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Crossing the Atlantic

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This week's entry is by Jeremy Fried, a first-year Teach For America English teacher in the Rio Grande Valley. In this piece, Jeremy shares the grim reality and deeper responsibility of teaching.

“Sir, I should be teaching this class,” “Diana” yelled across the room. My class erupted in laughter.

For a second, I stood at the front of my class dumbfounded. I had no idea what to say. Worse, a little voice in that back of my head was saying, “She’s right.”

Diana is 15 and pregnant, and she had just managed to get everyone in the room to stop talking and listen. This was a task that I had been failing to accomplish for at least five minutes.

I spent four years at the University of Oklahoma, graduated summa cum laude with two degrees, and trained non-stop for months in order to become the instructional leader of my classroom. After two weeks, I held less sway over my class of sophomores than one of their peers telling them to “shut up.”

The voice in my head got a little louder.

“Maybe she’s right.”

The laughter died down and was replaced once again by Diana’s silence. The class was now quiet enough to hear the hum of the projector, which continued persistently to display the PowerPoint presentation on allusions that had kept me up until 1 a.m. the night before.

The voice in my head had no competition. “What are you doing here? Why are you teaching? You aren’t prepared for this.” I was starting not to like this voice. Deciding to teach had not been an easy decision. I’d been planning on going to graduate school or law school, but had decided that I needed to answer JFK’s eternal question first.

Now, having answered that question by saying “I can teach,” I was once again facing a room full of students who were more interested in planning their weekends than learning about TEKS Objective 11 (a). I can’t say that I was much different as a 10th grader.

Of course, this was neither the first nor the last moment when my façade of conviction that I’d made the correct decision would be shattered by an unwitting student. People tell me that teaching is like a roller coaster, with highs and lows. I cannot say that I agree. A roller coaster has a set course. There are ups and downs, but you know what is coming next and that the ride will be over soon and you can go back to your life.

For me, teaching is like crossing the Atlantic in a kayak. There are ups and downs, sure. Moments of sheer panic and pure exhilaration can come within seconds on any day of the week. However, there is no sure and safe end in sight and you never know whether the next wave will lift you up, or capsize you into the briny deep.

Diana had just sent me into another trough, this one particularly deep. There is something truly disconcerting about questioning your entire purpose for being at school in the middle of your introduction to new material. I was in desperate need of a sense of direction.

The projector, thankfully, was blissfully unaware that the man controlling it was in the middle of mental maelstrom. It was still confidently declaring to anyone with vision that an “illusion” and an “allusion” are not the same thing.

The steadfast belief of this inanimate object was vital because it was only by looking at the screen that I figured out what to say next. Diana may have helped get the silence, but now it was my job to fill it.

“Raise your hands if you know the difference between an illusion and an allusion,” I said. Only one hand went up. “Diana.”

“Sir, we don’t know,” she said. “We need you to teach us.”

Just like that, Diana lifted my vessel high enough for me to see my destination. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to remind you why you’re there.

As I hit the key to move into our new material, that little voice in my head had one more thing to say.

“She’s right.”

6 Comments

That's the key: Persistence and the belief that they can learn. It will be easier when you are not brand new in the classroom and not as dependent on the students for affirmation of your choice of career--and that time does come!

Thank-you for that piece. This is my 5th year in the classroom and your story took me back to my first weeks.

Your students do need you in front of the classroom. You believing in them, you pushing them forward, you giving meaning to TEKS obj 11(a) and page number 73. You plodding forward even during those times when you're heart is not in it. Know that you're not alone in questioning. We all go through that. I know I did. It won't always be so. Yours and your students' successes will build on themselves; YES, even in your first year! And that helps calm the waves.

Allow me to add to your little voice's last statement: Your students do need you in front of that classroom. Uniquely you.

Hang in there, Jeremy. I taught for 12 years before leaving to work in the publishing industry. In the end, it was the administration that drove me out; not the students.

If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to NOT teach isolated pieces of information. As such, they will be memorized (if you're lucky), used once (maybe) and forgotten. They will not be internalized or become part of life's knowledge.

We all need to "hook" something new onto something we already know. I used to try to start every new topic with a "Remember..." It can be a "Remember when...(we talked about something)" or just a plain, ol' "Remember... (the song from Sesame Street that goes 'one of these things is not like the other'?)" I believe the experts call this "Teaching by Analogy" (and yes, I know your students haven't a clue what an analogy is, but it works in practice).

Secondly, give them a REASON for knowing (and it can't be "because you'll be tested on this," regardless of what 'Objective 9.2a' says). Show them where they might use the skill or the information in daily life. They'll be much more likely to want to learn it if they see how it might be useful.

On classroom control: I often found that starting a sentence, stopping part-way through it, and simply staring at the offending student would stop annoying behavior. Never EVER raise your voice. You cannot out-shout them! (In fact, lowering your voice works best on noisy classrooms, so long as you're saying something they want or need to hear.) Don't make threats you can't or won't follow through on.

Finally, don't be afraid to use humor in your classroom. If you're making up spelling or worksheet sentences, make them fun! Don't use the humor to make fun OF, just to make fun!

Good luck! Always make sure that your students know that you're on their side and that you BASICALLY like them and want them to succeed.

great post. i couldnt agree more with your metaphor of teaching as crossing the ocean in a kayak-everything, every moment feels unexpected during this first year

Thank you for sharing your story! I'm still an undergraduate, but I'm hoping join the Teach For America corps myself. To be honest, some recent reading on just how challenging the classroom can be had me questioning whether or not I have what it takes. Reading this has kind of reminded me that I do-and if I don't, I'll find it.

Nicely written and important to convey. Myself, I only had the first half experience. Needless to say, I'm not teaching anymore.

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