I have been wanting to address an important part of my professional life on this blog, but I’ve never found the appropriate time to do so. I’ll get more into the details of how I transitioned into this career in another post. Today I want to talk to you all about my experience as a teacher in an inner-city school system.
“Being thrown to the wolves” was a term I constantly used to describe my early days of teaching. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I also knew that if these kids (ahem, high schoolers) smelled my fear, I was done for. These kids could smell fear from miles away. I just had to retain the power in my classroom. But doing that was going to be a little harder than I expected.
I taught music in an inner-city school system. That of Baltimore City, to be exact. I learned so many things my first year…both teaching semantics and interacting with students.
1. You NEED to have a sense of humor
Just make sure you understand your students before you attempt this. In Baltimore city, the typical poor student was not exposed to sarcasm. It took me a long time (and, unfortunately, a parent-teacher conference) to realize this.
Case in point, I made the mistake of calling a chatty pair of students ‘TweedleDee and TweedleDum’ in trying to stop their interruptions in class and continue with my lesson. They always finished each other’s sentences, but they also got carried away in teasing each other and causing mayhem. I didn’t know they’d never read or watched Alice in Wonderland, so what did they focus on? The dum part. Specifically, dumb, with a B. Not my best moment. But this kind of humor (especially when posted on the walls) they loved and it kept them in check:
I know when you’re texting in class.
Seriously, no one just looks at their crotch and smiles.
2. You will buy things your students need out of pocket
Well, at least it depends on the school or school system. An inner-city school system that is strapped for cash will most likely be unable to give you extras that more affluent schools have the means to buy. This was something no one told me.
What did I have to buy? Oh, things like copy paper, personal hygiene products, knickknacks as prizes for correct answers on test reviews, and pizza for after-school activities.
Why? One, because it just made my life easier. The school didn’t have money for it and it wasn’t worth the hassle. But most importantly, because my kids were poor. They couldn’t afford an after-school snack, or at least a nutritious one anyway. Soda and potato chips only did so much. I knew what their home lives looked like. Many went to bed hungry. Most came to school hungry. And hunger was directly related to behavioral issues in the classroom. Have you heard of hanger? Enough said.
3. You will need to teach your students basic skills outside of your field.
This one came as a shocker for me. I had to teach (get ready for this) FRACTIONS in my music classes. Also, how to read a clock. (I’m so glad digital clocks weren’t everywhere when I was in school).
In order to teach music theory, particularly how to read notated rhythms, I had to teach my students fractions. They did not understand why 1/8 was smaller than 1/4. The eight was bigger was how they reasoned. Did I mention I taught high school?
I had to teach them fractions using pizza.
Easy as pie. Right?
4. Be prepared to start from scratch…again and again.
During my teacher preparation, I was told to have a solid beginning-of-year (or semester) routine. Ha! I did have them. But sometimes I had to scrap them start from scratch. Some classes were unruly, and it honestly depended on the time of day. The before-lunch crowd was usually the worst because they were hangry. The after-lunch crowd came in second place on the rowdy scale because they replenished their energy.
Expecting students to adhere to rules is naive. It’s better to set them up for success by implementing routines. They like routines. YOU WILL LOVE ROUTINES. Just don’t be afraid to throw them all away and start over. Sometimes our ideas don’t pan out well, but when they do (and you’ll have to refresh their memory periodically) there’s nothing more satisfying.
5. If you don’t document it, it never happened.
Finally, something bloggers understand. If you don’t have proper documentation of an incident in your classroom (time, description, names, etc), it is difficult to resolve issues that require administrative support. With over 100 students you’ll be surprised at how quickly details slip your mind, no matter how young you are. It’s just too much to keep in your head. And if you’re not careful, mischievous students WILL find your notes and destroy them. Not like I’m speaking from experience or anything.
I used Jupiter Grades which was a GODSEND for this. It was an attendance book, grade book, and behavior log all rolled into one. All I needed to do was click on the students’ names and everything that I had documented would show up. And, if their parents signed up for it as well, they also got immediate alerts if their children were either late, absent or missed turning in an assignment. Priceless!
6. YOU are the reason students are failing.
Not really, but that’s what administrators, parents and students think. Not only is it unfair, but it’s also an unrealistic yet factual part of teaching. Everyone will point fingers at YOU for your students’ grades. Which is why you need to re-read #5 above.
If you document every single thing your students do, you cannot be held responsible for their grades. Documentation was my best friend when I was teaching. Sometimes I spent more time documenting things than anything else during my day, but it paid off. In a world where people love to place blame, nothing is more concrete than cold, hard evidence.
7. Teaching can be one of the most rewarding professions in the world.
Yes, it was HARD. It aged me far too early (and I have the greys to prove it). I was always tired. I always had a “You won’t believe what happened today…” story that would elicit, “Wow. I don’t know how you do it,” type of comments. But despite all of the lows of teaching inner-city students, it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life.
I know this is a very concise list of things new teachers aren’t told, but they are must-haves for a new teacher.
How about you? What did you learn in your profession that training didn’t prepare you for?
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