Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Great Balancing Act

I wasn't the least bit nervous for this job interview. First, because the hiring freeze for new teachers was still in effect. I had a hard time removing the ironic expression from my face as I entered the West Harlem elementary school. How can you sell yourself if the merchandise is contraband? On the other hand, my mind was holding on to the hope that despite the freeze, a good principal would know how to cut through the red tape. So I brought my good luck teacher's portfolio. The principal greeted me with a hearty handshake and warm smile. She brought in her vice principal, so I stood up a little straighter- this administration was looking to hire someone today. I opened by letting the ladies know that I was a new teacher. The principal frowned, but then offered that they had a six week substitute position available, would I be interested in that? She told me that the class was first graders, and they were looking for a general ed teacher to work with their special ed teacher as this was a ctt class (collaborative team teaching, as known in these parts). I was interested. I liked that age, and I liked the idea of having another adult with more experience than me in the fox hole. After practically offering me the position, she realized that she didn't ask me any questions about my experience, my background, or my work history. (I have an honest face, that used to happen to me all the time before I started interviewing for teaching positions). I took the opportunity to whip out my trusty portfolio. She turned to a sample of my drama class' work. I had made a worksheet with a one-panel comic of two portly hobos standing on a street corner, with the instructions for the students to create appropriate dialogue. One girl wrote: 'Jose, I'm not feeling good. I think I'm going to have a baby.' Ms. Timmons chuckled, and called across the table to her assistant. 'Ms. Richards-Bouvais, you've got to see this,' and she passed the portfolio across the table. She continued shaking her head, 'Men always gain so much weight in their stomachs, don't they?' We exchanged a little more light chatter, and it was decided that I was hired.
That was two weeks ago. I feel like I have been a teacher for three years, based on the vast depth of emotions I have felt during this fortnight. I have gone from blaming myself, the administration, the kids, and finally the existing teacher for the daily chaos and eruptions that occur in this classroom. There are moments when it feels as though this group will never progress beyond the first grade (and many of them are already repeating it). Some of them are so hyperactive they can't focus for more than a few seconds. All of them are shouting out and running around the second Ms. Davis walks out of the room. I found myself completely overwhelmed the first few days, and am not sure why I didn't quit. I think it was this little voice deep inside that told me these kids really needed me there. So I stayed, and I knew that to make this work, I needed to be supportive of everyone who is involved in making this classroom succeed. I started by letting Ms. Davis know that I would like to share the responsibility of writing lesson plans with her, because she had told me that she had been doing everything herself. She looked relieved, and told me if I would take care of the reading lesson plans, she would be grateful. For any non-teacher reading this, the public school system has become a highly orchestrated and monitored vehicle. Every week of every year in school from pre-K through 12th grade there is specific material to be covered with accompanying performance standards and indicators. This was the third month of the school year, and I was brand new to this class and clueless about the curriculum that they were using, not to mention completely new to working with special ed kids. Ms. Davis was busy with continuing to run the class and handle the multiple behavioral problems. Though we met once to briefly discuss the class itself, I felt a bit unsure of how to 'jump in'. Though I came prepared with my own lesson plan revolving around a children's book I took out from the library, I never found my opening to actually deliver my lesson. Ms. Davis seemed to have everything under control, she led the class through their day with me assisting the best I could. She became completely harried at times, and I felt like I wasn't pulling my weight, but at the same time, it was a delicate balance trying to blend my ideas with what she had already established. Two adult women running a household is no simple task. As I went home one day, walking the 15 blocks from work, I tried to think of ways that I could really help in this classroom. Ms. Davis was obviously frustrated, the kids seemed out of control, and I felt stressed and guilty for not doing my part. I decided that, although Ms. Davis didn't appear to want my help anymore, it was for her own good. I was going to come into class the next day, and gently let her know that if she wanted me to, I had a reading lesson plan prepared. And so I did. She said she would really welcome that, since she was feeling under the weather. I was hoping to do this in the morning, as experience taught me that this class was too unruly to conduct a serious lesson after lunch. I didn't get my wish. On this day, a tired, but restless group of first graders who rarely paid full attention in the morning to their regular teacher was now in my hands.
My lesson was simple. I wanted them to get practice in figuring out the meaning of a book based solely on the pictures. I was going to use Mordechai Gerstein's 'The Man Who Walked Between the Towers', a true story about a man who walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Center on a tightrope. I was well prepared, except for one thing. I didn't know how to deal with the subject of the disappearance of the towers at the end of the book. I decided that this lesson was about reading pictures as a scaffold for reading. I didn't need to touch upon death and destruction as well. I doubted that these kids' attention spans would make it through to the end of the book, anyway.
So I brought the group of 19 onto the carpet. I introduced the book, and let them know what I wanted them to do. Despite half the kids talking constantly to each other, and another small handful scooching every few seconds to a different part of the rug, there were a bunch of kids really excited about sharing their ideas of what was happening in this book. I wished Jameela would stop crying, and Celestial would stop looking at the kid behind her whose foot was bumping into her, but it seemed that if I stopped every time someone was disrupting, I would lose the attention of those who were listening. I continued asking for insights into the nature of each page in the story, every now and then glancing up to see if Ms. Davis would rescue me from the discipline tasks sorely needed. She was sitting in the back, engaging a child who has tendencies to hurt himself. She looked very tired, and was not rescuing me. Despite the lack of order on the carpet, these kids were engaged in the story, and they were giving intelligent answers. Then it came. The page with the picture of the spot where the towers used to be. I could have bypassed it, and no one would have noticed. No one on the rug was born until after the towers came down, so it was my guess that the history was unknown to them. But how could a teacher ignore the opportunity? 'Do you notice anything missing in this picture?' I asked, and felt myself take a quick breath. 'It's a sunny day,' one girl said. 'Yes, that's true, but let's look at the picture from the beginning of the book and compare them.' I showed them the initial picture with the towers standing tall, and then flipped back to the latter page with them absent from the landscape. 'Where are they?' At this point, there were only a few kids paying attention, and a large group had formed a doggy pile in the middle of the carpet. The ones who were listening were now standing around the book to get a closer look. 'What happened to them?' I asked again. Celestial's little face was very serious as she raised her hand to share her conclusion. 'They broke them so he wouldn't walk across them again.' The pictures of the policemen arresting Philipe Petit for his unlawful act of walking the towers had made it's impression. I was amazed by this girl's ability to concentrate and follow my line of questioning in the face of utter chaos that was on every side of her. Despite your environment, however depressed, abusive, or dismal, the extraordinary beauty of learning can still be nurtured. Though no principal in New York City would agree with me, I felt this workshop was a huge success.


paz13 said...

Tamar: Enjoyed the story about your teaching. You make it very interesting reading.

Good to hear from you again.

Hope you have a nice Thanksgiving and a happy birthday.


tamar said...

Hi Kevin! I give the kids the credit for being inspiring muses.
Happy t-day to you too, and thanks for the b-day wishes :-)