Our View From Here

Perspectives of Five Women

Ambitious, Yet Vague

Special education classrooms (shown here at th...

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My mother bought my sister and I memory books that corresponded with each year of school. We diligently filled them out each fall with the start of the new school year. One of the questions was “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Each year it changed. When I was in first grade, I wanted to be a ballerina. It didn’t seem to matter that I had never taken a dancing lesson in my life and had no idea what that really entailed. In second grade, I wanted to be an astronaut. I think that ended when the Challenger blew up later that school year.

In third grade, I got really ambitious. I wanted to be a millionaire. I have no idea how I was going to make this million dollars, but that didn’t seem to matter. In fourth grade I upped the ante and wanted to be a billionaire. In fifth grade, yes, a trillionaire.

For the next few years, I don’t remember having any specific employment goal. I did well in my classes, but there wasn’t anything in particular that I was drawn to. I enjoyed band the most, but never seriously considered that as a profession. I was good, but not that good.

When I was 15, things changed. I was in marching band with a rather intimidating band director. It wasn’t that he was mean, he just had high expectations and didn’t have patience for those who didn’t live up to their potential. As a sophomore new to the band, I was nervous around him. However, I found the courage to ask if I could move from the 10th grade band to the Junior/Senior band because there were too many saxophones in the lower group. At first he said no, but a few days later, he told me to talk to my guidance counselor to see if I could change my schedule. He gave me the boost of confidence that I needed and the idea of being a music educator was planted.

I actually applied to Penn State School of Music with the idea that I would become an instrumental music teacher. A number of things over the fall of my senior year forced me to pull my application and reapply to the Division of Undergraduate Studies, aka, The I-Have-No-Idea-What-I-Want-To-Major-In Major. I ended up a theatre major, but I by the time I had done academic theatre for four years, I had no desire to do it as a career.

The turning point was really when I opted to serve two years in AmeriCorps. I was assigned to a position at my old high school, working with students with moderate to severe disabilities, training them to work in the student store to set them up for future employment.  I wasn’t there for more than two weeks before I realized that I wanted to be in the classroom. I really could help young people by being a teacher.

I found a grad school that combined my theatre major and English minor into a dual certification program. I taught Special Education English for two years (New York City was so desperate for teachers that you didn’t have to be endorsed in Special Education to teach a specific content), general education English for two years in a different state, and then opted to go back to school to get my Special Education certification. This is my second year teaching full Special Education in a middle school and I love it.

Looking back, I shouldn’t be surprised that I ended up where I did – there were definitely signs along the way that should have made my trajectory obvious. I had volunteered multiple times with students with special needs, from the time I was 10 through college. Nothing I have done is as satisfying, and I am glad I ended up where I did.

 

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Teaching – a 24/7 Gig

Schoolklas begin jaren '50 / Dutch classroom a...

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When I was first starting a teaching program during my sophomore year, I took a required ed class. On the first day, the professor asked us to introduce ourselves and say why we wanted to be teachers. We went around the room to the 24 or so prospective teachers and heard things like, “I had a teacher that inspired me” or “I want to help people.” I don’t really remember what I said – probably some combination of the above statements – but what I do remember was the frat boy in the back row who said simply, “I want to be a teacher for the summers off.”

There is a myth about teachers that seems to permeate our culture, and that is that teachers have it easy.  Sure, I’ll admit that the two weeks off at Christmas is nice, as are the Mid-Winter and Spring Breaks, but I truly believe if we didn’t have those breaks, there would be a much higher burn out rate than there already is.

My day starts at 7:35 officially, but I’m often at my desk just after 7am. It’s the only time of day that I can get any work done without distractions.  Students start arriving by 7:45 and any chance of getting things done is shot.  I teach five periods a day in five different subjects.  After school, I usually have a meeting. We have a weekly staff meeting, and often there are other meeting that I need to attend – IEP meetings that I am either leading or have been invited to for a potential placement, parent meetings, meeting with other teachers regarding curriculum, etc.  While my contract day ends at 3:05, it’s rare that I am gone by 4pm, and I have seen 5pm more often than I would like.

Even when I’m home, school still follows me. I work with a group of high needs students, so their problems never really let me go. I try to leave work at work, but I find myself constantly dwelling on what I can do to help a kid, how to address a difficulty a student is having, and thinking about which teachers I need to contact to make sure that the students are getting what they need. Earlier this week, I went to a training for a new IEP system that we are moving toward and I was actually excited that I would be able to access it from home! That way, when I get any idea at 1am, I can log on and write an IEP right then.

Then there’s summer.  While teacher’s look forward to June as much as any student, there is still a lot to be done.  Most teachers take some sort of class or training during the summer to keep up on our 150 certification hours that we need every five years.  Some take the opportunity to travel or pursue other interests, but by August, many teachers are thinking hard about their classroom. What worked last year? What didn’t? What do I need to change for this year?

I’m not complaining – I knew what I was getting into when I chose this field.  Teaching is a 24/7 gig and I love it.

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Danger in the Classroom

In this technique the punch is blocked and a c...

