HEARD in the Classroom
Michael, 6th Grade Math/Science, 1st year teacher
On becoming a teacher:
I think it’s very natural to want to be a teacher when you’re a kid. It’s one of the main professions you’re exposed to. In 6th grade, I had a teacher who didn’t connect with the students and was very cruel.
He told my mom: ‘The reason why your son’s not doing well is because he has no friends.’ I believed him.
But looking back? No. There were a lot of other factors here. He needed to take his job seriously and really dig. Here’s a job that I revere and always have.
I thought this job deserves a lot more respect than it was given -- on the part of people and on the part of the teachers themselves to put in a lot more effort where it mattered.
And students, like myself who were quiet, were falling through the cracks.
Maybe if this teacher had made the investment, he might have caught the problem or encouraged something better. I felt being a teacher was worth an intense work ethic. And, over time, I figured out that’s where I wanted to spend my brain power.
On what keeps him up at night:
I really fear being the teacher I dread most -- the teacher who doesn’t put in the effort, leaves certain students out of the curriculum, lets some fall through the cracks. I want to be the best teacher I can.
I know how difficult the job is and that the work never ends. There’s always stuff to do, always things to consider, always things I can do better. But teaching is the one occupation I can do in the world that’s going to make the greatest impact.
If I was at an office making widgets, I wouldn’t be staying up late trying to get it right. There’s always the next day. When you’re in a classroom -- face to face with 30 students -- the job is more urgent. It’s more profound. And it’s more important that I do it correctly.
I have a lot of anxiousness, and it comes from this idea of performing. The bell rings at 7:56 a.m., and the students come in. That’s when the curtain opens on stage. The last scene is at 5th period. And that bell rings. Then I begin preparing for tomorrow’s episode.
The anxiety comes from wanting to keep the performance going -- keep the students interested, keep them hooked. I don’t want them to think of school as something they have to do, but want to do. I want to make sure they are buying in, they’re being heard, they’re invested in it -- because I’m invested in them.
I get anxious when I see a student struggling or when they say ‘I don’t like math,’ or worse, ‘I’m not a math person.’ I think I need to get in there and make a change. That’s my goal.
On powering through the fears:
I know I’m going to get better. Over the next year, it’ll get smoother. It’s very encouraging to know I won’t be anxious all the time. I won’t say "it’ll be easier" because it should never feel easy when you’re tackling this kind of a challenge. But I’ll be able to navigate the logistical stuff better, so I can focus more on helping students learn.
On creating a classroom culture:
For the first week, I asked students what kind of environment do they want and why. I created a [picture of] a big heart, and [wrote in] everything that made them feel safe and how they wanted to learn. And things that they don’t want in the classroom went outside the heart.
We kept coming back to it. Revised it. Showed it to other classes and found out what they had to say. Looked for commonalities. Looked for differences. Talked about why.
By the end, we didn’t have my rules, we had our rules. And if you disrespect those rules, you’re not just disrespecting me as the teacher, you’re disrespecting your peers. It’s a more democratic process. It’s more creative. It’s more collaborative. I have their buy in. I want to apply that approach to other content as well.
On who inspired him:
Mr. Ellis was my language arts teacher my senior year of high school. I give credit to him for planting the seed to teach and what I thought the job should look like.
Every other class, the teacher told us what was correct. And the best you could do is memorize that.
But every week, he’d introduce a controversial topic that rattled you. "You think you know how the world works? Let me throw this gray question out there, and you have to decide black or white." Kids were standing up and getting upset about physician-assisted suicide and how do we decide what crime is too heinous for a juvenile to be tried.
But his point was: You need to have evidence for your opinions. I’d walk away and feel ‘how did I learn so much and it didn’t feel like work?’ At the end, we had to write a paper. But I knew where I stood and could write and write and write.
I did an activity reminiscent of that with my class. I wanted them to understand claims, evidence and response. I told them the Earth was too polluted to live on and gave them two other planets we could colonize. They had to decide which planet. Our house was divided. They really got into it and debated back and forth. ‘We can’t live there because the reptiles are poisonous!’ ‘But there’s no water on that planet!'
They could have gone on forever.