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Thursday, July 31, 2008

The paper I wrote last night

So last night I stayed up until 2 a.m. finishing this paper. Might have been quicker if we hadn't gone out in the evening for our biweekly Wednesday Bible Study. I had written a solid page the day before, but last night I couldn't start until after ten. Still, I made time to proof-read. I'm not making any changes, just giving it to you as I gave it to my teacher.

Except she got it on paper.

Robert Sack

July 31, 2008

I Will Make a Difference

I am a teacher, and taught for 12 years before moving back to the U.S.A. I began in the Peace Corps as a mathematics resource teacher, teaching for one year in a k-12 school in the mountains, far from roads or electricity. My second year was spent in training native Nepali teachers to be better. In hindsight, this was rather cultural centric and sophomoric, given my degree in Civil Engineering and grand total teaching of about one year experience substituting in my local school district.

My Peace Corps training involved no more than 10 or 12 hours of theoretical training before we began observing other teachers, teaching sample lessons to each other, and debriefing afterwards. The training quickly moved into a laboratory setting, with groups of three or four of us observing each other teaching and offering feedback, along with our mentor. It was a very organic approach that I carried forward throughout my career. Two years later I spent a year as an academic supervisor at a private ESL conversation institute in Korea. I observed (and was observed by) all ten teachers working under me, most of them more than twice. My main purpose was to give them feedback to improve their teaching, but it also informed and improved my own teaching.

In my previous teaching job I taught college credit courses. After being hired, I quickly gravitated to Earl (not making up the name, I promise), who had been teaching in Korea about as long as I had, though longer at the college level. We quickly fell into a collaborative relationship, bouncing ideas off of each other, “borrowing” ideas that seemed to work well (with modifications, of course), and even doing some co-teaching.

Now that I will be a math teacher in an American junior high school, I know that observation is one of my most powerful tools, especially when I can discuss the lesson with the teacher. I've already been a team player, even when I had to make my own team. I plan to watch as many different math teachers in my building as possible, and hope that they will return the favor. One key to being a great teacher is to take ideas from wherever you can find them, and get input on developing them.

During the last year I have been working at the Wal-Mart jewelry counter, changing watch batteries, adjusting watch bands, and selling jewelry. My favorite part of the job was talking with people, whether it was helping them to figure out what would be a good present, trying to solve a problem for them, or just passing the time as I worked on their watch. When customers or coworkers found that I was planning to be a teacher in the fall, they almost always said that I would be a good teacher. When I asked why they thought so, one answer that came up regularly was that I listen well.

My overseas experience has been a large contributer to this skill. I often had to reach out to people who were overwhelmed by the very idea of talking to a foreigner, whether to ask for directions, buy a bus ticket, or order lunch. My number one rule in teaching ESL conversation was very simple: Make Mistakes. I even wrote it as number one on my syllabus. I have been fine-tuning my approach and personality for more than a decade to make people feel comfortable around me, helping them to break down the idea of “saving face” by not making mistakes or asking for help in front of others. I am absolutely sure that this will be a transferable skill in junior high classrooms.

I have also found humor to be a very useful tool in the classroom. It is a form of release for people who find themselves tense just being in the classroom. It definitely helps to reset the atmosphere after dealing with a problem student, working on a tough project, or anything else that requires something more than a sigh of relief. I believe that it is so effective because people can not control true laughter. If something is funny to you, you will laugh. You have lost control of yourself, if just for a moment. Often that moment is all that is needed for a good teacher to swoop back in and get the class (or student) moving in the desired direction.

While I do enjoy my time interacting with other people, I am somewhat introverted. I need to have time to myself to recharge, whether reading, bicycling, emailing, or just surfing the internet. During the next three years I will be taking classes while working full time and making quality time with my family. Getting my down time will be important, and perhaps difficult to achieve. I am considering an unprecedented solution (for me): blocking out a schedule for my weekly life. It is difficult to see myself doing this, but not any more difficult than picturing myself going slowly insane.

