Sunday, September 26, 2010

Summer into Autumn

Where has the end of summer gone? Last night the heat, which has been 90+ since May, finally broke. For the moment, it is in the 60's, rainy and breezy. I have never been so grateful for a change of season in my life, I think. Somewhere along late July, I simply stopped going outside in the yellow haze, and it is a welcome change to be able to open the windows again!

Where to begin? I think it's time to get something out on the table here. I do not like my new job. Not even one little bit. What looked great on paper, and in the interview; a math teacher working with kids in 1st - 3rd grades, is the most difficult, unsatisfying thing I have ever endeavored. Not because of the math, not because of the kids, I will say that, first thing, because people are quick to ask if it's a 'difficult population' and I will say it is, but it's not that. I have long held that kids are kids are kids. Some have had more life experiences and better upbringings than others. Some have longer attention spans, some grasp things more quickly, but in any classroom, there's usually a range of strengths, and there's always hope.

The school culture, the district culture, is killing me. I don't know where to begin, so I guess I should begin with shortly after I was hired, and began the orientation process, I started to have some weird feelings about the district. I knew they were always in the news with corruption scandals, accreditation scandals, etc. but I didn't think that would touch me. At the orientation, we were basically lectured for an hour by our new boss about "professionalism", posting lesson plans, checking email, coming to work sober, using best practices, not eating in classrooms...oh the list is endless. It sounds random, because it was random. No encouragement, no thanks for taking on the "toughest job you'll ever love," but basically the "you will straighten up and fly right" message from the get-go. At this orientation, which lasted 2 full days, we were not given a break for lunch either day. On day 2, I wised up and brought a lunch. People, this is a first. Everywhere I've ever taught, if you were going to be at a district function for more than an hour, you were fed something. If you were going to be there all day, you were either fed a meal or you were released to go get food. Or warned that you'd be brown-bagging orientation (which I call indoctrination) was a bust.

Then there was the arrival at my school site. And a meeting with my principal, during which she graciously shared the dress code, which was iron clad, and violations of which would result in the teacher being sent home to change clothes. Which forbade me to wear denim, even as a jacket, shirt or skirt, fer cryin' out loud. Only dressy sandals were permitted (goodbye beloved Birkenstocks) and capris and cropped pants were strictly forbidden, unless they were part of a matching suit with jacket. WTF? Khakis are allowed to be worn on Fridays, and then only with a shirt in the school colors of blue, yellow or white. Now I am a fairly casually dressed teacher. My last job, at the Very Progressive Prep School, and of course teaching at my funny little school in Hawaii, made me even more casual. Jeans, shorts, birks, short skirts, casual, comfortable was the name of the game. Nothing in my closet worked for work at this new job. I dug around Macy's enormous sale racks, and through my trusty local thrift stores and came up with a few options that worked together. I washed and mended my worn hippie gauze skirts, and sadly put my beautiful white linen cropped pants that had once constituted dressed up for work to the back of the closet. I hoped my stable of Dansko sandals would pass inspection.

The dress code, once I had assembled the necessary ingredients; a long black knit skirt, 3 hippie-fairy (my friend Mindy's term) gauze skirts, some black pants and my trusty old brown linen skirt + assorted tops and blouses, was definitely do-able.

The next red flag was the idea of "bell to bell" instruction. That is, one does not take any time to do classroom business, attendance, lunch count, reviewing the schedule, etc. with kids before instruction begins. There is no time built in for class meetings, recess, (yes, you heard me correctly) or enjoyable routines and rituals that have long been a part of the classroom and have given teachers time to bond with their kids, as well as accomplish routine tasks. I move from class to class with math supplies on a cart, and see small groups of kids in each classroom. Students identified as having problems in math, as evidenced by low test scores. Not a problem, until my groups got bigger than the groups who were working with the actual classroom teacher... again, though, we were usually able to work this out.

Every teacher has some amount of release time during the week, for planning, for prep, for simply being able to have a cup of tea and breathe. I'm being honest here. Sometimes, all you need is that cup of tea and the silence of the classroom for the 45 minutes the kids are gone. At this school, though, the prep times are taken up by mandated meetings, with the principal, the AP, the learning coach from the district. Minutes are taken and submitted for each meeting that the principal does not herself attend. My own release time is somewhat better; it comes at the very end of the day, so I DO sneak back to the math lab to plan, to breathe, to check e-mail. But I'm acutely aware that my teachers don't usually have that luxury.

Then there are the mandated attendance at evening functions; one of my biggest beefs about working in a private school last year. In all my other public school jobs, there were basically 2 or 3 nights a year when we were required to stay past our contract hour and on into the evening. Performances, curriculum nights, back-to-school nights. Here, they come at least once a month, and we are allowed to miss one per year. Again, WTF? Invariably they fall on a Thursday, which affects my yoga class. Grrrrr.

