What age group and subject were you teaching?
I was teaching third grade at an inner city school right in the middle of the public housing projects. The kids were street wise, living in poverty, and immersed in a very violent and scary world. Driving to work, I would watch numerous drug deals in the neighborhood as the children walked to school. Shootings were so frequent, many children slept on the floor for safety, and I would have to put duct tape over the holes in the Plexiglas windows on some mornings. If we heard gunfire during the day, we would step away from the windows and keep on teaching. There were drugs, knives, used condoms, and all sorts of other fun things found on the playground. Parents sometimes would have physical fights in the school or on the sidewalk outside of school. The swat team was in my school on more than one occasion. When I started, I was the only white person in the entire building including students and staff. I was in absolute culture shock. But the community came to trust me and accept me (every single parent came to parent conferences that year!) and those teachers were wonderful to me – the young, fresh out of college, blonde haired white girl who had no business there. They took me under their wings and taught me to be the tough old bird I am today.
I am forever grateful for the five years of invaluable experience I received in that place and I carry those children in my prayers to this day.
What was your first classroom like?
My first classroom was not very big since the school was built in the 60’s – your basic cinderblock rectangle. The real story was under the classroom. The school was built on an old landfill so there was an issue with methane gas being released. There were vents outside the building but we also had methane detectors all over the building. We also had high levels of carbon dioxide. The school system’s grand solution to this problem? Open the windows.
Were you given supplies or materials?
I remember having most of what we needed. We had a computer lab which was a pretty big deal back then. In the classroom, I had an overhead projector, a dot matrix printer and an Apple IIc that had a big 'ol floppy disc drive. There were some textbooks and I made lots of games. I think I was in complete survival mode and managed with what we had. The children brought nothing and every student in the school received free lunch.
What was the hardest part of your first year of teaching?
The children. Their lives were absolutely dreadful. They knew about things they shouldn’t know about. They lived in fear and hunger and want. I remember buying dozens of mittens and hats when it got cold and even a few pairs of shoes for some kids. It was heartbreaking.
What was the best part of your first year of teaching?
Survival. For some reason, probably ignorant youth, I had no fear. I was determined to make it work in that place and that is what I did.
What do you know now that you wish you knew that first year?
I am glad I did not know then what I know now. At this stage in the game, I have come to know the ugly truth behind the power and politics of education. Even though I have the ever-present optimism of a teacher, I also have a twinge of cynicism that comes with age and experience.
My teaching may not have been top of the line, but my younger self had only optimism and fearlessness. Hope and possibility. Not such a bad way to start out in this profession.
I just realized that I really have no magical words of wisdom to share with a new teacher. There is no right answer. Be grateful for the journey and lift up the children who are along for the ride.
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