Teachers, Timing, and Testing

Teachers, Timing, and Testing

It makes sense to me that if I test my students on the first day of school and the last day of school, that I’d get a pretty good understanding of what they’d learned along the way.

So it always bothers me that the measurements that are used to evaluate my effectiveness as a teacher are done so late after the start of the year.  As we begin the second full week, I have begun teaching both skills and content.  We’ve covered the processes and procedures needed for classroom management, and are on our way through the curriculum.  And yet, no pre-test yet.

As we move further into the school year, it will get worse for my evaluations, because the kids will score higher on sections of the pre-test that we’ve already covered.

This bothers me for a lot of reasons.

First, if I weren’t a high-road kind of girl, I could just show movies, or play games, or do puzzles the first weeks of school while waiting on a pre-test to show up.  Good for me, bad for the kids.

Second, I could tell my kids to Christmas tree the test, thereby guaranteeing lower scores to start with.  But, again, there’s that high-road, and I like the view from up there. And I don’t want to teach my students to skew data.  They’ll figure that out soon enough in the long run.

Third, I really want accurate, timely feedback on whether my kids are learning anything.  To do that the pre-test ought to come prior to the content.  But it doesn’t, it comes when it comes, on it’s own schedule.  I could be really grumpy and point out that the school calendars are published about six months prior to the new school year, but that might be petty, so I’ll keep moving.

Finally, if there continues to be so much money made in education by corporations who are looking for more data to mine, then the tests, the data we need, and the information most prescient to our classrooms will be completely out of our hands.  Oh wait. Haha.  It already is.  Nevermind.  Forgot where I was.

So, if you’re a teacher, or teacher friendly, I’d like to encourage you to get involved somewhere, and start speaking out against the craziness that is all of this money being spent on tests and testing instead of our students.

Have an awesome week, people!

Dear New Teacher,

Dear New Teacher,

Hi, I’m Tracy.

I was once where you are: happy to be in a job, but exhausted from the first week and already feeling behind.

And sadly, not much has changed in 18 years. My room wasn’t as ready as I wanted it.  I didn’t get to read or plan as much as I would have liked to. But there wasn’t enough time, there never is, and I have finally, after 18 years, realized you have to let that stress go.  If you don’t, it will eat at you.

There are some things that I have learned over the years that have made my professional life better.  And if it please my readers (all four of you), I’d like to share some tidbits.

First, find a good mentor. If you’re lucky your school system’s new teacher induction program will find you one.  If you aren’t, ask three people for recommendations:  the media specialist, your AP, and your department chair.  Best two out of three wins.  I was lucky in that my first few years were spent with the amazing Rachel; we were fast friends, and she had a few years classroom experience in her pocket.  If it weren’t for her, I’m not sure what I’d be doing right now, but it darn sure wouldn’t be teaching.

Then, get more sleep. It’s a cliche, but it’s a seriously accurate one.  You can only run on coffee and energy drinks for so long before the bags under your eyes start shopping for luggage, and you are getting snippy even with your best students.  You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of other people.

Order a yearbook.

Let your students take the lead on some things. Contrary to all the media gripes, students in general like to be trusted to do things, even if it is just dusting the bookshelves, and emptying the recycling. Assign volunteers to help in your classroom–passing out graded work or handouts, making flash card sets on Quizlet (one of my all-time favorite apps), or spot cleaning the area where the hole-puncher played snowstorm again.

If you read no other book about education, read “The First Days of School.”  It is the single best classroom management book ever. Period.  I’m serious.  Go get it.  It’s important enough that my district gives copies of it to new teachers.  And for a district to part with money for nearly 400 copies of anything, you know it’s got to be good.

Drink water.  Really, really ice cold water.  It’s refreshing, and it’s good for you.

Don’t be afraid to play music in the classroom.  Pandora has become one of my favorite websites.  The Piano Guys channel, with Lindsey Sterling added in, is great classroom background music.  Not quite classical, and just funky enough to keep the kids awake.

Keep it simple.  In decorating, projects, expectations, lesson plans, documentation…  It doesn’t have to be museum quality to keep your classroom going.  It does need to be thoughtful and age-appropriate, but if all you have time and money for is cleaning it, then go with clean.  You can’t go wrong with that.

Always keep a folder with a review packet or a set of articles on the same issue from different perspectives, copied and ready for the whole class.  Just in case you need a back up plan.

