Reflections on the School Year

My first year as a full-year, classroom teacher is coming to a close. It’s been a good year.

While I loved my last job as a science and math tutor, managing a classroom is completely different. In the last job, I got to work with a choice pick of kids – the ones that wanted to attend, wanted to work and had a strong drive. In the classroom, you’re managing everyone. You have to try to motivate even those hanging at the lowest rung and are doing everything in their power to make you miserable.

While it’s hard to summarize the entire year, I thought I’d throw down a few thoughts about each grade I’ve worked with:

  • Secondary 1 Science: This was my Achille’s Heel. It took the whole year to get a handle on this class of 18. I was constantly researching different class management strategies. I eventually settled on ClassDojo, which they enjoyed. ClassDojo worked moderately well, but the effect wore off towards the end of the year. Unfortunately, there are still a few kids who constantly derail anything and everything. The class stressed me out that I ended up deprioritizing follow-up after class (i.e. detention, punishment, etc.); this hurt me in the long run and only encouraged misbehaviour. Another factor that makes this class difficult is that there are several students with extremely low literacy skills; they struggle to follow along, read or write. I had to cut out the units on astronomy and structures, due to the interruptions and the slow pace of this class. The last day of class was actually a complete disaster, but the way I handled difficult situations made me realize I had come a long way and that it had been a few months since I had such a stressful afternoon. Next year however, I will not be teaching this course (phew) but will have to approach the students in secondary two with a better plan.
  • Secondary 2 Science: Term 1 was the hardest, but by second term, it started to smooth out. There were lots of bullying issues amongst the boys, who couldn’t seem to get their hands off each other. I still remember the day the principal had to walk and warn the students that even playfighting was going to result in an automatic suspension. I was lucky that the homeroom teacher, I., communicated with me regularly, as she was right across the hallway from me. I. also guided me a lot and made me realize how important it is to give parents a call right away; the impact of two teachers contacting a parent meant that we saw changes a lot more quickly in a student’s (mis)behaviour. Also, having the cellphone ban start in February actually helped give me some power and control. All I had to do was give the stinkeye, then press the intercom button, so that an administrative staff would come upstairs to take away a cellphone or an electronic device. The class responded well with rules, as long as I stayed consistent. This was actually one of my favourite classes, because the students were academically one of the strongest, hardest-working groups; they also had strong literacy skills and language acquisition skills that put them ahead. As well, they were verbal and often let me know when they needed help (a trait lacking in a lot of students here). I look forward to teaching them in secondary 3.
  • Secondary 3 Science: There were two separate groups of secondary 3 and they were practically night and day. One class was large, boisterous and full of energy; the second could have been in a contest to see who spoke the least. In terms of the course, I had 6 classes per cycle, giving me lots of time to get the class moving together despite the inconsistent attendance. I liked this course, but had to cut out some major components, such as meiosis, sound waves and ray diagrams on concave/convex mirrors (didn’t have the equipment, but ordered it for next year). I hope to get more in depth with the curriculum next year.
  • Secondary 4 Science: I was very serious when I ran this course and very firm with my class management. Since I had specialized in the curriculum for the previous 2 years prior to joining the school board, this was my baby. I made it very clear from the beginning of the year that students needed to work hard to pass the course (many kids across the board drop out of high school altogether because of this course). I worked them hard and got a lot of work done; they knew that the expectations in the class ran very high. Generally, I felt this course went very well, but made the mistake of not having incorporated enough hands-on labwork. It could have been more fun and I would have loved to do more chemistry, explore climate change in more exciting ways and build neat circuit projects with the students. I also wish I had more time to incorporate study strategies. Four periods a week with the students did not seem like it was enough.
  • Secondary 4 Science with Secondary 5 Students: I didn’t have a strong relationship with the seven students that started. And since these were students that had failed the course before, I should have put more time to set up a very warm, inclusive environment right off the bat. The attendance, however, was amongst the worst. There were days where no one showed up, even if I knew they were somewhere in the building. We had some good, productive days together, but how do you not feel disappointed when a student disappears for weeks or months at a time? I’m hoping that there will not be a separate class next year; it would be beneficial for all the students to be together.

