Tom’s Tales: What’s the Difference?

This has not been a banner year in my teaching career. Noteworthy, sure. I moved from a low income suburban American public high school to a private international school in Bangalore where I literally have a prince in class. It’s been extraordinarily noteworthy. It’s also been rough. I’ve had to rethink a lot of assumptions I’ve held dear about myself as a teacher. Things have gotten better as the year has progressed. During the first several months I made noteworthy mistakes every single day, from huge, where I misunderstood the scope of an exam I was supposed to have given (one of my greatest headaches of the year and one I’m still convinced I was not the only one in the wrong but was the only one who paid a price), to smaller mistakes like misplacing stuff that would have been more forgivable if not for the other, more major issues.

While I’ve gotten better, there are times it still feels like I’m back in my first year of teaching. One thing that has helped is that I’ve started to put the many things that have been foreign to me in easy to digest categories: IB vs. AP, IGCSE vs. teacher-controlled curriculum, private vs. public, Indian vs. American, wealth vs. poverty, International School vs. neighborhood school, and, finally, figuring out the unique culture of any school one might join.

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Sometimes, in the middle of all the stress, one of the feral kittens runs through.

What really threw me was the vastness of the gulf in each one of these categories. In 18 years in Beaverton, I taught in three different schools with seven different principals. In each school I took pride in teaching whatever was thrown at me, from college classes to literacy labs, from fairy tales to literature of protest, from 8th grade sex ed to AP Language. I taught whatever I was asked to teach whether I thought I was ready for it or not. Journalism is a great example. Now I think back on it as one of my top few experiences of my career, but I was asked to take over an award-winning newspaper in my third year of teaching when no one else wanted to even though I really wasn’t qualified. In part because of all of that, I came in to this year thinking I would be able to roll with whatever was thrown at me.

Unless you have a billion dollars and a news network telling you you can do no wrong, misplaced confidence tends to bite one in the ass pretty darn quickly. I think the adjustments are starting to come, though. I’ll try to break down some of the adjustments I’m trying to make:

IGCSE is a prescriptive, exam-heavy curriculum that is almost the opposite of what I love about curriculum-building. Some of the writing for which the kids are held accountable penalizes critical thinking, and the literature seems designed to make kids hate reading. But it’s what I have to teach. Mid-year, I instituted a choice reading program in class without the classroom libraries enjoyed by my Beaverton colleagues. I had to do something to remind kids that reading is fun. I’m now trying to establish a system where we practice the IGCSE-required writing using the choice reading books, so they can practice those skills while having fun exploring their books. My first go at it resulted in two of my students writing an encounter between Hazel of Fault in Our Stars and Peter Rabbit of Peter Rabbit in the poetic form of Peter Rabbit. I see promise. I also submitted a request to purchase 115 books for a nascent library to make the system real. Finally, I have visions of next year connecting them online with the students of one of my fabulous Aloha colleagues (yay Nichole!).

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Socratic Seminar

I don’t help myself with the stress. I have some of the same old self-imposed challenges — procrastinating the grading, speaking my mind a little more freely than I probably should, letting my shyness keep me from talking to as many people as I should, and some other stuff. I’m trying, though. I feel like I’ve started to get my feet back under me. Maybe I’m not yet the teacher I was that made me so confident (maybe I never was), but I’m starting to make my classroom my own and teach some of the things I want to teach the way I feel comfortable teaching them. I’m getting out of my classroom a little more to talk to a more people. I’m hoping this summer I’ll have the wherewithal to plan my stuff next year to start at least where I am now rather than continue to be challenged.

One thought on “Tom’s Tales: What’s the Difference?”

  1. Such an honest, thorough self reflection. Nothing but respect for your tenacity and commitment to ongoing improvement. Your students are most definitely reaping the benefits of such a committed teacher! 🙏 Thanks for sharing and being so open.

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