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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 18 2013

The Great Paper Debate

Well, I certainty started this blog with intentions of regular update that were fostered by my own habit of scouring the web for more information about the possibilities of this experience before I, well, experienced it. Oops. Failed that endeavor.

I’m now officially a second year TFA corps member and I have found that something (or a lot of things) had to give…and regular updates were one of them. I’m choosing to believe this wasn’t my only avenue of reflection and so, though it wasn’t public, I have been taking the year in chunks and reflecting and revising my actions independent of this blog. Now that it’s summer, I find I’m breathing deeper breaths and perhaps now is my chance to come back to my roots and write about the things i’ve been living.

I cannot summarize my first year of teaching. It cannot be done. I should have stopped and jotted notes, I should have recorded the phone conversations to my coworkers and I should have saved the texts sent to other corps members. Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve…but I didn’t. And that’s where I need to pick up. With a slew of things I have identified as needing to be done differently–i’m going to cut myself a break on this one. I lived my first year fully and learned, struggled, failed, grew, succeeded, started over, cried, broke things, broke them, broke myself, and ultimately improved. (I hope.) So I won’t delve into a list of lessons I learned because to be frank I can’t even articulate my findings in any comprehensible way at this point. What I can identify is a a series of loose ends. And so sparks the idea of my next few postings…the daily debates of classroom antics.


Episode one:

Do we give them supplies when they don’t bring them or do we let them suffer the consequences of their actions. 

I want to break this down into a few key points that are fundamental to developing an opinion on either side of this. First, let me say what sparked this–a veteran teacher is currently teaching two doors down from me in summer school. She teaches math and I am taking a break from science to teach reading to rising 5th graders. She has a reputation for being strict and having obedience in her classroom. (I chose that word carefully.) I find she generally berates students into submission by volume, harsh words, embarrassment or some similar method we’ve probably all seen before. However, honest reflection means I must point out that though she is aggressive in nature, she might be the perfect fit for our school culture. Many students identify her as a favorite teacher. Her scores are continually improving. I enjoy her company. She just came into my room with a student we share who didn’t have paper. He claimed to have left paper in my room which isn’t entirely untrue–I supply paper and he came in earlier for a sheet but then left it behind when he was distracted by his peers.
“Is that yours?” she asked him. He nodded toward the carpet. “You might need another…” she suggests as he looks to me. Without getting up from my desk, I extended another piece of notebook paper in his direction. “Did you forget the SCHOOL part of summer SCHOOL, sweetheart?” I prompt with a silly face aimed at the student. Everyone shares a quiet laugh. “I’m not supplying paper in the sixth grade anymore. We’re handicapping them. When they get to you in 8th grade, they’re entirely relient on teachers for their supplies.” she’s talking through the student who stands between us. “I agree.” I say as they leave my room.

And fundamentally–I do agree. Most problems I struggle with seem to be learned behavior. Learned helplessness. Now I question the motive behind the behavior. Students frequently don’t have paper or pencil. Could their family not afford it? Do they have a guardian available who they can ask to replenish their supplies when they run out? Have they given these items too freely to their peers therefore running out too quickly to call home and ask for more? Do they simply lack ownership for their materials and lose the items as soon as they acquire them? Do they just expect that a teacher will give them what they need? Is coming to school unprepared the first attempt at getting out of doing work?

Next I have to consider the consequences of how to handle this. Either I give that student the needed supplies or he/she sits in class without the means to complete the task at hand. I watch them ask people immediately near them for supplies. Sometimes they share. Usually there isn’t anyone with a surplus of materials. Do I then have this student suffer the consequences of being unprepared by continuing to teach knowing this student is now incapable of taking notes, completing a worksheet, or turning in the exit ticket. Does that give the student permission to disengage from the lesson? Do they care enough about learning to understand that non-participation has consequences for their grade and for their overall knowledge gained or opportunities lost? Or I supply the pencil, paper, glue, etc and ask for collateral. But then I’m eating up class time and halting other students while I exchange paper for a shoe or an ID or whatever I’ve decided is sufficient. What if they refuse to make the trade? Is this opening up an avenue for students to just choose not to comply with my procedures? So, what then? Send them to the office so I’ve made absolutely sure that student will not learn from me today? Or let them show defiance and have them sit there unprepared? What does that demonstrate to the rest of the class? Did they achieve their goal of disengaging despite my decision to give them the choice? Alright, the final alternative–I wordlessly supply the paper. I’ve now told them accountability isn’t crucial in my room but perhaps I’ve also shown them that there isn’t an excuse for not completing the work. I’ve also now signed up to supply any student with any supplies needed for the duration of the year, have I not? And at what expense to me? At what expense to them? What am I teaching them in this decision?

“What you allow you encourage” echos in my head. I’ve never been told more truthful words as it comes to teaching. There it is: my first loose end. Care to weigh in?

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One Response

  1. eminnm

    I have this issue all the time! My office berated me for asking for more pencils too frequently, because my kids kept breaking/losing/oversharpening/eating them. On the one hand, you should be old enough in 4th grade to keep track of a pencil. On the other hand, what am I going to say? “You don’t have a pencil. No learning for you!” And then added to it was the few kids who were taking their pencil home every day because they didn’t have any at home…and they inevitably lost it at home.

    I eventually decided that you pick your battles and I wasn’t going to pick this one. If taking your pencil home means you do your homework and learn something from it, I guess I’m OK with it.

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