What a Crazy Semester!

Well, it’s late in the evening on New Year’s Day, and I was supposed to be traveling to another state to visit family, but we had to cancel our trip due to weather. This is the first time in a while that I’ve had the time/inclination to write a blog post. Actually, I just looked at the date of my last post and it was during the first week of school. So yes, it’s been a while.

This semester has been insane. (And no, it’s not going to get better for a while.) I started my masters program in May, so I was taking a graduate course all semester. I spent most of the semester feeling like I was behind on my grading, which was usually followed by a day of realizing I wasn’t that far behind because my student aide is awesome, and then another 3 weeks feeling behind again. Also, I hate grading and I infinitely prefer planning, and I’m a professional procrastinator. My poor students. They were very understanding though.

While we’re on the subject of my students, my freshmen are amazing. Now sure, not every single one of them has a fantastic attitude every moment of every day, but in general, as a whole, they are wonderful kids. They really do have great attitudes most of the time. They will do pretty much whatever I ask them to, without much arguing or complaining. They’re a really nice group of kids – they’re nice to me and to each other. I teach because I love my students, but this year the students have made themselves really easy to love. Did they all pass first semester? No. Are they all stellar students? No, although I will say that their academic skills are stronger than I’ve ever seen from a class of incoming freshmen. But they’re great kids. I don’t go back to school for a week and I’m already looking forward to seeing them again.

We started learning about adding, subtracting, and multiplying polynomials at the end of the semester, and I told them I LOVE polynomials. Most of them laughed and rolled their eyes, but someone said, “Didn’t you say that about graphing?” I said, “Yeah, I love graphing too. Oh, and solving systems. And function notation. And writing functions. And next semester we’re going to do factoring and we’re going to solve quadratics, and I love factoring and quadratics.” (As I say this, my voice gets gradually higher and more enthusiastic.) At this point they’re pretty much all giving me that Miss-is-crazy-and-we’re-pretty-sure-she’s-torturing-us-but-it’s-kind-of-funny-and-we-like-laughing-at-her sort of look. So I grinned at them and said, “Do you see why I teach Algebra 1?” Now they’re actually laughing.

Speaking of polynomials, in two of my classes when I explained that we were going to add, subtract, and multiply polynomials, someone asked, “Are we going to learn to divide polynomials?” So cool, because I got to explain that we sort-of divide polynomials in January when we do factoring, and then we learn how to actually divide higher-degree polynomials in Algebra 2. This is fun because now I can talk about that question when we learn about factoring in a week or two.

Confession time: I was having a pretty rough day a couple of weeks ago, and yelled at one of my classes. I told them I was going to put them into groups so they could play a review game for their final exam, and they started whining. I was sick, it was the end of the day, and I was exhausted. I threatened them that if they didn’t want to work in the groups I assigned, then the whole class could spend the rest of the period working silently on their study guides. I ran my random group generator and immediately heard at least 4 different kids complain about their group. I explained (ahem…loudly) that I don’t care how they feel about who is in their group and they have to learn to deal with it. I turned back to the board to check that I was ok with their groups, determined I was, and turned back around to tell them to get together with their groups. One poor kid who was right in front of me said, “I can’t-” then saw the look on my face and didn’t get any further into that sentence. Unfortunately for him and the rest of the class, I’d had it. I explained to them (again, rather loudly) that once again I don’t care how you feel about the people I pair you up with. In fact, that’s why I do it! You have to learn how to work with people you don’t like in high school because it WILL be a part of your life after high school. And if you can’t, then you are likely to lose your job. I said a few other things as well that I don’t really recall now, instructed them to work silently for the remainder of the class period, and sat down at my desk in a huff.

Well, about half an hour went by and after I finished being furious I started to feel guilty. (It only takes a few minutes.) They did work in silence for the rest of the class, which was a testament to how angry I was because this particular class usually can’t make it 30 seconds without talking, much less 30 minutes. A few minutes before the bell rang, I stood up and asked for their attention. I told them I knew I shouldn’t have yelled at them, and I was sorry. However, I believe that the things I said were still valid, and that they needed to hear them…just maybe not quite at that volume. (They smiled at that.) I explained, in a much more reasonable tone of voice, that as an adult you do not get to choose the people you work with or for. You do have to learn to work with people you don’t like. I gave the example that one of the people that has been the most difficult for me to work with is someone that actually worked for me. I couldn’t fire her because she was a great employee, even though I personally couldn’t stand to hold a conversation with her…which is also a kind of decision you have to be able to make as an adult. I reminded them that my goal this year is not just to teach them algebra but to teach them skills they will need to be successful after high school, and working with people you don’t like is one of them. So again, I’m sorry that I got angry and yelled, but I’m not sorry for what I said.

The interesting thing is how they responded to this. First, they seemed to have no trouble accepting my apology (judging by the looks on their faces and the fact that they didn’t seem to hate me when they came in the next day). But they also agreed with me that they needed to hear my point. The class nodded when I said that and a couple of students even stayed after to tell me they agreed with me.

I love how quick teenagers are to forgive and forget when you own up to your mistake and apologize. I especially love this because it’s not like I’m going to stop making mistakes.

It’s been a crazy semester. Most of the days have been really good but very busy. In my “free time” I’ve been reading papers and writing papers. The first day all semester that I made a point to reserve for myself and not do any work was Veteran’s Day in November. It was much-needed too, let me tell you. I was starting to get a little snippy in class. I’ve spent much of the semester frustrated about some other things happening at school that I’m not going to post on a public forum, but suffice it to say there was an added level of stress from other causes as well.

But my kids are awesome. I have not managed to make it through a single day without laughing all semester. I’ve had some really great parent meetings where I got to share positive information about students. During the last few weeks of the semester, one of my classes turned around from being my quietest, least-engaged class to being my most focused and productive class. Almost all of my students are taking great notes and using their notebooks (when I remind them) to find answers. They didn’t panic about their final exam and actually did pretty well, compared to past years. We’ve figured out some good strategies for class – they’ve figured out my teaching style and are responding to it and I’m figuring out how to manage the extreme chattiness of the one class and the overwhelming size of another class. I’m still working on convincing them to come to tutoring next semester. It’s very likely that I’ll see increased attendance at tutoring now that a bunch of them have failed a semester and might realize they need to not do that again. (Fingers crossed, anyway…)

My masters program isn’t supposed to end for another two years so next semester will be just as busy. I’m greatly enjoying winter break, as it’s the only time I don’t have work of either form for the entire year. Here’s to a restful week before I go back to school, and a productive semester for both me and my students.

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