Interview Bloopers

a.k.a. ”What Not to Say During a Teaching Interview” (or any interview for that matter)

Enter cast: Principal, Vice Principal, Interviewee (me!)

Vice Principal: So I talked with your mom last week while trying to get a hold of you…

Me: Oh yes, she’s really good at explaining why my phone number has changed again.

Principal raises eyebrows.

Me: (Realizing that sounds like I’m irresponsible) I mean, why my international number changed to a Chicago cellular number…

Principal: (a very Hispanic, well-educated businessman) So what did you teach while in Costa RRRRica (He rolls his RRRs to emphasize his hispanic-ness?)

Me: While in Costa RRRica (I attempt to roll my RRR too but it doesn’t work as well… I think then I just look dumb), I taught English as a Second Language in 4th grade and 5th grade.

Vice Principal: What reading curriculum do you currently work with?

Me: Well, my district gave me the Making Meaning curriculum, but I have found that it is too advanced for my students, so I have supplemented it with the structure of the Daily 5, strategies from CAFE Literacy, and by giving students lots of time to read independently.

Vice Principal: You mean, you’re not following your district’s curriculum? (Her brow is furrowed… uh-oh, not good…)

Me: Um… well, no. I understand that as a teacher I have the flexibility to decide what is best for meeting my students’ needs. I okay-ed the other materials with my current principal.

Principal: So you’re allowed to choose what you teach? How are you sure you’ve taught everything as well as you should? (His arms are crossed, this isn’t going well…)

Me: I have a checklist of objectives that I am sure to cover. I also check with the Illinois Standards and Common Core Standards to be sure I have covered everything.

Vice Principal: Well here at our school we have very structured days, plans, and lessons. We have Guided Reading followed by Read Aloud followed by … (She keeps talking but I kind of zone out from all the structure… yikes! Maybe not my style….) Do you think you could adapt to teaching within such a structure?

Me: Of course! (I don’t think my voice sounds confident enough!)

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All that to say… that particular interview did not go well. When I walked out, I felt like I was defending what I do instead of describing what I can do with a group of students.

Thankfully, I had another interview a week later for a position I really wanted. Because the previous interview had not gone as planned, I was over-prepared for this one. I had quick, confident answers ready for each question from the panel of 4 (Principal, bilingual teacher, gifted teacher, the Director of Gifted Education… you know, the usual lol). By the time I left, all were smiling at each other like, ”We found our next teacher!”

So an interview-bloopers-post is turning into a job-announcement-post —

For the 2012-2013 school year, I will still be in the same district as a 4th Grade SET SWAS teacher (Spanish-English-Transition School-Within-A-School Teacher)… a.k.a. working in the gifted bilingual department!!! : )

 

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Nuns and The Hunger Games

All in a day´s work, I visited a Catholic school and saw The Hunger Games.

For my masters homework, I was assigned to visit a single-gender Catholic school in the area. The director (we´ll call her Sister Norma) was generally very warm in her welcome, although she was at first suspicious about my intentions for visiting. “Usually graduate programs will send a letter asking for their students to come and observe… Are you sure you’re not here to shoot our students?” she asked as she eyed me suspiciously. Taken aback by the directness and insinuations in her tone of voice, I replied, “Absolutely not, ma’am,” which must have convinced her because I was then permitted to observe in several classrooms.

On my way out the door, Sister Norma asked me how it all went. I thanked her for arranging the visit and handed her a Starbucks giftcard. She tried to give it back, and I told her that if she did not like Starbucks, then she could give the card to someone else. She got almost a dreamy look in her eye and replied, ”Oh, actually, I love their white chocolate mocha!” I think that meant she’ll be spending the giftcard on herself.

My intentions in visiting the school had nothing to do with shooting; however, my intentions for going to see The Hunger Games were to continue my fascination with Katniss and her sharpshooting skills. After reading the book trilogy by Suzanne Collins, it took me about a week to get over the nightmares (my imagination is overly-sensitive when reading anything violent… In teacher language, I have fantastic visualization skills as I read, lol.), and then at my sister´s urging, I agreed to see the film. Two words: WORTH. IT. The movie was not nearly as gory as my imagined version of the book, so I have been nightmare free. What I appreciated most about the movie was that the screenplay stuck very close to the original book. Not many movies-based-on-the-book these days can claim that, so kudos to the screenwriters and the director for staying true to Suzanne Collins’ original plot.

