Adulting Is Hard: Reflecting on a Year in the Classroom

Dear Best Friend,

You’ve been with me this year as I took on one of the most challenging jobs I’ve done thus far in my young career. Well, I say ‘you were there’ but since you’re thousands of miles away, all of the successes and failures and tears were communicated via WhatsApp texts and Messenger calls. So thanks for that. For being my cheerleader and sounding board and biggest fan and necessary hardest critic. As usual. Your unending support allowed me to give 110% to my students this year, even when I thought I was doing a terrible job.

My contract is officially up today. I re-signed it to do another year, so this post might not be as emotional as it could be. Next year I’m sure it will be. But for now, it’s time to reflect on 10 months in the classroom as an intensive literacy tutor/teacher.

If I’m honest, AmeriCorps service isn’t for everyone. It’s terrible pay and long hours. (You do, however, get a nice education award at the end of your term. And basic health benefits. And professional development seminars. And a network of alumni that has yet to bear fruit for me, but I’m sure will help in the long run. And the feeling that you are contributing to your community and doing something worthwhile.)

Turns out, AmeriCorps service is for me. This was my second term (first full-time) and since I’ve signed on to do another one starting in August (with the same nonprofit) I guess I like it. A little. Maybe. Despite being desperately poor. (The DMV area is insanely expensive.)

I can admit now, looking back, that I didn’t feel qualified for the job I was hired to do. Thankfully, the first couple of months I didn’t have much to do except ‘build relationships’ with the students and staff. Get to know the kids, get to know my co-teachers, get to know the rest of the staff. Since I wasn’t the lead teacher in the room, I got to focus more on individual student support and didn’t have to worry much about classroom management. I made it clear from the start that that wasn’t my role to play, both with my colleagues and my students. My style with the students is very…different than a lot of my colleagues at school. The culture is just different from what I taught and trained to do. And that’s okay. I learned to adapt quickly and not be shocked when teachers straight-up yelled at students. To be honest, that’s the only thing that worked on some of the students, the older ones especially. But I made a promise to myself that I would never raise my voice in anger at the students and I’m proud to say that, as far as I can remember, I kept that promise. There are two different ways to get students to do what you want — a healthy dose of mild fear or creating a relationship where they want to do what you’ve asked them because they like and respect you. It’s the difference between ‘Do this or else’ and ‘Do this as a favour to me’. Both are effective and both were in play in our classroom (and in the wider school) at times. I cultivated the latter because that’s what I was raised on and because that’s what I am comfortable with. And because that’s what we are told to do in our training.

I created relationships with the students that meant they wanted to hang out with me. This was critical when it came time to do assessments and then pulling students out for individual support and attention once I built my caseload. The kiddos constantly called my name and it was often a struggle throughout the year to get them to leave me alone. But it was a positive thing, more often than not, and I’m grateful that I was able to cultivate that atmosphere for them. There are things that I am going to do differently next year — create more structure, be a little more firm on expectations and behaviour management early on — but most of what I did this year was successful in terms of getting the students to trust and like me as a teacher and sometimes just as kind of a…cool aunt type of person, I suppose.

I managed to walk the line between playing on the playground with them and having enough authority over them to make them sit down for a timeout if necessary.

I did end up stepping into a more comprehensive classroom role than was originally designed for me. I was essentially a second paraprofessional, but there was also the unspoken knowledge that my first and primary job in the classroom was as the literacy tutor. I am thankful that my lead teacher never asked me to neglect my own role in favour of taking up extra slack in other areas. I was able to take care of my own duties and then take on whatever else was needed.

I’m proud to say that, by the end of the year, I was able to lead the students through our entire day without help if necessary. I never had to (legally speaking, I’m a ‘volunteer’ and can’t be left alone with the students for more than a few minutes) but I could and did when there were substitutes or my co-teachers were busy with other things in the room. You’re on the phone? No problem, I’ll lead the morning ‘meeting’. You’re in a meeting with the principal? I gotcha, we can do play planning and centres on our own.

No reflection post would be complete without a list of triumphs and tribulations. Let’s start with the…challenging stuff first. My biggest issue initially was getting the students to listen to me. I think this is because I didn’t yell and didn’t threaten them if they didn’t do what I said. When kids grow up (even at age four) being yelled at to do things almost constantly and being hit for punishment, they only respond to the same sort of threats. So my quiet disappointment with them and refusal to yell or cuff them or whatever lead to them thinking they could take advantage of me at the beginning. And I let them. I gave — and give — them a lot more leeway than any of their other teachers, which will be corrected next year. Like I said, I’m gonna be much stricter about my expectations early on. But I eventually perfected my ‘Get your shit together, child’ voice and they caught on. However, they still think I’m going to ‘save them’ when they’ve gotten in trouble or overrule their other teachers when they want to do something that they’ve already been told no to. Obviously that doesn’t happen, but they still try me.

Another challenge was simply the school environment itself. It’s a rough neighbourhood and all the students — literally all of them — have some sort of experience with trauma. Parents are locked up, parents are dead, parents are addicts, parents are abusive, parents are chronically unemployed. You name it, these kids deal with it. I mean, being poor and black is enough to hinder education and social mobility. So they bring all that to school, act up, cause chaos for their peers and the staff. Not a day goes by without shouting, kicking, or screaming coming from the upper floors of the building. There’s a full-time security team that has at least 5 members on campus at all times. Plus behaviour management support staff. Thankfully, ECE is located on the ground floor, so we didn’t have to deal with it as much as the K-3 tutors upstairs. I just avoided the second and third floors whenever possible.

