Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What No One Will Tell You When You Come to Work at the DOE, Part 1: Classroom Setup

Hi! I'm Miss Eyre. I maintain my own blog, which is updated semi-regularly, at Life at the Morton School. I am going to be guestblogging here every Wednesday for the foreseeable future. NYCEducator does a darn good job with this blog, and the bar is set high indeed for me. Hope you enjoy my writings. I welcome your feedback in the comments here and at my own blog as well.

So without further ado...

What No One Will Tell You When You Come to Work at the DOE

Part 1: Setting Up Your Classroom

This is the first in a multi-part series that may take years to complete. Having earned (and I do mean earned!) my status as a tenured educator in the NYCDOE through (God help us) the NYCTF, I want to share what I’ve learned with those individuals who are just starting out or starting out in a new school. I hope that this advice will be helpful to complete newbies, or to those, like myself, who entirely mucked up their first years teaching and would like to do better.

The more veteran educators out there are likely to not enjoy reading this post. I did not exactly enjoy writing it. But I'm writing this honestly, from my perspective as a younger and newer educator who wanted, above all, to make it to being tenured in this convoluted and occasionally entirely irrational system. I made it. This is what I learned.

My first installment in this series is on Setting Up Your Classroom. No one except a teacher knows what this entails. Even a basic classroom setup requires hours of work for which you are not in any way compensated—including, for the 2009-10 school year, from the looks of things as of this writing, reimbursement for the myriad silly supplies you will be forced to purchase. Surprise and welcome! Get used to it, because this is only the first time you will be confronted with 1.) long, unappreciated work hours and 2.) buying stuff with your own money that you will never see again.

So. Setting up your classroom. I’m going to assume that you are a middle school ELA teacher, because I’m not sure that anyone, save a teacher with an advanced science lab, has a more headache-inducing classroom setup task. You may be able to skip certain steps in this process if you are a different type of teacher or if—aren’t you lucky!—you are a CTT/SETSS/out-of-classroom type person who does not have your own room. But, again, for purposes of our discussion, you have a classroom and you have to set it up. Here are some things to think about.

1.) YOUR DESK. Putting your desk in front and center of the room IS NOT DONE. I cannot stress this enough. It is extremely unpopular and will mark you as a troublemaker right from the beginning. I find that putting your desk in a front corner of the room, far from the door, works well, but you need to find the place that works for you. This is if you have a desk. You may not have one. You are sort of allowed to ask for one, but don’t be surprised if you make do with two or three student desks pushed together, a table, a couple of milk crates, etc. Keep your desk clean. A clean desk invites far less close inspection from your superiors than a messy one. And I should know, having been subjected several times to trying to teach while my AP “casually” looks through every single paper on my very messy desk.

2.) STUDENT DESKS. Putting desks in rows is ALSO NOT DONE. Again, I cannot stress this enough. “But,” you may ask, “doesn’t putting desks in groups invite students to, well, look at each other and talk?” Why, yes, it does. This is the point. Whether or not you agree with this point is beside said point. Put your desks in groups of 4-6. Sometimes you can get away with pairs. In any case, the desks should not be, say, facing the chalkboard. “WHAT?” you may ask. “But how will they see what I’m doing or take notes?” That is a fine question, but again, beside the point. Just put your desks in groups. Trust me when I say that I’m saving you the trouble of having your AP or “helpful” colleague come in and point out that they should be in groups.

3.) CLASSROOM LIBRARY. You may or may not have one of these to begin with. If you have one, congratulations! It must be sorted according to reading level and genre. Were you taught how to do this? No? Learn over the summer. Google “Fountas and Pinnell.” You will come to detest these names. If you do not have one, you will be expected to have one. “But I don’t have any money to buy books!” This does not matter. I like Freecycle for acquiring books. And Goodwill. And stealing (“borrowing”) from better-endowed colleagues.Also, you will need to buy baskets. “Why can’t I just put them on shelves?” This is also a fine question that no one in all of teaching history, including Lucy Calkins* herself, has ever answered. Buy baskets. They are quite cheap at your local dollar store. Start with at least two dozen. Expect to have to get more.

*If you do not know who Lucy Calkins is, learn, and then cry, because she will haunt you for your entire career.