I don’t think Sister Norma would approve of my current Hunger Games obsession, but then again, I didn’t ask : ).

Injustice

When I hear the word “injustice,” my mind immediately pictures the African nation of Guinea-Bissau where unwanted babies and children are buried alive in ant hills as sacrifices to the gods. While in Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Dr. Isabel Johanning-Mora, an amazing Costa Rican woman who decided she was going to move to Guinea-Bissau as a missionary over 15 years ago. Today, she runs the orphanage Casa Emanuel and calls Guinea-Bissau home. Teletica, the Costa Rican CNN of sorts, broadcast the story of Casa Emanuel over several days, and Costa Ricans responded by giving more than $22,000 to support the incredible work Dr. Johanning is doing.

”Injustice.” I also think of the Kony 2012 campaign that has gone viral within the last week. Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army has abducted thousands of children to join the fight for no apparent cause other than to cause terror in Uganda and surrounding countries. Invisible Children founder Jason Russell has his hands full as he juggles his sudden global fame with his argument that the U.S. must support African nations in arresting Joseph Kony this year.

Even while thinking of Africa’s many injustices, I can’t help but think of injustice that is closer to home for my 6th graders. On Friday, I sat down with them to explain their ISAT (standardized test) prep assignment, and Yessenia tells me, “Miss Siscoe, we didn’t prepare for the ISATs last school year.”

“Oh really?” I ask, not sure where this is going.

“Yeah,” cuts in Tomas. “And our teacher would just text on her cell phone all day.”

“She didn’t listen to us when we had reading conferences. She would just text,” adds Josúe.

Seeing that this struck an emotional chord with these 6th graders, I continued to listen.

“And you know how you talk with us so much about why it’s not okay to be a bully? Well last year the teacher didn’t do anything about the bullies. It was hard to come to school,” Gabriel looks at his classmates for support.

“Yeah,” Yessenia is raising her voice now. “Teacher, you wouldn’t have liked our class last year. That teacher said she didn’t like us.”

By this point, my heart is breaking and I think I’ve heard enough, but they continue.

“Remember that one time,” Tomas asks everyone, “She had her nails done and then she didn’t want to touch our books? She said she didn’t want to mess up her nails.”

Several more memories surfaced before I gained their attention again.

“Alright, boys and girls, I just have to tell you that my number one rule for myself as your teacher is that my cell phone stays in my purse.”

“We know,” interrupts Yessenia.

I raise my “be quiet” sign. “Also, I want you to know that when I am not listening to you during your reading conferences, it is because I am writing down notes about what I should be sure to teach you. I’m sorry that your teacher last year wasn’t the kind of teacher that you deserve.”

Thoughtful silence.

“Okay, are we ready for our assignment now?”

Injustice in today’s schools does not only exist in U.S. public schools. I observed numerous examples of injustice in private Christian schools in Costa Rica as well. I remember during my first year of teaching, I asked my group of fourth graders what types of healthy snacks were acceptable to bring to school. A fourth-grade-style riot broke out as (I figured out later) students were terrified that I was going to have the same strict snack policies that their 3rd grade teacher had enforced (Her healthy snack list included things like hard-boiled eggs and tofu… Pure injustice in a fourth grader’s mind!). In my second year of teaching, I was faced with the fact that I was paid twice as much for my teaching job than the tica teachers I worked with… simply because I came from the United States. As I ate lunch with my compañeras, I wondered how they treated me so kindly when they knew I was favored above them. After two years of teaching at that school, I turned in my resignation letter explaining my reasons for moving on — being favored above other employees was one of my reasons as I chose not to associate myself with such obvious unfairness.

Here’s the thing about injustice: All that matters is what we do about it. Not what we say. Not what we know. Our actions speak louder than our words. Dr. Johanning decided to build an orphanage, school, and a clinic where hundreds of children’s lives have been changed; Jason Russell is globally campaigning that Joseph Kony be captured and tried in court; and I am being daily faithful to the learning of my 5th and 6th graders. No matter where you are, you can choose to make a difference.

