Friday, February 26, 2010

First Year

In my first year of teaching, I was assigned the most difficult group of students I have ever faced in my career (albeit my truncated career....). I don't know if it was some kind of cruel joke on the part of the administration, or perhaps they truly believed I was up to the challenges the class presented. But either way, during the last period of the day, I was faced with 35 (!) surly, loud, back-talking, fairly unmotivated seventh graders. Many of the boys towered over me, and most of the girls skeptically sized up my fashion and hair styling choices. As the school year got underway, I ended most of my days in tears because of the challenges of this particular group. Mentored by an expert teacher next door and encouraged by friends, I kept plugging along, constantly reflecting on my lessons, my implementation, the results, the kids' behavior, and more. Two things were certain - Number one - I was determined. I would never allow anyone to say I couldn't handle these kids. Either I'd show those administrators that this was no joke, or I'd live up to their unrealistic expectations of the demands they placed on a first year teacher. And number two - I loved those kids. Despite all my tears and frustrations, despite how much they challenged me continuously, I loved them and admired them. They were complicated and intriguing and they were mine...

They walked a fine line, to be certain. I was smart enough to know that it was better to start off very strict and ease off later, so my classroom expectation was discipline and order. Yet perhaps because I also wanted to show these kids that I respected them and trusted them, I opened myself up to the kind of mischief they were able to conceal easily. I'll never forget marveling at how often the door handle of my classroom fell off in my hand during 7th period (I opened the door, a lot, to "excuse" students outside) and only after the fifth or sixth time, amidst the giggles eminating from the students, did I realize that they had cleverly figured out how to loosen the handle just enough for it to fall off in my hand.

I had a collaborating teacher who worked with me, and she and I were forever brainstorming new ideas and solutions to the behavior problems, apathetic attitudes, and struggling performance of this group. After days of trying to capture and hold their attention (to no avail), we decided to try something new and shocking and unexpected. Before the class arrived, we turned off the lights, lit a few candles, and waited for them to take their seats. Laughing and joking loudly, they tried to cajole us into telling us what we were doing, but neither of us said a word. Finally, finally, as they all quieted down, my co-teacher read Still I Rise by Maya Angelou as a means of introducing our poetry unit. (Side note - my class was predominately composed of black students; she, too, was black; the poem speaks to the determination of African Americans and their ability to succeed, despite the odds.) She read it loudly, boldly, theatrically. We had their attention. They listened, captivated and perhaps a little confused. But it worked, that day. We had them that day.....

I was struck by the realization recently that Aidan's first year of kindergarten is reminiscent of that first year of teaching for me, particularly that class. He has challenged me, over and over and over again, and I have responded with determination and love and yes, tears. I have made mistakes - lord have I made mistakes with him - and yet I refuse to give in, give up. I have spent hours thinking of strategies to use with him, coaching him on how to tell me about his day or how to handle a mean girl on the bus. I have shed so many tears trying to get him to understand how rude he can be to us when he gets home, and how we don't deserve it. I still have not figured out how to make our morning routine as smooth as I would like it to be, and so I continue to implement new tactics, revise them, and try again. Much like those 7th grade students, I feel as though I overcome one hurdle with him only to face another. And yet we march on, often side by side, and sometimes head on.

In the long run, I was richly rewarded for my efforts with those seventh period students. I hope they learned from me half of what they were able to teach me. Of course, the same is true for my Aidan. I have learned so much from him because he constantly challenges all of my parenting skills - yet there is one big difference. The reward of being his mother - in my finest moments of parenting, and in my failures, too - is already enough for me.

As I prepared to bid farewell to those seventh grade students in June, I asked each of them to complete a course evaluation of my class. The last question asked them to write one piece of advice for next year's students who would be in my class. Daniel, the culprit behind the loose door handle, wrote,
"Never Mess with Mrs. Carter."
...which I interpret to mean, "...because she'll never give up on you and she cares deeply for you and she'll do everything she can for you."

Aidan, I hope you are listening. Never mess with your mother. Because she loves you, fiercely and more than you can ever know, and she'll go to the ends of the earth for you. So there.

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