teaching in the US
July 17, 2007 8:57 AM   Subscribe

What is it like to be a high school teacher in the U.S.?

My mom is going to South Carolina on a teaching gig for a year. She's never been to the US (she's Indian) and she's going to teach maths. What advice would you give her, especially about classroom control? Any other tips and tricks or anecdotes are welcome. Thanks. (She's going to be in Williamsburg, if that helps)
posted by dhruva to Education (21 answers total)
Fresh Air recently talked with two Philadelphia public school teachers about their experiences. More of a worst case scenario, since both teachers were attacked on the job.
posted by gac at 9:26 AM on July 17, 2007

The teachers I respected and liked the most were the ones who could keep control of the classroom relatively well and could stay focused on the material, but weren't rude and mean to the students. High school kids can detect when their teacher respects them, and so if she's not unnecessarily mean or strict than they'll be respectful in return. Most of the time.

Of course, covering the material is the most important thing, and with math, it's hard to get sidetracked.

I don't know how it is in other countries or even how it would be in this school, but in my school many of the kids were involved in a LOT of extracirricular activities--my Calculus 1 class had 9 people in it (yeah, that's small) and every single one of us was in at least two activities that involved us missing some days of school. If she's aware of this and willing to work with her students on when to get assignments turned in and when they can come in for help, they'll like it better and they'll get more work done. I had a few teachers who insisted that their class was the first priority always, and those teachers were universally hated by both the students and other teachers. Every class is important, but they won't always be kids' top priority. The kids in the activities know they have to get the work done though, and they would probably really appreciate a teacher that's willing to work with their often-packed schedules.

I just graduated this May, so all of that was from the student perspective...I'm sure many others will cover the situation from the other side. Hope some of this helped!
posted by DMan at 9:30 AM on July 17, 2007

I've never taught high school math, but I've been a high school student. Every math teacher I've had in high school seemed to hate their job intensely. I think the main reason was because of the unruly and disrespectful students.

I had one math teacher in 9th and 10th grade who would get in verbal fights with the same few students every day and then the student would walk out of the class and cause a big scene. Even when I didn't have that teacher anymore, if I walked by his classroom I could still here him yelling in there all the time.

I had another math teacher in the 11th grade who got in verbal fights with disrespectful students and would tell them to leave his class and then another big scene starts. He was eventually fired for grabbing some student's backpack when she tried to leave without his permission.

My third math teacher was this extremely angry and bitter woman who would snap and scream and yell at us when students pissed her off. She was really nuts, but I think I can understand how she got that way when you see what she has to deal with everyday.

I think a lot depends on the classroom size and the kinds of students your mom gets. If she's teaching an AP course then most of the students are there because they choose to be, so it would be a better class. I hope she has a good experience!
posted by koshka at 9:32 AM on July 17, 2007

Williamsburg seems like a really small county, so take that into consideration too.
posted by dcjd at 9:35 AM on July 17, 2007

Her experience will depend upon the district, the level of class she's teaching, and the mix of students that are in it.

In general, students can be unspeakably cruel to new teachers. Some people recommend being more stern than you think you need to be when you start out as it is far easier to ease up as you go than to crack down when it's too late.

My first year of teaching, I had 7th grade, 9th grade and 12th grade classes. I was very strict with the 7th and 9th, expecting the most behavioral problems there and was most lenient with the 12th graders, expecting the most maturity. Totally wrong. The 12th graders were at the bottom academically and even though I wasn't stern with them initially, I expected them to work and they resented that.

Kids need structure. If you create a consistent structure in your class, management issues are less. I taught a sophomore class in SAT math prep and set a clear structure that the kids followed. They pretty much knew what to expect on any given day and they knew what their responsibilities were.

Best bet is to talk to other teachers and find out about the kids from them. The only bigger gossips than the students are the teachers. I wish I'd known this, as it would've made classroom management easier by having covert intelligence (at the expense of prejudice).

