I awoke abruptly this morning from one of those “teacher” dreams I often have now. An unfamiliar classroom with me in the front featured an influx of students, only some of whom I recognized. During the five minutes before the second bell signaled class, I found myself frantically putting the last touches on a lesson about grammar and sentence diagramming. I noticed wire baskets labeled with each part of speech strategically placed around the room. I assumed I had printed sentences and sentence patterns somewhere on my desk, and maybe a nerf ball or two. I turned and began to introduce myself to the class (all the while wondering where my lesson plan was) when one male student I did not know began a vocal stream of consciousness about nothing I could fathom. I turned to the faces of the few students I had taught the year before–all seniors now–for an explanation, but they shrugged their shoulders and began to giggle. I faced the male student and, in perfect stride, broke into a Glee-like spoken word piece about respect. “All aboard. This is my time,” I chanted. “Replete with beats and wicked word rhymes.” The boy began to nod in step; I did a spin move back to the front of the room, and the class began–mesmerized. I think the dream was in color.
Of late, teachers have been cast as bumbling Clark Kent’s in need of a serious costume upgrade. Leaping tall promises and stubborn achievement gaps has proven difficult, no matter how young the legs. As we all know, superintendents come and go, leaving in their wake the latest fix-it scheme. Principals, at least here in DC, are seemingly as fleeting as the new blueprint they unveil each year to “turn things around.” My school has endured a host of teacher and staff replacements in our short life. Only nine remain from the original group. The one constant has been the steady flow of students–at once distracted, at once engaged–both ducking and chasing recognition and knowledge. It is a difficult move to master, let alone choreograph, and I, for one, often wonder exactly where is this Superman when you need him?
For instance, we are at the end of the first advisory, and report cards will be mailing soon. It is always a tense time, and I have never been a strict fan of grading. I always tell my students to focus on the skills and the grade will follow. “In ten years, you will not remember what you received on some test. It’s the knowledge you should be after.” They all nod, and then crowd my desk after class clamoring to see their marks. As one girl explained, “My mother is not asking me about all that. She just wants to know what grade I’m getting.” The girl has a point.
More students have failed than I would like. We covered a great deal of material in our first twelve weeks, and some, especially those new to me, opted not to do a number of assignments, usually the writing ones. I understand the hesitation. Writing is a reflective exercise of the highest order, and a few of my students fight being pushed or revealed. Some have too many memories of red correction marks to trust their inner voice. I try coaxing them with encouragement and second chances. I pull them into hallways and frown. I even phone a few parents, most of whom yell and promise what they cannot deliver. By eleventh grade, it is the student who must decide.
Or maybe it is me. During my second year of teaching, my first principal once declared at a faculty meeting that “it is not the student who fails, but the teacher.” Talk about a heavy load. I am still not sure how much I agree with him, but I suspect he also had a point. Looking over my grade book, I vow to redouble my efforts to inspire the ones who would rather be playing outside, but how? There is always room for improvement, and I am searching for it on Wednesday when a special assembly convenes. It is “International Day” at my school, and the afternoon has been reserved to honor students and faculty born outside America, as well as to acknowledge the oneness of the world.
Assemblies are often a funky business, with students attuned more to each other than to the speaker. But this one is different. Red lights cover a stage filled with drums and percussion instruments. Within five minutes of taking our seats, a jazzy Latin beat pulses from the audio speakers while foreign-born students, staff, and faculty march from the back of the room to the front and then the sides hoisting a parade of homemade flags from other countries. Our international students are a minority at our high school, fifty or less I would guess. Most hail from African countries, especially Nigeria, but Mexico, El Salvador, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, and Argentina are also represented. As the bright flags circle the auditorium again and again, the beam of pride on the international students’ faces is palpable. Many are or have been my students, but I have never seen them so at ease.
Then an Afro-Brazilian band adorned in bright, native garb enters. As a powerpoint slide show fills a side wall with maps and images from around the world, the band dives into a multi-layered rhythmic piece that quickly has the students tapping in place. In number after number, the band urges the students to join in an elaborate call-and-response chorus while the drums keep time. There is excitement in the room, and the students are focused on the unfolding.
At one point, the lead drummer beckons the students to join him. Most are reluctant at first; they had been warned earlier about misbehaving. But soon a mass of students from all grades are shimmying on stage while playing an assortment of maracas and percussion instruments. I am no longer seated, but am leaning against the wall near my assigned students, moving my feet and head to the drums. I see a few nudge a classmate or two and point my way, but I ignore their chuckles and continue the dance.
The piece ends as dramatically as it started, and the students gently lay the instruments down and return to their seats. “Now, teachers,” the band leader yells into the microphone. The students send up a roar, but teachers, too, hesitate. “Teachers, come,” the man yells, and about seven move to the stage. I remain seated until my students, old and new, begin pointing at me from around the auditorium, demanding I answer the call. I laugh as I move slowly towards the stage. I know how students love to scrutinize teachers. They will be cataloging my every move.
But then the song begins, and I do not care. I grab a pair of bright red and yellow maracas and begin finding the inner rhythm. I am surrounded by teachers, each smiling as the sounds rising from our hands leap outward towards our students, most of whom have never seen any of us move with such abandon. As I shake my hands and my hips, I can see them imagining us with fuller lives than they had presumed, dancing even in some late-night club with cocktails in our hands.
When the pulsing ends and I walk back towards my seat, a few students give me high fives and fist bumps. I am surprised that they are surprised I could move to a beat at all, much less play along. Since boyhood, I had always been known for my dancing. Just how removed from them did they think I was? Then, it occurs to me. For all the time we share together, my students know as little about me as I know about them and their lives outside our walls. And, while the school year is still young, we will need to bridge that gap of understanding if the knowledge is to really flow–in both directions.
Even at our best, teachers were never designed to be Superman. Teachers are drummers pushing a beat. We circle a sound until we get it right, and then we pound it until students have no choice but to join in the dance. As I review my lesson plans for the week ahead, I ask myself over and over, “When does the music start?” If it does not, if there is no room for every student, the hesitant and the bold, to find some instrument to hold onto and play along, then I start over again. I am, after all, a drummer, and that’s what drummers do.