Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The First First Day

When I first entered the hallowed halls of public school, I had a sense of what was in store. In the 50s my mother had been a teacher at a pretty rough New York high school for about six months until she married and was rescued, but that has never prevented her from telling me about the rigidly inadequate system, the indolent teachers, and the angry students that she was so happy to leave behind. Being the detritus of the feminist generation, I knew I would not be twirling in my apron while making roast beef and apple pie for a husband anytime soon, so I took the first steady job offered to me, heeded my mother’s warnings, but hoped that things would be at least a little different so many years later.

I started mid-year but had spent the first two weeks of the semester at the district offices getting the paperwork and the signatures straight. This meant I got to hear the substitute who covered for me say, “I know you are going to miss me, kids, but I am hoping that Ms. __, will do as good a job as me.” Of course, the kids immediately booed me, and, of course, I noticed her grammar.

The first year is always legendary for leaving the new teacher shell-shocked and mine was no different. I was asked to teach all my classes in different rooms, several of them at the adjacent community college because our school was too packed. Now this would have been okay had there been an office with a desk and a little storage, but the college model does not play in public school, so schlepp I did.

As a first-year teacher, I had to attend meetings with the “mentor” I had been assigned, where we would role play parent phone calls and clich├ęd teaching situations. She was an English teacher with a high-pitched voice that bordered on whiny, and she punctuated most of what she said with a laugh that sounded more as if she were gasping for air, as if she were emphasizing the irony of what she had just said for an audience larger than just me. The fact is she was always earnest, never ironic, the laugh, irritatingly confusing. “You got the new text book from the book room? (laugh)” or “ You teach in five different classrooms, several of them at the college? (laugh).” When she came in to observe my class, she documented every minute I spent. Her biggest warning? That I not use my sense of humor. No laugh that time. In fairness, she did advocate that I teach in only one room the next term.

Clearly she and I were not a match, but fortunately, as a new teacher I made the time to observe other teachers that year and was able to fine-tune my thoughts on what worked in the classroom. I saw teachers whose classes were regimented to the last second and teachers who allowed a free-for-all in their classrooms while claiming they liked the noise. I saw teachers who lectured without room for discussion or who allowed endless and unfocused discussion. I saw teachers who would shrug and roll their eyes at their students after they ran out of things to say, and I saw teachers who always had clever questions in mind to keep the conversation growing. I saw teachers whose rooms were covered in entertaining and instructive images, but whose classroom was tortuously tedious, and I saw teachers whose rooms were a mess, but the kids were in line and on point.

It wasn’t until I walked into a classroom filled with kids, many with shaved heads and oversized white t-shirts, who were listening so intently to their teacher, that I realized I might have actually found a mentor. The teacher repeated the question, “Synecdoche?” One of the t-shirted fellows nearly jumped out of his seat to raise his hand and the teacher responded, “Ok, Mr. ______, you think you have the answer now?”

“Yes, Mr. __!”

“Okay, then. . .”

“When you use the part as a metaphor for the whole; you know, like get your butt over here or what you said, ‘All hands on deck.’ Right?” It was hard not to smile at the neighborhood-specific singsong in the kid’s voice.

“Very good, Mr. ________,” said his teacher. With that, the teacher and the class cracked up at his examples, and the student, Mr. ________,  reveled in being right and in amusing his teacher. The teacher continued with other literary terms and the examples that made the terms understandable and useful. They all wanted to get the right answer and to think of examples on their own. This was my mentor, that was how I was going to teach.

I learned most of what I know from Mr. ___, and if it weren’t for him, I might not have gone back for my MA in English. He reinforced my instincts about the idiocy of education classes and relying on the ever inadequate “Teacher Editions” of text books. After all, doctors don’t take doctor classes; they study medicine; lawyers, the law. Following that rule, English teachers, should study--ENGLISH! So I did, and it wasn’t long before I found ways to dash entirely the increasingly pictorial text books from my curriculum, except for grammar and other mechanics exercises,  naturally. Instead, I just went for actual texts or anthologies of texts in order to get the kids to read and write smartly, rather than look at pictures and answer questions correctly. Not that all these endeavors are diametrically opposed, but the latter does not always lead to the former, that is for sure.

That first year was the first of several first years, all equivalently challenging despite my growing experience, but I took from them the lessons that have made me the teacher I am today, and I hope to share them with you here.

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