Monday, September 11, 2006

The Fourth Grade

I have never experienced anything in life that fell as short from my expectations as teaching the fourth grade. Surprisingly, I don’t look back with (much) regret. While paying off the student loans for a master’s degree I really didn’t use is not my favorite thing, the experience was meaningful because I endured something extremely difficult that ultimately helped me find my career path.

Plus, it made me appreciate teachers so much. If you have children in school, drop everything you are doing and go hug their teachers right now. Right. Now.

I thought teaching would be inspiring. I thought I would make a difference in the lives of my students. I had glorious notions of holding children in rapt attention while we memorized the times table, leading them wide eyed into the world of Charlotte’s Web where they would come out the other side with a deep appreciation of great literature, and always knowing by the looks in their eyes the moment they “tipped” and really DID understand that I generally comes before E except after C.

Having received my master’s degree in education via one of those accelerated “MA’s for working professionals” programs, I only had about 4 semesters of class work and a few weeks of classroom observation before starting student teaching. I learned that teachers who receive their bachelor’s degree in education are so much better prepared for the realities of teaching, because it is through that extensive study when you take those courses that are ultimately going to be your most important – psych 300 “Abnormal Psychology” and sociology 401 “Crisis Management”.

Everything about my student teaching experience was challenging:

* My teacher enjoyed her cocktails a little too much, plus she was having the first love affair she’d had in 15 years so she was preoccupied to the point of distraction. She spent very little time with me as a mentor, more often than not skipping days or going home early, leaving me hanging on a thread just barely above the deadly clutches of heaving fourth graders that needed to feed on fresh meat.
* My school was considered one of the poorest in the community. English was the second language for more than half the kids. Many kids had lost, or were losing, their parents to drugs so they had no security, no sense of home, no good food, no supervision, no manners and no way to direct their anger. They weren’t exactly entering the front door “ready to learn” in the mornings and that cold, harsh reality of life set up situations at school that very few teachers could handle well.
* Those parents who were involved or interested in their kids’ education were some of the most obnoxious people I had ever met. Most of them were young, single mothers who had their kids when they were 16 years old, never finished school themselves and they were FULL of anger and highly suspect of “the system”, so they wanted to give you an earful of their discontent at every available opportunity. It was always the teacher’s fault that Johnny failed his tenth spelling test in a row and never the fact that Johnny was so busy at home taking care of his younger siblings, or so unsupervised that he was running wild and getting very little sleep, that he never studied or completed his home work to prepare for the test.
* The administration of the school was in turmoil and there was a huge disconnect between administration and the teachers. High school cliques have NOTHING on the cliques that formed between theses teachers. As a result there were no systems in place to handle discipline, emergencies, or limited resources.
* There were only two student teachers in the school – me and another guy teaching the fifth grade, so I had no peer support group. To give you a feel for the difficulties of classroom teaching today, this other student teacher was lead from the school by police and arrested just a few weeks before the end of the semester because he lost it with a fifth grade punk who he DRAGGED out into the hallway SCREAMING PROFANITIES and proceeded to tie the kid’s hands behind his back and seal his mouth shut with DUCT TAPE! I kid you not – perhaps you read about it in the paper.

Sound grim? I hate to say it, but it was so different from what I had expected that I was incredibly disillusioned by the whole thing. So I decided to look at it as gonzo teaching. I was on my own and, after one particularly bad day, I tore up the resignation letter I had just written and decided that come hell or high water, I wasn’t going to be a quitter on this one. I did my best and marched forward.

Some of the time the kids in my class were simply awesome. Most of the time they were disinterested and distracted. Occasionally they were hostile and mean or so deeply sad that your heart broke wide open. I had one student who was the ring leader of bad – the Bart Simpson of the group – and given the lack of stability in his life and his anger issues, my guess is he spent his teens in juvie and is probably in prison today. I never could win him over. Many of the children liked me and they all called me “Meees” no matter how many times I reminded them to call me “Miss Holliday”. The kids were often funny and the silliness of 10-year olds can be some of the most infectious humor.

But mostly, I just tried to keep the circus together well enough to make it to 2:30 p.m. and the final bell. We had to teach primarily to what was then in the TAAS test, but I tried to make lessons as interesting as possible. As a teacher, I found I liked doing the same things I had liked doing when I was a fourth grader – going to the library, art class, assemblies, field trips, reading, writing on the chalk board, decorating the room and scoring well on tests.

