I just want to teach

I’m finally on spring break, and I’m using the time to relax and unwind but also mentally unpack this thought that’s been going to my head the past few weeks:

I just want to teach.

A friend posted on Twitter a few weeks ago how she was “more interested in ‘just’ being a classroom tchr for a few days”, and I responded:

I kept thinking “I just want to teach” when we were doing the “work to rule” thing at my school. I just wanted to be able to come in when I wanted, leave when I wanted, and get my work done on the schedule that I’ve worked out for myself.

The week before spring break started, we had some crazy schedules going on because of PSAT/SAT testing and while I appreciated the time to get some prep stuff done, I kept thinking “I just want to teach”. I wanted to have uninterrupted, normal class time instead of a choppy schedule that confused everyone (one of my first period students showed up to my classroom at 8 am on Thursday, but we were starting with 3rd period on Thursday and she had just forgotten…)

And then I started wondering – what does it mean to “just teach”? I think to the non-teacher, “just teach” only brings to mind the time in front of students. But teaching is so much more than that. I’ve already written about some of the things that teachers do that don’t take place in front of students. A (by no means exhaustive) list:

  • Lesson plan, including (but again not limited to)
    • Revise/update activities and handouts that were used previously (contrary to popular belief, I don’t put a good lesson “in a can” and then take out year after year…)
    • Test activities/labs myself from both the teacher’s perspective and the student’s perspective (particularly anything new). (I do this all the time. And this takes up a significant amount of time.)
    • Write and modify assessments
    • Revise learning targets and their sequence for either this year or next
  • Meet with other teachers to coordinate lesson plans and materials
  • Make copies, prep labs and other classroom activities (and this is a significant chunk of time in chem classes, but also for physics)
  • Communicate with parents, counselors, and/or admin about particular students who may be struggling and/or have a documented learning or medical issue that must be kept track of.
  • Tutor students outside of class (note: not getting paid extra for this, nor expecting to- I feel like that would be borderline ethical at best.)
  • Grade, and grade assessments in a timely manner (the point of the assessment is feedback and feedback doesn’t help much if it comes too late).

There’s a lot that goes into teaching. I’m not actually complaining, I genuinely love it (well, not the grading… but few teachers love grading. And it’s really super important both for me as a teacher and for my students to know where their progress is). But even though I’ve spent some time unpacking what it means to be a “good teacher”, I still struggle with the feeling that “good teachers” are also supposed to be doing more, making a wider impact beyond just their individual classrooms. Some things that have crossed my mind include:

  • Officially leading a PLC (professional learning community)
  • Leading professional development at the school level or higher
  • Presenting at local and national meetings
  • Joining a committee (for… some sort of school-wide initiative)
  • Going into school administration

And I’m not going to lie, I struggle with this idea of making a wider impact. I would like to be a force for change at my school, in my district, in my state. I would like to help, motivate, inspire other teachers of my discipline. And I’d like to actually get to know some of those teachers that I’ve only admired from a distance via Twitter or other online resources. But, with all the demands of actually teaching, I sometimes don’t know when to find the time. I felt super guilty attending NSTA a few years ago because I was gone for two full days and therefore unavailable to my students; attending any mid-year professional meeting gives me this same feeling of guilt (I haven’t been to NSTA since then partly for this reason). A big struggle around the “work to rule” thing at the end of March was the feeling that I was letting down my students. And really, I love being in the classroom and I actually love most of the things that I do to prepare to be in my classroom. I get nerdily jazzed up about resequencing lesson plans from last year or finding a new way to teach a particular topic. All of this takes time and energy, though. And with all of the time and energy it takes to “just” be a good classroom teacher, I wonder – What “additional” responsibilities are reasonable and good for me to take on, and what’s biting off more than I can chew?  How can I balance the need/desire to give my students the best learning experience I can and be available to them with the need/desire to effect positive change beyond my own classroom?

Some of my struggle is that I’m not quite sure what I have to add to the conversation. Am I doing interesting things in my classroom? Maybe? But nothing I do is invented from scratch, so I feel wary about sharing my ideas and taking credit (and sometimes it’s hard to give credit where credit is due, because I don’t know quite where things came from in the first place), although I’m happy to share resources if people ask. I don’t necessarily feel like an “expert” in anything in particular, because I recognize that all I know is my own experience, and my own classroom experience (almost certainly) does not match anyone else’s, even that of other teachers in my school who may be teaching the exact same lesson as I am (different people, different students, different time of day…)

I don’t have any easy answers. And like most things related to education (or really anything that involves large numbers of other real, living, breathing people), I suspect that there is not one right answer for everyone. I’m still feeling out what my “teacher voice” is for a broader audience. But I think it’s important for teachers to ask ourselves these questions, because if teachers don’t speak up, we get left out of the conversation. So I’m trying to figure it out – where is my zone of risk and my zone of danger? As I think about wrapping up this school year (ok, I have a full quarter of school left and we don’t get out until June 20th, which still seems ages away – assuming that CPS finds a way to avoid ending school on June 1) and I think about next year, I’m just musing on what my own next steps might be and how I might venture out a little bit more without feeling like I’ve gotten in over my head.

work to rule: theory vs. reality

My school is engaging in a “work to rule” action this week. Basically, we are all supposed to clock in at about 7:50 am and clock out by 3:30 pm (classes go from 8:00 – 3:15), and do no work over our 45 min lunch, take no work home. The point of this is to highlight how furloughing “non-instructional time” and asking teachers to do more paperwork affects students in the classroom by showing how much work teachers do outside of the paid 6.25 hr school day.

