The day before school starts, I warn Javi the Hippie, “I have no idea what I’m doing with self-contained. I’m realizing that I don’t know how to teach math. I don’t feel prepared.”
“Of course you’re not prepared. You haven’t met your students. But when you meet them, you’ll get to know them and then over time you’ll be prepared.”
By the end of the first week, I begin to feel prepared. Two of the days have the type of slam-dunk lessons that fill my head with illusions of grandeur. I’m soaring to through the sky, reaching for the stars and all the while conjuring up the worst cliches for excellence. Just add an eagle or a man scaling a mountain and my week resembles a motivational poster.
Then I pull an Icarus and crash-land in the terrestrial reality of room sixteen, falling hard on my own incompetance and a room full of apathy. It starts with blog posts, where I mistakenly assume that students can write a paragraph in ten minutes. The deepest thinkers get distracted by the need to make the deadline and replace learning with self-imposed winning and all because I give them only six hundred seconds.
I blunder through the reading of a biography and the story of Mother Jones. It has redeeming moments, but in unsuspecting places, like the impromptu debate about whether she was a hypocrite or a hero and the connections they make to the novel we are reading.
Math falls flat. Students get confused with > and < and all the teachers who tried to offer catchy ways of remembering it.
“The alligator eats the bigger number.”
“Why would an alligator eat a bigger number?”
“No, see it’s Pac Man. And he’s running from the ghosts.”
“Ghosts? Is that supposed to be like the KKK?”
“No, they’re rainbow ghosts . . . but they’re not like a gay KKK. I’m not sure why they’re rainbow but I’m almost certain it has nothing to do with homosexuality.” I’m not sure if I should step in here or if it would be taking political correctness too far. There’s no clear textbook solution.
My class is lost. I end up pulling aside small groups and reteaching while other students go to our extension problem involving finding the potential Wild Card team in the National League. As we approach lunchtime, I silently curse the inventory list, waiting for the after-school hours where I will verbally curse it as I shake my fist at the textbook conglomerates who will never know my name.
Then I think about how inefficient the day has been and I begin to wonder if maybe the teach-from-the-book route might be more effective in the long run.
As I leave for crosswalk duty, I feel anxious. It’s not that the day went horribly. It’s just that, unlike teaching one subject, I never have a chance to reflect and revise a lesson. I can’t try it out once and then try it another way. I leave the day feeling as if I’d like another chance, not because the day was wasted, but because it wasn’t as good as it could have been.
Two former students greet me on the way back from duty. “Remember when we did Mock Trials and you acted like Judge Judy?”
“Remember the time we filmed a mocumentary on superheroes in training? I still have my DVD.”
We talk about high school and college and the path that life takes. One of them says, “You taught me a lot of history and so I ended up taking all honors history classes.” We then talk politics for twenty minutes until eventually the desert heat chips away at our words and the conversation ends.
It’s a needed affirmation that I’m not crazy, that my methods are not ineffective, not because he passed a test, but because he cares about his community. I’d love to say that I am self-assured and that my motivation is entirely intrinsic, but I yearn for some evidence that I know what I’m doing.
I go back to the boxed curriculum and examine a few items. They’re not bad, really. They’re not toxic. But they fail, because the writers don’t know my students. Javi the Hippie was onto something in suggesting that I would finally feel prepared when I knew my students. I’ve never heard of a student visiting McGraw Hill just to say “thanks for the badass textbook. Your worksheets are why I care about the civic process.”