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'It Was A Testing Ground'

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Suzanne Hershey, Jaqueline Bernard, and Samuel Sarabia are all in the early stages of their teaching careers. In separate interviews with Assistant Editor Mary Koepke, they recalled the trials and tribulations of their first year. Bernard's thoughts appear on page 44, and Sarabia's appear on page 48.

Hershey, 28, is in her second year of teaching 10th and 11th grade English at Eastern Senior High School in Washington, D.C. In college, Hershey took "Methods of Teaching English" and whizzed through a successful student-teaching experience. But course work and preservice training didn't prepare her for the everyday realities of starting her own classroom from scratch, such as not getting her textbooks until six weeks into the semester and then finding them to be inappropriate for her students anyway. And she wasn't prepared for the frustration of having to invent her own materials without direct access to a photocopying machine; she was strictly limited to a "budget" of one copy per student per week. Hershey didn't even have her own classroom. Instead, she had to carry her papers, books, and teaching tools to a different room each period. But the biggest shock of all was how fiercely she was tested by her students.


During my student teaching I was well-loved. The students thought I was wonderful, and they said it all the time. But when I started my own classroom, there was no other teacher there to provide the structure. I had to maintain discipline. And I felt hated.

On my first day in the classroom, two students in two different classes said, "I hate white people." So I just said, "Well, I hope you'll like one by the end of this year." But I was afraid that everybody else was going to take it personally. I was afraid that, as a white person in a mostly black school, all the other students might think that I was going to be against them based on that comment--that they wouldn't judge me based on my own merit.

The next encounter that I recall was when I told a student to put away her social studies book in my English class. I walked up to her desk and repeated the request, and then I flipped the book closed. And she was, all of the sudden, in my face, screaming at me. We were both turning purple. It was extremely upsetting. I was scared and as angry as I've ever been in my life. And I was also acutely conscious that while the student and I were screaming at each other, the rest of the class was going nuts. I realized that I had lost control of 25 people because I had let one person take over the whole class.

Later, I became good buddies with that student. I saw her on a bus once, and she wouldn't sit with her friends; she wanted to sit with me. The good side of our relationship began after one event in particular: the homecoming dance. I was one of only a few teachers who was trying to dance. She ran up and started shimmying with me, having fun with me. And then she went off with her friends. I guess it was because I was a teacher trying to dance to go-go music--that made me a human being to her. That was the first step toward acceptance.

Then there was my gum crusade. At the beginning, I thought it sounded terrible when students cracked and popped their gum. I still think that. However, I spent so much time that first year trying to get students to get rid of their gum that I wasn't teaching. Then students began to make it a joke. They began chewing their tongues or claiming that it was laxative gum. And they would insist on having me check their mouths. They really wanted me to inspect their uvula. Here I had all these kids with their mouths hanging open at me screaming, "AAAAAAHH."

It didn't really get smooth until March. Something clicked in my relationships with students about halfway though the year. The students decided that I was there to stay and that they might as well learn. And I started teaching better.

I gave up some of my old rules that weren't working. Rules such as "no gum." And I got very serious about calling parents, holding detentions, taking away points for rudeness, and making students stay after school and talk to me about what was going wrong.

And I stopped letting some things bother me. For instance, I had one fidgety student who sat in the front row and drummed on his desk all the time. It drove me crazy. He also talked to himself. I remember separating other students who talked to each other, and turning to him and saying, "I'm going to have to figure out how to separate you from yourself."

One day I refused to interrupt the lesson to stop his fidgeting. Instead, I casually picked up his hand, held it, and went on teaching. He stared at my hand, stared at my fingernails, then his eyes gradually traveled up my arm, up to my face, and he paid attention to what I was saying.

Part of my writing curriculum was journal writing. I wanted them to write in their journals every night. Originally, I gave them a topic, such as, "What is the biggest pressure facing girls or boys?" Or, "Describe a dream you've had." Or, "If you had a million dollars and couldn't spend any of it on yourself, what would you spend it on?" The rule was: If you turned it in late, you lost points. But that never worked. The majority of the students wouldn't do it and would then get overwhelmed knowing that they couldn't receive full credit.

So I decided to give a bunch of topics and gave them six weeks to complete them. Every week I reminded them and tried to help pace them. A lot of them started writing. Some students waited until the end and wrote them all on the last night, but at least they finished. Before they weren't even trying.

Finally, I got to see some writing samples. The journal entries gave them practice writing; a lot of them were reluctant writers. And it gave me a chance to get to know them better. I realized how creative some of them were, which was not coming out in class.

Also, I wrote comments--notes to them about what they were saying in their journals. They were amazed that I was taking an active interest in them.

I gritted my teeth every quarter and asked them to evaluate me. First of all, most of the comments were quite negative. They said that I was very sweet but that they didn't understand why I made them do certain things. I felt terrible and cracked down on myself and restructured things. Then, in the second quarter, the evaluations started getting better. One wrote, "This is what I've learned." Another wrote, "My teacher makes sure I understand, and she goes over things in different ways until I understand." I was so happy.

Now I have a stronger idea of why I'm doing what I'm doing. I have entirely reorganized all my plans, and I am very happy. From first year to second year, I have improved dramatically. And that is the best thing about the first year. It was a testing ground.

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