I assigned my 5th graders Powerpoint presentations on the early settlers (New England, Middle Colony, Southern Colony) and the rubric included a MAXIMUM of 5 words per slide.
“Ideally, you will choose an image that represents your topic for the slide – consider a primary source, such as a drawing – and then add key words that will remind you of the content for that slide,” I instructed.
“Five words? Only five words?” They asked.
“Yes. Key words to remind you of what to say.”
Because who wants to read paragraphs on a slide?
They went to work, buzzing like angry bees. This would require them to know the material very well.
Five years ago, I left a corporate job to go back to teaching. I missed the kids more than I wanted the money.
I was asked to teach the 4th quarter with sixth graders in a low socio-economic school. Their previous teacher abandoned the post. He never said goodbye, he just left. Of the 30 students I taught, more than half had fathers in prison. Every child qualified for free breakfast and lunch. One of the male students had very strange eyebrows. Someone told me that his older brother and a gang tied him down and shaved his eyebrows off. They never grew back quite right.
As I got to know the children, I realized most had been traumatized in a number of ways: neglect, verbal and physical abuse and (I suspected) sexual abuse. One of my students was a sweet, round-faced boy. He wore the same pants every day and they looked dirty, but he was always kind. He was always smiling and he walked and talked slowly. I’ll call him Francisco.
One of the teachers had over 12 years experience at the school. She was extremely strict with all of the kids. I know she cared about them and wanted them to be successful, but she acted as if each child had a bull’s eye on their back. She was constantly barking orders and yelling.
We were outside, lined up to go back inside from lunch. Francisco walked slowly to line. Apparently, too slowly. This teacher yelled at him, “Who do you think you are? What are you trying to prove? Too cool to care?” We all stood, stunned. “When you walk, walk with purpose and walk fast! And tuck your shirt in!”
I wanted to explain that this was the way he always walked.
I wanted to come to his defense and vouch for his character.
I wanted to stop her from attacking him wrongfully.
But I didn’t. I froze.
It haunts me to this day. I should have stood up for him.
But he was Mexican-American. She was Mexican-American. I am Korean-American, an outsider, only to be there for 9 weeks.
This was their school, not mine.
I see now, I was wrong. It was our school. Right is right and wrong is wrong.
Never just stand by silently. Speak your mind when you see a wrong.
When I was eight years old, my teacher, Ms. Meretta, told my mother I was one of the hardest working kids she had ever had. Until then, no adult had ever said anything positive about me. Really. My parents were concerned that I showed no genius academically. They compared me to other kids (always unfavorably). My other teachers were either distracted by personal problems, or they just seemed mean (maybe they weren’t, but they seemed unapproachable). One teacher said she liked me, but I rushed through my work too quickly to get to the “book table.” I liked reading too much.
I loved Ms. Meretta. I worked even harder after her comment to my mom. But this time, I worked hard not just for myself..but for Ms. Meretta, too.
When I was a young adult, I worked as a summer camp counselor for the YMCA. It was a fun and rewarding job. I loved the energy the kids brought each day. I loved thinking of fun activities and working with them. I laughed every day. I laughed every hour.
I’ve held different jobs but none have had the creative opportunities or the intrinsic rewards of teaching. One of my favorite gifts from a student was a short letter. I had recommended him to go to a school for high-achieving students. He had older siblings who attended a school closer to his home. He always assumed he’d follow their footsteps. It was easy to hold the fastest track time there. It was easy to be the best student. I told him I knew he would succeed at the Academy, a school that was more rigorous and offered both Spanish and Mandarin. “Besides,” I told him. “if you go and you don’t like it, you can always go to the other school.” He went to the Academy and he loved it. He wrote a letter thanking me because he’s so happy and he’s learning so much. His younger sister now attends the Academy, too.
Helping kids is endlessly rewarding.
It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. I wish the media and politicians would stop with the negative talk about teachers and public education. Why pick on educators? Of course not every single teacher is highly qualified, but not every doctor, nurse, accountant, or politician is, either. For every lousy teacher you hear about, there are easily 1,000 fantastic teachers. I’ve had to handle a sixth grade student who slashed her peers with a razor. I’ve had to handle a fourth grade student who crapped his pants every week. I’ve had to handle students who complained of verbally abusive parents and who cried of hunger.
I am about to chaperone an 8th grade Close-Up trip. It will be hard work: a red eye flight and then lots of walking, talking, learning, and teaching for 6 entire days (and nights). BUT, I will not have to: