Saturday, May 05, 2007

My MTC Experience

My MTC Experience:

Matthew Lochen

Someone once said that without teachers there would be no doctors, no lawyers, no businessmen, no police officers, no writers, and no athletes. To me, this is an oversimplification. The statement implies that teachers are needed to pass on knowledge, a set of facts necessary to practice medicine, law, business, etc; however, teachers play a much more important, yet less glorifying role. Teachers inspire. Teachers tap into a student’s natural curiosities, hopes, and dreams and push the student toward excellence. The Mississippi Teacher Corps has inspired me and pushed me toward the precipice of excellence.

I am not one to give much credit to fate, but as I write my final essay as a member of the Mississippi Teacher Corps, I find myself reflecting on how I came to be a teacher in Mississippi. During my senior year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I felt an unquenchable drive to make a true, lasting difference in the lives of young people. The most effective path towards achieving this end was, in my mind, to inspire children to pursue excellence. By the time I had learned about the Mississippi Teacher Corps, the final application deadline had passed. I was convinced by my significant other to send an inquiry to the program coordinator regarding an extension. Within three weeks, I was on my way to Mississippi to begin the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life.

My first year was the most difficult. While the program gave me the necessary tools to become a great teacher and provided me with a modest amount of experience teaching summer school, nothing could sufficiently prepare me for my first year. There were some days during which I would pray that this was all just a bad dream and that I would wake up living a different life. Those were the days when nothing seemed to go my way. Students were disrespectful and apathetic. Phone calls to parents yielded nothing more than disconnected numbers. A stack of ungraded lab reports and tests threatened to consume my entire existence. Some days I wouldn’t leave school until nine or ten at night, only to return less than eight hours later. All the while staring me right in the face was a poster on my classroom wall that stated, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”

As much as I despised that poster during those moments, it was right. There are no shortcuts in the race to catch your students up to the rest of their peers across the nation, but it can be done. One of the greatest experiences of this program was witnessing many of my students overcome adversity. At Southaven High School, my home away from home for the past two years, adversity comes in many different forms. Students resist pressure to be involved with gang activity or they constantly struggle to overcome the effects of poverty. I had one student who managed to get to high school without learning how to read. Of course, these obstacles are compounded by the obstacles facing every adolescent across the globe such as trying to fit in with peers or resisting the urge to engage in sexual activity. With all the adversity facing my students, I am truly humbled and overjoyed when they succeed in the classroom, and what’s more is that they do so on a daily basis.

Through my involvement in the Mississippi Teacher Corps, I have realized one of my lifelong goals; to effect a sustainable change in the lives of young people. My students manifest this change through higher test scores, enhanced curiosity about the world around them, stronger critical thinking skills, and greater self-confidence. Several students have demonstrated my impact on their lives in other ways such as coming to me when they have a problem or need advice or simply telling me that I am their favorite teacher. These rewards more than make up for the late nights at school and the several hundred red pens I’ve gone through grading all those lab reports and tests.

The Mississippi Teacher Corps produced some of the finest teachers I have known and it has been a privilege working and learning along side them throughout the past two years. Not all of them, however, will remain in secondary education. In fact, I am leaving the field to pursue my true dream of becoming a physician. The lessons I have learned through my experience teaching and from my professors have given me a greater understanding of the effects of adversity on the lives of young people, and this is a lesson I know will continue to shape my future for decades to come.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

How do you get kids excited about class when summer is around the bend?

It's been three weeks since we have come back from spring break. Usually it takes me about a full week just to get back in the swing of things, but surprisingly it only took me a Monday this time. I wish I could say the same for the students. It appears that our students have taken an early summer break and it's barely April! They've got at least another two months left; well, most of them. (More on that later.) I don't know if I've worked them too hard this year and they are just worn out or if the taste of freedom they gained over spring break left them wanting more for whatever reason. Don't get me wrong, I am looking forward to summer too, but I view summer a little differently than most people. I'm going to tackle that topic in my next blog.

