The Last Summer

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Chapter 1:  The Last Summer

~~My Backstory

My first teaching position was an aberration in many ways.

I received my Masters in English from Indiana University in the winter of 1970 and almost immediately landed a teaching post at the high school that I had attended.  Teaching at the school where one had been a student is strange, but I could live with my parents rent free and save money for my June marriage while my future wife was back in Indiana finishing up her post-graduate work.  The principal probably viewed me as a somewhat known commodity that could fill the position vacated at midyear by a teacher on maternity leave.  If I “cut it” then he might ask me to stay on.  If not, he was not bound to keep me by a long term contract.

I was simply happy to be teaching and receiving a paycheck.

My former teachers, now colleagues, greeted me warmly.  Six years had gone by since I had sat before the people I was now sitting next to in the faculty lunch room, and the only thing that was the same was the food on my plate.  Mrs. Emma Farrell was my senior English teacher, a demanding teacher whom we all feared.  She was particularly rough on my Honors class, believing that “Honors” meant we should read Great Expectations in one night.  Years later I realized that she had given me two great gifts:  an intellectual self-discipline and an understanding of the value of organization.  Of course, then, in 1970, I was still too close to my student years to appreciate what she had done for me, and, though I had always respected her, I was still afraid of the “teacher who never smiled.”  I was surprised then, when we first met as “colleagues,” that she reached out with her hand and welcomed me warmly.  She was going to be my department chairperson.  As I took her hand, I stammered, “Mrs. Farrell, it will be an honor to work with you.”

The “woman who never smiled” broke into a big smile and waved away my formality.  “Oh, Ralph, we are colleagues now.  Call me ‘Emma.’”

For the entire semester we worked together, partly out of genuine respect, and partly because I had not yet rid my high school rabbit-fear of the “woman who never smiled,” I always addressed her as “Mrs. Farrell.”

Mrs. Farrell handed me my textbooks:  literature anthologies for ninth and twelfth grades.  I was assigned two ninth grade “academic” classes, one twelfth grade “academic” class, and two senior “career” classes.  The first day I walked into my two senior “career” classes I discovered that one third of the students wore dark shades (this in January!), one third had some semblance of a notebook and the last third had rap sheets.  I immediately discarded Paradise Lost as my first homework assignment.

~~Marketing Yourself

But that first teaching experience was not typical.  Most of you will not be teaching at the high school you graduated from, and you will not be working with former instructors.  That summer I married and moved to Pennsylvania, and my wife and I were fairly confident that we would be hired as teachers.  We were so confident that we rented an apartment in an area that pleased us (economically, at least), and, since we had Masters degrees from a good institution, we thought it was only a matter of time before we were hired.   I had to call various department chairpersons several times to remind them that I was available, but we both received positions at neighboring school districts. Times have definitely changed.

Even if you have the right credentials today, you might have much more difficulty landing your first teaching position.  Some regions of the United States would take you in a heartbeat.  In fact, fresh out of grad school, I was invited to take a teaching position in a Mississippi college for a salary of two thousand dollars a year.  I declined.  Some states, desperate for certified clientele, have upped the salaries, but school boards normally do not have deep pockets.  My district, which I will refer to as “Valhalla,” can afford, what with thousands of applications, to be choosier.  Our hiring personnel will not even consider an applicant with below a “B+” or “A” average in college.

A number of college seniors pursuing teaching careers have told me that their respective colleges encourage them to get a Masters degree immediately.  Valhalla or some other school district with an equally excellent reputation might hire you if you have a Masters, but the reality is that many districts are told by their school boards NOT to hire anyone with a Masters because they will have to pay that applicant more.  This is one of the sad facts about education in the United States.  When I mentioned this to a physician friend, he could not believe it.

“You mean, a school district is not going to hire the person with the best credentials?  What kind of nonsense is that?”

But the truth is that all school budgets are tight, and, if a district can save two or three thousand a year on one applicant, they are disposed to do so.  Since 2008’s  economic downturn, school boards’ increasing frugality has definitely impacted teacher salaries at all levels. Most top flight districts (and most states) will require that you earn additional credits within the first few years of your teaching experience, but those years in which they do not have to pay you the differential between a bachelor’s and master’s degree help with the penny squeezing most districts have to employ.  My advice is to get as many credits toward your Masters as you can without actually receiving the degree.  This way a district can hire you at the lower salary and, by taking one or two courses at night or in the summer, you can get the advanced degree and jump up on the salary scale within a short period of time.

Unless you are enormously lucky, simply plucking down your application on the personnel director’s desk and sitting back waiting for the offers to roll in may not get you the teaching position you want.  Yes, you may have excellent grades, have scored well on all the required teaching tests, and captained the woman’s squash team in college, but most suburban districts have thousands of similar applications on their desks.  Calling the personnel department and reminding them that, yes, you are applying for a teaching position there, and yes, you are available for an interview, and yes, you would like to know how the application process is proceeding is a good idea.  Try it several times, but be careful to walk the balance beam of enthusiasm and obnoxiousness.   Now that most districts have online application protocols, be sure to observe these carefully; follow-ups may be done electronically.

