I started doing writing conferences with my freshmen the first week of school. Those first one on one, face to face conversations were a lot like speed dating. I was trying to get to as many as I could in a short period of time, get to know something about them, leave them with something to think about, and move on to the next prospect. And I knew, after ten years of teaching, that these were the salad days, the honeymoon phase, but…I have to admit, that I fell in love with most of them.
This week, during the writing conferences, I felt more like a doctor doing rounds than like a speed dater. Get in there, diagnose the problem, prescribe something, and visit the next patient. But what do I prescribe to Tehan, who has written “I am a Chinese gay” instead of what he wanted to write, “I am a Chinese guy”? And what do I say to Ayanna who can’t focus her attention long enough to put a sentence on the page? And what do I say to Geneva who has written a page long sentence with no punctuation at all?
When I first interviewed for teaching positions, I remember that every interviewer asked the same question: “How do you plan to deal with so many different ability levels in the same classroom?” I always thought they were asking that question, not to see what I thought, but because they genuinely wanted that answer for themselves. It’s a tricky business.
This one on one teaching is one of the few ways to give everybody a little of what they need. But with thirty students in a classroom, it’s difficult to give everybody enough of what they need. And, oh, they are needy. In ways that go way beyond writing issues.
This year I’m fortunate enough to be working with a grade level team of teachers—we each teach our own content areas—English, History, Math, Science, Spanish, and Art, with the help of a teacher trained in Special Education issues, to the same 3 groups of students. And I have never worked with such dedicated people in my life. Our school day starts at 9:30 and ends at 4:30; most of us are in by 7:30, some of us don’t leave until 7:30 at night. When we aren’t in school, we are emailing, text messaging, and calling each other’s cell phones to discuss what happened in school: “How was John in your class today? He couldn’t sit still in mine.”
“Do you know what Bessie was so upset about?’
“Has Jaylynn turned in ANY homework?”
These are other people’s children. And we treat them the way we want our own children to be treated by their teachers. Even when we come in with our own issues.
It feels like an incredibly overwhelming responsibility…to kids like Tehan and Ayanna and Geneva and John and Bessie and Jaylynn, and also to their peers who are writing beautifully already and need only a subtle push to the next level. It also feels like an incredibly overwhelming privilege…to be able to affect so many children that walk through the classroom door, each day, every year.
I know teachers get a bum rap. I think it’s just sour grapes about those summers off. We need those summers off. It takes a lot of energy to do what we do every September.