Thursday, February 25, 2010

An Encounter With A Former Boss

I had no intention of posting this week because of a grad school project that has been killing me (or as my kiddos would say, "it's blowin' mine!"). However due to heavy snowfall, a snow day was declared earlier this afternoon. So, before I pass out from exhaustion I'd like to take some time to document an interesting event that occurred recently: 

Around 3:30 pm two days ago, I needed coffee. I had a long day ahead of me because of the stupid grad school project, which goes on top of the normal routine of lesson planning and grading. Since I was out of milk in my fridge, I decided to head down to the Starbucks (sick, I know) around the corner. FYI - lack of sleep outweighs drinking the most burnt coffee in the world. They really need to do something about the fact that it tastes like shit.

As I'm crossing the street, a black Lincoln Town Car stops on the opposite corner. It's interesting because these soon-to-be-extinct limos never fail to remind me about my previous life. I'm forced to remember all the wonderful mornings I took one home, most likely coming off a late, late night slaving away on Wall Street. I remember the sun beginning to peak over the East River as we would floor down F.D.R. towards the Lower East Side. Funny how the memory of a gorgeous sunset could bring up such a terrible feeling...

I didn't see one of my former Managing Directors coming out of the black Town Car now parked directly in front of me. Let's refer to him as JL. JL saw me crossing the street.
"Teacher man! Long time no see. How have you been?"
Wow, JL was the guy who hired me in the interview (see second paragraph from the post entitled, "So how's the teaching thing going dude?" I told him I was doing well, that I was really enjoying my time teaching and that it was still very challenging. I pointed towards my school, which actually looks like a prison if you ask me. JL responds:
"Wow! Well listen, I saw you in the paper and on TV about a year back. Sounds like you're happy and having fun. I've gotta jet, but if you ever change your mind, here's my card. I'm at a new bank now, but still makin' deals. Take care and keep in touch."
If I ever change my mind...hmm... I really wanted to whip out my card (yes, I have a card which I give to all my students - cuz I'm cool like that) and say, "Uh, no thanks. But listen, when you're sick of getting more sensation from your blackberry than your wife, give me a buzz. I can hook you up as a teacher. You know, do some good for once."

Fun times.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Hero

I picked up a pamphlet entitled, Adult Children of Alcoholics my freshman year in college. Believe it or not, I was suffering from anger management issues (I know, I was shocked too); I decided to seek therapy.

Okay, fine. This shit is supposed to be honest: By decided, I really mean my significant other convinced me therapy was healthy and necessary. Logically her argument made sense. However, it still took a shit ton of convincing (and I'm forever in debt to her for that) because of the way I was raised.

Born to Pakistani parents with traditional values, I was taught I can "will" myself to fix any issue. Does this sound familiar? And although this terrible ideology helped me develop some wicked will power, I learned some things can't heal themselves on their own. Off to therapy.
Wait, WTF? Did he just admit to seeing a shrink?
Yes, ladies and gentlemen. I'm South Asian and I sought therapy on my own. That's in bold, motherfuckers. I guess I really must be crazy. Thanks Mom and Dad.

My initial therapy sessions helped me learn what's on the surface and a little underneath. It generally takes a few months to make some breakthroughs and begin the process of change, but I did figure out why I was so highly motivated: I wanted to prove to myself that I could be the best despite my upbringing. I believed I could succeed despite my father being emotionally vacant, yet always available to beat the living daylights out of my mom every night. I believed I could succeed despite my mother then taking her frustration out on me physically and emotionally. I give you Exhibit A - The Emotional Blackmail:
Ex. A. "You better get straight-As. It's your ticket to college and you need to go to the best because you need to make money to get me out of this house. I didn't stay in this marriage for nothing. Remember, you owe me."
My guess is hearing Exhibit A every night for the first eighteen years of my life helped initiate the Superman complex I suffer from. It's even easier now, given I'm a teacher. There's absolutely no way I can go to bed knowing I don't have a great lesson planned for my kids. Although I've gotten slightly better at dealing with this, I still fall into that trap sometimes.

One thing I still haven't figured out yet is my love-hate relationship with abandonment. There are times when I fantasize about everyone leaving me - all my friends, family, etc. Other times, I dream about leaving them (don't kid yourself, you know you've thought about it too). "What would the world be like without me?" is an all-too familiar question I've used as a lullaby to fall asleep to. It's terrible, but I can't help it. As an "adult child of an alcoholic," I desire to please and help others. At the same time, I'd rather be alone. Mind fuck.