Teachers from Northside College Prep also participated in a “work to rule” action recently, and one of their math teachers has apparently been taking data on how much time outside of the school day is required to keep things functioning at an “adequate” level (see the article in the Huffington Post). She calculates at least 12 extra hours a week. I’ll be honest, I’m way above that mark (and it sounds like there’s not an end in sight: “Ms. Sullivan’s data suggests that high performing veteran teachers work even more hours than their less experienced peers.”)

I regularly clock 10-12 hr days, arriving at about 6:30 am and leaving (if I leave “early”) by 4:30 pm. My “contractually obligated” work time is 31.25 hrs per week. I regularly work through my lunch, so I’m usually at school between 50-60 hrs per week (and this doesn’t count any work I do at home on evenings or weekends). I’m not productive 100% of that time, but I’d like to think I’m pretty darn close. I haven’t yet managed to leave before 4 pm without scrambling, so needless to say, this week has been a little rough to get out the door by 3:30 pm. Today was particularly hard- we were doing a lab and I had to make sure everything got cleaned up properly and that the supplies were set for tomorrow (particularly as I can’t come in early to clean or reset). I also had to move my laptop and other things to my classroom in the other building (yes, I teach in two separate buildings). This has been my routine all year long and it’s hard to change it now. There are things I take care of at the end of the day to be ready for the next day, and there are things that I take care of in the morning before class starts (either for that day or for something down the line). Tomorrow morning I have to remember to drop off a student’s exam in their separate location testing area, which is normally not a problem but will be a scramble to get done between 7:50-8:00 am.

I don’t know if I’m really sticking to the spirit of the “work to rule” action. When we heard that this was coming, both the physics team and chemistry team kicked into gear to get this entire week planned out and made sure that copies were made in advance. It helps a ton that we’re at the end of the unit for both classes, so things just needed to be finalized rather than planned fresh. (It also helps that next week is short and broken up by PSAT/SAT testing.) Still, I ended up staying late a lot last week to prepare for this week where I wouldn’t be able to do so. So the time was still spent on prep, it’s just a question of whether it was spent earlier or later. I can’t in good conscience really do nothing outside of the school day, because then my classes would be terrible and I just can’t let myself knowingly give my students a bad learning experience. And right now, I feel like I’m letting down my students because they have a test or a quiz or a project (or multiple of the above) coming up or due soon and I’m not available for them before or after school as I normally am.

I’m not going to lie, it’s nice to have more “free time” in the afternoons. I managed to run some errands on Monday afternoon and went to the grocery store yesterday; I had time to cook a real dinner in the middle of the week and I made it to a yoga class last night. But it’s also stressful to not be able to plan on my own time and have to cram things into my 90 minutes of prep every day, particularly as I felt like that time was compressed enough as it is. I prefer coming in early in the mornings because I can get so much done when not many others are around (and I’m also just more functional in the morning).

So I don’t know how I feel about the “work to rule” thing. Overall, it’s been stressful and I doubt that it will result in any real action or notice from those in power (the school district office, the school board, the state…) While it highlights for me how much time and energy I spend on school outside the school day, I wonder if it really lets those outside the teaching profession know how much goes into that 6.25 hr school day. And it’s not that I didn’t know how many hours I spent outside of my “paid” time doing work, or that I ever expected my day to start at 7:50 and end at 3:30. There’s no way to spend 4.5 hrs a day teaching and also have the classes be well prepped and assignments graded in a reasonable time frame. I just wonder what the best way is to drive this point home to those decision makers who seem to have no idea what teachers actually do

What teachers do

On Friday, I received an email from CPS about the four furlough days that they are putting in place between now and the end of the school year. The letter states that “we will do everything within our control to minimize disruptions to classrooms”. And yes, they are not furloughing any days with student attendance. But it makes me wonder- what do CPS administrators think that teachers do? For that matter, what do non-teachers in general think that teachers do?

I’m annoyed at losing pay, yes. (I think CPS effectively gains back the back pay they gave us after the new contract was put in place, and then some.) But I’m more annoyed by losing the time and place to prepare. How can we say that this type of cut isn’t disruptive to classrooms? Teaching goes beyond just showing up for class.

The furlough days are coming at the end of each quarter from here until the end of the school year. I’m not losing time in front of students, but I’m losing prep time. And let’s be honest, I’ll probably be prepping on those days regardless of being paid or not. But having access to the classroom is actually really important in being prepared, in making sure that the instructional time (which is supposedly not being affected) will be useful. Besides, I’m pretty convinced that just instructional time alone isn’t the big factor in student achievement, but rather the quality of that instructional time (supported by this research brief).

