Saturday, April 8, 2017

Don't Miss the Open Doors

I can't believe I only have four weeks left of my 12-week teaching assignment. What a roller coaster it has been. The highs are so high, and the lows... abysmal.

Although my freshmen have a staggering capacity for cooking up all manner of mischief, and some days they nearly drive me to drink, it's typically not their behavior that sometimes tempts me to go back to my old, cushy job. No, it's all the other stuff: the constant grind of prepping for two vastly different audiences (both in age and ability level), never catching up with grading, despairing of ever getting the stacks of graded essays filed in their portfolios, and playing Russian Roulette with printing last-minute copies on the two machines (shared by 120 teachers) that literally break two to three times per week, sometimes at the same time.

A wise teacher would plan out her lessons a month or six weeks in advance, and make her copies a week ahead of time, and file them neatly away using some brilliant organizational scheme that my mind can't even fathom. She would read and then reread a class novel before completing the NINE STEPS recommended for planning a meaningful thematic unit. She would then be able to use her planning period to catch up on grading and parent correspondence rather than sprinting to the copy room and praying that the line for the one working copier wouldn't be too long to get those copies printed before 6th period.

I bet she wouldn't forget to eat the breakfast that she'd hidden in the microwave to keep CiCi from eating it while it was cooling, and thus she wouldn't be cranky and jittery all morning, wondering why her breakfast didn't stick with her. And she certainly wouldn't have a rat's nest of papers stacked willy-nilly on her desk, with graded and ungraded and as-yet unassigned assignments mingling together along with half-eaten chocolate bars that she forgot to finish.

Most likely, she wouldn't hear the nagging whisper that grows to a deafening taunt at the end of a hard day: "You don't belong here. You're not cut out for this."

That's the voice I've been hearing, and often agreeing with. In my heart, I know those are lies, yet the mounting evidence of my failures stack up like the papers on my desk.

I thank God that He has not left me alone in this mess. I have many loved ones praying for me and lifting me up, and teachers whom I've just met keep encouraging me not to give up.

When I'm talking to my mentor, Bing, the truth always comes back into focus. "Where do you find your identity, Sarah?" she asks. "Is it in your success or failure as a teacher?"

Last Friday after school, I cried on Bing's shoulder because my 7th-period class had been completely derailed after a student--I'm quite sure it was L, though I have no proof--hid another student's phone in the ceiling tiles. "I had no idea what to do," I sniffed. "Nothing could prepare me for that kind of drama. Half the class was hunting for the phone all period, and the other half couldn't concentrate even though-"

I broke into fresh sobs. When I could speak again, I continued. "I was so looking forward to rewarding them with their Preferred Activity Time. I spent hours making that Jeopardy review game, and I pictured them having a blast because they're so competitive. But it was all ruined. Over a cell phone. I am SO SICK of cell phones!"

Bing listened patiently and handed me tissues at intervals.

"So you see, I'm really not cut out for this," I concluded. "I feel like I don't have any wisdom."

She laughed softly and smiled affectionately. "Sarah, no one is cut out for this job. It's really tough. No one knows how to deal with all the crazy things that come up."

I hiccupped on a sob.

"Tell me," she went on. "Are you qualified for this job? Do you have the education?"


"Do you have the skills?"

The corners of my mouth curved up. "Yes. I'm great at teaching."

"Did God call you to this?"

I nodded. "Yes, I know He did. And yes, I know: He will equip me."

"Absolutely. So don't listen to the enemy's lies. The enemy doesn't want you to stay. He doesn't want you to change these kids' lives."

I drew in a deep breath. "I can love these kids," I said with growing conviction.

"Would you like to pray?" she asked.

I nodded. And then I prayed fervently for myself. I don't remember what I prayed, but I remember that it poured forth from the deepest part of me--"deep calling to deep."

The next morning, after a beautiful sleep, I realized something. That seventh-period class had not been the total disaster I'd perceived it to be. Yes, four or five kids created a disruption that lasted for 45 minutes, and yes, B climbed on a table to retrieve his phone after I'd expressly forbidden him to do so. But the other 23 kids had done exactly what I'd been asking them to do: they did not join in the talking and laughing, and they did try to stay on task despite the distractions.

The real issue had been my attitude. My disappointment over what I'd hoped to see had blinded me to the little victories that I wasn't looking for. Instead of commending my kids for trying mightily to do the right thing, I'd focused on the handful who were bent on doing the wrong thing. In truth, I'd behaved like a frustrated toddler.

Thinking about my attitude reminded me of an astonishing victory that had been unfolding over the course of weeks. One of my many favorite students is T, an impish boy with a perpetual grin that is half sly, half shy. Though he towers over me, I can see the little boy inside. He rarely participates in class, and virtually never does any written work. He's frequently out due to in-school suspension, and when he's here, he's usually talking over me while I'm trying to teach. Despite all of that, I have a very soft spot for T.

When I graded his benchmark essay, a timed expository writing prompt about the importance of taking risks, I was dumbfounded by an eloquent, passionately written paragraph about taking risks during a football game. Now, it was just a quarter of a page, and the thesis was missing, and there was no conclusion, but it was good stuff! I wrote a paragraph of my own in response, probably more than he'd written, and scored him a 1 out of a possible 4.

When I handed back the papers a few days later, I breathlessly called T aside. "T!" I exclaimed, gesturing to his masterpiece. "This is really good stuff."

"Really??" he asked.

"Yes. The reason it's so good is that you wrote about what you know, and you explained your example very thoroughly. Next time, you need to write a thesis that lists your main points, and you need to come up with two body paragraphs. If you do that, you could earn a 3. Whatever you do, keep writing about football if you can relate it to the prompt. Your passion really comes through when you write about football."

