Thursday, September 4, 2014

Holla Achya Teach!

This will be a short post because it isn't my usual philosophic rambling. Instead, I'm giving a little advice to my students, not just for my class, for any class, and not just for high school; this information will also help in college and the workplace. This advice is simple: Communicate with your teacher (professor, boss, etc.) about anything concerning your ability to meet their requirements as soon as the situation arises. So far this year, I have had several students absent from my class for various reasons. In some cases, it is a planned trip or appointment, so they ask for assignments the day before they are absent. That is fantastic. In some cases, even when they know they will be gone, students do not take care of this necessary information beforehand. Other times, a student is absent because they are sick. In most cases, these students will wait until they get back to school to go to each teacher at the beginning of class to ask for what they missed, but I have had a couple of students this year take the time to send an email to all of their teachers (just one email with all of us CC'd) explaining that they were not feeling well and would not be in class and asking for any assignments they would be missing. This blew me away. What an amazingly responsible thing for a teenager to do. Instead of having your parents call and ask for a homework request to be sent around to your teachers or simply doing nothing at all until you get back to school, be proactive and take the few minutes it takes to send an email to your teachers to personally explain why you will not be in school and to request make-up work.

Another scenario that has popped up is concerning electronic assignment submissions. Many of my assignments are submitted electronically outside of school hours. It never fails, on every assignment, I have students who fail to submit anything. I usually send out an email reminding them that they need to get the assignment done within a week to comply with my late work policy, and I invariably receive emails with a range of excuses of why the assignment wasn't done. What I rarely get, however, is an email from the student when the excuse happens to let me know they will not have my assignment done and why. How refreshing would that be to have a student send me an email before deadline to explain what difficulties they have encountered and that they will not be able to meet my deadline? I would never dream of just silently missing one of my bosses' deadlines and then waiting for them to approach me, and I'm guessing most responsible working adults would say the same. In the event that I know I am not going to meet a deadline, I contact my boss to let him know that I will not meet the deadline, why I will not be able to meet it, and when I expect to have the task completed.

The point of all of this, dear students, is to say that it would go a long way toward endearing yourself to your teachers if you began proactively communicating on your own behalf, and it would build in you an important habit for success in the adult world.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Fresh Start

Another school year is underway at PCHS. This is my seventh year of teaching, and I am always excited for the first days of school, and I think you should all be excited too. For me, the beginning of the school year is more significant the start of a new calendar year. On January 1st, many people wake up looking at the new year as an opportunity to make changes, better themselves. We make resolutions for the changes we want to make in our lives. As a teacher, my life revolves around the school calendar more than it does the standard calendar; for me, New Year's Day is halfway through the year, not the beginning of it! By New Year's Day, we've already put in a full semester of work, so each August, I begin thinking about myself as a teacher. What I have I done in the past that I am happy about? What I have done in the past that I'm not so happy about? What worked in my classroom? What did not? I start every year by making resolutions about the kind of teacher I want to be this year. I set goals for my own improvement. Here are the goals I have for myself this year:

-I want to blog more often. As a teacher and father of three young children, I don't have much time for traditional hobbies like golfing or going fishing. Truth is, I haven't done those things enough to even know if I would enjoy doing them more often. I'm not very good at either one, and I don't really have the time or resources necessary to get better at this point in time. By most accounts, though, I am a pretty good writer, and I enjoy doing it. It doesn't require an incredible amount of time, and I have all that I need to accomplish it sitting right here at my fingertips, so I resolve to blog much more often than I have the last few years. I think that putting my thoughts out for students and parents to read gives them more insight into who I am as a person and what I am trying to accomplish in my classroom.

-I want to continue to get better at communicating with parents. As soon as I finish this blog, I am going to start the tedious task of creating email lists of students and parents for each of my classes (no small task with 7 classes and about 150 students). After that, I will be sending out mass emails to both students and parents with information about how to stay in contact with me and access course information. I know that not every parent uses email on a regular basis, but I have found that enough of them do to make the effort worthwhile. This is something that I have done will during some semesters but not so well in others. I resolve to do a good job of it both semesters this year.

-I want to do a better job of creating a culture in my classroom for students to not only feel comfortable getting extra help from me, but also to make sure that process is easier for kids. I think that I am going to try to create extra help sessions each week focusing on specific topics so that students can show up for help in those areas at those times. For example, I may have a time set up every Monday after school to focus on grammar for 30 minutes. There may be a 30 minute session on Thursday for organization and study skills. I plan to include students in coming up with times and topics, so feel free to leave me a comment with your suggestions.

-I want to continue to get better at getting feedback to students in a timely manner. Last year was probably the best I've ever done at getting assignments graded, posted on MMS, and back to students quickly, but I want to continue to get better at that. For some assignments, this is very easy. For others, I'm going to have to really buckle down to make it happen. With 100 students enrolled in English II, grading 100 essays is going to take some time, but my goal is to get those essays graded within 10 days, which means grading an average of 10 essays each day. It will be hard, but resolutions are not meant to be easy. If it were easy, we wouldn't have to resolve to do it, right?

-I want to continue to be the change. With Challenge Day coming back this year, I'm excited to continue to see our school culture improve, and I know that I have a great responsibility as a teacher to be a big part of that change. I see you, I've got you, and I love you.