What do I do with those “school improvement” days? (And as an aside- if they cut “school improvement days”, what does that tell you about how the district values schools improving from within?)

Yes, I grade. I use the time to make sure that all of my grades are accurate and updated, particularly at the end of a marking period. But that isn’t all I’m doing when I’m not in front of students. I lesson plan. I map out the unit, see if we are meeting the learning goals, see if the pacing makes sense. I modify, update, design activities to meet those learning goals. I write and modify assessments. I prepare my classroom for all of those activities- and the more interactive the activity, the more time and energy it takes to prepare (and I do a lot of interactive activities). And I do all of these things with my subject teams- I’m not working in isolation, I’m working with a whole team of teachers to improve instruction for all of our students. Needless to say, having time built into the school year for these “non-instructional” activities is actually quite important.

I’m particularly annoyed right now about losing the day at the end of first semester, because I was planning on starting second semester with a lab. And while I’m thinking about how to still make it work, prepping a lab is something I definitely cannot do out of my own classroom. I will probably still make it work- by staying late the day before, or coming in on the “furlough” day if our principal opens the building. I’m certainly not gaining an “extra” day off.

There was a poem going around the internet a while ago about “What Teachers Make” (beautifully illustrated by ZenPencils). I just want to add that to make all of those things happen, teachers spend an awful lot of time getting ready for class. The time I spend in front of students is a small part of what I actually do. I just wish that others, particularly those in charge of making district-wide decisions, knew exactly what teachers do.

Decision making

This space has been quieter this year, because real life has been busier. But now I’m finally on winter break and have a moment to relax and reflect, without immediate needs hanging over my head. (I still have things that are in the back of my mind and prevent me from falling asleep right away- such as, what should I put on the physics quiz review handout? How could I design an escape room-style review final exam activity for my chem students? When are we giving that quiz, again? What needs to be on the final exam? How can we sequence things better next year?)

I saw this quote on Twitter earlier this year, and I thought to myself, “well, yeah.”

When I mentioned this quote to a coworker, her response was that really, teachers probably make more minute-by-minute decisions than brain surgeons (because do you want your brain surgeon making a ton of last-minute decisions in the operating room?). Some of the Twitter responses suggest that teachers are more like ER doctors, which is probably more accurate. Some days, teaching feels like triage. I don’t know if the quote above is accurate or even accurately attributed (how do you measure how many minute-by-minute decisions are made by either teacher or brain surgeons? Who has that data?), but I do know I make a lot of decisions during the school day and also when I’m planning and prepping. And for me, the planning/prepping doesn’t actually end until late June, and probably starts up again in late July.

There are just so many things to do, and so many choices to make. Even what I end up spending time on is a choice that I have to make, how I prioritize things. And honestly right now, I feel like I’m not doing my best on anything and there are so many places where I could be doing more, could be doing better. I’ve talked before about how I want more time to do all the things that I want to do to improve my practice. And this year, I feel like I have even less time. I want to be more mindful of my student’s individual needs, I want to help my students reflect more on their own learning (I’m trying some different things, inspired by Kelly O’Shea). I want to really show my students that I care for them as both individual people and as learners of science. But then there’s all of the small or not-so-small administrative things that need to be taken care of (from tracking tardies to documenting students’ interventions), and I’m essentially leading or co-leading two subject teams this year. There have been a fair number of changes in our school and our department this year, which has made things more stressful as everyone’s trying to adjust.

Busyteacher.org has an infographic (shown below) on how teachers are masters of multitasking. I would love to know where this data is from (particularly in light of all of the things surfacing about fake news and our inability to recognize it, so I hope I’m not perpetuating bad data), but I do know that I find myself in all of these roles in one capacity or another, often all in the same day and sometimes all in the same period: information provider, role model, discipline controller, foster parent, assessor, administrator, and facilitator. And some days I feel like I’m doing a terrible job at all of them.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: teaching is intellectually intense. This is why I love it, why I find it so rewarding. But even though I love it, I recognize more and more that I need to find ways to balance my life better. I plan on taking time this winter break to do some recuperating from the stress of teaching, and enjoy some time with family and friends. And sleeping. (Today I slept until 9 am and it was wonderful.) But then I’m still doing some planning for after winter break/preparing for finals, and I also want to take some time to plan how to incorporate all of those other things I want to do. So it’s a break from students, but it’s not really a break from teaching. But my goal is to use the time to become a better teacher. It never ends, but I have to remind myself that this is a good thing- the possibilities for growth are endless, for both me and my students.

is anyone listening?

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories this fall. Earlier, I wrote for the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation on the importance of teacher stories. And I’ve been continuing to think about stories, particularly in light of what’s happening these days.

