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Jen

Jen is a real first-year teacher who has just completed a BSEd in Foreign Language Education from a major university. She is hoping to teach Spanish and French for the first time in the Atlanta area. Although these are her true diary entries, all names and identifying details have been changed.

Jen's diary entries are in chronological order, from the most current entry. You can also browse the entries by month:

2003
January | February | April | June

2002
July | September | October | November | December

June 2003

Dear Diary,

It is the end of the year and the natives are getting restless. Spring has sprung and everyone's focus has shifted from what is going on today to this summer and next year. The administration is focused on numbers. The conversations on the students' lips are of summer plans. And me, I can't help but realize that I have precious little time left with my students, and I am trying to prioritize all that I want to leave with them, both language and life lessons, before I send them on to the next level.

Academically, I am having a harder and harder time with my students. I believe that many factors contribute to this. Yes, it would be easy to blame it on the weather and fatigue, but there seems to be a certain amount of pure laziness built into the students. When I was a student, I would have found it very hard to just not do homework and projects time after time as is the practice of some of my students. Some students receive poor grades and they just don't care. Where did this disease of complacency come from? If this continues on, how will it affect our society as a whole? Is it really worse than when I was a student, or am I just now becoming aware of it?

I am really at a loss at what to do to get some students to work. At this point in the year, I wonder if there is anything that I can do. In a society where we have to work less and less to receive a product, I start to wonder if efficiency is softening the minds of our youth. The problem is that despite technological advances, learning a foreign language still takes memorization and practice. We may be able to make dinner in a microwave in 5 minutes and send a letter across the world in seconds, but learning still takes work.

Students feel a sense of entitlement. They question why you "gave" them an "F" instead of realizing that they earned that grade. I confess that I was too lenient at the onset of the year. When students did not have their work, I gave them a million chances to turn it in late. I got to the point where I was making twice as many copies of assignments to account for the students who did not do it and at the last minute needed an extra copy to make it up. I set up a situation where they didn't have to get their work done now. Well I was only feeding their laziness, and I was certainly not doing them any favors.

Some days I feel like my achievement gap is more like an achievement chasm. It makes it harder and harder to call on all of my students equally when I want to get through an oral activity in a few minutes. I start by calling on a few of the brighter students, so that the slower ones can get a good model of how to form a correct answer. I know that I must call on the weaker students eventually. By the time I get to number 5 or so, I know it is time as I hold my breath praying that it will not take 5 or more minutes to cognitively walk the struggling student through the mental process needed to arrive at an acceptable answer. In the mean time, it is hard to keep my other students engaged when the student I am focused on still can't remember what "nous" or "nosotros" means. Is it acceptable at this point to leave these strugglers behind, or should I keep sacrificing the potential of my stronger students?

I guess that I am disappointed because I tried so hard to be organized for the benefit of my students. One of the major life skills that I wanted to leave with them was responsibility, but with some of them, it looks as if I did not really have any impact. Maybe I was too idealistic at the beginning of the year, thinking that I would get a 100% success rate from my students, but part of me does not want to settle for less, and I refuse to.

Jen

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April 2003

Dear Diary,

The other day I was talking to my mentor, Senora Guardiola, and telling her my recent frustration with lack of student initiative. It seems to be prime season for field trips, illnesses, assemblies, testing, and anything else that could possibly mess up my classroom routine. Senora Guardiola took out a piece of paper and wrote the words: "First Quarter". She then wrote "Second Quarter" directly underneath that, followed by "Third Quarter" and "Fourth Quarter". Next to "First Quarter", she drew a smiley face. To the right of "Second Quarter" she placed a straight face. Underneath the straight face, next to "Third Quarter she made a frowny face. She finished it off by placing another smiley face next to "Fourth Quarter". "This," she explained with such an understanding expression on her face, "is how our year goes. We are in the Third Quarter: the students are tired; we are tired and it seems impossible to get anything accomplished."

I told her that I am concerned about finishing all the units that my students need for the next level. I feel that my students are not taking the language seriously enough.... at least I do not see the evidence of it. They are horrible about turning in their papers promptly, and keeping their attention in class is becoming very challenging. Still, they have their redeeming moments, and all becomes forgiven.

