A Day in the Life of a First Year Philadelphia Teacher

by Christopher Paslay

from Chapter 7 of The Village Proposal

The one thing I remember experiencing my first year on the job was exhaustion.  Teaching was tough.  To do it right, it demanded an incredible amount of your time.  To do it right it had to become a lifestyle, a part of your very existence.

My typical day in 1997 was loaded.  I’d get up at 5:30 am, shower, dress, eat, and walk out the door by 6:45 am.  Most of my neighbor’s cars were still in their driveways at this hour.  Many of the people on the road were blue collar guys—construction workers who drove trucks and carried thermoses and big lunch boxes.  To me, there was always a side to teaching that was blue collar.

I’d arrive at school by 7:15 and sign-in at the main office.  I’d grab my roll book for my homeroom, check my mailbox for messages and other paperwork, and head to my classroom.  If I had parents to call that day I’d do this in the teacher’s room on the only phone, hoping to catch a kid’s mother before she went to work (this was before cell phones).  At least one of the numbers I’d call would be disconnected and no longer in service.  At least one of the numbers would be from a parent who didn’t have the same last name as their child.  I learned early on that if the student’s name was, say, Mary Smith, you couldn’t just call the child’s house and ask for Mr. or Mrs. Smith; the odds were Mr. Smith didn’t live there anymore and that Mrs. Smith was back to using her maiden name or the name of her new husband.  Even more tragic, some of the students didn’t even live with either of their parents, but with a grandparent or some other foster care giver.  The routine for calling a kid’s house was to ask for the parent or guardian of the child: Hello, may I speak to the parent or guardian of Mary Smith please?

When I did get a parent on the line I’d identify myself as Mr. Paslay, their child’s English teacher, and go into the reason for the call.  Your child’s been cutting; or your child’s been misbehaving and distracting other students; or your child didn’t turn in their persuasive essay that was due last Friday.  Parents responded to my calls in a number of ways.  Some were concerned and insisted that they would open-up a can of whoop-ass on their child as soon as they got home.  Others sounded put-out, like their lives were complicated enough already without some teacher hounding them on the phone.  Once in a while I’d get a hold of a parent who had thrown in the towel completely, admitting to me that they simply didn’t know what to do with their son or daughter, that if I had any ideas, they were willing to listen.

After the phone calls I’d go through my mail.  Any forms to complete, progress reports or documents from the counselor, I’d put in the top drawer of my desk to complete when I had more time.  I did the same with memos and other paper work reminding me about scheduled meetings.  Then I’d set up my room for first period.  This involved putting notes up on the board, getting any video, audio or computer equipment organized, and making sure all materials and supplies were in order.  Were there enough copies of the book or magazine I was using that day?  Were there enough newspapers and graphic organizers?

Before computerized grading, I had to set up my attendance and grade book for the day, recording the date, getting out seating charts if needed.  Then I waited, ready for the students to arrive.  It was important to be ready for their arrival, to have all things in place.  If I was a step behind, if I was putting up notes on the board at the last minute or running around to get extra copies, I played catch-up the whole period.  It was like the gun sounding and being stuck at the starting line, watching the race take-off without me; it knocked me that much off my game.

When the bell rang I stepped out into the hallway to greet the students at the door as they entered my room.  I also pitched in to keep my end of the hallway clear, to keep the traffic moving.  There was always a lot of congestion in the halls first thing in the morning.  Kids coming in late, congregating with friends, lollygagging and taking the long way everywhere.  I’d shoo some students off to class only to see them circle back around a moment later.  The hall monitor at the time, a short, 60-something woman named Florence, would holler and shout and tell the kids to move on, to take off their hats, but it usually took a good 10 minutes for the halls to calm down.

“Shut up Florence!” the students would say, mocking the way she talked.  Then they’d crack-up laughing and wander off.  Some mornings I’d get in the fray, demanding they comply with the rules, but most times this only insured that I’d start the morning off on the wrong foot, completely frustrated over a student who either ignored my directions or copped an attitude.

At the late bell I’d come back into my classroom and shut the door.  At this point at least one student would ask if they could go to the bathroom or to their locker or go get a drink of water real fast before class got started.  I’d tell them no, sorry, not right now.  We had things to do and they needed to get started on them.  I had freshman first period so this meant reminding them to sit down in their seats and relax.  Sit down and get started on the journal entry which was written on the green board in the front of the room.

