A Mosaic In Progress

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 24 2013

Finding “Me” in the Classroom

I really missed my kids over the summer. I was cussed out a handful of times and even yelled at by students who formed a special relationship with me. Of course, I did my fair share of yelling back at them too. The students also didn’t really treat each other with respect at all times. In spite of everything, I still went home to Indiana showing pictures to family, telling stories while laughing, and, every once in a while, answering calls from them at inconvenient moments during vacation.

Sadly, I don’t get to teach those same kids again. I get to experience the next group of kids coming up from the elementary school and my first class of older students in AP Statistics. Even though it’s now my second year as a teacher, I’m still treating my Math classes as if it was my first year.

Fortunately, I know of the older students through brief interactions last year. I was a middle school teacher in a high school in my very first year. Often I would repeat the same lines over and over again throughout the year whenever I talked to a high school student … “Hi, I’m Mr. L and I teach the little ones.” “No, I am not the Chinese teacher.” “I know I don’t sound Chinese. That’s because I was born in Ohio” “Jeremy Lin is not my brother”

(NB: Our school has Chinese as a foreign language. In no way did I feel like these comments were presented in an offensive manner. Context is important; I teach in rural Arkansas.)

The advantage of having other TFA teachers at your school is that you feel comfortable to observe them and be open to visits from them. I took that opportunity to visit a 10th Grade Integrated English/Social Studies class last year. I came in wanting new ideas for how to manage a class and structure a lesson. However, there was one student who kept drawing my attention for some reason.

Class began with a quiz then a pre-read. As Mr. S was talking, I noticed there was one head down slumped over a table. “There’s no way that a student sleeping in the center of the room will go unnoticed by two teachers,” I thought. And sure enough, she gets called on. She looks up with this sheepish grin on her face and answers the question … the teacher in me thought that it was a pretty good answer but not enough evidence of critical thinking. Head went back down and the lesson continued.

On the way out of the classroom, I noticed some posters on the wall created by students on how to solve systems of equations. It just happened to be a lesson I wanted to cover with my 8th graders! I had the idea to borrow these same students to help tutor my students on the subject. Coincidentally, the posters were created by the same sophomores. I propose the idea to Ms. L and she creates a list of tutors. While looking at the list, I ask her, “Who is BL?” “Oh she plays basketball. Smart, but lazy.” It was the one who put her head down in class.

BL walked up to me the afternoon of the lesson without saying a word. Half wondering what to do, I told her to sit with a group of students and have them watch her solve a problem. Who would have thought that a sophomore can sometimes teach a lesson better than the teacher? BL took a group of four boys and got them to substitute correctly.

Over the summer, I went with the Girls Basketball team to a camp in Northern Arkansas.   When I came back from a brief vacation, I learned that I was going to be Assistant Coach so I thought the trip would be beneficial for me. Expectations for the team are pretty low (1 win in the past three seasons) and I wanted to see how they would compete. I saw a new side of the students, including BL. There was more intensity and seriousness to them. While some were prone to argue, BL started to get down on herself. Her body language showed she was beating herself up and she later admitted to almost crying on one shot that completely missed the goal.

It wasn’t until later that I started realizing that BL was a mirror image to how I was when I was in high school. Smart, but would only give the minimum amount of effort necessary to meet a goal. Reserved in the classroom nonetheless a leader that others could look up. High standards but tends to get down when things don’t go as expected. Even though it’s been over a year since I began, it’s the first time that, admittedly, I have not looked at a student as a foreigner. In fact, it feels like I’m talking to a past version of myself.

How has that affected me? Two weeks ago, I heard that BL was talking about dropping my class for fear of the subject difficulty. I checked my roster before the week began … her name was off my list. I’m glad no one was actually by the copier when I blurted out, “What the f—?!?” The first question I had as students came in was, “Anyone hear about B???” Minutes passed and I ultimately told myself to accept the fact that she wasn’t coming. To my relief, BL walked in with a huge “WHERE WERE YOU?!?!” from me. It’s now my greeting for any AP Stats and 8th Grade student walking in late … thankfully they very rarely do anymore.


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Midwesterner being thankful for every written experience … even when it hurts =)

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