Also, be prepared to find out that some students behavior changes radically depending on who they're with in a classroom and who their teacher is. One of my co-workers was fond of saying "your little angel is my little shit." We also had students who had some serious gender/respect issues. They would give women teachers hell 100% and be total pussycats to the male teachers 100%. It was freaky.
posted by plinth at 9:51 AM on July 17, 2007

Teacher experiences in the US vary very widely, depending on location and type of school. The worst-case scenario (cf: gac's link above) is that she is placed in a public school with few resources, huge student-to-teacher ratios, security guards and metal detectors at the entrances, hostile students, apathetic or absent parents, and completely overwhelmed colleagues and administrators. At the other extreme, she could be in a resource-rich private, charter, or magnet school with unlimited resources, involved (possibly overinvolved) parents, and smart, driven, students. Or somewhere in between. Its tough to generalize. Do you have any more specifics on what type of school she will be teaching in, and what kind of population it serves?
posted by googly at 9:51 AM on July 17, 2007

Oddly enough, I may have actually visited this school. However, everything I say will be based strictly off of my own experiences with rural schools in South Carolina and are not intended to be true for every rural school here and elsewhere. As always, your milage can and will vary wildly.

First off, understand that this area of SC is still very poor and the schools in this area were actually documented in a film called Corridor of Shame. Things have improved somewhat since then, but the schools I visited in the area were usually in very poor condition, with outdated equipment, and decrepit buildings. Again, things vary from school to school, so don't assume everything will look like the third world, but don't expect everything to be the latest and greatest.

Second, most of the children I interacted with were very polite and generally seemed like good kids. I wouldn't worry about being attacked or mugged, but being in a rural environment, many were not really into being in school and seemed disinterested in education in general. This creates its own set of issues, which every teacher should be well aware of, so I won't rehash here. These kids are generally somewhat ignorant of the world at large (except for what they see on TV) and may seem to be hostile to outsiders (especially from other countries!) but in my experience all warmed up quickly and generally were interested in what other people are doing. Realize that their parent(s) will probably both be working outside of the home and many will not take much of an interest in the kid's education. Also the kids won't have access to advanced calculators and computers so if you're planning to teach them anything with those, make sure the school can provide them.

As far as maintaining control, one of my friends, and easily one of the best teachers I know said that the key was being in control from the moment you show up and never ceding any ground to the students. He wasn't the type to crash around and yell, but if one of his students got out of line, he'd very quickly put them back in place, usually just by telling them that he wasn't gonna let them do that. Kids in this area are generally raised to respect parents, teachers, pastors etc, so reminding them you're the authority, not one of their friends can work wonders. Also take leads from the children themselves, they'll be more interesting in learning if they see how it relates to their own life.

Tell you mom good luck, and make sure she gets out and about and sees as much of the state as possible, from the beaches to the mountains there's lots to do here, and amazing people and places to meet and see.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 9:55 AM on July 17, 2007

Your mom needs to be prepared for the possibility of a negative bias among students and parents because she is not American and likely speaks English with an Indian accent.

This may be more of an issue in a smaller city like Charleston (perhaps even more so in a rural area), where the majority of teachers are going to be American and the community may not be exposed to many foreign teachers in K-12. (We tend to see international folks more at the university level.) Also, unfortunately, the media has cultivated a bit of an anti-Indian bias because of the problems associated with outsourcing customer service to Bangalore, etc.

Parents may be concerned that their children will not be able to understand your mother, both because of the relative complexity of math concepts and because of her accent. Also, they may complain to the principal rather than discuss with your mother directly.

It's worth being aware of the fact that her students are going to need time to get used to hearing and processing her accent. It may be worth asking for response/reinforcement: "Am I making sense? Do you guys understand what I'm saying? Do I need to speak more slowly?", etc., because sometimes students will act like they get it even when they don't.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 10:01 AM on July 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Do you have any more specifics on what type of school she will be teaching in, and what kind of population it serves?

She's going to be in a public school (Kingstree Rural) and it will have a max of 30 students.
posted by dhruva at 10:20 AM on July 17, 2007

My good friend left her teaching position in a non-urban school of a few hundred students after two years. Granted, the school was extremely stretched for resources, good teachers and money. Her job became a microcosm she could not leave at the end of the day and she was not considered an educator, but a babysitter. She says she spent more time corralling 35-40 distracted students into a classroom and keeping them busy than actually teaching them anything. Also, many students with disabilities whom she was not capable of effectively teaching were put into her class without aides. Before she chose to leave the position, she faced a few incidents of harassment by students that went unpunished by administration.

