26 November 2011

Is being Cart-er-ific is the best thing that happened to me?

Those of you that check your facebook have undoubtedly noticed one of the most popular memes this month has been to list something you're thankful for every day. I haven't participated, but not because I'm not thankful. I haven't participated because I think that I don't need to share the things I'm thankful for on the Internet. The Internet is a place for complaining and devaluing other peoples' opinions, not for telling the people I know what I'm thankful for.

But I am thankful, and seeing what other people are thankful for has caused me to think about what I'm thankful for. The more I thought about how fortunate I am (a natural side-effect of teaching about Africa), the more I realized that the situation I'm teaching in this year has really been a blessing. To show you how far my attitude has come, I provide you with a link to the post I wrote after my first day at work.

Huh. I didn't seem very happy. I wasn't. The biggest problem for me, I think, was the idea that I wouldn't have my own classroom. No matter where I've taught, I've had my own teaching space. I think that most American teachers would rank a classroom of their own as one of the most important factors in their success as teachers. As individual teachers, our classrooms provide the set-up for everything we do.

We cover the walls with posters, class rules, and images that send a message to students about who we are. Student work? I'm going to reward and display good work. Music posters? Talk to me about things outside of school. Souvenirs from other nations? I'm a traveler, talk to me about it. Stuffed animals? I belong in an elementary school. Maps and flags? I'm a stereotypical geography teacher. You get the idea.

In our own classroom, we establish a space that helps us to set up routines and procedures. I know that in my own room, I have a basket for on-time work and a organizer for graded work. I have tubs to let students get their missed work. I also have many many piles of paper. Everywhere. The bookshelves are covered with text books, history books, and binders of classroom activities. Student work good and ridiculous lines the walls.

However, in many schools, there aren't enough rooms to go around. Especially in middle and high schools, where students change rooms every 90 minutes, teachers often get relegated to the cart, and have to move from room to room. That's me (and thousands of other teachers) this year.

I've had teachers in my room before, but I've never had to be that guy. As the host, I never really liked it. I always ended up leaving, or putting in headphones, because if I didn't, I would end up watching/participating in class. But now I am the invader. As you can tell from reading that post from August, I was nervous about the change of roles. That makes sense, because I was right. Teaching in 5 different rooms for 6 class periods is hard.

(You know what, let me change that) Teaching in 5 different rooms for 6 class periods is HARD.

That's better.

For a person like me (piles of stuff, constantly digging examples out of books, pointing at things on the wall) not having the same room twice is really difficult. I have to plan much more specifically what I'm going to say, and the most important references I have to bring with me. Some days, I carry a backpack (with student work, seating charts, dry-erase markers, regular pens, copy paper, plan book, referral forms, laptop, laptop charger, and portable hard-drive), a re-usable Target bag (with speakers, power cords, and a sub-woofer/amp) and a projector (which my school calls a "light-box"). One room has the desks in pods, a second has lab tables, a third has desk/chair combos, and one changes weekly based on the whims of the full-timer in there. One room has a SMART board. One doesn't even have an over-head. I struggle daily to make sure I have everything I need to run class, because I can't just open a file drawer or cabinet to dig out the think I need.

It's making me the best teacher I've ever been.

Wait. What?

Oh you heard read that right. Being in 5 different rooms has made me a much better teacher than I used to be. 

I know that it doesn't make sense, but give me three minutes of your time to explain why. 

Still with me? Good. For the first month of teaching, the hardest part was the constant presence of the teacher who "owns" the room. They just sit there and plan while I teach, but I've been in their shoes, and I know that they're watching and listening. This was impossible for me. I felt like I could never have a "down" day. (Yes, I realize that this job is important/the future/appreciated but if you tell me that you never have 90 minutes at work where you aren't a super-star, I'm going to go ahead and call you a liar). Always having someone watch me made me want to really knock it out of the park every single day. I planned more than I had in years. I made sure that I was dead-on the standards, and that every activity was set up to match the best practices

That isn't easy. For the teachers who read this, think about having an observation every day. That's what teaching in a room with a veteran teacher is like. I was new, and they were sizing me up, whether they would admit it or not. I felt like I had something to prove. I made sure that my lessons were dynamic and good every day.  Since the room wasn't mine, I became a better classroom manager. There was no way I would allow a class I was responsible for to damage a room that wasn't mine. Desks end up exactly where they started, and you had better believe that the floor is cleaner than it was in J-208 at the end of the day.

But it's more than the impact on my daily teaching. If it was just that, I would have said that teaching on a cart has changed me but not that it has made me better than I've ever been. It's also that I get to talk to other teachers daily after they watch me teach. They see things that I don't. I also get to watch them interact with their students before and after class as I'm setting up. (this could be an entire post. I could tell you which teachers were great and which ones probably struggle within a week of the beginning of school, just by how they interact with students outside of a class setting). I get to see what they have on their walls, how they plan, and how they arrange desks. 

I don't know if people who don't teach can ever understand how out of the ordinary this is for teachers. In high schools teachers all live in their own little worlds. We don't spend very much time talking to each other or observing what we do differently from each other. The culture of schools has been that I won't criticize another teacher, because they have their way of doing things and I'm not an expert. By invading their rooms, and being willing to talk about a lesson, I think (at least personally) that is being broken down. I am taking everything I see and using it to be a better teacher. 

It's not that this is a pain free experience. It isn't. It sucks. That said, I think every teacher could benefit from having at least one class in someone else's room. You won't like it, but if you're like me, and you don't want to be embarrassed, it'll make you a better teacher.

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