Chapter 4: First Impressions


I thought that this meeting would be about what we are doing as teachers. It turns out that it is about how little we actually know. I always assumed my teachers had their shit together and knew everything. When I went back to college to to become a teacher my fear was that I didn’t know enough so I started reading everything I could. I wanted to read all the books my kids would be reading, I wanted to know about the TV shows they watched, I wanted to know about them so I could answer all their questions. I turned myself into a teenager with all the media I was consuming.

When I finally started taking the classes on methods and teaching I learned that most teachers follow a formulaic script that they are expected to improve on to fi their style. I was let down big time. I thought that it was an art but it turned out that teaching was more theater than art. The instructors talked about how to improve and differentiate the material but I kept hearing scripts. I almost quit the teaching program right there. The only thing that stopped me was our first observation hours. I went to a school down the street from my condo and it was a beautiful well-funded school with happy children. There was just enough diversity that you didn’t have to feel ashamed and the parents all had perfect children.

The kids I met working at Clara Barton Middle School were all carbon copies of their parents. These kids had tutors, private lessons and parental support. When they asked questions they were wonderful and insightful. The teachers barely followed the script and I observed one enrichment lesson after another. The students had fun and wanted o be there. They each had their own computer and interacted seamlessly with it and the teacher. I was in love.

I knew that the instructors I had at my university were burnouts and hacks who just taught teaching classes to discourage future generations as a warning. Clara Barton Middle School was what I wanted to do. It was the future and it was my motivation.   I did all of my observation there and even managed to get my Student Teaching assignment there. It helped that I was dating the teacher who agreed to be my supervising teacher. I thought I was a lock for a job there because three teachers would be retiring this year. I was the perfect candidate for the position.

Good god this meeting room is hot. Why is everyone staring at me?

The woman who seems to be running the meeting asks me again, “Murray, you’re 8th grade right?”

This is the first I have heard about what I’ll be teaching. I respond, “It’s Murphy”

She glares daggers at me and asks, “You are the 8th Grade Language Arts Teacher right?”

“Sorry, yeah I am.” I shut up after that hoping she will explain what this all means to me. She doesn’t.

As the meeting progressed I realized that we didn’t have a script. In teaching terms this is not having a curriculum. The district had a curriculum for middle school language arts but that was something they bought 3 years ago and it was an expensive investment. This school being re-opened was an emergency response and put the district way over budget. We would not be getting a fancy script with reading materials and supplemental workbooks. We were doing this the old fashion way. We would be reading books in class sets and doing worksheets that were stolen from the Internet and any other free resources we could. The teachers around the table were divvying up the class sets of books and most of these sets were old when I was middle school. The Westing Game, Black Beauty and The Indian in the Cupboard were the ones I had heard of. Where was the Percy Jackson or Harry Potter? There was nothing that had been written in the last 20 years. The kids would not connect to any of this.

As soon as a decent book came up I tried to claim it. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is a bit easy for 8th graders but at least I could work with it. I was given a scowl of disapproval when I spoke up but at least I had a book. I had a direction.

I am an 8th grade teacher and my kids are going to be learning about how rough life was growing up on the streets. I think I can use this book to connect with the kids that will be here and I just might be able to salvage this year. At least this will look good on my resume for next year.

I head back to my room and start writing up a lesson for The Outsiders. I map it out to take most of the first quarter and after three hours of planning I stretch out and stand up. Just as I am shaking from the stretch and making a dumb yawning sound I turn to see Joyce standing in my door. She starts laughing as I try to straighten myself out and recover some cool. She has a giant roll roll of posters in her hands and brings them over to me.

She is still laughing when she says, “I thought you may need these. You didn’t sound like you had much in your room.” She is looking around as she says this and suddenly my row of books on the heater seems sad. She seems to think the same thing and adds, There are some posters I don’t have room for on my walls and even a few are for English class.”

“Language Arts.” I say a bit imperiously.

