Chicago, Illinois, USA
December 29
Chicago Public Schools
I'm a high school English teacher who teaches on the South Side of Chicago. I'm from Arkansas. I'm a white lady whose last name is Japanese (thanks to my Japanese Yankee husband). My brother in law says I'm a sitcom waiting to happen. I'm married and have a little girl who is three and a half, and a baby boy who is nineteen months old. I have lost 76 pounds in the last year and a half, and barefoot running is my new obsession. So much to share!


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SEPTEMBER 28, 2008 8:57PM

The First Month of School

Rate: 21 Flag

I've survived the first month of the school year, and so far it's been a doozy. I'm teaching five sections of freshmen reading, which is not my dream position. I have never enjoyed teaching freshmen, and these particular freshmen have been identified as needing an extra English class in an attempt to boost their scores. Their reading scores are far below grade level, even more so than our average student.

I'm not a reading teacher, and there is no real curriculum for the class, so I'm kind of winging it. I know most of these kids hate to read, so my goal is for them to find something they enjoy reading, so perhaps they'll see reading as a joy and not a burden. I'm not sure if that's working yet, but that is what I'm aiming for.

There have been two major challenges I've been dealing with thus far. One, it's been incredibly hot in Chicago this school year, and my lovely school does not have air conditioning. I teach on the third floor and it is an oven in there. Only two windows open in my room. There is rarely a breeze. How ever hot it is outside, it's about twenty degrees hotter in my room. Makes for a fun environment! The kids bitch and moan to no end. It is so frustrating. And makes it really hard to get through a lesson.

After every long Chicago winter, violence in the city escalates when it gets warm. My kids always explain, "When it gets hot, they start shooting." The statistics would seem to prove this statement. When it's hot, tempers shorten and people get really agitated. When you cram 27 or 28 students into a small, ventilation-free 100 degree classroom, you can imagine how effective that is in creating tension. (Not to mention I'm six months pregnant. I keep telling the kids, "However miserable you are, I'm more miserable!" They don't care.

The other challenge is that some genius from my school thought it would be a good idea to put all the freshmen students into "pods." Some of the pods are single sex, but most are mixed sex. So these kids are together all day long, including PE and lunch. Which is not what high school should be.

Furthermore, the bad kids (of which there are many) are having a negative effect on the good kids. Because they are stuck together all day long. I feel so bad for the kids who I can see want to learn something and are at least somewhat excited about school. The unmotivated students (I know I should not use the word "bad," and I don't mean it literally, it is just a fast description) tend to gobble up most of my attention, because many of them have incredibly terrible attitudes. I've been cursed out more this year than any since my first teaching job six years ago. And these are freshmen. It's pretty shocking the behavior I've been subjected to. And it's not even October.

I always try to do some kind of icebreaker activity at the beginning of the school year to get to know my students better. This year I had my students write me a letter describing themselves and defining three goals they want to achieve in my class.

It was amazing. In 90% of the letters, the students would write about how great they were, how much they loved school, and how they would not be a problem in my class. But every one of those letters added this caveat -- that the student was great until I got on his or her bad side. When and if that happened, the student would have to put me in my place, because he or she has a temper and that is just how it works.

I find this attitude incredible. It's not new -- I have always heard this from students. But it still never fails to astonish me. I think this is a huge problem for my students. They seem to have no idea how to get along with people who don't follow this philosophy.

I'm reading these letters thinking, "Seriously?" As if I could put my principal in her place when she made me mad, because she had gotten on my bad side? How will my students ever be able to hold down jobs with this attitude? I have told the kids that it's not my job to adjust to their personality flaws -- it is their job to overcome them. But they don't seem to believe me.

When I meet their parents, I see where they get it. I've had many a parent try to put me in my place for daring to question their child or give their child a failing grade. These are usually the parents who have never returned a phone call, who have never made any effort to contact me. They show up for the last fifteen minutes of "Report Card Pickup Day" ready to kick my ass. They chew me out, even as I'm trying to show them that their angel has missed 27 class sessions, has never come to class on time, and has never turned in an assignment. It makes for a fun day.

I am trying a new philosophy of my own this semester, however. We'll see how it goes. I really enjoy reading Alan Kazdin's writing about child discipline. He is often published on I bought his book The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child.

My daughter is only 19 months old, and I don't think she'll be defiant. But most of my students are constantly defiant, so I thought the book was a good investment. Basically, Kazdin believes that you should try to ignore bad behavior and praise the hell out of good behavior.

This is probably much easier with your own child. No matter how defiant your own child is, he is still your child and you love him. I don't love that many of my students, especially not the defiant ones. But I'm trying.

