written May 11, 2012
You can go home again—for fifty minutes.
If this is my last day of subbing this spring,which is my first semester out of student teaching. My last hour today, then, was a perfect coda to my first full teaching year. For the beginning of the day I took on the substitute guise of Stacy Hartle, a special education instructor I worked with during my August stint with Ms. Barber. During this month I myself co-teaching with Ms. Hartle’s own student teacher, Diane Schmidlin. (Why only a month? Read on) Today was a very easy day, to be honest, full of both struggling, agreeable learners, and at times more talented students that ironically dropout cases.
The last period of the day called me to room 305, which had been Ms. Barbers’ room, reassigned to a Latin teacher. As a video played, I thought back to the very infancy of my teaching that occurred in that very room…
I first arrived to Collinsville High School as the greenest of educators in the spring of 2011, just beginning a round of classroom observations. In late March, still merely an observer, I went to watch Ms. Barber, a 10-year veteran from New York state, and her junior class of lowest-level U.S. History. Within a few sessions, however, Ms. Barber suggested, “Why don’t you try teaching a lesson?” I jumped at the chance, agreeing, only a few moments later realizing it meant being from in front of dozens of eyes not just for ten minutes, but five hours! A part of me wanted to back out, but the subject matter, about the 1960s counterculture, was intriguing enough to belay my considerable fears. For more than a week I researched the era, reading The Sixties, and forming power-point presentation. Writing to Ms. Barber on April 13, it was coming together:
“I’m giving some thought to a counterculture lesson, and had some ideas. Over the weekend I had the idea of playing a few snippets of songs at the beginning, for which there wouldn’t be much context, then talk about the war, culture, generational divide, and assassinations, to conclude with playing the songs again. The students would be asked to put the songs into context with the information we had just covered, as well for the songs’ meanings have changed for them, an indication something has been learned.”
I gave my first lesson on April 19, commanding the entire hour as I took the kids from fearful, Cold War childhoods to anxious adolescence, being pulled apart by crises and responding not unlike the survivors of the Black Death. Looking back, the students did seem interested, but benefit of the topic, but also a energetic speaker. If only every day could be about nuclear annihilation, protest rock, and mushrooms. Ms. Barber took time afterwards to relate how impresses she was, but also to tell her tired future student teacher that such a pace could not be maintained.
I heard nothing from Ms. Barber throughout the summer as I tried to guess at what a high school syllabus might entail. Fast forward to August. On the Friday before classes, I brought in all the necessary supplies, books, and decorations any teacher needs to enlighten young minds. Abraham Lincoln and Italian Yellow Submarine posters, postcards of art, and a “Dewey Defeats Truman” coaster? Check. I didn’t have a clue, though, of what Ms. Barber waited from me. She taught at an extremely basic level, full of cookie-cutter worksheets at a snail’s pace. Most lessons, the previous spring, had lasted 25-30 minutes. Here I came, primed of SIUE’s educational dictums to make every moment count and every student accountable. I wanted Socratic seating, which she relented to as an experiment.
The first week the classes discovered current events that had happened over the summer, and laboriously made 3-4 slides to explain their findings. I was brought from the bench the next Friday, in mid-August. We were starting with the American West, so I thought reading a daily section from the account of Red Cloud from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee could be thrilling primary example of Western life. Many were classy eyed at the end; after several slides in the dark most were down for the count. “You can’t have the lights out with nothing to do for them,” Ms. Barber cautioned. Yet I plowed through unknowingly, planning to touch on myth and geography as factors in lawlessness, opportunity, and death. “Just go by the textbook,” Ms. Babrer rejoined later. “Go page by page, talk about that.” So my lessons became drastically scaled back. But I still included a reading of O Pioneers! To dramatize frontier hardships and inexperience. Another day to turn the culture tables of Native American loss, I took down the American flag at the beginning of class: “This is longer yours. Home of the free and land of the brave? What does ever meaning? Pathetic. But don’t worry. I’m going to take care of you, give a new, better culture.” Freaked quite a few out what that performance. Then a lesson about the transcontinental Railroad, and the rise of barons. By this point in late August Sarah had fled, telling me the next day’s plans by phone. For a week we watched Into the West, the kids told to write ten (10) notes about anything they saw (“Whores were there” often made the students’ lists,unfortunately). From this they they were to write at least five journal entries of a five-paragraph letter home as either a minor or writer.
The morning of September 1st, Dr. Karidis came to my door in-between hours and said Ms. Barber had resigned. What did that mean? Would I be sent to another school—Edwardsville, two blocks from where I lived? They would get back to me. A few moments later it being my planning period, Dr. McClinton, my history adviser from SIUE dropped in. I was glad to see her, tell anyone the news. I was having Nicholas Navy flashbacks suddenly. At lunch a teacher I knew in passing asked if she could be my new cooperating teacher. It would mean teaching Civics, but I was excited my that, and happy to be taken in by a competent and organized teacher. And that’s how Ms. Kibler recruited me. Funny story, I was asked to meet for dinner that night, were I was unexpectedly told by a girl I had seen a handful of times that it just wasn’t going to work out. That’s right, get all the big rejection out of the way in a single day…