Back to the point of my students shutting down too early. Now I am not blaming my students for wanting to take an early summer vacation. Let's face it, we all were eager to get to summer when we were students ourselves. I do, however, feel that it is my responsibility to get them excited about class. I know, I know; excited about class? Come on. However, I think I have been successful up to spring break achieving this end. We really do have a good time in class especially when everyone is respecting the rules and each other. So, how do I get them excited about class when summer vacation is at the forefront of everyone's thinking? I have a few ideas that I will not post here because I know my students often read my blogs. Sorry guys. Perhaps I'll post some of them during next month's blogs.

Until then, good luck with state tests!

Sunday, March 04, 2007


Last week I had to miss a day of school. It's really no big deal to miss one or two days a year so I went through the usual motions and left very detailed lesson plans for my substitute. The reason I left such detailed plans is that I think substitutes have an extremely difficult job, perhaps even more difficult than a teacher's job. They come to school with no more than an hours notice and have to basically babysit 150 + kids for almost 7 hours. It's no easy task. I've heard so many others say that a substitute has such an easy job because usually teachers just give students busy work while they're gone leaving the sub with the excruciatingly stressful job of sitting at the teacher's desk reading the latest Danielle Steele or John Grisham novel. This is not the way I see it. I know most substitutes don't read romance/mystery novels all day. They are constantly keeping the kids from talking/touching/teasing each other and trying to focus them on their work. They have to field a barrage of questions completely unrelated to anything all while trying to enforce rules that, for some crazy reason, students don't feel apply when the teacher isn't there. So let me make this clear, I have full respect for substitutes...unless...

On the day I returned, I learned that my particular substitute had not instructed the students to do their work. Instead, the substitute chose to sit at the front of the room and lecture them about how to head a paper in the "real world" for 45 minutes. Not only that but on my lesson plans, I remind them of some unwritten, in class rules. Rules like "do not open the window because there is no screen protecting students from a 20 foot drop to the concrete below." Well, as I drove by the school that day, coming back from an appointment, guess what I saw? The window was wide open and a student was leaning out of it. (NO JOKE!) When I came back the next day, I found out that the substitute had opened it because he/she wanted a breeze to blow through the room. I cringed as I heard this. Part of me wonders if my students are telling the truth and part of me wonders where on earth this substitute came from.

So anyway, I was left to pick up the pieces the day I returned, and eventually I caught up to where I needed to be in my calendar. I guess the only point to my rambling is that you just never know what to expect as a teacher. Most subs are fantastic but every now and then you get one that even drives the students nuts.

The Countdown

It has been a while since my last blog (there was some drama surrounding blogging in our program which has now been resolved to the best of my knowledge). You'd think I'd have a lot to talk about but the fact of the matter is, the past three months have just been business as usual at Southaven High School. Only one more week until spring break. How amazing is that? This year has just flown by. The wonderful thing is that with each passing day, I feel as though I'm improving as a teacher. I'd be a fool to think that I any where near perfect, but nevertheless, I can see myself getting better by the day.

Only 80 more days until the end of the year. Now that is 80 total days, in other words, I am including weekends and spring break. Yup, 80 more days, 1943 hours, 116592 minutes and 6995520 seconds, give or take a few. I've had a countdown going since the beginning of September not because I am loathing this year (on the contrary, I am enjoying it much more than last year) but because it is a sign of progress. It really makes you realize just what you have accomplished when you have a countdown the end. On the other hand, it also makes you realize just how much you have to do in the little time you have left.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

New School

Winter break is over and it is the beginning of a new semester. For most teachers, it will be business as usual for the next 138 days until summer but at Southaven High School, business is anything but usual. That's because over winter break, Southaven High School moved into a brand new building, and let me be the first to say how amazing the building is. According to my administrators, it is the best high school facility in the state of Mississippi. My new room is quite a bit smaller than my old room but I no longer have cockroaches crawling up and down my walls, I no longer have old shower paneling for my white board (which wasn't so white because I couldn't really erase it), I no longer have wild temperature changes from morning to afternoon. So all in all, I'm happy with my new room, and I think my students are as well.

