I am in my last few days at Sutherland Middle School and even though it has only been four months, I feel like the experience has changed me in more ways than three years studying education at UVA has. I am a doer, and the best way I learn is by doing. I am usually pretty quick on the uptake when it comes to something mechanical, like scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins. I watched the experts scoop ice cream for about a week, then I gave it a shot. In a month I could work almost the entire store: triple scoops, milkshakes, smoothies, icing on cakes, organizing the walk in freezer, handling customer conflict, business calls, etc. I am not always a great test taker, but I can learn how a system works and get good at it pretty quickly. When its a mechanical job, it doesn’t take me much time at all. Teaching is much more than a mechanical job.
This experience has changed me because it is learning much more than a job. It is learning a lifestyle, and has and will continue to be a call to leadership for me. Most teachers say that you need to find a management style that works for your personality ( a management style being the system you create to keep kids engaged and obediently in their seats.) But I am sort of the opposite. I have an ideal management system in my head, where every kid will look forward to coming to class so much that they will feel terrible for misbehaving – and its my job to become the teacher who can make this environment happen.
The best classrooms are always self monitored; classrooms where students desire to behave because it leads to self-actualization through the work they have chosen to do. When students choose to do their work because it excites them instead of being forced to do it, you open up a whole new realm of education. (I am aware that there are some things in life that you must do even if you don’t want to.) My job is to lead a class in that direction. And it all starts with making a presence in the classroom – something in which I am very inconsistent.
Take this week for example. I am substituting for an eighth grade science class all week. I walked in knowing that the class was an unruly place, where students spoke while the teacher was talking and sharpened their pencils whenever and leaned back in their chairs and made fun of people with graffiti instead of taking notes. I didn’t imagine that too much learning was taking place, so I started off fresh with my own management plan. I said that I was a different person with my own way of doing things and that I wanted to treat the students like adults. I went on about some of the things I wanted to see happen, like not talking when I am talking and being attentive and all this stuff. Then we practiced the procedure for coming back to attention when I needed to speak. Really, I could have saved my breath if I had just started the lesson with a bang of excitement. I could have jumped right into teaching and then called a student out one by one as they misbehaved. But when you call out, you can’t just use words. This has been my problem. Sometimes I simply ask for students to shape up – in middle school this rarely works. You have to make a statement by taking action instead of using words. So instead of asking students to be in their seats, I should have asked a student to leave or taken away recess right away. If it happened again, I would apply the consequence again. This speaks volumes more, because if I am consistent with this system, the students will pick it up on their own and I won’t actually have to spell out any of it. The only trouble is, I have to be consistent, and I’m usually not.
Confidence is the key to all of this and I need more of it. I think I have an excuse since I didn’t know how to teach Nuclear Energy before I walked in as the substitute. I was nervous, and to tell the truth, I cared what the students thought of me. This is probably a good thing in the long run because the best teachers are the liked teachers – but it can also be bad. I didn’t walk in as a confident leader because I didn’t feel comfortable in the room yet, and as a result, my management wasn’t so great. Some students learned and some didn’t. There were brief flashes of confidence though, and in those moments I would have no problem asking a student to leave or applying a consequence. When I can stay in this zone as a teacher, the zone where I feel I have complete control and power over the room, that is when good things can happen. It’s a hard place to find.
Still, at the same time, substituting science has been very fun. Sometimes I feel like Bill Nye. Here are some of the events from this week:
- I have probably taught some very untrue things about nuclear reactions and thermal energy.
- We compared Aristotle to the band Earth Wind and Fire (since he thought all matter was made of those things)
- I wrote them a four page test complete with pictures of Superman and Kryptonite
- I’ve lit balloons on fire to demonstrate specific heat
- The I filled a balloon with a small amount of water, the rest with air, to demonstrate how the balloon won’t explode since water has a higher specific heat. But I held the balloon over the flame for too long and it exploded, splashing all of the kids in the front row.
- I’ve done more demonstrations like thermal expansion (explaining how heat makes metal bend and expand) and thermal radiation ( a flashlight in the dark makes the radiometer spin). I’ve even gotten a few oohs and aahs.
- I played in the faculty vs. student basketball game today wearing my original Orlando Magic Shaq jersey. I scored four points and had three rebounds, but somehow was still crowned game MVP by the sixth grade
- And hey, I can’t complain. Most student teachers don’t get paid.
One more thought: Public school is a hard place. By that I mean, there aren’t very many second chances socially. You walk down the hall and you hear one girl say to another “What did you say to me?” “Whatever.” “Get off my back, bitch.” It’s a dog eat dog world, and public schools can be places where only the strong survive. These sorts of environments tend to teach students that they have to be tough, put up a hard exterior and turn off their hearts in order to succeed. If you don’t, you won’t be popular and you might even get beat up. There is little freedom for students to be their honest selves – they always have to look and act a certain way, and sometimes even the classroom can breed this Darwinian effect. Survival of the fittest is simply the middle school experience, and I often wonder to what extent it conditions the rest of a person’s life. Comparing these students to homeschooled students or alternative school students (private included) is very fascinating to me. I’m not sure I can make any conclusions about how this sort of socialization produces adults differently than private schools or home-schools, but I think its fair to say this: Oftentimes, this is where kids begin to learn how to avoid their hearts.