Here it is September: I’m tired. And energized. Teenagers have a way of doing that to a teacher.
After eight months away from the classroom, working instead on research and The Share Chair Podcast in the Netherlands by working in a classroom only occasionally and an office quite frequently, I was quite worried about how the first couple of weeks of full-time classroom teaching were going to go. Before I ever met my students, I worked vigorously on my new-to-me classes with my colleagues to make sure our curriculum was aligned and ready to go. Not surprisingly, I found my peers helpful, smart and willing – terrific components in any co-worker.
The staff meetings were informative and filled with the teacher version of excitement and anxiety. We were ready for the students.
I had my typical sleepless night on School Eve, filled with nightmares that I have done zero preparation and the students see through me to see an ill-prepared dolt, a person who has never taken an education class.
Eventually, I sleep. I wake up. I shake out the nightmare with a solid breakfast and I head to class 40 minutes early to make sure the room is ready, the agenda is set, the seating chart is broadcast.
The bell rings and I’m reminded of how long it’s been since I’ve heard a bell ring, dictating my schedule so strictly: 72 minutes for learning, six minutes for a bathroom break and a drink of water, 30 minutes for lunch.
There they are – 30 students ready to be inspired or ready to sleep, ready to learn or ready to daydream, ready for homework or ready for an excuse. It would be shocking, I think, for the people of our community to step into a classroom and see the vast differences among the students who, by an unknowing and unconcerned group of people, are often pigeonholed as upperclass students. While there’s some truth to the stereotype, it also falls short of the reality.
There are students in my room who struggled to get a breakfast, who are going to (thankfully) be offered a free lunch, and then will go home for a meal of a ham sandwich. We have other students who have all the “things” they want but little one-on-one time with their guardians.
It’s far too simple to pigeonhole our students, and I immediately recognize that with the students in my classroom as they make a wide variety of first impressions: some with a firm, well-rehearsed handshake and smile; some just trying to slink in without being noticed. I don’t know their stories, but I’m ready to help them learn no matter where they are when they enter.
We begin. The first minutes of the school year, I believe, are essential for setting the tone of the year, so, as an English teacher, I want my students reading or writing immediately. I choose the six-word memoir format: six words for my students to tell their life’s story. Not surprisingly, I get a lot of “summer was great, now it’s school,” but once in a while I get a “School is not my happy place” or “I’m too tired to write one” or “I am orange; you are blue” – and then I know I’m working with students of all types: frustrated ones, tired ones, creative ones. To meet them all and help them grow, I have to listen and focus. I have to accept who they are and where they are with their language skills, and then work like mad to help them improve.
Now, a couple of weeks in, the first essay is written, the first novel is read. I am excited, beyond excited, when students get to feel the value of language, when the light bulb goes off to a world of understanding.
But it’s not easy work for anyone – the teachers, the administration, the staff and the students themselves. Of course, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth it and education is extraordinarily valuable. It’s a privilege to offer it to my students.
About the writer: David Theune teaches English/language arts at Spring Lake High School.