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Teaching Turn-Around

February 27, 2006

I think it’s about time I reported on my latest venture into the
teaching profession.  I’ve been meaning to write for awhile but
I’ve been distracted by the Olympics for the past couple of
weeks. 

Despite the desperation of my first foray into teaching, I am
absolutely loving my new job as the math teacher for a college-prep
program housed at the Community College of Philadelphia.  The
program, currently in its infancy, is designed to boost the knowledge
and skills of recent high school graduates who have hopes for their
lives but little direction due largely to the failure of Philadelphia’s
public school system to adequately educate and inspire its youth.

I have only two students right now (a third regrettably stopped coming
in the mornings, when I teach, because he got a job), which enables me
both to ease back into teaching and to give the painstaking attention
to my girls that they need to pick up skills successfully.  Even
with only two students, I’m learning a great deal about differentiation
(each girl learns best from very different types of notes:  for
example, one loves to see arrows and the other is completely confused
by them); about balancing teaching time with practice time (me talking
vs. them doing); and, most important of all, about patience. 

According to D~, I am succeeding at the latter:  today she told me
I was the best math teacher she’d ever had.  “I had one teacher
who told the same boring story over and over again, and another one
would always leave the classroom during class,” she complained while
crinkling up her nose in apparent disgust.  “But you’re so patient,”
she continued.  “You don’t get mad at us when we don’t understand
something.”  I thanked her for her compliment, telling her that it
meant a lot to me, and emphasized that if my students weren’t
understanding something, it would be they that should get mad at me because it would mean that I wasn’t teaching them well.

Another thing that I’m (re)learning is how horrible the Philadelphia
School District is.  My two students both have high school
diplomas but are at a 5th grade math level according to the diagnostic
I gave them four weeks ago, and I don’t think the diagnostic gave me an
inaccurate reading.  Despite having had to have passed at least geometry and algebra, we had to begin the first week of class with fractions–not reviewing
fractions, but learning fractions all over again.  It is quite
apparent that these two girls went through school with either such bad
teachers or such disruptive classrooms (or a despicable combination of
both) that they never had their initial confusions and/or questions
about fractions cleared up, meaning that they carried their
misconceptions (or complete lack of conception) all the way through
middle school and high school.  I have heard that there is a
serious need for qualified math and science teachers in the school
district (my new calling???); perhaps D~ and E~ were placed with one of
the many emergency-certified teachers who barely passed the PRAXIS I,
the teacher-certification test that is probably easier than the PSSA,
the standardized state test that high schoolers take every year.

But my students are not dumb. 
Their lack of knowledge is not their own fault, although they certainly
might have skipped a few classes and homework assignments while in
school.  They were failed by our education system, and we are now
working together to pick up the pieces of their disintegrated
education.  They are working very hard, focusing diligently for
two and a half hours every day and picking up on everything I am
teaching them about fractions.  D~ even pulled me aside after
class today and asked how long she should be in the program, wanting to
stay but feeling concerned that she would become too old to go to
college.  I chuckled and told her that she’d never be too old to
go to college–that the most important thing is that she feel confident
and comfortable with her math skills when she does decide to take the
next step and apply for the nursing program she’d like to pursue. 
Both girls did quite well on my first quiz and I am incredibly excited
to keep working with them as well as with future students who enter the
program once Horizon House gets its act together and starts recruiting
more vigorously.

So I’m truly satisfied with my jobs right now (teaching and working
with the Brazilian Organization for Social Services).  I love my
split schedule, and I love
being able to work every morning since CCP’s West Philly campus is only
15 blocks from my apartment.  Working all day at the Brazilian
Service Center was torture on my energetic body; being in one room
(albeit large) with two tiny windows too high to view the outside world
was making my days arduous.  Now that my day is split between two
totally different jobs, my mind stays fresh and engaged and ultimately
much more productive

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