How To Be a Good Teacher

This week, I’ve seen a bit extra in the “this is good teaching” or “this is a model teacher” news realm.  It ranges.  Here’s this super exuberant principal who uses his infectious enthusiasm and awesome dance rooms in the classroom, and then there is this new kind of instruction (no ‘please’; only high expectations).

Both seem sort of ridiculous.  For instance, it’s not fair to expect the kind of teaching as shown by that principal since not all personalities work like that.  (Plus, there isn’t evidence that this is “deep” so much as algorithmic learning).  Then the latter, with the crazy “live” coaching in a scripted manner .. I snorted. Who would actually want that for THEIR own child?

I always think it would do society good if everyone took one year to teach.  Their teaching would in no way enhance the lives of their students or help out schools in any way, shape, or form.  It would just be a civic duty of society to allow freshly graduated non-students to finally understand a smidgen of what teachers go through on a daily basis.  THEN, they can humbly go on with their lives and learn to be more generous with their wallets (as taxpaying voters) and lighten up on the criticism (as parents).

In my opinion, two things are in the making of a good teacher: coaching and experience.  I think experience is ultimately how you get to be a good teacher. I don’t even think I realized I wasn’t a good teacher (in fact, that I was a rather POOR teacher) until my 4th year in. (I think most people mistake intelligence, creativity, and score results as “effective teaching” when in reality that’s achievable by most.  We can talk about what true “teaching” is later). Most people quit before then OR (yikes), in some charter worlds, take on higher roles.  What a sad-looking future!  Yet you NEED the experience by starting to accustom yourself to how students act, how to negotiate tactfully, how to balance your work and your life, and how to TEACH…  and those years zoom by before you can return to anything as a teacher!

But experience is nothing without a good coach to shape your experience and help you reflect.  (I think this is hard because I don’t think every coach knows how to coach, either.  COACHES need to be coached.)  But last year, I finally figured out how the teacher-coach dynamic should work in a way that benefits me (the teacher), AND this year, I have an amazing coach.  (Actually I have 3 very adept coaches, but you know how it is, over-coaching can sometimes suck too… BUT I’m lucky that I just get to really delve into different facets of my teaching with 3 different views).  Anyway, my math coach is awesome.  We meet weekly.  I feel like I get stuff done.  I feel like I go in bite-sized steps to plan what to next.  I feel like I’m becoming a better educator and I don’t want to go back to what I used to do.  AND I appreciate my coaching sessions instead of dreading to go to them because I get real feedback and we brainstorm and she’s actually had experience with the same demographics and material.  It’s good.

No expectations to create a sing and dance show.  No requirement to go by a script.  Rather, we come up with what *is* best for kids to help them to become critical thinkers and dynamic self-directed learners… and we just keep trying to coax them in that direction.  THANKS WENDY BATY!


Adolescents.. sigh

Today I left school early, tired, sick.  The last reason being the official reason for why I could go.  It was a pretty dumpy week, not just for me, but for other teachers.

Yesterday, I read the NY Times article, “How to Help Kids in Poverty Adjust to the Stability of School after Break.”  It was sad because I realized I messed up personally by being aloof instead of warm.

and today I ran into this old gem of a friend… (Bukowski’s poem)

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do


And I cried on the bus because on one hand, I’m imagining myself reading this poem to my kids and them scoffing or choosing not to “get it”.  On the other hand, I’m imagining myself handing this poem to a few students and maybe they’ll read it and get it.  On the third hand, I’m just wondering why and how it came to be so bleak for them.

Even though this week was a mess-up week for me, next week can be a fresh start.  “[His mercies] are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23b).

The Delicate Experience of School Politics

This year has been an eye-opening, and sobering experience for me. I suppose every year is.  But especially this year, it’s been interesting. I have go-to systems, and I feel confident in how I respond to kids.  I don’t work *as much* as I used to.

