Teaching in the D

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 10 2011

A Tale of Two Classrooms (Institute)

Let’s take a brief journey back in time. It’s the first day of summer school, and there are two 8th grade earth science classrooms, sitting side by side. Both rooms are colorfully decorated and full of anxious teachers waiting to meet their students. Standing on tiptoes and bouncing back and forth, the new teachers wait for their students. The younger grades go past in nice, quiet lines to their rooms. Finally, the oldest students are dismissed from the breakfast room at the top of the school. A pack of 50 14-year-old students comes rumbling down the hallway.

It quickly becomes clear that the loud, excited pack of children have no idea which room they should be in. An overexcited teacher barrels over and begins calling the names of her students, directing them to the second room on the hallway. The kids laugh as she mispronounces their names.

The kids eventually settle into the two rooms, talking and laughing. In both rooms, the teachers struggle to get the attention of the students, who would rather talk to their friends than think about school. In the first room, the teachers attempt to outline the rules, pausing whenever students begin talking over them. In the second, the teachers attempt to make special notice of well-behaved students, but mostly call for students to be quiet.

Frustrated and behind schedule, both rooms of teachers hand out the first day’s diagnostic tests. The students immediately protest. They don’t want to take a test. More importantly, they don’t know anything on it. They’ve never seen these words before! They have no idea what to do. In the second classroom, the teachers attempt to control the room, circulating around the room pushing students to attempt every question rather than pushing the packet of papers off their desks.

In the first room, the teachers try something else. They recollect the diagnostic tests and move the students into a circle. “What’s going on?” ask the teachers. The students reply that they don’t know anything on the test, that they hate science, and summer school. The teachers let the students vent, occasionally asking them to discuss a related topic, like their previous science classes or their feelings on summer school. When the students have said everything, the teachers remind them what the diagnostic does, and hands it back out. The room is relatively quiet for the rest of the period.

I wish I could say that I’d been the teacher in the first, maverick, room. It’s exactly the sort of move that one would expect from a hotshot young teacher. When discussing our day on the bus ride back, I thought “why didn’t I do that? It makes perfect sense!” At the time, all I could think of was “what have I learned about management that could help me get this mess under control ASAP?” You can’t teach how to have that sort of moment, it just happens.

The difference in the two eighth grade earth science classrooms has been amazing since that day. In the first room, students trust their teachers. They operate smoothly, with purpose, and study. They learn the material. They even like their teachers. In my room, we struggle to have kids stay quiet, take notes, much less pass their end-of-day quizzes. On the second day, we tried to talk to the kids about their feelings inside and outside of class, but the moment had passed. We were just another bunch of teachers who yelled, went too fast, and didn’t care.

Until Friday. I’m not sure what clicked in my students’ brains, but Friday started off differently. During our literacy block, one of my students asked if he could perform a song for me. I did an introductory activity about identifying celebrities (as a gateway to identifying minerals) in which most of the kids participated. We got through all of my introduction to the new material (although not, of course, any of the activities I had planned for them). They asked questions about the material. Most importantly, they asked questions about me. They wanted to know if I would be their teacher next year, where I would be teaching, how I was paying my rent this summer, whether or not I was married… In strict teacher terms, I should probably have shrugged them off. But I decided to run with it. Not two days ago, these same kids had literally walked away from me when I tried to talk to them in the hallway about how their day was. So I ran with it and answered their questions.

I finished my class feeling pretty good about my improvement. At the end of the next class, I went back into the room to grab some papers I had left. I found the room in complete and total meltdown. One of my supervisors was controlling the class. The teacher was crying. The tension and confusion was palpable in the room. No one seemed to know quite what had happened or who was to blame. I coordinated dismissal of the students in pairs and trios with my supervisor, speaking to them before they left. After everyone was out of the room, I spoke to several of my students individually, pulling them into a nearby staircase. They looked completely shell-shocked, curled up on themselves, shaking. They clearly had no idea what had happened, and their next teacher coming in and trying to corral them as if nothing else had happened wasn’t making it any better. So I pulled them out into the hallway, one by one, and sent them back into class when they were ready. I asked them if they were okay, and explained how a teacher might feel in that loud, callous classroom that might cause her to get upset. We worked out plans, called in favorite teachers and principals to calm them down, so that they could go back into class and be successful. They talked to me in their scared child-voices instead of their loud teenager-voices.

I can’t promise what Monday will be like. I don’t know if they will have the same bond with me or if it will fade over the weekend. But I can’t help but think that this is some kind of breakthrough with them. I finally feel like I might be a good teacher, rather than just a placeholder who teaches them a few vocabulary words until they get a real teacher.

3 Responses

  1. Jay

    You are a good teacher, and I’m glad that you are seeing that in yourself.

  2. You’re a good teacher, m’dear. You taught the new Egal junta how to Egal!

    I should send you some of the cross-cultural psychology reading I’ve had to analyze for my job this summer. You might find it useful next year.

    • Hannah

      I love that we have an Egal junta.

      Sounds interesting!

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