They’d settle and take out their journals.  They’d complete the entry, reflecting on the topic and writing out their thoughts in at least one paragraph.  A paragraph was a minimum of five sentences, I’d tell them.  Journals were collected once a week and counted as 10 percent of their report card grade.  I circled the room and reminded them of the importance of the journals. I also tried to stimulate their thinking by pushing them to answer the question from different angles.  Some students responded positively to this stimulation, others didn’t want to be bothered and put their heads down.  I’d ask them nicely to pick their head up and if they didn’t cooperate or put it back down a minute later, I’d confront them and put their name on my “call list”.  Occasionally an argument broke out.  Once in a blue moon, this led to the student cursing at me at which point I pink slipped them and sent them to the discipline office.

Journal entries varied.  There were always a handful of kids who didn’t have a pen or bring their notebook.  In order to keep them on task, I’d lend them a piece of loose leaf and let them borrow a pen in exchange for allowing me to hold their student ID for collateral.  The same group of students forgot their pens and notebooks on a regular basis.  Lending them one just encouraged their bad habits.  I started charging a quarter for pens and paper, at which time these kids called me cheap and rebelled from completing journals altogether.  I called their parents with varying degrees of success.

After the journals were completed we discussed their responses.  Topics that were very interesting and stimulating—like abortion or legalizing marijuana—sometimes broke into heated arguments.  Despite my rules and specific instructions, five or six people spoke at once.

“Excuse me!” I’d shout.  “One person at a time.” I’d fight tooth and nail to get the class settled and refocused.  I’d call on another student to share his journal.  Thirty seconds later, the person speaking would get bombarded by an opposing opinion, then two, then 10.  The room would erupt like Jerry Springer, minus the fights.  I’d run out of energy and have to move to the next activity, even if there wasn’t significant closure.

The next activity piggy-backed off the journal topic which was geared toward the objectives for the day.  If we were doing a short story from their literature textbook, I’d transition into a “before” reading activity—the KWL was my staple the first year.  I’d have the students preview the title and look at the pictures in order to make predictions about what the story might be about.  Next, we’d preview vocabulary, briefly going through the meanings of the difficult words found in the text.

Late students would begin arriving at this time, some of them showing-up 30 minutes after the bell strictly because their parents failed to get them out of bed and out the door in time for school.  Despite my classroom rules they’d swagger into the room obnoxiously, in the middle of conversations with someone in the hall, laughing, sometimes cursing, cross the front of the room and go to their desk.  On the way they might stop and screw with one of their friends.

Once they sat down, they’d ask, “What are we doing?”  I’d explain the procedure for coming in late, that they needed to check the board for pre-class, for any journal entry they might need to complete.

“You got a pen I can borrow?” they would ask.

“No.  You need to be more organized.  Where’s your notebook?”

“I forgot it.”

“I’ll give you a pen and paper for 25 cents.  You can pay me tomorrow if you don’t have it.  I’ll write your name down.”

We’d begin reading the story.  I might start with the audio version or we’d read the first page together as a class.  Once the students were into the set-up of the plot, I’d have them read independently, using a QNT to deconstruct the text as they read.  A QNT was a strategy that stood for “Quotes, Notes and Thoughts”.  Much like a KWL, students took out a paper and folded it into threes and labeled it accordingly.  Under “Q” they recorded any quotes that struck them as interesting or important, under “N” they took any notes about any particular passage that they either enjoyed or had questions about, and under “T” they recorded thoughts and reflections about certain passages.  It was designed to get them engaged with the reading.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work so well.  Getting students engaged with reading was perhaps the most challenging thing about being an English teacher.  In the beginning, especially dealing with freshman, if we didn’t read the story out loud as a class or listen to it on audio, the students tuned out.  Many didn’t have the self control or focus to read long passages on their own.  They lasted no more than a few minutes and then started talking.  I constantly had to circulate the room and raise my voice to get them back on task.  This was before I learned about “chunking,” and other kinds of literacy strategies.  I was a rookie teacher and didn’t know the tricks of the trade.  I had limited supporting materials and many of the things I did, many of my activities and methods of instruction, were worked out through trial and error.

