For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been supply teaching at a local middle school (which is why I haven’t been blogging). My professional certification is in reading and Language Arts, but the position I took was in science, so I was a little apprehensive at first. On one hand, I knew that science (even sixth grade science) was not a content area in which I felt confident. On the other hand, I needed a job. Financial anxiety won out over content anxiety and I agreed to take the opportunity. I’m happy to report that all has gone well so far, and the time in science has given me a lot to think about in terms of what makes a successful teacher.
My first week was a little rough. The same sub had been working in the classroom for the week before I started. She knew all the students’ names, knew their behaviors, knew their needs, knew how to act and react to keep them in line. I didn’t have any of this prior knowledge. A number of students vocalized (frequently) that they were not happy with the change, and that they wanted the substitute to stay on until the “real” teacher returned (she has been out on maternity leave). Other students were more understanding, and a few were even a little excited to have me take over the class. Regardless, it was a mixed bag of emotions, and all the changes that were taking place in the class (I was actually the second supply teacher that had come in, with a couple of substitutes in between) had made the students and parents a little anxious.
My first day in, as I always do, I gave a little presentation on myself. The presentation is done in PowerPoint, but it’s not a standard presentation: there are few words, lots of pictures, a little bit of humor, and the whole thing moves really quickly. The students were immediately engaged in my spiel, so I was able to give them a lot of information about myself, but I was also able to lay down some ground rules and expectations while I had their attention. I also sent home a letter to parents that first day. I apologized for all the changes in the class, and I assured parents that I would be in for the remainder of the teacher’s absence. The letter included my email address and a request for theirs – just as a means of communication.
After my presentation, I tried to dive right into our unit (which happened to be on ‘oceans’ – see the pun there?). I brought in some outside infographics, a couple of little videos, and news stories during my first week. I wanted to show the students some real world application of our studies. Mixed up in the outside, contextual stuff, I gave the students notes and worksheets to reinforce the lessons.
By the end of my first week, I was feeling pretty on top of things. I had everything planned out for the rest of the unit, and I was gaining a lot of confidence in my knowledge of sixth grade science. The Friday of my first week, my co-teacher (she’s in the room with me for my second, third, and fourth period classes) asked me a question that terrified me. After our fourth period class had left, she looked at me with a sort of wince – almost disgusted – and asked, “Are you always like that?”
My jaw dropped. I didn’t know what to say. I was so sure that she was going to rail on me for my failure to teach well, or my stupid mannerisms, or the way I managed (read: mismanaged) my classes. I cautiously replied, “Like what?” expecting the worst.
“I don’t know,” she said. “You’re just so…” she paused, her face contorting into that disgusted wince again, “…so…energetic.”
I always try to bring some energy into the classroom because I know the students will react to my demeanor. When I’m quiet and serious, I find that they get quieter; conversely, when I’m loud and excited, they’re usually excited and loud (but they’re focused on what I’m saying). So I told her yes, I’m always that excited, or at least I try to be. Plus, I’m still new to the game. Teaching still fascinates and excites me. I don’t know if I’ll be this excited after I’ve been teaching for ten or fifteen years, so I may as well enjoy it now. The question also made me realize that passion for teaching and passion for a content area are two different things.
I love teaching English because I think I’m good at it. All my best ideas are English-related. All my teaching “epiphanies” are related to language or grammar or reading or writing. My passion for teaching, however, supersedes my passion for English. The “high” from teaching doesn’t come from the subject; it comes from finding creative ways to share and spread knowledge among my students. It comes from generating interest or excitement where previously there was boredom or apathy. It doesn’t matter if the interest generated is about Huckleberry Finn or how salt affects the density of fresh water; the important thing for me is bringing the knowledge to the student on his or her level, and seeing that moment of understanding in a student’s face when everything finally makes sense.
Right after my first week teaching science, a Language Arts teacher in my school approached me. She was going out for a few weeks and needed a supply teacher. She asked if I’d apply. The transition would have been easy. Just like the supply teacher before me, I could have simply moved into a new position teaching the content that I knew and loved.
I said ‘no’.
I made a commitment to my students. I made a commitment to their parents. I made a pact with myself that what I wanted to do with my life was “teach”, not “teach only English”. Every opportunity presents a chance to learn something new. Next up for my students and me: meteorology.