Dear Future Teachers,
Someone recently asked me to give them the best reasons why current and in particular future teachers should read my new book entitled Brave Soul Rising: Tales From The Trenches of An Uncharmed Life written under my pen name of Grace Sutherlin. I guess the person thought it might be a challenge for me to come up with the reasons in rapid fire fashion, but I never write anything unless I have truly meaningful reasons for doing so. So if I were getting ready to take charge of a middle or high school classroom this Fall of 2017, this is what I wish I had known or been educated about prior to that first day of class. Alas, the reasons to read my book for a more detailed accounting.
1) Resilience: This is the ability to pick yourself up off the floor after you have been hammered with the reality that you are going to be challenged beyond your wildest expectations by students, colleagues, administrators, parents, bureaucracy, etc. And when you take charge of a class, it's just you and (if you teach public school) thirty-five or more students. Actually, I had more students show up for a class than I had available desks and chairs. DO NOT PANIC. Breathe, think, and improvise.
2) No One Said This Was Going To Be A Cake Walk And If They Did, They Lied: My first year teaching began after the school year had already started and after the first teacher gave notice during the first week of classes. By the time I was hired to teach this seventh grade group of students, they had been through some of the most effective substitute teachers. Plus, I discovered I was going to be conducting English and History classes in what was once a locker room. Oh, and then of course, during basketball season I discovered the coaches and players still utilized my classroom as a locker room. I had very little in terms of resources so I utilized my students' work to decorate my classroom. I hit the ground running six weeks into the school year and never looked back because if I stopped I was sure I was going to wind up thinking, "What the hell did I sign up for and can I really do this?"
3) Students Will Arrive Needing More Than Just An Education In English And History: Ahh, if teaching only involved showing up and teaching your content areas, we would all have a much easier time in the classroom. To my surprise and sometimes shock, I had students who were living with their family in motels; I had students whose parents were serving prison time; I had students who were braving much worse than I ever encountered just to get to school each morning; and I had students who lived in and around a near constant stream of gang violence. And I quickly realized that I might be the only role model a student has present in his/her life at that moment.
4) Keep Your Eyes And Ears Open At All Times: There were times when I would overhear when a fight was going to occur. At other times, I might see a pass off of one student selling another student his/her ADD/ADHD medication or worse; I learned to not be startled by the cop and police dog that came to our school and walked the halls as well as the classrooms; and I was aware when I had high school students who were not supposed to even be inside our school much less roaming the halls looking for a student at my middle school. Plus, I generally kept my classroom door locked at all times.
5) Be Ready For The Unexpected: You never know when a student is just going to reach their limit or tolerance of another student's behavior and before you can turn around, a chair is being thrown across a classroom and one student has another in a head lock. Or the experience I had of a student's grandmother calling me at school to instruct me that she learned I wrote up a disciplinary slip on her grandson for disrupting class and she was coming to my classroom and polling the entire classroom of students to determine if they agreed her grandson had truly been a disruption. No lie.
6) Bullying Happens And It's Up To You To Nip It In The Bud: Honestly, I've seen students badger another student over where he/she lives, the way a student looks, and one student of mine was bullied because he wore the same three outfits to school every week. And I had to stand up to a group of my own students and deflect the bullying behavior. For example, "Well Maxine, Tracy, Issac-the last time I checked none of us including me are currently residing in the Taj Mahal so put a lid on it." Or this one worked well, "Well, Josie and company, you all are not exactly decked out in Armani and for that matter, neither am I, so can we get on with classroom business so maybe someone among us might one day have the opportunity to be sporting Michael Kors?!" Notice I am including myself when I am deflecting the bullying. I am putting the students and myself on a level playing field.
7) There Is Always Going To Be A Handful Of Students You Just Cannot Reach: As one of my assistant principals once said to me, "Honey, you can't save them all. If you try, you're going to burn out as a teacher before you can even get started." No, I couldn't save the student who I suspected stole field trip money and then later had a BB gun at a bus stop. And I couldn't save the kid who had been caught with drugs and was charged with intent to distribute. He eventually served prison time. You can only do what you can do in the time that you have these students so for heaven's sake, do your best by them so at the bare minimum you can list how you tried to redirect a student's behavior or life.
8) You May Not Receive Much Mentoring And Sometimes You May Not Receive Any: Honestly, I could have used more support as a first year teacher in a volatile inner-city middle school. I was assigned a mentor, but I made the effort to observe her classes. She only visited me and my class when it came time for my teaching evaluations. And you will run across teachers who I heard referred to as "just picking up a paycheck." You never saw this type of teacher actively engaged with his/her students. You never saw that teacher walking the classroom and offering assistance to students. It's disappointing. One time I was assigned a mentor teacher not because the administration thought she could help me, but so maybe I might inspire her or reignite her passion for teaching.. True story. And I was only in my second year of teaching at that time.
9) Keep A Medical Kit In The Classroom And If You Can, Take A CPR Class: I never knew when or if I was ever going to have a medical emergency. A student starts choking in the lunch room or classroom, do you know what to do? A student has a diabetic emergency while in one of your classes. Do you have orange slices on hand and know what to do? And this one truly did happen to me: A student arrives at your classroom door saying he was jumped in the bathroom and was stabbed in his hand. At that point I had to use classroom materials I had to stop the bleeding, try to tie a tourniquet with any other materials I had in class, page the office to call 911, and then turn the student over to an administrator because the assigned school nurse was not at our school on that particular day. Multitasking is a must.
10) My Middle School Co-Teacher Was My Best Means Of Support: I kid you not that when I taught middle school, we taught in teams of two to four teachers. My team consisted of me and my co-teacher who taught science and math. My team teacher helped me in more ways than any mentor I was assigned ever could. In fact, she had served in the military and it served me and her well because we truly always had each other's backs. She became a dear friend for life.
Till my next post,