By the end of the period, which at the time was 57 minutes long, we usually would have gone through at least three activities: a pre-class warm up to introduce the topic for the day; a reading piece that was not always guided with a directed reading strategy; and a writing piece that was not always centered around the proper objectives and didn’t build in that day’s vocabulary.  Often times I struggled with classroom management so my activities were based not on the best methods of instruction or learning objectives but on what would keep the students the quietest.  And I rarely gave homework.  At the time, homework was incredibly hard to keep up with.

After first period my gas tank was already half empty.  If there were a confrontation or spat with a student my energy would be totally spent.  But there was no time for self pity, because as the bell rang and one class left another took its place.

Second period was the same as the first—30 energetic freshman.  I’d go out into the hall to greet them as they entered the room.  There would be arguments over taking off hats and clearing the corridor.  There would be lateness, kids coming in five or ten minutes after the bell with cans of soda they illegally purchased from the vending machines in the lunch room.  There would be more students without pens or notebooks, students who just wanted to screw off or put their heads down on the desk and sleep.  And there would be complaining.  Complaining over the journal entry; complaining over the story or article we had to read; complaining over the stupid writing assignment we had to do.

When second period left third period came in.  Same drill.  Thirty freshmen acting like freshman.  Arguing, complaining, challenging my authority.  On bad days I’d be running on fumes.  I was physically drained, and sometimes it was quite a struggle just to get everyone’s attention to begin the lesson.  The kids would be in their seats with their journals out but still brimming with energy, poking each other, play fighting, horsing around like they were out on the playground.  I’d stand at the front of the room, waiting for just the right moment to get started.  The feeling was a mixture of anxiety and apprehension, like looking at a 200 pound television that you know you have to carry up five flights of steps.  When I thought the time was right I’d jump in and get started.

“Okay,” I’d begin, “it’s time to get started.  I need everyone’s attention now guys.  Seriously.  Does anyone want to share their journal entry today?”

Nine out of ten times the room didn’t settle.  Just asking for their attention usually didn’t cut it.  The freshmen were in their own little worlds and conversation continued.

“Okay guys,” I’d say, and start naming the names of the individuals who were still not listening.  “Joe, I need your attention.  Denise, Shakira, please.  Let’s stop the talking now . . .”

Sometimes Joe, or Denise, or Shakira would get mad and say, “What?!  What do you want?!”

“Stop talking please.”

“Man, I’m not the only one.”

My patience would slip.  So would my temper.  I knew it was time to stop being nice; it was time to start lifting the 200 pound television up the five flights of steps.  There are theories in textbooks that state teachers don’t have to expend this kind of energy to get students’ attention, that if they have established routines in the beginning of the year—such as flicking the lights on or off or holding up their index finger to signal silence—then students will comply practically effort free.  But from my experience that first year, this was a lot of bologna.  I’d flicked the lights on and off several times in September, only to have the freshman go, Ooo!  Haunted house!

Frustration mounting, I’d raise my voice.   “Excuse me!” I’d shout finally.  “I need everyone quiet and facing forward, now!”  Things would begin to settle, although there were always a few pockets of students who refused to allow my lesson to interrupt their personal conversations.  Then I would begin teaching.

Advisory, otherwise known as homeroom, would begin right after 3rd period ended.  Thirty more freshmen would flood my classroom, talking, goofing off, sometimes wrestling.  My goal during advisory wasn’t to keep them quiet but just to keep them in their seats.  I’d sit at my desk and take attendance.  In the beginning of the year I’d ask students who were absent the day before if they had a note, but after a week of doing so, it became clear that bringing in a signed slip of paper from mom or dad was clearly the exception rather than the rule; to my shock, less than 10 percent of the students in my advisory ever had a note excusing their absence.

What’s with these kids’ parents? I would think to myself, remembering how concerned my own mother and father were with my education.  Clearly, many of these children lacked the proper guidance.  School was not a top priority at home, and the absence of their parents’ involvement was having a negative effect on their overall study habits and learning.

Halfway through the 20 minute advisory period the PA announcements would come on.