Another Quote for Thought

Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything one learned in school.

–Albert Einstein

I read this quote in one of my grad class readings, and it has since stuck with me and resonated with my current mindset toward teaching. Let´s be honest here… do we remember all those math lessons? Do we remember how our teachers taught us to read? Do we remember spelling tests? No. Does that mean we are not educated? No.

When I think about my own elementary school memories, I remember the field trips, my teachers’ many smiles and words of encouragement (or that one teacher that never stopped yelling…), and the art shows where our work was framed by construction paper and hung on the bleachers. I remember my mom walking me to and from school (and requiring me to complete all homework right after school before playing outside — what torture that was back then!!). I remember the obstacle courses in P.E. and that day we played with the huge parachute (Remember those?? My favorite part was making it puff up so high it seemed to touch the gym ceiling and then everyone would run around under it trying to be the first to ”catch” it.).

Notice my memories are not about how I learned to read… or where I got my number sense… or how I learned science or social studies. I forgot the individual lessons, the monthly units.

But what remains is my education. I can read. I can write. I have enough of a grasp on math that I can budget, figure out my gas mileage, and balance a checkbook. It’s the teachers (and my parents : )) who saw where I was at as a kindergartner, a 2nd grader, a 4th grader, etc., and they refused to leave me there. Step by step, each teacher led me into a love of reading and a sense of numbers.

Einstein’s words has permeated my current approach toward working with my students. Sure, there are discouraging days, but I keep asking myself what I want them to remember about Miss Siscoe´s classroom. I want them to remember that I never gave up, that I always knew how to help them (and if I didn’t know, I tried until I found a way.), that I smiled a lot. I want them to remember some of my crazy earthquake stories and that I also listened to their stories. I want them to remember that we worked hard to read and write our best. I want them to remember responsibility, kindness, and thinking of others first.

That’s a lot to ask for when the State of Illinois and the United States of America want to see those test scores, test scores, and nothing but the test scores… About this time of year, test scores are stressing U.S. teachers out, as I am becoming acquainted with firsthand this school year.

So there’s a tug of war. Do I focus on the test scores? Do I focus on the students’ smiles? Do I focus on the data? Do I focus on the students’ need to understand what they are reading? Do I focus on teaching the ”how-to” for taking multiple-choice tests? Do I focus on the students’ need to learn to use the calculator as a tool to help them when they get stuck?

No matter what tug of war I am in, I resolve to teach what truly matters, because at the end of the school year, Einstein would say that it’s not about whether the kids remember what I taught for ”the test”… It’s about how they remember who I required them to be — their absolute best.

Mr. Giver-Upper

I have affectionately begun to call my student Mauricio my ”Mr. Giver Upper.” Our conversations go something like this:

Me ”Are you doing okay?”

Mauricio ”This is too hard.” (raises his eyebrows and stares at me above his glasses)

Me ”Why do you say that?”

M ”I don’t know, it just is…”

Me ”Do you have a specific question I can help you with?”

M ”I don’t know…” (buries his head in his now folded arms)

I had a lengthy one-on-one with Mauricio last week. I asked him who he was hurting when he decides to give up. I saw the realization dawn on his face when he thought about how he was only hurting himself when he stops trying.

It had become such an issue in the classroom that he was beginning to blurt out Spanish dichos (sayings) spontaneously during class as he was in that sink-or-swim moment. It seemed that right before he gave up, he would yell, ”Diay muchachos!! Que no me dejen!”  (Hey guys! Don’t leave me behind!) Hmm… a very creative way for a child to ask for help…

Now Mauricio has not made much progress since August when he started in my classroom. His MAP reading score is exactly the same… His F/P level is exactly the same… (Teacher acronyms for the various state tests we now administer three times a year)… Mauricio is in a sink-or-swim kind of school year. I think if I were in his shoes, I would give up too…

I even got the principal involved last week. The blurting Spanish had become such a distraction in class that I knew it was time to take some drastic measures. I think the continued conversations about not giving up are working because…

TODAY we had a math test on fractions. FRACTIONS, of all things. I mean, fractions in 5th grade have become very difficult. I´m sure you remember your own nightmares about adding fractions with unlike denominators. I just finished grading the math tests, and I just have to share the good news with you that I am going to share with Mauricio as soon as I see him in the morning: He earned a B!!!!!! Now this is seriously huge because the efforts he put forth in past chapters resulted in Ds and D minuses. I’m so proud :).

