On discipline

Most people seem to think that kids with special needs and behavior problems go hand in hand. While this is often true, it seems that these days, the vast majority of discipline issues I'm facing are not occurring in my own classroom, where the system has come together. It isn't the students on my caseload who are causing any of the major problems, with the occasional exception. I'm butting heads with everyone else--the gen ed kids in particular who seem to think that the novelty that I bring into their homeroom for up to two hours a day is beginning to wear off--and I simply don't have the management to control the rest of the kids yet.

I have figured out why the teacher of my most difficult class is so successful: he uses a very interactive call and response method in order to keep things moving and keep everything on board. But when he needs to, he is very intimidating and serious, and nobody would even consider messing with him. In short, he's got positive peer pressure on his side, combined with an imposing classroom presence--and presently, I have neither.

I'm not sure if I'm able to become the gruff, mean teacher that comes out when this guy takes care of discipline issues, but I will certainly be working the crowd today, appealing to the masses in order to squelch off-task behavior and keep things moving. I'll be letting my inner-populist politician come out.



A quick update...Days 17-23.

I have had five good teaching days in a row now. That means, whatever discipline problems may have come about, I remain in control and am responding to them well, or at least like an adult instead of a ten year old. (The bad days occur when I have to become authoritarian in order to get anything done, which sucks for all of us. The management system, though tweaked quite a bit upfront, seems to have settled in and efficiently controls all of the issues that have arisen thus far (knock on wood!). Now with this system in place, I need to actually, well, teach stuff. That's the hard part...

So I'm taking this "Intro to SPED (Special Education)" course at UNLV every Wednesday. It's kind of like group therapy, because every one of the other fifteen students in the class are fellow first year SPED teachers as well. It's a very discussion-based class, and it is nice and somewhat humbling to hear how no matter how busy or difficult things are for me, I can be thankful that I don't have some of those jobs, my goodness. Some schools give out caseloads of 35 or 40 students, but then place them in all different classes of all different subjects and times, which makes scheduling pull-out (they work in your room) or push-in (you work in their room) time inappropriate at best, and an Unholy Nightmare from the Bowels of Hell at worst. These are real-life special education scenarios happening here and everywhere else in America--and yet, you keep trying, because you've got to do it for the kids.

Because you sure as hell ain't doing it for the <$15/hour...



Day 19 (Thursday)

Ok, so I've been slacking off (HAR!) and not updating this thing on a daily basis. My apologies. Over the last few days, I have alternated between being the Best Teacher on Earth, and the Worst Teacher Known to Mankind--sometimes, making the switch several times in an hour.

You know how parents are always saying, "I can't believe it; I open my mouth and I hear my mother's voice come out--I swore I would never say that to my kids," but then they did anyway. It's the same thing with teaching. I'll be in the middle of a lesson that's not going so well, only to interrupt myself with such rhetorical brilliance as: "Excuse me--which one of us is the teacher, and who's the student?" (NOTE: If you ever find yourself asking that question in your own classroom, you've already lost any semblance of control and you're in deep shit.) Anyway, on with the updates.

the bad

You wanna know what was bad? My teaching on Wednesday afternoon, that's what. As far as the students and I were concerned, I was an authoritarian jerk, with absolutely no intrinsic motivation going for me at all. I was only remotely able to control the bad behavior through force, rather than getting anyone to "be good" on their own. In short, it totally blew.

the ugly

Due to there not being enough teachers in Clark County, two of the teachers at my school are getting moved to another school, effective Monday. I won't be one of them, but it's still pretty unfortunate for them. Furthermore, the state is going to cut the school district's budget by $20 million next year. Fabulous.

My girlfriend 'Annalise' just found out that she's getting switched from fifth grade to a second grade position, starting Monday. I suspect I'll be letting her write the ugly portions of this blog over the next few weeks.

