Survival Skills: The Teaching Middle School Edition

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I didn’t really believe the statistic I vaguely remembered about 50% of teachers leaving the profession within the first five years.  But, alas. According to blogs.edweek.org, the research is true. What a shame! Teaching is the best profession of all time (second only to “influencers” who are paid to travel the world and post their pictures on Instagram.  That’s a pretty good job, too.) But, it’s also not a surprising figure. The early years of teaching can be overwhelming as you try to find your stride. After all, there’s relatively little support and so much to learn! Teachers don’t just teach, after all.  They’re expected to be disciplinarians, referees, geniuses, quasi-parents, psychologists, and curriculum leaders, to name a few. It takes a while to feel confident in any one of these pairs of shoes.  

I’ve been teaching for ten years, and I’m just starting to feel like I have a handle (sometimes) on what I’m doing.  Even now, I know that I have a ton to learn. In fact, three of my Christmas presents this year were books about teaching (which might also show that I’m a bit of a nerd.)

Anyway, there are a few tips that might just help out the fifty percent who feel like they can’t hack it in the classroom.  Here are my tips for surviving!

  • Give assignments that will be fun to grade.  Let’s face it.  As a teacher, you spend the bulk of your time grading papers.  It’s just what we do. English teachers have it the worst, and don’t let those ornery history teachers tell you otherwise.  Most kids will see a few comments on their papers and not realize that all those brief comments add up. Fast! Grading is one hundred times better if you’re reading something interesting.  Try to give students a bit of choice, so you aren’t reading about the exact same thing one hundred times in a row. Be creative.
  • Don’t grade every single assignment.  If you do, you’ll go crazy.  You’ll drown. You’ll go under water like a seal hunted down by a Great White shark.  Sometimes, it’s okay to just check for completion and call it a day. A fellow educator once told me that if the teacher is working harder than the students, that’s a problem.  I agree. Some things deserve closer attention, comments and a grade. Other things serve as practice and a little check-mark in the book is fine.
  • Students are people.  Remember that.  They aren’t beasts.  (They may look and sometimes smell like they are, but they aren’t.) Not only are they people, they are treasured people to just about all the parents they belong to.  They have feelings, ups and downs, other lives, complicated problems, and a need for down time.  Treat students like the people they are and, best of all, take time to form relationships with these people! Get to know them! Enjoy them! Teaching is 100% better when you have relationships with your students and when you look forward to talking to them every day.  If you are a parent, or even have a close relationship with a child, think about how you’d like to see that child’s school day go. Wouldn’t you want them up, out of their seats at times? Laughing? Enjoying their education? Make it happen.
  • Be consistent and fair.  One thing just about every teacher is told at the beginning of their career is to “not smile until Christmas.” You should be super strict, make sure students fear you and your classroom is a smooth operating machine, and only then can you start smiling at your classes (ie once you’ve got them all under control.)  I don’t think I agree with this. Would you want to spend an hour every single day with someone who goes out of their way to be a disciplinarian machine? Probably not.  Instead, set clear expectations at the beginning of the year, along with consistent consequences for not meeting these expectations.  Follow through, always, and you’ll be good to go.
  • Don’t expect more from the kids than you expect from yourselves.  Teachers are the worst at faculty meetings.  They arrive late, don’t have their materials, talk when the speaker is talking, ask dumb questions, and–maybe I’m speaking for myself here–take frequent bathroom breaks just to get away from it all for a second.  And yet, these are the same teachers who rule with an iron fist and expect their students to be prepared, checked in, and empty-bladdered one hundred percent of the time. That isn’t fair. What we need as teachers, they need doubly as young people. 
  • Beg, borrow, and steal. Why reinvent the wheel? There are, according to nces.ed.gov, 3.6 million secondary teachers in the U.S.A., alone.  That means there are a lot of people doing this thing, and a lot of good ideas floating around as a result. In today’s world we have this thing called the Internet and there are oodles of these ideas to be found there.  How did teachers ever make it through the day pre-Internet? Use it! Follow blogs! See how other professionals are engaging their students.  Ask other teachers in your subject area how they did X, Y, and Z. Go to the web site www.teacherspayteachers.com and be a legit good person by paying other teachers for their ideas! Not gonna lie–finding and trying out new lesson plans is one of my favorite things about this job.
  • Don’t try to be cool.  Don’t put a target on your back.  Don’t say things like, “That’s lit!” or “Your shoes are fire!” You’ll get laughed at.  (However, if you want to be laughed at, by all means do these things.)  My mom was a teacher for many years and her coworker used to go to student parties.  I mean…what?? That’s just weird. And possibly illegal. Don’t be weird.  Don’t be illegal. They have their own friends, already. However, try to be approachable.  There’s a saying (that I can’t remember off the top of my head right now) that goes something like this.  “They’ll forget what you told them or what you learned, but they won’t forget how you made them feel.” I just butchered that saying, but you get the idea.  Be there to listen, and be sure to listen, rather than expound on your own philosophy of life.  Be someone they look forward to talking to. 
  • Reflect.  If you go into teaching thinking that everything you do is the bomb-diggity, you’re going to be in trouble.  There is always, always, always, always room for improvement in this profession.  From day one of teaching, when you’re young and other teachers ask for your hall pass because they confuse you with the students, to day 6,000 when you’re on the verge of retirement and incontinence is becoming an issue, there’s always ways you could improve your teaching.  When a lesson doesn’t go well, acknowledge it and then try to make it better. Learn what students are interested in, and try to bring that into your lessons. Think of each class as its own individual entity, and treat them as such.
  • Get out of the way.  Don’t talk too much.  Get off the stage. This is the hardest thing for most teachers, myself included.  Students need to explore and work on their own. You can and should be there to guide them and answer questions, but remember that the average attention span of an eighth grader is 10-12 minutes.  So, if you’re still yammering away in front of the class after twenty-five, it’s not a benefit to anyone at all. 
  • Don’t take yourself so seriously.  Whenever I feel myself getting all worked up about the standards, my students, their lack of motivation, etc., I take a minute to remember myself in middle school.  Put it this way–I spent the bulk of seventh grade passing a notebook back and forth with a friend of mine. For whatever reason, we thought the name Floyd was the funniest thing we’d ever heard of.  Even funnier was if we could insert ‘Floyd’ in to words or phrases. So, for example, I might add the entries ‘Floydilocks and the Three Bears’ and ‘Little Floyd on the Prairie’ to our notebook and pass it across desks to my friend Jodi, laughing hysterically as I did this.  (A lesson would be going on in front of us, mind you.) So…yeah. That was my level of maturity in middle school. Cracking up over ‘Floyd.’ And yet, I avoided becoming a derelict for the most part, and I’m a functioning member of society who can read and write, so I picked up some things along the way.  At the end of the day, it’s middle school. It’s not worth getting an ulcer.