Sometimes my frustration is not from my students, but from the administration. I am becoming increasingly versed in the politics of a school. I would not say that I was naive enough to believe that a school would lack politics, especially since it has such a hierarchical structure within the walls: principal; vice-principal; counselors; team leaders; core teachers; elective teachers; ESOL, Special Education and other special needs teachers; teaching assistants; secretaries; and janitors - in that order. It's just that I am now learning how these different tiers interact with each other, and how I should interact with them. Luckily, Senora Guardiola clued me in on Day 1 about secretaries and janitors. I make extra effort to help them, and in turn, my room is always clean, and I have never lacked rolls of tissue.

How quickly the administration forgets what it's like to be in the classroom! The other day, we (the electives teachers) were to meet with the administration over why/how our life skills students (students that are in a program whose goal is the development of basic skills) were not being fully integrated into electives classrooms. The meeting was to take place during our lunch hour, but the administration did not make it until the last fifteen minutes of the break! They then had a problem understanding why students who could barely read and write should not be fully integrated into foreign language. Of even greater concern was the Tech Ed teacher's class. How do you explain that somehow, students with no self-control and power tools just don't mix!

Actually, every meeting with administration has started at least 15 minutes late. Also, there have been several times that I've had to substitute for another teacher during my free period because there was some complication with arranging a sub. It is not that it bothers me that much, but in a sense, it is not fair for me to lose my planning period. So the next time that I look across the hall and see students wandering and papers flying across the room, knowing that there is supposed to be a sub there, I hesitate a second before calling the front office to see where he/she is. It is too easy for them to say, "Oh, there has been a mix up.... could you step in for a minute?"

So are you ready for my brilliant solution to both problems? I think that all administration should teach one class a day. I think that if they really want to be in touch with the students and the other teachers, they should be in the classroom.... not observing, but teaching. After all, they are certified teachers in something, aren't they? And, when an emergency sub is needed, or if a teacher just needs to miss one class, they should be glad to fill in. What a great way to get to know all the students of the school, not just the superb or disruptive ones. What I want to know is, what's holding them back?

Jen

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February 2003

Dear Diary,

It finally happened! My students are beginning to open up to me and relate to me as a person, not merely their teacher. Earlier this week, I was sitting behind my usual mound of papers to grade trying to catch up on my homework when a couple of girls came into the class and asked if they could listen to the radio. What a compliment; I am actually cool enough to just hang out with! Since school was over, I said that it was fine, and they sat down to chat with me for a while.

One student, Trish, noticing the tower of papers on my desk commented that she was thinking of being a teacher, but that she may also want to be a pediatric nurse. Suddenly, these young ladies and I were really talking. We discussed everything from the latest edition of "American Idol" to their dreams and aspirations. They shared with me their middle school experiences and their perception of the world. We weighed the pros and cons of different occupations and roles in life, and considered what our lives would be like in the future.

I admit that this is a side of teaching that I love. I felt deeply privileged to be the receiver of this important information. Do not get me wrong, I enjoy sharing my excitement for Spanish and French, my travels abroad, and it is such a thrill to hear the students start to produce language. Still, I crave knowing my students better, and understanding how they work.

I recall thinking that I would always remember what it was like to be in middle school. Now I find myself, a mere 13 years later not being able to remember much. I am not sure if I have tried to block those what can be quite scarring years, but I do try to keep perspective with my students. I may be beginning to get back into the loop.

The school year is slipping by faster than I expected. Sometimes I am concerned that I will not have covered enough material by the end of the year. I always wondered why my teachers never finished the book in a year in my foreign language classes as I was taking them. But I think that I am giving the students plenty to chew on.

For example, the other day I composed a list of about fifty vocabulary for clothes, shopping, and accessories, and wrote them on the board to give the students. I even took the time to write the feminine nouns in red and the masculine nouns is blue. I thought that I was doing them a huge service. The students' eyes were as wide as saucers as they entered the room. They asked, "Do we really have to learn all that?" I answered, "But of course, there are a lot of words to learn in a language!"