My biggest weakness as a teacher (and a husband) is that I have little natural drive to organize. There are a few exceptions. I used to keep my CDs in alphabetical order by artist, then by release date. That was pleasing to me, and a fairly serious task at more than 300 CDs. I have found that this tendency carries over into keeping grade books and files organized, and affects the way that I plan long term. However, it has absolutely no effect on the surface of my desk at home.

Dealing with this weakness at work takes effort on my part. It is very important to keep track of student papers to be able to verify grades if they are questioned. I found that with some planning, a little regular work, and a little bit of luck, I could keep track of assignments, projects and other documents for as many as 200 students. Almost 400 one year. Because it does not come naturally to me, I have to focus intently just to make it happen. I am aware of the mechanics of how I do this, because I had to consciously design them. As such, I am not glued to any particular method, and am willing to try whatever I think will work, especially if it works for someone else.

Punctuality and procrastination are similar issues for me. I have always had to work at it to be on time to class and to my office hours. I focus on it, and make it a point of pride to be on time and prepared when class starts. I still have occasional problems with doing work at the last minute. This is fostered by my ability to do well when it comes to crunch time. I have improved a lot over the past ten years, but there have still been times when I have turned in grades late at night on the due date or gone to class with an activity which was still warm from the photocopier. Using the internet as a teaching tool helped me a lot with this because I wanted my students to download and print handouts for the next class. In order for this to be a reasonable request, I had to have these handouts ready by the day before class, otherwise I could not expect my students to bring the materials, and justifiably so. I have also found that having activities planned well in advance usually (but not always) makes them work more smoothly in class. Procrastination is not a problem that I have completely solved, but I have developed strategies to deal with it, and still struggle with it.

The issues I have dealt with in myself help me relate to students who struggle with the same issues. They may not be too thrilled to see that 20 years is not enough to fix it completely, but they will see that one can improve, and may even take my advice on how to do so.

One key reason that I will be a good teacher is that I enjoy learning new things. I am not very keen on trivia, but I like finding out things that will help me to do my job better. When I find a new way to teach something that seems to mesh with my teaching style, I can't wait to give it a shot. Once I've given it a shot, I can't wait to make the inevitable changes to “improve” it. I often do the improving before I get around to teaching it the first time, sometimes to the extent that even its mother would not recognize it. Of course, the next time I use the activity it can still be polished, making the instructions clearer for students, avoiding bottlenecks, or just making it more entertaining.

I am also a fan of meta-thinking. As a middle school teacher, I plan to work with my students on how they think about their problems. Working with students who are new to the English language reveals a lot about how the brain works, and this can offer some insight into how everyone thinks, even when they are working on math problems.

The three classes I took before this one were all in mathematics. During my first undergraduate career, I found math classes to be just one more hurdle to get over in order to get my degree. This time they were actually fun. I enjoyed teasing the truth out of those numbers. (Except for the statistics class, in which we dragged lies out of them.) I enjoyed looking for and applying patterns. It was fun to sit in class and try to follow the lecture, maybe even jump ahead a point on a good day. This education class has been similar, in that I have enjoyed the material, the interaction with the teacher, and the mental challenge of synthesizing new ideas from the given materials. Of course I will be continuing to take classes at Baker to earn my teaching certificate, but when that is finished I hope to take more classes. As long as I am learning, I can improve as a teacher.

This passion for learning can be carried to extremes. A class activity about learning can be 100% fascinating to me, yet might only be somewhat interesting to some of my students, and for a much shorter time. Never mind the students sleeping in the back. I have found myself answering questions about grammar that turned into mini-lectures which fascinated the front row, but put some students to sleep. In general, I do well to remember to geek-out in my free time with my coworkers rather than in front of my students. At the very least, I need to keep it under control in the classroom.