Here are also a few things that stood out in my mind:

  • After-School Detention: This was a new set-up in our school. In previous years, there was no such system in place. Teachers write names down for those who showed up late or were skipping more than 2 times. I wasn’t quite as consistent towards the end of the year, but it would get the attention of a few kids and cause them to turn around. When I had detention duty, it also gave me the opportunity to bond with the students and give them one-on-one time. It was beneficial as it allowed me to develop trust in a more intimate setting, away from the distraction of the student’s peers. It gave me an opportune chance to discuss why they were in the room in the first place.
  • Taking initiative: I feel that I made a good impression with the administration. I have shown initiative here and there (i.e. setting up the Smartboard sales meeting). I’m a nerd; I’m far more interested in curriculum and professional development, than I am in community projects or field trips. I would also love to do training for other teachers.

Areas of improvement that I should work on:

  • Long-range Planning: I didn’t have a strong long-range plan, which caused me to fall behind on different courses. Big project for August. Perhaps I’ll reach out to other teachers to see what works well for them.
  • Lab Safety: I did not start off with a strong lab safety component at the beginning of the year. I definitely need to do this next school year.
  • Timing: Down south, most teachers would be at school an hour before the bell rang. There were many days where I was running in 10 minutes prior. I need to nip that bad habit in the bud. 8:15 am would be a good time to be in school to make photocopies, prepping and pulling out lab equipment.


Math on the Mind

I’ve become more comfortable with teaching science. While a few months alone doesn’t mean I’ve mastered the entire curriculum – astronomy continues to be an area that scares and confounds me – I’ve started considering what it’d be like if I taught math as well.

A few weeks ago, I asked V., the head of the special education department about the remedial classes at school. It shocked me to find out that we don’t offer remedial math. I asked the principal if she’d consider putting this on my workload next year and she replied that she’d be more than happy to consider it.

Since then, I’ve had math on my mind … a lot.

This morning, I woke up and spent a few hours researching potential math workshops for the PD days next year. I know, total nerd; sitting in my PJs on Saturday morning reading about number crunching! I also read a few chapters of John Mighton’s book, The Myth of Ability. I’m enjoying it and am very curious about the JUMP program, which actually started off in Toronto. There are webinars ($49/teacher) available and I sent an email to a colleague proposing that it be included in next year’s agenda.

I would also love to see Wendy Hill’s do her 2-hour workshop in Waskaganish! Last year, I fell in love with the Learning Carpet when I saw her speak at the OAME conference in Toronto. If only the thing wasn’t $300!

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Why do I feel the need to improve how teachers teach math at our school?

Well, I work in a culture where few parents talk about math with kids*. The Cree language itself is rather limited and there are actually no words to express fractions (since there was no need for it). There are still 16-year-olds that will use a calculator for fifty divided by two and can’t compute seventeen minus four as mental math. There are kids here that don’t know which function – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – to use when given a simple problem. It’s a big problem, by the time they reach secondary 4 and need to attempt a provincial exam that they will most likely fail.

We also have both certified and uncertified teachers with a wide range of skills; it’s unnerving to know that female teachers with anxiety around math can actually cause female students to have it too. Yes, a bad teacher can actually cause students to become worse!

Therefore, things need to change. There isn’t much passion around the school for math and I don’t mind kicking up a few initiatives. My main goal right now is to get the principal to approve a school-wide license with OnBoard Academics, the company with which I bought an annual single-license user subscription. The only problem is trying to book a time with her, so the sales department can pitch their product in a 30-minute webinar.

That’s my new mission this month! I won’t be able to attend this year’s OAME conference, as it is actually the week after Goose Break, but if you know of any awesome math programs, please send them this way.

*A study in 2010 showed that parents can have a strong impact on whether kids take an interest in math at school.