Friday, February 3, 2012

A Tale Worth Telling

Tonight is the second night of parent-teacher conferences.  Last night I got to tell about 15 families how well their kids are doing.  Their gaines are in reading, in the length of their writing responses and in their attitudes and behavior.  Too bad that these gains aren't what the CRTs will measure.  I saw a number of happy, smiling faces and parents surprised at how well their child is doing.  It was gratifying.  Then there was the one kid whose mom asked if she talked a lot.  Yes.  In fact, she is often disruptive.  Oh, well, she says that it's this other kid distracting her.  Yes, well then, I'll move you again and in two weeks I will call to follow up with your mom.  Problem solved.  Mostly though, it's the kids who you don't have problems with who show up.  They like stickers too, incidentally. One of the parents offered to bring me some tamales the next time she makes them.  I enthusiastically accepted her offer.  Yes, I'm a vegetarian. Yes, it's got pork in it.  Yes, I'm eating them anyway and she's putting "extra hot" on them. I don't care if my stomach gets upset and my ass catches fire. I'm eating them.  

I have an intern now too, brought to my by my university.  I asked for one. I think that more people need to be exposed to what teaching in the trenches is like.  There are days of beauty and despair here in the poverty-ridden inner city.  My kids might be hungry, and their clothes are not new or even in great repair, but they have bright eyes and a natural curiosity that can easily be channeled into critical thinking exercises and a love of literature.  We've got a one seat ladies room with no hot water.  There is dust in the hallway and noise from the remodeling construction going on.  When I came back from Christmas vacation, chunks of my ceiling had fallen onto a student's desk.   Despite having four copiers, it's a crapshoot as to whether or not any one of them will work on a given day.  I have a projector in my room and no way to use it.  Other teachers have Smartboards that they do not know how to use and one of our teachers has been MIA for over 2 weeks.  He just stopped showing up. I wonder about the story behind that.

She's a nice person. Fired up for teaching.  Wants to save the world. I almost hated to disillusion her, except that I know once she gets over the bitter reality, she will find, as did I, that one really can make a difference.  It's small at first, and then will spread through the school and community.  The first afternoon, she was shocked.  She had a meeting in the morning and made it only to my sixth hour class. Having met me less than an hour ago, and watching me teach a class- and of course, my kids decided to be rotten that day- I could tell she was not impressed with my teaching skills.  I don't blame her.  From the outside, things don't seem like much.  Progress lies in the daily struggles as students gradually change their attitudes and grow as people.  I looked around the dilapidated classroom, housed in a portable building that looks like a train car long forgotten on public land.  It's a sky blue on the inside and I had just moved there from my old classroom on Friday.  Boxes were everywhere and much was to be done.  Yes, I can only imagine what kind of impression I was making, and what kind of impression my school was making.

I gave her a tour and introduced her around.  We went back to my classroom to discuss strategies and get to know one another.  I could see the skepticism in her eyes.  I could tell she thought that this was a very bad idea, that per haps there had been a mistake and tomorrow she would get her real appointment.  It's a third world school, in a mismanaged district and state seemingly bent on destroying education entirely.

It's also a great place to learn how to be a great teacher.

Over the last week or so, I have seen her go from disbelief to shock to depression and dismay, to a grim determination to make it work.

There have been many bright moments.  There was the first full day that she saw me teach and observed the range of how awesome and individual kids are, of how they wear their hopes on their sleeves and how fired up they get about learning sometimes.  She saw Debbie (pseudonym), my little fireball, discuss her ideas articulately and felt the regular hum of the classroom as we went about our day.  She was exhausted by the end of that day, and we still had another class and a meeting to go.  It's a marathon, not a sprint.  She'll get used to it.  She is getting used to it.

It was time for her to begin teaching without me there.  Interns have to teach for a full 3 weeks without the regular teacher in the classroom.  I left her in charge of my 2nd hour class.  My sweet kids, the ones who make me smile when all else fails.  One of the really heart-ful classes.  We went over the lesson plan.  We talked options.  I took my phone in case she got in trouble.  I went to the office.

At the end of the hour- during which I relaxed and caught up on email- I walked into my classroom to Debbie screaming at another kid because he'd called her a "black bitch".  The kid is screaming back and the rest of the class vehemently taking sides.  The poor intern was doing her best to deal with what had suddenly become a pack of rabid children.  "Outside", I said, as calmly as I could.  My kids followed me out, both teary-eyed. We talked and I calmed them down.  Then class was over and we were off to the next one.  My intern- nice as she is- needed a few minutes to herself.  I might have warned her of the perils of the first time teaching, that all wonderful and loving children can and will turn on a teacher who shows a sign of weakness. I taught the class and suggested she write out her experiences while they were fresh- even if they were painful.  She did, though she doesn't want to actually *read* it again for awhile.

Then, I asked her get back on that horse and ride.  I stayed right outside the door.  It was a sunny day and the kids didn't know I was there, but she did.  Invisible support is highly underrated.  I got to sit in the sun and read a book and she knew I was right there if trouble brewed.  I listened with half an ear.  Best not to look too closely the first day.  Seemed like all normal stuff.  It went better.  She breathed a sigh of relief (or perhaps she had just been holding her breath for an hour?) after the class. Admitted that she had thought perhaps this wasn't the school for her.  But middle class white kids in rich schools can be just as difficult- if not more so.  And my kids actively LIKE her.  Then our last class of the day.  She did fine and I stayed in the room.  I whispered a request to two of my kids to chill out on her behalf.  They did. Maybe she didn't need me to do that part, but I figured it couldn't hurt.

The next day, she taught my second hour class again.  Again, I stayed nearby, just in case.  Fine. It was fine. Again, I saw the sigh of relief and an exhalation of breath that perhaps she didn't know she was holding.  It's a good strategy to do pre-game strategy, teach without me interfering, and then do a post-mortem analysis.  It's really hard for me to not interfere. But I know she'll learn more from catching her own mistakes because she is self-aware.  And my favorite professor, my advisor from OU, is supervising her internship.

If she lives through this semester, she'll be able to teach anywhere.  And I for one hope that she lives through the semester.  The bright moments will come more frequently.

Speaking of bright moments, my little book club has grown.  My kids, who use the excuse of "lunch detention" to come eat lunch in my classroom, has interested more and more children.  Right now I have 21 students.  That's almost 3 times as many as I had when we started in November.  We are reading "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins.  The movie opens in March and I'm hoping to have it read by then.  The only rules to attending are that you cannot talk while I'm reading and you must clean up after yourself.  What they get in return is a fun lunch atmosphere with nobody yelling at them and a good book read out loud.  And what I get is better- satisfaction and a big smile for my afternoon classes.

And a good story to tell. Can't wait for the tamales.

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