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.