A few students are beginning to wane. There are about five of my students that were doing just fine at the beginning of the year, but now it seems that as each day goes by, they put less and less effort into foreign language class. I try to encourage these unenthusiastic students and get them to get back on track, but now I'm starting to feel exhausted from all the effort I'm putting into their education with little reciprocation. I could never imagine letting my grade slip to a D or an F in any of my classes, but I have to remind myself that not all of my students think like I do. I admit it - I was a nerd. I was not satisfied with anything less that perfection in my studies. Believe me, there are students like me in my classes, but I do not have to feel any guilt for giving a D or an F on a report card. I am coming to accept that the student will not cease to exist with a bad grade, as I always thought I would when I was in school.

Jen

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January 2003

Dear Diary,

I have made it through half of the year! Believe it or not, that in itself feels like one of my greatest accomplishments. I never feel as though I have the chance to recuperate over the weekends, so it was refreshing to have a week and a half off and be able to spend some "me" time. I'm pretty much useless on Fridays, and often end up sprawled face-down on the couch. Saturday mornings are for sleeping in, so that I have some energy to run the errands that the week does not permit, and maybe even do something enjoyable. Sundays are spent giving attention to the house and the bills that I neglect all week, as well as catching up on grading papers, and before I know it, it is time to start over again. I started this quarter with grand intentions of having papers graded within days of being handed in, contacting parents the moment I see their child's efforts slipping, and installing numerous systems into the classroom regimen that would make class flow comprehensibly for the students. Not too lofty a set of expectations, right? Well, I managed to keep it up for one grand and glorious week. Between traveling back and forth to my schools, making sure that I have lessons prepared in time for class, and keeping up with all my other teacher responsibilities, I admit to have fallen behind once again. To put it simply, I have gotten overwhelmed.

For some reason, I thought I would naturally be the Mary Poppins of teaching, "practically perfect in every way". The reality has been somewhat different. It feels like I'm on a roller coaster ride, though I must say there have been plenty of high points. For example, I did what I humbly consider to be a great in-class project when we were learning body parts in Spanish. I had the students lie down on huge pieces of paper and draw their outlines. They then created a new person and labeled them. This project, which I had initially planned to spend one to two days on, took four days. Still, I think it was worthwhile because the students had a good time doing it, and their "people" looked great! In typical me fashion, however, after the project was done, I was still thinking about ways it could have been done better. Would it have been more exciting for the students to have created monsters, with thirty eyes and arms protruding from the heads, etc? Despite my late inspiration, I would call the project a success and I even hung the masterpieces in the main hallway. The students were proud, I was proud, and it was a nice way to show the principal that we were integrating art into the French class. After all, I feel like I am trying to prove myself, and a couple of brownie points never hurt!

My low points seem to revolve around the anxiety I have over my performance. I feel that the individual classes go pretty well, but now that we are halfway through the year, I hope that I am covering enough material to prepare the students for the next level. I am worried that they are not retaining everything that they are learning. After all, there is no guarantee that I will have these students again and I worry that their future teachers will find them terribly unprepared because of me. A constant stream of questions is running through my head. Do they have enough communicative practice? Are their homework assignments helping them? Do I ask them to write enough? Am I asking too much of them? Have I assessed their oral skills lately? What about their comprehension? Have they been listening to a variety of speakers? Then I start to worry about my performance. I don't get to change the bulletin boards in my room often enough. I am not sure if I have kept the parents well informed. The list goes on and on. I try not to freak out, but this is my first year and I do not know if I can be the perfect teacher in every way yet.

I am allowed a couple of years practice before I do everything right, aren't I?

Jen

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December 2002

Dear Diary,

I still have so much to learn. Just when I feel like I am getting the hang of teaching, something happens that takes me back to the first day of when I was a nervous wreck and unsure of how to proceed. Despite the numerous courses I took in teaching methodology and preparation, and no matter how hard I try to be the best teacher I can, I still mess up. Let me try to explain.