4.) BULLETIN BOARDS. It is a well-documented fact that students simply cannot be successful without having their work, miles of it, with rubrics, task cards, state standards, and thoughtful reflections about the work posted on bulletin boards inside and outside their classrooms. Who puts up these beautiful bulletin boards? Why, you do, silly! And who buys the backing paper and colorful borders and cutouts and mounting paper and whatnot to put on these bulletin boards? You do, of course! And it’s not cheap, by the way. I recycle my border paper meticulously by coiling it up and securing it with rubber bands when I remove it. I also don’t buy the expensive rolls of backing paper—wrapping paper from the dollar store works like a charm. Bulletin boards generally need to be changed at least once a month. They need to colorful and tidy and neatly arranged. Most administrators want to see the work, at minimum, identified with a short summary of the assignment and what unit of study it relates to. Your crazier admins want more information. Learn what your admin wants and do it.

5.) CLASSROOM DÉCOR. Do not buy a dozen colorful posters at your local teacher store and think you’re done. Oh no. Admins want to see posters and charts that YOU have made. In all your spare time, of course. My advice is make nice ones, once, and laminate them so you have them forever. You might have a laminator, film, and, if you’re really lucky, a nice school aide at your school who will do this for you. You might not. Make them relevant and specific to what you do in your classroom. Chart paper is cheaper through ClassroomDirect or a similar bulk supplier than, say, Staples. Your school might give you chart paper, but, then again, they might not. Decorate every available surface—this is NOT limited to bulletin boards. I had posters and charts on every single window in my classroom this year, above bulletin boards, between bulletin boards, etc. I have colleagues who have made clothesline-type things.

6.) STUDENT SUPPLIES. Set up spots in the classroom that students can freely access with little or no help from you. I have a table that holds bins of art supplies, tissues, paper towels, staplers, hole punches, etc. Notice that it does not hold pens and pencils. I have a strict policy about supplying the basics to my students—namely, I don’t do it. They have to be responsible for SOMETHING. I’ll write more about how to make these choices in a later post. I also reserve two shelves on which students keep their class notebooks. They are responsible for picking up and dropping off their notebooks every day. Again, maintain these spots and put some of the onus on the kids for keeping them neat and tidy.

7.) ELECTRONICS. You may or may not have computers, a printer, a SmartBoard, a projector, etc. in your room, but consider these items, if you have them, when setting up. Probably your electrical outlets and Internet connections will only allow you to put them in certain places. You may have to work around them. And no, do not expect that anyone will help you with this. Do the best you can until something catches fire. I’m exaggerating, but only a little—my first classroom was basically a computer lab that I had to assemble myself, and I got no help until maybe the third week of school.

8.) CHALKBOARDS. I hate chalk, and this year I turned my chalkboard into a sort of large easel on which I posted four pads of chart paper. I liked that system because it allowed me to save and laminate (see Item #5) really good charts. This coming year, I may go entirely digital because I got my own dedicated LCD projector and I have a laptop. You may not have these things, but consider carefully how you plan to present information to a large group. Just because the chalkboard is there doesn’t mean you have to use it exactly as intended. I went 180+ days without touching a piece of chalk.

9.) YOUR OWN PERSONAL COMFORT. There are some things you should have in your classroom to ensure that you don’t lose your mind. Unfortunately, a bottle of scotch really should be, but can’t be, included on this list. This is my personal list, but feel free to add or subtract as necessary. Keep these supplies under lock and key by any means necessary. One year I used a student locker on which I placed my own personal lock.I always have: a couple of nonperishable lunches (Uncle Ben’s Ready Rices or similar), healthy nonperishable snacks (seeds, dried fruit, granola bars), Excedrin Migraine and Tension Headache, feminine sanitary items, hand sanitizer, lotion, body splash, lip balm, nice pens and highlighters, a sweater, an extra shirt, Tide Pen/Shout Wipes, extra coffee, and, for those days when you really need it, some chocolate. These are the kind of things you don’t think about until you really need them and you don’t have time to nip out to Duane Reade or a bodega on your lunch period. You rarely, if ever, will, even if you have the good fortune to be in a school located near one. Save yourself the trouble and keep these things in your classroom, and trust when I say that I have needed every single item on that list at least three times during this school year.

10.) TIME. Well, you can’t buy it at Staples. What I mean is that you MUST plan accordingly for classroom setup. The veterans around here won’t like this, I realize, but I don’t know how you get a classroom setup the way that will keep an administrator off your back without coming in three days early. With the status of the "punishment days" unclear, do not expect to be actually given time to come in explicitly for the purpose of setting up your room. You can get away with cutting some corners once you have tenure, maybe, but not in those first few years. Come in on the Monday before school starts and put in a few hours each day. You will thank yourself when you cut out on time on that Friday before Labor Day rather than facing hours more of work on the cusp of your holiday weekend.

Have I scared you off yet? No? Great. (Well, maybe not.) In any case, come back next week for Part 2: Planning Your First Lessons.
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