I still believe it’s vital to share our stories. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of a single story in her TED talk, and I found the entire thing to be quite powerful. I highly recommend watching it – it’s only 19 minutes and gives a lot to think about. Some quotes:

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity… I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

So it’s important to share our stories, but these days I feel like I’m running into two issues: 1) it’s actually really hard to tell your story honestly and 2) who’s actually listening?

It’s hard to be honest about teaching. Teaching is personal, and a lot of my self-worth is tied into whether or not I believe I am a good teacher or not. And because of this, I want others to view me as a good teacher too. I surveyed the internet (ok, my Twitter and Facebook followers) back in August about what makes “good teaching”, and that analysis is coming out with the next issue of Kaleidoscope (which will hopefully be out soon!). But because I want to view myself as a good teacher, because I want others to view me as a good teacher, what I say about my teaching gets skewed a bit.

Add on to that the audience. How I talk about my teaching to my family is different than how I talk about my teaching to my friends, which is again different based on whether that person I’m talking to either is a teacher, was a teacher, or has some other experience in education. I keep things pretty general with my family. “How’s work going?” “Oh, it’s fine. Nothing to complain about.” And yes, it is fine overall, and I recognize that I am fortunate to work in the school that I work at (relative job security and resources for an urban public school). But I tend to gloss over the nuances of teaching. My family does now recognize how much work a teacher puts in (my sister, several years ago: “Oh, now it makes sense why I got so many assignments back with just check marks in high school.”) It’s similar when I talk to my non-teacher friends. Rather than explain the nuances of teaching and educational policy (and I’ll be honest, I’m not as up-to-date on the latter as I could/should be), I keep things to what others can relate to- the funny and/or frustrating things my students said or did, the successes and challenges in interacting with coworkers and admin, the amount of grading I have to do… It would take much longer than a 5-10 min “how are things going?” conversation to unpack all that really happens in a school, and it’s exhausting. Talking about educational policy with people unfamiliar with the world of education gets complicated, and let’s face it- I’m tired.

Add on to that is the burden that I feel sometimes to present a positive view of teachers and teaching to the world at large. I am exhausted by aspects of my job, but when the prevailing sentiment seems to be “well everything would be fine if we just got rid of bad teachers”, I don’t want to give people more fuel to burn the teaching profession with. I want to defend my profession, even though there are aspects of my job that I don’t like and wish would change. I want teachers to have a voice in setting educational policies, in telling the powers that be what works and what doesn’t (because who knows better?). But to be taken seriously, I feel like care needs to be taken in how teachers present themselves to the world.

Which leads me to my second struggle. Sometimes I wonder if anyone is listening, or if this is just “preaching to the choir” and I’m stuck in the kind of echo chamber that apparently social media creates. I’m thinking about this particularly in light of the US election and the recent selection of Besty DeVos for Secretary of Education. Is anyone who has the ability to direct educational policies listening to teachers and their stories? Or are we all holding on to a single story about the other side? I can’t pretend to openly support charter schools, because I don’t. I think they have a lot of problems, particularly the lack of accountability. But I’m willing to acknowledge that some charter schools do quite well by their students, and I would love to hear about what makes those schools successful (it appears to be a balance between autonomy and accountability, where most public schools have too little autonomy and too much accountability, while most charter schools have too much autonomy and too little accountability.) I would like educational reformists to also critically examine where their reform policies work and where they don’t, and listen to the teachers in both contexts. Teaching and education are complex, but too often we (myself included) try to boil things down to one simple solution that should work for everyone.

NPR suggests reading the book that’s not for you to bridge the political divide. I’m willing to do that (also, I just love reading), but I wonder if anyone else is also doing that. You can’t force someone else to listen to your story. So I’m still wondering – how do I tell my stories honestly, and how do I deal with it when it seems like no one is listening?

But, because every time I think more about stories, I end up thinking about the Hamilton musical, I’ll leave you with the finale: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

pro sports – pro teaching?

Yesterday night, the Chicago Cubs won the National League pennant and are going to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Or so I’m told. (I might be a Northside Chicago resident, but I don’t actually know anything about baseball and I refuse to be a bandwagon fan.) But many of my friends are longtime Cubs fans and there’s been a lot of talk about the different players and what they did or didn’t do and how they got to the World Series. And it got me thinking.

Almost anyone thinks they have a right to critique what pro sports players do and suggest what they should have done (particularly when a team loses). Most of those people who critique sports have some background in sports- maybe they played baseball or softball when they were younger, maybe they’re part of a sports league right now. But I would guess that many sports fans don’t fully know what it’s actually like to be a professional sports player and all of the decisions and training that go into that one game.

I have a lot of sympathy for pro sports players who seem to screw up. The media attention and the replays must be hard to deal with, and I’m sure that they have to learn how to not let such criticism get to them. It must be difficult to be in a profession that’s under so much scrutiny all the time.

In some ways, teachers are not that different from professional sports players. Almost everyone has an opinion about how teaching and education should work in this country, because everyone has gone through one school system or another. And there is no end of critique for teachers and suggestions on what we should do to make education better. People are quick to point the blame to teachers when the schools seem to be failing (see Judge Moukawher of Connecticut’s criticism of “uselessly perfect teacher evaluations” and Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner calling Chicago Public School teachers “virtually illiterate” and principals “incompetent”).

