Monday, May 31, 2010

The End is Here


After almost ten months, 180 school days, and almost 900 individual classes, this school year finally came to an end. Unlike my growing up, the end of the school year came with a whimper and not a bang. When the final bell rang, my students went out of the class just as they normally do, and I plopped down into a chair in my empty classroom and realized it was all over. For over two months there will be no super-early mornings, dull commutes, classes with students who are not terribly interested in the subject matter, bureaucratic headaches, and everything else that makes school school for a teacher. Instead, I'll be taking a couple of classes to finish off my teaching certificate, assessing where my career is going, and hopefully get that done in time to have more than a week's notice in preparing for the next school year.

Over the summer I'll be blogging in the usual format, looking at the school year in retrospective, look into how I'm planning for next year, the world around me, and some other subjects that interest me than hopefully you'll find the same. So until later this week, I have some personal business I need to finish off.

Until next time.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

An Ode to Secretaries

With the end of the year approaching, everyone is counting the days until summer vacation begins. With less than a week to go, even someone like me is simply out of fuel and looking to wrap things up. And with wrapping things up means that teachers assume their duty as accountants as they categorize and label everything in sight in preparation for school to go into its annual hibernation. At the centre of this operation is our school secretary, for whom this is just another series of checklists in a lifetime of checklists and forms. When you think about it, a school secretary has its own niche in the school ecosystem. They're not teachers or administrators, but without them the school grinds to a halt.

So today I was doing my Obsessive-Compulsive best to finish up my textbook count to turn in to our secretary. My back bookshelf had all of my textbooks catalogued into my own little system, and I was sitting in the dark (My not-so-subtle hint to people to leave me alone when I'm in my planning period) writing down the names and addresses of the students who did not turn in their books, as well as the names of the students who damaged class copies of my textbooks. Because the sheets were due at the end of school, I felt particularly hurried, and rushed to the office to turn it in. When I did, the secretary was obviously unamused by events happening, but commented that I was the only teacher to do my bureaucratic duty thus far.

When I plopped back into my chair in my dark classroom, I began thinking about our secretary and the rather fantastic job she does. At a school I used to teach at, our secretary frankly was not very good and it showed. Everything was a mess and even simple things got screwed up when it came across her desk. She was unmistakeably kind and friendly, but if I learned anything in my first year teaching, it was that I should become as self-sufficient as possible because relying on the secretary was a crap shoot.

Fortunately, our secretary is about on the opposite end of that spectrum as one can get. It still doesn't stop me from being as self-sufficient as possible, mainly because I don't like imposing on other people. I could go on about how secretarialy our secretary goes about her job, but that would bore you like counting paper clips. Instead, I'll just say that her sense of humour is simply outstanding, and to see her just shrug her shoulders at some bureaucratic nonsense and let loose a macabre one-liner always makes me grin, as well as how she is able to sweet-talk a central office employee on the phone, and immediately put one of our seedier students or parents in their place with a glare or statement without a blink of the eye.

I know it's a bit late to talk about how awesome secretaries are considering the day for that was a month ago, but with the school year winding down, I couldn't let the school year end without complimenting our chief paper pusher/receptionist/impromptu nurse/greeter/disciplinarian of students we don't have time to deal with. Oh, and for my colleagues who haven't turned in their textbook lists, please do so lest she comes to your classroom and demand it herself. You've been warned. ;^)

Until next time.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

History Bee Post-Mortem

Growing up I always wanted to be in professional sports. When I was young I dreamed of lifting the Stanley Cup after scoring the winning goal in overtime, or lifting the World Cup after hammering home the crucial penalty in front of billions on TV. For all of those dreams, I was pretty much doomed to only dream, because when you're small and not very athletic, you're never going to reach those heights--especially when you don't ever play those sports in an organized fashion until high school.

As a result, I figured coaching was more my style since I was one more for brains than brawn. I always saw myself prowling my technical area during the Champions League final staring down Jose Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson as my players executed my plan to perfection. And when they shocked the world by giving PSV Eindhoven or Arsenal the trophy through their victory, I'd give my counterpart a sly smirk and a wink as I shook their hand, letting them know I had out-thought them and my players had outplayed theirs. Well, at least it worked that way when I played FIFA 09, that is. Since that won't happen either, I've been looking for other methods of venting that competitive spirit.

In the parish I work at, we have an annual quiz bowl program that is recorded on a local TV station dedicated to social studies. It's called History Bee, but it operates like your regular quiz bowl. The six public junior high schools compete along with the Catholic school in Franklin. In all reality, it's a small-time operation that's fairly straightforward, but it's good fun to have, not to mention a way to compete outside of the athletic realm for once.