In conclusion, teaching, like any profession, can be really tough at times–especially at the beginning when you aren’t a pro, yet.  But, give it some time and it might become the type of job where you say, “Wow! I can’t believe I get paid to do this!” It’s an awesome job.  You form relationships with kids, get to design your own day, and you get ten weeks of vacation in the summer.  I mean, come on. That’s ridiculous.

I hope these tips help you survive the 50% dropout rate, and make you the type of teacher who gets all giddy in September when stores stock up on college ruled paper.  It’s a good feeling.

Why It’s Okay to Have Pie in the Sky Syndrome

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Sometimes I come down with Pie in the Sky Syndrome.

Right after I finished my Master’s degree I was, I’ll admit, just a bit full of myself.  I’d just completed a M.F.A. Creative Writing at the University of London, under the Poet Laureate of the country,  and graduated with distinction.  Tack on four years of prior middle school teaching experience on an army base in Europe and I thought I held the golden ticket to jobs.

All the jobs.

In my mind, people would be going out of their way to knock on my door and offer me employment—and not just in my field! Oh, no! There were all types of things I could be doing, now! Pies were flying all over the sky and all I had to do was reach out and pinch hold of the crust.

I started filling out applications with the lack of urgency a billionaire might feel if they decided to break up their luxury cruises with a fun side job for kicks. I wanted to stay in London; that much I knew. Beyond that, I was open to all types of professions as long as they paid me in lots and lots of pounds.

I applied for positions teaching literature at prestigious universities in England.  I applied to run the international department of these same universities (mainly because I thought it would be “cool to travel around the world and present the programs to students.”)

Looking over the employment options, I didn’t give much (if any) consideration to whether or not I was actually qualified.  It was all about what they could offer me.  I had a Master’s degree now–I was on fire! 

