I attended a conference recently for work about helping youth from foster care, a topic that I am very passionate about. Part of my journey learning about this issue is understanding, as one young woman pointed out, that “it’s not like the movies.” People end up in foster care for different reasons, and being “in” foster care doesn’t always mean there’s a dramatic home removal. Often these kids bounce back and forth between their families and the child welfare system.
One of the keynote speakers at this conference I attended was Dr. Steve Perry. He’s known for his in-your-face antics and real talk with youth and families who are beyond troubled. He got into his groove during his address one afternoon telling a story from his work and I listened as he said “We pile pain upon pain and call it a family.”
In that moment I started to remember the stories from teaching that weren’t like the movies, either. The months and months of hard work and bending over backwards, trying every trick in the book only to find that your classes did not get the test scores you wanted (or needed). Struggling with students (and sometimes colleagues) all year only to go home for the summer with unresolved conflict. And whether we’d like to admit it or not, we don’t all look like Hilary Swank.
And I remembered that first year of teaching with that student who I thought was a terror. He said and did rude, mean, evil things. I tried to be patient but he took advantage. I tried to be firm but he acted worse. I thought “he’s just acting out because he’s academically insecure,” but that wasn’t it either. When I exhausted all my options, I sat down with the headmaster. We called him in for a conversation, where he showed slightly more humility than the previous weeks in my classroom.
And then the headmaster called his father.
When his father came to pick him up, everything changed. My memory of that day came back suddenly and in slow motion. A father yelling at his 8th grade son as he dragged him out of the school building. My unruly, surly, rude, evil student transformed into a terrified, embarrassed child with his head hung low, unwilling to make eye contact with anyone. They got into a pick-up truck and sped away.
I have no conclusion to this story, no happy ending, no clever quip that makes everything ok because I learned something valuable.
We pile pain upon pain and call it a family.
I have never felt so much love and hatred as I did for 8th graders.
I taught two sections of a combined 7th/8th grade North Carolina history class my first year of teaching. One section met before lunch and included a healthy mix of male and females of varying maturity levels. The other section was at the end of the day and included approximately 20 students, 18 of whom were male. It was my greatest challenge.
Each of them had their own personalities, but when combined I found that their sole purpose in life was to make me miserable. For example, after I painstakingly arranged a seating chart for this male-dominated class, I realized there was still a trouble spot on the far side of the room. Before too long (but later than the rest of the class), I learned why. One of these clever young men whose seat was next to the door took it upon himself to ask in a low, hushed voice, “Did you poop?” every time someone came back from the restroom. He was the gatekeeper of the class, and no one could enter until the status of their bowels was ascertained.
Most of these students were academically sharp. Let’s be honest, this was a private school. Their breeding and background had all the makings of success – mostly two-parent homes, upper middle class, etc. They misbehaved because they were 8th grade boys, they got bored, and I was a 1st year teacher who did not know how to handle the situation.
One such individual who shall remain nameless was particularly skilled at dominating the attention of his peers. All of the shenanigans that I discovered amounted to only half of the incidents that he was responsible for. And this was old school stuff, too, like spit balls across the room, wedgies, etc. On one particular afternoon, I had finally had enough and I made the threat. “You can expect a call home to parents this evening.”
Little did he know that this would be my first phone call home to a parent, which was just as nerve-wracking for me as it was for him. I waited until what I thought was an appropriate time – after work, before dinner, and early enough so that he would know it was me calling. The phone rang, and his father answered. I identified myself, he listened patiently, took a deep breath, and told me something I will never forget.
“Mrs. Russ, do you have any kids of your own?”
“Well, then here’s what I’ll tell ya. You gotta ‘fake it til ya make it’.”
Silence. Nervous laughter. “Excuse me?”
“There’s this look that he responds to. You don’t even have to say anything, but if you just stop what you’re doing for a few seconds, look him in the eye in a way that let’s him know you’re serious, he’ll get the message. You don’t have kids, but you can fake it til you do.”
This was a pivotal moment in my teaching career, and in my life. Why had no one told me about this “look” before? How had I never picked up on this from my own parents?
Sure enough, I had a chance to practice the next day, and it was beautiful. Perhaps we had an understanding because I had carried out my threat of calling home. Or maybe he was actually terrified of what was behind my eyes when I gave him the look. But either way, I now felt like a real teacher.
The very first class I taught was at 8:15 am to a room full of 6th graders. Correction: kids who had just left the 5th grade, because there is no difference between a 5th grader in June and one in August.