Seriously, it's not life or death that teachers are getting moved and switched. But it is pretty unfortunate to work tirelessly for a month+ setting up your room and your routine and all your classroom procedures, only to be told, surprise! Time to move to a grade you've never even conceived of teaching! (Did I mention we don't get paid enough for this? In Clark County School District, new teachers get $15 per hour for a ten hour day--before taxes.)

the good

My little buddy Duane came in for his Required Parent Conference on Wednesday. I gave him a "No Violence Contract" which clearly details the expectations and also provides him with a self-cool-down option that puts him in charge of being proactive in preventing violent behavior. He handled the meeting like a champ, was able to thoroughly explain every part of the contract back to me after I was done with him. Later on that day, all hell broke loose in my classroom, not really because of him, but that's an aforementioned story above.

Today, however, he was of all things, the model student in my classroom. He quietly sat in "attentive listening position" the whole day, and this is a kid with ADHD so severe that even our medically-conservative psychologist said after one minute, "that kid needs a stimulant." But he was perfect in my classroom. He did call out in class exactly three times, landing him at the "Invisible Desk" to go write a letter to Mom (who would never get it because I let them rip it up at the end of the day if their behavior improves), and instead of being irritated, upset, or slamming his chair into his desk and sitting there for ten minutes without starting it, he gently got up, pushed in his chair, walked over and calmly began writing the letter, immediately. I cannot even begin to describe what an incredible accomplishment this was!

I realize as I'm writing this that with Duane, every day is largely up for grabs, but what this told me is that if he can behave perfectly in my class for two hours, certainly his minimal standard of behavior can be raised so long as I've got it together. I have noticed that he responds very well to tangible, positive reinforcements, as opposed to me simply harping on the negatives all the time. So it was a very positive learning experience for both of us.



Day 16 (Monday)

the bad

I know we teachers are supposed to be dancing on graves, just thrilled to death whenever our "bad" students don't show up. But Duane still isn't back yet (Mom needs to call and set up a meeting with the principal before this can happen), and my number two "problem kid" (who is actually far less violent but perhaps even more spacey) wasn't here yesterday either. So things were relatively smooth in my classroom, and that's in some respects too bad. Because they have much to gain from showing up.

By the way, when I make references to "bad" kids or "problem" kids, let me be clear: I am only referring to them as such because this is how they are relative to the system that is supposed to educate them. I happen to believe that the system leaves many of these children behind; that the onus is on me as a public educator to find a way to get through, not on them to take it or leave it. Yet, the line must be drawn somewhere--and so, sometimes we can't afford to provide the necessary resources to help all of our kids (one-on-one assistants? How about simply in-classroom assistants, which we special ed teachers are supposedly entitled to, much less medical services for those who need it); at any rate, with a broken infrastructure at best, I'm not sure we're enabling all of our kids to succeed in life regardless of where they happen to be born or how much they have. So the "bad" kids are the difficult ones on my end, to be sure, but it's certainly not their problem, to a large extent. It's mine, because my job is to figure out how to educate them, in spite of everything, without making excuses.

the ugly

Every morning, I'm greeted in my living room with the sweet stench of cigarette smoke, compliments of my downstairs neighbor who smokes like a chimney (the stack of which evidently empties in my apartment). Every morning, it's pretty much the same routine: wake up, hit snooze alarm five times, crawl out of bed, stumble into the living room, curse George, shut the windows. The man's an early riser.

(Note: George is perfectly nice, and he knows a lot about the ins and outs of Las Vegas driving. This is no personality conflict, just a conflict of having to share the same polluted space in the morning.)

the good

I continue to find that the better prepared I am to give a lesson, the better I end up teaching it. Shocking correlation I know, but it appears to be true. Today, I gave a lesson on "a_e" ("a blank e," pronounced as in "gave" or "made"). The kids in attendence actually seemed to have made the transition from not knowing it before the lesson, then getting it afterwards! They could all make "a_e" words on their own and pronounce them at the end of the lesson. Here's the thing: very often, kids with special needs exhibit some form of short-term memory loss. So today, we'll see what sticks. (We'll also get started with "i_e" as in "hive.")

Watching kids learn is a huge part of why this job is worthwhile. It's when we take the responsibility of getting them to acheive and then they don't that teachers get depressed. Or should.



