Year 1 COMPLETE!

Today was the last day of my first year of teaching. All I can say is WOW! I am going to attempt to sum it up in a few paragraphs but all that I have experiences is more than could ever be shared through words alone.

The First Half of the Year
The first half of the year was mostly survival. Apparently it is common that the actual curriculum does not get rolling until a month or two into school. As a new teacher, that leaves a lot of time for scrambling to teach some kind of basic content as well as solidify procedures. I had many long nights and lesson planned pretty much daily. During this time, I felt like I was constantly teaching day to day with little insight to what the next week might bring.

During this time I say…
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There is a HUGE learning curve your first year and especially those first few months. You are not alone in facing that struggle.

The Second Half of the Year
I had a very unexpected experience from about January to March. It seemed as if during this time everything got harder. I was becoming much stronger in both my execution and planning but this meant I was able to do more, plan better, and differentiate more. Did my students benefit? Absolutely. Was it a lot of wear and tear on my own self. Absolutely again. This can be a long stretch.

But just know…
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During this period I also felt like I was lost myself as a teacher. This has been a very scary thing that I faced twice since graduation. For a girl who’s always seen teaching as the thing she was going to do and as the thing that came naturally, feeling like you lost that persona is terrifying. I didn’t feel like I even liked my kids. Sure I knew deep down I loved them, but day to day I was not excited to go into the classroom. From the moment they came in I was bored and annoyed by their 7 year old tales. My passion seemed to be slowly fading. This is a very tough hill to climb but you have to keep climbing no matter how much your legs hurt and your lungs are burning. The passion…it’s there, it’s just been reduced to the embers awaiting the next wood to ignite it back to its full fruition.

On your hardest days think of this…
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The End
While it seems like it will never come, the last day of school will soon be upon you. It seems impossible but despite all the waiting it still somehow manages to sneak up, concealed until the last moment. I left knowing that I love my kids whole heartedly. The love I felt for my kids left my heart bursting with joy and sadness as I said good bye to them. A mother bird must eventually let her babies step out of the nest and use their own wings to lift them up. Despite knowing this, it is so hard to do. It was made harder knowing I would likely never get to see my students again and could not check up on them. In a school with such high turn over I can’t even secure their spot with a teacher that will be a good fit. They will be in the arms of new teachers not different from myself next year. Many of the students were sad about the end of the school year and some even wished it was longer. The world has thrown many obstacles at my students and the lack of stability in summers is often hard for them. However, they will be ok. We all will. After all, I survived my first year of teaching.

I am incredibly grateful for the experiences that I had, both good and bad. Would I go back and relive this year? Not a chance! But all of them have made me a more capable teacher who will be able to face the obstacles of next year. For that I am so thankful. No price can be put on that experience.

I’ll finish with one last quote to sum things up. I believe in it fully and think it is the best way to live your life.
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Applying for PA Teaching Jobs

<This will be a more informative post about applying for teaching jobs in Pennsylvania.

There are many different avenues you have to go through to apply for teaching jobs across the state. I first recommend you get your general information all together and saved in one place. You will need…
1. Pennsylvania Standard Teaching Application
-Just a warning you cannot save in the document file. I recommend you complete the application and print it. You can then scan it into your computer so that you can save an electronic copy.
Pa Standard Teaching Application
2. Resume My university’s Career Development Center was extremely helpful over the years as I worked on my resume. Do not be afraid to ask for help. These people know what they are doing!
3. Pennsylvania Teaching Certificate
4. Updated Clearances – PA Background Check (Act 34), Child Abuse (Act 151), FBI Fingerprinting (Act 114), and possibly the signed form saying you will report any arrests with 24 hour (Act 24)
5. 3 Letters of Recommendation – Vary your references. If you have one person who is giving the perspective of you in the classroom, try to find another who can give insight to you as a student or leader on campus.
6. Praxis Scores
7. Copy of Transcripts</strong> – Most schools do not require an official transcript. Therefore, I ordered an official transcript that I could open and scan into the computer.

Once those ducks are all in a line, there are a few different websites that are used as a means for applicants and districts to share job postings.
1. PA REAP – http://www.pareap.net/
I have not found that any specific geographic area uses this site. It is fairly simple to upload all of the above information. Once you have done this you can search for job postings, notify a district that you are interested in a position, and see any additional requirements for applying for a position. You can also sign up to get email notifications for jobs that fall into your desired criteria. Some districts will only look on PA REAP for your information so it is a good idea to get this done and out of the way early in your job search.

