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Back to school…

13 Oct

(Preface: I’m aware that this blog is becoming a bit of a funny beast, originally I intended it to simply be a record of my ‘American Adventure’, then I got distracted with Museum stuff and now it’s all got a bit pedagogical! So yeah, evolution in progress!)

So as of tomorrow I will be starting my second quarter working as a Special Education Paraprofessional at a High School in Denver. Having now got almost 4 months of experience under my belt and about to jump into another term I feel reflective and in a blog-writing mood. Also as I like lists, and the internet likes lists (almost as much as it likes cats) I will be making a list. In fact two lists! So without further ado, here are the 3 best things I’ve learnt from last term and the 3 biggest mistakes I made. (Let me underscore that 4 months as a paraprofessional does not make me some expert teacher or child-whisperer, far from it. Please see these lists as a beginner-teacher muddling his way along rather than some cribsheet handed down from a teaching guru!)

USEFUL THINGS I LEARNT!

problem-child-bad-music-student-evil-kid-with-devil-horns
1. There are students you struggle with, who push all your buttons and can make your day a misery. I had students who (and it shames me to say this) when they were off sick I would internally breath a sigh of relief. Without battling with these ‘problem students’ I knew my day would be that much easier. Weirdly, my experience has also shown me that these kids end up being your favourites! I had a student who 2 weeks into the job had me pulling my hair out, he would not do any work, he was rude, dismissive and generally found my presence in his classes to be an irritation and embarrassment. Having tried every technique I could Google, from bribing him with cake to long heart-to-hearts I was at my wits end. And guess what, he’s still a difficult kid, but all that effort has paid off in that now we have this really cool relationship. I know now that when he tells me he’s ‘bored’ (for this particular student EVERYTHING is boring) all I have to do is roll my eyes and he’ll snigger and get back to work. When I kicked him out of class for making farmyard noises (this is a surprisingly frequent occurrence…) whereas before he would storm off calling me every name in the book, instead we actually had a mature conversation. I even got an apology! So here’s the thing, I know now that no matter how much I may struggle with some students, to the point of total exasperation, it’s those kids that you end up really getting to know. So for next term I will try to stay patient, I will know that the harder the fight the better the reward and I will never label a kid as a ‘problem’ again… or at least I’ll try…

Anger2. The next thing I’ve learnt is this, it is NEVER about you. When a student tells you to eff off (in a mock British accent no less!) it’s not about you. When a student questions your teaching credentials in a patronising and mocking fashion, it’s not about you. When after an hour long talk with a student they disregard everything you say and break all the promises they made it’s not about you. You get students for 8 hours a day, that’s all. You don’t control their home life, their friends, family or hormones, you are simply a small blip on their radar. My students come from a real mix of backgrounds, and some of these backgrounds are incredibly and frighteningly toxic. Therefore to imagine that, when a student screams at you, it has anything to do with you is incredibly arrogant. I think taking the ego out of teaching is hard work but it’s important, it sucks when students are mean, cruel, stubborn or rude but it really has nothing to do with you. So I’ve learnt to be less sensitive and self-obsessed and this term I hope to continue to not take the bad stuff to heart.

tumblr_m1rpykN54F1qdjogeo1_5003. PLAY GAMES! Yes, the best way to forge relationships with students is to play, or at least have fun. Particularly the more difficult students. One of my greatest experienced teaching was playing capture the flag with my students. It’s those moment ¬†away from the classroom where you can enjoy being around your students and they can see you as a human. That translates back into better relationships IN the classroom. By the end of last term I was tired, real tired and I think I forgot how to have fun. No surprise my relationships with my kids suffered. I need to make sure next term that we have time to play games.

MISTAKES I MADE
personal-space1. Not giving students space. When a student is on the rampage, storming out of class or working themselves up into a rage I fear that I often responded badly. I would doggedly follow said student trying to ‘reason’ with them, or get up close and personal. I see now that this simply escalates the situation, and I regret that I have on 2 occasions made a bad situation worse… So my new motto is ‘give angry teenagers space’. I’m a teacher, not a negotiator in a cheesy action movie, I need to keep this in mind and not try and be superteacher!

clip_image00872. Being inconsistent. When I started working with my students I pretty much threw every trick I had read about, at them; A token economy today, then kinetic learning, then youtube videos, then trackers, stamps… etc etc. I think the novelty of a new teaching tool/gimmick held way to much sway and rather than sticking at any one technique I chopped and changed. The problem is double-fold, one inconsistency is confusing at does not help build stable teaching relationships and two, if you want to try a new technique and test it, you need to give it time. So, this term I will be less erratic and less influenced by bright shiny new teaching mcguffins!

