The day begins at 8:15. That’s when class starts.
But of course that’s not when the day begins. Students come inside at 8:05, and as soon as they do, I am teaching. That’s when the day begins.
Unless I have morning duty: then it starts at 7:45, when I have to show up, unlock the two gates, and then stand in the parking lot and make sure nobody gets run over while all the parents are dropping their kids off at school, and the high schoolers are whipping into the parking lot, trying to make sure that no one took THEIR SPACE. That’s work. 7:45 is when it starts, some days.
Although it might be fair to say that my day begins at 5:20, when my alarm goes off and I get up and take a shower; because in that shower, I am thinking about school. Always. Planning what I will teach, thinking about what I have to grade, trying to remember what meetings I have this week – is this Wednesday a faculty meeting, or grade-level teams? Do I have an IEP meeting today, or is that next week?
But if we begin with the thinking, then the day begins around 2:30 am. Because that’s when my insomnia kicks in, and I start thinking about school. Trying to go back to sleep, of course, but that isn’t always possible; it depends on whether I’ve done anything wrong. Did I lose my temper and snap at a student who asked for the fifth time if we could watch a movie? Did I have to explain a grade to a student who thinks they are a brilliant writer, but really they’re not, and I had to find a way to let them down easily while still encouraging them – but also making it crystal clear that they aren’t as good as they think they are, because otherwise they will get their parents to file an official complaint about the grade, and I’ll have to have three meetings, at least, to iron it out? Do I have a class that’s misbehaving, and I need to explain to them all, again, why they shouldn’t act that way? Because if I do, I will start working on my script at 2:30, and I won’t be done until 3:30 at the earliest. 4:30 is more common, on the days when I have a controlled-anger lecture to give.
That’s when my day begins.
Then, 5:20, alarm, and I have my morning; I have sometimes taken advantage of my early rising to get some correcting done, because I’m fresher first thing in the morning with that first coffee jolt, and I can get through eight or ten vocabulary assignments in under an hour. My vocab assignments are tougher than some, because I make them define the word and then use it in an original sentence, so I have to make sure that the definition is correct, that the sentence uses the word correctly, and that the sentence is grammatically acceptable; that’s also why I can’t let TAs grade the vocab, because they don’t know enough grammar and can’t always pick out which of several similar definitions of the word is the best one. I also give them credit for the sentence even if they got the definition wrong, but the sentence can make sense anyway; and I don’t trust teenagers to do that. So I do it. There are between ten and twenty words per assignment, so it takes me between five and ten minutes for each student to check the whole thing over – longer if I want to give feedback on why the sentence is incorrect, maybe offer a correct alternative so they can see what it looks like to use an adjective properly. 97 times, every two weeks. (I know, only 97 students? I have such small classes! At my last school I hit 180 students, some years! I’m lucky, now. Oh – and I do have more students than that, but two of my classes don’t do vocabulary assignments.) Then it’s breakfast, walking the dog, getting lunch ready, making sure I have all the papers and materials I need for the day. Then it’s off to work.
Morning duty. Usually I’m just a presence; the parents who drive badly (A good 30-40% of them) assiduously avoid eye contact. If it’s a student who speeds through the parking lot or swerves too close to a 6th grader crossing their path, I can yell at them to watch where they’re going and they’ll at least give me an apologetic shrug, but mostly my job is to scowl at the drivers and wave at the students. And watch the clock: because at 8:05 I have to unlock the school door and let the students in; and then I’m supposed to stay out there until 8:15 – but my class starts at 8:15. Do I open the classroom door while I’m outside, let my students hang out in my room until I get in there? If I leave them unsupervised they may get in a fight, or steal something, or break something valuable; I better leave the door locked. Which means they will stand in a loud, obnoxious clump outside my door, and block the hall for everyone else. Oh, well, can’t be helped.
I fudge the end of morning duty, go in about 8:13; usually my boss is coming down the hall to make sure the door is locked, so he sees me. Damn. I’ll be getting an email later about how important duty is, how we need to make sure our students are safe. Well, anyway: into the classroom, 21 freshmen for Honors English, and here we go. I need to:
*Log onto my computer, start Chrome, open the email program and make sure I don’t have any emails with subjects like “EMERGENCY: BOMB THREAT HAS BEEN RECEIVED,”
*Start the attendance program, log in, take attendance (If I don’t do this in the first three minutes, the front office will call to remind me.), mark the tardy students absent (We don’t mark them tardy during first period; if they come in late, they have to go to the front office for a note, and then we mark them Present; the front office changes their attendance to Tardy for us.), change the Absent students to Present as they walk in late with notes
*Start Internet Explorer (Because that’s where I have the Bookmark) and open the morning announcements.
