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See Me After Class: an interview with Roxanna Elden

I ran across Roxanna Elden's excellent "See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers" while killing time in a bookstore-- gravitating, as usual, to the education section. Elden, a National Board Certified Teacher in Miami, has put together a terrific handbook of non-traditional advice and perspectives on practice. An excellent reference for new teachers, it's also engaging for grizzled veterans--I found myself reading long passages, snorting gently and nodding. In the end, I had to buy the book. You should, too.

TIASL: I love this book! My absolute favorite part of the book was the roxannaelden.jpglong, annotated list of strengths that new teachers might bring to the classroom (Chapter 6, Your Teacher Personality). You noted that everyone who comes into teaching has at least a couple of these gifts. What inspired you to see new teachers as unique personalities, rather than inexperienced technicians needing strategies?

RE: Teaching is a shift from your first-name self to your last-name self, not a complete character overhaul. Teachers often cause themselves frustration by trying to base their classroom personalities on traits that don't come naturally to them. Our strengths as people carry over into our teaching, and so do our weaknesses. Luckily, many different, and even contradictory personality traits can be ingredients in great teaching. In the book I give examples of how teachers can use their natural strengths to work around their weaknesses. What we don't want is for teachers with the potential to be great to get discouraged because they don't have the same strengths as another teacher.

TIASL: Another thing I found compelling is your "true confessions" moments--stories from teachers who are still in the classroom (and still passionate about teaching) revealing cringe-making moments of embarrassment and failure. Was it difficult getting teachers to share those painful memories--and what was the reason you decided to include a blooper reel?

RE: The chapter called Moments We're Not Proud Of was in some ways the seed idea for the book. There were teachers at my school who helped me stay sane my first year by sharing their own mistakes off the record, but not everyone has such colleagues. Some teachers follow what I call the "stay positive!" code. When another teacher opens up with a problem, they say, "Well that never happens in my class because I'm doing what I'm supposed to do." This is the most obnoxious phrase in teaching. I've also found that it often turns out not to be true. After all, what type of teacher makes someone feel bad for not knowing something instead of at least trying to offer guidance. Teachers who understood what I was doing with this book were generous enough to say, "That has happened in my class, and it's not an easy problem to solve, but here's how I deal with it."

TIASL: I wish I'd had a book like "See Me." You tangentially refer to another, famous book about the first day of school (by the number of pages!)--but have there been genuinely helpful books that carried you through the inevitable dark days of your own early career?

RE: "See Me After Class" is the book I needed in my own first year, but here are some other teaching-related books I love:

The Great Expectations School, a beautifully written first-year memoir by Dan Brown
Reluctant Disciplinarian, a hilarious classroom-management book by Gary Rubinstein
Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt - a classic

The three books are quite different from on another, but are similar in that the authors are willing to be honest even when it does not make them look like heroes. This lets readers benefit from their truthfulness and enjoy their writing styles.

TIASL: The tone of the book is wry and occasionally cynical--a perfect attitude for teachers, actually. If you can't laugh at the things that routinely happen in schools and classrooms, you well might feel like "beating your head against a wall until pieces of scalp and hair are all over the place." What role does a good sense of humor play in building a thoughtful and effective teaching practice?

RE: Teaching is such a huge responsibility that our bad days are really bad. Comic relief helps us deal with the inevitable disappointments in a job in which we know how important it is to do well, and sometimes we fall short and don't particularly want to hear about the successes of others. On a day when a second grader curses at you, you don't want to hear a story about how teachers change lives. You want to hear a story about a kindergartener punching a teacher in the eye.

TIASL: I was tickled by your skeptical stance on having students collaboratively write their own classroom rules, in Chapter 3-- a technique I've tried a couple of times and never found effective, either. In fact, lots of your discipline advice circumvents the elaborate behavior management schemes in other books; you're even down with the occasional Jolly Rancher as reward, if that's what it takes at first. Why is classroom management so difficult? Why does this seem to be a subject that Ed Schools avoid?

RE: I walked into my first day as a fourth grade teacher with plenty of training in best practices and all the best intentions. I thought I was prepared. Then I watched helplessly as a fourth-grader who was immune to "conduct cuts" hijacked my entire classroom management plan. Near the end of the year I realized this kid was not the incarnation of evil - he was just new at the school and trying to make his own reputation, and my progressive, democratic, rookie-teacher methods offered him a way to do that.

A lot of teachers come to the job with instructions in best practices and a nudge toward finding a good mentor at their schools who will help them apply this advice in a practical way. Be consistent. Give positive feedback. Plan interesting lessons, and be clear about your rules. It's hard to disagree with any of these tips. The problem is that, like a lot of good advice, they are easier said than done. Telling a new teacher to be consistent is like telling someone who wants to lose weight to eat fewer calories. Knowing the basic principle helps, but there will inevitably be situations where it is hard to follow. In the book I tried to explain the thinking behind all the conventional advice, but also address the reasons this advice might break down when subjected to the twists and turns of the school day.

TIASL: In Chapter 17 (Grading Work Without Hating Work) you note that, yeah, "assessment informs instruction"--but sometimes the goal is simply getting grades in the book. That tension between theory and practice runs through the book in comments about in-service trainings (the organizational specialist story was especially hilarious) and the disconnect between official school policy and what you do to survive. How did you draw the line between professional practice--and the shortcuts that all teachers resort to occasionally?

RE: The tension between theory and practice is the heart of the book. Acting like a hard job can be done easily is a sure way to do it wrong, and being harder on oneself is not the answer to every problem. Sometimes it can even be counter-productive. New teachers are confronted with a hundred things that they have never done before and told they need to get them right the first time. At a certain point you need to learn to live with yourself even when you're not perfect. Sacrificing your happiness, sleep, and general will to live probably won't benefit your students as much as a being a mentally balanced teacher who wants to be in the room with them.

TIASL: What did I miss? What else do you want to say? Have responses to the book surprised you? Did I mention that I love this book?

RE: There are a few poems in the book that many teachers said they shared with colleagues. They are available in downloadable PDF files on the resources page of my website. There are also some newer poems on the site that I wrote after the book was published, including a few for testing season.

I was also surprised at how many people thanked me for the checklists in the book. The folder-by-folder filing system has gotten a huge response, which is funny because as you can tell from the section you mentioned earlier, organization was never a strong point for me. Rookies have thanked me for the shopping lists and two-week countdown to the first week of school. My goal with the checklists was to catch teachers at those moments when they have so much to do they feel like hyperventilating, and just say, "This is what you do first."

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