A Hundred or So Ways to Get an Ulcer...Year Two
Friday, January 30, 2004
  I felt the need to publish this web-log not entirely for the purpose of web-narcissism. That reason may be 5-10% of it, but truly a negligible amount. I decided to air my trials and tribulations in hopes that others in my position can compare and contrast the things that may or may not give us ulcers.

I was hired in early July of 2003. I had an entire summer to stew in my fear and apprehension. What will it be like? What kinds of situtations will I endure? Will I feel the need to quit after a week? Will the small victories make it worth while? Will there be any victories, of any size?

I spent much of my summer researching the topic of teaching in the inner-city. I read many a book, including the impractical "The Essential 55" and "Educating Esme". Teacher education programs like to prescribe books as cure-alls for pedagogical woes. If you have a question about actual real problems, read a book on said problems. I was getting nowhere.

There was one comprehensive website that I referred to called "Inner-City School Teacher Blues". It includes narratives from teacher in the LA Unified School District. In hindsight, that is the perfect place to find out what it's really like teaching in the ghetto. However, the site does not emphasize the small victories that (sometimes) make it all worth while.

I hope that my stories will provide insight for those who plan on teaching in extreme environments. I also want to help those who are currently teaching under similar circumstances who feel that they are alone. I also want to shed light onto a place in America many don't understand. Many don't feel that they need to understand. 
Thursday, January 29, 2004
  I felt the need to publish this web-log not entirely for the purpose of web-narcissism. That reason may be 5-10% of it, but truly a negligible amount. I decided to air my trials and tribulations in hopes that others in my position can compare and contrast the things that may or may not give us ulcers.

I was hired in early July of 2003. I had an entire summer to stew in my fear and apprehension. What will it be like? What kinds of situtations will I endure? Will I feel the need to quit after a week? Will the small victories make it worth while? Will there be any victories, of any size?

I spent much of my summer researching the topic of teaching in the inner-city. I read many a book, including the impractical "The Essential 55" and "Educating Esme". Teacher education programs like to prescribe books as cure-alls for pedagogical woes. If you have a question about actual real problems, read a book on said problems. I was getting nowhere.

There was one comprehensive website that I referred to called "Inner-City School Teacher Blues". It includes narratives from teacher in the LA Unified School District. In hindsight, that is the perfect place to find out what it's really like teaching in the ghetto. However, the site does not emphasize the small victories that (sometimes) make it all worth while.

I hope that my stories will provide insight for those who plan on teaching in extreme environments. I also want to help those who are currently teaching under similar circumstances who feel that they are alone. I also want to shed light onto a place in America many don't understand. Many don't feel that they need to understand. 
Monday, January 26, 2004
  My work week ended on Saturday this past week. I volunteered to work as a judge for the Chicago Public Schools Academic Decathalon. This is an annual city-wide brains-not-brawn competition. Nine of the best and brightest from each public high school represented their peers (to an extent). This was an amazing opportunity to connect to some of our best kids.

Many of you may know of this competition as it was depicted in the film "Cheaters". The film illumintated a cheating scandal by one of the competing academies. I had a brief conversation with one teacher from said school who told me that they have to do everything in their power to limit the chance of appearing to be up to their old tricks.

All teachers involved attended the event with a display of unrelenting enthusiasm. This was the Superbowl for the brainiac. Few in attendance, however, were school principals. As one teacher noted "Had this been a basketball game, Mrs.(Name of principal) would have been here, in the front row, cheering on our team", she went on to say, "It's really sad that supposed academics don't care at all about academics."

My school's team was five students short. There are so many factors involved that I cannot necessarily blame the students. Uncertain home-lives contained in ever-changing neighborhoods makes appointment-keeping a near impossibility. Who knows where the child slept last night? Who knows what the parents did to the child last night? Who knows if the child ate last night?

I made sure to cheer on our four kids to the best of my abililty. They had to jump over many high hurdles to get where they are today.

