Being a First Year Teacher. Again — The Impossibility of Crisis Learning

Remember these? They pop up at the end of the essay. I just wanted a nice looking picture at the top.

Francesca was struggling. She didn’t know what to write for her identity poem. As a class, we had brainstormed, bounced ideas off of each other, and immersed ourselves in interesting mentor texts. We had rewritten lines we liked from other poems and built a bank of original phrases to use anytime we got stuck. We had even gone back through the Me Magazines we created in the beginning of the year to think about how we had changed (and stayed the same) since September.

After two weeks, my students were all eyeballs deep in various stages of drafting. Well, all students except for Francesca. None of the activities we had done had worked for her. She still hadn’t felt that spark. And when it comes to writing, you gotta feel that spark. The crackle of the synapses that tells us we’ve just stumbled onto something good. Something that might be able to lead us and our audience to some sort of new understanding.

Otherwise what’s the point, right?

As anyone who writes with even semi-regularity knows, those sparks of inspiration knock on the doors to our cerebellums regardless of whether or not we’re ready. And the best way to be ready to write is … to write. Write, write, write. Write through the muck. Write through the garbage. Push out those serpentine sentences whose truth can hopefully be revealed through later revision.

But if you’ve never been invested in writing, then why the hell would you do all that? If writing has only ever been something transactional done for a grade, then there’s scant reason to put some skin in the game and risk the vulnerability that’s so essential for poetry.

I knelt down beside Francesca and asked how it was going. She gave me a look that said, “You really need to ask?” I took a moment to rifle through all of our recent interactions for something, ANYTHING that I could isolate, pull out and show Francesca to remind her that what she has to say and who she is is valid and necessary in this space.

Suddenly my brain remembered something from the beginning of the unit. We were writing and talking about the assumptions people make about us. She wrote how her mature appearance made people treat her differently. From the male high school teachers at her brother’s school to her friends’ fathers, men were leering at her and pushing up on her.

This was the angle, I thought to myself. She had brought it up on two separate occasions so I knew the idea has some sticking power. Now I had to find the right combination of words to light up her eyes and pull her pencil towards the page.

All it took was a simple “remember a few days ago when you were writing about visiting your brother’s high school?” The pilot light behind the eyes flicked on. “Oh, yea!” she said, shifting in her seat and opening up a tiny bit. Something inside of me told me it was time to push.

“Didn’t you mention something about dudes DMing you with creepy stuff?”

“Oh, that,” her eyelids fluttered dismissively, “yeah. All the time,” she was starting to slide back.

“Well, I think we might be able to use those DMs. Do you have your phone on you?” I asked. Kids aren’t supposed to have their phones on them during the school day, but most of them do anyway.

She whispered it was in her locker and quickly hustled out of the room to retrieve it. A minute later she was back in her chair scrolling through the direct messages she regularly receives on social media.

“Hey, mama.”

“How old r u?”

“Hey cutie wyd?”

Her thumb flicked up, revealing a seemingly infinite parade of questionable subject lines.

“Do you want to see the kind of stuff they say?” she asked, “Here, let me find a good one …”

“NO! NO! That’s quite alright!” I interrupted with more force than I probably needed, “I think I’ve seen all I need!!”

I told her to use the titles and messages as inspiration. Maybe use them as first lines. Or as fuel to “talk back” to these people. I couldn’t hang around because other students in the class were beginning to get a little antsy, so I left her with the ideas hanging in the air.

The next day Francesca showed me what she had come up with. She took our idea of using DM titles and ran with it, weaving them in and out of each stanza. She even modified some of them, making complex authorial choices about what words worked best in each situation. Her final poem never moved much beyond that first draft, but that’s okay. For that moment, she was invested. Who knows what might grow from the seeds she planted that day.

This scene wouldn’t have happened online, and it wouldn’t have happened without months of in-person relationship building and years of experience. Francesca needed to see that I was on her side as a student and as a human being. Some kiddos grant us this kind of access immediately, while others need tangible and sustained proof that they can trust us first.

I put in serious work with Francesca. We’d talk about memes, Tik Toks, and fashion, but she had no interest in revealing her academic abilities. And anytime I did manage some sort of “break through” like the moment discussed above, it wasn’t as if everything was suddenly easy. She made me work for every assignment. The process improved me as a teacher while the product improved her as a learner.

The moment I just described took about five minutes. That’s it. Each 42 minute class period I teach is stuffed with these complex interactions that require me to survey everything I know about teaching and learning and then make a split second decision. This is one of the reasons why teaching is such a challenging task. Everything I do draws from everything else I’ve done, everything I know, and everything I want to do in the future.

There’s no way first year me could have pulled this off. Third year me would have given her too much freedom with the assignment and ended up with nothing. Five and seven year me would have stumbled at getting the right balance between when to push and when to back off. It took ten years’ of experience to help this single student navigate a single assignment.

Teaching and learning in the average public school carries certain expectations, attitudes, and behaviors. It means learning how to navigate schedules, arbitrary class times, electives, shifting responsibilities and expectations, meetings, guidance counselor sessions, and parent-teacher conferences. It means figuring out how to make sure every student has access to supplies and books. It means working with peers on a variety of activities that span multiple modalities. It means learning to read body language and tone and what it means when a student cuts his eyes or makes an inappropriate joke. It means IEPs and 504s and accommodations and least restrictive environments. A public school contains squadrons of folks on (roughly) the same page.

These things are the bread and butter of the brick and mortar school system. Each component tends to work only when it’s embedded within the right context. I need to be with students in some sort of routine physical and chronological space. This is the same space that fuels my lessons, that earthy and loamy ground teeming with contradictions and hopes and fears and false starts.

These skills don’t necessarily transfer to an online setting.

None of this necessarily transfers to an online setting.

This is why I’m so flummoxed with the distance learning roll-out. It’s like giving a professional football player one of those old Tiger handheld football games and asking them to win the Superbowl. I don’t know how to do any of this with buggy learning management systems and inequitable internet coverage. I can assign. I can monitor. I can wield these grossly flawed technologies to the best of my ability, but expecting anything of value to come out of these proceedings is misguided.

Now, I’m a good enough teacher. But when it comes to distance learning, I suuuuuck. It’s a completely different beast. What are the current debates? What are the different schools of thought? When and how am I supposed to learn all of these things? This new distance learning requires a completely different skill set than what I’ve spent the last decade cultivating. I feel like a first year teacher again.

I wrote this post as a way to “talk back” to all the posts I see on social media decrying teachers who aren’t doing enough. The ones like me who aren’t having midnight Zoom parties for seniors or driving around to social distance with their students or reading out loud to them on Facebook Live every night.

I’ll be ready in the fall. I mean, I’ll have to be. Distance learning will be a part of my new normal. But until then, grant me some grace and give me the space to bust my ass and learn everything I can.

Closer than you think.