Last year at Franklin, I volunteered for the coach's position since they did not go to the previous year's event. I took my writing students and drilled them every day for two months. We even got out buzzer sets and a video camera to practice being on TV. We got the schedule, saw we would be playing BEBMS, and began plotting our strategy against the perennial champions from Berwick in the semifinals, since the first round match would be a cinch. When we got to the studio, my players immediately got stage fright, and I sat in horror as my well-drilled players got smacked across the stage by BEBMS and their cocky little captain that answered every question. I ended up covering my face because I didn't want them to see how terrified I was by their performance. By the last round, they had recovered, and promptly proceeded to trounce BEBMS. Unfortunately, it was a bit difficult to come back from being down 78-12 with a quarter to go, but the 84-36 final score made us feel only slightly embarrassed, though the proceedings at the Taco Bell after the match showed that for the players, the hurt was only skin deep.

Fast forward to this year, and I'm at BEBMS armed with our cocky little captain and the rest of the team. They lost a close game to Berwick in the semifinals and were out for revenge. I carefully crafted my team, blending experience with new players. I drilled them for two months, but this time we kept our sights low, since we were drawn to play the perennial finalists from Hanson in Franklin. Having said that, we knew that if we beat Hanson, we could get to the final because we'd be playing Franklin, and since I was their coach last year, they wouldn't have someone obsessed with winning a competition--not to mention the fact I only had eighth graders on last year's team, so they would be no match for my squad.

We went to the studio, and took our places. I sat in my same seat as last year, fully expecting to relive the horror from a year ago, but trying so hard to hide that. We took early control and stretched the lead to 20 points going into the final quarter. Despite having a team that played well the previous year, they were in shock that we had taken such control of the match. However, in the final quarter they found their legs and came charging back. Our lead suddenly shrunk down to a whisker, and I felt the pain that only a parent or coach has when they want to jump in and save the day, but can't because they did all they could as a coach. When the final buzzer sounded, I knew we had thrown away our lead and lost. I was gutted--plain and simple. I got up to shake the opposing coach's hand, only to hear him congratulate me for my team's talent and toughness for pulling out the win. I looked over and saw we had won 68-64.


We won.

My kids came and gave me a big group hug chattering excitedly about their chances against Franklin, and a possible rematch with Berwick, who had beaten Morgan City by over 100 points in the first round, in the finals. That afternoon, we found out Franklin wouldn't be sending a team, so we advanced to the finals.

On Friday, we arrived at the studio to watch the semifinal, and observed Berwick slug their way uncomfortably to the final, though they ended up winning by 50+ points. I was visibly nervous, and took my seat for the match for the trophy and the glory, knowing it was up to my kids since I took them as far as I could. We came out strong in the first quarter, but folded in the second, falling behind by 40 points at the half. We swept through the third quarter and pulled within 12. I kept on gesturing to my kids to keep it going since we had them on the ropes, and could win it in the last round if we continued. We promptly folded again, and the match ended 104-77. I got my team captain's chin up, and we shook hands with the opposing team, and their coach who was duly impressed with our performance in comparison to their previous opponents, and we went on the stage to receive the runner's-up trophy from the president of the local bank and our superintendent, smiles and all. Upon leaving, the president gave my team a cash prize for their performance, and another compliment for their play. Right before we left the superintendent shook my hand and complimented me for my students' job and my job personally, as my school had never been in the finals before, much less play so well throughout the tournament, and that caught his attention.

Looking back at the competition, I really got a good look at the difference between being a player and a coach. Though my kids felt the weight of the competition in their own way, I felt a completely different weight than them. Had I been on the stage as a player, I could have single-handedly mopped the floor with any of the teams in the competition because I know American History so well. However, that's useless since my job is only to get my students ready for the competition, and leave the rest to them. I have to admit that there were few times in my life where I was as stressed and helpless as I was during the final quarter of the Hanson match, where our goal of a finals rematch with Berwick felt like it was slipping away.

Now, you may be asking why I would get so worked up over a silly game that no one cares about, much less watch on TV during the summer? Even ignoring my competitiveness, History Bee is a chance for my school to show its academic prowess. Though our reputation isn't quite as subterranean as Franklin's is, I believe that we are chronically undervalued because all of the struggles a lot of our students have. It really drowns out the fantastic work a lot of our students do, and frankly our top tier students could go toe to toe with any other school in the parish. So, being one concerned with such big things, doing well in History Bee was my way of showing the parish that we can hang with the rest of them, and aren't quite worth our reputation, even if it's on an afternoon in a TV studio.