I have one class with four problem students. Three males and one female. They are doing their best to control the class. They are four of the most awful, disrespectful students I've ever had. And they are together all day long, feeding off each other. It's great.

Two of these boys cursed me out the second day of school. And the third. The girl in this group spent one class last Tuesday yelling and screaming and singing at the top of her lungs about how awful and bogus and unfair I was. There was no security on the floor, so I had to just sit there taking deep breaths and ignoring her. She kept screaming, "You have no control!!!" It was the first time I ever truly contemplated just getting up and walking out and never coming back.

But it made me mad that she was acting like this in my class. So I just kept sitting there, taking deep breaths. And emailing my friends. It would have been funny except that it was in my class and it was just getting worse and worse. Then this student, whose name is Precious (that's a misnomer if ever there were one) started yelling about how hot it was. Then more about how bogus and unfair and awful I was and how much she hated me.

It is really hard for me to say anything positive to her. I would prefer to never speak to her ever. (I know, I know. I'm the adult here.) But I'm employing Kazdin's methodology. Each day that she is good in my class, which means she is not combative or rude (she doesn't do any work), I praise her for how well she's behaving and thank her.

I'm using the same technique with the three boys. I find something good to say to each of them each day. If they are reading, I praise them. If they are not reading, but not talking either, I praise them. If they have gone through a whole class without cursing at me, I praise them a lot. In one of the boys, I can already see an improvement. With the other two, I can't tell yet.

If I survive this class until Christmas break (which is when my maternity leave begins, hallelujah!), I will most likely have Kazdin to thank for it. But if I don't make it, I'm holding him personally responsible.

It's supposed to be cooler this week, so perhaps I'll see an improvement from my students due to that factor alone. Cross your fingers.

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It's okay, you can be frank here. Unless your students or their parents read Open Salon...

Hang in there, Amy!
Definitely hang in there. I don't know how you do it. I get annoyed enough being back-talked by 18 year olds. If a 14 year old did it, I'd just probably freak out and ask him/her what kind of creatures were responsible for the child's raising. I admire the hard work you're doing, girl.
i had a hard time reading after ' no air conditioning '

I don't want to sound like Rush Limbaugh, but why does the school system even keep the bad students (let's just call them what they are) in school? I mean, if some kid just isn't very good and doesn't do well in school, but is at least polite, that's Ok. You do what you can for him. But when students are disruptive and disrespectful, why are they there? What is the point? It seems that all that is accomplished is that they disrupt learning for the students who want to be there and want to learn, in addition to making teachers wish they had chosen a different career.
As a 6th year English teacher of freshmen who is currently out on maternity leave until January -- I feel this posting!
Thanks for sharing it.
I teach in a working-to-middle-class school, and we have air conditioning (only in the freshmen wing of the school!), so I'm lucky.
However, I get those EXACT same letters in the beginning of the year, and face down those same parents, like you said, usually just at the end of the year/semester.
And it is hard to focus on the good when you have the few power-seeking kids in the class, and I know how hard it is when you have students who want a power struggle like that, and you can just see there are those couple kids who just want to learn, and you just can't teach them the way you really, really want to because their classmates won't let you.
That can make one feel so power- and hopeless.
But, take heart.
Here's a story for you:
When I was about 7 months pregnant, near the end of last year, I had my worst-teacher-moment ever when I dropped the f-bomb in class.
Out of nowhere.
In fact, so out of nowhere, even I didn't know it was coming. No part of me was aware that THAT word was going to be launching itself out of my mouth. It was just suddenly there - BANG! - hanging in the air between me and 27 stunned-looking 15-year-olds.
It was seriously the most embarrassing, shameful moment of my career, and I can only figure that it had something to do with my hormone levels -- that or demons taking over my body. I can't decide.
So, the point I'm trying to make here is kudos to you for keeping it together under these circumstances while pregnant.
Take solace in the fact that as bad as this year's been, well, at least you haven't dropped the f-bomb yet.
Best of luck, Amy. I admire your ability to do this job.
Amy, I know your pain. You have to let them know you ain't taking none of their s*&^! I think they are trying to test your patience.
PODS? Oh lord, please, please, please - never here! In fact I should be mad at you for writing about pods and spreading the word. What a perfectly horrible idea.
Please update us with how you're doing with this technique. I'm pretty sure I would die within a week if I attempted this. A nasty, ugly, implosion.
It sounds like the girl wants attention in some way, and by God, she's going to get it! I hope the theory works on all of them. I've found, even in college teaching, that I get a few who test the teacher and a lot of kids who make it clear you OWE them---a good grade, an easy class, etc. etc.

In college, it's easy of course. I just say, "Well, we have a choice. You can knock it off or I can kick you out of class. I don't care which one it is. You pick."

