Reflections on the School Year

The last day of school for teachers is finally here! It’s been a year of extremes – and I’m writing this up in my new classroom (at the same school)! After 3 years of photographing outfits in room B201, I am moving to a new science room that is properly set up with a fume hood. I’m teaching Chemistry next year, for the first time ever.  That’s right, every year is a new challenge, and every year is a different beast to slay! So goodbye, room B201, you’ve been good to me. Hello, room B241!

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sunnies: freebie swag from b – cardigan: american apparel – top: f21 – jeans: mother denim – belt: jcrew – shoes: saltwater sandals

This year was like a split personality. On one end, I had the best year I’ve ever had with students. This was the first year I’ve ever had students actually thank me on a daily basis. More than one kid did this, every day.  It seems silly, and it seems small, but holy crap! After 6 years of investing mentally, emotionally, and introspectively into my classroom with (what felt like more often than not) zero thanks for my hard work, this year’s batch of amazing young humans breathed new life into me. The letters I got at the end of the year really made my efforts totally worth it. I had kids write me that they “will never look at the world the same way again”, and “thank you for making me enjoy science”, and “you’re a really good teacher who isn’t afraid to expose their students to the real world, it is important that you do that because it sticks”. Words can’t even express how good this feels.  I just can’t even. *tears*

On the other, I had a very challenging year with the educational system. At our closing meeting this morning, our principal talked about the importance of never giving up on our students, and advocating for them, no matter what it takes.  The word advocate really stuck in my mind, because I thought about all my kids and how I will always advocate for them, and of their letters thanking me for it. But then I thought, who is advocating for me? Am I my only advocate (professionally)? Do we teachers all have to fight our own individual battles, or is that just part of the culture here at my school? Here in Denver, we have an evaluation system tied to your pay, and tied to whether or not you get to keep your job. It is not meant (or maybe used?) to actually help you grow as an educator, because there’s too much at stake professionally. In addition, there is absolutely no incentive to go above and beyond, because to be better than just an “effective” teacher is to be a unicorn. I don’t want to go down a negative rabbit hole, because that’s not where my heart is. Instead, I’ll leave you with this picture of a pin, and a picture of how rewarding teaching can feel.

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Teacher Burn-out

The straight path to teacher burnout goes right through the district and the high school I work at.  There – I said it aloud to the public internets. My school and my district is burning me out.

I worked a 13 hour day this past week, and the rest were 10 hour days. These long days *only* include teaching five 60 minute periods, planning 3 different lesson plans (one of which is a college level course), and depending on the day, giving 100% attention to one hour-long department/grade level/staff/team meetings, and tutoring students during after school and lunch time office hours, all without a lunch break because students first. By the time my day ended at 8:30pm last Tuesday, with all lessons ready for the next day, I felt so stressed I could barely talk and when I could, it was only to pick a frustration fight with B.

One of the values I hear constantly in my school district is “students first”.  I’m totally on board with this – my teaching should be centered around what students need and how to facilitate their learning. But what it feels like, is students first, at the expense of teachers. It feels like we have a constant revolving door of teachers at my school, especially in the science department. In our district, there was a 22% teacher turnover rate from 14/15 to 15/16, well above the national average of 14%. At my high school, the science department has experienced an average 50% turnover for the past 5 years.

So what is the plan for teacher burnout? There doesn’t seem to be any plan in my district to retain teachers at all farther than “we are the highest paying district in the area” (which isn’t saying much, actually). This past week, our district superintendent came to visit for a Q & A session (don’t even get me started on how set up and fake it all felt), and when asked about his plan for teacher burnout and such low retention rates, he pulled a smooth move and basically said a lot of things without saying anything at all. Frankly I’m surprised my district is not more proactive about teacher retention, considering how costly a revolving door of teachers can be. I don’t even want more money – I just want the time and space to grow and be a better teacher. At least with my admin I feel heard, but not helped.

