Miss Bennett in the Bay

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 21 2007

60% Done is NOT Enough

I think I speak for everyone here when I say the hell-hole that is Institute cannot be over soon enough. I am having difficulty comprehending the idea that I still have two more weeks of this. I am trying to stay positive, and tell myself that there are only two more weeks, but after yesterday it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remain upbeat.

Yesterday was my worst at Institute so far. Not only do we have DCA and get our rubric scores on Fridays, but my FA yelled at me not once, but twice. I had spoken to my CMA about Ms. Lewis on Wednesday night, but we hadn’t done anything concrete about the problem yet. I was to talk to my collab members to see if she does it to them, and my CMA was going to try to make it into the classroom to observe. I don’t feel comfortable talking to my collab members about anything. One of them in particular is really mean to me; she’s always saying nasty comments and rolling her eyes. I think she’s insecure. I really don’t care. But she is the controlling one in the group and the other two people just go along with what she says. So, exposing my vulnerability of Ms. Lewis picking on me to them is less than desirable. And my CMA did observe on Thursday, but that was while we were taking the formative assessment so Ms. Lewis didn’t really have a chance to yell at me or interrupt anything so we were still waiting.

Then Friday rolled around. During math/lit hour I was attempting to teach my group a new way of blending that we learned on Thursday with our Literacy Specialist. Let me pause and explain the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics. Phonemic awareness (what I was teaching on Friday) is spoken only. There are no written words during phonemic awareness instruction. The students just need to listen to the sounds in the words and blend them together. Phonics, on the other hand, is written. It includes identifying written letters and the like. Blending is usually pretty boring for my second graders, but I am supposed to get them to be able to read multisyllabic words. I figured blending them would be a logical first step and I would go from there.

So, I’m just beginning my blending lesson on Friday morning. I’m teaching my students how to use the “arm method:” they stick out their left arm and tap down it with their right hand as they say the sounds in words. It’s not like using their arm has some sort of intrinsic value, it just makes it less boring for them. I’m sitting there with my group of four students and we’ve got our arms stuck out in the air. Ms. Lewis swoops down on us like a hawk swooping down on a helpless mouse.

Ms. L: What are you doing?
Me: Teaching blending…..
Ms. L: Why are you doing it that way?
Me: uh……………….
Ms L.: Who taught you how to do that?
Me: Our literacy specialist….
Ms. L: Stop teaching it that way!
Me (completely flabbergasted): Why?
Ms. L (actually yelling now): If you have them use their arm it takes away from the word on the board!
Me (now I’m thinking that she’s actually crazy, because a) there is no word on the board during my lesson and b) I’m teaching phonemic awareness, which doesn’t require words on the board anyway): but….
Ms. L: No! Stop teaching it immediately!
Me: Ok…..

And that was it. I got a cease and desist order from my crazy FA about blending. Right after this surreal conversation (which, you must remember, was in front of my students), Ms. Lewis left the room. She does this all the time. She’s there just long enough to yell at me during my lesson and then she leaves for like half an hour. I don’t know where she goes. Right after she left, my students were in shock. A was the first to speak.

A: She scares me.
Me: She scares me too.
A: She yells at me when I get the wrong answer.
Me: Yeah, she yells at me when I get the wrong answer too. But I will never yell at you when you get the wrong answer. I will help you figure out what is confusing to you. Remember (points to poster) It’s ok to be wrong, Learning makes us strong!

Yes, it’s corny. But the kids have apparently never had anyone tell them it’s ok to mess up and that they can learn from their mistakes. That just makes me sad.

After the cease and desist order from Ms. Lewis, our Literacy Specialist walked into the room to observe. She stayed until the end of math/lit hour, so I asked her if I could speak with her. I told her what happened, and she told me that I had been teaching the blending lesson right. She also was pleased that I was attempting to take what I had learned in session and put it directly into my lesson plans (yes- finally some validation!) Then she said I should talk to my CMA about Ms. Lewis because he would have more context about her. But, my LS did sympathize with me- she’s heard that Ms. Lewis is a “tough cookie.”

Tough cookie indeed.

The second time Ms. Lewis yelled at me was during my lead teaching lesson about point of view. I had put a lot of thought into this lesson, I spent a few minutes at the beginning investing the kids in it, and I was on a roll while I was teaching. The kids were responding to me with right answers and I was feeling pretty confident. What’s more, it was my best day so far this summer in terms of behavior. I was feeling really good about myself. Then, Ms. Lewis went for the kill.

Ms. L: You need to write the words on the board next time.
Me: Ok. (Continues with lesson.)
Me: Ok. (Interrupts entire lesson to write words on board)
Ms. L: (Gives me looks of death for rest of lesson)

Not only was that just plain rude, it interrupted the entire flow of my lesson. It brought my energy level down a notch and some of the kids started acting up. My assessment showed, for the most part, that they understood the material, but their investment at the end was waning.

After my lesson, I spoke with Ms. Lewis. My objective in this conversation was to simply get her to stop interrupting my lessons.
Me: I really appreciate the feedback that you give me, and I try to incorporate it into my lessons. But, I would really appreciate it if you could give it to me after the lesson is over.
Ms. L: You taught the lesson wrong.
Me: Yes, I understand that you feel that way, but it really interrupts me when you give me that feedback while I am trying to teach. I also feel that it makes the kids see me as less of a teacher when you interrupt me.
Ms. L: You don’t need to worry about that! You’re not teaching them after this anyway!

We went around and around in the conversation. I can’t remember everything that was said, but I know that at one point Ms. Lewis said, “I’m here for the kids.” I highly doubt that, since she just yells at them all the time, and I really wanted to ask her why she thought I was there. Her voice was dripping with malice, and the look on her face made it quite obvious that she thought I was not there for the kids. Whatever. She eventually said that she would “accommodate” me. As if I was making some kind of special, unreasonable request.

After this conversation, I calmly gathered up my things, walked to the auditorium, went into the corps member workroom, locked myself in the bathroom, and cried. I broke the cardinal rule: I took out my cell phone and called Scott.

I feel better today. I went out with my friends and they always make me feel better. I also emailed my CMA and asked him if we could meet so I can talk with him about this new development. I have an awful feeling that things with Ms. Lewis are only going to get worse, despite her claims that she will “accommodate” me. I want to have TFA on my side in case that happens.

This week (Week 4) the Bay Area staff is coming down to observe us and take us on an extreme bowling trip next Friday. I am really looking forward to seeing all of them again. I felt a lot better about Teach for America when I was in the Bay. The staff there is amazing and they do an awesome job making us all feel welcome. I can’t wait to see them again and feel re-energized about TFA.

4 Responses

  1. Jerry

    This is Ms. Lewis. The children are liking you and expecting me to make things positive and interesting for them. How dare you mess up my tough love program! If I want to interrupt you, belittle you and the students and turn this room into Auschwitz, that is my prerogative! Can’t you see? I’m here for the students!
    Thank you Ms. Lewis for this great insight. Ms. Bennett, please cut Ms Lewis some slack. I think what she is saying is that she is there forever and either disagrees with these new fangled methods resents what life has handed her. Best of Luck!

  2. chrisb

    Not funny.

  3. I realize it’s hard, but I think, based on your accounts, that part of the reason these kids do so poorly is because they have teachers like Ms. Lewis. Ignore her (and her negativity) as much as you can and keep doing the job the best you can.

  4. chrisb

    Thanks for the support, Geoff! I’m feeling much better about it today. The kids keep me going, and the promise that I won’t have to deal with this kind of situation ever again after the next two weeks.

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