According to her, the small state college she attended did not prepare her for 90% of the practical issues she ended up facing, but she suggested that it was a symptom of her university's poor education curriculum.
posted by sian at 10:52 AM on July 17, 2007

At least where someone I know taught as a public high school teacher, the administration was not your friend. The administration was pretty much damage control for angry parents. They were terrified of upsetting the all-powerful parents and unwilling to side with the teachers during difficult battles. There was also an extreme anxiousness to make sure that everyone passed, that everyone was able to graduate, whether they actually deserved their grades or not. The teacher was expected, pretty much, to just shut up and bend over backwards to make sure that everyone, no matter how little they deserved it, went on to the next grade.

Again, it all depends entirely on the school district, the abilities of the people in charge, and the attitudes of the parents. But I would suggest expecting some tension with the administration and the parents. The cause of the tension will probably be different, but I'd still expect it to be there.
posted by Ms. Saint at 10:53 AM on July 17, 2007

Second Sweetie Darling above. I worked with an Indian high school chemistry teacher in a school just outside of Atlanta, and her second-biggest problem (after general control of the class, because she was not very assertive of her authority at all) was her accent. She was not difficult to understand at all (to me), but the students decided early on in the class that it was easier to mock her accent and pretend she was unintelligible than actually try to learn. In fact, even students who were in other respects quite well-behaved and attentive still had problems understanding her simply because it was probably the only time they'd listened to such an accent, and they just weren't open-minded enough to listen a bit more closely and realize her accent wasn't that heavy, just different.
posted by solotoro at 11:24 AM on July 17, 2007

Some Indian people have names that are difficult for many Americans to spell or pronounce. If your mother has a long or difficult name, I would encourage her to write her name on the board and help students to say it correctly. If appropriate, perhaps they can call her a shortened version of her name.

Also, they may have many, many questions about where she's from, and she may want to spend an early class on that rather than jumping straight into math.

(P.S. Americans don't call it "maths" but just "math.")
posted by desjardins at 11:43 AM on July 17, 2007

The school system in question does have a website.
posted by gimonca at 11:51 AM on July 17, 2007

I'll chime in here with some experiences I've had both as an American high school student (I graduated in 2001) and as a teacher who works outside the United States.

First, just being in class will be a bit of a surprise no matter how good your mom's students are because she and they will have very different understandings of what being in a classroom is supposed to be. You ask about "classroom control", which leads me to believe that discipline is something your mom emphasizes in class, but many of her students - some of whom might have been placed in your mom's class with total ignorance of their actual abilities, be they much higher or lower than the material - just will not be interested in the material itself aside from wanting to pass the course, if that. She may have students who are on a college-preparatory track who are taking more advanced material in other subjects but not in mathematics; she may have students who are in remedial lessons in other subjects but thrive in mathematics.

Knowing this is important because once you're able to figure out which students need which resources, you're able to design better tasks, perhaps with some measure of collaboration and group work thrown in as well.

I will also say that trust and respect are key elements of any classroom, so if your mom treats her students like children and doesn't make them feel responsible in some way for their education, I'd wager that few of them will engage with the material to the extent they would have if they were being treated as more mature individuals, and set working on more challenging tasks based on the same material - doing longer-term projects rather than the same style of worksheet over and over again, or doing more rote exercises out of the textbook.

Administration issues might be a challenge, or might not be. It's in your mom's interest to get to know administrators very well, as well as those support staff, like front office secretarial folks and maintenance workers, who can sometimes make things happen that the higher-ups, who might little connection with the everyday running of things, don't think is possible.

Students may also have very significant commitments outside of core academic subjects, which may come as a surprise to your mom; we don't have a national exit exam (South Carolina might, I'm not sure) so many students who might not be focused on going to college only have to scrape through to graduate. Many students may be more interested in maintaining a high level of commitment to athletics or music or another activity that consumes hours and hours of their time; many also, perhaps, are anxious to get a job and move away from home as soon as possible. Most high school kids do their best, but most have to compromise between their ambitions and the realities of economics and time, like anyone else. I say this as someone whose high school schedule kept me away from home on weekends and many evenings, making homework completion a challenge.