But there are differences too- pro sports players are not as a whole disparaged, and there is always the chance that you’ll be highly compensated (not really sure what happens to players in the minor leagues). In general, people seem to recognize the amount of work and effort it takes to become a pro sports player (although I do think there’s a misguided notion that all you need is talent). There was a Comedy Central sketch by Key and Peele on ‘Teacher Center’, a “what if” teachers were treated like pro sports players? And, as a teacher, I found it kind of funny but also kind of off. I don’t really want the level of individual public scrutiny that pro sports players are subjected to. What I would really like is a general acknowledgment that teaching is a complex task that requires continued training and development, and perhaps the funding to teach students effectively (and not continually being asked to do more with less).

I put long hours and a lot of thought into my job. I’ve been told that baseball is more interesting if you understand the strategy behind the game, because apparently there’s a lot that goes into it. I wonder what it would be like if people understood that there’s also a lot of strategy that goes into teaching, and planning good strategy takes years and hard work to develop (hopefully, though, not as many years as it seems to have taken the Cubs…)

assumptions

Before teaching, I spent about 6 years studying chemical engineering, and one of the first things I learned in my engineering classes was to list all of the assumptions we were making in our calculations. Things like 100% yield, perfect insulation, the gases are ideal. In some situations, the assumptions make perfect sense; in other situations we’re at the limit and the assumptions no longer hold. I still remember being horrified in one of my design classes because we were told to include a 30% safety factor (i.e., make all vessels 30% larger to account for any crazy expansions/explosions). I was left wondering if there wasn’t a way to get the safety factor smaller- with better assumptions, perhaps?

As I get ready I start my fourth year teaching, I’m thinking about my assumptions about teaching, learning, and collaborating, and wondering- where are my assumptions valid, and where do they break down?

In some ways, I started unpacking my assumptions about teaching and learning about 4 years ago, when I joined the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF) as a teaching fellow. With the help of my colleagues at KSTF, I’ve explored a variety of questions about my teaching practice over the past four years via teacher inquiry (but I by no means have clear cut answers to any of these questions):

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As I’ve been reflecting on my teacher inquiry (meta-reflecting?), I’ve realized how large a role my own assumptions about teaching and learning have played in this process. Through the help of my many thoughtful colleagues at KSTF, I’ve unearthed some of my own assumptions. I started with the question of “How do I foster a safe, effective learning environment in my classroom?” Then I got the (very gentle and well-intentioned) pushback about “What does it even mean for students to learn? Do my students and I agree on what learning looks like?” There were assumptions there about what learning is and isn’t. For me: Learning is conceptual understanding, demonstrated by an ability to apply concepts to new situations. Learning isn’t just a rote memorization and regurgitation of facts. I tried giving a survey to get at what students thought about learning, but I realize that my assumptions about what learning is and isn’t influenced the questions that were asked. After some frustrating class discussions, I moved into the question of “good class discussions” and had to first unpack some assumptions about what a good class discussion is and isn’t. (Good: everyone talks, students come to scientific conclusions on their own. Bad: Few people talk/same voices over and over, pulling teeth to come to conclusions, or students come to “wrong” conclusions.) I’ve tried to step back from the assumptions inherent in my questions to just get a snapshot of what’s happening in my classroom (questions like “What does discussion actually look like in my classroom?” and “Who is and isn’t participating in my classroom?”) but there was the inherent assumption that class discussions should lead to student learning. I found myself thinking about whether there are points in the curriculum where lecture is appropriate and/or necessary and when class discussions are beneficial to student learning. I shifted my focus to small group discussions, but ran into the similar assumption that small group discussions and interactions should lead to student learning.

Throughout this whole process, I realized that I am heavily invested in the idea that students should be constructing content knowledge for themselves, and that this construction of knowledge is best facilitated by small group interactions and discussions, as well as student-led class discussions. And there were assumptions about teaching and learning embedded in all of this, such as:

  • Groupwork is better than lecture (is it always better than lecture?).
  • Student-directed inquiry is better than teacher-led classrooms (again, always? How much scaffolding should I give? When is it appropriate to step in and when should I step back? What does a student-directed classroom actually look like? When is the chaos more detrimental than helpful?)
  • Struggle is necessary for learning (when is struggle productive and when is it counterproductive? How do my students view struggle? Should I be more explicit with them about why I let them struggle? When does too much struggle lead to students viewing themselves as failures in science?)

