Tuesday, 28 June 2016

That First Teaching Job

Reflective Teaching Moments

Number 2 – That First Teaching Job

Take away Sunday school, giving guitar lessons, teaching how to crochet or paint a water colour, and think about that first teaching position. The one that actually had a paycheque at the end of the month. The one where you were completely on your own not sharing a classroom as another teacher’s student minion, but you were right on the front line with the rest of the “professionals” and those students smelled fresh blood like a shark circling its’ meal.
In the US, we were expected to “student” teach for a year (two semesters) before we finished our teaching qualifications. It was hard work, but it gave us a good starting point.  What it didn’t give us was how to start the academic year, how to set up a classroom, and how to interact with all the other teachers (they could smell fresh blood as well).

Words of wisdom to those that are “new” – if you teach special education (mainly behaviour/emotional problems), stay away from the teachers’ lounge at lunchtime. Mainly because everyone is quick to fill your lunch hour with stories about how awful “your” student was; or the work “your” student won’t turn in, or how disruptive “your” student was - or even how “your” student had a wonderful day before, now they’re back to square one – what happened?

I remember one teacher who said to me, “Don’t smile until Thanksgiving” (that would be the end of November to my UK friends). You’re supposed to look stoic and speak with an even, almost flat-toned voice when greeting the students. I think this was to instil the idea into the students that you could just ‘go off at any moment so they better behave because there is just no predicting when it might happen or what might set it off.’  Whatever ‘it’ was.

I never followed that thinking. I always smiled, I laughed and I was quick to respond to any appropriate behaviour. Consequently, I never had much inappropriate behaviour to deal with.

My first teaching job was in a very difficult part of a large city. It was poor, it was severely deprived and the school was actually locked down during the day with security guards outside the front and back doors. I remember being so happy that I got a job; I really didn’t care that it was in a very dangerous part of the city. My colleagues told me that I needed to be on my way home by 4.00 and not hang around any later than that. I thought it best to follow their experience with the neighbourhood – clearly they knew better.

We were happy to see kids make it through the 6th grade. In my first year, three of my students were shot in drive by shootings. One student died, another was shot in the leg and sustained no long-term damage, and one student lost his left eye and had to wear special protective glasses. 

I gained understanding as to why gangs took the place of families and why learning was difficult in the mornings because these kids came to school hungry, probably the last meal eaten at dinner time or maybe school lunch from the day before. It wasn’t unusual to see some students wearing the same clothes every day – or trading what they wore the day before with one of their cousins in the same class (it seemed like they were all related somehow).

This was the front line. It was the hardest, most painful, loneliest, and best teaching job I ever had. I could never give enough and I always got so much in return. Those are the lessons that changed me; those are the lessons that will stay with me forever.

What was your first teaching job? What impact did it have on your career, your life? What do you remember most about that first teaching job?

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