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I’ve determined today that I am sometimes scared of my job.  If you aren’t aware, I teach middle school special education.  The students I teach have a wide variety of learning, medical, and physical disabilities. Most of them get along day to day with only minor issues.  However, there are many students we serve that have much different problems and some who even can get violent. Which leads me to my opening statement – I am sometimes afraid of what I do.

I just finished the second day of a three day, nine hour total training dealing with de-escalation techniques.  Today we were working on dealing with students who may physically assault us.  We learned how to block kicks, punches, how to get out of choke holds and how to get out of a hair pulling situation.  We had fun doing it – who hasn’t wanted to throw a punch (albeit in slow motion) at a co-worker – but we were also really aware of the reality that we could actually have to use this someday.

Back in my first month of teaching,  I found myself in a bad situation.  Tension had been building all week between two of my freshman. I had talked to our dean about the situation and asked for advice.  He said that there really wasn’t anything that anyone could do besides telling them to stop it (which I had done) until one of them did something.  That happened on Thursday.  Unfortunately, I found myself between the two boys, one going after the other.  I saw the fist just before it struck the side of my head. It hurt, but not terribly, and I was dazed for a moment. The other students, content to sit back and watch their peers fight, got very upset when I was hit and pulled the kids off of each other. I got to the phone, called the dean and he escorted them to the office. One of the students was permanently removed from my classroom and later moved to a different school (for a variety of reasons, not just this incident).

Ever since then, I have been very aware of how dangerous my job can be. I work with students who cannot control their impulses, who don’t always know how to deal with the emotions they are feeling, and sometimes see their only option as violence.  Doing this training has made me uncomfortable about what I may have to do someday. However, I am glad I’m getting this training because the goal is peaceful de-escalation without anyone – me or the student – getting hurt.

I guess I never thought of being a school teacher as being a dangerous job. But it certainly can be.

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Back to the Workforce

Eckstein Middle School, Seattle, Washington. T...

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For awhile now, I’ve been praying I’d be able to write the following:

I’VE GOT A NEW JOB!!!

I am now employed by Seattle Public Schools. I work as Special Education Generalist (read: I teach all subjects) in a north Seattle middle school.  Soon, I’ll have a paycheck and benefits! I’ll be able to go to the doctor! I can get new glasses!

Seriously, though, it all happened pretty fast.  I applied a couple of weeks ago.  The position was opened to applications for exactly one week, and it closed on Friday after school had started.  I received a call from the school on the following Tuesday and was scheduled for an interview on Wednesday afternoon.  I was subbing for a former colleague all that week, so I left school, ran home and changed into my interview suit, pet the dogs, and headed down to Seattle.

The interview went really well.  The principal was there, as was two of the three asst. principals and one of the special education team.  We went through the questions, all of which I feel I answered reasonably well.  After a particular question about behavior programs, the principal commented on my behavior experience.  I asked my questions – mostly about number of students served and case load size.  I left, feeling good about how the interview went.

I got home and ate my dinner. Afterward, I noticed I had missed a call on my phone.  It was the principal, requesting me to call her back to discuss something.  I did, and during our conversation, she unofficially offered me the job.  “Unofficially” because any offer has to go through Human Resources and the District Office.  She told me I’d hear officially in the next two days.

I heard the following afternoon and accepted the position immediately. I was scheduled to come into HR on Monday morning to sign my contract and turn in my other paperwork. From there, I went to my new school! The substitute that had been there since the first day of school was scheduled through the end of the week, so the transition would go smoothly.  I spent the day meeting new people, desperately trying to remember everyone’s names and not get lost in the confusing building.

So, my position is a new one, as is the program that I am working in.  Previously, my school had a large number of inclusion students, meaning that there was usually a co-teaching situation – one content teacher and one special educator to help with compliance and modifications.  However, they decided to expand their program to include those who need a more intense situation.  Thus, the self-contained program was born. The students started out all day in my room, but over the last three weeks, have slowly been integrated into general classrooms as appropriate.  I teach one period each of Language Arts, Social Studies, Math, Science, Study Skills, Literacy Support, and Study Hall. The number of students I have in any one period varies from one to eight.  I’m getting a new student next week who will have more intense needs than most of the rest of my students, so my position continues to grow and change.

I admit, I’m nervous about my job. It’s not that I don’t think I can do it – it’s just that there’s a lot going on, I’m three weeks behind, and I’m trying to catch up as quickly as possible. I already have an IEP meeting week after next and I don’t even have access to the IEP system.  So far, I like my job very much, but ask me in about two months for a more accurate assessment.

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Teaching: Not My First Calling

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I sort of always knew I’d be a teacher, although it’s not where I originally started out. I was planning on working professionally in technical theatre, mainly stage management and lighting.  I was a theatre major in college, I worked at the campus concert/sports arena, did any freelance theatre/concert work I could get, and had even started looking into touring companies for my post-college employment. However, by the time I got to the end of my undergraduate degree, I was rather burnt out on theatre.  Too many semesters doing academic theatre in which everyone was doing what their professor expected of them to get the best grade possible plus years of working as a grunt in any place that would hire me wore me down.  I left school with a degree that I didn’t think I’d be using anytime soon.