My assumptions about teaching and learning have affected my classroom on a daily basis (what activities I choose, how I introduce and go over content, even how I assign homework), and have affected the kinds of questions I’ve been asking and reflecting on for the past four years. I will tell you that I hate lecture- but I do lecture. I give a bellringer every day. Yes, I give the students time to work on it individually and in groups before we go over it, and yes, I ask the class for their answers, but I’m still the one directing the conversation and writing on the board. Isn’t that a lecture, albeit a short one? And I’ve definitely given other short lectures on material such as how to balance equations, what a dissolved ionic solid looks like, etc. My assumptions about what good teaching is led to mini-crises in my teacher identity. When I found that class discussions weren’t really working (the way that I wanted) and when I found myself lecturing more in my chemistry class than I did in my physics class (I didn’t want to be a lecturing teacher), when my students asked me for more lecture, I was left wondering if I’m just a bad teacher. I’ve had the fortune of having people I know and trust gently push back and help me unpack my assumptions about good teaching when I’ve struggled with these things.

I’m also realizing that my assumptions about the “best” ways to teach and for students to learn also influence my interactions with my colleagues. I have to remember to step back and think whenever I have a gut negative reaction against something that another teacher has proposed. How are my assumptions about teaching and learning affecting my reaction? I realize again and again how personal teaching is, and how invested we all are in our own practice, so I need to remember to be vulnerable and honest about my practice, even as I have strong feelings about why I teach the way that I teach. To be truly reflective (and to really grow as a teacher), I need to examine when and how my teaching strategies are working, and how to adjust them when necessary. Unfortunately, there’s no “magic bullet” to education (although many education reformers will tell you that their way will do it), and I know this. I want to be more reflective and flexible and cognizant of my own assumptions as I work with others, because teaching doesn’t happen in a bubble, and these conversations, even the hard, uncomfortable conversations where I feel slightly defensive, are how I’m growing as a teacher.

Assumptions are a starting point. I don’t think assumptions are bad, because without them we wouldn’t get very far. Trying to model all gases as real gases is unnecessarily complicated if you’re operating within temperature/pressures where the gases behave more or less ideally. But I always had to be aware of my assumptions in my engineering calculations, and I usually had to double check at the end that they held up. In the same way, as I approach Year 4 of my teaching career, I want to be aware of my assumptions and how my assumptions are influencing my teaching decisions. Hopefully, this awareness will lead me to more reflective decision-making in my classroom.

(semi) current events and current questions

There’s been a lot going on in the media around race lately. And I’m still trying to process what it means for me personally and what it means for me as an educator of urban students. This post might seem a little belated, but better late than never, right? Last fall, I started thinking more deeply about race, gender, and education, particularly as I am an Asian-American female science teacher. I found it interesting that this past year, none of my students brought up Laquon McDonald, the Pulse Nightclub shootings, or any of the other incidents that were in the media in my classes (or at least, in my hearing). I wonder if any of them would have talked about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the Dallas shooting, or the Baton Rouge shooting. I wonder how to better create a space where students can both do science and talk about how they’re being affected by current events. I wonder how to help students see that science and current events are not mutually exclusive, that science and their identities are not mutually exclusive. I wonder how to acknowledge the ways that, historically, their identities might have been devalued in science classrooms and science as a field of study.

How do I talk about any of these all-too-common current events in my classroom when we’re usually just focused on particle pictures and stoichiometric calculations? How do I get myself out of the mindset of “but there’s so much stuff we have to cover!”? I feel like silence is consent, and I do not consent to a world where the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is necessary, where there has to be constant explanation for why it’s #BlackLivesMatter and not #AllLivesMatter. I do not consent to a world where recent violence events are not only possible but happen regularly. But I also don’t know how to speak out in an authentic way and I am so used to being silent.

How can I be respectful of my students and their identities (which run the entire gamut in terms of race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and political views- and not necessarily in the intersections you might expect)? I find this even more challenging because of my own identity as an Asian American who is only just learning about the racial history of Asians in America, who is only just learning about the nuances of the relationships between Asians, Black, and White (and I don’t quite know where to start with the relationships between Asian and Latin@). I found the paper by Claire Jean Kim on “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans” to be particularly helpful in aligning my personal experience within the broader context of the racial history of Asians in America, but I still don’t know how to talk about it with others, let alone with high school students who are also still figuring themselves out. I struggle with getting past the “don’t rock the boat” mentality that my parents implicitly passed down to me. I struggle with articulating where Asians fit into the American context without trivializing my experience or the experiences of other peoples of color. I struggle with contextualizing my experiences compared to other Asian American groups or sub-groups, because just because we’re all Asian Americans does not mean we have had similar experiences.

How do I help students see past the stereotypes of each other and also of me? I recognize that as an Asian person teaching chemistry and physics, I may be implicitly reinforcing “model minority” stereotypes. In a diverse classroom full of students labeled “high achieving”, it is so much easier to “just focus on the content”, but a part of me feels like this is a cop-out. Even saying “I don’t know what to do” feels like a cop-out. But really- where do I start?

The question that I seem to keep coming back to is this: Just because things are mostly ok for me, does that mean that the status quo is acceptable? And I’m not saying that I’ve never experienced racism- if I think about it deeply, I can identify instances of subtle racism specific to Asian Americans (“Where are you from? No really, where are you from?”) But I’m starting to recognize how silence is complicity with broader racist structures, even if I myself do not want to be considered a racist. How do I push back against the status quo- in my life, in my classroom?

