A Teacher Being Taught

Today, after school, a senior I have not seen in a while comes to visit.  I am in the midst of rearranging my room.  I have this one English III class at the end of my B days with 15 boys, mostly football players, and ten girls.  You almost never get an upperclassmen grouping in high school with more males than females (unless it is remedial), and my pleasant surprise has turned into a challenge.

Most of the gentlemen are boisterous, except when it comes to reading in class.  Then they sometimes retreat and defer to the young ladies.  But then, when the boys are at their peak involvement, the girls become quiet.  Having a large room becomes a curse sometimes.  The back desks are too far from the board in my “V” arrangement, so I decide today to change things.  I need a seating flow that encourages group activity more than individual quests.  I need to find a way to blend this odd group of individuals into a supportive family of learners.

I opt for a modified “U” arrangement and decide to assign seats.  I mix boys and girls so that no one mass can develop.  I blend the shy with the outgoing, the humorous with the weighted, and the advanced with the struggling.  At first, students balk at this alteration in their comfort zones, but then the class goes well.  Funny how a simple change in scenery alters so much more.

After school, I prepare for my classes for the morning.  Rumor has it the master educators are in the building, and everyone is warned to lift engagement and cross all “t’s.”  There can be no lull during the instruction, and every jester must have a purpose.  After last year, I have decided to just be myself and let the drums roll.  I feel confident about the learning taking place, but you just never know how other eyes will record it.

The senior who comes to visit finds the 2007-08 yearbook I keep in my desk.  I have purchased yearbooks for every year since the school opened, and I like to show seniors how innocent and open they looked “back in the day.”  After chuckling at all the current seniors’ changing faces, he begins counting all the classmates who began their high school journey with him at the tender age of fourteen, but are no longer enrolled.  A few left of their own volition, but most slipped and faltered on the road.  Especially the boys.

He then turns to the faculty and staff page.  In 2007, the school was only two-years old, and the faces of the forty some-odd adults also shone with the gleam of new beginnings.  Today, only nine remain.

It is not easy being a teacher.  A handful left to pursue other options, especially the Teach for America crowd fulfilling their two-year obligation.  Some of the older teachers were “forced out” because their methods were deemed ineffective and out-of-touch.  A few needed to go, having lost their connection to “these kids” years ago.   We are now on our second principal and our fifth set of Assistant Principals.  We lost fourteen staff in the rift, all but one female.  Like those scrub-faced freshman in my aging yearbook, we have seen our share of change.

Back in 2005, as my foothold into teaching began, I took a class in educational theory and practice.  I should say my wife believes I have career ADHD.  After stints as a radio disc jockey, community gallery coordinator, Assistant Director of Economic Development in a local development corporation, graduate student, entrepreneur, and marketing consultant, I came to teaching relatively late in my voyage.  While my instructional experience matched that of the younger recruits, my years did not.

Last week, while attempting to clear my desk, I came upon a paper I had written back in the winter of my first full year of teaching.  The assignment in that evening class of fellow “newbies,” almost all of whom had also entered classrooms rather late, was to write about our new purpose.  Why had we chosen teaching?

I want to share what I wrote then because so much of it is still true.  During the whirlwind of the last two superintendents here in DC, seasoned teachers left standing still regale us with stories of past initiatives abandoned, new-fangled theories disproved, and a host of expensive textbooks and learning theories adopted and then dismissed (anyone remember open classrooms or whole learning?).

Through it all, the students remain and keep coming.  Graduation ceremonies are as loud as ever, even as the faculty lounge shrinks to make way for something new.  The words I wrote way back then revive me as I move forward.  I think of that “young” man composing his new life at his computer, and I smile:

“I spend my days with city kids one-third my age.  Not children really, but young people–teenagers–just starting to author their own stories, musings, and lives.  At times, I can hear their fears.  Mostly, I feel the fires rising within them, and I try my best not to put them out, or let them smolder unattended.  The flames are theirs to keep and mine to borrow.  I am a teacher.

Fifteen years is old enough to understand life’s containments, yet young enough to plot escape.  I asked them once to sketch their lives in 2025.  Such visions they shared–thug ambitions and bling dreams; high ceilings and loving mates; achieving children and uplifting careers–doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers, radiologists, computer game developers, hair salon owners, fashion designers, and even America’s Next Top Model.  They wanted it all.

My job is to show both the need for and the benefit of hard work in any self-portrait, and I must do so without dimming the lights, or burdening the visions.  But children–and they still are–learn best from what they see, not what they hear.  If I do not offer my best, neither will they.

My challenge this year was to learn how to motivate while teaching, to learn how to regulate while engaging, to learn how to speak and how to listen.  The subject matter itself is the easy part.  Time management, planning, and empathy are the utensils I must master if I am to deepen my grasp.  Without these powers, I am adequate.  With them, I am the unflappable voice inside their eye saying, ‘Yes, yes, of course you can’–even when I sometimes must smother my doubts.”

I was, and am, a teacher being taught, and I still feel so lucky, yet worried.  What possible calling could ever top this?



About Mark E.P. Roberts

teachermandc is Mark E.P. Roberts, a middle-aged, high school English teacher entering his ninth year of instructing young minds. This blog is an attempt to capture the challenge of teaching and the essence of learning. At a time when DC has become the epicenter of educational theory, this blog will keep its preferred focus on students in an somewhat typical DC high school. I have taught in both public and private schools. To date, 95% of my students are of color. All names have been changed, and complaints about in-house politics will be avoided. Hope you enjoy.
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