Thursday, January 29, 2009


One of the most valuable practical lessons of my college career came in our senior seminar after student teaching. One of my infinitely wise education professors told all of us aspiring educators that if we left with only one piece of advice, it should be this: teaching is triage. You can't be everything to everyone. Stop the bleeding where the bleeding is worst; anyone who's not dying just has to wait.

At that point, I was still pretty idealistic--still am, to a large degree--and told myself that I would never stoop to that level of educational mediocrity, functioning in survival mode, just trying to keep all my students' heads above water. I had visions of captivating lessons, fascinated students, extraordinary achievements, boundless energy...all in my first year of teaching, of course. If the past three months have taught me one thing, it's to be a little bit more realistic.

Teaching is triage, I believe that now without a doubt, but whom do you rescue first? The kid who can't add single-digit numbers or the secretly brilliant one suffocating in everyone else's apathy? The one who barely speaks English or the one screaming profanity? The one who spends the class drawing gang insignias on his binder or the one talking about the previous weekend's drug use? The one who clings to you begging for attention or the one who has withdrawn completely? The one scandalously dressed or the one without a coat on a negative-temperature day? The one who writes stories about abusive parents or the one who tells you about his brother's and sister's deaths? The one who painstakingly struggles through one-syllable words or the one who flat out refuses to do anything? The one relentlessly bullying other students in your classroom or the one getting beat up in the hallway?

Yes, teaching is triage. And everyone is dying.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


You'd better believe it. In every sense of the word. I mentioned in my last post that I recently started co-directing an after-school theater class, along with Abby, another para at the school who has become a very dear friend and true lifeline when middle school life is just too much to handle. Our theater class began last week with a course intro and auditions, but our first actual rehearsal was yesterday. Heaven help us.

The excitement began as soon as we brought the kids to the auditorium: preteen actors chasing each other through aisles, banging on pianos, screaming into microphones, and swinging from curtains. After a good bit of corralling and explaining how important it is to respect school property (and teachers), we finally got everyone relatively settled down to highlight their lines in the script. That endeavor went reasonably well. Except that a few students complained continually about who got which part. And that the Jester decided he didn't want to be married to his Wife, and they started hitting and calling each other names, just like any good married couple. And that the King disappeared. We eventually found him hiding wrapped up in a curtain, saying he didn't actually want to be in the play at all, that the Jester had recruited him so he wouldn't be the only boy in the twelve-person cast.

Then we began a read-through. Oh, pain. Most of the leads did a decent job and even used appropriate inflection on occasion, but a few seemed to stumble over every other word, which prompted some others to make scornful remarks and mutter under their breath how they should've gotten the part. Cell phones kept ringing throughout the reading, and one of the Ladies of the Court crawled across the stage to where I was sitting to tell me that she had gotten in a fight that day. By the end of the read-through, restless actors were rolling all over the stage--and the entire script is only eight pages long.

We thought we were doing pretty well when we finally got everyone pulled together into the front row of the auditorium to discuss the rehearsal schedule and expectations, until we noticed the Queen bawling in her seat. Upon further investigation, we discovered that the Jester's Wife had accidentally put the Queen's seat up just as she was about to sit down, and she fell right on her elbow. Several Ladies of the Court tried to console the inconsolable Queen, while the King badmouthed the Jester's wife, who consequently whacked him in the face with her script and then started crying as well. Good lord. Gives a whole new meaning to the term Drama Queen.

I went home absolutely exhausted, clinging to the hope that maybe, just maybe, this nightmarish scene would turn out like one of those inspirational movies about inner-city kids and their clueless-but-determined white teachers who somehow succeed in spite of the odds and prove everybody wrong, earning fives on their AP calc exams and playing their quarter-size violins with Itzhak Perlman at Carnegie Hall...sigh. Right now I'll settle for everyone surviving until the performance.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hit the ground running

Hmmm, looks like I haven't written in over a month. Let's say that's a testament to how busy I've been and not to how much I've been slacking in communication. Or rather, that I've been focusing on catching up with people in person instead of online. In any case, the past month has indeed been a full one: traveling back to PA, spending Christmas with the family, visiting with high school and college friends and lots of relatives, playing many hours of street hockey and Boggle and ping-pong, and making a trip to DC for New Year's Eve. Ah, winter breaks like this are not the least of the reasons I choose to work in public schools.

Since that beautiful vacation, life has been anything but boring. At school, I'm right back in the swing of administering English proficiency tests, working with struggling students, and, most recently, creating an after-school theater class and co-directing a play and musical number. I've also been updating my resumé and looking for teaching jobs for next school year, or even for this semester--stressful even to think about, but exciting nonetheless.

Also, happy Inauguration Day! I skipped my 10:00 lunch this morning to watch the proceedings on the big screen in the auditorium with a bunch of our students. (Granted, political awareness is not necessarily one of their fortes, as evidenced by our inauguration discussion in ESL class today, in which we asked 6th and 7th graders who would become president if something happened to Obama. Their answers: His wife. John McCain. George Bush. And Martin Luther King, Jr.) I don't think many of them fully grasped the significance of what was happening, but they were excited. It was...beautiful. Watching them watching him, I felt more hopeful about the future of this country than I have in a long, long time. Here's to a new day.