Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 12 2011

So long, lil’ rut of mine.

*Names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of my students.

Admittedly, I’ve been in a bit of a rut last for the last month. This place of stagnancy emerged somewhere between the daily grind of planning and executing awesome lessons, taking grad school classes, completing performance assessments for my credential, being observed and evaluated by the district and my principal, and maintaining a semblance of various relationships. Simply, my life has been out of whack. The constant circulation of suits in and out of the classroom, compounded by several weeks of benchmark testing, took its toll. Life, has felt stale. And I let that feeling fester until all that was left was a gloomy shadow of myself.  I allowed my environment to dictate my mood, my thoughts, my feelings and my mindset. The upbeat disposition and unwavering smile that define my nature were more sparsely seen than ever. Dragged down by responsibilities beyond my years of experience, I forgot how to be me. How to be a free spirit. How to live every ten minutes like they’re the last ten minutes I’ll live.

Then, there are days like today, that throw everything I understand about the world, and my place in it, into the air as the fates juggle my life—and I end up with a fresh point of view and a newfound sense of purpose.

I rolled out of bed after another unsettled night of sleep, plugged into the news, and watched as houses and cars were swept away like toys by the tsunami in Japan. This natural disaster was all the buzz, too, at school this morning. Curious kids raced to keep up with my strides, asking questions like:

“Ms. S, what’s gonna happen in Japan?” “Can you swim? If the water comes, will you carry me with you on your back? I don’t know how to swim.” “Will Oakland be covered with water?” “What  if there’s another earthquake?” “How about the sewers?”

We set aside Social Studies to watch clips, read articles, and discuss the significance of it all. The kids were fascinated and that was fine by me.  When it’s stale, mix it up, in all facets of life.

But this story actually starts a couple days ago, when I met with my Program Director to talk about progress, goals, and other typical TFA jargon. I’ve been perturbed by the fact that my kids can’t seem to sit and be quiet for 25 minutes to read a book. I give them choices—set out stories at their reading levels, in various genres, on their desks, with sticky notes, and opportunities to illustrate scenes from chapter books. WHAT ELSE DO THEY NEED?!

Mel looked at me and asked, “Katja, do you believe they can be quiet for 25 minutes and read? What is stopping you from demanding it?” This struck a chord. Did I believe they could? Hmmm. Short story, my expectations were warped.  In a matter of two days, I’ve learned they most definitely can. What they needed was me to structure and enforce the silence. What I needed was a change of mind. All it took was the stare, the notorious teacher stare, to stop in its tracks even a hint of chatter. “Yes, I understand that you’re excited to show your neighbor a silly picture, but this is your time to zip your lips and enjoy your story. There will be time for sharing later.”

In the morning, I made a point of making intense eye contact with each of the little scholars as I spoke, so they knew I could see them and I meant business. There’s time for play, and Ms. S is all about play when it’s that time. But, when it’s time to work, “Step up your game, Portable D. Show me how smart you are.” At one point JJ answered “I don’t know” to a question when I pulled his popsicle stick. Kevin turned around and said, “You’re not trying, try your best,” not in a patronizing way, but in a totally meaningful tone. These are the moments that make my day. When it becomes apparent that my unending pep talks and “TRY YOUR BEST” chants have been absorbed into their senses of being too. And suddenly, before me, sits a sea of kids rolling their arms in the air to support their classmate.

The empathy that 9 year-olds are capable of is amazing to witness when silly insults are typically the norm. But it is an honor to be a part of an exclusive circle of trust with kids who may not have many reasons to rely on adults. Tragedy and hardship are inherent threads woven into the fabric of many lives in East Oakland. This afternoon, just before lunch, the police arrived. Child Protective Services took Malcolm into custody, along with his little sister—the same Malcolm who has tested my limits, jumped on chairs, called me names and thrown tantrums; the same Malcolm who has walked with me for entire recesses to just talk and be heard; the same Malcolm who raised his hand this morning with excitement during Social Studies, ”Call on me! I want to read!”; the same Malcolm who has made me care about him far too deeply. No one was told where they were being taken. No one knows if they’ll return. And as he sat in the office with an expression of confusion, uncertainty, and fear, his little sister equally petrified, the scenario was so viscerally real that it broke my heart.  This wasn’t some episode of The Wire. This was real life. This is a part of my real life. “Be strong for your sister,” I heard my principal tell him. In my head I thought, who’s going to be strong for Malcolm? I knelt down and put my hand on his arm, “Malcolm, you know we believe in you. I believe in you. You are smart. You are funny. You’re a good athlete, and great brother. And a good student when you want to be. Whatever you need, I’m here, you know that, right?” “Mmmhmm,” was all he could utter to respond. And I left the room before he could see the water in my eyes.

Days like today remind me that I want to spend as much time with my kids as possible during the hours that they’re with me. So I plunked down on the too short bench, pulled out my own lunch, and sat to chat about whatever was on their minds. We swapped snacks—my dried mango slices for their cinnamon graham crackers. Truth is, I didn’t really care about the graham crackers, but made the trade anyway. And when I opened up my bag of strawberries, Q stared. “I’ve never had one of those before.“  So I challenged, “Alright, here’s the deal, I’ll give you one strawberry for every simile you can make about them.”  “It’s as red as a stop sign, as sweet as candy, as bumpy as goosebumpy skin…” And he rattled away until they were all gone.

Like any Friday should, today’s ended with a finale. Fifteen minutes after school was out, only a small cohort of kids remained for kicks. Chase came into the room, his eyes filled with tears, clearly unnerved. “I can’t go home, I’m not going home…” Within moments I had him seated, slightly settled, and the story came out. He’d just seen a man with a gun on the corner, in front of his house, in the midst of robbing someone. So he turned and ran back to school, back to our portable. The 3 other boys in the room shifted over and we shared stories about our own experiences with guns. I told them about the time when I was in 6th grade, and my dad was held up at gunpoint, and how he thought that was the last day he would ever live to see the earth and the people he loved. Then Kevin told us about how his step-father had given his brother, a 6th grader, a gun to shoot someone who’d jumped him, and how his brother, with gun in hand, decided not to kill the other kid. We brainstormed what to do in scary situations and angry moments. And I asked them to promise me they would never end another person’s life like that or use a gun to hurt someone. And they agreed, wholeheartedly.

The most motivating thing about school is the people in it. So I ask myself, how does what I as a person bring to work affect my student’s performance? I like to think that each positive interaction my students have with an adult is a brick in the foundation of their understanding about the world and the people in it. With enough bricks, I believe they will make smart decisions on their own, when the time comes. These decisions may not be immediate, and for some kids I may never get to see the effects of such interactions. But strong foundations take time and repetition.

When I left my college job in the career center, my bosses gave me a paperweight that read, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I take this to mean, do something that makes you come alive. So much of life is determined by the way we think. What I bring to the classroom every day steers the success of my students. To the dear readers who’ve made it this far, I know it was a long entry, but I leave you with a challenge: do not underestimate the power of your mindset. If you ever find yourself in a rut, make a fast break for higher ground; there’s no time to waste.

2 Responses

  1. Luke Hamel

    Wow. I really want to do Teach for America, now. I mean, I wanted to do it before, but after reading your words and learning the effect that people like you have on the students, I feel I need to do it. Thank you for leaving me inspired.

  2. Megan H

    Please keep writing! I just found your blog and I really appreciate your tone. It also sounds like you are becoming an excellent teacher. I like the way you relate to your kids and also focus on spending time with them without making the mistake of being their “friend.”

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Bottom Line: My kids must have options.

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