In a rush of hubris on the brink of insanity I applied to be—and this is no joke—the HEAD of the University of Liverpool.  Yeah.  I think in my heart I knew I didn’t have a chance.  But, I will say, after I filled out the initial application with misguided zest I sat with the dim worry that I could potentially be hired after all and expected to run the whole damn place.  What then?

We can cross that bridge when we get to it, I thought, and kept applying.

It only occurred to me to rethink reality a little when I didn’t hear back from a single one of the applications.  Actually, that’s not true—I landed an interview for one of the International Office gigs (i.e. the one where I’d be able to travel the world on a university’s dime, talking to students) but I didn’t get the job.  I guess my snazzy asexual business suit and high marks on a thesis about how Jonathan Safran Foer conveys trauma in Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud weren’t enough to convince them I knew the necessary ins and outs of international study.  Go figure.

Any semblance of worry I’d started to feel kicked in to high gear when my UK visa expired and I was suddenly back in Buffalo, New York, living with my parents and 4,000 plus miles away from the place I was sending out applications to.  It wasn’t beyond me that interviewing from there would be hard, and that’s a pretty important part of the job process.

In the next weeks I began to feel the pressure and launched a full-fledged job-hunting campaign that slowly downgraded from pies in the sky to crud in the mud.  I sent out an average of thirty applications a week.  Several months went by.  Crickets. My carefully crafted paperwork burned away in the silence.

Each application I sent out humbled me more and more.  My salary requirements changed.  The preferred demographics were compromised (I was suddenly willing to stay in the United States and forgo my expat dream, after all.)  The grandeur of a job title gave way to the necessity of earning a buck or two—forget pounds.

Eventually and gratefully I landed a job—back at the daycare center I’d worked at when I was eighteen years old.  I loved it there.  But, it was a far cry from where my sights were initially set.

For the remainder of my 30th year of life I slept in my childhood bedroom and worked my tail off earning minimum wage filling up Dixie cups with milk and changing fifteen diapers before and after naptime.

(Luckily, I did eventually land a part-time teaching job back in London, but it took a lot of grit and door pounding and one unfortunate interview where I’d just come in from an exceptionally hot day and sweat ran down over my forehead the whole time I answered questions.  It quickly became one of those awkward situations where the more you think about the fact you’re sweating, the more you sweat.)

A couple years later I leaped towards another Pie in the Sky.

I set out to write my first book.  And, of course, what I had in mind was not a modest first publication.  I planned, instead, to write the next New York Times bestseller, a real classic, one to be covered in American Lit classes circa right now.

Panera Bread was my office for the next few months and I guzzled Hazelnut coffee refills, ate the Fuji Apple Chicken Salad on a daily basis, and befriended the local retirees who spent their mornings there rehashing the news in an American version of the German Stammtisch.  I knew exactly what ‘their seats’ were, and they knew mine.  Heaven help whoever helped themselves to our respective booths.

Predictably my aspirations brought on a serious case of Writer’s Block.  When that subsided what came next was an onslaught of words—so many words!—and I felt deeply excited about every single one of them.

The project lasted several months.  I wrote six or seven chapters and each one was a messy sprawl of at least 60 pages in a style that eagerly and blindly mimicked the voices of all the other famous writers I was reading at the time.  (Let’s just say we see some David Foster Wallace footnotes and Jonathan Safran Foer experimentalism.  And maximalism. Lots of that.)

Well, my own assessment is that the book tanked.  I still go back and try to edit it from time to time, but I get seasick just looking at the thing.

And now I have a third Pie in the Sky story.

After I wrote the blog post about my attack, I decided it was time to do something I’ve been persuaded to do in the past but was too chicken-shit to try.  I decided to send my work out somewhere.  Like, to a real publication with hopes of my writing being, dare I say, shared with a wider audience.

My very first thought was Huffington Post.  I’ve been a fan of their ‘Voices’ section for a while, and I like the quality of the blogs posted there.

In my typical revved up style, I decided to send over my post in all its 2,500 word glory (forget the fact that most submissions that are accepted are pared down to 700 or 800 words.)