All of my students are in their first-year of foreign language learning, which is great for me. I have both the grand privilege of getting my kids excited about learning a foreign language and the solemn responsibility of building a strong foundation for their language skills. One of my goals at the onset of the school year was to make language learning as much fun as possible. I wanted to spark the kids' imaginations and inspire them to travel to new places, meet new people, and broaden their horizons. Still, I told myself, I was going to avoid one of the biggest pitfalls of new teachers - trying to be best friends with the students. I cannot deny, though, that it was important to me to be liked and respected by my students. But, little did I know I was mixing a recipe for disaster.

So there I was, at the beginning of August trying to walk to the fine line by providing a structured yet enjoyable learning environment. I was excited! I was exuberant! It seemed to be working so well, until it dawned on me: I was making the class so much fun that the students were not taking it seriously. When they entered my class, the students expected games, videos, and treats. They were not studying at home, and not all of them were doing their homework assignments. In fact, they saw language class as playtime, and because of that, they were not investing in the learning as I had hoped they would.

I finally figured this out when I assigned an art integration project modeled after Monet's technique of depicting light at different times. Since we were learning how to tell the time in French, I thought it was appropriate, and I was very proud of my idea. I had the students pick a subject and draw it at two different times of day. They then had to write out a caption explaining when the pictures were drawn using their new time-telling skills. I wrote out explicitly what I was looking for. I modeled it. We talked about how to depict time change in a picture using coloring and shadows. Despite all that effort, half the students failed to turn in the assignment when it was due!

At this point, I felt let down by my students, and I felt they had left me with no choice. Without warning, I switched into lecture mode. This went against everything that I knew would be effective and appropriate for the students. I spent the entire class time telling them how they were not taking French seriously, and how they needed to study and do their work if they expected to do well in class. I hated who I was then, but I couldn't seem to stop myself. I had no idea how else I could to get them to be serious and change the classroom environment I had set up.

Thank goodness for mentors. After school, I headed straight to my mentor in tears. After a cup of coffee, things didn't seem quite so dire! She told me not to be so hard on myself, and helped me realize that the students need more routines and structure. I now appreciate that, although there is a time for fun and games, the students benefit from regular practices and organization.

With this advice, I started the new quarter by turning over a new leaf. I put that one terrible day behind me and set up a bit more formal ambiance in my class. Things seem to be getting better, though I fear it will be harder for some students to adjust to this new structured routine. Remind me again, how many more days before winter break?

Jen

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November 2002

Dear Diary,

Whoever said a teacher's job was finished when she left school? I end up spending many of my evenings grading papers and when I'm not doing that, I'm constantly on the lookout for ideas and activities that I can use in my classroom. I can't even walk around the mall without noticing what kids my students' ages are interested in or doing!

Relationships with other staff members are just fine. The other day Mrs. Forester, the Social Studies teacher whom I seem to inadvertently annoy, was quite nice to me, and flashed a smile in my general direction - come to think of it, I was standing next to the principal, so that smile may not have been intended for me after all. Oh well!

Unfortunately, some of the kids do not hold the same enthusiasm about class that they did the first week. Don't get me wrong, most of them are really attentive and interested, but one not-so-motivated student does spring to mind... Alex.

About a week ago, Alex decided that he was going to talk back to me in class. I tried not to argue with him (although there were a few words I would have liked to have said at the time), and told him to see me after class. When I asked Alex in private if he felt that his behavior was appropriate, he said yes... emphatically. I should also mention that this student turns in about half of his work and is either late or absent to class three out of the five days a week.

I felt like I was running up against a wall. What was I supposed to say to this child who had no remorse for his disrespectful behavior? I asked him to call his mother to see if she thought his behavior was appropriate. He dialed a number, but there was no answer. I was at a loss for what to do next, so I let him go to class. The teacher handbook says I'm supposed to handle these issues myself, but how?

Later in the day, I looked up Alex's home phone number, but the number on file was disconnected. I called the school counselor to see if she had a different number for Alex, but she was not there. At my wit's end, I called the clinic to see if they had a working number on file, and they did. Success! I got a hold of the mother.

