I had to say yes

So, for 7 years, i enjoyed middle school. I enjoyed the kids beyond imagination. Some were little, some were big, some were mature, some still young. I remember the first few days of each year and the ‘ roll call’.  Yes, back then, we had to do ‘ roll call’.  I called out the names of the kids on my roster so that I could see them personally. That was my connection. Back then, they were smaller classes of 20 or so. For the first few years, back when I was starting out, I had a classroom. Then, as the years passed, things changed and in the end, I was in a trailer. I stood at the front and called roll and the kids responded with ” Estoy aquí”.  So cute they were. I distinctly remember one name in particular. Now, remember, I am fluent in French and Spanish so pronunciation has never been a challenge. His name was Semaj.  I called his name with the emphasis on the last syllable as that is the rule in Spanish (I have no idea what it is in English!).  This young man stood up (being slightly vertically challenged, it was hard to determine that he was standing). He corrected my pronunciation and requested that I put emphasis on the FIRST syllable. SEmaj, he corrected and I obliged, of course.  I was very interested in this young man.

Later in the semester, I had the chance to meet his parents. I asked them about the origin of his name. Dad took a breath and began, ” Well, you see, his great grandfather was James, his grandfather was James, and I am James. We decided to break that cycle and named him Semaj, or James backwards.” WOW, I thought, that is a first. I came to adore Semaj. That was my last year in middle school.

I had begged for a high school position and given that the county was small, I was on a first name basis with the head of HR and the superintendant. It was nice to know such influential people. That year, the superintendant promised me a high school of my choice ( I already knew where I wanted to go) if I did him a favor. He wanted me to spend one year in a Title 1 elementary school teaching K-5 Spanish and travel to a middle school to teach sixth grade French. One year? I could do that! So, I said goodbye to my first school and moved into a new world. How could I say no?

That same year, I experienced many other things: students confiding to me about incest in their home, students confiding in me that they were offered drugs at the bus stop, a BEH student running out of my class into the guidance office and attacking a counselor with a golf club. You see, that school was a dumping ground for all special ed students in the county. It was quite unfair. That year, I tried to teach kindergartners Spanish when they couldn’t write their own name in English. I thought that the alphabet was a great place to start but what I didn’t know was they they didn’t know the alphabet in English. (Insert face into palm and shake) A few years later after I had moved on, the principal died at his desk of a heart attack. He was an amazing man, trying to save the world.

Marrington Elementary School honors December’s Virtue of the Month students. The program selects students from each classroom who best demonstratee the traits of the monthly virtue. For December, the virtue was generosity.

That year was memorable in so many ways-none of which were good. That year, I learned about something called ‘ irregular certification’. It was 1993. I was asked to get elementary certification on my license. So, I jumped through all the hoops, very proud of a video I made of my 4th graders showing their understanding and use of adjective agreement, colors, clothes and body parts. It was a cool lesson: I put in a big envelope some paper cutouts of basically Barbie doll clothes. Students came up, drew an article of colored clothing, and verbally spoke in the TL the item that they had drawn, the color, and where it is worn. For example, if student drew black pants, he would say, ” Tengo pantalones negros que llevo en las piernas.” I was so impressed! Nevertheless, I was not granted the certification.

During that year, my mother passed away and I went through a divorce all at the same time. I remember the office telling me that I had a call. It was my uncle telling me that my mom had gone into the hospital (she had Leukemia and liver cancer). He told me that this might be the last time I could see her and she may not come home. I remember vividly standing at my filing cabinet trying to figure out how I was going to make sub plans and for how long. You see, as all teachers know, teachers can’t just leave. If there is an emergency, we have to prepare unless we are blessed with colleagues who step in and help. My colleagues did just that as I was a ‘ special’ . They told me to just go and I did. My mother didn’t survive the night but luckily I was with her. I was only 29 years old.

Can you think of a time when you experienced an emergency at work and had to leave quickly, knowing that you would be gone for awhile? What did you do? How did you handle it?

I did finally make it to high school that following year. I’m glad I said ‘ yes’ to the Superintendant who asked me for a favor. I had so many experiences that I will never forget. These experiences made me who I am today. Next chapter is high school.

What a year: 2019-20!