~~Impressive Interviewing

Finally, one day an official calls and offers you an interview.  Unless a close relative is scheduled to be buried the day of the interview, by all means accept.  If you are the type who will decline that chance because your fraternity’s annual beach-keg party is penciled in on that date, then you are unlikely to get a second invitation.  And I would not want you as a colleague either.

There are things you can do before the interview besides pick out which pair of sandals to wear.  (Yes, dress is important.  I guarantee you that the interviewers will not look at you as the hip dude with a flair for fashion uniqueness.  They will look at your potential as a role-model for youth.  Leave the sandals at home.)

Theodore R. Sizer, in his book Horace’s Compromise, explains how he was able, after visiting hundreds of schools for his research, to tell a school superintendent what the curriculum was at that school after Sizer was told the per capita income of the district.  In other words, tell me how much money the average taxpayer in the district makes and I will tell you what kind of school you have.  Before the interview, research your potential employer. Wealthier districts will likely have better facilities, including high-tech facilities (do not confuse what is considered high-tech in schools with what is assumed to be high-tech in business.  Business people can deduct what they spend on high-tech.  School districts cannot.).  Try to find out if the district will partially reimburse you for credits you take once you are employed there.  This might affect your strategy toward pursuing advanced degrees.

When the time comes in the interview for you to ask questions, do not sit there admiring the principal’s paperweights.  Ask questions about the facilities for research and about availability of computers.  Ask about the grading system, average class size, etc.  If you are being interviewed, chances are you have satisfied the interviewer’s knowledge about your academic credentials.  What prospective employers are looking for, at this point, are two things:  One, they are gauging your enthusiasm for the profession.  Do you really want to be a teacher?  Believe it or not, some applicants have replied to the question, “Why do you want to be a teacher?” with “Uh, well, ya know, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, and, ya know, I kinda like to surf a lot, and with teaching, ya know, ya get the summers off, which would, like, allow me to sort of do a lot of surfing.”  One of the questions some interviewers ask involves scales.  “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, how much do you enjoy working with kids?”  I have known applicants to scratch their heads and spend some time thinking hard on this question and finally answering, “I guess, maybe, about a 5.”  This is not an impressive answer.  If your answer is not at least a twelve, then you should not be a teacher.

The second major attribute that the interviewers will be looking for is classroom charisma.  They will be sitting behind those interviewing desks looking at you and wondering how you are going to look to the students.  This is not movie star charisma.   Cocky celebrities who think they know it all need not apply.  They are looking for people who have a commanding presence, who will be able to summon the attention of students, and who will speak in an engaging and intelligent way.  Monosyllabic repliers need not apply.  As much as you might be an expert on English literature or American history or quantum physics, remember that ultimately you are not teaching these subjects.  You are teaching students.  And there is a fundamental difference between those two types of teachers—those who like to believe that their expertise in that field is more important than the ability to communicate that expertise to young people, and those teachers who understand the name of the game.  As Donald McQuade from Babson College said, “It is not the teacher’s job to cover the material.  It is the teacher’s job to get the students to uncover the material.”  Most administrators are looking for that second type.   When I have mentioned this to student teachers, some misconstrue the message.  I am not arguing that a poor knowledge of one’s subject area is acceptable.  Quite the contrary.  Your ignorance will not only be exposed in the classroom, but among your colleagues.  Many years ago, a student teacher who desperately wanted a job in our high school was told by the department chairperson that there might be an opening teaching eleventh grade English—British literature.  The student teacher told his potential supervisor that he could not do that.  He had managed to get through four years as an English major without ever taking a course in British literature, including Shakespeare!!  He did not get the job.  The depth of knowledge in your subject area will be discovered very quickly.  But in your interview, be sure to balance this depth with your knowledge of pedagogy as well as your sheer enthusiasm for your potential students.

~~Getting Organized

Hopefully that day arrives when a district official calls you to say that you have been offered a teaching position at Verona School District.  Of course, you run around the house several times, call everyone you know, and skip down to the personnel department to sign the requisite forms.  You have four or five weeks before school starts.  The district will probably require that you arrive at school a few days earlier than the rest of the staff in order to participate in whatever orientation program the district has.  But between now and then is there anything you should/can do?  Absolutely.

Over the years I developed a reputation as a super organized teacher. I always turned my forms in on time, even before they were due.   In fact, I received quite a bit of ribbing about that, even from my family.  “Dad is probably working on preparing his final exams….for two years from now.”  Or, from a colleague, “Maltese is working on a Powerpoint presentation…for a course he may teach.”  I confess.  Tis true.