I think that's the thing that separated coaching from playing: you see the big picture and plan accordingly. Just like Arsene Wenger has to be concerned with more than just the activities on the pitch, but also how his club measures against the rest of the Premier League and Europe in general in so many categories, even if it's in a relatively small venue. The fact that our superintendent knows enough about our school and the competition to make note of the fact we did something that had never been done before as a school means that even though we lost in the finals, it was a major victory for the school, even if the trophy doesn't quite say that.

As great as all that sounds, second isn't good enough for me. I want everyone to see what we're really capable of, so I'm planning on lifting the trophy with my captain next year... and not on a TV screen playing FIFA either. BEBMS: 2011 History Bee Champions. You heard it here first.

Until next time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

When is Criticism not Criticism?

Criticism. We all dish it out, but loathe taking it. We tell people all the time what is wrong with them, yet we get rather indignant when someone mentions our flaws. When we see someone criticizing, we often chastise them for being critical. Someone who doesn't criticize often has a lot of friends because they are never rude enough to. Simply put, criticism is something we think about and deal with every day.

Once upon a time, yours truly was a master of giving criticism, yet never being able to take it. When you are almost always making perfect scores on tests, at the top of every academic list for achievement, and never get in trouble for behaviour, you tend to think you have all of the answers, and you often feel free to dispense it to those lesser souls whom you feel are in need. On those rare occasions where I did receive criticism, I didn't know how to react, and usually simply collapsed into an emotional fit, which usually consisted of me being pouty and moody.

Over the years, I got a little better at handling criticism, but where I really stepped up my efforts was in how I dished out criticism. On one hand I discovered that I actually did not know everything, so I limited my commenting to stuff I actually knew about, that way I wouldn't be considered a hypocrite. After all, everyone hates hypocrites. On the other hand, I really discovered the depths which I could shoot at folks through sarcasm and snark, and I got very good at that--much to the chagrin of people in my sphere.

Once I started teaching, I began to look at criticism in a completely different manner through two realizations. Over the past two school years, I've been scrutinized through informal observations at least once every two weeks, and had to sit on meetings where everything I did in the classroom was commented and critiqued upon. It was all done in a professional manner with the goal of making me a better teacher. Rather than get upset over it, I took it for what it is and I am now an exponentially better teacher than I was before.

The other thing that changed my view of criticism was how, through teaching, I began to notice that I stopped criticizing as much as I began to observe things--both right and wrong in everything I taught. I noticed that for all of the ink I spilled all over tests and projects that failed, I was spilling equal amounts of ink pointing out the things I liked in what I saw. Since I was spending the same amount of energy doing both, as well as the fact I was doing both without much compunction or bias (e.g. the positive and negative comments came without a care as to whose paper it was, which shocked a lot of my lower-performing students would find positive comments... and vice versa), I found that I had turned criticism into observation--and I have to say I liked that very much.

Recent events have made me wonder if I'm all wrong about this. As most of you know, I use Twitter all of the time, and I've begun tweeting what goes on in my local church service. I have to admit that I absolutely love livebloggings/livetweetings of events mainly due to the amount of wit and humour most bring, especially ones like the Guardian's minute-by-minute reports of football matches. I admit I try to emulate it in a certain fashion, but I find making my opinions really known to be hazardous to my mental health, so rather than be critical, I decided early on to just make observations, and leave their meaning to be found by the reader. For example, a couple of weeks ago, during the sermon a woman put on her sunglasses and started brushing her hair. Now, I could have tossed the lady under the bus, but instead I just mentioned it and asked the reader to make of it what they would. Some would laugh, others could complain about the distraction the lady was making, or I was making by sitting in the back corner of the sanctuary, or by not being 100% focused on the pastor, or any other thing I could come up with.

The problem is, of course, most people don't see things that way. I had an interesting conversation with someone on Twitter who was saying I was far more critical than I seemed. I must admit that I was impressed by the discussion because it wasn't a reaction per se, but rather an honest investigation of my motives and a friendly set of observations rather than pointed bickering and angst. Simply put, it wasn't pointing out flaws, it was just making an observation. Like I said, this has had me thinking for the past couple of weeks about it, and I think I've come to a consensus (at least to me) about what I view as criticism vs. observations.

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary (UK Edition), the dictionary of note for yours truly, I've looked at some definitions, and I found them to encapsulate my ideas pretty well.

Critical, by definition is (1) expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgements. [sic] (2) expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.  

