Looking back to the first day of the year, when everything seemed perfect and bright, I remember one detail that now seems extremely important. As we shared stories and filled out forms and broke into groups for discussion, the students frequently chattered and whispered to one another. Not a lot, just a little, and mostly during transitions — toward the end of a three-minute think period, or between “Let’s return to our seats” and “Who has an answer she’d like to share?”
What sticks out is not the fact that they were talking; that’s pretty ubiquitous in a classroom full of fifteen-year-old girls. It’s the fact that it didn’t bother me. In fact, I viewed it with detached amusement, remembering the days when talking to my friends was so much more important than anything anyone else could possibly have to say. My father used to bellow in frustration, after I had occupied the phone all night: “You JUST saw her! And you’ll see her again tomorrow morning!”
“But daaaaad, that’s SCHOOL. We can’t talk at school!”
Chatter used to just slice right through the stitches that held my temper in place. But somehow, between last spring and this fall, it has ceased to matter to me: I accept it. It comes with the territory. I’m able to keep the atmosphere relaxed and open, but not chaotic; if it starts to get out of hand, I simply stop and wait, smiling, for the offenders to hear my silence and lapse into guilty submission. Or I make a joke that gets everyone laughing and the talkers start to wonder what they missed. I can’t explain it, but the thought of a class that’s visiting instead of learning doesn’t fill me with panic the way it once did.
I didn’t really realize this until I read the first chapter of Gregory Michie’s wonderful memoir, Holler if You Hear Me for my latest (and final!) grad course. The exchanges between him (white, rural, educated) and his students (black, urban, below grade level) are priceless, but what really pulled me in was this bit at the end:
Before I knew it, the quest for control became my primary focus. I began classifying days as good or bad solely in relation to how quiet and obedient the class had been. Other concerns, such as whether the kids had learned anything of value, lessened in importance. On the worst days, they didn’t matter at all.
It was an easy trap to fall into. I became so obsessed with establishing control in the classroom that once I did — fragile as that control seemed — I was afraid to let go. I began to feel that I always had to be the center of attention, the imparter of knowledge, the setter of agendas and boundaries. But […] it doesn’t have to be that way Letting go doesn’t have to mean a loss of control. It is possible — even desirable — to step aside and let the kids take control.
Stepping aside can be a difficult thing for a teacher. A few years back I was attempting to teach something at the blackboard of a tiny closed-sized classroom, and the kids weren’t getting it. I thought I was explaining things clearly, but they weren’t following me. I couldn’t understand why. Then Santiago, a kid who always sat in the farthest seat from me, said, “If you’d get outta the way so we could see what you’re doing, it might help.” I hadn’t realized it, but my body was partially blocking their view of the board. I moved over and things cleared up quite a bit. Sometimes that’s what being a teacher is: knowing when to crumple up your plans, get out of the way, and give the kids room to learn.
I wish I could have learned this on the first first day, but I’m glad I’m starting to learn it now.