He shrugged and looked at the floor, but I could see the grin that spread across his face. He reminded me of a flower, turning his blossoming petals to the sun.

T's next timed essay was about two-thirds of a page, and it had a decent thesis and two good football analogies. I scored it a 2. Once again, I praised him lavishly--but quietly so as not to embarrass him. "You're a great writer, T!"

"I am??"

"Yes. I can't wait to see what you write next."

T's third timed essay, about the effect a person's attitude has on his life, was a full page and a solid 2.5. Amazingly, there was not one word about football. Instead, he thoroughly described the benefits of a good attitude and contrasted that with the detriments of a bad attitude. I was astonished at his expressiveness! More importantly, I was moved by his message: that a good attitude brings "open doors," while a bad attitude causes a person to miss the good things in life because "they separate there self from things and people."

When I handed back his paper, I could scarcely contain my excitement. "T!" I whispered. "This was a really excellent essay!"

He grinned.

"In fact, it was the best one... out of all my classes." [I didn't mention that I only have two freshmen classes.]

T's jaw literally dropped. "It was??"

"Yes! It was well organized, well elaborated, and... eloquent. You expressed yourself so clearly, and your message, what you said about open doors....  Well, it inspired me."

"Thanks, miss," he said sheepishly.

"Now, your grammar needs a little work. If you clean that up, I can see you getting a 3--or even a 4 if you use 'elevated language.' I'm so proud of you."

He shrugged, pivoted on his heel, and walked back to his desk, but not before I saw the smile that lit up his whole face.

The next day, I had a sacred echo during a Celebrate Recovery lesson. "Hope opens doors, but despair shuts them."

So here I am, caught between hope and despair on a daily basis. I could tell you perhaps a hundred stories of really amazing joys and victories, both small and big, moments that made my heart swell against my ribs. Still, all it takes is one flop of a lesson, or the anxiety of falling behind on my lesson plans, to make me feel like an impostor. When I feel that way, I hit my knees as soon as possible. I cry my eyes out, and then I pray for me, and for my students. And I tell the enemy that I am NOT giving up, because these kids are worth the struggles. And I ask God to help me learn every lesson that He has for me in this, just as He did when I went through my divorce. I ask Him not to let me miss a single open door.

I'll close with one more story, about my beloved 8th-period class, my last class of the day. We're down to just three students, and we've formed a special bond. For the last week or so, I've been teaching them to wonder. I explained that curiosity fires up the mind to receive knowledge, that when we think about what we already know and what we want to learn, our brain is primed to make new connections that turn into long-term memories.

At first they were very reticent; they said their minds are blank when they read. So one day, I read them a fascinating story about elephants' reaction to death. As I read, I paused after every sentence or so and told them what I was thinking. Example: "Why would the young male try to HAVE SEX with that dying elephant??" (That really got their attention.)

Over the course of two long paragraphs, I filled nearly two notebook pages with connections and questions and ponderings.

When I finally finished reading, M said, "Wow, miss! Do you really think all of that when you read?"

"Yes, I do." I gestured at the top of my skull with two pulsating hands. "When I read, my thoughts are firing back and forth like pinballs. But all of this happens almost instantaneously when I'm not saying my thoughts out loud or writing them down. Because you know, you can think much faster than you can read, or speak, or write."

All three of them nodded.

"When you read, there should be voices in your head that think about what you already know and what you want to know." I laced my fingers together. "When you make those kind of connections, your neurons will form physical connections. And you will form new memories."

The next day, it was their turn. We read more stories from the same book, this time about the grieving process for horses, dolphins, and chimpanzees. After every sentence or two, I'd ask them what they were wondering. They, too, filled up a page with musings.

"Notice that you don't always find the answers to your questions," I said. "That's okay. Just wondering about the new information helps you hold onto it. And if you really wonder about something, you can always research it. You can Google anything, right?"

Just before the bell rang, M asked something that made my heart sing. "What book did you get this out of? I'd like to borrow it so I can read more."

I held up a worn copy of When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals. "M, I'll be happy to let you borrow this when we're finished with it," I answered.

The next day, the three of them thoroughly enjoyed a lesson on very basic sentence structure: two-word sentences.

First, they each wrote a sentence, and we talked about how you know a group of words is a sentence. Here was R's sentence, with the verbs marked.

Next they copied sentences onto their personal whiteboards, marking the subjects and verbs. Then, they paired up words in an envelope to form a meaningful story made up of only two-word sentences. Finally, they wrote their own two-word sentence story.

"Can we write about anything?" asked M. "Maybe even something illegal?"

I narrowed my eyes at her. "Yes, as long as it's appropriate for school."

R started to snicker. He whispered something, and all three of them burst into laughter.

For the next 15 minutes, they literally put their heads together and composed a poem of sorts. Grinning at their excited laughter, I stepped in only a couple of times to remind them that each sentence must have a subject and a verb.

When I saw the final product, I ruefully informed them that I would not be posting their story on the wall next to the other classes' work.

"Awe, come on," said R. "No one will know what it means."

"Oh, I think they will," I replied. "I can't hang it up, but I'm still proud of you guys for working so hard and having so much fun while you were at it."

Here's what they wrote:
They wrote 8 sentences instead of the required 5.
That never happens!!

I know I need to be concerned over their apparent first-hand knowledge about hot boxes, and I'm still praying about what to say to them about that. But I can't help smiling. My remedial students were exercising their creativity, and they were having fun learning grammar. Not a bad day, in my book.

Yes, they are definitely worth it. And so are my 77 other kids. I think I'll stick around.

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