Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It's June!

"How old are you?" asked  Sakiah.
"In human years, or teacher years?" Miss Pointy answered, and then quickly called on someone else.
You did it!  Or you are about to do it.  Maybe you finished your first year of teaching.  Maybe you graduated and about to embark on your classroom--or job search--adventure. Congratulations!  Whatever the case, we are older and wiser, or at least older.  I think back to when I was starting out.  So many fellow students complaining about the content of our education classes, "how is this useful?"  So many new teachers marveling in the classroom, "they never told me it would be like this."  There was an interesting Op-Ed in the New York Times recently about the dangers of assessing teacher performance through student evaluation.  New teachers have a unique perspective, I think, recently having been students but having a special empathy for the educator's role.  After your experience and the chance to gain some perspective, what turned out to be more valuable in your preparation than you ever expected?  What do you wish someone would have told you?

I know there were many things I didn't fully appreciate until I got into the classroom, such as the  value of theory in the context of classroom management, the power of keeping a journal as a way to reflect on practice, the generosity of mentors and teaching veterans, and how important it is to keep loose change in the desk drawer in case kids come up short for lunch money.  But here's what I was most glad to learn and know:  If you want kids to respect you and pay attention, you don't have to be nice all the time, but you do have to be interesting.  You have to have something that they want: knowledge, ability, elegance.  Sure, candy in a drawer is nice, too, but they get their fill of that a lot faster.

Stampede!: Poems to Celebrate the Wild Side of SchoolTo that end, what prepared me more than anything else for teaching in the elementary classroom were the years I spent as a children's bookseller.  I was well-acquainted with the nonfiction section, and was well versed in the solar system, the explorers, care of small animals, history, holidays around the world, how to make paper mache paste...important things that allowed me to answer questions and enrich content. At the stores, I learned how to read aloud, tell a story, choose books appropriately for individuals, sell a book to someone who didn't realize they needed one.  I came into the classroom with an arsenal of stories that I knew with an almost religious conviction that the children would love and from which they would learn, that I could give them like gifts every day. For myself, in these books I always had at hand reminders of what it was like to be a child, in case being on the grown-up side of the desk clouded my judgment.  I was never at the mercy of mandated curriculum; I could modify my instruction to meet the needs of the kids in front of me and still meet goals, because my cupboard was full.  I marvel at teachers who hazard to enter the classroom without this freedom. I have said it before and will always say it:  sending a teacher into a classroom without a knowledge of children's literature is like sending a plumber into the bathroom without a wrench. 

But not everybody can work in a bookstore. Children's literature courses are largely undervalued in too many teacher preparatory programs.  And with scripted curriculum, standardized testing, corporate influence and mandates that require robotic everybody-do-everything-at-the-same-time malarky, it almost seems like a moot point to learn what to bring in from the world, because there never seems like there will be time in the day to share. But this summer, read all you can from the shelves of children's literature anyway.  Universities will never supply you with enough knock-knock jokes, spooky stories or science experiments to do the damn job right.  Hold tight to the dream that the day will dawn again when teachers (and students!) can give the best of themselves and what they know about the world in their classrooms, because one of two things are bound to happen: either that day will dawn, or people who are truly accountable, not to scores but to children, will reinvent contexts that will allow it to be.  What an exciting time!
Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art
As a teacher, what did you learn this year?  As you relax on the beach with a slushy beverage that contains a paper umbrella, please take a moment to enlighten, celebrate or vent in the comment section below; one reachable person will be chosen at random at the end of the month to receive a copy of one of my favorite books, ARTIST TO ARTIST from the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.