I guess the old adage "the apple does not fall far from the tree" would be the best way to describe the phone call. After I had explained what had happened and figured out that Alex had intentionally dialed a wrong number, the first thing Mrs. Williams said to me was, "Are there any other French teachers at your school?" I could not believe it! In her eyes, the problem was my class rather than her child. She also told me that Alex had often complained about the class saying that I embarrassed him by calling him out. OK, I admit that I do call students out when they are not paying attention to get their focus back on what I am trying to do, but I certainly did not think that I was out of line.

After a lengthy discussion, I did somehow get the mother to agree that maybe it would be better if we tried to address the specific problem instead of simply switching classes. My solution...I am rearranging the class so that Alex does not sit next to any of his friends. (This gives me the opportunity to break up a few other couples in my class). Most importantly, Mrs. Williams promised that she would have a talk with Alex when he got home. Now, that's what I call progress! I only hope it works.

Jen

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October 2002

Dear Diary,

I've been teaching for an entire month. It seems like the first day of school was only yesterday and boy was I nervous! Knowing how important it is to start off on the right foot and set high classroom standards from the beginning, I was scurrying around trying to get my three classrooms in order. The weekend before the first day of class was hectic, but once everything was in place, the week went off better than I could have expected.

Since then, I have already dealt with the parents. Don't get me wrong, I am delighted when I see parents getting involved in their children's education, but it seems that a few select parents seem to make a career out of telling teachers how to do their job. Not even a week into school, I already had dear Mrs. McSwain sending me an email beginning with the line, "I don't want to start off on the wrong foot but…."

Apparently, I had given an alphabet sheet to my first year Spanish students that did not include the letters "CH" and "LL". Mrs. McSwain indicated to me that even though she did not claim to be an expert in the Spanish language, she did not want her child to be studying from the wrong information. Thank goodness for historical notes in the teacher's edition! I was able to reply telling her that I appreciated her concern, but in 1997 the Real Madrid voted to simplify the alphabet by eliminating those letters. I am told that Mrs. McSwain is legendary for badgering new teachers and it seems that this year I am the chosen one. I have a feeling that I have not heard the last of her!

I absolutely adore my students and the other staff. I was concerned before about one of the teachers with whom I share a room: she initially seemed quite territorial. But, I have since found that, catch her on a good day, and she is willing to let me do whatever needs to be done to the room. She even let me bring in an aquarium with fish! On the other hand, I have been having issues with a certain Social Studies teacher, Mrs. Forester.

Burnt out would be an accurate way to describe Mrs. Forester. She seemed constantly vexed with the school administration. Fair enough, she has been moved out of her room and into a trailer, far, far away from the copier. (Little did I realize the value of copier proximity!) The administration has bent over backwards to help me as a new teacher, and I think that she notices that. In addition, I always seem to be arriving at the copy machine mere seconds before she does. That certainly does not help. I try not to make her frustrated, but it seems that it is beyond my control.

And through all this I must admit that my kids have been primarily a joy. They are all very excited to be learning a foreign language. Most of them are very attentive and very energetic. To the extent that it is at times hard to refocus their attention on the class work. After I introduce an activity or a concept, they get a little carried away with personal stories and other things related to what I am doing. It is not that they are not paying attention to me, but they just get a little off track.

I'll have to come up with a creative way to help them walk the fine line between participating in class and not talking too much. I do not want to completely squelch their energy because it is that same enthusiasm that promotes excellent class participation. Maybe I should come up with a signal to refocus their attention?

Jen

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September 2002

Dear Diary,

Well, I finally settled on a position... or two. I ended up choosing a position teaching French and Spanish over ESOL because at the bottom of my heart, I believe that is where I should be, and I found a suburban school district that was eager to hire me. Part of me wanted to teach in inner-city schools since that was how I was educated, but those schools were not as organized, and their recruitment attempts seemed somewhat half-hearted. I felt it was important to find schools that had the time for me, and I did.

Nevertheless, to get a position in this school system, I had to make sacrifices, accepting two jobs at two different middle schools. One school had a need for Spanish and the other for French, and I could teach both! Luckily, the schools are close by, so commuting between them every day won't be too much of a hassle. Still, I know that working at two schools comes with its inevitable challenges.