2. PA Educator – https://www.paeducator.net/
PA Educator seems to be used more frequently by the central and western parts of the state. It is very similar to PA REAP in requiring the basic materials. You can see how many districts have seen your information in the past 30 days and how many have done a detailed search. At the beginning of the job search, this was a frequent stop of mine as I checked to see how many more views I got just to make me feel a bit better and that there was hope in finding a job. (Just checked, 8 detailed looks in the last 30 days. WOO!!)

3. Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) – https://careergateway.psba.org/
This is a website that seems to be used less both by applicants and districts. However, every little bit helps when looking for that first teaching job in PA so why not post your materials one more spot.

Beyond these websites it is important to check districts websites frequently. (Sometimes jobs can be posted an closed in just a week’s time!) Another popular application resources is Recruit and Hire. It is similar to applying for a state college in Pennsylvania. After you’ve filled it out once, the information mostly transfers to the next school. Some schools are still using paper applications. Their website will tell you exactly what to include. I’ve found that sending these in the large yellow envelope typically costs around $1.80.

Last but not least, there is the issue of cover letters. I am still not sure where I stand on whether your cover letter needs to be personalized to each district beyond just updating the district’s name. For a while, I tried to incorporate information about their curriculum or mission in my letter. However, eventually reality hit. I had applied to over 20 districts and was often doing it after teaching a full day. If the district has a lot of information on their website and you feel very strongly about that specific district, try personalizing your letter. If you are just trying to hit all the available positions with your application, it is ok to just change the school’s name in my opinion.

Hopefully this is helpful to anyone looking for a PA teaching position. Trying to apply after being out of school for a year was definitely harder and I was very thankful I had some PA teacher friends that could walk me through the process. Feel free to ask any questions you may have here! Good luck!

The Moment Nothing Else Mattered

Sunday night began was a typical evening. I was feeling an increased amount of stress thinking of all I had to do with school, moving, and job applications, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Around 9:00 I got a text from my team lead. An Amber Alert had been sent out for a young girl who had been abducted in Tulsa. Almost instantly I realized this wasn’t just any girl (as if that isn’t horrible enough). The girl was a second grader from the classroom right next to mine, one of the students who I talked to often.

Immediately, shock and fear struck my body. It seemed as if everyone who texted was at a loss of what to do other than be sure her face was shared as much as possible and pray in hopes that she would be found. There was an intense feeling of helplessness that was hard to swallow. I wasn’t going to bed on time.

The Amber Alert was posted approximately 2 hours after she was taken. With few words of comfort to offer, people said that perhaps it was a family member (in hopes that it would have a better outcome). The only lead was that it was a white male in a small white car. She was a young Mexican girl. The slight comfort that people tried to offer quickly fizzled away. Once again how helpless I was, any of us, seemed to be smothered me like a heavy blanket. The idea of stepping in between a student and harms way was as close to home as it has ever been (and I hope it will have to be). Could any of us have done anything to be sure this girl was safe, we would have. It seemed as if that night nothing else mattered.

The night was long and restless. Thankfully, relief came early the next morning as we found out our precious student had been found and was back in the safekeeping of her family. As the story came to unfold through the media, she was taken at 7:00 while playing on the swing set of her apartment complex with a few other kids (one of which was in my class). Around 9:00 the Amber Alert was issued with very few details. A little after 11:00 a worker supported a suspicious man buying girl’s clothes at a dollar store. Local police responded to the call, fought it out with the suspect, but he got away. An additional police force was called in around 2:00 where they finally took the suspect into police custody and found our little girl soon after in a nearby area. The man was a Level 3 sex offender who was just released from jail in December.

Knowing our student was safe was a tremendous relief, but we are still working to cope with the after effects. Our school is working hard to limit the gossip while supporting those students who need it. Her family has the support of multiple crisis interventions and counselors available. Sunday night will be an event that will follow her like a shadow for the rest of her life, but she is resilient. Despite still having the physical bruises, she came back to school just two days after the horrific night. She is incredibly strong and a wonder to all of us watching her moves and being thankful we get to see her smile another day.

Big Decisions – Changes, guilt, and Learning to Be Selfish

I think from the day I left Teach for America, I knew what decision I would have to make at the end of the year.  I no longer would have the two year commitment to guide my decision.  Whether to stay or leave after the school year was a big decision looming over my head. 

I’ve given a lot of thought to my decision.  I would never have picked up and moved halfway across the country on my own my first year out of college without TFA.  In my head, TFA was like your freshman college dorm.  It was a built in group of friends to support you through a big transition.  Sure most of the people would only be friends under circumstance, but hopefully you’d find one or two good ones to last.  Without that support system and without having teacher friends from my school that I would hang out with outside of work, Oklahoma did not provide a huge support system and social network.