“Shhhh!” I’d tell them.  “Let’s listen.  This is important.”

Not many people listened or cared.

After advisory was my 45 minute lunch period.  I’d eat my sandwich, take the roll book back down to the main office, and get ready for the last two classes of the day.  I’d straighten my room (pick up the crumpled paper, candy wrappers, and the occasional empty soda can) and replenish supplies.  With time left over I’d grade papers or think about preparing activities for the next day.

The bell would ring.  Another 30 freshman—my fourth class of the day—would come through the door.  Like me, most had just finished their lunch.  Most days this group had two gears: One—bouncing off the walls; and two—sleeping.  There was no in between.  Because of the sugar rush from lunch, they had even more energy than the group before them.  Getting their attention at the beginning of class was the equivalent of carrying a 300 pound television up to the attic, if you can believe that.  Fortunately, I’d have a second wind from eating as well, so I’d usually be able to pull off the task of getting them quiet and writing in their journals.  But often times, forcing them to shut down and concentrate had an interesting effect on their bodies: it sent them into second gear—sleep mode.

If they couldn’t bounce around and talk and burn off the sugar with no holds barred, many times they shut down.  Bang.  Out like a light.  Snoring and drooling on the desk.  I was absolutely stunned and amazed at how little ability they had to control themselves, to put up with just a minimal amount of discomfort.  I was also amazed at how many parents of these children seemed to suffer from the same issues.

On days that I was struggling to get through the period, I’d cave-in and let 25 percent of the class sleep.  I welcomed the peace and quiet.  I was presenting the lesson to whoever wanted to get an education.  If they opted out, so be it.  It was their choice.

Next period was my 57 minute prep.  If I could muster the energy I’d get started on making copies for the next day.  I might call a parent if there were an incident earlier in the day, or continue grading papers.  Many times I just veged-out at my desk and tried to keep my sanity.  I was fried and often times did a lot of staring out into space.

The last period of the day were sophomores.  This group of 29 students was a little more mature than my first four classes of 9th graders.  They actually entered my room like regular human beings.  This had a lot to do with the fact that 15 to 20 percent of them cut the class everyday; it was the last period and many wanted to go home early.  At first I spent an incredible amount of time chasing down cuts—checking attendance in advisory roll books and speaking with other teachers (back then there was no computerized attendance system)—but after a few months I didn’t have the time or energy to waste on kids who didn’t want to be in school.

Because the school didn’t have any 10th grade literature textbooks, I photocopied a lot of material out of my college Intro to Literature anthology to use with the sophomores.  I also adapted the writing assignments I used with the 9th graders to use with the 10th.  By this point in the day I was burnt.  Cashed.  Out of steam.  So were the students.  Because of my lack of experience and the lack of materials, my lessons were often thin and didn’t last the full 57 minute period.  Often times by 2:30, fifteen minutes before the bell, there’d be nothing to do.  Students would talk and congregate in clusters in the room.  I’d yell and tell them to get back in their seats, but this was a struggle.  They were bored and ready to go home.  Five full minutes before the bell they’d line up at the door, waiting.  Sometimes they’d push through the doorway and spill out into the hallway.

“Wait for the bell,” I’d tell them, and have to stand in the doorway to keep them from sneaking off.  Every so often I’d get tired of the routine and make a new rule: no one could leave at the bell unless everybody was seated.  It worked for about a week but I soon ran out of energy and lost the ability to enforce the rule.  At the bell, people left anyway.  I gave detentions and made calls but again got limited results.

When the bell finally rang to end the day, the feeling of relief was incredible.  The television was safely on the fifth floor of the apartment (some days, I’ll admit, I only got it to the third floor), and now I could put it down and catch my breath.

Of course, the end of class didn’t mean the end of my day.  There was still an incredible amount of work to be completed before it was quitting time.  Papers to grade.  Lessons to write.  Calls to make to parents to try to get them involved in their child’s education in any way I could.  Some days there were after school meetings with special education teachers to fill out Individualized Education Plans (IEP’S), or conferences with administrators to work on Comprehensive Support Assistant Programs (CSAP’s).  After it was all said and done, I’d leave school sometimes as late as 5:00pm.

When you did the math, I was working close to a 10 hour day.

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