However, this year, I learned that school is not so cut and dry. It’s not about my being a good teacher and making sure students learn.  It’s about learning to communicate with different kinds of communicators and learning what sort of persona comes across.  It’s about the structures I’m in and the expectations put upon me.  It’s this HUGE intricate SCHOOL web, and my class and I are not isolated beings.

I guess I’ve been sitting on this thought for a while since November, when essentially, I got in a sticky situation at my school.  It was interesting because things that I naturally do in and out of school settings with coworkers (cry, express frustration, emotionally collapse, humorously share anecdotes) were brought up essentially as evidence of my “emotionalism” and “tendency to lash out.”

So now, I’m dialing back, but I think that my superiors have noticed a rift, and for me, it’s really awkward because I can’t just turn on the “buddy-buddy” if I know that if ever we reach a disagreement, those private moments will be used as evidence of my “lack of professionalism.”

Also, I think I’m just more aware of how I present myself because this past semester, a teacher was fired.  It’s so obvious when a teacher is on his/her way out.  There’s all this fake “support” and essentially, a paper trail… and man, at the end of the day, politics just get ugly.  Anyway, I’m not afraid of being fired or anything.  I guess all I’m trying to say is… man, once you’re at a point where you start to notice systemic issues and want to try to change things, it’s a whole new ballgame of tact, language, and watching your back.

Glass Half-Empty?

I appreciate that I’m at a school that likes to celebrate successes and understand that teaching is difficult.  At the same time, I’m struggling a bit between over-celebrating or just sugar coating situations to .. keep the morale high? or make it seem like things are better than they are?  I don’t know why they do this!

So last week, we had our first project segment of our math program.  It was a mess.  Teachers weren’t fully prepared, materials weren’t paced well, students were a hodge-podge of ability and behaviors, and it was cramped.  Basically, everything we had just accustomed ourselves to in the classroom instruction setting (students working on the same standards with similar backgrounds, and smaller groups) went out the window.

As a result, it was horrific.  It took everything in me to stay positive everyday and constantly brainstorm and make spur-of-the-moment changes to at least help some kids be successful.  At the same time, I gave up on the “management” part and simply just .. tried to cut my losses.  It was discouraging to say the least.

On our “presentation day”, that kids didn’t take seriously until that day showed up…, I had 6 out of 24 kids present in one 7/8 class, 4/19 kids present in my other 7/8 class. 10/16 kids present in my 6th grade class, and 6/16 kids present in the other 6th grade class.

That day we also had the admin-equivalents do walk-throughs and video our “baseline.”  Mine was the only class that even had presentations because some kids did do it.  Was it because of my stellar teaching? No.  Kids who have that extra drive will always succeed despite poor teachers, environments, and influences.  Those students are not whom I gauge my success by.

So, I rolled my eyes a bit when this was “celebrated.”  (See? They were talking about math – and they had the opportunity to talk math!).  But then, this same example was touted in our small math PD.  (See how Junia’s classroom had this presentation opportunity — never mind that everyone else at the other tables were totally off-topic).  Then, today, I saw this “inspirational example” in a school-wide newsletter.  And this just sort of ticked me off… because I get that we’re scrounging for the silver-lining, but there’s actually a lot of other examples we could look at.  Why can’t we acknowledge that this first round was crap.  Why do we sugarcoat?  I think it actually cheapens our successes and experiences because to anyone who is on the inside, they know what the actual circumstances were.  Yet everyone on the outside perceives something different.

I know it’s tantamount to our success and positive culture to celebrate small breakthroughs, but when 2 students who are at- or above-level and are self-motivated are provided as examples of “success”, it makes me feel like we’re desperate.

Other teachers told me to stop saying, “But” and just to acknowledge the positives, and I DO, but at the same time, I’m not PROUD about this.  And I hope I’ll NEVER be at a position where THIS is a “proud” moment, because it’s not.  The kids that most needed my help didn’t get the help they needed, and I severely doubt the line, “but kids who normally don’t have the opportunity to talk math, now did.”