Back in November I also had an observation with my internal and master coaches that absolutely tanked. The intervention went terribly — students weren’t focused, I missed a whole bunch of points that I was supposed to hit with them. It was a mess and it really hit my confidence that I could do this job. I’d never gotten a 45% on anything in my life before and I was ashamed of it. (But from then on I worked my ass off, went to additional trainings, and got 90s or higher on all my integrity checks. Unfortunately my overall average was still shot to hell because of this one. Ugh.)

My last and perhaps most critical challenge this year was…time. There was never enough of it. I think I’ve said this to you a lot before, but there was barely time to eat lunch or take a deep breath. My co-teachers always took an hour lunch. I wasn’t required to, so I almost never did. Actually, I barely took 15 minutes a day to check my phone or my emails and shove some food in my mouth. There’s always more data to analyse, another intervention to learn, an assessment to practice for. There was never enough time in the day to get everything done. With everything I had to do for my own role, it was a miracle that I had time to get to the other tasks in the classroom that I took on. And your mind is constantly on with kids. There’s no way to tune anything out when you’re helping be responsible for literal lives.

I’m sorry for all the times I had to hang up because my 15 minutes were over or didn’t respond for hours because I was at work. The particular moment that sticks in my mind as an example of this is when you called during my ‘lunch break’ to thank me for your Christmas present. You were so excited and happy and I had to leave the room because you were shouting ‘FUCKING HELL JEN’ and I was afraid the kids could hear it. And then 20 minutes later you were still going on about how awesome it was (yeah, I know, I’m pretty proud of that gift haha) but I had to hang up on you because I had to get back to work. So…thanks for being understanding this year, for not minding that almost all our phone conversations that took place during the week happened around midnight for you.

Now for happier things. God, all the hugs and kisses and high-fives and ‘CAN YOU PLAY WITH ME?!’ The daily interactions that could perk me right up no matter how crappy I was feeling before I walked in the classroom.

I was blessed this year to have amazing co-tutors at our school. I could not have gotten through this year without Torren and LaShella. Or without our coaches and my lead teacher and paraprofessional. I have nothing but good things to say about all of them. They have all been integral to my success and growth and I cannot express how grateful I am to all of them. It has been an absolute privilege to serve with them and learn from them.

Jameal is my biggest individual student success. He’s got the cutest smile. He finally wrote his name (without me having to guide his hand for any of the letters) while his mom was watching back in January. I nearly cried when he finally hit 26 on picture naming assessment. I hugged him so hard he had to tell me to let go. I texted my coaches and then you. I don’t think you understood the impact of what I was capslocking about, but you were happy for us nonetheless. Jameal has come so far in his vocabulary retention, speaking skills and confidence, his ability to form letters. He’s great at math. We got to the point where we could have long (basic, of course) discussions about outer space. His growth is one of the things I’m most proud of this year.

Then there’s Maison getting his ‘e’ right. A’Mirah finally moving on from the repeated read aloud intervention. Jabari just flying with rhyming after struggling in the beginning. Eden being a boss at letter names. Sheldon and Kahmiya writing full sentences by the end of the year. All the ‘green’ in spring assessments.

So much ‘green’ in fact, that our PreK tutor team at our school was awarded the ‘Impact’ award for most student growth over the year out of all the schools that our nonprofit serves. Apparently our faces looked like we had won an Oscar when it was announced that we had gotten it. I’ll never forget that team hug on stage at the end-of-year awards.

As usual, you were the first person I called.

And oh, my baby Rashad. I know we aren’t supposed to have favourites, and I made it my mission to treat all the students the same, to give them the same love and attention and necessary punishments. But this child…I swear I would take him home with me if I could. One of the sweetest, smartest, cleverest children I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. His thing is that he would literally climb up me and then wrap his limbs around my body and just…refuse to let go. His mom calls him ‘Monkey’ and that’s very accurate. I called him ‘Koala Bear’ because I could let go and he would cling to my front and I would walk around doing other things with him still holding on. Not to say that he didn’t have his own trauma and attitude problems. When you pissed him off, he would come for you.

Two weeks ago, he was being the ‘teacher’s assistant’, which means he leads the class through the morning activities, one of which is reading a book out loud to the class. So he picked out a book (one I had sent home with him a few weeks before, to keep and build up his own little library) and sat down in the spin-y chair and read the title and the first page with no help. The book was called The Bear Ate Your Sandwich and it took me a couple minutes to realise he was actually reading it. Like he sat there in front of us all and read it to us, sounding out the words he didn’t know by sight already. I was the first teacher to notice from my place on the carpet with the kids and I just sat there with my mouth hanging open. He got help on a few words (like ‘sniffing’ or ‘growling’) but mostly he slowly but surely went through the entire, relatively complicated book by himself. It turns out he had been working on reading that book while driving in the car with his mom and she was so proud when we told her about it.

I was so proud I nearly cried. I texted you immediately after that too. You’re probably tired of hearing about all these kids you don’t know, especially him.

You’ll be glad to know you have a bit of a respite for a month or so. While I’m technically done with my year of service, I’m staying on in the classroom until next Thursday when school officially ends. Then we’ve got a break and it’s back to training in early August. And you’ll inevitably be hearing about a new crop of students.

But for the next week, and for the previous 11 months…my heart belongs to:

Kylill. Kahlel. Isaiah. A’Mirah. Sy’Ann. Ahkil. Isaura. London. E’than. Jameal. Carly. Kahmiya. Rashad. Peyton. Londyn. Kylie. Eden. Maison. Jabari. Sheldon.

I can’t wait to see what they become. I hope I impacted them, even a tiny bit. Because they — sincerely — changed the course of my life in less than a year.

Until next time, best friend and dear readers.

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