This week we finally have our Back to School Night. My most exciting memory from one of those nights was from my fifth year teaching. Here’s how I remember it some thirty years later.
I have just started at a new school. I am the new person on the fourth grade team and by far the youngest. There are two other teachers on the team, and one of them is grouchy, rigid, and several years late for her retirement. Prior to the start of the year, she has mimeographed all of the worksheets she’ll need for the entire school year. Get the picture? She is not popular with parents, students, or the principal. That principal had arrived at the school two years earlier and is viewed as a savior of a tired and neglected school. She has spent her first two years poaching teachers from other schools. She seems to have populated my class with the most vocal parents in the school. I have a Who’s Who of power parents, including the chairman of the school board, an RTM member, the local chairman of one of the political parties, the current PTA president, the past PTA president, and the president of the PTA Council. I don’t even know what that is, but it sounds important.
As an unknown at this school, I attract quite a crowd for this Back to School Night. Somehow, I seem to get both parents from almost every family. It’s standing room only. I’m not sure how they have all found babysitters. I begin by talking a little about myself. There are some murmurs when I tell them I am 28. It sounds a little like relief. At this stage of my life I look more like a 15-year-old, so they are relieved that I have not only finished high school but have probably even been to college.
I am a bit cocky, too (in that wholly unwarranted way that some 28-year-olds adopt), so though I’m sure I have stressed and obsessed about getting things ready in my room, I am far too free with some of the things I say. Telling the assembled that we will not read whole-class novels is…well…novel to these parents. They seem to take it okay when I show them that I have brought a pretty big collection of books with me from my previous school. “We will read A LOT,” I tell them.
Informing them that my writers’ workshop involves kids choosing their topics and genre creates a bit of a buzz as well. We teachers haven’t yet heard of units of study, but I have read Lucy Calkins’s first book about writing, and I am convinced I know what I am doing. By this time in the year I have already seen students really responding to this workshop approach. They are writing up a storm. Parents seem very excited about this, since that has not been their experience in previous grades.
Things are going pretty smoothly until I start talking about math. I explain that I have been to several summer Math Institutes run by Marilyn Burns, and that I plan to use her cooperative learning approach. I scan the room. School Board Chair: inscrutable. PTA President: smiling. RTM member: nodding. Politico: “Can you tell who’s doing the real work?” I assure them that I am always taking notes while the students work.
I tell them that we pick cards to see where kids will sit. You have to work with whichever kids the fates decide to put with you. The Board Chair nods his approval. He can probably relate.
“When we go over homework,” I continue, “the tablemates discuss their answers and agree on one paper for everyone to sign.” PTA Council President frowns. Is this fair? I hear low rumblings, but I calm them by saying that kids invariably become very invested in listening to each other and trying to agree on the right answers. I see cautious nodding of agreement accompanied by some nervous fidgeting.
Apparently feeling emboldened by this success, I then launch into my feelings about calculators. I tell them that we will not emphasize rote skills when problem solving is the real focus. I tell them we will use calculators frequently.
“What?!” Mr. Ackemann, a large parent with no known political title, has now heard enough. “Geez. Does EVERYTHING have to be new? I want my daughter to learn how to add and subtract. I’d say you can save some money and send those calculators back.”
“Actually, we’ll learn how to do all that computation, sir, but when you’re doing a large multiplication or division problem, it’s more important that you be able to estimate, so we’ll spend more time with that.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s just ridiculous,” Mr. A. replies. He favors precision.
“Excuse me,” another one interjects, perhaps trying to clarify. “Are you saying they’ll just estimate and then get the exact answer on a calculator?”
“Sometimes,” I reply. “If it’s a problem-solving situation, I want them to be able to think about the big ideas and the patterns that might help them solve the problem. Sometimes the calculations are just a small part of the bigger problem.”
“I think he’s right,” the wife of school board chair chimes in. I think she may feel sorry for me. “An accountant has to understand big ideas. He relies on a calculator for the computations.”
“Exactly,” I say. “In fact, I’ll bet most of you, if you were faced with a big long division problem, would whip out a calculator, not a paper and pencil.”
“What about on tests? Are you going to let them use calculators on tests?”
At this, Mr. A is fed up. He jumps to his feet and scans the room for allies. “I really can’t believe this. Am I the only one here who thinks this is a little too newfangled?”
The room erupts into clusters of noisy side conversations. There seem to be parents on all sides of the issue. Passions have been stirred. There are parents who agree with Mr. A. They look to be making battle plans. One of them is gesturing furtively toward the calculator bins. A few parents are off topic and ranting about the apparent disappearance of grammar and handwriting in this presentation. There are also parents who agree with me. I’ll call them the good guys. The good guys are hungry for change and not afraid to voice their feelings. There also seem to be a small number of shell-shocked peacekeepers who appear concerned for my safety.
It is at this point that my principal steps into the room.
I imagine that she has been strolling the halls, peeking into rooms where docile crowds nod agreeably at the reassuring images projected by vintage overhead projectors. She makes a quick welcoming wave and continues touring her kingdom. Then she hears the riot in room 301 and her pace and breathing quicken.
As she enters my room, she locates me and is probably relieved that I am still in a relatively safe position, taking cover behind my projector. Outnumbered, I have actually crept back for a moment to assess the situation, unsure of how to quell this uprising.
“How’s it going in here?” the principal shouts toward me, her eyebrows slightly raised.
“Uh. Good. We’re talking about math,” I holler back.
“Really? I haven’t ever seen a math discussion get quite this animated.”
“Well, I may have made some…uh…provocative statements.”
“I get that sense. Do you need any help? Perhaps a megaphone?”
“I think we’ll be okay.” In an odd way, and probably owing to that blissful ignorance (and cockiness) of youth, I am finding the atmosphere exciting. Still, there is no escaping the awkwardness of the unrest, the presence of my boss, and my obvious lack of classroom management skills.
At the sight of my principal, the room has already quieted slightly. Most eyes look toward her.
“I hope you’re enjoying Mr. von Euler’s presentation,” she booms. “We’re excited to have him here.” Relief sweeps over me. That is a much better comment than, “So, I take it I should be looking for a new fourth grade teacher, eh?”
“Maybe we should continue this math conversation at another time?” I venture hopefully to the group. Mr. A and I make a date for future peace talks at a neutral site. He sets down the calculator bin. His wife pats his shoulder.
The rest of the evening has slipped from my memory, but I have had flashbacks of that moment every fall at around this time. This year we’ll meet via Zoom. I’ll have at least 15 years on most of the parents, and I’ll be armed with a mute button, but I’m still likely to be a lot less cavalier.