Retirement is a beautiful thing: No worries, no deadlines, no early mornings, no conflicts. But, there is a bit of a budget restriction. When the last child headed off to college (number 5, I might add), it did pose a bit of a challenge. The bank statement did not show what we needed. In addition, I had been homeschooling and tutoring regularly (which I loved ) but I really missed the classes, the games, the interactions. I guess I could say that among many, I was a beloved teacher. That was a genuinely warm and gratifying feeling. I was appreciated for my efforts and valued for the care that I gave my students and their learning.

We downsized after the little one went to college. We built a house out in the country. I accepted a position in the next state in a brand new high school to teach again. I relished the idea but it scared the crap out of me at the same time. Would they like me? Could I still do it? Did I remember? It had to be like riding a bike, right? Next thing we knew, my son announced that he would be marrying in Scotland, of all places, on September first! Now, let’s think: We were moving in October, I was starting a new job in August, he was getting married in September….how was I going to survive all of this?

Well, looking back, it worked. I did have a 45 minute commute to my new school which really put a cramp in my pickleball playing ;). But, I enjoyed first semester tremendously. I must say that it took me quite a bit to ‘get back in the saddle’, shall we say. I had to remember the websites that I used to use, the tricks that I had up my sleeve , and how to interact with a classroom of kids again. It turned out that I had the best kids that you could ask for….it almost felt like they were hand-picked to help me acclimate again. I had left everything at my old school, never anticipating going back!

After that semester came a new set of students for second semester as we are on block scheduling. I was very nervous, but thanks to those kids first semester, I had regained my confidence. It was a very different group of kids and I was not quite prepared. But we were getting in to a groove when Covid-19 reared its ugly head. This was unprecedented as all schools in the nation closed (maybe the whole world). Online learning had begun without warning, without training. I thought I had it made as I love working online. There are endless resources for the kids!!

Fast forward to today, June, 2020. Looking back at those 3 months beginning in March, I have learned a great deal about change in climate. I am not referring to weather but rather school climate. I have to really change the way I think for the fall as things aren’t what they were for the last 13 years. It was a bit painful, to be honest. I wasn’t supported. As a matter of fact, some kids wanted me OUT. I’m not sure why, but it caused quite a few tears, I must say. I asked myself on many occasions, ‘Why did you go back?” , ” Is this what you expected? “, and most of all, ” What could you have done differently?”. Well, I have answered the last question and have decided that the first two are irrelevant.

Sometimes, we teachers operate too much from the heart. Is that possible? We forget that those ‘ out there’ also have a heart and we must put ourselves in their shoes. What are they going through? What troubles do they have and how can we make sure that we don’t push too hard. Yes, we want them to learn, but sometimes them learning our subject matter has to take a back seat to learning about relationships, life, organization, respect, planning for the future, and themselves.

I leave you with this question: Think of a time in your career when you had expectations but your time with students didn’t live up to that expectation. Why?

Oh, the stories I can tell

Middle school is such a trying time for everyone. Parents are at their wits end, teachers don’t know what to do to engage those changing bodies, and children suffer most: The acne, the hormones, the mood swings.

Well, little did I know what I was in for those first few months of teaching. I truly thought that I ‘ knew it all’  , that I could handle anything that came my way! But as you may or may not remember, I was replacing a very disgruntled teacher. It was my job to bring back structure (something that middle schoolers need and hate all at the same time).

So, it began. I had my seating charts, my lesson plans, my suits (from those banking days), and I was ready. I explained to the classes that I meant business. I was to teach and they were to learn! One of those first days, a student came into my class late. Back in those days, we had pink tardy slips for unexcused and white tardy slips for excused. I was right in the middle of a very important and engaging lesson, mind you, when he entered with his white slip. I took it from him and read the reason for tardiness: ” priming tobacco”.  Wait a minute, I thought! TOBACCO?? That little devil! Why was he given a WHITE slip?? So, as anyone would do, I asked him! ” Peter, why are you given a white slip for priming tobacco? Don’t you know that it’s bad for you?”  The entire class broke into laughter and I couldn’t understand why!

