Sunday, November 4, 2007

End of the Quarter Blues

Where is B.B. King when we need him?

Friday marked the end of the first quarter of the 2007-2008 school year. The students are exhausted and suffering from burn out. They giggle uncontrollably in the hallways, scream and shout, cry for no reason, behave erratically, jump on each other, become talking heads in class, fail to do their homework, find themselves unable to concentrate and the most frustrating, exhibit more than usual irresponsibility.

The teachers are also exhausted. Colds, flu, and just general mental fatigue plague us causing absenteeism and the dreaded need for those of us who are present to substitute teach for the sick ones. We find ourselves suppressing the need to laugh hysterically at nothing, or sob uncontrollably for no apparent reason. We cannot concentrate and deadlines are looming. There are too many meetings and conferences stacked up against doctors’ appointments, car servicing appointments, family obligations, and a hundred other things that must be done all right now.

So how long until Thanksgiving?

This weekend, I find myself mired in grading papers. I am a little behind. The first set I did Friday night was from September. Yes, that’s right—early September. I want desperately to give my students immediate feedback on their writing. Giving papers back nearly two months after completion is not my idea of immediate.

I teach four different grade levels in English: nine through twelve. I see the ninth grade six times a week. I see the eleventh grade ten times a week. Tenth and twelfth see me five days a week. I teach all these grade levels literature, writing and grammar skills, vocabulary skills, and test-taking skills, including SAT and Advanced Placement test preparation. I have a full time job simply preparing to teach.

During the school day, I usually have two class periods devoted to preparation. On Thursdays, I have only one. The problem is with concentration. I teach every day from 8:30 AM until 12 noon straight through with only a fifteen minute nutrition break. Every day, except Thursday, I have from 12 to 12:50 PM free. I have yard supervision at lunch (12:50-1:25 PM) on Mondays and Wednesdays. I teach a class every day from 1:30-2:15 PM. Monday through Friday, I have the last period of the day, 2:15-3:05 PM free for preparation. Mondays and Wednesdays, I have office hours from 3:10-3:40 PM. So my preparation minutes come in drips and drops. I am usually correcting papers, reading memos, reading or rereading texts to teach, all while eating my lunch. I could easily skip breakfast and lunch and never miss it as I do not have much of an appetite, but this is not a good idea if one is diabetic. Coffee is my best friend.

To people who do not teach, this all might sound like a busy day. It is so much more. Imagine having to give a speech with interaction and questioning from the audience, for a minimum of five hours every day. Every speech must be different, yet extremely detailed. While you are giving the speeches, you must be cognizant of every move of your audience members. They are dependent on you for permission to leave the room for the bathroom, or to take care of a number of personal things. You must hold the attention, or completely involve in the discussion, every audience member. Periodically, you have a break between speeches to do at least two detailed tasks, mostly involving concentrated reading for layers of meaning. Meanwhile, at any moment, your boss can call you into her office for a discussion about something that happened several days ago, and that may have a profound effect on something that will occur several days in the future. You are expected to remember all the details as well as the dates. People are also emailing you with specific requests. Some may also drop in unexpectedly for a conference. At this point, the chaotic picture should be clear.

Teaching is demanding. It takes everything you have and more.

So I am behind on my grading. I have three sets of essays, about 18 in each set on average, and one set of vocabulary quizzes—a spelling test, really, which makes for easy grading. I finished the early September set Friday night, or actually Saturday morning at 3:30 AM. I finished another set of essays from mid-October and the vocabulary quizzes this morning at 1:30 AM. I will try to finish the remaining two sets of essays from late October today into early tomorrow morning. School resumes Monday and final quarter grades are due.

Why do I work so late into the night? I am a night person. I like working into the morning hours because the phone does not ring, and my concentration is undisturbed. The downside is that I am not a morning person, and my first class is 8:30 AM. Now you know why coffee is my best friend.

In addition to the grading I have yet to do, I am behind on my lesson planning. I have a semester overview that I can follow, but the day-to-day planning is where I need to focus my attention as soon as the grading is done. Usually, I must choose between grading papers in a timely manner and preparing for class. I would rather be prepared for class and give papers back later than be caught standing in front of restless teenagers with nothing for them to do. Preparation involves drafting assignments and tests, reading or rereading texts and background information, updating notes, preparing slides or audio visual materials, and planning activities. My friends are surprised to learn that I reread much of the literature I teach every year. There are some works, like Shakespeare’s plays, that I have been through so many times that I remember the text. Over the years, I have accumulated excellent background notes and resources for his work as well. But other works I need to refresh every year. So rereading is essential and necessary. I wish I had a photographic memory, but I do not.

I am also an avid reader on my own—books, newspapers (at least three dailies), magazines, and Internet sites. I have this blog to write for, at least once a week (my own requirement).

The other major activity that takes up time at work is the student magazine. I edit and publish a student magazine once per quarter, or whenever I have the time. I am not paid extra for this; it is something I feel makes kids want to write better. If they know their work will be published, they are very willing to work on drafts of their writing and perfect it. I am a big believer in publication as a teaching tool for writing. Seeing a response in the school community to what they write has a profound impact on my students.

So at the end of every quarter comes the logjam. I find there is no way to avoid it. We just have to muddle through and finish it off. Then, we can start all over again for the second quarter.

For the second quarter, I will make the following resolutions: I will return papers sooner; I will read more new books to look for potential texts for the coming years; I will make better use of every minute of the day.

The reality? During the second quarter I will be writing teacher recommendations for my college-bound seniors. I will be teaching Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Inherit the Wind, Dante’s Inferno, Skellig, The Things They Carried, The Great Gatsby, the poetry of William Blake, The Kite Runner, and Death of a Salesman. I will grade essays, multiple essays, from each of the four classes. There will also be quizzes, homework to check, class work to proctor, and all manner of personal disasters and crisis.

The challenge never ends.