Instead, I’ve gone searching for help myself. I hosted a learning lab today where a group of experienced teachers came to watch a lesson in my class. Afterwards, we all debriefed, did some research, and discussed ways to increase thinking and build more inquiry into a science lesson. It was all together extremely inspiring, and I’ve agreed to host another learning lab in a couple weeks. I’ve also been asking teachers how they plan and will be searching more into how I can streamline my planning process and make it more efficient.  Lastly, I really need to just be ok with having mediocre lecture based lessons sometimes, because those are the ones I can get done quickly. It’s the only way I’ll be able to keep my sanity and not harbor bitterness, which leads to burnout.

Sorry for the big rant, readers, but I reached a big breaking point this past week. I need some self care, and some time. I will pull through. In the mean time, here are some old photos from before the break that I never got around to posting.  The dress is from Anthropologie, and the colorful pattern is really not my usual thing. But I loved the embroidery, and it just felt special, so I snapped it up from the sale section.

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glasses: warby parker – dress and tights: anthropologie – boots: dr. martins

This Week.

This past week has been craaaaaazy.  It started off with a holiday party on Monday, went on to a 13 hour work day Tuesday, into Finals week, and is ending today (Friday) with another holiday party.

The Fall semester is winding down to a close with the last 2 final exams taking place on Monday.  Grades are due the following day, and we are on winter vacation starting Thursday. It’s been a great semester – I’ve been growing as an educator without feeling overwhelmed, and my kids have been super awesome. Teaching AP Bio is super cool, as the kids are self motivated and more importantly excited for my class every day. Mind blowing, seriously. All my classes have been awesome – these kids man, they really warm my heart to the core every day, even when my face still looks stone cold.

I really hope it all continues to go well next semester – but I’m wary since I’m getting an additional class to teach come January. This means my average 45 hour/week job is turning into a 50+ hour/week job, which to me is not sustainable. Fingers crossed I find magical time in my day to make it all work!  Sadly, we (in science) all know there is no such thing as magic.  I crush my students’ dreams all the time when we get to the unit where we discuss the Conservation of Matter and the first Law of Thermodynamics.  It’s when I tell them that magic doesn’t exist, and while we’re at it, Santa Claus doesn’t either.  Nothing can be created or destroyed, only converted. So back in the day, the Santa Claus I thought I saw in my living room just converted his clothes from dad clothes to a red furry Santa outfit!  I’m so mean. Just to remind every one so I don’t start getting hate comments, these are 15 year olds.

On Monday, I got dressed with “day to night” in mind.  I knew I’d be at school late (hello finals week!), and that I would have to rush just about straight from school to a holiday party at the Breckenridge Brewery in Littleton, CO.  Brewery tours aren’t exactly the place for typical sparkly holiday outfits, but I still wanted to spice it up a bit. Good thing I had new boots to throw on!  I picked these up from the Madewell site recently with all the great holiday sales going on. They are calf hair, meaning they feel even more like a dead animal than just plain leather. I really am a terrible person. Lastly, I topped it all off with the goth-iest of lipsticks I own, Kat Von D Liquid Lipstick in Damned.  Because damn, I’m damned after that last comment about my shoes being made from baby cows. Terrible.

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top: free people – jeans: mother denim – boots: madewell

Existential Crisis?

I just finished a 3 day Science as Thinking institute through PEBC. It was amazing and I learned oh so much about inquiry and how to foster real, valuable, scientific thinking in students. Actual learning through teaching for understanding. We were given this brilliant book and I’m in the process of devouring it. The institute was all Expeditionary Learning stuff without actually calling it Expeditionary Learning. That ‘rigor’ that was so elusive and confusing to me before? I totally get it now! That ‘discourse’ that was so forced before? I know how to make it more authentic and natural now!  If you’re in a school that values quality professional development and a budget exists for PD, I would recommend checking out PEBC – they run institutes for all the core subjects.