*Get the students’ attention: impossible because they are too busy chatting and visiting and teasing each other.
*Stand for the Pledge of Allegiance when it comes over the PA
*Go over the morning announcements: a witty quote that is either over the students’ heads, or strange and offputting, or both; the same five announcements that have been on there for a week; a new video from the Character Education class about Inclusion, this week; God forbid a new episode from the journalism class with this week’s school news (They do a fine job, but my students love nothing more than criticizing, and so every week when the new episode is posted, I’m in for several minutes of snark and sass, and then indifference and distraction when I stop them from being crappy.); and then sports scores that none of them want to know about unless they were on the team that won, and then they want to make sure that the scores are seen and they get congratulated.
What am I teaching again?
Oh, right, To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, at least these students get their own books off the shelf – though I have to remember to tell them to stop throwing the books across the room to their friends, because somebody’s going to get hurt, most likely the book; I’ve been able to pick up a few used copies to replace the worst ones, but I already can’t tell the difference between the ones I bought and the ones I got from the English teacher next door when I took over this class: covers are falling off, spines are snapped, chunks of the book are falling out. Okay, so now I’ve got them on the right page (Mostly: there are four different editions, all with different page numbers, so someone is always lost), and it’s time to start reading. They’re still chatting, and I shush them. I start reading.
They’re still talking. I shush them again, louder, and add “Quiet, please!” I start reading again.
Still talking. Now the students have gotten annoyed with their peers, and one of them cries out, “SHUT UP!” I should tell her to be more respectful, but I’m on her side. Plus, it worked. So now I read. It’s a good class, the Honors class, so they pay attention, mostly; there are only three or four who are still scrolling through their phones behind their books or under their desks while I’m reading aloud; when I stop to ask a question, I get several kids willing to answer. Actually, they might be too involved: the one kid who loves to talk has his hand in the air every five minutes, often starting his comments with, “This is a little off-topic, but…” And the one precocious girl always wants to share when she has had some insight, when she has spotted a thematic connection; it’s great, but her classmates are tired of her being a know-it-all, as they see it, so as soon as she starts talking, they start making noises, having small side conversations; and the girl speaks too quietly and I can’t hear her.
But I read, enjoying every minute of it, because it’s Harper Lee and every page is brilliant. The kids like it too, and everything is going great – except now it’s 9:09, and the class is almost over (First period is longer to allow for the morning announcements.) and DAMMIT, I forgot to give them their reading project assignment, again. I’ll have to remember to change the due date on the assignment sheet and make a new set of copies. I stop reading with a minute left, they put the books back on the shelf; the precocious girl and the talkative boy both come up to my desk to talk to me, at the same time, and I try to listen to both as the bell rings and the room empties. By the time I have laughed at the boy’s joke and heard the girl’s last insight, my next class has started coming in: they are juniors, so they drop their bags on their desks and then go back out in the hallway, to the bathrooms and the water fountains. I check the email, make sure there aren’t any bomb threats; I have an email from a parent and one from the Special Ed teacher, both of which I have to open immediately. (I also have eight assignments from students, two communiques from the principal, and seven pieces of spam.) The parent email is asking about a student’s grade in their class, so I mark it Unread and try to remember to read and respond later; the special ed teacher is reminding me that we have an IEP meeting this afternoon. Crap.
The bell rings and it’s time for 2nd period: College Readiness. A required elective which the juniors all resent; it’s intended to help them succeed on SATs and ACTs and college applications; they split the week between math, college counseling, and me for English. It’s annoying to them because most of them are already in more advanced math classes than what is on the tests, and they already have me for English some other time during the day, but they still have to take this class. They are all late, either because they took too long coming from first period or because they’re in the bathroom, expecting their bags to count as attendance placeholders; sometimes I mark them absent and then change it as they trickle in, sometimes I mark them all here and forget about it. But when I do that, I always remember my college professor telling us that the attendance record is a legal document, and if I mark a student here when they’re absent, it could be used as evidence in court, say if that student is actually off robbing a Kwik-E-Mart while I said they were in my 3rd period class. And if I mark them absent while they are present, that makes the automated system call their parents and say the kid is absent from this class; then the parent texts the student to ask where the hell they are, and I get an email. And if I don’t get the attendance taken in the first three minutes of class, the front office will call and remind me.