When all else fails, look to Pinterest for a journal prompt, or a grouping activity.  I’m convinced there has to be a way to get professional development for time spent on Pinterest, but no one I know has figured it out yet.

At the end of the year, have your students make scrap book pages. The years I haven’t squeezed this in, I have regretted.  Make them use their full name on it, so you can say you knew them when.

Ask for help when you need it.  It’s not embarrassing, and it doesn’t mean you aren’t good at what you do.  I still need help, and I’ve gotten better at asking for it when I need to.

And that rule about not smiling?  Forget it.  Smile with, and at, your students.  It counts for something.

Here’s how I know.

Every night before bed, my five year-old, N. asks hopefully, “Do we get to go to school tomorrow, Mama?” And when the answer is affirmative, she does a fist pump with an excited, “Yesssss!”  I know it’s in part because every teacher I’ve met there smiles at their kids.  Even the ones they don’t teach. You have to work for N. to like you, and even more so to keep her attention.  Once she’s smiled at you, you’re in.  And for her to be so excited about school, it’s made a huge impression on her. So smile if your personality allows.

As long as you can stay one step ahead of the students, you’ll be ok.

And on the days you aren’t, you’ll improvise.

Finally, look back to your favorite teachers, and choose one.  Remember those “WWJD?” bracelets that used to be so popular?  Insert one of your favorite classroom teachers in there, and ask what that teacher would do.

Hang in there, Newbs.  It might not always be awesome, but you can almost always make it good.



PS: Breathe.

180 Days: Day 1

180 Days: Day 1

In 180 days, we’ll be packing up for summer, but today?

Today was day 1.

It sets the tone, the expectations, the standards. It is the ultimate first impression: opening night for six straight hours, and nearly 100 faces.

It was a good first day.  No major glitches until a suh-weet thunderstorm rolled in and shut the power off for a split second, forcing everyone on campus to reboot everything.  But that was no big deal.

Cool but creepy moment: My classroom’s speakers continued to crackle with each lightening bolt, even though I’d shut them off.

Everyone had a schedule, nobody cried, and I only have to call three parents tonight.

IMG_0217Only a few students tried to make an issue of my friends, seen here.  I told them, “I don’t talk smack about you and your friends, don’t talk smack about mine.” They can’t tell if I’m crazy or not, and I like it that way.

For now, there is paperwork, a quick sweep through the room to straighten up, and then I’m bound for home to greet my kiddos as they get off their first bus-ride home.

School Start-Up Stress

School Start-Up Stress

Wednesday was my first day back in my classroom for the 2015-16 school year.  I’m not being paid to be here, but I’m here because I’m redoing a lot of my classroom, and want to put it back together before we are required to be here next week.  I like doing this for lots of reasons, but mostly because I can work at my own pace, turn up some music, and get to cleaning.

For those of you who aren’t teachers, lemme catch you up. At the end of each school year, most teachers get anywhere from two to five days, called “post-planning.” In that time, we have to pack up and put away everything.  And by everything I mean anything that was out of a cabinet, decorating a table or wall, storage tubs and bins, empty or cover all the book shelves, desks, computers, everything.  Then we move it out into the hallway so the floors can be cleaned.

Think about the packing you did the last time you moved. We pack like that at the end of the year, and unpack like that at the beginning of each new year, during pre-planning. This year we have three days of pre-planning.  Three days to deep clean a room, unpack, prep lessons and materials, and get ready for open house and the first day of school.

Good times.



Not at all. It is stressful for a lot of reasons.  The physical stress of the work is one thing, but then add the two months of dirt and dust on top of everything, the not knowing what your teaching assignment will be, the pressure to get it done before open house, and the normal startup jitters.

Yes, experienced teachers do get the start up jitters just like the newbies do.

Teaching is like starting a new job once a year, and job changes are listed as one of the top five most stressful life events. It IS that big of a deal.  And after fifteen years or so of this, I have some suggestions for new teachers, and veterans alike.

1. Purge, purge, purge,  then purge again.    Teachers as a species are pickers and borderline hoarders– we collect and hang onto things because we might be able to use it in our classrooms, and we are used to living and working on an ever-shrinking budget.  I am not exaggerating here.  I just threw away worksheets and lesson plans from my student teaching. From 1996.

I finally threw out curriculum guides from the curriculum we used three new curricula ago.  I even tossed out its followers from the last few changes.  Now, I have empty binders, which I will not purge, because there is always that one kid who needs help getting supplies.  Or because I’m saving other stuff.