The first week back, students were only present for three days, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. It didn't feel like we were beginning a new semester at all, in fact, it felt as if we were beginning a whole new year. Students had to wander the hall in an attempt to locate their classrooms. Locker assignments had to be doled out. And students now had to figure out how to open the combinations on their lockers since we didn't have combinations of the previous building's lockers. Oddly enough, many of my students told me this was their greatest challenge. I think every Memphis news station has been through the school now and I imagine that people are getting tired of hearing about Southaven's new school. Nevertheless it is a welcomed new building. Things seem to be more efficient. No longer do students have to go outside the building to change classes as they did in the old building. Students can get to any classroom in the building in less than 5 minutes easily (although they will still argue against that claim). And believe it or not, teachers actually get a full half-hour for lunch, although that doesn't mean I won't have students in my classroom for extra help.

So no, it is not business as usual at the new Southaven High School but we're getting there. I am just counting my blessing to be out of that old, over crowded school and into a new state of the art building. How many Mississippi teachers can say that? What a great Christmas present.

How I get respect from students

I think the question of how to get students to respect you is a tricky question to answer but undoubtedly a relevant one. The road to respect is varied and each teacher takes his or her own route. For an older teacher, I think respect is easier to earn simply because most adolescents have some concept or understanding that respecting your elders is a part of life. Granted, not all adolescents feel this way but I don't think it is a stretch to say that most do. Similarly veteran teachers possess a greater ability to command respect of the class simply because students recognize their names and face, and in general they probably have support from the administration. Most MTC teachers, however, are not older teachers and they are certainly not veteran teachers. They are young, novice teachers and the students know this. Gaining respect is not easy.

One of the ways that I gain respect is through consistently exercising my authority through proper classroom management techniques. You’ve heard it time and time again, students like to have a routine. If the students know what to expect day in and day out I think their respect for you will slowly increase. Being an effective classroom manager will only gain you so much respect, and quite frankly, if you want to be a great teacher this just isn’t enough. The next step to earning even more respect is to relate to your students. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t interact with some of my students on a more personal level, whether it is asking them about the college bowl games or what they are going to be doing over the weekend. Because I’m young, I think students tend to open up to me more so than they do with some of the older, more veteran teachers. Taking an interest in their lives and sharing a little bit about your own life outside of school reminds the students that while you’re their teacher, you’re still a person. Many students respect this.

Finally and most important, the number one way to gain the respect of your students is to show them that you care about them and their education. It’s easy for a teacher to think that they are part of a thankless profession because it is so rare to get a “thank you” from a student, but believe it or not, students know when you’re going the extra mile. They do appreciate it even if they don’t give you an apple every morning. Instead, to show gratitude for all your hard work, they give you respect. This respect doesn’t come cheaply. It has to be earned from day one of the school year.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Plans for next year

The second of our required posts is to talk about our plans for next year. I doubt anyone really wants to hear my plans for next year in light of the fact that I won't be continuing as a high school teacher, but I'm at a loss for what else to write about. So here it goes. Last year I applied to and was accepted to medical school. I chose to defer my admission until this upcoming year. In general, I don't like to talk about my future as a medical doctor. It's not that I am regretting entering medical school because I would love nothing more than to become a physician. I'm passionate about the medical sciences, I am fascinated with the workings of the human body, and I want to continue serving others, etc; however, I can't help but feel a little guilty that I won't be continuing my service to the students of Mississippi.

This year has been a great year. I feel that my students have made significant gains in the classroom, and I feel that I have made significant gains as a teacher. Without a doubt, I am 10 times the teacher I was last year. (For those of you who think I'm bragging, rest assured, I am FAR from a perfect teacher, and I've come far enough in my teaching career to feel comfortable enough to acknowledge that fact.) That said, I can't imagine how much I will improve if I stay for a third year, or a fourth year, or a fifth year, etc. So I am left with the question, will I help more people as a physician or as a teacher? (That question seems irrelevant until you define the word "help" but you get the point.)