The competition was set up quite nicely. It was not funded by CPS, all funding was donated from a corporation. There was plenty of food available and plenty of materials. The only thing we were short were volunteers.

If you are in the Chicago area next year around this time, I urge you to volunteer for this event. Just don't leave your lights on when you park your car. It's often hard to find someone to drive out to 87th and Stony Island to give you a jump.  
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
  After a much needed three day weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to a day of students acting like real human beings. I had my previously-dubbed "evil kids" for my first teaching block today. They were actually really sweet. One girl told me how she asked her mother to let me adopt her. I told her that I "could not afford a child right now, and by the time I could, she would be eighteen and I could not adopt her.

"Looks like we're out of luck", I said to her.

I could tell, however, that the girl did not quite understand the idea of a man working full time not being able to afford a child. This is an environment where many young men and women have children whilst in high school, some even earlier.

Another girl told me that I remind her of her favorite teacher at her old school.

Next week is mandatory semester final exams. I am devoting this week to review and working on reading comprehension skills. The kids were extrememely cooperative during the lesson. It's funny how little I have to say when things go well.

My honors kids were not terrible. They actually did some work and did not challenge my authority. Not even once! They were still a little loud, but tolerable.

I think I may actually be getting somewhere with these children and this gives me a sense of accomplishment. I almost feel like I am actually teaching. And that is all I ask 
Tuesday, January 13, 2004
  This was a post from my original web-log dated November 23, 2003. New post soon, I promise.

Notes from the Underbelly

Another week. This week yielded one arrest and one assault at my school.

Wednesday, a teacher at my school was arrested for sexing up one of his students. This accusation has yet to be proven, much like how his 14 month suspension five years ago for allegedly bringing a gun to school was also "never proven".

His arrest uncovered other nefarious activities. Appearantly he had joined a local street gang and enjoys drinking and smoking weed with some of his students in an area of the neighborhood known as "__________ Town". He recently had the shit beaten out of him for gambling debts to other gang members.

Some students reported that he in fact kept "hoes on the side". He is married to a former student of his from another city school who he supposedly impregnated while she was still on his attendence sheet.

I decided to take what is called in the inner-city teaching biz as a "mental health holiday" on Thursday.

Thursday brought its own insanity. A 30+ year veteran of the school, a French teacher was assaulted by her enire class that day. She was pelted with bottles, and later kicks by her students. I have yet to get a straight answer as to what sparked this melee. Her entire class was suspended.

A class field trip on Friday was cancelled due to students using counterfeit permission slips to get on the bus. Appearantly, students who were not invited to partake took it upson themselves to take a trip to Kinko's with students who had been invited. Once the sponsor of the trip was let privy to the fact he would be responsible for 150+ students in the Museum of Science and Industry, he quickly put the kibosh on the trip.

So I had to teach classes full of children who had come to school thinking they were going to a museum and not having to listen to my "ugly ass" give lessons on the use of pronouns and the poetry of Walt Whitman.

Three more days until Thanksgiving. Three exceedingly long days.
11/23/2003 04:53:40 PM
 
Friday, January 09, 2004
  In the foreward to the 1998 Edition Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960, Arnold R. Hirsch opens with a quote from an interview conducted by journalist Alex Kotlowitz. Kotlowitz interviews a ten-year-old boy who lived in the South Side's Henry Horner Homes. He asked the boy what he sees for his future. The boy replied:

"If I grow up, I would like to be a bus driver. "**1**

I have personally seen the conditional "if" used quite often in student writing when students are prompted to ponder about their futures. The majority of my students use a language laden with temporal conditionals that show an uncertainty for what lies ahead, even as far in the future as next week.

As ominous the phrase "If I grow up may be. Even slighter idiosyncrasies of the ghetto vernacular show a vision of the future that is obstructed by a haze of dope-bags and bullets.

"Where do you stay at."

To suburbanites and well-to-do urban professionals, this question may only seem applicable while on vacatation. You know that you live in once place, but for a period of time you will stay at another. They would never say "I stay at a condo in River North." They may however say, "I stayed at the Sands hotel when in Vegas".

