When I left college, I had arranged a job as a computer tech at the school where I used to be a teaching assistant. When I went to talk to the HR director and finalize the details of the job, he noticed that I had worked for his township before and asked what I had been up to. I told him I had just graduated from college with a teaching degree. His eyes lit up, and he immediately asked me if I wanted a teaching job. Well, heck yes, I did! A 4th grade teacher had to take a medical leave and they needed someone to teach the rest of the year. I jumped at the chance!
I took the job while the kids were on their Christmas/New Year’s Day break, so I really didn’t have much time to prepare myself. The kids came back in early January, and I remember sitting in front of this group of kids who did NOT want to be their teacher. I had a discussion with them about who I was and why I was there. I vividly remember the looks on the kids’ faces as I scanned the room. Not one of them was smiling. Most had blank stares, but two girls, oh my, if looks could kill, I would have died right there! Things got better.
As I stated in my last blog, college really didn’t prepare me for the real world, and I was learning the hard way. I had lessons and standards that I had to teach, and because I was basically taught that everything should be a project, I wasn’t very good. What I was good at was making connections with the kids.
There was a rocking chair in the room, and at the end of every day, I would gather the kids around that rocking chair and tell stories from my life or read a book. This is something I did until my very last day of teaching. It was one of my favorite parts of the day. Anyway, about a week or two into the job, they were all sitting around me, and I began to tell them about my college experience. Specifically, how, my junior year, I had three aquariums, a rabbit, a guinea pig, a rat, and for a few weeks, two chickens in my apartment bedroom. The kids laughed at my story, and really seemed to enjoy it. As we lined up to leave one of the girls that gave me the death look wrote, “Mr. Garrett’s class rocks!” on the board. At that moment I smiled and said to myself, “I got ‘em!” That was an amazing feeling!
I began to talk to other teachers and learn from them. I observed how they handled kids in the hallway (My favorite teacher would always call on Jesus when she was in the hallway with them.), discuss with them how they taught certain subjects, and, most importantly, I listened to feedback from others. If they told me what I was doing wasn’t effective, I changed my ways. This method of learning served me well throughout my career. Lean on the ones who know more. Teaching is all about “stealing” good ideas.
I also had my first experience with schools not doing much with disruptive kids. A student came to my class a month or two after I had started. I was told that he may have been molested or exposed to pornography. I had sympathy for him, but I was constantly dealing with his disruptive behaviors that made it very difficult to teach the rest of the students. I was correcting him all day. Sometimes, I would yell at him just to get him to stop talking. He needed counseling, but the school had no such resources. The kids wrote in a journal every day, and I would check those journals before I went home. This kid did not leave his journal on his desk like he was supposed to. While looking through his journals to find the correct one, I found a picture of me getting shot in the face saying, “Oh shit!” Of course, I found this disturbing, but when I took the picture to the office, the principal said he couldn’t do anything because I had ripped the picture out of his notebook, so he couldn’t prove that it was his. Inaction like this became the standard the further I got into my career, and this kid continued to disrupt the class for the rest of my year.
Let me follow that with one more story. When I teach, I tend to move around the room. This makes the kids track me with their eyes, and I was told that helps them pay attention. I noticed that there was a young man making tally marks every time I walked past him, so, I began pace back and forth behind him. The tally marks came fast and furious. Finally, I stopped walking and just stood behind him. When he realized that I had stopped walking, he looked back at me, and I was standing there smiling. We had a good laugh about that. I loved doing stuff like that with my students, and it really helped me connect with them.
As the year came to an end, I found out that the school would not have a job for me during the next school year. When I went into the principal’s office to talk to him before leaving, he gave me a piece of advice. He said, “In the coming years teaching is all going to be about testing,” and I should gear my instruction towards preparing the students for the test. Those were some of the truest words ever spoken to me.