The most memorable project I taught was an 8-week natural science unit that culminated in building a terrarium/aquarium ecosystem. We led up to that activity learning about environments, animal and plant life and the elements needed to sustain life. After six weeks, it was finally time to begin work on the ecosystems. If you can imagine this, you took a 3 liter plastic bottle and cut it in half. In the bottom half you built your aquarium with the rocks, water, plants and fish and in the top half, you inserted a “floor” than poured in dirt from the top of the bottle and added a few plants and rocks some crickets and ants. You than put the terrarium half on top of the aquarium half and taped them together, so it looked like you had your 3 liter bottle again.

Oh man. This project went bad in so many ways. I’ll save all of the gory details but this one…the crickets.

I knew we were going to need crickets on Monday, so Sunday afternoon Beth and I went to the local pet store and made the purchase. I knew this would be easier than driving all the way to the school district’s supply center that I had already been to for the fish and it was a bloody nightmare. The guy at the pet store suggested that I put the crickets in a one of those giant styrofoam cups like you get at Sonic, poke a few air holes in the lid, then put the cup in my refrigerator. The cold would make the crickets go into stasis so they would calm down and be easier to transport. Once they warmed up again, they would be back to normal.

Good plan.

The next morning I was driving to school at the ungodly hour of 6:00 a.m. (we had to be in the classroom by 6:30 a.m.) and I was on I-35 when all of sudden all hell broke lose. Those crickets came back to life almost instantly and they started jumping with such voracity that they popped the lid of the cup off and started leaping out in the car. On me! On my dashboard! Crashing into the windows! Swarming, and hopping and chirping! 90 crickets were on the loose in my car and I started SCREAMING HYSTERICALLY, swatting at them to stay away from my face. What was I going to do? I somehow managed to veer off of highway without getting hit but there wasn’t much I could do to wrangle them all back into the cup. So I just steeled my nerves and drove on to the school with the crickets flying. I can only imagine what those who passed me must have thought. When I finally opened my door in the parking lot and leapt out, a swarm of locust of biblical proportions came out of the Subaru, causing two other teachers to scream and run for their lives.

I was so completely nerved out that I could hardly contain myself and then I had to face a classroom of excited kids and tell them I didn’t have the crickets! They were SOOOO disappointed. So I got everyone in a line and we marched outside to the parking lot where two of my braver little boys got in my car and started catching those crickets that were still there, and still alive. The other 24 of us were surrounding my car, some laying on the hood, some sitting on the trunk, peering in all the windows and squealing every time one of those wretched insects would crash against the window. Poor, brave Cornelius and Tony finally caught about 25 crickets, which was enough for everyone to get one. We traipsed back into class, each kid got their precious cricket and we taped those babies shut so there was no getting out. Everyone was so keyed up that the rest of the day was lost and the kids were little hellions for the next six hours.

I was never so glad to see a day come to an end. When I made it back to my car and opened the door, a few lone survivors hopped out before I got in and sped away. I found dead crickets and various cricket parts in that car until the day I sold it two years later!

As mentioned, I’m saving you from the other ecosystem horror stories that included a strange algae growing on the soil, ants that made their way out and the day we came in to class and about half of the guppies were floating upside down. Good grief. Bring back the days when we grew a bean plant in an empty milk carton!

My student teaching came to an end fourth months later with little fanfare. Thankfully, KLRU had offered me a job a few weeks before and I knew in my heart that was a much better fit for me professionally, so I turned down the teaching contract and quickly moved on. I spent the next few years processing my feelings about failing at teaching. And of teaching failing me. I have seen a few amazing teachers and I know there are so many out there, but I had to accept that I just wasn’t one of them. I’m fine now, no real regrets, because I’m much happier and better paid in my profession now then I think I ever would have been as a classroom teacher.

But I do let myself fantasize every now and then about how awesome it would have been to be a teacher in a utopian environment. I’ve often wondered how my fourth graders have fared over the years. Hopefully well. In theory, they all graduated from high school in May of this year. I bet some didn’t make it that far. I bet a few are freshmen in college. I bet most got jobs. Some probably have their own kids, now. I can still close my eyes and go around the room and name each child, remembering all of their individual funny quirks, strengths and weaknesses.

I wonder if any of them ever thought of Meees Holliday, again?


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