A couple months ago I received an email from another school in the district seeking teachers for a Saturday Extended Learning school. I am always a little leery of emails from schools asking for teachers help because it makes me wonder why the teachers that teach at that school don’t fill the positions. Because I happen to admire all the administrators at the school that was soliciting teachers, I thought about applying for one of the positions. I have to admit the money swayed my thinking, also. When Janet said she wanted to do it I was in. Another fifth grade teacher from my school, Ally, applied to teach also. They were going to have two teachers teach together per grade level so I was sure Ally and I would be teaching fifth grade together.
There was a pre-planning meeting on a Saturday. We found out Ally and I wouldn’t be teaching together. Bummer! But the person I was assigned to teach with was someone I knew and admired, so I was fine with it all. During the planning meeting we were informed that we would be teaching about twenty power standards over nine Saturdays, three hour each Saturday. This is virtually impossible, but I knew what the administration really wanted. We needed to place (cram) as much information into the students’ minds to make some kind of dent on the AIMS (state test of achievement). Probably what the students really needed were some test taking strategies. Let’s face it the students were the bottom of the pack and it was going to be impossible to teach seven months of standards into nine Saturdays.
Miguel and I were given the lowest fifth grade group. This is something I am used to experiencing. I am usually given the lowest and toughest students. When one has a reputation of being able to handle the “difficult” students one’s classroom is generally filled with the darlings. (I have always wondered what kind of class I would have, if I had a reputation of not being able to handle the “difficult” students.) When I work with another teacher I always over plan because I want to make sure I don’t make a fool of myself. I was teaching at a different school with a teacher from another school and for administrators that highly respect which caused me to plan even more. I spent more time planning for three hours of Saturday school than I did planning for two weeks of teaching in my own class.
I am always nervous when I teach at a school where the students don’t know me. It is easy for me to go into any class at Tomahawk (except for kindergarten, those little imps are mean) and rock a lesson. My reputation precedes me and the students know what I expect and they know not to mess with me. When I teach at a different school the first thing the students see is “handicapped” teacher and they usually think, “Oooooooooo, someone I can take advantage of today.”
The plan for the first day was: 1. Teach a group lesson on poetry. 2. Both teachers would do two small reading groups with grade level nonfiction text. 3. Teach a group lesson on problem solving. 4. Both teachers would do two small groups in math. At the end of the day all of the fifth grade students would be tested on the reading standard for the day and based on their scores would be moved around the next Saturday for large group reading instruction with Miguel and I always having the group with the most need.
I knew I was in trouble on the first day when Ally and I were sending students to their prospective groups and after Ally placed a young man in my group he asked who his teacher was going to be, and when Ally pointed to me he replied with a smirk on his face, “HE is going to be the teacher, but he is in a wheelchair.” I was wearing a dress and the young man was not an ELL student so there was no reason for the gender confusion. We were supposed to have twenty students and only twelve showed up. I was thinking this was going to be easy money. That’s what I get for thinking!
The ten boys and two girls were the most difficult group of students I have ever come across in my thirty-five years of teaching. (That even includes the year I had the African-American female mafia.) First, the girls refused to speak as did most of the boys. The only boys that spoke were the ones that really shouldn’t have spoken. Mainly they just enjoyed listening to the sound of their own voice. Their behavior was atrocious. Miguel and I were constantly stopping and talking to individual students. I felt like I was riding on an out of control train that was about to catapult off a cliff at the end of the track. At one point, I wanted to jump with no regard to road rash or the fact that I was leaving poor Miguel behind. The poetry lesson was a flop. The small reading groups with grade level nonfiction text were impossible because most of the students couldn’t read. In the middle of the problem-solving lesson I felt a sense of doom and with a teary eyed glaze I looked at Miguel knowing that he was going to have a smile on his face that would make me want to continue. The smile wasn’t there. There was a look of doom across his face and he mouthed, “I don’t know what to do.”
All the teachers that were teaching the fifth grade groups were from a different school. That right there should be a warning flag. When we got together to discuss the day and plan for the next week I felt defeated and was wondering what I did wrong. Then I heard from the other teachers and found out we were on in the same canoe without a paddle plummeting down a raging river. Ally was sitting next to me mumbling, “I never, I never . . .” At that point I would have rather had someone stick a fork in my eye than go back the next Saturday.
When I went back to my own school on Monday I had a much greater appreciation for where I was and what I had. I told all my bad boys and girl how much I appreciated them because they were nothing compared to what I had experienced. At one time Colleen and I were planning to transfer to the “Saturday school” school so we could team-teach together. I told Colleen, “I’d rather you stick a fork in my eye and sit me in the middle of a Wal-Mart with no exits than transfer.”
Then it happened. It always happens when it comes to working with kids. Throughout my thirty-five years of teaching, if I have learned anything, it’s that kids are kids and they only need three things: structure, respect, and expectations for greatness. Oh, and it helps to have snacks, especially, with low-income kids. The next weekend, armed with snacks, Miguel and I laid out our expectations for behavior and greatness with an iron fist. We also so told the students why they were and how to keep from being there ever again. (Everybody has to have goal.) If a student stayed in their seat longer than 30 seconds we’d pat ‘em on the head, give ‘em praise and toss ‘em a treat. (I know the reader might hate to hear this but training kids and husbands is just like training puppies.) Miguel and I also threw all our hours of planning out the window and did what we do best which is fly by the seat of our pants. I brought lots of read-alouds and he brought his great mathematical mind and we made it up as we went along. During our hour of planning time every Saturday while others planned lessons we discussed individual students and what our strategy was going to be with each student.
Then the “aha moments” started coming. Miguel taught the class a different way to multiply other than the standard algorithm and a light clicked on. One student was so excited that she could multiply that she took home extra work so she could go home and teacher her 12 siblings and her parents how to multiply. Students were interacting with my read-alouds. Our students were passing the weekly tests and being sent to the “higher” level classes. As these “aha moments” continued, the “twinkle” returned. That “twinkle” in our eyes and our hearts. That “twinkle” that has kept me doing what I have done for the past 35 years.
“It was the worst of times and the best of times.” (Sorry, Charles Dickens, but I had to switch your quote around.) As I got up early every Saturday still counting down to the last Saturday, God whispered in my ear, “You know what you have to do don’t you?” Finally, it was over and I was glad but “you know who” kept pestering me, and when I got home I filled out a transfer form to go and teach at Frank Borman K-8 School. It was practically impossible for things to fall into place in order to go. It would take a miracle! Yesterday it was made official that I will be teaching fifth grade at Borman. But wait! There’s more! I will be teaching with one of my best buds and sistah, Colleen, whom I admire and respect so much. We have team taught in the past and I loved every minute of it. That God! What a Guy!
Next year will be one of the hardest years of my career but one I am already looking forward to experiencing. It’s been awhile . . . .
Oh, by the way, could someone get me out of Wal-Mart and pull this fork out of my eye?
Just remember I better not hear any whining from you next year.
The Flip Side
Take me lizard hunting and you can whine all you want!