What’s Your Bathroom?

by Benjamin M. G. Walker

Heading into my student teaching semester, I was already heavily leaning toward going to graduate school outright and pursuing teaching in higher education. I was hesitant about the K-12 system because of the lack of public support as well as the emphasis on standardized assessment and bureaucratic red-tape involved in most day-to-day things. And frankly, I was passionate about competitive college speech. But since I had to complete student teaching, I figured I’d give it a fair shot and come into it with an open mind. Maybe I would find it to be everything I had hoped for and nothing I had feared. Maybe the experience would be transformative. Maybe . . . well, I wanted to leave the option open for “maybe.”

I could give you the complete narrative of my experiences, but I’ll save you from that and give you the abridged tale. As you can probably guess, it didn’t work out. Yes, I got through the semester and I even taught the following semester as a long-term substitute. So I guess I was doing a decent job. I enjoyed the lessons and the students (for the most part). I always had great stories to tell at the end of the day. But what drove me from that career path wasn’t what I thought would. And maybe I was naïve, but let me say this for those that have never taught in the K-12 system:

The bathrooms made me quit teaching high school.

I am not talking about the cleanliness, although that is a commentary in itself. Ask the average office worker when they can use the bathroom and they will most likely respond with something like “whenever I need to” or “when I get a free minute.” That sounds fair. As a high school teacher my bathroom time was set aside for me every day. I had lunch and my prep-period. That’s it. Which means if I had the sudden urge to drop a deuce during 4th period, I had to wait 3 more hours before I could excuse myself.

Why? Well, the system is set up to herd students like cattle. And you can’t have cattle unless you have someone watching the cattle. And the cattle must be watched while in their cages . . . er, classes, as well as when you shuttle them to the next destination. It’s my ass if one of the cattle bullies another cattle, or if one cattle wants to write cattle-swears on the board that I don’t understand. Essentially, I was always on duty.

But it was more than not being able to visit the facilities during the day. It was the fact that kids are everywhere. Again, maybe I was naïve but the cold reality of having little privacy, or “me-time,” smacked me in the face hard.

Teachers can tell you that when you start teaching you turn on “teacher mode.” Eventually, Teacher Mode becomes something easily switched on. I didn’t have a problem turning on the Mode. I had issue with always having to be “on.” The social performance was constant. I was physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of each day.

Now, we can probably all agree that this isn’t a problem for many teachers. And that is fine. If their personality can handle the Mode all day, I applaud them. But that isn’t me. Never has been and probably never will be. I saw greener pastures in higher education and I sprinted for that open field.

I am someone who needs time and space to unwind. Sure I can think when the cattle are around, but I can’t relax because the cattle are staring at me! Ok, well they might not be staring at me but I can feel the eyes. Someone is always watching. I only relax when I am with friends and family or at home. By myself. Where no one can see me be imperfect. I sometimes wish I wasn’t like this, but I am learning to appreciate myself for who I am. And who I am doesn’t want to worry about whether I smile enough, make enough eye contact, make the right joke, teach the lesson well, or eat the right food (what? Cake for lunch is legit!). But I can’t help but feel the judgment coming from other teachers and from the blood-thirsty, waiting-to-pounce-on-my-latest-mistake cattle. It ended up being crippling. And because I feel this way to a socially defined extreme, I definitely had issues with teaching in a high school.

If you are considering teaching K-12 or just wonder if you’d be a good fit for it as you daydream on your couch, please consider what I did not: what are your social limitations and how will they react to your working environment? This is critical. Or at least it was for me.

Figure out what your bathroom issue is. Teaching is hard enough with all the hurdles being thrown our way. Knowing how you will react to the hurdles can help you either cope or get the heck out of Dodge. What’s your bathroom?


Know a lot of answers, but admit when you don’t

by Alexandria Chase

My high school debate coach, who was also my communication and writing teacher, was routinely ridiculed by students, and some teachers, for her constant smiling.  Like, she smiled all the time.  She smiled when she was angry; the angrier she got, the bigger her smile became.  The debate team even printed “We Smile When We’re Angry” on the backs of the squad shirts one year.  That’s only relevant because it’s awesome.  Mrs. Cook’s second most notable feature was her ability to inspire students to teach themselves, each other, and to teach her.  She knew an awful lot of things about communication studies, debate, and what was happening in the world in general.  But when she didn’t know, she was really upfront about that (this usually happened in the context of debate).

Mrs. Cook never just said “I don’t know” and went back to what she was doing, and I think that’s important because the way she characterized her lack of answer was what really inspired us to research on our own.  She challenged us to research the topic in question and then to share our findings with her and our teammates/classmates.  Mrs. Cook always seemed really excited about the questions we were asking and eager to learn from our research.  She also created a sense of safety in the process.   Sometimes it can be scary to dive into research head first with a blindfold on.  We didn’t have to do it alone.  She would go to the lab with us, read articles with us, talk through potential explanations and arguments, and sometimes we even split the research.

So it seems, being open to learning from the students is not just good in terms of your own life-long learning adventure, but can be a critical aspect in their learning as well.


Teaching Out of Fear

by Nicole M. G. Brennan 

                To say my first year of teaching was difficult would be an understatement. Every teacher struggles their first year to manage a classroom of their own, develop lesson plans, and balance the additional responsibilities (such as committees, IEP meetings, and endless grading). On top of these constant struggles was the pressure to ensure my students passed standardized tests.

                The first school I worked at did not meet their AYP goals the year before I started working there. AYP stands for Adequate Yearly Progress. At the time, if a school did not meet its AYP goals, there were severe consequences. I was promptly told horror stories about other school districts who had not met their goals for three years and were essentially taken over. Teachers and administrators were fired. Schools, already strapped for funds, had to develop programs to support students so they passed the tests.

