Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Will You Still Love Me When the Test Scores Arrive?

Teach For America has a term to describe the lofty expectations it places upon the participants in its program called "significant gains." Every teacher is expected to improve the test scores of their students by 1.5 grade levels in reading and 2 grade levels in math. This is an incredibly difficult feat, but around half of TFA teachers accomplish it in a given year. Teacher Corps, in my understanding, has no comparable specific expectation of student improvement. I feel this relieves MTC participants of one extra feeling of pressure during an already stressful first year of teaching. But from a personal standpoint, I feel as though I cannot achieve "significant gains" when it comes to improving the test scores of my students.

Let me explain what I mean. Last year, Deslin Chapman, a MTC second-year, taught English II, a state tested subject. She was incredibly successful, and 78% of students passed the test on the first go-round. This figure was better than the state average. She actually left Simmons High School to work for a private consulting firm, and now Mrs. Chapman is literally writing the book on how to teach toward the state test. Reading that book, and trying to replace her, is yours truly.

My kids are struggling to master many of the dozens of frameworks they need to know in order to pass the test. I simply do not see how anywhere near 78% of them are going to pass the multiple choice test in April. Many of them cannot read a children's novel, and yet they will have to answer difficult reading comprehension questions on short articles and essays that no one will explain to them. This is a source of stress for me. I am an optimist, but moreover, I am a realist. I understand that the percentage of students passing from Simmons High this year is more than likely going to decrease. The bar was set high for me, and I don't think I can hurdle over it. So where does that leave me? If only 60% of the kids pass, will I become a pariah at Simmons? Frankly, I'm not even worried about that. What I worry is what my harshest critic will feel when my students' scores come back in April. I'm worried about how I will feel when all the work I poured into my lessons is characterized by a two-digit number. My job would be a lot easier if only 40% of students passed last year. Going from 40% to 60% is a whole lot better than dropping from almost 80% to 60%.

All I can do is work hard and do my best. After school tutoring sessions begin soon, and these will hopefully help some of my struggling students. But my biggest worry is that some of my students are so far behind, they are already beyond help. I just hope that when I get the student scores back in July, I won't feel as though I am beyond help as well.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Is Winging it Really Bringing It?

I wonder sometimes how much preparation is enough. As a first year teacher, in order for me to feel fully prepared for the next day, I sometimes spend an entire evening on school work. This is a depressing thought: devoting an entire 24 hour day to nothing but work and sleep. Investment bankers do this with regularity, but they also earn six figures and date Amanda Peete.

Sometimes, the temptation to put the work away when I'm at home and do something more relaxing is too good to pass up. When I do this, I know in the back of my mind that I will be "winging it" to some extent the next day. I am very good at thinking on my feet, and years of being a camp counselor have prepared me well for making something out of nothing. I have had several very good lessons this year where I had nothing more than a six or seven word lesson plan. I know that what Ben Guest said this summer, about the integral nation of the lesson plan, is overstated at least a little. However, I also understand that heading into the classroom with copies made, activities planned, and a lesson plan in hand makes a lesson much more likely to succeed.

So where does that leave me as a first year teacher? Do I spend my whole live preparing? Or do I live on the edge and wing it? The ideal solution is to reduce the amount of prep time and thereby eliminate the need to wing. The only way to do this: keep plugging away, build up a library of successful lesson plans, and keep teaching the same courses. As for now, I need to keep my life balanced. It's truet that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But sometimes half an hour of sleep is worth having to wing it at least a little.