I feel guilty that I have taken so much from the Mississippi Teacher Corps. Two years of experience as a teacher and a Masters degree in Education. The program has spent a lot of money on me. I was and am still an investment. Was I a smart investment? What are the Teacher Corps's gains on this investment? I'm leaving Mississippi and leaving the field of secondary education. What if someone else, someone who was planning on staying in teaching could have had my spot? These are the types of questions that swirl around in my head as I look ahead toward next year.

Finally, I feel guilty about leaving the profession in general because of the nature of the job. Let's face it, there is a shortage of teachers and the field could certainly benefit from having one more teacher with a Masters degree in their ranks. Students need good teachers and yet I am leaving. I am perpetuating the shortage.

Yet if I was given the opportunity to go back in time and apply to medical school earlier, so that I could matriculate right after college, I think I would still choose to teach for two years. I would choose to teach because I can't even begin to tell you how much I've gained from this experience. I have grown so much as a person and have gained invaluable life skills. I feel like I've been forced to grow up over the past two years and I don't mean "grow up" as in I've become more mature. I mean it in the sense that I've had to constantly struggle day in and day out to figure out how to make the lives of my students better. It's a type of empathy that you can't learn from your parents or from being in college. In fact, few other professions offer this type of learning. Today, in many respects, I am a completely different individual than the one that originally applied to the program.

But the fact remains, I am leaving the profession. I will still teach. After all, the word doctor means teacher in Latin. My teaching, however, will be in a completely different capacity. So I ask myself, will I commit a selfish injustice by leaving the program and the profession despite the investment of the Teacher Corps and the teacher shortage? I fear the answer is yes.

Balancing Teaching and Coaching

To all of you first years who are coaching, let me just say that you're doing a great job if you have managed to balance both teaching and coaching. I began coaching Cross Country as a second year because I realized that coaching was a demanding job especially if I wanted to have a decent team who cared about showing up day after day to run several miles. Honestly, I don't know how I would have balanced coaching and teaching last year. It seemed as though I was in over my head as it was without coaching in my schedule.

Nevertheless, here are my tips for balancing coaching and teaching:
1.) When you're teaching, put teaching first. When you're coaching, put coaching first. It is very easy to plan a practice or a workout when you really should be walking around and helping students. Similarly, it's also very easy to lesson plan for the next day while your runners are out running or in the weight room. Avoid these temptations. Your students deserve to have your full attention during school hours and your runners/athletes deserve to have your full attention during practice.

2.) Practice with your team whether it is doing the conditioning exercises in football or baseball or whether it is running with your team during cross country or track practice. Not only will your athletes will appreciate it but it will also allow you to burn some stress from the day’s classes. One of the things I loved most about coaching cross country was that I could always run my stress away after school. Trust me, exercise melts the stress away.

3.) Get used to working overtime (as if you're not already!) When I was coaching I devoted at least (no joke) 12-14 hours per day to teaching responsibilities such as lesson planning, coming up with new and creative classroom management techniques, grading, etc, and coaching. Not all of those hours have to be spent at school; however if you want to go home, come to terms with bringing some work with you. On weekends you may have games or meets, especially on Friday nights or Saturdays. It's all part of the gig.

4.) Don't do it for the money. Some coaching jobs may give you a little extra income but, for the amount of work you put into it, it's not worth the money you get out of it. You have to truly love the sport you’re coaching and genuinely want to devote your time to the sport and your athletes.

Coaching can be very rewarding. I wouldn't trade my coaching experiences for anything. In fact, sometimes I think I had more fun coaching than I do teaching. There is no better way to get to know a handful of students on more familiar terms. Your athletes will see you as more than just a teacher. Some may go so far as to view you as a mentor. I still have a few athletes who, a month after our season has ended, come and ask me for advice with a struggle they are going through. Granted it's usually about a boy or a class, but sometimes it's more serious than that and I really have the opportunity to guide a student in the right direction.