Lesson plans for the entire week are required to be posted online by 7am on Monday. Grades are required to be posted online every week (I am so behind on this it is not even funny) and report cards are issued every 4.5 weeks. I have an enormous amount of paperwork to do and submit and deadlines are relentless and strict - something is late and you get icy emails reminding you that the deadline was yesterday... Staff meetings are weekly, and lengthy, and one is not allowed to do anything but sit in rapt attention while the presenter presents. No discussion, no grading, formality is the word. I am constantly taking piles of work home to finish, and have an increasingly large "caseload" of below-level students to plan for, across 3 grade levels. I try hard to keep my workdays to 9 hours, but it takes all my effort.

When I've discussed the craziness of this all with my coworkers, their attitude is one of "that's the way it is" or "that's how she likes it". In other words, beat down. Tired. Everyone feeling the stress, everyone stressing out on each other. Never a day without some sort of drama revolving around the chain of command, school protocol or district mandates.

This is a very abbreviated list of factors that I'm finding deplorable. Any one of these conditions would be bearable. I've been teaching for 16 years. I'm no stranger to the craziness, long hours and hard work of the job. All of them together, and too many damn mandates is making this into the job from hell. Of course my body rebelled. Of course I stopped sleeping and cried at the drop of a hat, sometimes at work. Of course I started having repetitive hamster-wheel thoughts about nonsense. Of course I put myself into the capable hands of my local 5-Element acupuncturist, who is not inexpensive, but whose needles and compassionate guidance are, at the moment, assuring my day-to-day survival, while I make other plans. We talked a lot about the mind-body-spirit of organizations, on Friday, and she observed that my workplace, toxic as can be, appears to be influenced by "bladder energy" - the sense of urgency coupled with fear. I think she hit the nail on the head. For me, she recommended a detox - breaking up with wheat and dairy and sugar. More needles than I've ever seen, much less gotten stuck with, and herbs to come. So if I can't change the culture of the workplace, at least I can be a little healthier in it.

I will leave this job at the end of my contract year. I would leave it now, but I don't really believe in leaving my students and co-teachers in the lurch, and quite frankly, the money's good and I need the money, if only to get me through to the next step.

I am wondering if I even want to be in education at all, anymore. For the past few years, I've been acutely aware that teaching has gotten less and less fun for me. It's been less about the creativity and compassion, and more about the accountability and test scores, which have never been my thing. I like assessment, but like it as a means to inform day-to-day instruction, not as a whip to be flogged with. Maybe 17 years is all I have to give to this field of public education. Maybe it's time to move forward into something new. I don't know. The thing about teaching, and school culture is that it is not a thing that is readily advertised; it's what you find out about after you've signed the contract. If you're lucky enough to work in a place where teachers have voice and empowerment (my past) you can influence it. If not, you do the job and get the hell out at the earliest possible opportunity. Or you stay in it, and endure.

I'm feeling less fear and worry these days about it. Knowing, in my heart that I've been a good teacher, and that I'm working now in a situation which doesn't support me being the best teacher I can be. I'm not afraid to fail in this job, though at the moment, it feels like a bit of a free-fall. I will look for more work after this year. I'll not rule out other teaching positions, but with far more information wrt school culture. I'll be shameless about asking about that in an interview. I'll also look for part time jobs, and tutoring gigs. I think my own sense of urgency and fear about unemployment in a time in my career when people should be lining up to offer me jobs, blinded me this summer. I knew things would be tough, and I just wanted a job. I did not let myself consider the toll it would take on my life, the household, the things I enjoy doing.

I've also been investigating, finally, the idea that's been kicking around on the back burner for several years, which is getting some training in massage therapy, or some other holistic health related field and just changing careers. I've been flirting with this since about 2005, but kept putting it off, worrying about the money, worrying about retirement, wanting to (ahem) 'stay the course'. Now I realize that maybe this course is destructive. Lots of things to consider, lots of options and things to prepare for, were I to jump ship and do something different. P is supportive; he has transferred from job to job because, in his words, "I've had about all the fun I can have in this current position."

So this is where I am now. Breaking up with my favorite foods, sleeping better, doing my damndest at a job I feel no love for, following the Hippocratic Oath in my classroom practices, investigating my future. Knitting a bit, spinning a bit. I finished Citron, and am working on my Central Park Hoodie again, and a sock from my personal sock club - you know the one where you bag up all the sock yarn and close your eyes and pick a skein...jackpot!! Beautiful Fleece Artist merino, colorway "Cosmic Dawn." 72 stitches, plain stockinette.