Am I being overly scrouge-y about this?  I don’t know.  But I wish they would stop using that almost lucky video clip… because I think teachers in my same context who don’t know the context in which that clip was taken would actually feel discouraged.  I’d feel discouraged if I saw this — I’d wonder, “What am I not doing that this teacher is doing?”

Well here’s my answer.  You’re probably doing nothing different- just this teacher at hand lucked out with two great kids.

THEN this makes ME suspicious of every stinking video I see of “good work.”

In the end, it’s about the kids.

Last night, I stayed up giggling and discussing school issues with Devon, the science teacher at my school.  That’s one thing I really love about my school is I really truly respect and learn from my coworkers – something I didn’t really have at my old places.

Today was uneventful.  This week had been a series of ups and downs, and at the end of the day, despite wonky structures, uneven leadership, and unfulfilled promises, it’s really about the kids.

At my first site, it really angers me to see kids really push and test new teachers.  Watching them do that reminds me of all the hardship I had last year.  So, when TC was on a different website and kids were making weird noises, I swooped in and sent him off with a referral.  Yet as I was writing this referral, I felt we got an okay conversation in.  (I did feel a little guilty because although I gave him warnings/reminders to stay on the right site last week, I hadn’t given him one this week).

“TC, you know why we’re spending all this money and time on this program?”


“Was math good for you last year?  Why wasn’t it good for you?”

“Because we didn’t get it.”

“Yeah, nobody except ___ got anything.  But here we are trying to make things individualized for you, and you’re wasting it.  Tell me, do you do math at home?”

“Yeah.. sometimes.”

“Really?” (Skeptical)

“No yeah, really. Sometimes.”

“Okay. But I bet you spend waaay more time watching Jeremy Lin than doing math.  How about the next time you’re here, you spend math time doing math?”

I know I sound harsh in this exchange, but the reason I wanted to share this was because I felt the conversation worked and because I was here before, there was something to build on.  I love just bumping into these kids as they grow and being able to teach without all the management, new-teacher drama.

The unfortunate thing is seriously, these kids are so entitled (especially now that I can compare between schools). I get so irritated at how these kids constantly want to listen to music or play games.  It’s like… do that on your own time.  Yet I also feel like this indicates that kids feel safe at this school.. (to be as bratty as they want).. and our reflective systems here.. I love it a lot.

[[On a side note: I hate how music is used as this pseudo-babysitter.  Sure, kids may claim it “calms” them, but there’s no research that shows its benefit (aside from classical), and, let’s be real… it’s mainly a classroom management/behavior tool. For me, I’d rather just hold kids to a higher standard. . . it doesn’t kill them. I promise.]]

Marbles did awesome today – subdued voice, ready smile.  Fists was dropped off in my 6th grade class (I have no idea why), but she did well (I’m tempted to call Seneca and be like, “please call before you send them HAHA”).  DS came in angry and “ready to fight someone” but ended well, and I have to say, I’m most proud of my interactions with her today.

I think just my brief interactions with people like Katherine (my old AP) and Devon and watching how they interact with students have helped me figure out a way to talk with my kids.  For instance, DS came in with huge outbursts and a big sucky attitude, but I kept it suuuuper light.  I laughed, I smiled, I cajoled, I encouraged.  I mainly did all this because at this school, I *know* sending the child to the office won’t solve anything.  It stinks because it cut out a lot of learning from other kids, but by the end of the day, she came up to me proudly with her laptop to show me how well she did on her exit slip, and I think emotionally, she ended in a better place.

I think I’m learning to recognize power struggles, and a lot of middle school is really just relinquishing everything so that kids would learn and come to respect and eventually emulate the way I treat people.

After school, I chatted with EC, JC2’s younger brother and his cousin.  EC who is super shy and quiet just has so much to say after school, and I think that has to do with the fact that he feels like we have a connection because I taught his brother.  He asked me if I’d be coming back next year and the fact that in September, he’s asking about next year brought a pang to my heart because this school seriously goes through so much turnover.