I was learning everything about teaching as it happened. For example, what do you do when you’ve covered all your material for the next hour within the first 15 minutes of class? This is how I learned about fancy pedagogical concepts like “activating prior knowledge”, “cooperative learning”, and “quiet time” (ok that last one is not so much pedagogical as it is necessary). Or, how do you teach a class of 20 6th graders when 5 of them are on a 12th grade reading level, 5 of them are on a 3rd grade reading level, 3 of them have emotional/behavioral needs, and you’ve only been teaching for one day? And remind me again which Bible verse I’m supposed to write on the board (remember, I was at a private Christian school at the time).
So here I was in my first year of teaching. I had figured some things out, like which classroom to go to at which time. I was also becoming a master of time management in the classroom, and I was actually having fun figuring out different ways to connect students with learning objectives. For our unit on ancient Egypt, they mummified themselves and created artifacts from ancient Egyptian history inside the mummies. It was fun, and these kids were actually decent to be around.
One morning we were in the middle of our unit on Ancient Greece, learning about Alexander the Great. The boys were thrilled with the more militaristic details, and I found myself at that dreaded point during class when we still had 10 minutes left, but I was all out of material. (Later, I would learn from my lead teacher some useful ideas for my “bag of tricks”, but that’s later). So I had no choice. I had to let the children speak.
We were going around the room discussing things that they enjoyed learning, or something they might still have a question about. Most of them said lame stuff like, “I can’t believe they wore dresses”, or “Why didn’t he just kill everyone he conquered?”
Then we came to the one kid who must have watched The HIstory Channel all. the. time. He raised his hand and asked, “Is it true that Alexander the Great was gay?”
Laughter erupted across half of the classroom – the half who knew what the word “gay” meant in this context. I wondered a million different things. How did he know to ask that? What kind of parents did he have? His parents must be cool. Can I tell him “Yes, and Jesus still loved him”?
I can’t remember what happened after that in class, but I do remember the realization of what I was now doing as a teacher. “Oh, these are small people, little adults. I am responsible for giving them content, and teaching them how to think.” When he asked that curious and innocent question, it became so clear to me that I was now spending my days with adults who just didn’t look like it yet. My response would influence his association with that topic. Forever. The way I answered his questions or chose to remain open to conversations would teach him more than any prepared lesson could. My willingness to entertain his curiosity had to be more important than a “right” or “wrong” answer.
(For the record, I don’t know if Alexander the Great was gay, and I really don’t think it matters.)
I will start at the beginning.
In the spring of 2007, after a year of administrative office work, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to explore my curiosity about teaching. A bachelor’s degree in history made me highly qualified to teach private school, though I would eventually find my way into the public school system. And so sometime in May of 2007 I found myself sitting across from the two people at a private Christian school who were to become my headmaster and lead teacher, respectively. (I may have more to say about religious education later, but I haven’t decided…)
This in-person conversation was my second interview, and after asking me the obligatory questions (background, academic experience, work experience, etc.), they put down my papers and asked the question.
“Why do you think you would be a good teacher?”
I can remember the moment so clearly. The office was in an old church building – florescent lights, low ceilings, concrete slab floors with those specs to make it look fancy (I guess?). I was sitting on the other side of the desk in an old chair. If this were a movie, the camera would have slowly zoomed in tightly on my face with the question echoing in the background as sweat slowly started to bead up on my forehead.
Fortunately I had my response ready.
“I really love history. I think it’s exciting to figure out how to help other people understand how events unfolded and why they’re important. And I like thinking of creative ways to do that.”
What an idiot!
It must have been good enough though, because I was hired and entrusted with all of the history for grades 6 through 12, as well as yearbook and speech classes. I’m still not sure if I was the right person for the job, or just a warm body. (I would later have many conversations with friends who also taught at private schools about the tendency to overload young, naïve newcomers.) But this was the start of my career and my journey in teaching and education policy. Make no mistake, I am forever grateful and indebted to that school, and those two staff members in particular, for the risk they took by hiring me and for the investment they made in me. But what a long time ago that was, and what a different educator and person I have become as a result of my teaching experiences.
After two years out of the classroom, I’ve decided to relive my 5-year journey, starting at the beginning. This is not meant to be a thesis on the state of teaching in America; it is simply the story of how I came to be a teacher, why I loved it so much, and what I’m still learning about it years after I left.
Of the hundreds of students to come through my classroom, I can count on one hand the number of parents who showed up at the school for a conference. Even more rare were the ones who appeared for a surprise visit.
Last year I became acquainted with Annie’s mother. Annie was (and still is) possibly the most independent, strong-willed student I have ever had. In her eighth grade year she was prone to outbursts, but not like your typical teenager. Annie would get mad when her peers were talking during class, or when her group members weren’t carrying their load. This led to some interesting situations, and one day I found myself on the receiving end of one of her fits of rage.
Annie was very particular about the setting in which she could complete her work. One day during exam review, she asked to move her chair into the doorway so that she could concentrate. I said that was fine, so she moved. Several minutes later, I glanced at the door and Annie was gone. I rushed into the hallway to find her standing by the wall with her paper pressed against the concrete, filling in answers.