                Although our school had students with intellectual disabilities, many were still required to take the standardized tests. The school could only “waive” a certain percentage of the total population. I was placed on a committee to look at testing data and figure out which students we should target so we could make AYP. Time we could have used providing students with feedback through grading or meeting one-on-one was spent looking at data.

                I was terrified of the consequences of not meeting this standard. It was this fear that motivated me in the classroom more than anything when I prepared my ninth graders for the state writing exam. Every spring, ninth graders (and students who didn’t pass the test previous years) write an essay responding to a prompt. Instead of focusing on teaching my students universal writing skills they could translate into other areas of their life, I gave them a strategy to pass a test. My fear of being the cause for our school’s failure was greater than my desire to help my students develop into independent thinkers and writers. I gave them a cookie-cutter outline and told them to plug in just the right amount of vocabulary and personality to pass.

                Starting in January, months before the test was scheduled, I started walking them through the testing process. I wasted hours I could have spent on other content making sure they would pass. I didn’t want it to be my fault if they didn’t pass. Even though the students had learned writing skills before, I put all of the responsibility on myself. I had fallen into the trap that my students were not responsible for their own success, I was.

                There are two causes I’ve identified which lead to this kind of thinking. The first is the constant bombardment of assessments. With each change in leadership on the state and federal level, teachers are given new standards for their classroom. In the past twenty-years in Minnesota alone, teachers have had to use methods like Outcome Based Education, Profile of Learning, and Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. The state is now using the Common Core Language Arts standards. In order to pass these tests, schools take drastic measures. Some schools have tried to change test answers leading to cheating scandals. Schools also dramatically alter their curriculum; the first school I worked at purchased textbooks specifically written to help students pass the MCA math test.

                Another problem is the perception our schools are failing all students equally. In fact, reporting misrepresents U.S. test scores as compared to other countries. Taking socioeconomic status and race into consideration, some of our students are outperforming students internationally. It’s easy to blame teachers for poor student performance when we’re constantly bombarded with news of failing schools.

                Does the U.S. education system need reform? Absolutely. However, instead of using a top-down approach, teachers should be given the flexibility to help students learn on their own. These gimmicky programs throughout the years have claimed to help students get higher test scores. Instead of wasting money on these programs, let teachers teach.

Inside the Chemistry Classroom

by Elizabeth Genskow

Teaching has always been in my blood.  I am a third generation teacher.  My grandmother taught in a country school, my mother taught English and Drama for 34 years, and I am entering my sixth year of teaching Chemistry.  I have always wanted to teach.  When I was little, my friend and I would play schoolhouse; I was always the teacher.  I remember my mother bringing home old textbooks for me to play with.  Because education seems to be our family business, many of our family friends were educators.  I have been listening to the tales of education, both good and bad, all my life.  To me, when it was time to enter college I had a good idea of what it meant to be an educator.  I knew from the start that the pay was not there, there would be extra-added expenses to run an effective classroom, and parents can make things better or worse for a teacher.  Education is a stressful profession, and one should not enter it unless they are ready for additional challenges.  Despite all the stresses and complaining, there is nothing like seeing a light bulb finally going off, or receiving an email from a former student now in college writing to thank you for the preparation you gave them.  I may complain every so often (who doesn’t complain about their job sometimes?) but I cannot imagine doing anything else.  I may not get to do complicated accelerated chemistry experiments, but I get to see the uhhs and ahhs when a titration changes from clear to pink.

Mole Day

Every teacher wants to make a difference in students’ lives and we want them to remember our classes.  For me, that memorable experience comes on mole day.  The most important concept in chemistry is the mole.  The important number to remember is 6.02 x 1023 atoms in mole.  To celebrate Avogadro’s number on October 23 (1023) I throw a big party.  Some past activities include singing the mole day song, demonstrations, making stuffed moles, passing out cards to wish everyone a happy mole day, and eating “mole”lasses cookies and guaca”mole”.  Financing this day is all done on my own.  I don’t receive any compensation of any kind, and I do not make students pay a share of the cost.  This day is expensive.  One day can typically run about $200 or more.  Many of the other chemistry teachers chose to not participate in this day because of the expense and wasted classroom time.  To me I think it is valuable to use an entire class day to celebrate.  I feel that if they remember mole day they remember the mole is the most important concept.

Calorimetry Lab

Any lab that includes food means going into my own pocketbook to fund it.  Another example is when I have the students determine the calorie content of cheese balls.  The students burn food in order to calculate this value.  The students enjoy this day and can see how nutrition facts are determined.  What gives me pleasure is when they are able to successfully complete complex calculations that give them a value that means something.  That spark in their eyes is priceless and gives me self-satisfaction that they are completing and remembering chemical concepts.

S’more Day

Another very expensive day is when I do a lab to illustrate the limiting reagent in a chemical equation.  The analogy for limiting reagents is like making a sandwich.  You can only make so many before you run out of a specific ingredient.  The ingredient that runs out is the limiting.  Since the food analogy is so synonymous with limiting reagents, I make the students make something.  The making of a s’more can be turned in to a chemical equation.  The students are given numbers to determine the limiting ingredient in a s’more.  After they have accomplished this, I let the students make a s’more.  This is another day students never forget.  I let them toast marshmallows over the Bunsen burner.  Of course the ingredients have to be purchased.  This lab costs me over $150, but I feel the benefit and student learning outweigh the cost of this lab.  All I look for is a thank you, which as the years pass, is becoming less and less.  Out of 130 students last year only 2 thanked me for giving them the ingredients.  Students need to recognize when teachers are using a great deal of money to facilitate their learning.