After the math meeting, I then recruited three 8th graders to help me organize my Chromebook cart.  This is another thing I’ve learned.  Although I never used to value organization that much and I hate decorating, I found that a super neat, precise, and decorated environment helps kids do better.  I just wish I could do more for them.

This past Wednesday, I left when school ended to walk to the other school to make it for a 2pm meeting.  As I walked through Fruitvale, I ran into a lot of kids, and I realized, I feel like I know a majority of the middle school population in the Fruitvale.  And that made me pretty happy.  300 kiddos – wanna love em all.

Discipline systems. Where to begin.


People don’t even *like* that word. Discipline. Compliance. Defiance. Punishment. Etc.

I think, if we do something, we should do it all the way.  And if we decide to do something, it should be the RIGHT something.

I guess that’s narrow-minded, but really, I don’t think there are *many* ways to do one thing well, and I think extrinsic motivators are REALLY annoying.

In general, I really liked Rafe Esquith’s classroom management style described in Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire.  I implemented a classroom economy while also emphasizing the Five Levels of Motivation (Maslow) in hopes that one day, students would do things because they had their own code rather than simply to avoid getting in trouble or getting a reward.

I also really liked the idea of group incentives and individual incentives to jumpstart class buy-in balanced out by strict, consistent consequences.

I’m sure if I say this, everyone would agree. But it’s just so darn interesting to see how everyone implements it in their classroom!

Last year, I took to heart a few strategies from Whole-Brain Teaching as suggested by one of my super respected colleagues… and basically just trial and error and being super consistent led to a few tears, outbursts, but ultimately sanity and most importantly, steady, strong relationships.

This year, I’m just pretty frustrated.

  1. I don’t like to be the person that upholds a rule.  I’m a big rule-stickler, and I also notice when rules aren’t being followed.  For instance, gum is not allowed at my school. I am really good at spotting gum.  Dead-on good.  I am also really good at spotting phones and uniform violations.  But, I also know some kids have exceptions. I get super confused if a kid is blatantly not following a rule later on in the day (especially if I know they’ve been with another teacher), because I just assume there’s a reason that kid is not following the rule.  But then, if I’m suddenly upholding the rule, I become the bad guy.  And that just makes me mad.
  2. I get the whole idea for positive language – but is it really that bad to call a rule, “rule” instead of “norm” or “expectation”?  I don’t really understand the reasoning behind it.  I mean, I follow laws and I don’t freak out at the fact that there are laws.  Whatever. That’s a miniscule bone to pick.
  3. Warnings upon warnings is dumb. Today, I basically gave a kid 4 warnings before I sent him out to “do a reflection” which consisted of checking 3 boxes and then of him interrupting me in class to “check-in.”  We don’t do detentions because admin-led detentions “takes the power from the teacher” (naw man, TAKE that power – TAKE that power and RUN those detentions!), and we’re encouraged to have students “reflect” instead.  So… yeah, “reflection” is now a consequence…. which is exactly what I tried so hard not to make it in my class last year. I wanted kids to know reflection is a skill and strategy and that they don’t necessarily lead to a consequence.  But now, it’s basically step 3 in our consequence list.
  4. PBIS is just.. really annoying. I feel like every time it’s implemented, we’re paying kids to be good.  I get it that there are lots of different kinds of extrinsic motivators that we’re already doing… but if we DO do these, I’m not given ENOUGH incentives to give out to students and shouldn’t positive incentives also be balanced out by consequences?  What am I? A preschool? haha.

I think it’s just frustrating to be put in a situation where the systems are not strong so I’m not really set up to succeed.  I appreciate my coordinator’s philosophy because she’s saying that everything we’re doing is messy and it’s a bit unfair to hold kids to standards when we’re not having the smoothest plans.  I think though, that’s not really my fault.  At the end of the day, I’ve actually put a lot of time and thought into the lessons, and if other people are dropping the ball, why and how is it my fault?  If it’s not my fault, why do I have to deal with the aftermath of kids who are mouthy and mean?  Why don’t they deal with it?

