I don’t do much writing about my daily experiences. I suspect you, gentle readers, have more than enough such experiences to occupy you, and I deal with little angst; I make that choice every day when I rise. But at this time of year, I reflect–a great deal–on teaching.
It begins at the end of the previous school year, when I must put away and take home anything that might disappear during the summer. There are all manner of people in schools when students aren’t there. But I also must remove things so it’s easier for our hard-working custodians to clean. It takes about a day to replace and reorganize everything, a process I began Monday.
As I put every DVD, book, handout and other things in their places, I decide how I’m going to improve my instruction relating to those things this year. I’d go mad if I taught from the same set of yellowed notes every year, so I revise virtually everything and try new things. Some things, some methods, of course, work well and I’d be foolish to change them merely for the sake of change. But there are always things that might be done more effectively, and I never stop writing notes to myself about them. I pretty much single-handedly keep the manufacturers of small stick-on notes in business.
Then comes my major copying for the year. I do it weeks before school begins, when no one else is vying for copiers. In so doing, I become a virtual copier repairman, able to fix just about anything that doesn’t require parts or specialized tools. School copiers run constantly and are much abused. It’s best not to think negative thoughts about them when in the same room. They’re sensitive that way.
What do I copy? All of the larger units that require handouts: the research writing project, the media unit, a poetry unit, a literature terms handout, various beginning-of-school handouts that help kids become more organized, and handouts relating to a number of assignments and readings. I color code these, using different colors of paper to make them easier and faster to find when necessary.
A large part of what I do is think up ways to save time. That’s my most precious commodity. One of the first daily sayings to which I expose my students is from Benjamin Franklin: “Do not squander time, for that is what life is made of.” With mandatory, high stakes testing and similar idiocy taking more and more class time each year, saving minutes is absolutely necessary. I’m old and foolish enough to think my job is to teach the kids something, and to do that, I need time.
By now you’re wondering what I do with all those copies. You SMM readers are a bright bunch. During the summer, usually while sitting home catching up on movies I didn’t have time to see during the school year, I recondition my hanging files and manila folders–hundreds of them. Each of my students is issued a hanging file and five manila folders. In each of the folders go some of their assignments: daily sayings, handouts, daily writings, formal writings, vocabulary. They’re responsible for keeping everything neat and in chronological order, and in the right folders. they get regular grades for that. Most kids have few, if any, organizational skills. You knew that, right? They need the practice. That’s one of the secrets to education, by the way, not only practice, but correct practice.
So I have to erase drawings, patch tears, replace file folder labels, etc. Some of the hanging files and manila folders are just worn out, or so covered with graffiti they must be thrown away. You’ve heard of the broken window doctrine in police work? If there is a single broken window on a home or a building, particularly if it appears to be abandoned, in no time at all, they’ll all be broken. If there are any markings or drawings on folders or hanging files, in no time at all, many will be covered in drawings. Successful teachers know human nature very well.
When all the copies are made, Mrs. Manor and I–I really couldn’t do it without her–lay out all of the copies in the correct order, and over and over again, pick them up and put the correct handful in the “handouts” folder of each hanging file, the right number of hanging files in seven individual drawers–that’s how many classes I have each day–and a number of spares for new students that come to the classes from time to time throughout the year.
I do this to save time, the minutes that will be lost if I have to stop to hand things out to everyone. It might seem trivial, but two minutes here and three minutes there add up to entire class periods, and even weeks. If I lose five minutes a day from each class throughout the year, that’s twenty lost class periods–an entire month of instructional time, gone. So on the second day of the year, each students gets their own portfolio, and the major handouts they’ll need that year are already there. It’s a good example for the kids, and it saves me time I desperately need during the year. The first thing they do every day is go to the correct file cabinet draw, retrieve their hanging file, and copy down our daily saying–it’s on the board–so we can interpret and discuss it.
I also put extra copies of everything in a small, blue hanging file crate on a bookshelf in front of the classroom. Why? People lost things, and it saves time if I can take a step, pluck the right handout, and give it to them then and there. Human nature.
Why the second day? By then, most of the kids that were placed in my classes–in in the wrong period–will have been sorted out. Most of the kids that will only be there another day or two are already gone. If I handed out portfolios the first day, I’d have a great many more to recondition.
I make sure the stereo is working properly–I use a great deal of music–and make sure the digital projector is working with my computer. I had to buy a new–used–iMac this year. My old faithful one gave up the ghost, and every time I get a new machine, there are new standards for video plugs, so I have to get the proper adapters and make sure everything looks just right on the screen. Overhead projectors are still used, but they’re on the way out.
And I arrange the desks. As I do, I see the faint images of so many of my students sitting there, laughing, having epiphanies, enjoying each other and actually, upon occasion, learning something and having fun doing it. I miss them.
I saw one of last year’s students in the hallway yesterday. A tall, skinny, smart as a whip girl. “Gawky” would be a good word to describe who she was last year. Pretty and vibrant, but not quite grown into her body. That’s the way so many kids are at the age of 15, the year I have them. This year she was taller, heavier, more gently curved than angular, more graceful, more comfortable in her own skin, and perhaps, if I did my job, a bit wiser. That’s good to see.
Tomorrow I’ll spend much of the day on paperwork, organizing all of the forms I’ll need such as lesson plans, weekly vocabulary, weekly word quizzes. That too saves time, for in only 12 business/school days, the kids will be back, wandering into my classroom, wondering what this strange-looking teacher who is always smiling at them is going to be like.
I can’t wait.