There are two major reasons why my teaching style places a high value on organization.  One, I think a teacher has the responsibility to map out the goals for his students and the methods for helping them achieve those goals.  Students can readily sense when a teacher is “winging it,” walking into a classroom with a purpose and plan du jour.  If they believe that you are not working hard to organize your lessons and classes, why should they work up a sweat?  A teacher who once taught down the hall from me came in almost every morning to ask if I had any good lesson plans for the day.  I taught English.  She taught social studies.  Some in administration thought her to be a wonderful teacher, free-spirited and popular among the students. But her colleagues did not respect her; they knew her supposed creativity was a mask for enormous lethargy.  It is easy to get your students to like you if you let them do whatever they want during the day under the guise that, when they are playing card games in class, they are “exploring hidden talents.”  Good teaching is hard work, and part of that hard work is developing and maintaining classroom structures that help develop good students.

Secondary teachers have four, and sometimes five, preparations each day; elementary teachers must juggle diverse subject areas and accommodate special needs students (sometimes with aides trailing along).   Either they are organized enough to cope with that schedule or they get swept away with the tide of insanity.  I mentioned earlier that learning is a messy activity, but it should be an activity conducted within a structure that allows discovery.  The nature of discovery is surprise.  Christopher Columbus is sailing the waves of the Atlantic, looking for the Indies, and Surprise!!.  He “discovers” a continent.  But, in order for him to “discover” the Americas, he has to plan and organize the expedition.  A teacher should have goals and directions for reaching those goals, in the hope that along the way students make discoveries.  The excuse by some teachers that they like to “play it by ear,” is, for me, a simple excuse for laziness.

The second reason why I place a high emphasis on organization is that I hate administrative work.  Entering grades, making lists of students, filing reports are all essential parts of the job that I find boring, and my way of dispensing with them quickly so that I can focus on the more creative aspects of teaching is to be organized.  So in that summer before you begin that first year of teaching, there is much you can do to make your teaching experience more exciting and less lugubrious.  Remember those questions you asked at your interview about grading systems, etc.?  Dig out your mental notes on those items and summon your computer skills.

My school district, compared to other districts, is high tech.  We have a computer on every teacher’s desk, networked throughout the entire district with an email system, a link to the Internet, and an electronic grading program that also acts as a student database.  I can call up any student in my class on my desktop, find her parents’ home and work phone numbers, email address, what grades she has in other courses, etc.  I enter Desdemona’s grades electronically, and parents and Desdemona can access those grades from home.  There are upsides and downsides to this facility, but this is what my district currently has in place.  It was not always this way, and it may not be this way for you.

Years ago I created a database template for my students so that I could access parental phone numbers as well as find out quickly who was assigned to what guidance counselor.  As my database expanded, I included fields for marking period grades so that I could quickly pluck out those students who were in danger of failing or who were doing especially well.  I also used the database to supply me with a class list of students that I could copy and paste into spreadsheets.

I use electronic spreadsheets for a host of tasks.  Even though we enter grades electronically, I first enter those grades in a hard copy notebook.  The notebook is generated from an electronic spreadsheet that mimics in style the electronic grading program.  This might seem like double duty, but it is faster to pull out the book and check what grades a student is missing or to give students a rough idea of how they are performing than to ask a student to wait while you load in the program and access her grades.  Besides, electronic grading programs have been known to crash.   And sometimes these conversations with students about grades take place in study halls and hallways, away from computers.

I also use spreadsheets to create forms for choosing collaborative groups, attendance sheets, assignments of books to students, etc.  For example, you know you will be assigning textbooks to students.  You can create a spreadsheet with columns for the books and projects you will be assigning and a column for the names of the students.  Using your database, it is a simple task to copy and paste the students from one class into this book list spreadsheet.

Back before I created my database, I spent one summer morning counting the number of times I had to enter the name of each student in some form.  The final count was seven.  Seven times one hundred and thirty is an impressive amount of blue ink. And the odds are that you will not get your class roster before the first day of school.  As high tech as my district is, we still do not receive class lists until the first day of school, which means all this data entering of almost a thousand student names into various forms has to be done, along with all the other clerical responsibilities, in a short period of time during the first hectic days of the school year.

Somewhere in the course of the school year you will be giving tests and quizzes.  If you know what books and chapters you will be teaching, you can generate those ahead of time.   At the very least, you can develop a form from a word processor that will serve as a heading for all your tests and quizzes.  Years ago I constructed a database in which I put all my test questions.  I created several report formats (multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank), and, as the years went by, I could add questions to the database.  This allowed me to give different tests to different classes with simply a few mouse clicks.  I even gave different tests within the same class.  If you learn how to use a spreadsheet and a database, you will have added some powerful administrative tools to your arsenal, giving you more free time to devote to the more creative aspects of teacing.

These boring tasks, which a computer loves to do, I like to dispense with as soon as possible so that I can focus on preparing my lessons and developing the climate for my classroom.  Spend those last weeks of summer preparing templates to deal with those administrative duties quickly so that you can prepare your materials and your mind for those first few weeks of working with young people.

End Notes

Landing Your First Job, Or Getting Ready to Get Ready

1.  Nail your interviews

  • research the district
  • dress professionally
  • stay positive

2.  Get organized

  • Make preliminary plans
  • Design your database
  • Scope out your spreadsheet

Last Updated on Saturday, 13 November 2010 17:36



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