Each year, when there are new initiatives, requirements, trainings, and acronyms we must learn, I add them to my pedagogical mix and, sighing, remind myself what one of my now-retired mentors said in my first year: “Just focus on good teaching.” I play along and incorporate what I’m told to, switch my curriculum or throw it out based on district mandates, and continue to focus on good teaching. For me, that translates into focusing on the students. On those moments that make learning exciting and fun, when kids don’t notice that class is almost done, and when I don’t mind grading papers because I know how hard they worked on them. And focusing on good teaching translates to reflection. It’s why, in part, I started this blog: because it would force me to reflect, publicly. It’s why I’ve opted for student teachers: because they naturally reflect and remind me to do the same. Reflection is crucial to improvement in this job, all the new-fangled initiatives be damned.
So I hate (yes, I know it’s a strong word, and that’s why I chose it) the new schedule because I’ve waited a month to reflect. But fortunately, I’ve made a month’s worth of notes, and I worked late on Friday to ensure that I had a work-free weekend with time for blogging. I think I remember how…
To begin with, my first impressions this year. When I was sifting through completed student questionnaires and collecting their six-word stories, I was surprised by the increasing number of students who professed to be gay from the get-go. There were a handful that wrote briefly about coming out to their parents and friends, and in many cases, not being accepted afterward. The courage it must have taken to confess it yet again to a new teacher humbled me, and also gave me hope that perhaps the culture—at least within our school—is inching toward one that welcomes disclosure. My skepticism says that’s naïve, but I figure if they can be honest in my classroom, perhaps they’ll exercise their identities elsewhere as well.
On a less-uplifting note, I have also been surprised by the rampant, unabashed use of the f-word in our hallways—easily heard in quantities that far surpass even last spring. And it knows no demographic bounds: the word is embraced by every gender, grade level, and race of student. I guess what horrifies me as much as hearing that throughout my day is that I’m hearing it: when I cussed in school, I had the courtesy (and good sense?) to lower my voice so teachers couldn’t hear me. I was walking in front of a trio of boys in the second week when I heard one of them hiss, “I’m sick of that fucking faggot’s shit.”
I turned and asked, “Really?” It was the only alternative I could quickly come up with to slapping him across his filthy mouth.
“Yeah, really,” he replied as they pushed past me.
But in my classroom, where expectations are clear and students learned on the first day what words were off-limits lest they want to test my fury, the days have been going smoothly. I wrote last winter about having trouble connecting with my students, and that hasn’t been an issue this year. Most students in my creative writing classes have volunteered to share their work—evidence that they feel safe enough to do so in a diverse group that wouldn’t likely associate outside of my class. One senior, a gang member and father named Billy, didn’t want to share his writing one day when doing so was required.
“I’m not a writer like you guys,” he explained to the group. “Besides, I only wrote four lines.”
We urged and coaxed, and he read. His prompt had been “glass,” and his four lines were about looking out a window at children playing and wishing he could step outside and join that world again. It was beautiful. The class erupted into applause and showered him with compliments, which he didn’t receive well, and I was even stopped by a student in the hall later that day who said he’d been thinking about Billy’s writing all day and was glad he had shared. I thought my heart might burst.
In my other classes, we’re connecting as well. The dynamics in two groups are a little odd—they don’t want to engage in discussions, so my questions are met with silent stares. I would be convinced that they detest me except that outside of my attempts at structured discussions, they’re chatty, good-natured, and quick to bring up the inside jokes that have already emerged within our groups. My pregnancy has caused a constant undercurrent of curiosity and for some students, a means for establishing a relationship. It’s how I found out about Billy’s eight-month-old daughter, and it inspired Taylor to stick around after class and show me photographs he carries around of his three little sisters.
When I got sick the third week of school and missed two days, several students were apparently convinced my water had broken (I was 19 weeks along). Two students constructed paper fortune tellers (remember those?!) to determine my baby’s gender. Both revealed that I was having a boy, and both students were ecstatic and boastful when the news came that they had been correct.
Perhaps most importantly, there is learning going on. I added an article this year to my unit on persuasion. It was a well-written op-ed piece by an inmate on death row who wants to be allowed to donate his organs after his execution. This was one day where spurring conversation was not a challenge. Most were swayed by his arguments and many wondered why so many obstacles blocked him from doing something that would help many needy people on organ waiting lists. After school, a handful of students approached me in the hall and asked for copies of the article. They’re in Youth Legislature and are inspired to write a bill to further the inmate’s cause. After one of our students last year successfully pushed through a bill to enforce buffer zones between epithet-hurling protesters and military funerals, I have no doubt these students can succeed.
I’m learning, or re-learning, as well. One reminder was that no matter how well I think I know students, I often don’t have the whole story. I had Gavin three years ago in a remedial reading class. He was a drummer and loved playing baseball. He’s one of the few students from that group who still deigns to say hello to me each time he passes in the hall. Saul, an artist, was in my class two years ago as a sophomore. On the second day of class, after we read an article about a family who lost their son on 9/11, Saul started crying. His family had recently lost his brother, he said, and he didn’t like what the loss was doing to his mom.
Now they’re both seniors in my creative writing class. Gavin is there to make up a credit; Saul is there because he loves to write. And from the writing they’ve shared so far, I learned that Gavin had cancer when he was little, and that it affects him emotionally and physically ever since. Aside from the constant fear of it returning, the effects of cancer force him to make frequent trips to the bathroom. Saul’s mother sort of “lost it” after his brother’s death: she still talks to his ashes on a routine basis, and when she’s mad at Saul, she purposely makes him late for school (he arrives late to my class about a third of the time).
Gavin and Saul were both among my favorite students when I had them, and I felt like I knew them well. But I didn’t know a crucial piece of their stories, and I wouldn’t have ever known if I hadn’t had them again as seniors. It makes me wonder what else I’ll never learn about kids, despite my best efforts. I have 206 students this year, so there is no way I can feasibly learn all their histories, and even if I did, what could I possibly do with that information? Who knows. Maybe just be more lenient with the hall pass or the tardy policy. Maybe be more patient in my approach or more encouraging in my corrections.
This is what time for reflection affords me: a reminder that good teaching is about the students. Everything else comes after.