I’m doing a lot of reading this summer. A friend pointed me toward a crowd-sourced Google Doc on Resources for non-Black Asians on Anti-Blackness and I’ve only dented the surface of those links (the paper by Kim I linked above is from this resource doc). I’m reading Christopher Emdin’s book For White Folk Who Teach in the Hood. I’m listening to (reading? following?) #educolor posts on Facebook and Twitter to learn from those who are doing good work with actual students. And I’m spending a lot of time just thinking, processing. Trying to find ways to authentically acknowledge students in my classroom, not just copy-paste someone else’s methods. And, in the fall, I hope to listen to my students as well. I hope to make it clear to them that I’m still learning, but that I want to learn from them and with them.

Year 3- reflections

Tuesday was the last day of classes, so I’ve been spending the past two days just kind of recovering mentally, physically, and emotionally from this past year. It’s been a long and kind of exhausting year, but in looking back I can still say it’s been a good year, and I’m thankful to be able to say that still.

I started this year with a list of things I was going to try in my classroom and I was able to implement most things, though I’m already thinking of how to change things for next year.

Here’s how some of the structures I implemented this year in my classroom went:

  • Group roles were mostly successful first semester but definitely fell by the wayside by second semester. One student asked me the last few weeks of school why they didn’t have group roles anymore, and my reply was “because you don’t need them.” They acknowledged that, but one student also said “the only thing group roles did was let ___ boss us around”. So there’s that. It was the “Team Captain” role that students (mis)used to boss each other around… I’d like to keep with group roles, particularly for the start of the year, but it’s challenging when my groups have 4-5 students and I only have about 3 roles that I really find useful (facilitator, resource manager, and recorder/reporter). So I’m going to have to rethink this for next year.
  • Pseudo standards-based grading and spiraling quizzes were… honestly a lot of work. And I don’t know that their grades were that much different than if I had just averaged all of their quiz grades together because of all of the ups and downs. But, I did give each student an end-of-year printout with each standard listed and their quiz score on each standard. Most of them groaned when I passed this out, but I did hear some of them talking about how “ok, I need to focus on 5.4 and 4.1 for the final…” I think I’d like to bring them back to their quiz grades more often during the year (maybe before every unit exam? Although there was a brief discussion of not having unit exams at all next year if we continue to spiral quizzes). I did get my coworkers to spiral quizzes as well, and we agree that it’s nice to “force” students to revisit the content. (Some students disagreed and vocalized that on an end-of-year feedback form.) I will probably continue to grade quizzes by standard if possible next year, because it gives the opportunity for students to better assess their understanding of specific topics (if they’re given the opportunity/space to really look at their scores and interpret them).
  • Interactive(-ish) notebooks – need to structure this better. I think the end of class reflections I had students do was not useful because it was so rushed. I’m thinking of perhaps having them look at the list of learning objectives and figure out which one we’re one (which shouldn’t be hard because I go in order). I also need to rethink how to give students better access to work that is posted online but done in their notebooks, because I found some students didn’t ever do homework that had an online component.
  • Google Classroom Again, I found several students didn’t ever do their online homework, and the lack of turning in labs severely penalized them (not to mention that they also then didn’t get practice or feedback on their understanding, which led to low quiz/test scores as well). So I’m rethinking this. I’m thinking about having labs done in the notebooks only, but having students submit written lab application/extension questions in paragraph form. I got this idea from another colleague (join us in our Twitter/google doc conversation on chemistry stuff!). But Google Classroom integrates pretty seamlessly with Goobric and Doctopus and makes grading written work way faster, so I would like to keep this while still being mindful of making sure students have access (and not penalizing or embarrassing them in front of peers because they don’t).
  • POGILs– my colleagues and I worked to put a hands-on component to several POGIL activities (and I realize that whenever students have a hands-on portion, they think they’re doing a lab- are they wrong?), which lays a good foundation for next year and further modifications. I love POGIL but my students don’t, mostly because they struggle sometimes with seeing this as learning (I’m still getting the “please lecture more” and “please actually teach us” feedback at the end of the year…)
  • Whiteboards and class discussions- I still want to figure out better ways to run whiteboard discussions (and class discussions in general). I’m attending a conference by the Right Question Institute this summer so I’m hoping to come back with some good ideas of how to get students to generate the questions and lead the discussions.

There’s a lot of room for improvement for next year. And I was frustrated a lot this year- by my students, by my colleagues, by myself. It was exhausting working with the chemistry team to overhaul what I did last year to make it work better and for all of our different teaching styles. And it was strange to find myself in a leadership role among our co-planning team as a 3rd year teacher (our veteran chem teachers did not join us- one was only teaching AP chem so it didn’t apply and the other was focused on a new forensics course so didn’t have the time to co-plan, so I had the most years of experience among our group). I also started a 3 min observation club among my department, and we’re thinking of how to expand it to other departments (maybe math and engineering to start?), and it was again strange to be in a leadership/organizing role among more veteran teachers. I wanted to teach my students how to be self-competent, and I could have done a better job of this, both implicitly and explicitly this year. But a lot happened this year, and I believe despite the struggles, the frustrations, the venting sessions I had with friends to keep me sane, it was a good year. I want to keep all of these things in mind as I recharge this summer, so that I can start next year ready to change things up again to continue to improve.

