Saturday, February 28, 2015

#Teach2Teach Q3: Troubling Times

What has been your most troubling experience with teaching and how have you handled it?

My first year of teaching was a troubling experience. Period.  Not in your typical "first year of teaching" type of way, necessarily. 

I was the second teacher in two years to teach a Heritage Spanish class.  This program was pitched to me as an opportunity for a large percentage of our population who are native Spanish speakers to take a higher level language class that would help them perfect their mother tongue.  The miscommunication among the other teachers in my department seemed to be that the program was also an appropriate spot to place students who had Spanish-sounding last names and who appeared to know enough of the language to become a behavior problem in a level I course.  You can imagine the difficulties that ensued.

Enter me:  5 foot 2 inches of white skin, freckles and red, curly hair.  "Newbie" written all over my lesson plans and shaking hands.  Even worse:  Spanish Spanish instead of Mexican Spanish came from my lips.  Oops.

They ate me alive, to say the least.  Class sizes of 6 and 10 students didn't ease the pain.  It was them vs. me immediately.  My attempts to get to know them, to interest them in learning and to maintain any semblance of order were mere fantasies.  Let alone my hopes of  challenging them in Spanish. HA!  What did I know, anyway? Not much, from their perspectives. They did everything in their power to trip me up, embarrass me and catch me in errors (which I had plenty of, let's be honest).  I think I walked out to my car nearly every evening with hot tears dripping down my face.

Now, don't feel too bad for me.  I am not even a little proud of how I handled the majority of the situations I came across my first year.  I tried to be more "tough" like I saw some of my colleagues being in their classes.  I embarrassed those high schoolers right back to "put them in their place."  I sank to their level of arguments many times.  And, at a certain point, I stopped making rigorous education any sort of a priority and just tried to survive until the end of sixth period. It was a nightmare. Repeat 179 times.

Add to all of this a lack of any sort of administrative support.  Add to this a "mentor" teacher who could not have cared less if I succeeded or failed.  Add to this no written curriculum.  Add to this students who did not have a high enough level of Spanish to succeed.  Add to this students who had a higher level in Spanish than I did.  Add to this the fact that I was simultaneously writing curriculum for a new course in a separate building, traveling there during my prep period and teaching 3 different courses.

I have blocked much of this year from my memory, to be honest.  But I recall a distinct moment around Christmas time when I came home with tears and told my husband, "They honestly hate me.  We are getting nothing done, I have no idea what to do to make it better and they hate me."
Cue dramatic music change.  One key conversation happened about that same time with a student that I would consider one of my biggest disruptions and one of the most natural leaders I have ever seen.  He said something quite rude to me in front of the whole the point that everyone turned to look at me and see what my reaction would be.  I simply stopped what I was doing, maintained eye contact with him for a few seconds and then took a deep breath and began again, right where I had left off.  He interrupted me again, trying to rile me up.  And I stopped.  And I breathed.  And I started over.  We must have done this three or four times before he gave up.  As the bell rang, I asked him to stay after class. He immediately said:  "Oh great, you're mad at me, aren't you?"  Instead, I told him that I thought he was funny.  Genuinely funny. I told him I like him as a person.  And I told him that I could tell that others looked to him and followed his lead.  I told him he singlehandedly had the power to change the culture of our class. I don't know what I said that time that was so different than other conversations we had before, but he looked up at me and said, "You know what, you're actually a nice person.  You're really nice."  And he walked away.

That may sound like nothing.  But to me, it was everything.  And from that day forward, I kid you not, he stood up for me.  When another student smarted off, this student intervened.  He was still rambunctious and crazy, but he never directly defied me again.  He talked to me about his life from time to time and he even listened sometimes when I spoke.  We had some sort of agreement that I didn't mean to make, but it worked.

All that to say, I dealt with this difficult situation by still trying my darnedest to matter to my students.  It was not easy.  And it did not happen daily.  But I tried to show them that I saw them as people even when they did not return the favor.  They weren't really listening to me in regards to Spanish, but they listened to life lessons from time to time.  I gave them more privileges than other teachers I knew because I wanted to show them I respected and trusted them.  I journaled to them.  I talked to them about the work force. I got them involved in our community.  I apologized to them when I messed up.  I freaking hip-hop danced with them in front of the school.  If that humiliation doesn't bond you together, I don't know what will!  To be honest, I think I failed at my job description my first year.  But I think I found a way to still make some sort of an impact on these students.  I pray I did, at least.

And the next year, I promptly reduced my contract willingly to be part of a different program I truly believed in instead of 3 programs I felt under-qualified for.  And that has made all the difference.

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