About Teaching

Notes/Comments/Memories about Teaching #1

By Kevin Sullivan

I'll skip the whole first year teaching. It was the wrong age, the wrong grade, the wrong school, the wrong administration and the only thing good about it was that it was a job in teaching. I had already given up finding a teaching job and had started those feelers heading out in all directions when the call came. I took the call one evening the week before school started. An opening had occurred, I was appropriately desperate, and totally clueless. Said state of cluelessness lead to a miniscule salary and a minimalist approach to support, and ended a year later in a court battle, that just barely made its head appear out of small claims.

It turned out I was spending a year in the minors without knowing about it. The previous summer I had interviewed for the dream job, I thought, teaching English to the 7th and 8th grade at the best public school (K-8) in Cambridge, located just off the Harvard campus. It provided an interesting mix of cultures from the town and gown crowd in a modern setting. The principal was full of himself, but the assistant and the parental involvement in the selection process gave me hope that it was an environment that I could thrive in. I didn't get the job. The selection committee made the correct decision and chose a woman with an MS in Education and four years experience in teaching English to secondary school kids. At the time I was fresh out of MIT with my BS, a teaching certificate for secondary English, Math, and Science and no experience.

At the end of my first year in the minors, I got the call up. A position in my dream school had opened as a Math teacher for the 7th and 8th grade and it included managing an 8th grade homeroom.

Many stories follow regarding those next four years. Let me skip to one or two that will stay with me, and a couple of visual images.

Every year, total panic, despite the amount of preparation, before the first day of school.

My first set of 8th graders taught me a few things. 1. That a group in nature abhors a vacuum of leadership. If you provide none, the group will provide it for you. The status of alpha in the group is usually decided within the first few moments of joining together, and is continually tested and stretched. Innumerable scenes were played out, improvised actually, where a probing for weakness would result in a ton of salt being poured into any open wound. The actors involved were usually male with names like Stevie, and Ricky with voices not yet changed but imaginations full blown and the persistence and reasoning ability of a personal injury lawyer. Little did I know then that they would later be iconified in a boy named Bart.

2. It's all about entertainment and providing the audience with the most that they can stand. My favorite, and yes I had favorites, student was Keturah. She had no great quality, neither charm nor intellect nor youthful beauty about to spring forth. She was tall, lanky, with a coltish clumsiness, and a long face surrounded by straight locks. Despite coming from an old New England family, and even being related to a well known Hollywood star of the 50's and 60's, she would have been noted as unremarkable in almost every sense. But I will remember her, and cherish her for one moment of inspiration where she dared to tell the truth. In the third month of that first year in a very common school, most of the battles for dominance had been settled and the prisoners had accepted their lot. By December they knew the taste and feel of each new piece of information being ladled on their heads and they knew that the next piece would be as dry and unpalatable as the next. There was precious little relevance in a graph, a formula, or an equation to the immediate problems of their young adult lives or to any future they could foresee. Attempts by textbook authors and fledgling teachers to reframe mundane lessons in terms of comic books and TV characters were seen through with the clarity of those who were only then just developing their own levels of artifice. Then it happened. Towards the end of one lesson late on a Tuesday afternoon at approximately page 78 of a 450 page textbook the class was in the midst of another series of practice examples. I was feeling somewhat desperate in the sense that accomplishing more than half of the curriculum would be a monumental challenge. It hadn't been an easy three months and the amount of information flowing through the pipeline was best measured in trickles. There was a general level of rowdiness, encouraged by the usual suspects, and some small amount of milling around, while the majority of the class toiled. At one point and driven by a which demon, spark or spirit, I'll never know, Keturah stood up, closed her book, and said at the top of her lungs, "THIS IS BOOOOORRRRIIIINNNGG". The class thought this was a true hoot, and coming from an unexpected source was a moment of great hilarity. After the shock of her announcement wore off I covered the moment with disciplinary band-aids and a stern warning and shout to the class to "Quiet down and get your work done". Luckily further outbursts in the vein opened by Keturah were avoided by yet another bell and the class was dismissed. In the solace that followed that afternoon when the school emptied and that evening at home I reflected on Keturah's actions. The epiphany was that she was right. She was more than right, she had spoken the truth in a loud, clear voice in a public setting. The environment of most educational settings was predicated on developing and molding workers who would participate as cogs in the great machinery of business, and that the lesson taught most clearly was to accept a life of boredom without complaint. They were being taught to get their work done without disrupting others and move on command of voice or bell to the next venue. While some skills were being developed they were in no means skills that would be used by the vast majority of adults. A teacher might solace themselves with the idea that the students were actually learning a more meta level lesson in "how to learn" that would be of use, but that thinking was more rationalization than fact.

At that instant I didn't know exactly what to do with that epiphany, except to vow to myself and to any and all students that I might ever be given the honor of teaching that I would not waste their time, I would not lie or shade the truth, and I would not be boring. That night I became a teacher.

The next day and the days and years that followed were all cast in a different light as I strove to find ways, new ways, exciting ways to live up to the goals I had set, and to the challenge that Keturah had voiced. The moments of breakthrough, the milestones, the accomplishments, and the failures fill my memories. The students were occasionally confused by this new entity that had come into being in their lives but we all adjusted and grew in exciting dimensions. In objective terms, the classes that I had inherited were offered a chance at the end of each year for all its members to take an AP placement exam that would allow them to skip a year of math in high school. Prior to Keturah's year the average number of children passing the exam was 15. The number of students that passed from Keturah's year was 25 including Keturah. The next year the number was 38, and the following years were 52 and 56. The quality and preparedness of the children was the same, but the teacher was different.

At the graduation ceremony that year, I had the pleasure of handing out award certificates to the class members who had passed the AP test. It thrilled me to see some of the usual suspects accepting their awards in their own stunned recognition of what they had accomplished, but it gave me the greatest pleasure to hand the award to Keturah, who didn't score the highest on paper, but who made the greatest contribution to all our lives.

Keturah died four years later in a car crash in New Mexico on summer vacation. She wasn't driving. There was no speeding, drugs, or drunkenness involved. It was just one of those things that happens.

When you accept the honor of being a teacher at the request of another person, you open yourself up to joy, accomplishment, truth, and pain. Your students are giving you their most precious gift, their time. If you are lucky, by the end of the time you just might have a clue.

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