I am a good teacher. I am not a perfect teacher. I doubt that such a creature walks this planet, but there are many of us striving for that noble goal. The skills that I have discussed here are only the manifestation of the true quality which makes me a good teacher: I care. I want to see people more satisfied with their lives. The best thing about working at Wal-Mart was that I did help people, but it was all to do with owning things, and therefore not truly satisfying to me or them. Teaching is about helping people to improve themselves. Whether it is the quantifiable goal of eventually scoring well on the PSAT five years down the road, or the more ambiguous goal of imparting respect for self and others, teachers give students things that cannot be taken away from them by others. The feeling I get when I see the light go on in a student's head is not worth trading for a fat salary and a corner office. The lift my heart gets when a student comes back a year later to say 'thank you' makes up for the forgotten headaches of that year. It is truly a privilege that I can get paid to do something that I enjoy this much, and I will strive to be worthy of it.

p.s. I would like to apologize for the informal tone of this paper, but I won't. The topic is a passionate one for me. I could have written it in a dry, academic tone and presented the same facts, but the feeling would have been edited out. Thank you for the opportunity to present it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

2nd Day of Class

I drove today. The weather forecast was calling for rain and thunderstorms, not bike-friendly conditions. And the idea of one extra hour of sleep was just too appealing.

There were only a couple of quotes I got down today, and one she attributed to someone else:

"The pain that a troubled child causes is never greater than the pain that he feels."

I Googled it and found a book link, The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning on the Tuned-Out, but it isn't really credited to the author. He puts it in quotes as "sage counsel". She actually wrote it on the board, because it was important enough that she wanted us to remember it. We were talking about classroom management today, and the idea of kids lashing out was one key element.

The other quote, this time hers, was this:

"You have to teach a kid to function in the existing environment."

In other words, finding the problem is key, but sometimes eliminating the problem is just not an option. If an ADHD kid can't focus because there are other kids around, taking him out of the room is only a short-term solution. If that's all we do, we are cheating him of something he needs to learn, and I mean really NEEDS. The kid needs to learn how to function in that classroom. Because he will have to do it for the next n years, at least four in my case. And let's face it, that can be a useful skill in life, unless you plan to avoid going places like restaurants, Wal-Mart (I'm planning to avoid that one!), movies, concerts, big cities and dance clubs, never mind quite a few office jobs (cubicle, anyone?).

We watched some videos on misbehaving kids that bordered on corny. The way the teachers handled the situations, and the way the students reacted seemed idealistic. It's easy to imagine kids going way nuts in some of those situations where the video kids backed down. Of course, they also rolled their eyes, and used body language to show their opinions of the teacher, but they followed the rules.

A key factor was avoiding confrontational body language. A close second was mixing ambiguous and direct language to diffuse situations.

Outside of the video, we talked about ways to prevent bad behavior, both in terms of classroom management and teaching/learning.

Dr. Wintermantel comes from a SpEd (Special Education) background, with a lot of years in TMH (Trainable Mentally Handicapped) rooms. This is good news for me, as the para part of my job will be dealing with behavioral disorder/learning disability kids. I've been told that the para position will involve co-teaching as well. Fantastic. I can't believe I'm going to get paid to gain this kind of experience.

Tomorrow night we have Bible study, and I have a small paper (3-5 pages) due Thursday, so I doubt I will be posting, but look for me again Thursday.

Oh, one more thing: This weekend I didn't go to Wal-Mart! It was awesome! And I've spent time with Maxine every evening! Fantastic! I'm going to like the teaching schedule!

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Class I'm Taking

It's a fun class. Today I biked to the Park and Ride, put my bike on the bike rack at the front of the bus, then rode on to class. There was one rough spot where I had to bike it on a 45 mph four-lane divided road. I think I know how to avoid that next time. Supposed to rain tomorrow, so I'm not going to try. Since today was an "Ozone Alert", I rode for 50 cents one way, instead of the usual $2.50. Not bad. And a total of about 12 miles of biking in one day is nothing to sneeze at, either.

The class itself is wonderful. The teacher, Dr. Amy Wintermantel, is extremely knowledgeable, as well as entertaining. We covered a lot of basics today, and I thought I'd share some things she said:

When addressing a child who is misbehaving, try saying this: "O.K., Susan. You wanted my attention. You've got it."

"Are the decisions I'm making and the actions I'm taking getting me closer to the person I want to be, or further away...?"

"Meet [students] at the door with what they've got and do everything possible to take them where they need to be."

A former student speaking to her, "You helped me to understand my choices [in life]."