Day 15 (Friday)

the bad

Who bad? That's right, I'm bad. Yesterday, I went to a "New Teacher Training" that essentially rehashed a whole bunch of Harry Wongisms. (For those who don't know, Harry Wong is one of the education gurus of our time; his mantra is that discipline problems may be neutralized via proper, specific procedures--for everything: entering, exiting, getting up to sharpen a pencil, getting up as a group, going potty, etc. So the thinking goes, if students know exactly what is expected of them at all times, they will not be as inclined to disbehave and are generally more happy and compliant. Anyway, everyone is enamored with Harry Wong, and he is quite good. So during the training, when I wasn't sleeping, I actually took some time to consider whether my procedures were sufficient. After some internal debating ("how can I teach a multi-step procedure to a kid who can't even remember any of the four rules we've spent all week on?"), I decided that, especially when dealing with kids who are emotionally disturbed, structure is a blessing. So today, I taught several new procedures detailing how we would now do things in my room.

The first one seems simple enough: how to enter my room and get to work. (Steps: (1) walk calmly and quietly in the hallway. (2) Upon entering the Greenhouse (my room), go directly to your desk. Do not talk or touch anyone else along the way. (3) Gently pull out your chair. (4) Sit down. (5) Look up at the board. (6) Follow the directions on the board.) Unfortunately, it took them about an hour to master Step 1. This was finally accomplished by taking about half of the group outside, marching them around and around one of the backstops in order to "practice" walking together the right way. "We're going to go around 50 times," I said. After about seven or so, they started to believe it. We did ten beyond that, before I paused to ask if anyone was ready to go back inside and show me how well they can enter my classroom. Lo and behold, this time, they were simply phenomenal. This was no small victory on my part--I was triumphant and exhuberant--and some of my most difficult kids now believed that I was capable of following through. So who's bad? I am. Like Michael Jackson, except that I wouldn't actually sleep with any of my kids, innocently or otherwise.

the ugly

Day two since we've seen Duane at school, and his mom still hasn't called to set up the conference that will allow him to come back. I'm worried that he's not very well supervised at home, but that's largely based on his behavior thus far--a bias to keep in check, to be sure.

the good

I still love my kids. In fact, there's a lot of really great kids who aren't in any of my classes too. I'm finding that my sense of how my day went is also related to my general optimism about my career. What I mean is, have a bad day = bad career outlooks, and have a good day = I want to stick with this forever! Today was one of those good days, so it's destined to be a good weekend.

Also, we are once again a two car household. Thank goodness for small favors.



Day 13 (Wednesday)

the bad

Even though my schedule is set, my teachers and I still don't have the system down yet, mostly having to do with who's doing what when. Thus, it can be chaotic and discombogulated in the classroom, and I feel like the kids' educational experience is minimal compared to what it should be. It often seems that, given the context of my job, there is so much damn work to do in tracking each of my eighteen kids and their IEP goals, then teaching them at their many and varied subject levels, all at once. It's not like I even have a particularly bad situation or anything--I'm just totally green, and it seems that just when I start to get a handle on how to do some of this stuff, I'll be ready to move away from Las Vegas, as it will be time to move on to grad school or whatever. I don't blame myself for being comparatively dumb, I just feel bad for the kids who have me in charge of their educations instead of some veteran teacher who knows what she's doing, that's all.

the ugly

After school today, Duane threatened a fellow student with her life--with a deadly weapon. So he's been RPC'd (which means the Parents are Required to schedule a Conference before he can get back in, at which point he'll almost certainly be suspended). So he won't be back until at least Wednesday of next week. And even though he won't be causing any problems in my classroom today, I'm far from happy about that. I'm worried that he's slipping away, due to the strange and awful forces which are constantly compelling him to slip no matter how hard I try to keep him on the "straight and narrow." Guess what, everybody: motivation isn't everything. It only serves to get people to do that which they are already capable of doing. With this kid, we need to be giving him tools and skills that enable him to have alternatives that he can choose--alternatives that have been noticeably absent in his worldview so far.

the good

I finally did get my car back today. She's in fine shape, if not slightly miffed that I left her sitting in a random towing lot for two and a half days. Ironically, my girlfriend, who has been kind enough to drive me all over the place over these past few car-less days, had her new used car reposessed by the dealer over a payment miscommunication. So I'll be driving her to school tomorrow, and hopefully she'll be able to get it back in the afternoon.