I thought by my mid-20s, I would have my shit together. It seems I'm far from it. Want to know a secret?
I often feel nothing
Absolutely nothing. It's the result of years of numbing myself. It is this mental block that is preventing me from growing as a person, being honest about my feelings, etc. It's just so much easier to ignore what's going on inside and focus on the task at hand. Or maybe focus on everyone else's needs. I'm disgusted with the fact that regardless of how I feel, I can somehow always find the motivation to do work. I don't want to escape anymore, but it's just so fucking convenient.

And what about my students? Who will tell them to seek therapy? A lot of them come from troubled backgrounds, abusive relationships, and broken homes. They won't all be as lucky as I was. Wow. I didn't even realize it until I re-read this paragraph, but I almost got carried away on their needs rather than my own. Shit.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"So how's the teaching thing going dude?"

"So how's the teaching thing going dude?" I love answering this question.

I just spent a long weekend in Washington D.C. where I stayed with a friend of mine from college whom I hadn't seen in a long time. It was great because I was able to catch up with him and explore the city. As an added bonus, this trip helped me realize that ever since I've started teaching, the tone and style of my conversations about work have drastically changed.

Teaching has made me forget how miserable I sounded when talking about investment banking. Almost. It’s ironic because all I remember from my college career fairs are the polished investment bankers who spoke so passionately about the “live deals” they were on. They made eating dinners at your desk at 3 AM sound extremely cool. The managing director who ultimately extended me an offer on Wall Street told me, “Nothing beats the inexplicable feeling of working all night on a deal that gets published in The Wall Street Journal. That’s gotta be the best feeling for a 22 year old like you.” Sign me up!

Turns out, he actually forgot to mention the inexplicable feeling of trying to take a shit for 10 seconds in the office bathroom without hearing your blackberry buzz eight or nine times.

These days, it’s completely acceptable to do something you hate if it brings you money, power, prestige, etc. For most of the “career-driven” people I know, feeling miserable is a part of the work-life balance (and they’ll usually bitch about it at some bar). There are also those who view work as a means to simply obtain income and pay the bills; I suppose they consider feeling miserable at work a norm too. And they’re quite okay with it (but they’ll also bitch about it at some bar).

That’s why things are getting really awkward lately when I start talking about what I do. This weekend, I must’ve been asked “how teaching was going” at least five or six times and each time I was more than willing to talk about how great things are. By now, I’m pretty used to these questions since most of my friends aren’t teachers. I’m actually so used to them that my answers have now become pretty standard, giving me the ability to focus more on my questioner’s facial expressions. It’s actually kind of nice, because I’m noticing some pretty interesting things.

For one, when I talk about teaching, I have my questioner’s complete attention. They are awed about the fact that I wake up so early to lesson plan (when I don’t have to) or that I come home late in the evening (when I don’t have to). When I mention I’m also attending grad school for a Masters in Education, their eyes widen. When I talk about the sheer madness at my school, their jaws drop. When I talk about some of my students’ success stories, they smile and seem impressed. Oddly, I don’t recall getting any of these reactions when I used to talk about how I pulled two all-nighters in the office back-to-back. There was one facial expression I do remember getting often however: disgust.

Honestly, I love talking about what I do now (hence this blog). I love talking about my students. I love talking about my voluntarily crazy work ethic. This trip has reminded me how lucky I am.

On a side note, I have to say that some people are doing investment banking (and other corporate-related jobs) because they really are following their dreams (rather than falling in line like sheep). And if they’re happy doing it, then I’m happy for them as well.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Two Face

The past two days have been unusually challenging for me.

The majority of my school's students have been rude, disruptive and careless. I'm really feeling stretched right now given all the other shit going on.

Here's the thing: I have all my lessons up online. I e-mail my students with reminders, send them review packets, make myself available by cell, text and e-mail. I even pack myself a sandwich everyday because kids feel my classroom is a "safe space" during lunch and use the classroom to socialize, study or just do homework. I can't say no to that... I also keep a spreadsheet which I update daily with all my students' grades to track trends in performance. I spend hours on each lesson and presentation to make sure it's clear for visual and auditory learners. I throw in real-life examples for those who need to be able to relate in order to understand.

So why the fuck isn't everyone acing this shit???

If I'm doing everything I can to ensure my students can meet me halfway on this so-called "bridge of knowledge," then the rest is all up to the student. Especially if they applied into this transfer high school, they should know better. So if that is indeed the case, then am I allowed to be a complete dick to those who aren't pulling their weight and making really shitty excuses? Can I disconnect myself from those who don't want to help themselves and focus on the group of kids who do? I really, really wanted to today.