"Don't be part of the circle that marks a student as 'that kid, the one with the problems.' "

When a student/teacher relationship starts off badly, "Can we just start over? I love stories that end happily ever after, and I want this to be one of them."

I'd love to be able to write more about it, but my alarm is set for 6:15 a.m., and that is less than seven hours away. I've finished my homework, and started Roblogging about it, so I guess that will have to do.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Long Week

My life seems to be full of long weeks these days, though the time seems to be slipping by faster and faster as I look back.

Last week our dear friends Jibraun and Sujin Emerson moved to Kansas, along with their lovely children, J. Jr., who turned six last week, and Miah, who is four. Horyon and Sujin went to the same middle school, and Horyon and I M.C.'d J. and Sujin's wedding.

If you have to ask why a wedding needs an M.C., you haven't spent enough time in Korea.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Penultimate Wal-Mart Experience

Today was a typical Tuesday. Fairly slow. Spent some time training the new girl. She seems fairly smart, once you get past the 19-year-old cute-girl put-on. There didn't seem to be much work to do until I was alone, which is when I found a box of sunglasses that needed to go up. So I got them up on the towers.

You know what? I'm not going to have to do that again after Friday! Sweet!

So by five till ten, I was ready to go. I had locked the keys in the safe, the counters cleaned, and the department well zoned (straightened up, with everything in place). At three minutes until ten, I was getting ready to push a cart full of stuff out of there, when a lady came up to me and asked if I could change a watch battery and show her a couple of rings.

I should have told her it was closing time. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

I told her that it was three minutes until closing time (true), and that I couldn't show her a ring because the keys were locked in the safe (true), but I'd be happy to change her watch battery (not exactly true).

My mock happiness quickly changed into disgust. The watch had been running slow when she brought it in, but it was running. I checked, and the battery was running a bit low, but it should have made the watch work. But you never know with analog watches. They sometimes slow down before the battery dies. I put in a new battery, and the second hand started moving. I put the back on the watch, and it had stopped. It's already past ten, and I'm really, really, ready to go home by this point, and this is without the benefit of knowing how the next thirty minutes would pass.

I opened the watch again, figuring that the battery had wiggled loose. I taped it in place, and put it back together. Still not working. Back off again, and worked both the old and new batteries around. No luck. Dead watch.

I felt like she had brought in a patient coughing up blood, I had tried CPR, and killed him.

She was not happy. She was very polite about it, but insistent that she should get a discount on a new watch. And she still wanted to see those rings, too. So I should get a manager to come open the safe.

So I did. Assistant Manager Carmen authorized me to give a 15% discount on a new watch, and bumped it up to 20% when the woman whined a bit. The woman then went through the painful (to me) process of picking out a new watch. Her teenage daughter was just as annoyed with this as I was, but was making no effort to hide it. The three- or four- year old girl in her shopping cart was even less restrained at hiding her displeasure.

The woman eventually settled on a watch that she wasn't really happy with, but she needed a watch, and there were major medical expenses in the family, and couldn't I make it 50% off? I offered to get Carmen back, and she stopped pushing. It was a Twist-o-flex band, the metal kind that stretch. You may not be aware of this, but it is possible to remove links from bands like this. It is a neat little trick that is not one bit intuitive. It took me about three minutes to get her band shortened, and my prayers were answered when she accepted it with just one link out.

Then we looked at rings for a few minutes. She spent nothing more but time, which would have been just fine if she hadn't been spending my time as well. That was the most tempting moment of my Wal-Mart career to just lock up and leave and to heck with the consequences. As I said before, she was polite enough, but I had told her 25 minutes previously that I was supposed to close in three minutes. Did she figure that all I was going to do was go out and party? Or that I effing enjoyed being at the Wal-Mart jewelry counter long after my time to go home?

Of course, what it comes down to is that she didn't really care what I thought or felt. As far as she was concerned, I had no more say in my function than a shelf or a cash register. And that is the most annoying thing about working at Wal-Mart. Corporate Management is fond of saying that associates are their greatest assets, but they do little to back up that idea when the customer is always right, even when he or she is a total jerk.

