I had an email conversation with a very generous parent this week. Her kind words at the end of our second week of distance learning reminded me of words from another parent many years ago. They were words that got me through a challenging time.
In my first year of teaching, I was given the gift of a magical class. I remember Lou, the school psychologist running through the list of kids, and saying things like, “Oh, that’s a VERY nice kid,” and “Oh, super family, so supportive,” and then, of course, there was this one: “Oh, well, if you ever don’t feel up to teaching, S. will gladly take over for the day…and do a pretty great job.” And Lou was right. A brand new, 24-year-old (I believe that’s one year before the male brain actually matures to the level of an 18-year-old female), could not have landed in a better environment for learning, for his own learning, that is.
Somewhere around the second week of school, a bad thing happened, and then a good thing happened. First, the bad thing. C’s mom somehow got wind of the fact that her daughter’s teacher really didn’t know what the heck he was doing. He had student taught in 5th and 1st grade and long-term subbed in kindergarten (really only 3 weeks, but let’s call it long-term on the resume). None of those experiences involved the first weeks of school, the establishing of routines, discussions of expectations, rules, consequences, hopes, dreams, rituals, etc. Nope. I knew nothing of that. College rituals really don’t go over well in 4th grade. Anyway, C’s mom somehow found out that I was virtually incompetent…being brand new at this job. She asked my principal to move her daughter. My principal said no, but he didn’t mean no; he meant not yet. He invited C’s mom to observe in the classroom. She took him up on the offer. She spent the entire day in my classroom. I could write a whole story about that day, but I won’t do it now. I remember her sitting in the back of the room at one point, reading a magazine, while I tried to run a group activity that involved kids reading different articles at five different tables and then sharing them. I hadn’t intended that the kids climb on the tables, but J. and J. both decided that would be fun. I hadn’t had the discussion about how we don’t do that when a parent is sitting in the back of the room evaluating the competence of the teacher. Note to self, next year. It was chaos. C’s mom was not impressed.
The next day, the principal informed me, in a fairly gentle way, that C would be moving to another class. I was crushed. It had only been two weeks, but I liked C. She was a sweet kid. She had friends in the class, and she seemed to really like school. It’s not easy to be a first year teacher, but try being a first year teacher and answering a kid who asks, “Why is C. moving to another class?”
We were down to 19, and I had visions of a domino effect. What if every parent figured out that I didn’t know what I was doing? What if the whole class slowly dissolved and I was left by myself?
Two days later came the other event. It was before school. I don’t remember the day of the week. The principal came into my room and shut the door. It felt ominous. “This is it,” I thought, the snowball is rolling.
He smiled, though. “I’ve got a question for you. How would you feel about getting a new student?” I hesitated.
‘I know it’s kind of awkward, but there’s a student in another class, and the parent is very unhappy with how the year has started. She would really like her daughter to move. I told her that the most likely move would be into your class.”
“And? How did she react to that?”
“She was delighted. She said that’s what she was hoping for. She wanted someone young who was willing to try new things. I said she would be very happy, then.”
The next morning L. entered my class. She was quiet, but smiled easily, and had a twinkle in her eye. She had been new at the end of the previous year and didn’t have many friends, but as I mentioned, I had perhaps the nicest group of kids ever assembled in a room. She fit right in.
That year, I had heard a presentation by this young hotshot writing expert named Lucy Calkins. She had talked about something called a writers’ workshop. I had definitely not had any experience with that in my student teaching, but I had been in a writing workshop in high school. I knew how they ran. I was willing to give it a try. L. was a natural for writers’ workshop. She drew pictures, invented characters, and then made up incredible stories that she wrote in picture book form. She wrote during writer’s workshop. She wrote during snack. She wrote at home. I remember one of her adventure stories featured a cinnamon sugar shaker who doubled as a detective.
L’s mom came to the first parent conference that year and said, “Moving L. was the best decision I ever made.”
I thanked her and told her how much I appreciated having someone actually move INTO my class.
“We were all new once,” she said. “You can’t be young and experienced at the same time. I sort of guessed that you would be figuring things out over the course of the year.”
That year, I got by, and maybe even thrived, partly because of that generous spirit on the part of the kids and their parents. Not generous in giving gifts, but generous in being patient with my missteps, failed experiments, and impractical ideas. They gave me confidence. They knew that after two weeks, and even after two months, I was not going to be smooth or seasoned. They also seemed to know, though, that if I felt supported, that if I was allowed to try, I might do some really good things.
Yesterday, when a parent had the audacity to say, “You’re really handling this distance learning so smoothly, and E. is really loving all the great ways you’re finding to keep them engaged,” I had to laugh. The truth was, I was muddling along like that rookie teacher from so many years ago. I was trying, but anyone could tell I was new, and green.
But that was very generous of you to say, and it sure makes the experimenting a whole lot less stressful.