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'It's The Kids That Keep You Going'

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I never planned to become a teacher. Unlike most of the girls I knew growing up, I never saw myself as one. In my mind, a teacher had to be all-knowing and inspiring--although certainly I had had my share of duds. A real teacher was someone like Mrs. Okulski, my 9th grade English teacher. A tall, blond, Isadora Duncan-like presence, she seemed to fly by, making our thoughts soar, opening our minds, and getting us excited about literature.

So I became a teacher by a circuitous route--after working as a journalist, for non-profit organizations, at a child care agency, and finally as a paraprofessional at Seward Park High School, where I would devote 10 full years of my life. Even once I was at Seward, I was like a swimmer who gets wet one toe at a time. But then came the "moment of truth," and I took the plunge.

There are born teachers. I was not one of them. Those first few years of trying to swim--or, put another way, trying not to drown--were very difficult. And they lasted a long time. I spent hours on my lesson plans, only to "bomb" in class. On Broadway, actors perform eight times a week. As a teacher, I had to perform five times a day, five days a week. And each day, I had to face the same audience, with yesterday's performance still fresh in its mind.

What did I do? I went home and cried, took a nap, and knowing what was in store for me the next day, attempted to come up with something to catch my students' imagination--or at least to avoid bombing again. I tried new things, made the same mistakes, and tried something else. I talked to more experienced teachers and soaked up what they had to say. Little by little, brick by brick, I constructed the teacher I became.

Of course it all sounds so easy now. But certainly when a teacher is developing technique--figuring out how to teach writing or the physiology of a cell or how the European nations split up Africa--it's difficult to see the pieces coming together, to see the teaching persona develop.

It wasn't until Ben Dachs, the chairman of my English department and one of my most important mentors, assigned me as a buddy to a new teacher that I began to sense how far I'd come. I had been teaching for about five years when I was teamed with Steve Anderson, now one of the best, most challenging teachers at Seward Park. That first year, I encouraged Steve to call me every night if he had questions or worries. He took up my offer with a vengeance; what can match a new teacher's panic? We often talked a couple of times a night. He asked me questions on everything from how to approach a particular lesson and get the class settled down quickly to how to set standards for grading. Obviously, these questions have no set, single answer, but I began to realize that I had formulated my own and that perhaps I had learned something about teaching in the five years I'd been at it. Ben is a very crafty man.

But even during those early years of bombing day after day, something about teaching hooked me. Ask any teacher who likes his or her job to explain why, and you will probably hear about the thrill of seeing "the light go on" when the kids suddenly "get it." That is what makes most teachers keep going. It was immensely exciting to watch my American literature class argue vociferously about Henry David Thoreau's critique of modern industrial society or Jonathan Edwards's religious views or F. Scott Fitzgerald's perspective on the American Dream. During those discussions, it was as if the whole room were filled with flashing lights.

It's the kids who keep you going. On one level, all kids--whether they are in an inner-city high school like Seward Park or a suburban school like the one I attended--take advantage of an insecure new teacher. That's the way kids are. But at the same time, many of them are pulling for you. During my first term teaching, I taught World History to a class of "repeaters." They were outrageous; they would shout out, carry on disruptive conversations, and throw paper. It was like a situation comedy. But I gritted my teeth and tried to teach lock-step lessons about the origins of World War I. One day the chairman of the social studies department came in to observe me, and suddenly the students became refined intellectuals, raising their hands and commenting on each other's ideas. As soon as he was out the door, someone yelled: "Now we can get back to normal." Even I, scowling with hands clenched in the best tradition of a new teacher, finally had to break down and laugh.

That is exactly the kind of thing that spurred me on when I felt like I was drowning. I love the mix of opposites that high school students are--that quirky combination of maturity and immaturity. Steve Anderson and I called it our Smurf Theory, best illustrated by teenage girls who dress and use makeup like 40-year old divorcees, but carry Smurf notebooks around.

If I was hooked in the beginning, what did I learn by the end? Even after teaching some lesson plans several times (yes, I did), there were always surprises. A wise guy (they usually ended up my favorites) or a quiet, thoughtful kid would make a comment or ask a question that would surprise me, throw me off. Maybe he or she would see something that I hadn't seen in the literature or make a connection to something that was happening today or challenge something I had said. It made me realize how truly remarkable many of my students were and how continually stimulating teaching can be.

But it was more than that. My students were from one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. As I got to know them--and it didn't take long since I asked them to keep journals and write autobiographies--I learned bit by bit what they were up against, and I began to see what impressive human beings so many of them were. These young people were keeping at it against some very difficult odds-- working shifts until midnight, helping to raise their families, figuring out how to deal with no heat or hot water, having to make moral decisions every moment of their lives, as they walked past drug dealers taking in hundreds of dollars a day. For many, just coming to school at all was some kind of statement. The intellectual fearlessness that I often witnessed in my class took my admiration to another level. It also spurred me on.

And yet, I left teaching in June 1988. I left what can be one of the most satisfying professions because I wanted an easier life. I no longer spend all my weeknights planning lessons or my Sundays marking papers.

It might seem that I, having discovered that teachers can be made as well as born and having demystified the process, would leave the profession less impressed with what teachers do. On the contrary. Despite the stories you hear about the atrocities of the New York City school system--my own sometimes resemble the bureaucratic horrors of Kafka's Prague--there are some truly amazing, wonderful teachers who are still at it. There is Bruce Baskind, my teaching partner for four years, who was so outrageous and creative a teacher that he even loosened me up. There are Ben Dachs and Hannah Hess, wonderful teachers of students and teachers, alike. There are Harriet Stein, Denise Simone, Carleton Schade, Mark Fischweicher.... I've found that knowing the technique doesn't necessarily take away the wonder.

And what about the impact we have on the kids? Do we as teachers really change lives? It seems presumptuous to say yes, since I feel that many of my students were already remarkable human beings, confronting overwhelming odds with strength and maturity beyond their years. I would say that we can encourage our students and give them a nudge in the direction that each may ultimately choose to take. How many of us know which push got us to where we are? Who knows whose encouragement in my circuitous route got me teaching? But to whoever gave me the nudge, I am very thankful.

Jessica Siegel left teaching to become a freelance writer. She lives in New York.

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