Criticism, by definition is (1) indicate the faults of in a disapproving way. (2) form and express a critical assessment of (a literary or artistic work).

Observe, by definition is (1) notice; perceive. (2) watch attentively; monitor. (3) make a remark; say. 

Observation, by definition is (1) the action or process of closely observing or monitoring. (2) the ability to notice significant details. (3) a comment based on something one has seen, heard, or noticed. 

So, having laid out these definitions, I think I can make a case for there being a rather distinct delineation between criticism and observation. The definitions clearly state that criticism means you're looking for negative things whereas observing requires you only to notice something, regardless of its positiveness or negativity. Even though people don't believe me for a second, in the end, that's what I'm wanting to do. I just want to see things and pass them along without passing judgment. Being a teacher, I'm finding that I have an obsession with observing but not criticizing because since most people mistakenly conflate criticism with emotional feelings toward someone, I want them to know that I am being as unbiased as I humanly can so they can see that I am trying to improve them in every way I can--regardless of whether I find their personal life or conduct pleasing to me.

Having said all of this, you can feel free to drop by in the comments section and tell me how deluded I am, how even though I "observe" things, I'm still only observing negative things, as well as how I did all of that research just to put a fig leaf over my critical spirit. You're perfectly entitled to do so, and I wouldn't mind if you did (OK, I wouldn't mind if you commented, not being a tool just for giggles). However, I went through all of this thinking in an attempt to make sure how I see things in both my job and personal life are in as healthy of a view as possible. I find it especially pressing as tomorrow I will be going to my year-end evaluation and hope my bosses will summarize all of their observations of me in this past school year with an equal eye for observing and not simply criticizing. Or if anything, be less critical of me than I was on my self-evaluation. There was very little observing going on on that sheet of paper, let me tell you!

Until next time.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Why Walmart Makes me Hate Teaching

A good Internet friend of mine is a lawyer by the name of Yale Hollander. He writes a weekly column for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat that takes a rather whimsical view at news in general. His column this past week covered the realm of Internet friendships, but he and I get our kicks recounting our tales of adventure when we head over to Walmart and observe humanity at its most abnormal. People may sneer at the retail giant, but I find the sociological implications of a visit to be generally highly entertaining. However, there's days like today where I loathe Walmart for the same reason.

I dropped into a local Walmart to pick up some lunch items, and as I was pondering whether to buy sliced medium cheddar cheese or the sharp variety when someone I went to high school with literally bumped into me. When they apologized, they realized who I was and commenced to catching up on lost times. I have to admit that I was ambivalent at best, but I was polite. It went a bit like this:

Old Acquaintance: We're taking our kids out of public schools after this year. I don't know if you know, public schools are getting bad. Worst of all are the teachers. They don't care about their students' well being; all they do is try to brainwash them with nothing but nonsense! What kind of people would do something like this.

Me: *nods politely*

Old Acquaintance: But enough about me, what have you been up to?

Me: Erm, I'm a public school teacher.

Old Acquaintance: Oh. Well. Erm... I wasn't talking about you, obviously.

Me: Of course not.

Old Acquaintance: Well, I've got to run. Nice meeting up with you!

If there's one thing that really eats me alive, it's how my fellow evangelicals love to throw us public school teachers under the bus for everything. As far as they're concerned, we're a bunch of godless Commies whose only goal in life is to brainwash everyone into a bunch of atheists. Never mind the fact they base this on half-truths and worst case scenarios, not to mention there are plenty of teachers who go to their own churches. Then when you mention the fact you're one of those horrific creatures, they don't know what to say.

The other incident was when I was headed to check out. Because I live a good distance from where I teach, I rarely see my students out in the wild. So to see one in a Walmart so far from their home was a bit surprising. I saw them down an aisle, so there was no way for them to recognize me. However, what I saw absolutely broke my heart, as I saw their mother absolutely verbally undress them in front of everyone in the store. I couldn't quite figure out what it was for, but the tone was nightmarish, and the vocabulary used was even worse.

As I stood there for what felt like an eternity, a couple of things passed through my mind. The first was that this is what I hate about my school to no end. This was just another reminder that a lot of the problems my students have stem from what they go home to every day. No matter how much some of them get under my skin to the point I want to tell them exactly what I think of them and the decisions they make, I would never verbalize these feelings, much less use such obscene and crude language to get such an ill-thought point across. It doesn't take much of a leap to think that this was far from an isolated incident, and my students have to put up with this on a daily basis. Considering the damage that I've had to fight through and currently walk with just from some innocuous statements said at some bad times in my life, I can only imagine the kind of hurt my kids walk with into my classroom.