2. Pack up with the unpack in mind.  Thank you Pinterest for this one. At the end of last school year, I kept in one drawer the following things: Two board markers, a board eraser, a few pens and pencils, my Sharpie collection, stapler, highlighters, tape dispenser, hole punch, and the cords and accessories I’d need to reassemble my computer work station. I also kept a package of cleaning wipes in there.  This has made my return so much easier this summer;  I’m not digging through random boxes trying to find that one cord, or the pink jump drive, and I can get to work much quicker.

In addition, I made sure I packed all my materials for each subject together.  All my ninth grade materials were in two crates. American Lit stuff was in one crate.  The cool thing about milk crates (the ones I was able to get from our school’s cafeteria) is that they are much more durable than the ones you get at Wal-Mart or Target. They also may be heavy when full, but they aren’t so heavy that I can’t move them.

3.  Find a happy place.  Teaching often feels like you’re locked in a room with crazy people strangers, breathing the same air over and over, and you know that the air is probably what will finally actually set off the zombie apocalypse.  Sometimes you need to escape and breath somewhere else.  You MUST find that place.  My last two classrooms have been ideally placed by an exit door, which means I could get away from the locked-in feeling and go outside for some (sort of) fresh air.  You have to make time during the day to take a deep breath, hold it for seven seconds, and slowly let it out. My happy place is just outside that exit door.  I can’t close it, or I’d have to hike around the building to the front entrance, but I can stand there for a minute or so, breathe, pull myself back together, and get back to my job.

4. Let it go.  I have kids, so I can sing the entire Frozen soundtrack, but I’m telling you, if it’s eating at you, Let. It. Go. Try to let go of feeling responsible for things over which you have no control.  It’s above your paygrade, not on your evaluation, and NOT YOUR PROBLEM. You can only do so much, so do what you can, and come in with a positive attitude the next day. And even if it is your responsibility and on your evaluation, all you can do is the best you can do.  Period.  Sometimes we have moments of awesome, but most of the time, good is just that: good.

5. And on the flip side, get involved. If teachers don’t start speaking out about work conditions, incessant crazy levels of testing, and professional disrespect, we will continue to be scapegoated for societies problems and we will lose.  We will lose what little control we have left in our classrooms, and will continue to be held under the thumb of corporations who are getting big bucks on the backs of our children. (Can you tell I’m upset about this?  Good, because this is an issue I’m actually working on, instead of just complaining about it.)

6.  Redecorate.  Sometimes you need a fresh perspective.  I learned this at the end of last school year. I needed to get rid of some of the old posters and signs in my room, and make it less sterile and businesslike, and more comfortable and welcoming.  I did not get a grant, or an invisible donor of lots of money.  But for less than $100, I am now lighting my classroom solely with lamps, I have exercise balls for chairs at my computer stations, and some comfy pillows kids can use to relax on the floor to study or read.  I even got several really awesome old frames to put on my walls around memes and posters I want to post.  Once I’m done, I’ll post some pictures of what I’ve done, and the approximate costs of them.  Like Cheryl Crow said, “Some change’ll do you good.”

7. Get organized. I am the original absent-minded professor archetype: forgetful, scatterbrained, and often way over-committed.  This year, in addition to my class schedule, I am in charge of our school’s new teacher induction program, our Advanced Placement program, my student organization Nerd Corps, a Daisy Girl Scout troop, my family, church commitments, and my personal goals.  This year, rather than try to keep it all in my head (which I always tried to do, and always failed at), I am going back about fifty years, and I have a binder.  It is a happy light sky blue color, and it has everything in it.  I have monthly and weekly calendars, my lesson plans, and sections for every area in my life.  I have a zipper pocket up front that has post-it notes, and pens.  I have note paper for meetings and a master to-do list.  I’ve been using it for a month, and I LOVE IT. I purposely carry a purse large enough for it, and it fits in my backpack.  It goes everywhere with me.

No matter how you do it–digitally or old fashioned paper, find a way to manage your life, all in one place, so you can actually run your life, and not the other way around.

Here’s why.  Last year, due to circumstances mostly out of my control, I was forced to stop and take more time to take care of myself.  In that process, I have learned that I can do a lot more than I was to take care of myself, including how I manage both my personal and my professional lives.  My pretty blue binder is my big step in that direction.  There are several places on Pinterest with suggestions for organization and contents; that’s where I got my ideas from.

If you’re a teacher, what do you suggest for making the beginning of the year easier?

I look forward to hearing your ideas!