So what were we doing in here? Oh, right, they are practicing their college application essays. So I want them to make their rough drafts twice as long, and then they will cut them down to 650 words max, the recommended max length from the Common App. So I could use one of the samples that I wrote, and show the students where I would add more details, more information, more words just to hit the target length (Even though I hate writing for length, as all that should matter is purpose and audience; this is the only class where I assign minimum and maximum lengths for essays, because college applications expect that), but I think it would be better to get one of them to tell me a story, and I’ll type it up on the projected screen while they all watch. I’m lucky; the class clown is in this group, and he always has a story, and the one today actually isn’t that bad – though it is about running off campus to buy snacks from the Circle K in between classes, which isn’t allowed and I should say something about it. But I get the story down, which takes about half of the class time; and then I start talking about where the essay thus created could be added to.
Nope: they’ve stopped listening. Well, after all, it’s not a real class; the assignment isn’t due today; the story on the board isn’t theirs, and though it was entertaining, they already heard it when the clown told it to me the first time. So they have no reason to pay attention. I give up, and let them do nothing; I sit at my computer and start answering that parent email –
Fire drill. The loudest damn siren in the world, makes me jump every time. Fortunately the students know what to do, so they head outside; if it was a lockdown drill, they’d be anxious and awkward and unsure, and I’d have to guide them where to go and what to do. I grab my attendance folder off the wall, shut off the lights, go back for my sunglasses because the sunlight makes me sneeze, and then lock the door and go out. I have to hold my hands over my ears as we pass the outside siren, because the noise is actually painful. Then we’re outside, and I have to direct the students to the right place after all, because we’ve changed protocol this year (They used to go through the locked gate, which meant they all piled up until I got there to open the lock; now they go through the parking lot to the far side), and tell them not to mess with the parked cars, and no, they can’t run down to Circle K for some snacks. Not even if they bring me some. Take attendance again outside, hold up the green card because they’re all there, and then wait for the signal to take them back inside. Still waiting. Still waiting. “Hey Student X, put Student Y down, please. Student Z, stop spitting sunflower seeds on people.” Still waiting. Okay, there we go: back inside. They file back in just in time to get their things, and then the bell rings to end the period. My third period students already left their second period, so they’re coming in even before second period ends, asking, “What are we going to do today?”
What are we – oh, crap! I need the Chromebooks. They’re doing research for their argument essays this period. Race to the computer (Unlock it because it timed out while I was outside), bring up the Staff Forms page, open the Chromebook Cart Reservation page, check the three carts – Cart #3, okay. Dammit, it’s all the way down at the other end of the school. Pick out two students and send them to get the cart. Then it’s time for attendance, and I have a minute or so to remind them of their tasks before the computer cart arrives, at which point they stop listening to me because they now get a computer to play with, and they all swarm the cart and grab Chromebooks.
Except there aren’t enough. The last teacher didn’t manage to collect them all, because of the fire drill. So I send some students down to fetch them. They do, but there still aren’t enough, because this is my big class, 26 sophomores (Well, 25 sophomores and one senior taking Sophomore English for the third time, bless her heart. She won’t pass this time, either.) and the cart only carries 24 Chromebooks. So I send two more students on a quest for random Chromebooks, which they track down in only 20 minutes of roaming the halls. But no great loss, because that same time has been spent in the classroom watching YouTube videos and finding ways to play free online video games, or else bringing up Google and then looking at a phone. The rest of the class period goes the same, and at the end, they ask if they will also have tomorrow to do research. I shake my head, unable to muster any better answer, and send them away when the bell rings. Then I have to collect all the Chromebooks they left on their desks, return them to the cart, make sure all of them are plugged in –
No, wait, that has to wait for a minute: I haven’t been to the bathroom in three hours. I race down to the teacher’s lounge, because the boy’s room across the hall is filthy and usually occupied, and I have bashful kidneys. By the time I get back to my classroom, the Chromebook cart is gone; hopefully to the right place. I don’t know: this is my prep period, the best time of the day. No students for fifty – no, forty-one glorious minutes.