Silence usually ensues.

You know, it's also possible that this girl is hiding some kind of learning disability from you. You never know. She might not be able to read and feels very angry about that.
I honestly don't know how teachers manage.

I am only 40, and I think the communication gap between my generation and the Yers (Gen Now - as in Veruca Salt's "I want it now!") is as wide as ... well ... let's just say it's so damn wide I can't find a proper comparison.

It's the dichotomy of worth: Every child and every person for that matter is worthwhile. But that is not the same as saying that every child or person is exceptional simply by being alive. It's a fallacy, a trap, that so many are falling into these days. "I'm here - let's celebrate my unique presence!"

Additionally, I know praise helps - but I think it cheapens real praise. My experience praising young people for the basics because we can expect no better of them is that they don't aim higher, and we ultimately cheapen praise. ... It actually makes me hate myself to do it sometimes.

That said, any port in a storm, lady. ... If it works for you, it's the tool you should use. Bless you for having one of the world's hardest jobs. I hope, in some measure, it's as rewarding as you hope.
mishima666 -- CPS takes any student it can get. We get state funding on a per pupil basis, so if we got rid of the kids who are behavior problems, we would not have any money. It's very frustrating -- Illinois has a completely convoluted system of school funding.

beta -- thanks for your story. That's one thing I haven't done yet (shockingly enough! I've come close!). Makes me feel better!

behindblueeyes -- these kids are all way below grade level. Many probably are special ed and haven't been diagnosed. I talked to the school counselor about Precious and she knew her from grammar school, so she has a long history of this behavior. We'll see if things improve.

Thanks to everyone for their comments. I was worried this post was way too long -- thanks for sticking with it. And really -- enjoy your air conditioning!!!
Lisa, you are right. I worry that the kids who behave well without praise are going to catch on and wonder why I don't congratulate them for having their notebook open or doing their assignment or not talking. It is pretty ridiculous. But nothing else I'm doing has worked, so I figure it's worth a shot. A lot of what we do cheapens the process -- I wish my students could appreciate learning for its own sake, but everything has to have a price for them to accept it. Drives me nuts.
I guess I came in late, here, but I have two thoughts ... first, this is quite a wake-up call for someone daydreaming about becoming a teacher (My vision is a cross between Rf. Delderfeld's "To Serve Them All My Days" and "Freedom Writers." ) Sobering stuff, with the disspiriting ring of truth.
But secondly ... my girlfriend recently directed a local theatre production and used a directing technique where she never argued with her con tentious actors. "How would you do it?" she'd ask. And then she'd prasie their ideas... even when they were bad. The theory is that the sense of welcome and safety this creates allows the really good ideas to come out of hiding. Soon the actors are offering really good ideas ... and giving you the credit. Sounds corny ... but it actually worked. Which makes me think that the version of this notion you're employing in class might just work also. I'm sure these kids don't get a lot of praise anywhere else. Keep up thw good work.
Hi Amy:
Do you have any fans for the classroom? You might be able to get some cross-breezes going. I went to school with no A/C -- it was miserable in Illinois. I cannot imagine being on the third floor in an old building with no air.

Can you get a teacher's aide? When we were doing Title I math and reading, the school was allowed to have an aide. This usually helped when there were disruptive kids -- one of the other couold continue to teach.

I know you are doing angel work, but can't you get some help? Are there NO resources at all for you? Is there ANYTHING we can send to you that would be helpful?
I hear you, girlfriend!

I was in a doozy eighth grade today (I'm a sub), and some of the kids were absolutely incorrigible. Even the best of the kids did nothing but talk. It's like someone's nightmare, you know when you dream about being an unpopular adolescent again (even if it never happened the first time)? But this is real--you walk in and get picked on, stared at, mocked, ignored, disrespected. It's unbelievable.

I noticed several years ago when I really got into subbing (I like the no-planning aspect, the diversity of classrooms and people) that the really young ones take a bigger physical toll but they love you! Teaching the older ones involves more breaks and planning time and even interesting discussions and certainly no literal crawling and floor-sitting and leaning over to help with shoes and chasing out the doorway, etc., but OMG they can make you cry with a single baleful glare. Middle school days I just dread.

I realized a long time ago that literally no person I know--not a single one--who isn't already a teacher could do my job. I mean I sat there and thought of every living soul I know--neighbors, family, friends, etc., and could not come up with a single name who wouldn't have walked off the job on the particular day I was realizing this (it was another doozy day).

It's worth mentioning that I work with poor urban kids as Amy does, and there is definitely a difference b/t those schools--for lots of reasons including mental illness and poverty of the families and children, not to mention decrepit buildings--and the mid to upper class burbs where my own kids go to school.

