As a first-year teacher, I had no idea what I was doing a good majority of the time. Somehow, someone somewhere thought that I (22 and fresh out of college) was even just a little qualified to teach Social Studies to 7th graders at IS 292 in Brooklyn. I lasted one whole semester and cried every single day.
When I called my mom to tell her how tough it was and how I was so miserable, she actually laughed at me- hysterically, I might add. She said, truthfully, “You were the only one who DIDN’T think this would be hard.” She was right, but my good intentions, hard work, and best efforts were no match against my own inexperience or the school culture that came long before me and lasted long after.
Despite this, I did the best that I could and tried to connect with students in meaningful ways. I kept my cool and soothed nervous hearts when panicked families fled to the school to get the kids on 9/11; I helped to fight racism and the fear of the “other” in the weeks after after the attacks; I memorized every single name and face; I squeezed in desks for a class that was already well over the legal limit. Even some of the toughest kids had bright days.
Ultimately, it took one girl with a knife- in my classroom, the safe space that I had created- threatening another to push me past my limit. The school responded by completely ignoring the situation, and I knew then that there was no way I could keep going. If I couldn’t keep the kids safe, I certainly couldn’t teach them.
The “little missy from Vermont” (as a colleague, who lasted for an even shorter time than I did, called me at the beginning) was no match for Vermont St., East New York. I gave my resignation, and at the start of the new semester, I moved on to a different school with a similar population. Because the administration was very supportive, my experience there, though challenging, was much different. I stayed there a year and a half before leaving for California.
I thought about this today, because I had writer’s block. I just didn’t have anything to say, but to stay true to my commitment to myself, I needed to post something here.
For some reason, my memory went back to that first semester of teaching at 292. To throw a little more excitement into the mix, the administration gave me one period a day of Writing. It’s so sad to write this, but no matter what I did, I could not engage the majority of my students to write. The only time I was mildly successful was at the very beginning of the period when they were getting settled in. Each day, I had a prompt or free write for them to complete. The only real rule in the assignment was that they had to keep writing for the entire time. Some days in was 5 minutes, but it was never more than 10.
You would have thought that I was asking them to do something unjust, immoral, or downright nasty. They dug their heals in, but (usually), I convinced them. “Just write anything, even if it’s ‘I don’t know what to write,’ or write the first thing that comes to your mind,” I bargained with them. And it worked. Even the laziest, most stubborn kid would do one of those, and it made the classroom peaceful enough for the other students who were trying to write to think their thoughts.
So today, I just sat down and wrote the first thing that came to my head. It’s not what showed up here, but it gave my voice a chance to warm up. At least my advice was useful to someone!
on February 14, 2012