My co-teacher, Wendy, and I eye one another nervously. Surely this is a joke. Collaborative team teaching classrooms, such as ours, are traditionally dumping grounds for behavior problems. And yet, all of these kids are in their seats, reading in absolute silence. In line, they don’t talk or try to escape - they actually walk, one behind the other. When I need them to be silent and I count down from 3 - they are quiet by 2!
Surely this is a joke. It’s November, and we’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop. These kids are cut from a different mold than last years kids. People will say, “No - you are just a better teacher, it’s you who has changed, not them.” Surely I have changed, and I am a better teacher. But it’s not me - it’s them. These kids WANT to learn. They are slow - much further behind than my class last year, but they have something that those kids didn’t - motivation. We tell them to form study groups, and they actually do. We collect homework, and 90% of the kids produce it. It may be jibberish, but they tried - and that’s more than last year’s kids could do.
Also working in their favor, is what they don’t have - bad attitudes. While the walls of our room last year dripped with sarcasm and cattyness, this year, there is a childlike, age appropriate sweetness in the room. They smile more, they insult less, they seem to desire guidance.
A hand will shoot up, or a kid will come over to one of our desks to report that another student is bothering them, taking their pencils, or calling them some sort of name. This in itself is a huge step. Last year, the kids didn’t turn to us to settle their disputes, they handled them themselves, with a callous cruelty that left us breathless. This year, slightly less jaded, they seem unable to confront these challenges without the intervention of an adult. It’s a role that feels somehow new to me.
So this is where we are - a third year in this same school. This year I am in the same classroom as last year, working with the same wonderful partner as last year, and engaged to get married to Mr. Mullen, whose room is just one door away from mine. In this toxic environment, I feel like I have an island of good.
I am teaching English Language Arts again, only this year I feel far more adept at it, and am excited by the growth that I am already seeing my students make. I am also teaching Science, a surprise that I got on the first day of school. Wendy and I are more or less winging it when it comes to these lessons - thought we started off strong. The first unit in 8th grade covers sexual reproduction, which was really smooth sailing as far as getting the students interested went. Lots of questions which we tried to answer. There are many school districts where letters are sent home before we address the topics that we did, but that’s not the type of district that we are in, and it may be for the best. A high percentage of our students are sexually active, and an equally high percentage are sorely misinformed about their bodies reproductive capabilities. The questions are all the things that you would expect, and yet when you look at a 13 year old’s face fall when you tell her that, yes, you can definitely get pregnant on your period or using the ‘pull-out’ method, it really does hit home how dangerous it is for these kids not to know. So I feel like I’m doing a public service of some sort, however unqualified I may be to be delivering the message.
It’s a year that feels remarkably different from last year, and a lifetime apart from my first year. And yet there are the same basic components - kids, lessons, management, student engagement, data, and surprise. Perhaps it’s the element of surprise that keeps this job interesting, and bearable. You may teach the same lessons year after year, but it will never go the same way twice. Teaching sexual reproduction, I’ll get questions that make me blush, and reading there papers, I’m shocked to find myself laughing out loud at the stories that they tell. No matter how many papers you grade, how many lessons you teach, how many parents you have to call, you are dealing with kids. Kids, who are defiantly themselves, who don’t know to conform, who are ignorant of expectations, are what ultimately defines this job. And they are always a surprise.