Day 12 (Tuesday)

the bad

I still don't have my car. I need to go to DMV today to make them print off a piece of paper that says I'm the owner. Moral of this story: don't get your car towed.

the ugly

Duane got an office referral in my class today. It was enormously disappointing to realize that even my strict classroom management system isn't enough all the time. There are certain things students can do which get them sent out no matter where they are in my system--profanity, threatening, violence--and Duane chose to indulge the first two. Then, it's out of my hands, back into those of the greater system which, though there are good people within it, has failed kids like him before he even began.

I also learned that his incident over the weekend was probably intentional and even more horrifying than I had originally known. (Being deliberately vague here, obviously. Sorry.) So that weighs in pretty heavy too, mostly because I have yet to meet that side of him or see how pervasive it can be.

the good

My girlfriend/fellow teacher/confidant is being tremendously supportive. And tomorrow is a new day.



Day 11 (Monday)

Well, I got the feedback from last Friday's observation. It's about as lukewarm as I expected. He was actually quite generous, in my opinion--all things considered. At any rate, as it is after 10:00, my hoped-for seven hours of sleep are shrinking before my eyes...so let me be brief:

the bad and the ugly

Sorry, this doesn't have to do with teaching; this is just me venting. This morning I walked out into yet another beautiful Las Vegas morning--and found that my car was towed sometime during the night. It's totally my fault. It had been parked in a clearly-marked "no-parking zone" that was considerably closer to my apartment than the available legal alternative--thinking that I would be right back out to go to the doctor's. Which was, of course, never to be. To the tune of 170 bucks.

And now, nearly a day later, I STILL don't have my car, because although I spoke to the towing company's customer service no less than FIVE TIMES before showing up there, nobody bothered to mention that they required proof of ownership in order to pick up your car. My title, owing to a recent registration in this state, is still being processed and sent via mail, so that's out. But what of the registration form?

"It's in the glove compartment," I told the lady behind the counter, and they disappeared with my keys. A fruitless half-hour later, I'm telling the lady behind the counter that I'd be more than happy to go look myself, if they're truly having trouble finding it. "I'm sorry sir, you can't do that," she says.

$20.35 in an additional day's worth of storage later, I STILL can't find my registration form--it's not at home. So what I've got here is one anonymous jackass' inability to find it in my glove compartment, verses my inability to find it anywhere else in the world. (Except in my own car--I am unwilling to concede that it's not there, largely because I remember putting it there in the first place.)

So tomorrow, I'm going in with a couple DMV receipts that prove me to be, if not the owner of this car, at least the guy who paid for the recent registration, plates and title. And if they won't accept that AND won't let me go search my car myself, I swear to Jeebus, I'm going back there with an attorney. A dashing, young attorney who also happens to a colleague from work. Neener neener neener.

the good

Today was the second time I got all of my pull-out kids together in my room during the afternoon block (eight kids spanning three grades and 97 different ability levels). Unlike the first, this one actually ended with me not wanting to immediately quit the profession. Even more optimistically, our little friend Duane made some serious behavioral leaps today, and spent not only the first ten minutes completely in his seat (via a touch of extrinsic motivation) but kept his mouth shut and raised his hand more so than most of the others, incredibly. We'll see if it sticks...!

Class rules:

  1. Follow directions the first time they are given.

  2. Stay in your seat.

  3. Keep your whole body to yourself.

  4. Be respectful of others.

[[UPDATE (7/22/06): I have since consoladated those rules into these: 1. We will respect others with our bodies and our mouths. 2. We will work hard and stay on task. 3. We will listen to our teachers and follow their directions.]]