Grumpy-Cat3. Negative thinking. I told myself I wouldn’t be negative, aaaaand….. I failed. I have to avoid negative conversations with staff and pointless ranting in the office. It doesn’t help and it’s just not good for me or my students. Teaching is hard, sometimes it sucks, sometimes the administration do stupid stupid things and sometimes it’s all just plain unfair, but bitching gets you no where. Venting once is fine, but if you vent over and over about the same thing all is communicates is that you’re not doing anything proactive to change it. So no more endless complain-athons!!

And that’s it, wish me luck for round two!

P.S. Talk about bad formatting, it looks like I just puked HTML over this page, sheesh!

Adventures in Teaching

10 Aug

dead poets

I am now a paraprofessional (Teaching assistant if you’re from the UK) and for better or worse my job has pretty much taken up ALL of my mental capacity. Therefore, I thought I would throw down a few thoughts, fears and things I have learned over the past month as a way of freeing up more of my brain to do other things.

I work at a High-School in Colorado with kids with exceptionalities (I know this my seem a hugely hyperbolic ‘PC’ term but ‘special education’ and ‘learning difficulties’ just don’t cut it). Let me be 100% honest, whenever I heard about special education I guess I imagined students in wheelchairs, unable to communicate, colouring with crayons and dribbling down their shirts. I know, pretty bloody ignorant. I always imagined those people that did jobs working with these kids must have incredible patience and that it was not something I could do. I have since discovered that my understanding of special needs and of myself was woefully incorrect.

For one, my kids are impossible to define. My students have such a variety of personalities, abilities and disabilities I don’t really know where to start. For one, many of my students don’t look, or sounds like ‘special needs kids’. These kids ‘pass’ in the school, many of them don’t want anybody else to know they are in ‘special ed’, many of them have been haunted by that label throughout their lives. Those who do seem to fit the ‘mould’, those kids who stand out as different are some of the most incredibly perceptive, sensitive and thought-provoking people I’ve met. The idea of the ‘short bus’ full of dribbling ‘retards’ is so far from my classroom that now the mere thought of such a stereotype is abhorrent to me. My students never cease to surprise me.

As for patience, yes, patience is necessary, but once I cracked open all my preconceptions about these kids I find that patience isn’t really what’s needed. When a student is puzzling over a simple math problem, 1+0=? for example, I could get impatient. I could think ‘Why can’t this kid do such an easy problem? Is there any point trying? We go over and over this problem and still nothing.’ in fact, I used to think this way. But when you have spent time with this student and you know that he or she has done the sum ‘9×5+7=’ with ease, then you know that the issue is not that the problem is too hard. Then it’s not patience that’s needed, its creativity. Trying to work out how to explain what 0 is worth becomes a puzzle. Explaining what ‘abstract’ means is a challenge. Helping a student to recognise ‘nouns’ and ‘verbs’ is a game. Using metaphor, and by scaffolding meaning on top of meaning, you work with the students to get to the answer. For me this process is hugely stimulating. True, sometimes you’re tired and patience and frustration make an unwelcome appearance, but never any more than with my general education students.

And that’s something else I believe about my students, none of them are stupid or dumb. Some may have low IQ’s, well below the average in fact, but taking into account their individual abilities and deficits they are incredibly smart. One student may struggle hugely with short-term memory, or have an incredibly short attention span, so when these students crack a problem, write a sentence or finish an artwork they are having to create connections and use strategies that most of us never even have to bother with. These kids are playing the computer game of life at hard, when the rest of us are content with easy, and they’re playing it damn well!

Finally, it’s not all personal growth and joy. I don’t skip home every day singing my students praises, there is a dark side. Whilst I wasn’t blindsided (I have friends and family in teaching and so was expecting some of the negatives) living them is something else. One thing is how depressing it is to see students who have gone so far down the wrong path, who have home lives that are so toxic, friends who do all the wrong things and live in a world of razorblades. As a teacher I can do very little to change that, we have them at school and then we send them home to fight their own battle every night. Some of my students are losing that battle, some have already lost. I have met 14 year olds who are already cynical, hardened individuals. To be honest I don’t really know what I can do to help. There are just no easy answers.

Aaaaaand that’s where my heads been at!