Despite the hard work involved, coaching is without a doubt one of the perks of being a teacher. Because you are all ambitious, hard-working, caring individuals, I would go so far as to say if you can get involved with coaching or leading some other extracurricular activity, do it. You really can't go wrong.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Coaching Cross Country

The Cross Country season is over. We just competed in the state meet yesterday, and while I like to think we did well, the reality is that our boys team came in 20th out of 23 and our girls didn't even score as a team. Ouch. The season ended on a sour note with one of our girls backing out at the very last minute and ruining any hopes for our girls to run as a team. In cross country, you have to have a minimum of 5 runners to be scored as a team. If you have less than 5, the runners will be entered individually. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was when I heard that one of our girls who had run all season decided not to go to the state meet just because she had crew practice. It really showed a lack of loyalty to the team. Team comraderie and sportmanship are two characteristics that both Kate and I tried to instill in our runners and to some extent it worked; however, if you really step back and take a look at the big picture I think this is the one area we clearly failed especially with the girls. There was just so much complaining and whining among them. That is not to say every girl had a poor attitude but a good number of them had their moments.

Beyond the lack of sportsmanship and dedication on the girl's team, I had a blast coaching this year, even if we did score 20th at the state meet. Coaching has really brought me a lot closer to some of my past students. I know what they value, who their friends are and I've even dolled out advice to two of them during times of struggle. I truly felt as if I was making a difference through coaching cross country, and a large part of me is sad to see it go. It will be nice to get home at a decent hour though.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Quitting the Corps

Last year I was presented with a wonderful opportunity, an opportunity that did not involve teaching high school students in Southaven, MS. After a very difficult first year as a teacher, the opportunity to chase another dream was more than enticing. But I didn't. After two months (no exaggeration) of going back and forth between quitting the teacher corps and finishing my second year, after two months of restless nights, after two months of what seemed like an insurmountable burden weighing on my shoulders, I had finally made the decision. I would continue with the program and teach another year. I thought about the work that I had already invested into the Mississippi Teacher Corps. It's true that I didn't want all that effort to be for naught. I thought about earning a Masters degree in Education. Yes, that may come in handy some day and look impressive on a resume. I thought about the commitment which is so engrained in all of us from day one that we feel like we've been sentenced for two years of teaching rather than choosing to serve for two years as a teacher. I thought about my school and how they would have to work to find another teacher to fill my place. I thought about a lot of reasons why I should stay in the program, and at the time I made my decision I couldn't tell you why I made the decision I did. Only after several months of being a second year teacher can I put my finger on the exact reason I chose to stay in Mississippi. Yes, to some extent it involves all of the above, but while good reasons, these are only half of the picture. Let's face it. If I had left the program half way through I wouldn't have had to work as hard on my current graduate classes. In fact, I wouldn't have to invest any time and energy into the program. Furthermore, I don't need a Masters in Education. Plain and simple. At the time, I felt a little betrayed by the program anyway so breaking my commitment wouldn't have been the end of the world.

I stayed because for once in my life I had the ability to really affect change. Remember how I said that I couldn't tell you why I stayed until a few months into my second year? During your second year, you begin to see the fruits of your labor. Students who were in your class last year come to your classroom and express gratitude for going the extra mile in the classroom and teaching them beyond the text-book, and as a result they are excelling in more advanced science classes. Students all across the school begin to take you seriously. You came back. Now you're a real teacher and worthy of at least a smattering of respect. Your old students pop their heads into your class just to say hi and see how it's going. Students from your first year sign up for your cross country team because they think you'd be a cool coach because let's face it, you were a cool teacher. And students literally beg you to come back for a third year because they want YOU and only YOU to teach them Environmental Science and be their Cross Country coach.

These are the reasons I stayed for a second year. Did I know any of this at the time I made my decision? No I didn't. I wished for these things. Will any of you first years have these experiences during your first year? Probably not. But when you think about quitting, just know that it takes time to earn the respect of students. It takes time to know that you're making a difference. If all the rewards of teaching came over night, we wouldn't have such a shortage of teachers. Hang in there. We have all been there and some of us are still having difficulty making it through each day. I will be the first to admit it. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.