Note: Michael Bromley, a teacher in Washington, DC, is guest-posting this week.
My first experiences teaching came as a substitute teacher in Montgomery County. It was useful work, flexible, and fun. It culminated in a long-term subbing job for the last months of the year for a government teacher on maternity leave. These two months led me into teaching as a profession.
My college degree in writing (English Lite), prepared me none for teaching government, much less much of anything. My prior business experience gave me no academic credentials, although I did spend my million-plus miles on American Airlines reading the history books fed me by my father. Self-taught, then, I had learned enough to impress the teacher whom I replaced for the invitation to cover her class long-term. I guess she felt that I didn’t waste her students’ time when she was out. I’m ever indebted to her for this, although I know that it was the kids who decided it and not her. Long story short, I had a ball, the kids had a ball, and I found myself wanting to do this teaching thing full time. Suddenly a full-time teacher, I was in a state of constant learning, trying to keep up with these remarkable kids and their challenging subject. A couple experiences from these first months of teaching stand out and yield powerful examples of how education works.
The first blew my mind. I taught a “regular” U.S. government course, what we call “on-level,” or not advanced as in AP or honors or some such. The class was full of personalities and with little interest in what we were working on. But we managed, and I loved those kids. One student, though, was an abject loss for me: head down, surly, and removed, I worked around her, not knowing what to do for her. One day, though, she taught me something remarkable: we were discussing the history of busing, and she burst out, lifting her head for the first time ever, and shouted, “So that’s why I’m at this *** school!” With that she lowered her head again, and onward we went with the lesson. Afterwards, I learned that she resided in a gerrymandered school district that reached in a geographically narrow finger into her apartment complex, which brought her, an African-American, to this mostly white school. Most of her friends went to the more proximate school, and she wasn’t allowed to change. Lesson learned: bureaucracies and social programming impact lives, and not always for the better.
Next, from the same class, was Angus, the hyper-active, perpetually in-trouble kid. He kept a nine-penny nail in his ear. “Angus,” I said, “You’re gonna get an infection. Please.” Angus was your basic teacher challenge, although I didn’t know it. Instead, for me, the neophyte teacher, I needed to understand Angus. “Angus,” I said, “if you’ve got nothing to learn, why don’t you teach the class?” Angus and I switched. He taught, and I sat in his chair. Here was a magnificent lesson I owe to Angus to remind myself daily: it’s hard to sit there in an uncomfortable chair in a classroom! I hated it. As for Angus, I don’t know if he’s a teacher now or not, but he learned that day how hard it is to teach. Lesson learned: it ain’t easy being a kid.
My last life-changing lesson from these two months came of another teacher. Sharing the classroom, he’d arrive while I gathered my materials. One day I lingered as his class commenced. “Today,” he announced to his students, another government class, “we are going to discuss that most unfortunate of Amendments, the Second Amendment.” Wow. My immediate reaction was to use this as fodder for my own government classes, and we ran a two-day debate on the merits of the Second Amendment. But more largely, this example struck me hard and fast as to the powers and dangers of teachers. Shy about my own opinions, not having a clue as to what I was doing, I avoided imposing my views on my students. Nevertheless, and likely because of it, the kids hounded me for my political views. At the end of the year I ran a poll amongst them, and the results made me smile: a third thought I’m a Republican, a third said Democrat, and a third Independent. Victory! Lesson learned: when I am teaching a point of view, I make it clear to my students. Otherwise, I want them to know that I am as much a part of the investigation of the subject as are they. I get the question every year, and I am proud to say that the responses are the same, with the kids ever unsure. Victory.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.