And—rather than the appropriate editor of the Voices section at HuffPost—I attached it as a link in an email message directed to Arianna Huffington, herself.  Because…why not? I figured there was nothing to lose by contacting the head honcho, herself.  Just like there’s nothing to lose by applying for a job that is well beyond one’s qualifications, experience, or overall intellectual ability.

(I could mention Donald Trump, here, but I’d never do that.)

Shortly after pressing ‘send’ I did some belated research and learned that Arianna Huffington actually left the Huffington Post to start a brand new company.  Oops! So, I hit myself a few times over my lack of ‘good to know’ knowledge and chalked it all up to an email lost in cyberspace.  I sent it out to a couple of other places, checked my email obsessively a few times, and moved on a month later.

But then this morning, after a very, very, very sleepless night due to a sick toddler with a hacking cough, I checked my email.  And who do you think I saw in my inbox?

Arianna Huffington.

She wrote me back.  THE Arianna Huffington.  The head honcho.  She wrote me back and thanked me for sharing my post.  She also let me know that she’d cc’d the HuffPost blog editor and that they’d be sending me a password so that I “can share my voice in a blog on the HuffPost site.”  She went on to tell me a little bit about her new company and even invited me to visit this pop-up store that will be open between now and January 15th.

All day I’ve been in a tizzy.  I’m tizzying over here.

On one hand, I’m not quite sure what this means.  Will my post be shared as a one-off on Huffington Post? Is the editor going to write me back? What’s with the password, thingy? How does that work?

I’ve done some reading, and from what I gather there is a new platform for the publication.  If you are a HuffPost blogger you get a username and password and have far more mobility/flexibility to share your work.  Is that what she’s saying? Am I being invited to the blogging platform of HuffPost?

I’m confused and elated.  It’s not a bad mix!

Either way, this is a new development here that feels awesome.  I’ll either have something I wrote posted (and I’m sure it could be the start of even more submissions to the web site seeing as I’ll have ‘established myself’ if having one thing published counts as ‘establishment.’) Or, I may be given a password of invitation to contribute more frequently.  This is an idea that gives me immediate Writer’s Block just thinking about it.

As of this morning I’m all-in about pies in the sky, again.  In fact, I’m going to keep going from here and probably embarrass myself and experience dead air and empty inboxes.

But, what this has shown me is that it’s always worth it.  Some pies are more attainable than others (like publication versus heading a university without experience, per se.)  What’s true for both is that there’s truly nothing to lose by going straight to the top, moving in range of the out of range or, to put it nicely, attempting to pick the nose of “this is beyond you.”

Sometimes you’re surprised with a response and validation.

I’m sure I’ll be updating you about my situation and we’ll see where it all leads.

In the meantime I’m off to the States tomorrow for two weeks and couldn’t be more excited. 🙂 P.S. I’d love to hear any of YOUR pie in the sky stories? Let’s talk pie!

Putting My Zombie On Your Porch

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On Halloween we had three trick-or-treaters, which means the holiday is becoming wildly popular here in Germany! (After all, that’s three more trick-or-treaters than we’ve had other years.)

I was curious about when Halloween was introduced to German culture so I looked it up and, according to Der Spiegel, celebrations began in 1991 (reason being, Carnival was canceled due to the Gulf War.) So. it’s only taken about twenty-five years for things to get rolling in our Heidelberg suburb.

Nevertheless, Todd and I were well prepared with three jumbo-sized bags of American candy bought from the commissary on base.   After all, you never can be too prepared.

When the trick-or-treaters arrived I opened up, mixing bowl filled of goodies in hand, and the kids dutifully chanted, “Suesses, sonst gibt’s Saures!” which roughly translates to, “Give me something sweet, or else you’ll get something sour!”

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Puking, Practicums, Personas

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I’ve learned a few stomach-flu related German words this week. Diarrhea is ‘durchfall’ which literally means ‘to fall through.’ So logisch, this German language.   “Kotzen” is to puke. Anyway, now you’re all set in case you visit and get sick.  🙂

We’ve all taken a turn with it since Monday and since I’ve been feeling so funky, my thoughts have reached out to other things that generally make me want to vomit. Like, canned green beans.  (The fresh ones are fine.)

Another one that comes to mind is student teaching. I’ve been reflecting on that a lot, lately, and I’m not sure why.

At the time, I was twenty-four years old. Talking to a class full of students terrified me. And, you know, that’s sort of a thing you need to feel okay with if you’re in the profession.

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