I am sure that as a teacher there will be times when I am unappreciated, mistreated by management, and perhaps shot at. But I will be doing something important, and I will know that, even if my wife is the only one who ever reminds me. Or even if she doesn't. I won't be simply adding value to the Wal-Mart corporation and staying out late five nights a week.

Car Fun, finished for now

Fortunately, all that was wrong was a leaky hose. The shop fixed it and didn't charge me anything. So I'm going to give them a plug here:

Three cheers for Gaber Automotive!

I'm definitely bringing my cars back to them when they have trouble.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

More Car Fun

Three days after getting the Windstar back, the power steering went out. It's going into the shop tomorrow. I'm starting to consider having it crunched into a little cube.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Car Fun

I just realized that it's been a month since I posted anything, so I thought I'd do a little sharing.

A couple of Saturdays ago, Horyon packed Maxine in the car to go to her Saturday Bible Study. She recently found one at a Korean church, one which has an interesting connection to us. The pastor's daughter, C.G., was my coworker at Kosin University in Pusan.

But that's beside the point. The point is that Horyon didn't make it there. In fact, she didn't make it out of sight of our home, which was a fortunate thing. When she tried to turn right on Wakarusa Street (isn't that an awesome name for a street?), the van refused to move. The cars behind her were getting impatient, but she couldn't move. She turned on the hazard lights, and they moved around her. She then backed down the hill to the curb opposite our house.

I became aware of this when the doorbell rang. I got up, opened the door, and saw Horyon running back across the yard and towards the van. She stopped long enough to tell me that it wasn't working. I got in and had her take Maxine into the house, then backed the van into our driveway and garage.

Monday morning I had it towed to our mechanic. The verdict: needs a new transmission. $2700 for a factory rebuild with a three-year guarantee. I didn't even ask for the price of a new one, just told him to order it and get started.

A week later I picked it up. Seems okay to me, but Horyon isn't so sure. I'll drive it a bit tomorrow to check.

I went to our bank to ask about borrowing money to pay for this and my upcoming school fee ($600 for the summer class, more for the fall class). They could offer me a line of credit up to $6000, at in introductory rate of 3.9% for six months, after which it would be something like 9-11%. When my parents heard about it, they offered to pay for the repairs. Horyon and I talked about it, and decided to try fielding this one ourselves. We figured we could get the loan paid off withing three or four months if we kept our budget tightened down. It seemed like a good idea to build our independence.

When we brought this up with our bi-weekly Wednesday Bible study group, all three of them said that we should take my parents' offer. Matt asked if I were just being proud. They are all parents, and agreed that it would be a blessing for my parents if they could be allowed to pay this expense for us. When Horyon and I sort of sat quietly in reaction, they backed off, suggested that we talk and pray about it, then moved on to the study.

(We're studying the book of Daniel, which starts with some Vacation Bible School/Sunday School stories, and moves on into some deep, hard-to-follow, prophecies. A lot of us is leaving us all feeling like the dumb kid in the back of the physics class, wondering what's going on with all these wacky animals and statues and kingdoms and angels and demons and stuff.)

On the way home we decided to accept Mom and Dad's offer, so we called and told them so.

Because it was mostly pride. Or at least partly pride. Do we really need to see if we can "Make it on our own?" No. Not really. It really drove the point home when someone asked if I had any brothers or sisters. The answer is yes, but... it feels like no. And part of the problem there was pride, or so it seems to me. And I wondered, by saying no to my parents, do I make them feel like we're cutting them out?

And besides, as one of our friends pointed out, which would you prefer, a gift now, or a larger inheritance later?

I'd hate to be labeled "prodigal," but let's go for the present.

So Mom and Dad sent us an even $3000, which really works out for the best. Because my Cavalier (pronounced cuh val' ee AYE, thank you) needed new brake pads, to the tune of $170. It could also use new struts and a couple of new tires, but they told me those could wait. So they will.

So Mom, Dad, thanks. I do want us to be independent, but not because I want us to be parted from you. I just want us to be ready when Maxine needs her Mom and Dad to spring for a new transmission.

A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.