My 1st period has been getting emptier and emptier over time: Attendance continues to be an issue, even though it's Personal Wealth Management. A course I designed to teach high school students the basics about economics, personal banking, credit cards, investments and taxes. This is real world stuff that most people don't learn until they're on their own and usually by making a lot of mistakes. Sound cool? You can't just get into this class - I make potential students fill out an application. I only want the students who actually care to learn money management as I don't want to deal with nonsense while teaching something I really enjoy. Over time however, my class roster of 20 has shrunk to 4-5 regulars, and 3-4 maybes. The rest pop in and out once a week or so, usually 30-40 minutes late. The period is 54 minutes long! Upon coming late, these hard workers usually ask questions such as the following:
"Yo Mista, what am I missing?.. When's the test?"
Check your e-mail asshole. I know you have internet, you just added me on Facebook last night.

Moving on: My 2nd period Algebra class, which is usually my brightest, is starting to annoy me. Kiddos are talking over me, putting their head down to nap, and doing really stupid shit like trying to cut school an hour before they normally would've gotten out anyway (And only to get caught - this makes me laugh and feel sad at the same time). I'm not sure what to do with this group... I went off on them a little today and that forced them to do their work, but only temporarily. More and more, I'm starting to realize why some of these kids ended up in a transfer high school in the first place - they really lack discipline. Next year, the damn student recruiting better be more selective. I didn't sign up to teach at a school for emotionally disturbed students (there really are other places for kids with special needs like this). This isn't one of them - you need to be slightly self-motivated.

My 3rd period has literally been coming to class stoned. No seriously, yesterday it smelled like someone was actually growing weed in my classroom (note: I'm still looking for it, I know it's here somewhere). I felt stoned watching them act stoned as we tried to wrap our heads around factoring quadratics. Then this gem of a question:
"Yo Mista, I hear like, when you like, smoke weed and shit, you do like, better on tests and shit. Is that true? And uh...when's the test again?"
I'm worried about this bunch...

7th period is just a fucking mess. I am at the point where I could give two shits about any one of them (except a select few, who have to bear with me around the jackasses). To be fair, there are some in this class (3 to be exact) that have changed (somewhat) and take each lesson seriously. It's just hard to concentrate when you have boneheads arguing about how they really aren't gay. Every other word I hear in this class is "pause" (FYI: "Pause" follows a statement that is taken out of context, usually in reference to something that sounds "homosexual"). I nearly gave up on them yesterday. And today, I did. I just handed them their assessment after 20 minutes of anarchy and surprise, surprise: Most failed. This is the same group who ask to borrow a sheet of paper to take notes, take really shitty notes, then as they walk out of my classroom, crumple up their notes and try to make a basket in the garbage bin. Unbelievable...

I should have expected things to get sour quick - especially at a first year school. A part of me wants to detach myself from those who don't really want to be here. I think subconsciously I already have. I really want to say, "Listen you spoiled brat, there are kids in other parts of the world who rob bookstores just to read and learn to get the fuck out of the situation they're in. They ditch school to visit tutors who can teach them better because their school and teachers are terrible. And yet, you still whine even when we make all of our lessons available online, give up our lunch periods and stay after school for you?"

I can't count the number of times they tell me they're going to come during lunch or after school when I'm doing my walk around while they take an assessment.
"Yo Mista, Imma come up for lunch, yeah? I really don't get this."
"Sure you can come - you know I'll be here," I say.
What am I really thinking though? Probably this: "No, actually, you may not come. You may come up with a better way to prevent me from noticing that you weren't doing shit during the independent work time."

I feel so two-faced today. My job is to convince students they can all succeed and to help them get there. I see the potential; I want to help channel this into a positive future. But on days like this, I wonder if everyone is capable of change. I'm not so sure anymore. There are circumstances where victims will always remain victims. I've seen enough Law & Order: SVU to be empathetic. But this empathy leads me to question whether some of my kids will ever change. Has the system permanently scarred them?

And what about me? How many more days can I keep pouring energy into those who don't want it?

On Wall Street, I never felt this emotionally drained and physically exhausted. But for some reason, I still look forward to waking up at the butt crack of dawn tomorrow...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Regents

What, exactly are we doing?

