Friday, June 5, 2009
Bursting the Bubble
The first time I walked into my classroom I felt excited and in control. The room, of course, was empty of students, and I was only there to decorate and prepare my classroom for the upcoming school year. I was very dedicated to preparing beautiful bulletin boards, organizing files, and arranging pictures on my very own teacher desk. I was so proud to have my own classroom. I felt secure in the fact that I had a college degree in English education, and I was prepared to face those 7th grade students head on. Or so I thought.
In those first two weeks, I met a wonderful teacher named Karen Kishimoto. She quickly became a great friend and mentor. She was a tall, blonde with a glowing aura about her. She was so positive, and she gave me the some of the best advice I have ever received about teaching. When I would get frustrated by the small stuff like trying to keep up with all the daily meetings and emails, she would say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff because it’s all small stuff.” When our state changed the curriculum drastically, she told me in a matter of fact manner, “The only permanent thing in Education is change.” My friend and mentor was full of wonderful aphorisms, but more importantly, she was full of support and good, heart-felt advice. I can’t think of a single moment when she said a negative word that might diminish my excitement about teaching, but she did cautiously make me aware that teaching has its own set of challenges that are often unforeseen by new teachers.
During the second week of August, my room filled with 7th graders of every shape, size, and color. I quickly learned that my general life experience and college education had not prepared for this new set of challenges. I had never worked with children of poverty before, and I had not realized that so many of my students could not read on their grade level or anywhere close. In the beginning, I stubbornly trudged through the grammar workbooks and classic stories that were a part of the curriculum. I was determined to do the very best job possible. After all, I was an English teacher.
It wasn’t until midway through the school year that my bubble finally burst, and I realized that no matter what my official training was called that I was not a teacher of English. Instead, I found that in order to be successful I would need to be a teacher of students—students of every shape, size, race, and socio-economic level. Students like “Shawn” who suffered from a disorder that made it impossible for him to learn; yet his parents did not attend one meeting that we tried to arrange to get additional services to help meet his specific needs. Then there was young “Maria” who struggled to read on a third grade level, but ended up pregnant during the school year. She dropped out before the end of the school year so she could marry the father of her child. Her mother agreed to the marriage because she had married at fourteen as well. When I heard this news, I cried. I cried for so many reasons—for the child who was about to be a mother, for her future, and for the fact I felt somehow I had failed as a teacher. I wondered if there was any way that I could have done something to have prevented this tragic thing from happening. The reality was that there was nothing I could have done, and it was heart breaking. My idealistic bubble had burst. In the end, it was Karen who came to my rescue, and she talked to me and encouraged me to keep focusing on what I could do instead of what I couldn’t do.
That summer I reflected on the fact that teaching is much more than a skill or a being an expert in a subject area. Now that my perfect bubble had been burst, I could see the reality of teaching. It is a career that requires a fine balance of artistry, patience, knowledge, and humor. Since that first year, I have found that if I surround myself with positive people that I stay positive even in the most stressful situations. A student teacher never fully understands the magnitude of their job until they are responsible for a classroom full of children who are truly at-risk to fail . . . and not just the class. Teaching requires faith, compassion, and a true passion for the children you are teaching not the SUBJECT.