Week 2: 8th grade

View from a 1st-year teacher.

Just one thought: why are teachers paid so little? Why are they poked and prodded and judged and scrutinized so much with virtually no “thank you”? Why are teachers trained so rigorously but put into positions where they’re almost destined to fail? Why are teachers the first to be blamed and the last to be credited? And why doesn’t the public listen to someone who knows — A TEACHER — and find out what’s really wrong with our education system?

Trust me, we don’t have failing teachers. We have a system built on a century-old framework that doesn’t fit the needs of society any more. Teachers, who have never been given the power to fix the system, are simply doing what they can to work within that framework and succeed. That a teacher can still accomplish anything within a flawed system built by people who haven’t occupied a seat in a classroom in decades is utterly amazing.

I’m forever in awe of what I see around me.

 

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Day 1: face-to-face with destiny in English 8

I realize the night before the first day of school that I’m completely unprepared. I don’t know the names of my students, unsure what they even know about English. Last year’s 7th grade teacher retired and left town ASAP before I ever knew that I’d be interning, so I can’t really ask her what to expect. I’m the sole 8th-grade English teacher in the school. Tomorrow there will be 130-ish students expecting me to teach them something – or trying really hard to do anything but learn — I’m not even sure about that.

I know when I was in 8th grade, I hated English. It was the single most boring class I had. For the life of me today I can’t tell you who my teacher was. I can name other teachers — the ones who had an effect on me, the ones I liked, the ones I probably, inadvertently learned something from — but no clue as to who taught me English. It was 40 years ago, so maybe it’s all for the best.

I’m in bed before 1 a.m., which I think is late. Deep down I know that pretty soon this will seem super early.

School starts at 7:40a. I arrive around 7:10a and realize that I have no way to get into my classroom because it’s locked and I don’t have a key. Are there keys? I don’t even know. It’s not my real classroom; I’m unsure when I’ll be able to get into that one because of summer construction delays that are preventing occupancy of the entire 8th-grade wing. I’m in the art class, which sounds fun, but really it’s just dark and dirty.

I’ve decorated little — just a few borrowed posters for inspiration and to add life to rust- and brown-colored walls. I don’t want to get too attached, especially since I’m sharing this room with other teachers who will be teaching during my prep and the elective I recently learned I would be teaching. None of us wants to really claim these walls and we’re all hoping we’ll depart quickly. BTW, the elective I’m teaching — creative writing – I’ve spent far too little time planning for it. I know this will bite me in the ass soon, but hopefully not today.

Students start to pop into and out of the class around 7:30. They’re taller than me, with a few exceptions, but I already knew that this would be the case. I’m pretty sure the students don’t want to learn and would rather be doing anything other than sit in class. Right now I kind of agree.

I’ve seen the social media posts of some of my fellow education students who are also interning this semester.Some of them are completely mum about their impending plans. For all I know, they changed their minds and decided to wait tables this fall instead. Others have spent what seems like 100s of hours in the classroom prepping, decorating, being prepared.

I, on the other hand, have just been kind of wandering around confused and more concerned about personal stuff. My college coursework finished in May for last years, and by the end of that month, I was thinking seriously about delaying my student teaching gig until spring semester so I could either amass a stockpile of cash, which would give me one less thing to worry about or delay the inevitable decision that I didn’t really want to move into a public school classroom. Then, sometime in late June, the person who I would soon discover would be my new principal asked me to come in to talk to her. She and I formerly shared a fence when she lived in the house behind mine, or vice versa, depending on where you were standing. She was always lovely and nice but I never really had a discussion with her before.

When I got to her office, we talked. I learned the previous principal decided to retire unannounced at the end of the school year, and she, my former neighbor, had been tapped to take his place. In lieu of a new assistant principal, she wanted to add instructional support positions, one of which was a literacy coach and interventionist — the 8th grade English teacher. Would I want to do an internship and teach the 8th grade English class instead of simply student teaching?

I hadn’t really expected this. And, because I’m horrible at saying no to almost anything, I thought for a few minutes and said “yes.” It seemed like the right idea at the time. But on day 1 of school, I’m no longer certain.

The day, however, goes by pretty smoothly. Okay, that’s not actually true. It’s probably better described as a shit show, which I fear is how I’ll label year one, too. The students seem great … I think. My head spins so quickly, I really don’t know. We have an unannounced assembly, so all classes are super short. By the end of the day, I know maybe one student’s name. I feel like I talked at my students all day instead of with them. Bells weren’t programmed and never ring that day. I know students didn’t learn anything other than that my email wasn’t working, which has been the on-again-off-again problem since I took this job. Did I remember to tell them my name? At the end of the day, the school goes on lockdown because there’s a police chase through our sleepy little town, which is something that never ever happens. I have no idea which classes covered what, but I know I’m still holding the full stack of disclosures that I meant to distribute.

I make it out alive, which I guess is as much as I can hope for. But the questions race through my head. Why am I doing this? Am I actually the best person for this role? Do I really want to be teaching? Would students be better served by the former 8th grade teacher who has 16 years of experience and an incredibly calm demeanor when the best analogy I can muster for myself these day is “rabid badger”? Am I prepared for tomorrow because I’m pretty sure I already need to change directions…? Is 8th grade English really where I should be?