I keep asking myself this question at work lately. The state of New York just wrapped up Regents Examinations week. The Regents are state designed exams administered every January, June and August. In New York, a student cannot graduate high school unless he/she passes five specific Regents (I believe these are English, Integrated Algebra, U.S. History, Global History and Science) with a minimum score of 65. Before I take a massive dump on this system: Kudos to New York for making Global History and not just U.S. History a requirement to graduate. I still haven't come to terms with the fact that American students today are learning geography based on what country the U.S. decides to invade next. Pathetic...

I would argue that from a teacher's perspective, the whole Regents system is complete bullshit. Yet, believe it or not, there are plenty of "higher ups" in the system who praise the Regents as a great, objective measure of performance and future success. Some might call the exams a necessary evil - something that needs to be done for a purpose different than simply gauging how "smart" kids are. Then there are those who call for the complete destruction of the Regents system.

After Teach for America (my view is biased, I realize this) training, I find myself leaning more and more towards the "necessary evil" category (I was actually against standardized exams altogether before), primarily to analyze trends in student performance over time. I wouldn't, however, make the exams a requirement to graduate; not if the minimum passing grade is a mere 65. And as if our standards weren't low enough already, students only need a 55 if they want to settle for what in New York state is called, a "local" diploma. Shit man, why even set a bar if it's low enough for a fucking toddler to crawl over?

Forget standards. Simply consider the message. What are schools communicating to students when we return graded Regents exams? Assume John Doe, a below-average student in a NYC public high school barely passes his Integrated Algebra Regents exam. Here's my take on what message the exam score communicates:

"Congratulations John Doe, you passed the Integrated Algebra Regents Examination with a whopping score of 65. Out of a possible 39 questions (30 multiple choice and 9 short-answer), you answered 15 questions correctly, and left the entire short-answer portion blank! But no sweat, this gives you a raw score of 30, which translates to a scaled score of 65 (somehow). John, you half-assed your way through class. You have a shitty attendance record. You still don't know how to engage in a conversation without dropping the "F" bomb four-to-five times in a sentence. But you know what? You passed the Algebra Regents Examination. John, you're ready for the real world. Yes, you, John. Forget what your teachers say about work ethic, discipline and practice. This is your time. Grab a Bud Light." 

Heh, so I may be exaggerating (a bit), but this is purposeful. John Doe realizes there's a discrepancy between what teachers demand in school and what the state (a.k.a. "the real world") considers acceptable. In his naïveté (yes, I know that's a pretentious, douchey word to use), John goes home and smokes himself stupid to celebrate. "Why bother actually learning the material, when I don't have to?" Any mediocre student could get away with barely knowing any content and pass the exams in 2-3 tries. By now, you can see where I'm going with this: We're fucked.

I acknowledge I haven't presented a complete and fair argument here (damn you, grad school), but I'm sure we can all agree on one thing: It's clear more and more schools are looking to standardized tests to summarize the worth (and potential) of any given student. It's all about the numbers...
Newsflash: Education isn't finance. 

Why then, are we using the principles of finance and applying them to education? I really don't think pegging a number on a student tells you much besides the fact that they were successful on a test which was created to promote what Alfie Kohn calls, superficial thinking. Yet, the Regents are being used as a hurdle to graduate in NY state. Wow. We're liars. We tell kiddos that if they perform well on these tests, they're ready to go out there and survive. I acknowledge some readers might not have had the same childhood experience as most underprivileged New York City youth do, so do your best to empathize. Trust me, it's a scary situation... I wish I had taken the blue pill.

By now, you'd think with all the flak standardized tests are getting, New York would at least remove passing the Regents as a minimum hurdle required to graduate. Not a chance. In fact, more states are pushing for tests like these in an effort to bring what the Department of Education calls "higher standards" and "greater accountability." These sound like phrases an investment bank would use to market itself to dumbfucks who rely on CNBC for stock tips...Sad.

Why even bother spending the greater part of a year teaching content when schools could spend a month or two teaching students how to take standardized tests? In fact, screw schools. Principals can just fire teachers and hire The Princeton Review or Kaplan tutors to train students on how to pass (keyword: pass) Regents exams and "crack" the SAT.

A little extreme, I know, but that is pretty much what's happening in the long run. I'm seeing it now and honestly, I'm feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Poor fools with no motivation, work ethic or dreams show up, somehow pass their Regents and get excited about graduating. I really don't think we should let them until they grow up and get their priorities straight. But how long can we keep them? As one of my students said earlier this morning, "High school ain't a place for a grown ass man."