Tuesday, August 24, 2004

First First Day(s)...

Yesterday, my staff returned to school. Our starting-up schedule is a bit complicated: we have a week of half-day teacher orientation followed by a week of half-day student orientation, followed by a week of citywide professional development (this is when teachers start at most schools), followed by the real first day of school for students on September 13th.

I wrote a really long post about yesterday, but as I explained last night, it vanished - perhaps someday it will be found in a "dead blogger office" somewhere in a musty cellar in Silicon Valley. You never know. Anyway, here's a shorter version.

6 am - Getting up before 9 am is rough! Shower, cereal, coffee. In an effort to save $1.40 a day, I bought one of those plastic filters that sits on top of my mug so I can just boil water and pour it over the grounds. Unfortunately it is a little wide for the lip of the new thermos I'm using, so coffee spills all over the counter. I move the whole operation into the sink.

6:something am - I need to catch the bus around 6:40, but my clocks have slipped over the summer, and I no longer have any idea what time it is. My bedroom clock seems fast, my bathroom clock slow. My cellphone is in between. My watch battery died a few weeks ago and I haven't missed it badly enough to replace it yet. Anyway, it's not the end of the world if I'm late this week, since no children are in school yet. Halfway down the block I realize I left the thermos in the sink. I turn back for it.

Note to new teachers: Do a dry run of all the nuts and bolts of your first day of school. Do not try out a new route to work, new alarm clock, or new shoes on the first day. New haircuts should happen at least a week in advance. And never, NEVER test pilot a new thermos on the first day of school.
On the bus, I open the thermos for a sip of coffee. Maybe it's the early hour, maybe it's the fact that I haven't had any coffee yet, maybe it's just me... I don't notice that this is a classic thermos, the kind where you unscrew the cap and turn it over, making a little cup, then pour from the vessel into the cup and drink. I try drinking straight from the thermos and end up covered in coffee. At this point I can't go home to change my shirt, so I thank heaven I won't have to meet any kids today - my colleagues already know I'm a freak. Luckily, it dries by the time I get to school and you really can't see it at all.

A couple of teenagers get on the train with an enormous black and red plush dog, a prize from Six Flags. I love the fact that New Yorkers feel so comfortable bringing strange and outsized stuff all over the city by train and bus - I wouldn't want it any other way! Yet it does pose some challenges for security, given that you could hide a couple of ten-year-olds inside this dog with room to spare. As the train pulls to a stop, the dog falls over onto my leg. It's surprisingly heavy! I grab it by the ear and shove it back towards its owner.

We start the day with a meeting of returning staff only, to clear the air and put any lingering conflicts, tension, or resentment behind us, and to set a more positive tone for ourselves and our brand new teachers. It goes remarkably well! We begin by making "Four Agreements" about how we will communicate with each other. Some of the specific things we discuss include staying away from gossip and "the meeting after the meeting" because it tends only to increase our anger with each other and get in the way of actually bringing up issues honestly with the people who are involved. We also go back and forth on the appropriate role of administrators in our school. Ms. Principal had no administrative experience when she started our school; she had been a teacher for a long time and had just finished an administrative degree. She has found it difficult to really lead, partly because we all want to make the major decisions as a team. We tell her that we like it when she takes certain responsibilities and makes certain decisions by herself or with the help of Ms. Dean, because that lifts a burden from our shoulders and frees more of our energy to be great teachers. At the same time, there are some kinds of decisions that we want to be a part of, and we agree to speak up if we feel that a certain type of decision ought to include our input. In the end, it is a positive meeting. No one cries, yet I don't leave feeling as though important things were not said. Maybe we are learning, at last, to work together and trust each other.

At ten, the new staff arrives. We are so many, now, that it takes four large tables combined to make a conference table for all of us! I lead a round of "Two Truths and a Lie" as an icebreaker, and then we tell the story of how our school came to be and what essential features make it what it is. Then we break into groups and brainstorm "Core Values" that we would like to see our staff and students embody, things like honesty, creativity, responsibility, and so forth. We come together as a group and create a list, which we then narrow down to ten core values. We revise each of them so they are active-voice I-statements, like "I do what I say I will do" and "I tell the truth" and "I treat others the way I wish to be treated."

Finally, Ms. Principal handed out two books which she bought for us. The first she encouraged us to read but said we should at least keep visible to remind us that on some level, we are parents to many of our children: Parenting - 10 Basics of Conscious Childraising, by Karuna Fedorschak. The second book is called The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, by John C. Maxwell. We are supposed to read a chapter or two every night so that we can discuss it during our week of professional development in September.

And that was yesterday - so positive! I am really excited about the coming year. Our new teachers are smart, hardworking, and committed, I think. And we all know the power of good expectations...

Ms. Pascal and I went shopping on our way home, and realized that we are likely to be back-to-school shopping in August until we are fifty!

Today we started setting up our classrooms. Lots of heavy lifting. I discovered mouse droppings in one of my closets - the mice found my chemistry supplies, also known as sugar, pasta, flour, cornstarch, salt, etc. I'm moving upstairs. More on that tomorrow.

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