It seems fitting—symmetric, at the very least—that I should be writing my last entry of 2011 the same way I wrote the first: in an airport terminal, waiting for my flight while reflecting on what lay before and what lies ahead. In the past four months, I have embarked on the toughest journey of my life. There have been delays, cancellations, and technical malfunctions. I’ve had to change course, then change back; and at times, neither the origin nor the destination has been clear. I’ve constantly been on high alert, but sometimes I’ve fallen asleep at the wheel. I’ve built up relationships with completely strangers, only to never see them again. I’ve seen things that can only be seen on the ground, and I’ve seen things that can only be seen from a bird’s-eye view. I’ve hit new lows, and I’ve crashed and burned, only to rise back up again.
Extended metaphor aside, my first semester (technically my first quarter and a half, but who’s counting?) is over, which means it’s time for some major reflection. Since I last updated during Thanksgiving break, I’ve made significant changes to both my classroom and my lifestyle—changes that have, for the most part, made my teaching experience exponentially easier, if not more effective. (The latter remains to be seen, since I’ve been remiss in grading assessments from the past couple weeks.)
In the classroom, I rearranged rows of individual desks into groups of four and started emphasizing guided, group practice much more than independent practice. At the suggestion of my MTLD, I also began assigning students group roles such as timekeeper (responsible for keeping the group on task and on time), gatekeeper (responsible for ensuring equal participation), and coach (responsible for helping group members who feel lost). This has definitely lightened the load of teaching, since I can now serve as more of a facilitator than a one-on-one tutor as I circulate around the classroom, and it gives my kids a chance to teach each other, which is apparently the best way to learn something.
Another physical change that I made to the classroom was the addition of Christmas lights to the ceiling. They have nothing to do with mathematics or our college theme, but I’ll be darned if they haven’t lightened the mood in the classroom and kept students who would otherwise be talking to each other during class distracted. Picture below. (This was before I rearranged the seats.)
On the lifestyle front, I’ve been working out three times a week, and I started taking multivitamins for the first time in my life. At first glance, these are small things, but they’ve made a huge difference for my physical and mental health. I actually feel rested and hungry, rather than exhausted and indigested, when I wake up in the morning. I can get through school without feeling completely dead at the end of the day. I am more focused and efficient while lesson planning or grading, if only because I know that I’ve set aside several hours per week for the gym. Most importantly, I can be energetic and joyful in the classroom again, and my kids have commented on the difference. Part of what made October and November so difficult was not having a daily routine that I could depend on like in college, and starting to figure out that routine in December has made a world of difference.
Looking back on the past four months, I’ve noticed a change in my attitude towards teaching—a change that is perhaps best exemplified by how often I say “my kids” instead of “my students” these days. The more time I spend with them, the more I realize that each one is an incredible individual with unique interests, passions, and dreams. In a sense, they’ve become extremely real to me. Yes, I joined TFA to help close the achievement gap and help students in need. But what that meant didn’t hit me until I wrote my first letter of recommendation for R. last week and realized that I was playing a significant role in whether he grew up to become a successful and compassionate member of society or an abusive alcoholic like his father. It didn’t hit me until I performed in my school’s holiday talent show with three students in “guitar club” and saw them beaming with pride because our weeks of practice had finally paid off. It didn’t hit me until I had a conversation with A. after school last week and found out that the reason for his habitual tardiness and slipping grades (slipping from an A to a B, that is) was that he worked at Ruby Tuesday from 5 pm to 2 am every day in order to support his family.
In the moments when teaching has felt impossible—when the hours seemed too long, the responsibility too heavy—it is this change in attitude that has kept me going. Having to take a sick day used to make me feel guilty, but only because I was missing a day of work, which is something I simply did not do in college or high school. Now, having to take a sick day breaks my heart because I know that my kids are missing out on a day of instruction and practice that they need to compete with their well-off peers on the East Side and in Barrington. When I’m up at midnight lesson planning, telling myself that I don’t deserve this, I remind myself that my kids don’t deserve the countless hardships that they deal with on a daily basis—yet they deal with them, and still manage to bring enthusiasm to the classroom. It’s the least I can do to be prepared for them and try to love them as Jesus loves them.
In keeping with the season, I’ve been reading through the gospels lately. The Nativity story is a familiar one—Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, are unable to find a place to stay, have Jesus in a manger, and get visited by shepherds who are told of His birth by an angel of God. What strikes me most about the story though (besides the mind-blowing fact that the omnipotent God of the universe was born as a human baby, obviously) is what happened before all of that. Mary was visited by an angel and informed that despite being a virgin, she would bear a son named Jesus, the savior of mankind, of whose kingdom there would be no end. Mary’s response to this absurd news? ”Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38)
What a pure, child-like, mountain-moving faith. We live in a time when people fancy themselves sophisticated and scientific; there is no room for faith in a society that must always be moving, advancing, growing in worldly wealth and wisdom. Yet I suspect that if more of us had the faith that Mary had—faith to submit ourselves to God’s sovereignty and trust that His plans are for our welfare—this world would be a much happier place. There would truly be peace on earth and good will toward men. The healing work that Jesus came for and began during his life would be continued in every corner of the globe. And just maybe, 120 students in an inner-city Providence high school would be inspired to go out and do amazing things with their lives, in the service of God. Is that not reason enough to earnestly seek that kind of faith?
And on that note, Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone reading this. May your holiday season be full of joy and quality time with loved ones. See you all on the other side of the new year!