There you have it: my five resolutions for this school year. I know I will not accomplish all of these things all of the time. There will be weeks when I am worn out from the daily grind of school and raising a family. There will be weeks when I have meetings after school that get in the way of accomplishing some of these tasks. A little over a year ago, I began trying to live a healthier lifestyle. I started paying more attention to what I was putting in my body and resolved to exercise more. A year later, I can see the difference in my weight, body composition, and overall health. This process has taught me a lot. Have I met my goals every day for the last year? No. There are still days when I eat too much junk food or skip the trip to the gym, but if I continue to work on those goals and have more good days than bad, I will move forward. The resolutions I have for this school year are the same. There will be days or weeks when I don't accomplish some of these goals, but if I have more good weeks than bad, I will be a better teacher at the end of the year than I am right now.

For my students reading this, what are your resolutions for this school year? What kind of student do you want to be when we arrive at the end of the year? What will it take to accomplish that goal? I want you to try to come up with five goals for yourself. Instead of focusing on a grade you want to get, focus on the behavior it would take to earn that grade. For instance, instead of saying "I want to get all A's", resolve to turn every assignment in on-time to the best of your ability, to ask for help when you don't understand an assignment or concept, to participate fully in every class, etc.. Understand that there will be days that you don't feel like participating, and that is fine, but if you try to meet your goals every day, you will be far better off than if you aren't trying at all, even if you sometimes fall short. I look forward to accomplishing our goals together.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Why I'm a Jerk

I've tried to deny it for years, but I guess it is time for me to admit it: I can be a bit of a jerk. I do a lot of jerky things, and my face just naturally looks angry. I tell my students when they aren't doing what they need to be doing. I let them know when they are screwing up, and I let them know what they need to do to stop screwing up. When my students fail to put forth their full effort, I call them out on it, and I assess their work accordingly. To many, this seems like some real jerk behavior. Maybe they are right, but I am not going to change. I'm not going to change because my job is to prepare my students for the real world, and the real world is a jerk. The real world will let you know that you are screwing up in a far harsher way than a stern lecture and a low grade on an assignment.

My students need to be prepared to go to college, the military, or the workforce and bring their best effort every day, even if they are tired, even if they have big plans for the weekend, even if they broke up with their boyfriend/girlfriend, even if they just don't feel good or are having a bad day. The real world is going to expect my students to be responsible, driven, and dependable, so I expect the same thing. That is the only way I can feel like I am doing for them what I am called to do. Is it what they want me to do? In many cases, maybe even most cases, the answer is no. They do not want me to push them, to hold them accountable, to have high expectations, but I will say this: I have never had a former student tell me that I did not do enough to prepare them for life after graduation. My class is hard. It is supposed to be. If a student passes my class, they should know that they accomplished something meaningful. A passing grade in my class is not a participation ribbon; it is medal that was earned through hard work and determination. That is the way it is supposed to be. No one has ever learned anything they did not have to work for. Period. So, I make my students work.

A couple of days ago, I posed a simple question to my students: Are you an optimist or a pessimist? As often happens, one of my students turned the question on me. I will share the answer here for everyone who was not in that class on that day because it may give a little more insight into why I'm a jerk. I told the class that when it comes to my students, I am an optimist. I expect the best from them. I expect that every student in my class wants to be successful, wants to learn. I go into every class period with the expectation that my students are going to give me their best shot until the bell rings. I give every assignment with the expectation that my students are going to use it as an opportunity to push their performance level up one more notch. If I were a pessimist, any failure to meet those expectations wouldn't bother me because it would just confirm my low expectations, but that is not the case. When students sit in my class and do nothing, it bothers me. When students blow off my assignments, it really bothers me. These things bother me because they let me down. I have such high hopes for my students that when they let me down, I feel it. When they let me down, I let them know because wherever they end up after graduation, their boss, commander, professor, etc., will certainly let them know when they fail to meet expectations, and in the real world, the stakes are much higher than they are in high school.

Coaches will often discuss players by breaking them down into two skill sets. One skill set is tangible. Does the player have solid fundamentals? Do they understand the game? The other skill set is intangible. You can't measure it. How does the player respond to being coached? Are they mentally tough? How do they handle adversity? The first set of skills are less important in many player evaluations than the second because the first set of skills can be taught if the second set of skills are solid. Life is the same way. Successful people have the second set of skills. They are able to take negative feedback and learn from it. They are mentally tough enough to see it as an opportunity to get better. When they get knocked down, they look at the damage, learn from it, and move on with a determination to not get knocked down again. If a person can do that, they can learn just about anything. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. It is the case in sports, as it is in life.

If I weren't a jerk, my students wouldn't learn. If I accepted sub par work, what would drive my students to try harder the next time? The answer is nothing. If I give a student an A for something that is a C at best, will they ever actually produce something worthy of an A? Why would they? I would be leading them to believe that what they are doing is already outstanding. As far as they would be concerned, they do not need to improve; they are already at the top. If I made a student feel like not doing an assignment for my class is acceptable, what motivation do they have to turn in the next assignment. We all want to believe that getting gold star stickers for everything we do is going to make us feel so good about ourselves that we will naturally get better, but that is only partially true. While we will feel good about ourselves, we will never get better. We get better by competing, especially against ourselves. We get better by constantly striving to outdo our last effort. Without honest feedback of our shortcomings, how can we grow?

So, yes, I'm a jerk, but I'm not a jerk out of malice. I'm a jerk because I care more about my students and their future than the vast majority of them will ever understand. I'm a jerk because I want to see them be successful in life, and I know that they are going to have to work hard to do that. I'm a jerk because I would rather them get a little scuffed up within the protection of our high school surrounded by people who are there to pick them up, dust them off, and help them learn to get better than out in the real world where they will be stepped on by the next person waiting to take their position. I'm hard on my students because I know that what comes next will be even harder, and I can't look myself in the mirror if I'm not doing everything in my power to make sure they are ready for it.