School begins tomorrow with the 8:05 a.m. bell, ten minutes earlier than the year before. This time, I have no first period class, and I am thrilled. Last year, five of the seven students who failed my class did so because of chronic tardiness. Late arrivals are not allowed to enter class. Most of my tardy students received rides from parents, the type who are always running late. “Why not just take Metro?” I always asked my students. “This is your life.” But with 64 different zip codes from DC and Maryland feeding into our school, I was simply talking with myself. The five students opted for the comfort of car radios and traffic and missed at least two classes a week.
During the first semester, I would grab a teacher with a planning period to watch my class and sneak down to the cafeteria where the late students sat until the second period bell. I would snatch mine up at 8:30. They all had my cell phone number and would frantically text “Please come get me. I was only three minutes late.” But late is late, as I tried to explain to both them and their parents. The scooping up worked for a while, until I got caught by an administrator, who banned the practice. I understood the point, but it was difficult watching passively as a few sunk deeper and deeper into a hole. This year, I will have no such drama to manage.
I have been back in the building for two weeks now. Professional development occupied the first week, and I must admit I actually took away practices I could use. Usually, I find PD sessions to simply be talkfests with no real benefit, but this year I learned things I could easily incorporate. I was especially impressed with the Kagan Cooperative Learning strategies and structures, and I have arranged my classroom accordingly. I have even adjusted my lesson plans to ensure I adhere to the need for students to work with each other as we tackle the knowledge ahead.
This is the beginning of my tenth year of teaching. It is difficult to believe those years moved so quickly, but they did. The fifteen-year-olds I first taught in 2005 are young adults now; some are parents even. I wonder if they remember us, each class its own blend of personalities, frustrations, laughter, fun, and learning. At least, that is how I remember it. Standardized scores supported my belief, but I am freed from all that now.
There is no DC CAS at my private school. I remember having to stop instruction for four practice tests, and then the real thing in the spring. Now, while I am teaching the pivotal tenth grade again, I no longer have to worry about me, or my students, or my school being judged by a few hours exercise and a dubious value-added statistical vise. Now, I can focus all my attention on teaching the lessons that matter. My students will sharpen their skills as we explore how to analyze literature, decode nonfiction claims, manipulate parts of speech, construct argument, unravel vocabulary, and punctuate life. I am one of the unburdened, lucky ones who is still free to love what I do.
On Wednesday of last week, tenth graders reported to school for their orientation. At 9:00 a.m., the entire class of eighty-five or so filed into the auditorium. I stood in a side aisle and watched the parade. Casual dress was allowed, with uniforms not kicking in until tomorrow, the official first day of school. As I watched the students greet each other, I noted their chosen attire, an impressive mix of color and swag. No longer freshmen, the new kids on the block, these students had a confidence about them I had not sensed last year as I passed them in the halls. They all seemed to have grown a few inches both inside and out.
As the administrators reviewed procedures and expectations, I observed the ones who paid attention, and the ones who did not. It occurred to me that I would be teaching all of them this year, the gifted and the insecure, the talkative and the shy. Seated all together like they were, it seemed, for a moment, to be a daunting task. Failure would not be an option, not for them, and not for me. One teacher, who had taught them the year before, offered to point out to me which ones to watch carefully, which ones to never seat in the back. But I declined. I like to start fresh with each one. “This is a new day,” I will tell them tomorrow. “This is like the first inning in a baseball game. I don’t care about what happened yesterday, much less last year. All I want to know is this: on this day, who’s ready to play?”
Some will be eager to begin and will show it. Some will wish summer break was one month longer and will make no attempt to hide it. All will be curious about me. Of course, in a smaller school, all but the newcomers will have heard a “Mr. Roberts story” or two. Last week, more than a few came up to me and introduced themselves. “I’m in your class this year” followed me all day. I chose to think it reflected a certain enthusiasm, but I knew there was anxiety too.
Tenth grade is like that. Beginnings are like that. I will do my best to ease their concerns. In fact, my very first lesson will once again be exploring plot in Tracy Chapman’s 1988 song “Fast Car.” Most have never heard it before, were not even born when it ruled the airwaves, but if the last nine years are any indication, it will become a class favorite, reappearing upon request whenever the magic of that first day seems to be drifting away. While I do walk them through my classroom procedures and expectations, I purposely do not distribute a written syllabus until the second day, since I do not want to begin with grading policies and what not to do until I have reminded them how good learning can feel. Then we will end the week by analyzing the role of plot in Edward P. Jones’ short story “The First Day,” set in Washington, DC. My students always love that story.
Let the games begin.
–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)