"Living" is indefinite, while "staying" is temporary.

When my students ask "Where do you stay at?", what they are saying is, "Where do you sleep, eat and go to the bathroom?" This place may not be the same place tomorrow. It may not even be the same place you return to after school. Many of these students do so much shlepping, school becomes the most stable place in their lives. They have heat, they have food, they may not know exactly who they will be sitting next to in class, but they have a vague idea. That may be the advantage of overcrowding. More students on the roster increases the chances that you will have some of the kids there on a regular basis.

I feel that becoming a fixture in these kids' lives has led to some semblance of respect on their part. During my first two months, Students would constantly tell me that I should quit and that they don't expect to see me for very long because, as one girl put it, "they were driving my crazy". I refused to quit mid-year. I think many students were surprised to see me come back after break. Many teachers use that time to reflect on their job and refuse to return to the classroom. I must admit that I felt that, but that just ain't happenin'.

I have had many students tell me how shocked they are to see me back everyday. Many of these students know the building substitutes better than any other teachers because of the constant vacancies being filled temporarily in-house. One class in particular has had a half-dozen subs this year, and the first semester still has yet to commence.

A friend of mine recently asked me why my job was so difficult. He meant "Why are your children so difficult?"

My initial response was "poverty".

He said there has to be more than that.

So I replied "abject poverty".

He said there has to be even more than that.

I explained how poverty brings so much to the table, it in itself is the best answer I could give. Poverty brings instability. An unstable life is a life in despair. We all need a center of gravity. Without it, we will just be floating around until we burn up.

**1** I supplied the italics 
Wednesday, January 07, 2004
  "You only lose the war when you allow yourself to feel defeated, relishing small victories can make even a catastrophic loss worth while".

--Author Unknown

I earned a gold star for the day. This morning one of my "evil devil children" classes went quite well. I gave my "Jabberwocky" lesson to this class (due to block scheduling I meet classes every other day, except my "honors" class which meets everyday for half a period). I adjusted it by printing out the activtity on worksheets. The kids seemed to actually get into it and almost enjoy it. Almost the entire class turned in work, except for a student I will call "RL".

RL is a well-known discipline problem in the entire school. The mere mention of his name will cause a eye-roll and gasp from any member of the faculty or staff. He has emotional problems, behavioral problems, and severe learning disabilities. This kid tried staring me down the very first day of school. He has made roundabout threats to me as well (a roundabout threat is like, "I should beat your ass", wheras a real threat would be "I am going to kick your ass"). He has no concept of authority and talks to me as if I were one of his peers, divulging details about "getting pussy" and "getting high as a motherfucker". He also likes to shout out obscenities and sing out loug in class.

When reprimanded, he immediately becomes combative. He has uttered such phrases as "Don't you know who I am?", "You know you ain't talking to me like that", and my favorite "Fuck you, you ugly motherfucker!"**1**

I have learned that the best thing to do with him is to talk to him calmly and let him know what he is doing wrong. Although this is not a solution to the chaos he brings, it diffuses the situation much more effectively than shouting at him or sending him downstairs. When he gets confrontational, I lose control of the entire class. The chill method allows him, as well as the entire class, to see exactly how irrational his behavior is.

RL can barely read and write and refuses any help offered. This has been a great challenge because he is already sixteen and I have good reason to believe he has never had to read or write much in his life. Some patterns in his behavior combined with some tells in the way he talks, I realize that he comes from some kind of abusive home. Any time off from school he recounts as being "hell". He, like many children in the ghetto probably does not have one volume of printed material in his home. Some of these children have never owned a book. He also is a member of a gang. I have seen the rolls he packs in his pockets. 20s, 50s, 100s, it is safe to say he has hundreds of dollars more than me on him on any given day (of course his hundreds are compared to the wad of receipts in my wallet).

He sees that he has never once needed to read, and due to the special education system, he cannot fail classes. So he can live his life without using his brain, make hundreds selling dope, and eventually get a diploma.