” Mrs. Young, do you actually know what priming tobacco is?”  he asked genuinely? I wasn’t keen on a middle schooler taking the upper hand. I looked at the class and a sheepish grin spread onto each face. Maybe I didn’t know after all. ” Why don’t you tell me, Peter?”, I responded. And tell me he did.

Peter educated me that day on something about which I knew nothing: tobacco farming. We were after all in rural North Carolina. I listened intently as he explained what he and his family did every fall. I learned a lot. I apologized to Peter and told the class, ” Well, now you know that sometimes, you embrace the teachable moment.”  I have stuck by that ever since.

The year went on and I grew as a teacher. I began to realize that not only was I teaching them but they were teaching me as well. With that attitude, I began to fall in love with teaching. I made so many close friendships those first few years and to this day, treasure the photographs and notes of students from 32 years ago, often searching for them on Facebook and wondering where they are today.

Another beginning but without me

This fall will be the first time in 32 years that I have not gone to school early – well before the day that teachers are to report- to set up my ‘home away from home’. We all spend more time in our classrooms than we do in our homes during the school year! I must admit that I have mixed feelings. I am very happy NOT to have to give up my free time to return to a very demanding job that keeps me under fluorescent lights for at least 10 hours a day, yet I am sad not to be catching up with everyone: parents, kids, teachers. I am a social person by nature (aren’t all teachers?) and love the interactions that I had each day. So, I will be thinking of my colleagues, former students, and of course my friends who still have school age kids starting back this fall.

So, what is it like to begin a school year? Well, you happened to come to the right place. Let’s start with those non-required days….even before the non-required teacher workdays. Many teachers, the driven ones, will check in frequently all summer just to keep their pulse on things. I did for many many years. As I got older, well into the 25 year mark, I began to stay away from school longer and longer each summer. (The last year, I never set foot at school until I started back to decorate my room).

My husband and children would go in with me about 13 days prior to the day that the students began. This was generally 3 days prior to the non-required workday start. This allowed me to do all that I wanted to do in my classroom. As a high school teacher of Spanish, I put a lot of money, time, creativity, and energy into making my classroom comfortable, functional, and interesting. It had to ‘teach’. I wanted my kids to enjoy coming to my room and I wanted to have everything that I needed to teach (well beyond a curriculum) easily.

We unloaded crates into the classroom from my car first. These were my personal items: Photographs, handcrafted items from around the Spanish-speaking world, and items that had to be cleaned at the end of the previous school year. Once those materials were in the classroom , I could begin bringing out of storage all the materials, furniture, boxes, files, books, and decorations that I had stored just a few months prior at the end of the school year. (The custodians required us to empty our rooms as each summer, they meticulously cleaned the school from top to bottom and waxed the floors.) My husband would screw things tighter that had gotten loose (stool and desk chair), and my son and I would work on putting the furniture (bookshelves, teacher desk, filing cabinets, and students desks) all in their proper placement for that school year. Periodically, I would change up the configuration depending on class size, levels that I was teaching, etc. This all would take a full day.

Next came the books and decorations. I would unpack each of the book boxes and determine how I wanted them to be placed that year (readers, textbooks, workbooks, ancillaries, games, magazines, newspapers, and realia). I would place my mexican blanket neatly over the top of my filing cabinets and place the classroom phone , a lamp, and a calendar on top. (That special frog calendar from Salamanca, Spain disappeared a few years ago. I hope that whoever decided to take it enjoys it. I sure did…)

One year, I had the coolest setup. It was the last year that I taught all upper levels Spanish 4, 5, AP, and IB juniors and seniors. I had a reading niche in the back of my classroom next to a bookshelf. I bought a carpet, a cool bucket chair (like you would have in a dorm) and had the readers, newspapers, and games all back there. The kids loved it!! The following year, I chose to drop back down to level 1 as I couldn’t handle the complexity of the lesson plans, the multiple levels, and being department chair. It was just too much. This change required me to get rid of the chair and carpet. The niche had to go. There were 39 kids in my class that semester.

Lastly were the walls. Lovingly, I placed the posters, the sayings, the photos, and the realia all around the room to ensure learning and interest. Geeee, my last semester, I had the coolest door. It was a QR code reader door that featured some of my favorite musical artists from around the Spanish speaking world. If the kids would take their QR Code reader and light on the codes on the door, they could hear a clip from that artist. ON the door, they could see the artist, his hometown, and read a short bio. Man, it was awesome!!