I have to:
*Actually read all of the emails that came in today, and any I didn’t get to yesterday.
*Respond to all emails that need a response, in the following order of importance (most to least): parents, special ed, other teachers, administration, students.
*Check that I have the right handouts for the three classes after lunch, that I know what I’m teaching, that I know what assignments I have to collect and what due dates I have to remind them of
*Make any copies I may need this afternoon or tomorrow morning, as I won’t have time to make copies in the morning (Xerox machine is always tied up before first period) and I have an IEP meeting after school
*Make more coffee before I collapse into a stupor
*Use the bathroom at least one more time
*Do as much grading as possible. Usually not very much. Today, none: because one of my colleagues stops in to ask me if I’ve heard the latest absurdity the admin’s gotten up to, and I haven’t, so we need to discuss it. We do. It’s infuriating.
Now I have eight minutes left. Didn’t get any grading done.
But that’s okay, because the next class is lunch; not quite as satisfying as prep, because there are students in here, mostly hanging out (with their terribly smelly food) but some looking for help or to check on due dates or to ask if I’ve graded that essay they turned in late. The students who are hanging out want to talk to me, because they want to tell me what they did yesterday, or show me that meme or the video they found that was hilarious and I’ll like it because there are dogs in it, or they want to ask my advice, or for me to settle an argument (Is cheesecake a pie or a cake? Have I seen the trailer for the new Fahrenheit 451 adaptation, and what do I think of it? Should they move into the dorm for college next year, or live with their parents to save money? Should they even go to college? Don’t I think the new math teacher is an asshole?) [Answers: I say cake, because of the name, but really it’s a tart; yes, and I think it will be a good movie but not the wonder that the book is; they should move out if they can afford it; yes unless they have a different plan that is as useful as a college education would be; and no, because I like the teachers more than the students, even though I agree that math is evil. Yes, these are all things I have said to students.].
I eat my lunch, finally make my coffee while also finishing up the copies I need for class after lunch, and spend a few minutes talking to my wife. (On the phone for the first sixteen years of my career, in the next classroom for the last two years, as she has been teaching at the school where I work. It’s lovely to have her there. It makes my blood absolutely boil to see the way they treat her, the goddamned admin and the obnoxious students and the entitled parents. Drives me nuts.) Then it’s time for 6th period: Advanced Placement Literature and Composition. Today I am teaching Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, which is nice, because I’ve taught it for years and I know everything about it; I also worry that I’m not seeing it with fresh eyes for the same reason, and so there are things that I’m missing. I need to help them see through the text, because this class is struggling with the AP expectations for analysis; they write well, for the most part, but they don’t always get what they’re reading. Because with one or two exceptions in this class of twelve seniors, they don’t ever read outside of what is assigned for school. They never have. They tell me, half ashamed and half proud, how few books they’ve read this year, or the last four years, or their entire lives.
People wonder why I read books out loud to my high school students. It’s because it is literally the only way I can be sure they will read at least one book in my class.
This is one of the factors that makes English an impossible subject to teach: the students don’t read. I have to find a way to keep them interested in books, which they believe, with all of their hearts, are boring and obsolete; I have to find a way to make them want to put thought into the books, because that’s the only way they’ll see the value of literature. I have to both know everything about the books I’m teaching, so I can answer their questions and ask them good ones in return, and also improvise constantly, and use whatever I can to relate the literature to this class, these students, this point in time and place; because of that, I generally can’t re-use old lesson plans, and I have to constantly learn everything there is to know about new literature. Teaching writing is even more difficult, because it has all of the same inherent feel of being boring and obsolete to students who are never disconnected from the internet; and also because it makes the students feel inadequate, because they know they don’t write well, and they don’t want to be embarrassed, and they don’t want a bad grade – and so they try not to write, which means they don’t practice and they don’t get better. When I do ask them to write, they often put as little effort into it as possible, and then they confirm for themselves that they don’t write well.
18 years teaching, and I don’t know how to fix that. I try something new every year. Sometimes it works. With some of them. I think.