I wish I could say that today I was able to convince him to at least try to do his work, but that would be a lie, and lord knows no one has every lied on the internet. I don't want to be the first.

He was however, the exception to the rule. Every other student was on task, and to some extent, polite. I was even able to joke around with some of the kids. We talked about my birthday over the weekend. The conversation went well until one girl asked me if my girlfriend got freaky with me as a present**2**. I decided to move on and talk to other students.

I really felt some rapport with the "evil children" today and that made me feel as if I won some kind of small battle.

And then came in my "honors" kids who succeeded in taking away that sense of accomplishment. They are damn good at that.

**1** I asked around, and I have been told that I am indeed not ugly.
**2** I do not have a girlfriend. It is funny that the same kids who call me ugly on a daily basis refuse to believe that I am not seeing anyone. 
Tuesday, January 06, 2004
  It's a lot like going to the dentist. Everyday. It's not the routine cleaning, either. Imagine waking up every morning knowing that you were about to go to the dentist. You hit the snooze until the very last minute. You take your sweet time getting out the door. You take the scenic route to his office. You don't mind parking at the far end of the lot. The deferrment of pain does nothing. You still have to be there on time and you have to endure the imminent, immense pain. You choke back in a large gulp and you take it because you know you have no real choice in the matter.

This is most days for me. Yesterday wasn't so bad. I almost forgot about what I have to deal with on a daily basis. I was up early (mostly out of fear of oversleeping), I ate a decent breakfast, I got an early start out the door.

Yesterday reminded me everything I had forgotten in the past two (glorious) weeks. That made it difficult for me to go to bed last night. It wasn't hard falling asleep, just hard getting myself to lay down. I did not want to sleep because I fully knew that the next thing I would see would be my alarm clock, and I would have to take my daily six-hour session of pulling teeth.

Eventually I did go to sleep, and I woke up to my daily nightmare.

I don't know how some of these teachers do it. Most of the teachers from similar backgrounds also dread waking up every morning. However, there are a number of teachers in the school who have been working there for thirty or more years. This makes me feel completely inept. What the hell am I doing wrong?

There was an article written by Heinrich Mintrop for the University of California**1** where he notes in a case study that a number of new teachers in low-performing schools quit mid-year under all of the stress. I have a one up on them, but am I really doing anyone a service by staying? If these kids can't get any real learning from me, am I really anything more than a jackass keeping them off the street for 7 hours a day? Don't answer that.

 
Monday, January 05, 2004
  Back to life, back to reality. Bid adieu to sweet elation, the unemployment fantasy camp known as Winter (nee Christmas) Break.

I spent two whole weeks living the life of a trust-fund baby. No work, no school, no worries. I have never been so jealous of the Hilton sisters. I can see why the 'publicans want to repeal the estate tax. Not doing shit is choice. I had the opportunity to read, write, catch up with old friends, spend time with the family, work out, and every once in a while reflect on the last four ulcerating months. Basically, I had a chance to recharge my humanity. I got to take a cig break from my role as a stress-absorbant, emotional (and sometimes physical) punching bag.

But alas, all good things must come to an end, and all shitty things must return to their full splendor come January 5th.

Waking up was early for me today. I woke up about an hour early. I had last minute lesson plans to complete. As I implied, work was the last possible thing on my mind over the duration of the last two weeks. I think I had no problem waking up mostly because I was in such immense fear that I would not wake up on time and I would lose my job. Pity.

My first class of the day was at 10:00 AM. The school where I work requires all teachers to clock in at 7:45 regardless of start time. I spent about an hour of that dead time finishing up my plans and the other hour fifteen wishing I was anywhere else in the goddamn world.

The school bell fills my stomach up with bile to a degree that would make Pavolv cum in his knickers. It's an instantaneous response. It feels much like when the roller coaster harness clicks into position. You are in for a ride and there ain't nowhere for you to go. Trying to get out will be only slightly more painful than the whiplash you are about to endure.