And I will say (again) that the thing I love most about teaching is that it’s never the same. The students are certainly not the same, but I am also not the same teacher this year as I was last year, because I’m (hopefully) using these experiences to adjust my practice and grow. And growing (literally or figuratively) is a sometimes painful process, but so so worth it. So the exhaustion, the frustration is worth it (though I’m still trying to figure out how to balance my life so that maybe I’m just a little less tired and stressed during the school year…) I’ll just have to remember this post when I’m drowning in a sea of grading next fall…

Teaching, Truth, and Twitter

This past year, I’ve participated in the #teach180 microblogs on Twitter, and it definitely got me more engaged in using Twitter as a professional development tool. I’ve interacted with people who I’ve never met, getting and giving ideas and feedback from all over. I was really good about posting nearly every day at the beginning, then it dropped off a bit, now I mostly post every other day because we’re on block scheduling and I give the same lessons two days in a row. I felt like I didn’t have anything exciting to share on the second day of teaching the same material, and some blocks I didn’t post at all because “all they did was take a test” or something similarly visually unappealing.

This got me thinking about how we present ourselves as teachers and reminded me of an article in the Atlantic I came across a while back (possibly last summer, though it was first published in 2014)- I Lie About My Teaching. Ben Orlin describes some of the tensions I’ve been feeling this year- how what we choose to say about our teaching paints a picture for others and can give the idea that everything is rosy or that everything is hell. But, as he says, “In the classroom, it’s never pure gold or pure tin; we’re all muddled alloys.”

I want to present myself as a very student-centered educator. So the things I chose to post on Twitter were usually student-centered activities. I occasionally tweeted about my bad days, but it certainly wasn’t as often as I actually had bad days (or, more often, mediocre days).

When I stop and honestly reflect on my year and my posting, I realize that part of the reason I was posting less and less often as the year went on was because I didn’t feel like I had anything “worthwhile” from that day to post. Sometimes, in the busyness of teaching, I just forgot. Sometimes when I remembered, all I had was the (boring) review material we did that day. Sometimes their whiteboards weren’t interesting, even though I had photos (because of a visually impaired student, I had an excuse to take photos of their whiteboards often). It’s not that I was ever outright lying about my classroom, but no one can see what happens in my class unless they are literally right there, and what they would see is a completely mixed bag.

My classroom isn’t exciting all of the time. Their whiteboard discussions are often boring and half of the students aren’t paying attention at any given time. I’ve had problems with keeping specific students engaged this year (mostly boys- which is another wondering that I’ll leave for another day). They struggle with labs and what the post-lab questions are asking them about; they struggle with interpreting data that doesn’t clearly have independent and dependent variables. When I invited my 3 min observation club in to see my classroom earlier this year, I was apprehensive and nervous that they would judge me harshly for what didn’t happen in my classroom. When an administrator drops by for my observations, I’m apprehensive that they will see things that need work and use that to penalize me (this is mostly an irrational fear, as my admin doesn’t really use observations that way).

However, I’m coming to believe that these “unimportant” or “unexciting” pieces of teaching are just as vital to post as the time that kid says the most amazing thing during the post-lab discussion or the time that new inquiry-based lab was amazing and the students learned all the things. Sometimes I wonder if the conversation in online spaces (and elsewhere) about teaching contributes to the ideas of “rockstar” teachers who can just lift any student up (and therefore if you aren’t successful at doing that, you’re not a good teacher).

This is the reality of teaching. And I confess, I am sometimes intimidated to start a conversation with an educator that I’ve never met and who looks (from their Twitter profile or blog or whatever) to be an amazing teacher. It’s even sometimes intimidating to start a conversation with teachers who I know in real life because I don’t want them to see me as a sub-par educator. I struggle with being honest with my own coworkers because what if they see my honesty as proof that my methods don’t work?  Or if they think I’m just bragging when I want to share something that went really well? (It’s challenging working with teachers who have different teaching philosophies.) Teaching is such a personal profession, it’s hard to separate myself and my self-worth from how others judge my teaching. But honesty is important too- the honesty to recognize that we all have bad days and a lot of mediocre days. That we aren’t where we want to be as educators but are working toward it. Because how can I improve if I’m convincing myself that everything is rosy?

So I’m challenging myself for next year (and the rest of this year- we aren’t done until June 21) to be more honest about what happens in my classroom. As Ben Orlin said at the end of his article, “But I think we owe it, to ourselves if to no one else, to tell the most honest stories that we can. I’ll only advance as a teacher, and offer something of value to those around me, if I’m able to say what I do.” I want to unabashedly share the good, the bad, and the just mediocre, and hopefully by my own candor encourage others to do the same.