My school year has been full of hardships that in my opinion have gone beyond your typical first-year.  I work in a school with limited resources.  We had nearly no math curriculum, no pacing guide, no leveled library, and have spent over 25% of the year without a copier that was accessible to teachers.  On top of this I was on a team of mostly new teachers and often felt like I was the one taking the lead rather than being able to look to someone else to guide me and help me to get better.

In many ways I knew moving back to Pennsylvania was the right choice.  Professional development is not prioritized in Oklahoma and is rarely provided by an outside expert.  In addition, they have few programs to assist teacher with getting their Master’s and thus many fewer teachers have one.  The school was burning me out at a fast rate.  While I have little to compare it to, I knew I was experiencing a high amount of professional (and personal) stress with less support than I would have preferred.  Oklahoma is ranked as one of the lowest paying states for teachers’ salaries, while Pennsylvania is one of the highest.  Yes, I am surviving just fine but I could be saving more, even with the low cost of living.  Overall, I just feel that being at home (Pennsylvania that is) is the best choice for me professionally and personally.

Even knowing this, it was hard to admit.  I had to get over a level of guilt for leaving my school.  Especially in a school like mine, such a high turn over rate makes it even more difficult for the students, staff, and administration.  I have done all this work throughout the year and while some of it will be able to be salvaged in my future teaching, nothing would compare to getting a chance to teach the same thing again next year and really have a grasp on the curriculum and the best way to teach it.  Finally, this school had given me a shot. They gave me my first job as a teacher, which, at least in Pennsylvania, is not an easy thing to come by.  They gave me a way to get out of a program that I knew was not a good fit for me and led me through a year that, while a rollercoaster ride, has taught me so much.  Was it right for me to take all that was given to me and just up and leave after such a short time?

These were some of the internal struggles that I was (and still am) feeling.  However, I think for anyone in a similar situation, you have to be a little selfish.  I believe teaching is a unique and special career because it so deeply depends on human relations.  Even compared to some jobs, such as those in the medical field, teaching has people being together for 30+ hours a week where that child’s future is, for that year, in your hands.  This can create an enormous amount of stress.  If we as teachers are not thriving ourselves it is not only us that suffers but our students. 

Moving back to Pennsylvania is a hard decision.  There is no one side that is completely positive and one completely negative.  However, I have to do what is best for me.  How this effects others? Well, it’ll be good and bad but I’m one person and my school and more will fill the space I leave. 
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selfish
I will move back to Pennsylvania in about 6 weeks.  I walk forward with little idea of what the next year will bring.  However, even when I thought I had a plan things were turned upside.  And yet, I still came out landing on my feet. I just have to hold my breath, dive in head first, and go with whatever comes my way.

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I LOVE books!

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Anybody who knows me knows that I LOVE children’s books. I have been growing my classroom library for about 4 years now and it has hundreds of books. They are many, heavy, and fabulous!

About two weeks ago, a Scholastic Book Catalog showed up in my mailbox at school. Most people recognize this colorful magazine from elementary school. It is full of all the most popular books at very reasonable prices. Despite not knowing exactly how it worked on the teacher end, I decided to hand out the magazines to my class and see if I had any takers.

I was happy to say that five students returned their catalogs and ordered books. Having more books in the hands of my students is great news. Perhaps even more exciting (however selfish) was the number of books I’d get to add to my own classroom library.

SO MANY FREE BOOKS!!!! Because we spent $25, I earned $25 in free books. In the end, the students book orders totaled $31 for 10 books. My order totaled $34 for 31 books. What a phenomenal bargain!! :)

My advice to all teachers is distribute Scholastic Magazines to your kids. You have nothing to lose just the chance to get book in the hands of your students and maybe even some free books for yourself.

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Parent Teacher Conferences

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Last week we had what I would consider our first real set of parent teacher conferences. In October, our school had student-led conferences. At this point it was so early in the year that it was more like an Back to School Night where students showed their families around the room.

These conferences were important. While I knew there were some behaviors to discuss, the focus was on academics. I went into the conferences feeling well-informed and prepared. Three-quarters into the year and I’m really starting to understand my students. I began by preparing a conference data sheet. This gave an overview of all major grades for the marking period. These grades provided talking points. There was no denying the data, it gave a clean, unbiased view of student work. Having center grades provided a means of talking about students’ work ethic and behavior, as centers are often where these show themselves most. Student reading levels are an important measure of student growth in second grade. While they are by no means a perfect assessment, it is an opportunity for students to put together all the reading skills they’ve been working on to show what they know. Finally, I included attendance. This is a very big issue in my classroom. This marking period alone I had 3 kids with more than 10 absences (in other words missing 25% of the marking period) and an additional 7 with more than 5 absences. To add to this there are a number of tardies. I’m still working on how to help parents understand the significance of this many absences but at least putting it out there for them to see is a start.