But I can’t really say that English is harder to teach than other subjects: we all have individual difficulties, and mine aren’t worse. At least I have stories, with sex and violence and beautiful language; math teachers need to constantly think of ways to keep students interested in abstractions, thinking in ways they don’t normally think; history and science teachers have to present an enormous amount of information, and somehow make it digestible; arts and technical teachers have to constantly circle the classroom, never sitting down for a second all day, looking over students’ shoulders and trying to figure out what they’re doing wrong and help them do it right, all while the students are incessantly calling out the teacher’s name – if you’ve never been in a high school arts or tech classroom, just imagine 20-30 hungry baby birds in different nests, with one bird trying to feed them all while also keep them from falling out of the tree or pecking each other to death, while they just keep crying out, crying out for attention. It’s quite the dance.
Elementary school teachers have to do all of this at once. Though with a lot fewer students, admittedly. Still: it’s not a job I’d want; the one day I subbed in an elementary school was one of my worst as a teacher. I prefer high school, and Language Arts. At least I think I do. A lot of the time, I’d rather just be a janitor.
6th period goes well; they’re great kids. Almost graduated now. I worry about some of them. Especially the one student who recently had a death in the family. I worry a lot about that one, because the death hit hard, and all plans have changed, and I don’t know if that’s a warning sign or just the normal healthy grieving process. I’ve been a teacher for eighteen years, and I’ve had three of my students commit suicide: I don’t want to have a fourth. I’ve also had to make reports to social services twice, once for an abusive parent and once for a girl who had a “boyfriend” who was twenty years older than her. Neither report led to a good outcome. I don’t need to report this one: everyone knows the whole situation, which means everyone treats this student like they’re kryptonite. I try to be normal with the student. I try to talk to them every day, to be present for anything that needs to be said, to be as honest and open as I can be, always, no matter what. I don’t know how well I do. I don’t know if it will make any difference. But it’s all I can do. So I do it.
When I have time.
We don’t get through much Julius Caesar, because they constantly distract me and the class with their jokes and their stories and their questions; I encourage that, because I think it helps make the class more meaningful and more useful, and also because there are pedagogical theories that encourage students to associate knowledge with their own lives, their own experiences, and so letting them voice all of their thoughts encourages that sort of association. Or maybe it just wastes time; I don’t really know. I know they like my class. I know we don’t cover half as much material as most other teachers. I don’t know any other way to teach.
Speaking of teaching: now it’s time for 7th period. AP Language and Composition.
What the hell was I doing in this class?
Oh right: they’re halfway through “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell. We’re talking about imagery. I find my copy under the pile of papers by my podium, and I tell them to get out theirs; I remember to take attendance then, and go to my computer to do it – and realize I forgot to take attendance for the senior class last period. Dammit. Huh, well, at least the front office didn’t call. I mark attendance for both classes, then hand out replacement copies to the two students who lost their packets since yesterday and one to the kid who has it but doesn’t want to dig through his backpack and find it, and then we’re off: to Burma, in the 1920’s, when a young George Orwell is about to slaughter an elephant because he doesn’t know how to let the elephant live and still be a white police officer in a British colony. He hates everything, especially himself. I can kinda relate.
I get into it, reading the piece; Orwell was such a damn good writer. I wish I could write like that. I know it’s because he was able to live his writing, almost all of it: when he wrote Homage to Catalonia, about the Spanish Civil War, it was after he went to Spain and joined the anti-fascist militias, and actually fought on the front lines. I wish I could do that. Not fight in a war, but go to where I am needed, and do what I believe needs to be done, and then write beautiful, crystal-perfect books about what I had done. Though I’d rather not die at age 48 of tuberculosis: I’m 43 now, so that’s not much time left. Still haven’t published a book. Not that much time in my day to write; certainly no time to do anything worth writing about.
