I wouldn’t say the last year has been the ideal experience of a new teacher, but it has certainly shown me a diverse population of students, given me the chance to try different techniques, and taught me more than anything else to roll with the punches.
I started this 2009-2010 school year as a student teacher in Virginia Beach working with ninth graders in a Global Studies and Foreign Languages Academy program at Tallwood High School. They gave me the chance to cut my teeth with them on challenging world literature. We slogged through Tu Fu and Jorge Borges together and came out on the other side feeling pretty damn proud of ourselves. But like all things, my time with them came to an end in December along with my teaching certification program.
It was time for me to move on to something new, but what? It was the middle of the year and school systems were cutting positions not hiring. I decided to fall back on my freelance writing and editing work and hope for substituting gigs. Little did I know that another door was opening just as I was getting into a routine.
Along came the sixth graders at Ruffner Middle School’s Young Scholars program, a gifted education program in Norfolk. It was an amazing, long-term substitute opportunity and I snatched it up. I taught reading, writing, and early American history to 38 children that renewed my optimism and excitement about teaching even as they challenged my remaining threads of patience. They were so curious and opinionated and intelligent and they really had no idea of any of it. I went into the job thinking it would renew my feelings about the age group I wanted to teach, but instead they opened my mind and had me thinking “Sixth grade is pretty great. I wouldn’t mind doing this for a while.” I feared teaching history. I love history and enjoy consuming it on my own, but I’d never considered myself a history teacher until this job. Now I have a history endorsement on that list of goals in the back of my mind along with those other lofty ones (master’s degree, publishing articles, etc.). I’d planed to teach the sixth graders as long as the school would have me, but Virginia Beach called again and wanted to interview me for a full-time, contract position teaching core 11th graders. I got the job and it was time to move on again.
One of my sixth graders warned me “You think we’re crazy, Ms. Worrell? You’re gonna miss us once you get with those 11th graders!” I laughed it off. I wanted to teach high school and this was my chance to work with yet another age group and learn more about my strengths and weaknesses. But in that first week my little sixth grader’s ominous warning echoed in my mind. I felt I’d been thrown into a lion’s den of hormonal teenagers ready to claw their way through me to get out of high school. Gone was the feeling of being a learner alongside them. They saw me as an adversary and I wasn’t sure how to reach them – or if I even could. It was a Herculean struggle, but I’m happy to report that I have come out on the other side learning more than I ever thought I would in a contract only three months long. The eleventh graders (the large majority of them boys) taught me so much about classroom management and patience that I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I taught The Great Gatsby, a book I myself hated in eleventh grade, and learned to love it. Even more exciting – I watched students learn to love it. I didn’t have my own classroom, so I was forced to drag a cart around between rooms and classes, teaching me the value of obsessive organization. Along with my four blocks of eleventh grade, I also had a block of core ninth graders whom I taught The Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet - stories I knew but had never really given close scrutiny.
And more than anything, my experience with my first contract position gave me a taste of what I really want in an English department – co-workers that are great friends and colleagues depending on what the situation demands. The English department at Green Run High School is a motley crew of large-hearted, loving teachers that want nothing more than to see one another succeed. If there ever was tension among teachers in that department, I never noticed it. I felt I could approach any teacher with advice on lesson plans or for ideas on teaching a certain story or book. It’s a supportive and collaborative department and I’m sad I’m not going to be there next year. I have never laughed so much at work.
I’m starting another chapter in this whirlwind year, but I’m hoping to settle down with a teaching position where I can teach students from beginning to end, on my own. I’m moving to The Netherlands in July to pursue a career abroad and to expand my experiences in an international environment. I’m excited about teaching students from a completely different culture than my own and watching those same light bulbs go on in their minds. I’ve daydreamed about what it would be like to teach The Great Gatsby to a group of non-American teenagers and to make connections about the American Dream to their own dreams – are we that different?
So, I’m off again to search for a teaching job – this time in a country not my own. I’m hopeful and optimistic and just as inspired as when I started.
Tags: 11th grade, 6th grade, 9th grade, careers, English, gifted, high school, job search, Language Arts, middle school, Netherlands, teaching 1 Comment »