My Conference Data Sheet
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Conferences Data Sheet

In addition to preparing my data sheet, I wrote out a strength, area of growth, behavior concern, and any other comments for each student. I felt confident and secure in my talking points going into things. Nonetheless, conferences can be hard. As a teacher, I struggle when students are not making the progress they need. In a school where the majority of students are below grade level, it is hard to hold students or families solely responsible and there can be a feeling of guilt as the teacher. But that is our reality and the best I can do as a teacher is give them the best instruction I am capable of and take things step by step.

The parents were all very receptive to what I had to say. We had meaningful, two-way conversations. I had some good laughs with a parent as she told her kid, “If you keep this up, she’s not going to want you in her class and I don’t blame her.” I had a mother come in who is very ill but is still so incredibly invested in her children and being sure they get what is best. One parent asked if her son was a bully because she was growing up, it is her biggest regret, and she wants to be sure he doesn’t make the same mistake. Parents were understanding and wanting to know what they could do to help their child continue to progress. This shouldn’t be a surprise in the least. Parents care. It can just be nerve-wracking going into certain situations.

There were some difficult conversations to have. I had a parent bluntly ask, “Why isn’t my child learning?” This was especially hard because I couldn’t say. It seems often once our students fall behind they are given little support besides the regular instruction and I can’t always figure out what they need to make everything click. I had a parent that seemed to be balancing between tears and anger after she had no idea her son was so far behind. My most worrisome conversation going in was discussing the possibility of retention for a student. Despite being a sensitive topic, the parent was receptive and open to the option.

All in all as a new teacher, you’ll probably find that you make conferences out to be a lot scarier than they are. Come prepared with what your goals are to cover, being sure to focus on the positives and the areas of concern. Be warm, friendly, and authentic. Lastly, be sure the parents feel heard. Avoid too much teacher talk or talking at the parent. Involve them in the conversation and be sure they have the chance to be heard. If teacher continue to keep at this in mind, conferences should be smooth (or at least mostly smooth) sailing!

Making Grades Meaningful

What does a check plus mean to you? How about a 6 out of 10? What is a B? For many of us, we have concepts of what these representations of grades may mean. We convert the points into a meaningful percentage. We know where a B lies on a hundred point grading scale. We can assume a check plus is pretty good.

Now, imagine you are seven years old. You likely have heard of getting an A as a good thing and an F being failing. You understand red x’s on a test but not fractions. Maybe you discuss your grades and work with a family at home and maybe you do not. In general, grades are a very abstract concept with little concrete meaning. And without having a meaningful measure of your progress, it is very difficult to be fully invested in your progress and improving these abstract grades.

This was a struggle that I had for the first half of the school year. It became even more difficult when students were doing two hours of centers a day, essentially unmonitored. I would be meeting with reading and math small groups, so while I could generally monitor students, I was not there to hover over students being sure they got what they needed to onto their papers.

To overcome this challenge, I started doing grades in a way that the students could physically see and understand. For daily assignments and center, students could get a check plus, check, check minus, or minus.

CHECK PLUS – Excellent work!
CHECK – Good work.
CHECK MINUS – Needs improvement.
MINUS – Unsatisfactory.

And believe it or not, something pretty incredible happened. Students started getting mad when they saw a check minus on their paper. They were upset and wanted to know why they got a check minus. THIS IS POWERFUL. When students see their grades and can understand them, they want to do better. Our kids want to be successful: for their teacher, for their peers, for their families, and, most importantly, FOR THEMSELVES. What is more powerful than helping them do so?

On larger assignments, I list grades as a total number of points earned out of the total points, always marking correct answers, rather than checking incorrect. This yet again becomes a bit abstract. Don’t get me wrong, we are starting fractions this week, but we won’t get anywhere close to 35/40. To make this meaningful I use stickers. We consider an 80% to be mastery. Therefore, any time students master a topic they get a sticker on their paper.
STICKER – Mastery! You really get it!
NO STICKER – We will continue to practice working on this skill.

OUR CHILDREN CARE…not about a number but about doing their best and being successful. We just need to give them the opportunity to understand and show it.

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