A la Cart

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With the help of a classroom on wheels, a new teacher learns to float like a butterfly.

With the help of a classroom on wheels, a new teacher learns to float like a butterfly.
—Illustration by Wayne Vincent

Every aspiring teacher knows that finding a job in January is the Everest of the teaching profession, and I had assembled the gear needed to scale the heights. During my last two years of college, I had shunned crop tops and lowrider jeans in favor of something I could "wear to teach in someday." I owned wool blazers, calf boots, and peasant skirts with wide belts, lovingly purchased to convey a message of authority and competence. As a fresh-faced 22- year-old who had managed to land a coveted second-semester job teaching 12th grade English in suburban Dallas, I had visions of my perfect classroom with students sitting in small groups discussing literature, surrounded by carefully laminated posters of Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe. I dreamed of desk trays neatly labeled by class period and a bookcase of shiny dictionaries alive with possibilities. I planned bulletin boards and purchased borders for each of the major seasons.

So it was a crippling blow to learn, two days before I started teaching, that I would be a floater, a term synonymous with "newbie" in the teaching profession. In other words, like my students, I had to wander from room to room every time the bell rang. Instead of a classroom of my own, I had a cart. A cart that made only right-hand turns. And squeaked. And tipped over if the weight balance was not just right. This cart was my classroom on wheels; I was a teacher à go-go!

I made the best of this setback, covering my cart in strands of fake ivy and bright signs proudly exclaiming my name: Ms. Carlton, as if "Ms." were now my first name. That little cart and I made our way through the halls, like the Lone Ranger and his trusty sidekick, Tonto. I attached a bicycle bell to Tonto’s handlebars so the students could hear me squeaking down the hallway, turning right at every corner. My cart was my safety; it was my classroom. It was all I had to remind me of why I was doing this. And the bell served as a piece of childhood, reminding me that these were, in fact, just children, needing the knowledge and guidance I could provide.

As a floating teacher, I found myself in a variety of rooms that first year, always on a different floor and in a different wing than the class before. One period a day, I was in the forensic science lab, complete with Bunsen burners and a skeleton. No shiny dictionaries of possibility in there, just death. As I pored over Shakespeare, the teacher who owned the room would set up the crime scene for his next class in the corner. Somehow Macbeth could never compete, since even I was more interested in what he was doing than in the exploits of King Duncan.

In another class, the teacher insisted on staying in the room to do her work while I taught. This would not have been a problem if the teacher’s work had not somehow changed to sitting and listening to my lectures, stopping me at inopportune moments to add her own commentary to my notes. I waited in divine anticipation for the end of each day, for my stint in the classroom of the football coach, who by 3 p.m. had long departed for the practice field. There were no oddities to contend with in his classroom. Bulletin boards were never covered with notes for his classes. I never had to find a small corner of unused chalkboard to write on and then later apologize for not erasing it. For one brief, shining moment a day, I could pretend that the room was all mine. This was teaching.

The real problem during that first year was not creating all the new material for my classes. It was not the heavy load of grading. The hardest part of my first year was taking the one thing I could hold onto—my room—and putting it on wheels. My mobile classroom served as an outward sign to each student that I was, in effect, not worthy of a door key of my own. The kids somehow sensed this distinction, and my authority with them was soon shaky. It was hard to enforce rules about eating or chewing tobacco when the classroom was not even my own. The knife to my heart was the student who said "Why should I?" when asked to get his feet off the wall. "This isn’t your room. You’re not even allowed to write on the boards in here." Touché, young man.

By the time the year ended, I had picked up a few basic truths about the profession. First, never challenge kids to get mad at you—they always will. Second, teachers should choose their battles carefully to see at least a few victories. Third, being a teacher à go-go meant I was still a teacher, for better or worse. As I drove over the hill on my way home that last day of school, I shed no tears for Tonto. Our journey had concluded and another fresh-faced, young teacher would soon take my place. I was grateful for my new job in a new district, this time with a real classroom and my own door key.

Vol. 15, Issue 6, Pages 48-49

Published in Print: May 1, 2004, as A la Cart
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