Due to a friend’s recommendation (and later reference), I ended up serving in AmeriCorps for two years.  I worked with low-incidence special education students and loved it. During that time, I also tutored some of the general education kids in English.  Around the beginning of my second year, I started looking for a grad program for teacher certification because by then, I knew that teaching was where I needed to be. I found a program that combined my Theatre major and English minor into a dual-certification program at New York University. Two years and two student teaching placements (one elementary, one secondary) later, I was certified to teach in New York State.

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I was hired by the New York City Dept. of Education at a huge job fair in February, three months before I graduated.  Now, the way the NYCDOE does their recruiting is that the main administration hires teachers and then puts on a series of job fairs for those new employees to meet potential principals.  I had a job, but I didn’t have a school. After a snafu at the main office, I was placed in the wrong area of the city at an elementary school.  After multiple calls to my recruiter, she got me into a high school, but still in the East Bronx instead of Manhattan/West Bronx, which would have been much closer to where I lived in New Jersey.

Anyway, I showed up to the comprehensive high school on the first day of school. No one had any idea I was coming.  I ended up sitting around for two days, shuffled back and forth between the English and Special Education departments.  Finally, halfway through the first day of school, I was sent to teach self-contained English to students with learning disabilities. Not having an official training about teaching special education, I was making it up as I went along. I had no curriculum, no textbooks, few novels, and fewer resources. If it wasn’t for a veteran teacher who took pity on me, I would have been lost during that first month.

After two years, I decided to return to the Seattle area where I had grown up. Armed with glowing recommendation letters, I applied to several districts, including the one that I had been in. However, due to a unforeseen and completely out of my control incident, I was unable to get my teaching certification in Washington before the beginning of the school year. Turns out that only one person at NYU can sign off the paperwork stating that you have completed an education program, and that one guy was out of the office for six weeks because of an emergency knee surgery. I got the papers signed before I left the state, but it took another eight weeks to go through Washington state.

Fortunately for me, an English teacher at the high school less than a mile from my house retired at the end of the September. Turns out he’d been on medical leave the year before, returned in August, and shortly realized he couldn’t do it.  I applied, interviewed and started on October 15th. Unfortunately, it was a non-continuing contract, meaning the school district was under no obligation to keep me the following year.  I started the next school year without a position, but then took a long-term sub position that turned into another non-continuing contract. A letter from the superintendent in February informed everyone that while there would not be any layoffs that year, no non-continuing contracts would be renewed. I decided to take the opportunity to go back to school and get that Special Education endorsement that I had been thinking about.

So, here I am, at the start of another school year. I have my certification in English, Drama, and Special Education, four years of teaching experience, and no job. A large part of that is due to the state that the economy is – one of the first things cut was education.  While people aren’t being laid off any longer, no one is really hiring much either. I have had three interviews and no offers so far with another two or three coming up. School starts either Sept. 1 or 8, depending on the district, so the jobs are starting to taper off.  If nothing else, I can sub or get a job in a tutoring center somewhere.

I had hoped at this point in my life, I would be at a school somewhere, well integrated into the school culture, and involved in after school activities.  Hopefully, I will have excellent news in the next couple of weeks – that I have found the school I want to be at long-term and I love my new job.

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May I Introduce Myself…

I’m Samantha. Of the lot of us, I’m the oldest by about seven months.  I’m also the only one not on the East Coast, though I used to be. I currently live just outside of Seattle, where I was born and raised but have lived very little of my adult life.  From the time I was 16 until I was almost 29, I lived in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York City.  I moved home a few years ago.

I went to Penn State for undergrad, which is where I met many of my best friends.  I served two years of AmeriCorps before deciding to go to grad school at NYU. Career-wise, I am a high school English, Drama, and Special Education teacher. I taught in the Bronx for two years and then in a suburban Seattle school district for two more.  During the second year there, I was told that I would not have a position for the coming fall. Fortunately, this allowed me to go back to school to get my Special Education endorsement. I have recently graduated with my Masters in Education from the University of Washington and now face the challenge to find a job. The employment situation isn’t as bad as it was two years ago when districts were laying people of, but they still aren’t hiring much.  Fingers crossed!

My little guy, Toby

I am the mommy of a two-year-old dog named Toby. He’s a Bichon Frise/Shih Tzu mix, though he looks much more Shih Tzu. Toby makes me laugh, as I have never met a more good-natured, happy little dog. He likes people, likes to go on adventures, and likes playing with his brother (who is owned by my mom!).

Nasturtiums on the balcony

Finally, in what spare time I have, I enjoy reading, writing, gardening, sewing, and I’m getting into cooking.  I have a small garden on my balcony – not that it did much with the weather we had this year.  I am in the process of sewing a comforter set for my bed and I’m almost done.  As for cooking, I am starting to experiment with new recipes. More on that later!  I’m hoping to get more into bike riding. We have a lot of great trails around here and I recently purchased a great new bike.  Now, just as long as the weather stays nice a little longer!

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