My rewards/consequences system is pretty hip too, and seems to be pretty water-tight--at least on Day 1 of trying it. (Famous last words, but hey.) More on that later.



Day 10 (Friday, Sept. 9)

Payday! Cha-ching! At least, that's what I thought before I saw my check and remembered that I'm a first year teacher in a city where people in the food service industry start out taking more home than I do.

Oh well. Ostensibly, any money at all is good, and I'll take what I can get, considering I have no other choice. (And before anybody gives me that "three month vacation" crap, for the record: I teach at a year-round school, and I am on an extended contract (meaning that instead of nine weeks off, I get four. So que cerres la boca). Anyway, enough bitching, and onto our feature for today...

the bad

I'm with an alternative liscensure program called [redacted]. I'll talk more about that later, but anyway, one of the higher-ups came in and observed me this morning. He's a perfectly nice, supportive, helpful guy, but I've been flat-on-my-back sick for the last couple days, and (a) didn't prepare very well for class that day and (b) had no energy when he arrived. I can say without any measure of exaggeration that my absolute worst teaching so far this year took place during those ten minutes that he was in the room. Nothing major, just me being boring and pedantic, relatively ineffective from a classroom management standpoint, and dragging along through the lesson.

Needless to say, things picked up dramatically after he left. Isn't that always the way it goes?

the ugly

One of my kids, Duane (not his real name, mind you), is particularly difficult to work with. He is very oppositional and tests the boundries at every opportunity. I took him aside today and we talked for about twenty minutes about "real life" and consequences verses when you're young and you get in trouble at school. I told him that people go to jail for taking things that don't belong to them when they're adults, and he seemed really surprised. At any rate, he ended up telling me about some pretty horrific domestic disputes he witnessed when he was younger. It makes you think--no matter how stressful life may be on my end, with all of the stupid bureaucratic bullshit that gets in the way of everything, difficulties are indeed relative--and I am pretty thankful that mine are largely logistical and not life-impairing. Anyway.

[UPDATE]I talked to this kid's mom this weekend--just wanted to introduce myself, start the school year off on the right foot--and I learned that this same evening, Duane has seriously injured another kid with a pellet gun (possibly accidentallly). His court date is coming up. We'll just add this to the list of things to factor into his behavioral patterns this week...

the good

I've implemented two new classroom management procedures in two of my classes. They're working well, at least for the first day. They involve the simple threat of taking time out of recess if too much time is wasted during class--one tally mark on the board = one minute, arbitrarily meted out by me. It's amazing how attentive kids can be when they try...!



The Bad, the Ugly, and the Good

Hello world. I am a brand new teacher, working in at an elementary school in Las Vegas.

Though I'll try and be specific for the occasional wanderer who doesn't already know me, this site is primarily so that I may record my thoughts somewhat constructively and systematically (til now, journaling was never my thing), utilizing a medium that I've basically had to give up since I got a "real job."

So here's the basic premise: I'm an Intermediate Resource Specialist, which means I'm responsible for providing special education assistance to the third, fourth and fifth graders on my caseload. These are not kids who go to class in the self-contained classroom that most people erroneously picture when they think of "special ed." These are kids who have been determined to have specific learning disabilities which, varying from kid to kid may make it difficult to learn how to read, write, and/or visualize certain mathematical concepts--or any number of other possibilities or combinations. Note--I said, "difficult," NOT "impossible" or "insurmountable." Think of swiss cheese--it goes from bottom all the way to the top, it's just got some holes here and there that need to be accounted for--and in an educational setting, that means by teachers who are flexible enough to teach the content according to the kid's needs, not according to the teacher's preferred style. (Let's all take a moment to reflect on the one thing all your lousy teachers had in common: did it have something to do with a refusal to budge from his or her way of antiquated thinking? Just a lucky guess.)

Anyway, so in order to keep me thinking positively, I am hoping to reflect on the proverbial Good, Bad and Ugly moments from each day--just not in that order. Usually it'll be the Bad, Ugly, and Good (hence the title! A gold star for you!). Clichéd? Buzz off. This isn't supposed to be literary--it's just a journal.