I started class with a "Do Now" on the board. Chicago Public Schools has a lesson format that requires teachers to have an assignment on the board ready for the students as they arrive. It is archaically dubbed a "Do Now". Sometimes I have the students write a journal entry, sometimes they are to correct a sentence for grammar or spelling (both grammar AND spelling would be too confusing for them-one set of directions per assignment works best).

The "Do Now" portion of the class went quite well. I had the students reflect on Christmas break. Some of the responses were heartbreaking (e.g. "I stayed in bed all day because I knew I wasn't going to get any presents anyway", "My daddy didn't come to the house again this year"), while many more were scandalous (e.g. "I drank all night", "I got high as hell", "I had a lot of sex"). It is quite scary that these kids were brought up thinking that there is no problem with telling authority figures that they drink, smoke weed, and have sex at sixteen. When I was that age, I did not even admit to sneaking out and smoking stale cigarrettes to anyone over the age of 18.

After that round of classroom confessionals, I gave the classroom a review worksheet on punctuation. I figured these kids haven't thought once about school for two weeks (more accurately 16 years, but I have always been about giving people the benefit of the doubt), so I gave a short worksheet to recharge the corroded batteries.

Then I had some all-too-lofty ideas. As to not digress into an abyss of pedantia, I will spare the details of my lesson plan. I will note that it was on the Lewis Carrol poem "Jaberwocky", I whimsical tale that is liberally seasoned with a host of made-up words. The point of using this poem was to get the students thinking about the parts of speech as well as allowing them to figure out unknown words by looking at how they are used. This lesson was to culminate with students writing their own poems, substituting Carrol's nomenclature with their own. Great idea, I am sure it would work in many schools. But as the saying goes, "Will it play in Peoria?", or in this case, the south side of Chicago.

It worked to some extent. I had to devote way too much time to explaning that the words are fake and have no actual translation to English. I gave too many directions and the lesson ultimately failed. Sharper students tried working ahead, which would be nice if they actually new what the next step would be. Many of them assumed and ended up doing everything wrong. The average students needed some coaching. The slower students (slow IS actually in out school's lexicon) were probably the most on track because they did not attempt to work ahead and took all of my directions literally. The problem kids of course, made a big mess out of everything. Total utter disrespect for the teacher and other students leads to chaos. (Shame on their parents! And shame on the institutions that allow the self-destructiveness of their culture to thrive---but more on that another time). If only I had a person in the room certified to help with ED/LD kids. Oh yeah, that's right, the lady hiding in the corner fits that bill. I almost forgot. I was beginning to think she was hired as a lightning-rod for abuse.

After all that noise, in stampedes my "honors" kids. For the most part, the same lesson. Didn't go too badly. These kids for the most part will do work, they are just rude and noisy.

Their dischord and rudeness pales in comparison to my end-of-day-juniors. I think Dante wrote about the noise eminating from my classroom this period. It begins to fill the air somewhere after the seventh level of hell.

I was cussed-out several times for the failing grades I gave on progess (laughable use of the word) reports. All I got through this period was the "Do Now" and a worksheet on pronoun/antecedent agreement. I did not get into the literature lesson even one-percent. I had too much din and clamor as competition.

The first day back has commenced and I am still in one piece physically, mentally, and to some extent, emotionally. For a week, I had nightmares about today and things turned out OK. I suppose I am cut from a stock much thicker than I had ever imagined. Either that or I have just gone insane and there is no point of reference to normal anymore.  
A glimpse into the mind of a Chicago inner-city high school teacher. Email: ChicagoTeacher@hotmail.com

ARCHIVES
11/01/2003 - 12/01/2003 / 12/01/2003 - 01/01/2004 / 01/01/2004 - 02/01/2004 / 02/01/2004 - 03/01/2004 / 03/01/2004 - 04/01/2004 / 04/01/2004 - 05/01/2004 / 05/01/2004 - 06/01/2004 / 06/01/2004 - 07/01/2004 / 08/01/2004 - 09/01/2004 / 09/01/2004 - 10/01/2004 /


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