Okay, I can’t just hand off the teaching, haha, but I did tell my coordinator that today was a day where if I only worked at this second site (with these ridiculous discipline policies), I would have quit, because there are many other schools who uphold a strict but warm system and I could easily work there.  I cannot work in a place where systems differ from classroom to classroom. That just adds way too much stress to an already stressful job.

My coordinator did bring up good points though.  We can’t bash a system when we’re not at our best either.  Also, it’s good that kids are testy – they shouldn’t just accept any person placed as an authority figure.  I guess I’m just sick of having to “earn my way” into a school. I did that last year.   It’s not that bad this year because I think I’m just more confident, but it still just gets annoying.  So basically, my coordinator encouraged me to be patient and just collect data and then show that it’s not working.

I guess for me, I’m being “fixed-minded” with the whole, “it’s not going to work, and now we’re just wasting two good weeks,” but whatever.

I just don’t like it when things aren’t organized.  When I had my own classroom, I could just put in the hours and make it organized.  At first, I was doing that, but now I’m sort of giving up.  It’s sort of like in middle school, I used to do most of the work during group projects, and in high school, I stopped because I figured a lower grade with less work was better.  That’s how I feel.  I don’t want to pull weight, I don’t want to do extra, because it doesn’t actually make my life easier.  I know that’s bad, but that’s just how I’m feeling.

So maybe the title of this post shouldn’t be “Discipline Systems”, it should have just been “systems” in general.

Anyway, now I’m going to go for a walk. *whew*.

Teachers need Rest!

On crankiness combated by the community served…
Today was a harrowing day at school.. even though Wednesdays I don’t teach, I felt drained today because there was so much.. brainwork yesterday.
So, today, we were literally totally wilted. (Practicing transitions is a butt). And my feet hurt. My throat hurt. My head died. And I had a stankfaced attitude. (Had to email my team to apologize :( ).
Then as I walked out (around 5:30pm), I saw these teeny, teeny kids littering the playground!!! From the after-school program! I swear, one boy is so compact – he’s barely past my knee. I was dying. They are SO SO CUTE. My colleague then asked me if I’ve seen the TK (transitional kindergarten) kids, and I haven’t!
I look at my 6th graders, and I feel like they’re small. Even though I have friends with kids of all ages, it just boggles my mind to see such TINY kids at school.
On the sobering realities of teaching in Oakland…
Yesterday we went over emergency procedures, and it’s always so sobering to think about lockdown and hear questions from other teachers about “what to do when…”. Eeps. I remember my first year teaching in Oakland, when one girl asked me if I’d risk my life for them (it was after Sandy Hook happened), and at that moment, I just looked at her.. panicked, and said, “I don’t know.”
Random Highs for today!
+ Spent 1 minute in the teacher’s lounge! (almost stayed for lunch, but then fled).
+ Got to my second site, checked in with an 8th grade gal who walked out of my class on Tuesday, still had time to eat some lunch, set up a projector, and be relatively calm by the time classes began again!
+ At the second campus, I saw a teeeeeeny boy doing hopscotched and I exclaimed at how well he did it. He then excitedly beckoned me to wait and showed me how he could do it again BACKwards. A girl next to him was also literally jumping up and down in support. I asked them what grade they were and they showed me the number 5.. I got confused and was thinking “Man, I really stink at gauging age, but these 5th graders are small….” and then he said, “I’m 5.” So… safe to say… using my Sherlock skills of deduction, hopscotch + boy and girl happily supporting each other + the number 5 = KINDERGARTNERS!
+ Thankful for my K-1 teaching colleagues at ASCEND who’ve taught me how to speak with littl’uns.
+ Thankful I teach the big’uns.
+ Giddy that as the school year is beginning, I’m bumping into my graduated kids all over the place.  Apparently it’s common for them to visit ASCEND in the first weeks of school.  So adorable. They are so grown!
+ This gem of a do-now response!

+ This gem of a do-now response!