Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Natural

Due to a crazy start of the school year I've had the "opportunity" to work with half a dozen subs since August. Out of four Physics teachers, we're down to two. One position remained unfilled for the first 6 weeks, another teacher was out with a broken collarbone and subsequent surgery. Luckily a long term sub was procured for one room since the start of school, let's call him Mr. D, so those students have had some consistency. In the other there were a few different subs for two weeks before a recent graduate and alum, Ms. G,  came in in the clutch to help us out for four weeks. Both of these teachers have different styles, neither have a degree in Physics, and yet they were fabulous. I found myself describing both as "a natural." Facing different subs in the future, (recent graduate has to go start her first job, the other is approaching 30 days of the emergency clearance) I'm reflecting on what these two had that made them so great. Its hard to teach new teachers some of the nuances, little tricks of the trade that experienced teachers have. You may find yourself watching a great teacher and can't quite put your finger on what makes them make it seem so easy. But, I'll give describing it a shot:

Command of the room:
This is not to say that when a teacher talks the room is silent, but it might be. This does not mean they are yelling, they shouldn't be. This means that when the teacher talks, the students listen. Not out of fear, but out of earned and mutual respect. Students understand that the teacher has something to share that is important and that they will have their chance in turn. And that's an important piece not often included. Teachers that talk all the time will not have students that listen all the time. Sometimes I find the less I talk, the better they listen when I do. Mr. D has an almost theatrical presence in his classroom, outlining the day's tasks from their agenda never sounded so intriguing. 

Command of the room does mean that you can recapture the room's attention when you need it. I imagine this is more difficult in a science room than in most other disciplines because of the nature of labs. Students are focused on their task, talking with other students (for better or worse) and often not facing the teacher. A necessary management skill is to be able to quickly get students to transition their focus from their own tasks back to the teacher. Without yelling, don't yell. Mr. D does a countdown, "If you could take ten seconds to finish your thought before looking up here. I'd like to see all eyes in 5, 4, 3, 2 .... and 1." You can tell a new teacher they should do that, you can give them the three bar chime we all have but being able to execute it successfully is a skill.

Eyes in the back of their head:
While our students might swear we are biological freaks in this way, we are human. Just humans with heightened and acute sense of awareness. Teachers often have a hard time focusing on single tasks because we never do. At the moment that we are speaking to the class our mouth is almost on autopilot, delivering a sentence we thought of moments before, because our active brain is focused elsewhere. A student in the third row, left side, has his math homework out. A student in the back is playing with his hands in his lap again, you're hoping its a phone. And dammit where did you leave your water bottle? Those moments you turn around to face the board you hear the creaks of chairs or the whispering from one to another and you can tell which side of the room its coming from. You make an educated guess that because its third period its probably James, because its always James. In nature programs you'll often see prey on high alert, head on a swivel, ears rotating even faster, eyes darting side to side. Teacher have to have these prey-like instincts, looking at anything and everything in their classroom.

With multiple one or two day subs prior to her arrival, Ms. G walked into a room of wild students. Within a few days she got to know the students well enough to make gentle reminders about the phones, homework, talking, etc. as if she had years of experience. Mr. D asked about a stain on the floor of his room and could confidently say it wasn't there after 2nd period but was there when he returned 4th period. I know veteran teachers that say, "Huh, I never noticed we had this poster up." Situational awareness is key.

Fly by the seat of your pants:
There aren't many jobs that require careful planning of potentially months (for purchases) or at least days (for copies) that can all be thrown out the window at a moment's notice. Oops, there's a rally you forgot about. Or your copies didn't come in. Or the district wide internet is down .... for a week. Or you just sick enough not to come in, because otherwise you still would (sub plans aren't worth it). As a new teacher, a survival method is often to adhere to the schedule no matter what. If you vary today who knows how you'll have to change the rest of the week! You can't take that sense of not knowing! More experienced teachers are often more flexible, they've had to learn over the years; and it does usually take years. You have to learn when to adjust things to alleviate stress on the students (they need more time for a test) or you (you need more time to grade that test). Sometimes you just don't know how to change that group work into an all class demo that's faster, but you'll learn. 

I wrote the sub plans for Mr. D and Ms. G. I sent them emails a week at a time with all the material they needed, schedules, rubrics, samples, extra background so they could learn the material, etc. I stressed them keeping to the same schedule for my benefit, to keep consistency across all classes and to make their lives easier. And 80% of the time that worked. But we found that Ms. G was a bit of a faster lecturer, so she wrote some sample problems for students to practice solving on the whiteboards she found in a corner. Mr. D had a great way to orally review the vocabulary with the students and didn't get to an activity so he found a way to work that content into the discussion. I checked on them both a few times a day and they would give me updates, "We got to this but not this, so I did this instead," etc. Each time I was pleasantly surprised at their excellent choice, they handled small curricular adjustments like a vet. Copies didn't come in? No problem, let's project it and go over it together. No one did the homework? Take some time, turn to a neighbor and work it through together, we'll add it to the classwork list. Flexibility and creativity are a must for a successful teacher. Immobility is a detriment. 