Taking life day by day and celebrating even the smallest victories… that’s the secret to not giving up.

Public School Stories #1

I thought about blogging about ”Wayside Stories from Public School”… remember those books by Louis Sachar? I was so intrigued with the irony in those books, and some of my stories to tell are also ironic.

My current 6th graders had really.bad.teachers over the last couple years, so these kids are kind of jaded against what it means to have a respectful relationship with an educator. From what they have described, it really sounds like they did not learn anything of value during those two years… Enter Miss Siscoe.

Yessenia tells me yesterday, ”Miss Siscoe, why do you let us choose our own books to read?”

Me ”Would you prefer I choose the books?”

Y (thoughtfully) ”No, I like choosing my books.”

Me ”Why’s that?”

Y ”Because then I can learn what I want to.”

Me ”Excellent. That’s what I want you to enjoy.”

Y (pauses, I can see wheels turning) ”Miss Siscoe, why are you a teacher?”

Me ”Why do you ask?”

Y ”Because some teachers don’t like kids but you do.”

Me ”Well, I’m a teacher because I’m really smart and I want to share what I know with you so you can be really smart too!”

Y (smiles) “Really? You think I can be smart too?”

Me “Yes, absolutely. I think you can do whatever you want to as long as you work for it. That’s what teachers are for.”

Y (looks skeptical, frowns) “Not all teachers want that…”

Me “The good ones do.”

Y (smiles) “Yeah, the good teachers do.”

A few weeks ago at church, I was introduced to a mother of seven kids. She quickly informed me that she homeschools her children because of the “horrible” public school district we live in. Then she asked what I do.

“I’m a teacher,” I said.

“Oh really? Where?”

“Actually here in this district.”

“Ohhhh why would you ever want to do that? The kids in this district are so poorly behaved. My children would never have learned anything in these schools.”

I held my tongue from saying what I really wanted to — something like… “Actually, the kids are very well behaved when someone makes limits clear to them. Also, I believe all children are capable of learning, even the kids in this district.” Okay, so maybe I would have said something even stronger (i.e. rude) in the moment… so it’s wise I held my tongue : ).

I truly believe teaching in a public school is a mission field. I pray I can make every moment of these 180 days with these students really count. I truly believe good teachers change lives.

Quotes for Thought

Quote

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. – Albert Einstein

I am continually amazed by how many students are labeled “learning disabled.” The term has even come out of my mouth over the last few months as I desperately search for the reasons for why students are flailing like fish out of water. When I came across this quote a few weeks ago, it reminded me that I’m not looking hard enough for my students’ strengths… like the boy that I’m pretty sure has some form of dyslexia is great at drawing cartoons. Or the boy who is able to decode words in a 2nd grade book is the most active participant in any kind of current events debate. We all have our gifts that we bring to the table.

Smart isn’t something you are; it’s something you get.

We all find ourselves in situations where we feel uncomfortably unskilled. It’s easy to assume that everyone else knows what they’re doing in the situation BUT even more importantly, anyone that is skilled has worked to become skilled. Current research says is takes 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert on any one topic. Mozart practiced piano for 10,000 hours before the age of five. Result? “Child prodigy.” So next time you’re feeling like everyone else “gets it,” remind yourself that it’s okay to not get it yet. You just have 9,999 hours of practice to go.

Today’s new knowledge is tomorrow’s background knowledge. — P. David Pearson

Today’s information overload can be overwhelming, especially considering that whatever I learn today will be outdated as it morphs into new news by tomorrow. The more important skills to have now include creative thinking, evaluation, and synthesizing the new with the old. No small task to ask of ourselves.