“What are you doing out here?”
“They are TOO loud, I had to come out here.”
“Then you need to ask first.”
This is when things fell apart. It was a tricky situation. Someone more prone to discipline and consequences would certainly berate Annie for not following protocol and asking to leave the classroom. But I have also never been accused of being prone to discipline, and part of me was impressed with her determination to complete her assignment. Because I chose to focus on what she did wrong instead of what she was doing right, she became angry and I ended up sending her out of the class altogether.
After class I called her mom. Yet another single mother, I was reluctant to call because I knew she worked the third shift at her job and she would have just come home, or just gone to sleep.
I explained the situation and I could tell she was annoyed, but not necessarily at me.
“Thank you for calling, but I don’t want you to tell Annie that we spoke.” She had a plan.
Several hours later the security officer told me there was a parent in the cafeteria who wanted to speak to me. I knew what was happening.
We all sat at the table – me, Annie, and her mother. The mother made it seem like she had just decided to stop by, and when Annie told her what happened she asked to speak with me. As we sat there together, I found out the real reason for Annie’s outburst.
“You embarrassed me in front of my friends.”
I considered for a moment what to say. “I’m sorry for the way I handled the situation. Do you understand why I felt like I had to say something?”
She acknowledged that her actions could have been better, and we shook hands. Then her mother addressed her.
“You see, that’s a real woman. A real woman knows how to apologize and forgive.”
No matter where I go, what I do, or what I become, that will be one of the best compliments I ever receive. A single mother who works third shift, calling me a real woman.
For 21 years, I have taken part in the first day of school as either a student or a teacher. When I was growing up, my mom created “Erin Patterson Day”. We would go get my schedule, shop for school supplies and the all-important first-day-of-school outfit, and go out to lunch. My college days were spent with roommates and my then-boyfriend, now-husband, traversing campus to get books, id cards and parking passes. And for the last five years I set up camp for a week in a classroom that almost always smelled of mildew, spending time decorating, organizing and planning until, ready or not, my own students arrived.
This year is different. I am a student again, but part-time. I also have a full-time internship, and rather than taking part in the annual back-to-school shopping extravaganza, I’m scouring Amazon for the best deals on used books. It’s weird, but in a good way. After two weeks of “firsts”, I decided that I need to start writing again in order to collect my thoughts.
While I will surely miss the day-to-day interactions, struggles, and joys of teaching, I am excited to focus my attention on learning again. I have already been challenged to narrow the focus of my academic interests, while broadening my policy perspective. Through these limited experiences, I am reminded that I don’t know everything. Yet.
During my very first year of teaching, I was charged with educating all 6th-12th grade students at a small private school in North Carolina. Although I taught 7 different grade levels, the school was so small that I only had about 100 different students. They were all so different, and it was as much an education for me as a first-year teacher. The 6th graders seemed so little compared to the know-it-all seniors, and the goofy 9th graders were always enlightening with their “Word of the Day”. It was a special group of 8th graders though who challenged my very existence and got me hooked forever on teaching.
The 7th and 8th graders made up the largest percentage of my students that year, and at the end of every other day I had my most challenging class with them – North Carolina History with 25 students, most of whom were male. At the center of this chaos was Jonny.
Throughout the course of the year I learned a lot about Jonny. He loved music, especially the game Guitar Hero, and his favorite song was “Sweet Child of Mine”. He played basketball, and he was definitely the class clown. Occasionally he would raise his hand and look like he needed to ask a serious question, but instead say something like, “Mrs. Russ, do you think my muscles are big?”
I also had the privilege of teaching Jonny’s older brother who was a senior that year. One day Jonny raised his hand because he saw his brother walking across campus.
“Look at him, he’s so cool. I want to be just like him when I grow up,” he said.
Another day towards the end of the year he handed me a folded up piece of paper that said the following:
“Will you marry me? We could live on the prairie together.”
Below it was an illustration of two people (supposedly me and Jonny) standing on the prairie holding hands. As a first-year teacher, the most important thing for me to do was to never, ever crack a smile, but Jonny made this nearly impossible.
At the end of the year I made the decision to take a position at a public high school much closer to my home, but I still keep in touch with some of those students. That October I received a phone call informing me that Jonny was in a car accident and had died in the hospital. He was 14 years old.
I have never experienced a loss like that, and I can never know what his family felt. I have been to funerals before, but never like Jonny’s. When someone so full of life passes away, people wait for hours to pay their respects. I thought about every day I spent with him in the classroom and how glad I was to be able to know him.
July 6th was his birthday, and each year I take time to think about Jonny, and remember him and those special students I spent my first year of teaching with.