Knowing what they know:
Teachers make and give assessments to students so that we know what they know. Students often think they are punitive of course but I usually tell my students "You and I both need to know what you know right now, so that we know if we can move forward." Assessments should be as much for the student as the teacher and have as much benefit. After a week or so into Mr. D's take over of the class his students had a quiz. Ms. G teaches the same class, had an additional prep and was put in charge of grading it. Mr. D came into the room very excitedly, "I think they did well! Can I see?" and in a very teacher-heart warming moment they looked at the assessment together. They pointed out this or that student's pitfalls, noting "Yeah, he's had a hard time with that GUESS." or "His 504 said he would have trouble with vocabulary." He was visibly disappointed in some, "But we talked about that one just yesterday!" Which leads me to the next point...

They care about their students:
Written on plaques for teacher desks and in gifs the world over, teachers should care about their students. They should want them to be happy and healthy citizens, protectors of the world of the future. We should be invested in helping them build their future selves, supporting their complex backgrounds and making them feel like they can do anything. This goes beyond someone being a "people person" or not. You don't have to be a touchy feely huggy type either. But you do have to be genuine. You can not fake caring about your students, they'll know. 

Both Mr. D and Ms. G walked into their positions as substitute teachers, they had a finite end date from the beginning. Yet both stopped referring to the students as "Mr. [so-and-so's] kids" and started referring to them as "my kids" very quickly. They came to own those classrooms and those students, caring if they did well, concerned if they were struggling and elated when they succeeded. Ms. G left us yesterday, almost a week before the student's next test. Not only did she get all her grades in order, she wrote a long email to the next sub with information they would need. Included were notes about individual students: "[Name] gets frustrated easily, give him a moment outside and he should come back in refocused;" or "Watch out for [Name] in 3rd, he never stays in his lab group." Ms. G wanted to see the test students would take next week, the lab she would not manage and their last review activities. She wanted to see that they were ready, that they would be able to ask questions, etc. She is worried about a group of kids she will never see again and about how they will do on one test of many in what is no longer her class. You can't teach a new teacher how to have that level of investment in their kids. 

As each of their time in my building comes to an end I am thankful to have worked with Mr. D and Ms. G and hope to do so again, however unlikely. Mr. D is our resident sub now but he's technically an English teacher; I've tried to pull him into Physics but he laughed at me. Ms. G is off to the corporate world but I'd like to think she'll be back. I think she's got the teaching bug and was just too good to stay out of it. I worry that my next few subs will have all the characteristics I dislike: yelling to get students' attention, obvious disinterest in them, ignoring them, etc. I've had subs fall asleep in their chairs, read books all day or actually tell the kids, "I don't care what you do as long as you're quiet." While we give substitute teachers a bad time because we have seen too many as I just described, there are a few good ones out there. May you find a sub that works for you, and better yet, makes the kids say, "Aww not Mrs. [so-and-so], she'll actually make us do the work!"

Monday, September 18, 2017

Jearl's bottle overfloweth

The ringmaster of the Flying Circus of Physics is at it again. This time, Jearl hops into brewery for a beer. Root beer, that is. A former student taps the top of Jearl's open bottle, and physics ensues. Take a look.

Flying Circus of Physics: Bottle Tap (Episode 3.1)

The Flying Circus of Physics now has a YouTube Channel. I recommend subscribing!

Saturday, September 16, 2017

One parent that should never be called back

I received an email from my office staff indicating a parent had called and wanted to talk to me, but I was teaching at the time. The parent requested I call her back.

When I did, it turns out she was a telemarketer keen to offer me a private business group travel "opportunity".

"I'm sorry: what is the name of your son or daughter enrolled in my class?"
"I don't have one."
"So you're not really a parent here, are you?"
"I have children."
"I don't appreciate your deception and am not interested in your opportunity."
"Do you know another teacher who might be interested?"
"If I did, I would not tell you. As we speak, I'm composing an email to my colleagues warning them of your deceptive tactics."

Thus ended the conversation. The email was sent out shortly thereafter. The blood pressure remained high for some time.

I get it: times are tough in the world of group travel sales. Maybe. But posing as the parent of a student to a teacher in order to trick them into calling you back is beyond the pale. It disrespects what we do and our commitment to maintain communication with parents.

I cannot imagine this tactic works for her, but if it doesn't why does she do it? She presents an example for those who consider "business ethics" to be an oxymoron.