“Whatever, you know what I meant. Do you want to borrow these or not?” She huffs out at me.

Suddenly I feel like a jerk and stammer, “Yeah thanks. I just don’t like calling it English because it’s racist or something. I don’t know they always corrected me in school so I’ll just shut up now”

She laughs at me and unrolls the posters. We flip through a few o them and I cannot wait to get them up on the walls because they are really good. There is even a motivational cat poster. I feel like my room is complete having one of those. Joyce helps me get them up on the walls which required hunting down tape. I didn’t even think to buy wall gum or sticky strips. We eventually see a roll of tape hanging off the maintenance cart and we run off with it. When we get the last poster hung I turn to her and offer my thanks.

“Thank you for the save, my room looks like a real classroom now. It is still a bit empty but it is better than just the books I brought.”

She smiles, “You’re welcome. My boyfriend is happy that I finally got my stuff out of our apartment. Like I said, it was either here or taking them to my moms for storage. I’m kind of a hoarder when it comes to free school stuff. I knew I didn’t need ‘Language Arts’ posters but I got them at such a deal it was still worth it.”

She used air quotes when she said “Language Arts.”

She went on, “Anyway you’re the first person who has talked to me since I got here so you get to be my friend. Stop calling me Joyce, that is a grandma name. Most people call me Joy.”

I had to smile because Joyce was my Great Aunt’s name, my Grandmother’s sister.

“Well Joy, you can call me Scott. It is short for Scott.” This joke never fails to get a smile, she roller her eyes. “You are the second person I have met today and the first person who has not shouted at me so that makes you a friend as well.” I wanted to add that it was a shame to hear about her boyfriend but I kept that to myself. “If you ever need anything I can provide then let me know. I can analyze a book or give you financial advice. Other than those two things I seem to be rather useless.”

She kept smiling and asked, “What are you planning to do with the kids?”

“Since I am the 8th Grade Language Arts Teacher we will spend the first quarter looking at the fine work of S.E. Hinton and her coming of age tale, The Outsiders. I plan to inspire a new crop of readers with this great book and the story of how Miss Hinton wrote this while she was only 16.”

“I love that book.” She laughed and added, “You sound like you got your lesson plan from Wikipedia.”

I did.

She went on, “You should take a look at some of the lesson plans online and get a feel for what they do with this book. I can email you some links, what’s your email address?”

“I can give you my personal one, they don’t have the Internet up yet here and I have no idea what my school address will be. I just hope they don’t misspell it. Everyone keeps calling my Murray.”

Joy crinkles her brow and says, “Yeah I noticed that. Maybe they hired the wrong guy and you just don’t know it yet.”

I laugh because I have already wondered this, “If a Murray shows up here I’ll tell him where he got the posters.”

She takes off and I head home for the day. I don’t know how it happened but it is already 4:30. I skipped lunch and I grab some sushi on the way home. The commute is a bit killer to get back to the city but it is worth it. I get home after my first day of being a real teacher and I cannot stop smiling. I am a real teacher. I have a classroom, with borrowed posters. I have a curriculum, which I need to improve on. I have a cute girl named Joy who is my friend and she has a boyfriend she lives with. It is not the best start but at least nothing can take away my smile.

I plan on rereading The Outsiders tonight and getting a fresh jump on lesson planning tomorrow so it doesn’t sound like I ripped off Wikipedia any more.

I spend the next few days tracking down information and sitting through meetings that tell me nothing. I get a class list right before I leave on the last day before school starts. I have not talked to anyone else and that suits me just fine. My grandmother was a teacher and the only teaching advice she ever gave me was, “Stay out of the teachers lounge and stay out of the drama. It is the fastest way to make enemies of people you’ll have to work with everyday.” I have done my best to avoid drama and it seems to be working because there are cliques already forming.

I am ready for these students. I know my first day is going to be awesome and I know these kids are going to be rocked by how much fun Language Arts can be if you have a good book. This is going to be great.


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