I can’t get too into it, though, because this is my annoying class. This is the class with the one student who likes to irritate everyone, and so says intentionally sexist or racist things, and then says, “I’m just kidding.” He knows I’m a vegetarian, so he likes to bring up how he slaughters his own meat. He likes to make the stories as disgusting as possible, and then smile at me. And there’s that other student who can’t sit still: she will stand up and dance right in the middle of class, while I’m reading. Or she will make hand gestures and funny faces at other students in the class, laughing loudly while we’re trying to have discussion. She’s the smartest one in the room, so if I call her on it, she’ll apologize, share some insight to mollify me – and then go right back to disrupting the class, while also making some passive-aggressive statement about how limiting and controlling school is, how that’s unhealthy for a growing mind. Then she’ll stare at her phone for half an hour, turning it around to show funny memes to students across the room. And the rest of the students in here would rather be studying for their math class which they have next period, or grumbling about the history class they had last period. The class often feels like a complete waste of time.
Speaking of not much time left: class is almost over now. I cut the article off with one paragraph left; we’ll finish it tomorrow, but the mood will be ruined, because they won’t remember tomorrow what we read today, other than the bare facts: Orwell shot the elephant. Now it’s time for 8th period: the second AP Lang class, the big one – twice as many students as 7th period. Fortunately, this is the one time when I don’t have to remember what we were doing, the one time when I have the same class twice in a row; unfortunately, the two classes don’t go at the same pace, so I don’t remember where we were in the Orwell article with this class. When I remember, I mark the paper where each class stops. When I remember.
Unfortunately, fighting through 7th period has put me into a bad mood, and worn me out entirely. Well, at least I have four minutes to recover. I take deep breaths, try to shake it off, try to treat the new class fairly, not take out the last class’s misbehavior on these kids. It’s tough. Especially at the end of the day.
The class goes by in a blur, but also, because it is the end of the day and I am exhausted, it crawls by. The clock doesn’t move and doesn’t move and doesn’t move, and then suddenly there are only 20 minutes left and we haven’t finished the reading. We get through it, the whole thing (so now they’re ahead of 7th period), and I’m about to lead them into the analysis: when the bell rings. 3:30. Day’s over. They swarm out, and silence descends.
Then my classroom phone rings: I forgot the attendance again. I apologize, and take it now. I fall into my desk chair, open my email. Oh right: I have an IEP meeting. Down I go to the special ed room to talk about how well that student is doing in my class (or how poorly) despite learning disabilities or physical disabilities or autism spectrum challenges. Or all three.
An hour later, and it’s all I can do to gather my things and leave. Home, to dinner, and dog walking, and family time, and some relaxation; then, around 8:00, after dinner is done, I remember: I haven’t actually graded anything all day. I grab up the laptop, sit on the living room couch, open my email, and start grading vocab assignments that students sent to me online. If I’m lucky, I can get a whole class done before I have to go to sleep, sometime between 10:00 and 11:00.
I need to get a few hours of sleep before I wake up at 2:30. I’m worried about that kid in my 6th period class. Seemed … off today. I hope there’s nothing going on. I hope nothing happens. I hope I didn’t say or do the wrong thing. I hope.
This is no exaggeration. This is what I do, what I have done for 18 years. I don’t always have fire drills, or adventures with the Chromebook carts; sometimes it’s a lockdown drill. More than once in my career it has been a bomb threat, and an evacuation. Oftentimes I realize I don’t have the copies I need to teach the lesson I wanted to teach, and I have to do something I make up on the spot. More than once I have gone to the computer lab and found another class using the computers. Schedules change, students are out for field trips or athletic events. I don’t always grade at night; sometimes I get more done at school, and then I let myself do something else in the evening. I pretty much always grade on weekends, and during vacations; I’m an English teacher. I have essays to read. A single essay takes between 20 and 30 minutes to grade and comment on, and I have 100 students, and I assign multiple drafts.
Ask me to communicate regularly with parents. Or to stay until 7:00 or 8:00, three or four times a year, for parent conferences.
Ask me to have extra meetings with troubled students.
Ask me to plan and organize curriculum, or to discuss pedagogy with other teachers, or interventions for students who aren’t successful.
Ask me to plan, organize, and run extracurricular events, on evenings or on weekends. To coach teams, to run clubs, to offer extra tutoring to students who need it. Ask me to be the department chair, and the community liaison, and the head of the recycling program.
God forbid you ask me to raise my own children on top of all of this. I don’t know how teacher-parents do it.
Now ask me how much I get paid for the job I do. Ask me how much I should get paid.
Then ask me why teachers are going to be walking out across Arizona tomorrow.
You can ask. But I think you already know the answer.