: Spring Break & Sweet Tea

By Nick McDaniels — After six long, hard-fought weeks of uninterrupted instruction, as the weather warmed, the hormones awakened, attention spans shortened, and the fists began to fly, Spring Break has arrived. And though the break is much needed for physical and psychological well-beings  of teachers and students, I find myself slightly ungrateful.

I was complaining to my wife, who listens because our house is too small for her to have a choice, about how I am so afraid that I might not have time to finish To Kill a Mockingbird and A Lesson Before Dying with my honors students before the end of the year and how I don’t know what else to teach to my standard students because we’ve finished nearly everything in the curriculum. She quickly brought me to my senses.

Without Spring Break, she reminded me, I wouldn’t be able mow the grass, trim the hedges, mulch the flower beds, water the trees, plant the garden, fix the garage roof, paint the kitchen, repaint the den, and install our porch swing. Realizing then, that, like my honors English curriculum, I now had another list of unfinishable tasks, I reminded her that without Spring Break, I wouldn’t be able to spend my days crawling around in the back yard with our daughter and spend my evenings on the front porch drinking iced tea and reading books.

This conversation reminded me, as a teacher worried about curriculum and providing my students with as much as I can before they leave for the summer, that I still also need to be a person worried about the physical and mental well-being of myself and my students. By Friday, April 15th, our last day before break, my students had all but packed it in. They were tired of listening to me, tired of reading books, tired of writing responses, and generally tired of sitting inside as the Maryland Spring weather gets nicer and nicer. They need a break to rejuvenate and refocus, so we can finish the year strong together. They, like us adults, need a week away from work, a vacation to play, hopefully outside, and be children.

As for me, I need to play outside too, and not let my daughter eat too much dirt or too many insects. I need to cross a few things off of the honey-do list, and I need to relax a bit to regain my sense of patience for dealing with the flirtation and fisticuffs of high school students that make up much of May and June in Baltimore schools. I’m excited to get back to work next week and then worry about how we’re going to finish a novel and a half in three weeks. I’m also excited to spend a week at home, where the only things I wonder about are, is that diaper clean and is my sweet tea empty?


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