As far as her "foreignness" is concerned, I don't know if it should ever even be overtly addressed - her mannerisms, disciplinary style, and attitudes about how class should be run will obviously be different from that of the community she's teaching in, and this will become plainly evident to students fairly quickly. She should expect some questioning about her family, holidays, and religion, but I imagine all these questions will be, for the most part, polite and based on actual curiosity rather than any sort of xenophobia. She may be one of the only non-Americans in town, but she may not be - lots of smaller towns in the rural South are experiencing quite a bit of growth in immigrant populations, especially from Latin America. Looking at the faculty page of Kingstree High School here, it looks like at least one teacher is of South Asian descent, so perhaps it'd be worth contacting that individual to see what his perspective is on things, especially if he grew up in an Indian educational environment.

Best of luck to your mom!
posted by mdonley at 12:01 PM on July 17, 2007

Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, one of the administrative issues she's probably going to see is called AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). According to these three pages, the school she'll be teaching at is pretty low performing (for instance, in SAT composite scores, it's number 181 out of SC's 200 public high schools).
I can't predict for sure what that will mean for her specific school, but it often means that the teachers don't have much control over what they will be teaching. Since she's only doing a year, that may actually be in her favor - her curriculum may be decided for her.
posted by solotoro at 1:20 PM on July 17, 2007

One difference is that the US uses grade levels, whereas India uses the more common UK-derived year level system. However, India does use a split-level staging for post-11/12-year-olds, similar to the US. Thus, a US "Middle School" teaches ages 11-14 and roughly corresponds to an Indian Secondary, while a US "High School" teaches ages 14-18 and corresponds roughly with an Indian Higher Secondary. If you are familiar with the UK-derived "Sixth Form" (names vary quite a lot between different countries), then a US "High School" is pretty equivalent. US High Schools tend to have much higher overall continuance from Middle School than Indian Higher Secondaries from Secondaries.
posted by meehawl at 1:36 PM on July 17, 2007

Many good points here that I agree with, especially mdonley. I am a HS teacher in a medium sized urban school, and have no experience in rural area school, but there are some common threads worth repeating:
- Treat your students with respect and be honest. An essential part of successful 'classroom control' is having an honest relationship with your students.
- Be flexible but firm. Some teachers are disciplinarians, some laid back. Some want quiet all the time, some tolerate conversations. Figure out where your 'line in the sand' is, and be consistent. When that line is challenged don't get in an argument- send the student out and finish it after class time.
- Never embarrass or belittle a student, especially in front of other students.
- The best way I've found to get a student on 'my side' is to call home with good news and praise for the student. Your praise does not have to be about academics. Most parents either never hear from the teachers, or only meet when there is a problem. Make the effort to call each student's home with good news during the first month and you will reap great rewards later.
posted by pgoes at 1:38 PM on July 17, 2007

I went to public high school in California and three of the four math teachers I had were great: they liked what they did, the understood what they were teaching (sadly, that may be somewhat rare), they engaged the students--and were very likeable people--and maintained control of classroom discipline. They may not have had all the resources they needed (California's per-pupil spending is among the lowest in the country), but they still succeeded.

My first year after college, I tutored in a high school in Charleston. There were good teachers and bad teachers, and again individual teachers' success depended on their individual dispositions. Those who maintained their own dignity had the most cooperative students.

While both of my anecdotal experiences argue that it is ultimately up to the teacher to make things work, I have two caveats about South Carolina:

(1) As mentioned before, the culture of the rural South does not put a lot of importance on education. This may not be true at your mother's school, but she should expect it as a possibility.

(2) South Carolina is a "right to work" state, meaning that teachers' unions are illegal. That means that teacher pay is not very high, and in turn that less-ambitious people tend to go into teaching than elsewhere. Her colleagues may just see their work as a job, not a vocation.

Also, South Carolina does have an exit exam (it was the BSAP when I was tutoring there, but I see it's being phased out in favor of something new) and in my experience, teachers spend a big chunk of their time "teaching to the test."
posted by kittyprecious at 1:58 PM on July 17, 2007

The math forum at teachers.net is a great place to ask this question of real live math teachers. Check out the other forums on that site too.
posted by gregoreo at 3:42 PM on July 17, 2007

Thanks for all your answers: I showed my mom this thread, and it's allayed her concerns considerably. She has been a teacher for more than 20 years and knows the ins and outs of the Indian system, but the prospect of the unknown was giving her some qualms. Thanks once agian.
posted by dhruva at 11:24 PM on July 17, 2007

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