I could go on and on. But keep up the good work and stay at home with your baby as long as you can when you get the time off! (You'll be even better when you eventually return!)

PS Alfie Kohn's book Punished by Rewards is really worth reading. It discourages overpraise, and I know your system seems like it's working now, but they will become dependent on it and expect more and better later. Just a thought.
Hi Lisa and Lainey -- thanks for your comments.

Lisa, I have two fans, but they don't help much and the kids fight over them, so it's hardly worth the hassle. And bless your heart for asking if I could get a teacher's aide. If only! Plus the politics of my school are such that if you complain about needing help they think you are helpless (especially if you are a clueless dumb white lady), and it just confirms their suspicions about you and how you shouldn't be teaching in the inner city. So just send me positive vibes! You are great about being supportive and I appreciate it!

Lainey -- I will read your book, and I completely believe that while this plan of mine might get me through Christmas (I'm taking the whole rest of the school year off! Hooray!), that it will probably do more damage than good in the long run. I think much of what occurs in urban schools does more damage than good. And I hate feeling complicit in that. I always curse the teachers my kids had before they got to me -- I think that they must be laughing about sending these kids up to the next level when they are in no way prepared. But I am finding myself thinking, "Well hell, I won't be their teacher next year." Terrible attitude, I grant you. We'll see how it goes.

As for subbing, I think that is way worse than teaching. Lots of CPS teachers sub after they retire. I told my husband (who is not a teacher, thank God) that if I make it to retirement as a teacher, there is no bloody way I'm subbing. Ever! Kids are brutal to subs. Good for you for being able to handle it. And you are right -- I know very few people who can teach or sub and survive. People can't even imagine what it's like. Ugh. At least I always have funny stories to tell at parties.
Also, LOL on Precious! I get Heavens and Angels all the time, and there absolutely seems to be an inverse relationship b/t name and behavior!

Yes, too, on party stories. OMG, I have a "bloody leprechaun" story, several lice stories, and too many sad family stories to get into, but it's amazing how they can all sound funny at a party.

Once upon a time I had a freshman class that was composed of all the students who had failed first semester English. The thirty some students were mostly boys, with many second language learners thrown in. Most had discipline "rap sheets" a mile long, often, I suspect, due to their frustration with appearing to be the dummies. Many labored with reading disabilities, most came from working class homes with little reading modeled. The unbelievable magic bullet was Shakespeare. Yes, I'm seeing Danny Devito in his English teacher on a military base doing Hamlet, was it? We began with a 3 column insult worksheet, stood in front of the class and hurled insults at each other. ("Mealy yeast-afflicted rabbit sucker!") Then we choreographed in escalating fight moves, à la WWF. The class favorites got to take me on. Having vented our rage, we began to read Romeo & Juliet in the textbook edition, somewhat edited, but mostly the bard's language. It was no more difficult than reading modern English for them and had the attractive elements of sexual innuendo, gang loyalty, revenge, street fights, slaying, love making, and lack of communication with parents. We took turns reading parts, changing actor/readers at each scene. These boys FOUGHT over who could read Mercutio!

I failed to mention that in the ever-predictable wisdom of the bureaucracy, this class was scheduled as a two hour double class at the end of the day in the faint hope that the first semester failure could be made up.

Amy, you will succeed in ways that you never know. You risk taking home your failures and banking them with rarely a deposit to offset the loss. Focus on the nod, the light in the eyes, the little moments of respect. You are the best thing to happen to these kids in the course of their day. Repeat that mantra!

As for staying home with baby, ditto - you are the best thing to happen to THAT child, too! Kudos for your professionalism and your personal committment.

Thanks, Sylvia. I am always amazed at how much the kids love Romeo and Juliet. I won't get to teach it, since I'm the reading teacher and not the English teacher. But hopefully I can incorporate some Shakespeare somehow. The insults do go over well. And my students always LOVE the Claire Danes/ Leonardo Dicaprio R+J -- they call it the ghetto Romeo and Juliet.

I appreciate your kind words. I am looking for those glimmers in the eye! I do have some sweet kids. They just sometimes get lost in all the chaos. I have to work on that.
My theory, for what it's worth, is that the really bad ones are terrified. They know that the language and code of behavior for school and teachers is not something they understand, and if they're disruptive enough, you won't ever see their weaknesses and how low their skills are. It didn't help much, but I did ask a student last year when I was a guest in his English class why he was being so rude to me when we'd just met, and when I really had nothing at all against him. He looked surprised and said he didn't realize he was being rude. He didn't do anything I asked the class to do, but he stopped yelling over me and let me teach.