My first challenge this year will be to learn twice as many names. I am doing my best to keep two sets of staff and faculty in memory. I have been given a mentor at both schools, and most everyone I have met has been very kind and accommodating. Well... maybe with one exception. Here's the problem.

Since I am only working half days at each school, it is not possible to have my own classroom at either school. Yes, I am a teacher without a home, floating from temporary residence to temporary residence. With most of the teachers with whom I share classrooms, this has not been a big problem. Still, one seems to be a little territorial: Ms. Sampson, the science teacher. For years, she had the room all to herself as a full-timer. Now she's gone part-time, meaning that I get to use her room, and I get the feeling she is none too pleased about that.

Although the amount of time she teaches has decreased, the amount of "stuff" she has certainly has not! I asked if I could have some bulletin board space and some storage, and she graciously offered me a file drawer and a bookshelf. I was then told I was quite lucky to get this space, as it was much more than most new teachers got. In the mean time, the walls are plastered with periodic tables and life cycles. I had hoped to create a Spanish atmosphere, but it seems like that possibility is somewhat limited. I've decided not to ask for the world right now, after all, I do not have that many things with which I can decorate the room, so the limited space might be sufficient - for now. As the year goes by and more space is needed, maybe we can find a way to reopen the bargaining tables.

In the mean time, I am up to my eyeballs in preplanning and orientations - two weeks of lectures about blood borne pathogens and how to prevent bullying. Right now, I need to figure out what I am going to do on day one - which, is only a week away. What am I going to require my students to bring? What are my classroom rules? I thought I would have all this figured out by now, but I don't seem to remember the answers from my training classes. I guess those mentors are really going to come in handy!

Jen

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July 2002

Dear Diary,

Already the summer seems to be flying by, and I am up to my eyeballs in applications. I was under the delusion that this summer would be a time to rest before going back to the grindstone. Little did I realize that finding a job is a full-time job! I have to find a position, move, get a car, and continue my office job so I can pay the bills through the summer. Also, I usually try to travel a bit during the summer to meet new people and discover new lands. This, after all, was the reason I got into foreign languages: so I could relate to people. This summer, I don't see it happening.

At this point, I have visited several teacher fairs, and collected information on schools from Atlanta to Anchorage. Luckily, foreign language education is a critical need area. It seems that America is beginning to wake up to the fact that although English is an international language, it is not enough; people also need to learn other languages. I am relieved foreign language is finally getting the attention it deserves.

There are so many things to consider when looking for a job. I am certified in French and Spanish, and I took some classes to get an add-on certification in ESOL. This gives me many options, but the problem is, I don't know what to teach! I have done practica in all three areas, but every school I have looked at seems desperate to get me into ESOL. Was getting this add-on a benefit or a restriction? After studying in Spain and Belgium, I sympathize with students trying to survive in a country that speaks a different language; that's why I wanted to get ESOL certified. Still, I am not so sure that I am ready to give up my foreign language teaching aspirations.

I am also considering what ages to teach. I found the eagerness to learn in elementary students so adorable and exciting, yet they can't really do complex projects. And, as far as behavior, I would be exchanging trying to get little Jimmy from pulling Jane's hair for high school issues like keeping Paula's mind off of her recent love turmoil. Still, maybe I can reach those troubled kids. I think they just need someone to spend some time with them.

I am applying to inner-city and suburban schools, as well as elementary, secondary, and continuing education programs. I got my education at inner-city public schools in Georgia, and I believe that these schools need good teachers to return and give back to the next generation of students. Nevertheless, I have to look other places as well. I know better than to put all my eggs in one basket. I also have to consider which job will help me best meet my living costs. It's entirely overwhelming.

What I am looking for is a school that will support me my first year. I want my own classroom, and a mentor to help me get into the swing of things is essential. I envision a team of co-workers that would give me proven classroom wisdom, while appreciating my new insight. I definitely feel butterflies in my stomach, partially from nervousness, and partially from excitement. Although it may be rough at times, I will be a good teacher; I leave myself no other option.

Jen

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