I’m in my 7th year of teaching science. I learned how to teach through an intern program. It was trial by fire (literally – some kids lit a fire in my room one day). I developed some very bad ‘survival’ habits to lesson planning those first 2 years. In my credentialing program, I learned that ‘inquiry’ meant doing labs (science teachers, you know what I’m talking about) and having students predict and explain through modeling real word phenomena. Lastly, I make my kids take notes, and my assessments this year are unit tests. Shock horror. All joking aside though, I am very seriously reconsidering what I am doing as a science teacher. What are my kids actually learning?

I’m feeling the need to scrap everything I do and start from scratch. This past week has been somewhat soul shaking (a little dramatic, maybe?) for me. I may be in the midst of a yet another teacher existential crisis.

New additions to my closet and a glass of wine are helping me weather this crisis tonight. I have a new coat! This Madewell City Grid Coat was on super sale and I justified the purchase by rationalizing away the fact that I have my favorite Arcteryx and another similar coat (but none of them are warm and black!) already hanging in my closet.

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glasses: warby parker – coat: madewell – cardigan and blouse: uniqlo – jeans: 3×1 – boots: franco sarto

Science!

Thanksgiving break officially has started for me.  YAY.  I get tomorrow “off” with the rest of the science department, because my principal is generously sending us to the Colorado Science Conference for Professional Development.  I’m so freaking excited.  I haven’t attended a science conference since my first year, when the NTSA held their national conference in SF.  As a first year teacher, it was all wasted on me while in survival mode.  This time around, I’m ready with my science teacher hat.  I need a fresh step in my science curriculum.

I love science.  I teach science.  Every. single. PD I attend is about reading/writing/speaking (common core).  Where is the science at?  No where.  Until now.  Have I mentioned how excited I am about tomorrow?

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cardigan and jeans: madewell – belt: gap – shirt: uniqlo – boots: doc martins

Made By Mommy

My mom grew up in a time and a place where there weren’t a lot of fast-fashion type stores to shop at.  She was born and raised in Vietnam, though my family is ethnically Chinese.  Back then, their version of shopping was shopping for fabric, and they all learned how to sew for themselves.  Even now I think my mom gets a thrill out of finding great fabrics for a good price.  So when my sister and my mom travelled to Myanmar this past fall, she brought home a stack of really cool embroidered fabrics.  She let me pick out the ones I liked the most, and sewed me a couple of skirts.  My mom has always been resourceful and ingenious — I think in her past life she must have been an engineer.  She took my favorite J.Crew #2 Pencil skirt, turned it inside out to show the seams, and used it to trace out a pattern.  After a number to try ons, lots of taking in and letting out seams, I left Washington DC with 2 perfectly fitting skirts in gorgeous fabrics.  I wore one of them yesterday to school and it is now my most conformable skirt, ever.  My mom is amazing.

By the way, my Honors Bio kids have been killing it lately learning about cellular transport.  I’ve never had such an easy time teaching this subject.  They’re making connections left and right, applying osmosis to their own lives and asking fantastic questions.  Lessons that took 3 days to get through in the past took me ONE day with this bunch.  Amazeballs.  Revamped curriculum and honors level kids FTW!

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necklaces: etsy (gift from b) similar and f21 – tank: alternative apparel – cardigan: j.crew – skirt: sewed by my mom – boots: steve madden – fitness tracker: fitbit

Birds and Shit

I did it this year – I brought poop into my classroom today.  I did my “alive/dead/not-living” lesson today, as I do in the beginning of every school year.  The lesson includes an activity where students circulate through about 14 items, where they have to determine if the item is alive, dead, or not-living.  It helps to prime the kids on what it really means to be alive (biologically speaking).  It’s a brilliant lesson borrowed from my mentor/coach from my first few years of teaching, Eric.  It’s a hit every time, and really gets the kids thinking about common characteristics/processes that all living things share.  Today, the lesson was a smash – because now I’m the teacher who brings dog shit to class (in a sealed baggie).

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glasses: warby parker beckett – shirt: anthropologie pintucked buttondown – jeans: f21 – shoes: birkenstock arizona – tracker: fitbit flex – watch: fossil