The other was the fact I wanted the old acquaintance I just met up with to hear what was going through my head at this time and dare them to tell me to my face that teachers do not care about the students under their care. Even if I didn't want to, the homes my students come from compel me to care about them because no one else will. If I don't care for them, their chances of making something out of their life becomes almost nil, ensuring another generation of children being subjected to continuous hurt and humiliation. I do what I do because my students deserve something better than what they have--no matter what some people may think of what I do.

Until next time.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Goodbye, Video Games

I had my brother over for the weekend as we went backpacking at Chicot State Park on their backpacking trail. We hiked about half of the 19-mile trail, and had a rather decent time, all things withstanding like extremely muggy conditions in the evening, deer flies that hunted in packs, and our compatriots that canoed back to the starting point... and arrived three hours later than expected. For my brother, as much fun as the trip and bonding with his older brother was, the real priority lay when I woke up on Sunday morning to get ready for Church, as he was busy playing my copy of Call of Duty 4 online. Being 15, he is fully in the swing of loving video games, though his Internet connection at home is rather slow, meaning that he can't scratch his itch unless he's at my house.

As I was sitting in my rarely-used recliner watching him hunt down terrorists with the glee that only a young military history nerd can have, I realized that I had not touched the game, or any other one for a good four months now, and really haven't noticed. It was in my rarely-used recliner that I realized I had finally given up a big part of my Twenties, and in coinciding with discovering some grey hair, brought home the fact that I'm not getting any younger, and whether things that I'm going through are related to this.

As I've stated ad nauseum, I grew up in a very sheltered household. One of the things that was simply banned was video games. When I was six and afflicted with one biannual bouts with tonsilitis, my parents decided to fork over the money to rent an 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System with RBI Baseball and 1942. After about six straight hours of playing both games, my parents fears were realized and never again would a video game system come into the house. Sure, I got to play games at my friend's house, but a couple of hours a week compared to what most of my peers played simply leaves me clueless when they get all nostalgic over Bad Dudes.

By the time I got to college, I got a PC and dove into PC gaming with seeming intent to make up for lost time. Of course, it didn't help my entire dorm floor played Half-Life's Counter-Strike, making full games as easy as a round-up down the the hall. When I moved home, my parents disapproved of my enjoyment of video games that involved me mowing down people, but they tolerated it due to the fact that I was an adult. I responded by keeping my gaming within the realm of realistic military shooters, and delving into strategy games that allowed me to play armchair general to my heart's content. I used gaming as a conduit to make friendships and get the social networking that I had trouble making in the outside world. After all, it's far easier to meet and befriend people who have essentially the same interests as you do.

By the time I moved off to Franklin last year, I fully considered myself a gamer. I read the magazines, participated in discussions on the big websites, and bought the paraphernalia of my favourite games, especially VALVe's Team Fortress 2. To me, gaming was part and parcel of who I was. I played video games and looked at the nooks and crannies of the plot of the story, and became interested in the social interactions of the multiplayer environment. I thought of myself as a cultured, if not outright snobbish gamer because I eschewed the popular gaming consoles for my PC, which sheltered me from the festering immaturity that infests game franchises like Halo, Call of Duty, and Madden. On Internet forums, I found myself to be the elder statesman in many ways because I was in my later twenties whereas the rest of the population was either in high school or just getting into college. I saw myself in these fellow travelers, and I found myself passing along my views to another generation of gamers.

Then, it all kind of fell apart.

I guess it's a part of the tectonic shift of priorities in my life that's been happening over the past six months, but I just stopped being a gamer full stop. I quit the forums, stopped reading the websites, and essentially divorced myself from the entire subculture (I still wear the odd t-shirt though.) I can't tell you what made me just give up a major portion of what I thought was myself, yet I still did it, and don't really feel like going back. As I watched my brother play Call of Duty 4 on Sunday, I could see myself playing as he was, but there was no desire to play alongside him or even after he was gone. When he shut the program down, it will remain unused until the next time he comes because I won't be touching it.

I've been wondering what exactly caused me to do this, and all I've come up with is that gaming was just a hobby that worked for me in a particular period of my life, and as I'm seeing in a lot of other things in my life, I must be on the verge of a very different period of my life that requires me to give up a lot of the things I found to be normal and interesting to me. I find it a little disconcerting because so much stuff that I held onto as things I enjoyed and was interested in suddenly look so grey and boring, but I've as of yet to have found something to replace them. As a result, I spend a lot of my time sitting down contemplating where I am now with my life and how I got to this point. Not really finding any answer, but the time is being used up just the same.

Until next time.