Once the decorations were finished, the next thing was my desk and work area. I had to have what I needed at my fingertips. Organization was key and I was a bit fanatical about it. My drawers had to have what I and my students would need: bandaids, first aid cream, lint roller, contact solution, snacks, thank you cards plus all the normal teacher things like paper clips and pens.

Lastly, I cleaned. I scrubbed my student desks, cleaned my white board, dusted everything, and set up my little plug in to make the room smell fresh. (We must be very careful what we use as students have all kinds of allergies).

The last thing we did was stand at the door, gaze upon this perfectly prepared, clean and organized masterpiece as it would never look like this again until exactly 365 days later. Happily, as the sun set outside in the parking lot, I would shut off the light and close the door, ensuring that it was locked. I was ready (or was I?) to start another year. That night, I would take home my clean grade book with my rosters and I would set up a temporary grade book to last me 5 days until the drop/add period was over. Then, I would again take home my new rosters and excitedly set up my new grade book with all my students and their new Spanish names. Yes, this is the longest post yet. I enjoyed every minute of those opening days to myself.

The next days brought meetings, department gatherings, luncheons, student orientations, and stress as we began to prepare for students. Did you know that all this went on behind the scenes?

So now what?

Yes, I had agreed to begin a job (which turned into my career) about which I knew absolutely nothing. I had no experience with middle school age kids. All I knew was that I loved teaching people things-especially Spanish and French- and I was a professional. So, that Monday, I put on my pretty gray Dress Barn suit and headed down the road to my first day on the job. As I was driving down the main road behind a school bus, I looked up and was being MOONED by a male student at the back of the bus! I was completely incensed! I had been working with adults for two years and this made no sense to me. How dare he!! LOL. Looking back, it’s absolutely hilarious, but OH, I was not laughing.

I entered the building to find the principal in his office an immediately conveyed my dismay with him over this annoying incident. He offered his regrets and we moved on to take a tour of the building and learn where my classroom would be. As we wandered down the hall, I noticed how little the kids were- thank goodness as I am vertically challenged myself!

Honestly, I don’t remember too much more about that day 32 years ago.  It was April 1, April Fool’s Day. That right there is coincidental, don’t you think? But I remember the excitement that I would be in charge finally and no one could tell me what to do….foreshadowing. The previous teacher had left with no warning (hmmm, do you see a pattern here?) and left the kids in a complete tizzy. She had apparently been upset and disillusioned with her job for awhile as I later learned. All the kids had As for just showing up to class. This was a sign (that I didn’t initially recognize) of things to come…..

What do you think I was walking in to? Can you predict some challenges that I was facing? Why did no one tell me? What would you do if you met me in your school?

How it all started

It was 1987 and I was stuck in a job that my father made me take-working in a bank and training to be a loan officer. My sisters were teachers and dad just didn’t want to deal with a poor child anymore. He wanted me to ‘ be someone’ , he said.

One day before my senior year in high school, he asked me at the table, ‘ So, Alice, what do you want to do after college?”. I always knew. I had my chalkboard in the basement and my stuffed animal ‘students’  lined up in chairs. I taught them all the lessons that I learned in school, particularly the ones in Spanish and French. “Dad, I want to teach languages”, I replied. His brow furrowed and the speech began. He tossed the Wall Street Journal at me and said, “Here. Begin reading. You will major in business and you will make money. Case closed.” Well, there you have it. The roadmap was created and I began the trip to college.

I majored in Economics-Management and received Honors in Spanish. It was a small liberal arts school and in 1985, that was the best that I could do. I did have to relinquish hopes of including French in my major, but I continued to use it and practice. I took courses around the state at local universities to challenge myself and beef up my course load, but in the end, it was a very dry business degree and not anything to write home about. But, Dad was happy.

After an internship and job shadowing at the big bank in town, along with the strings pulled my dear old Dad, I landed my first job at Wachovia Bank and Trust in Winston-Salem, NC. I was accepted in to the General Management Training program along with 20 other graduates. We were the cream of the crop and being trained to take on high management positions in various areas throughout the corporate side of the bank. All I knew was that I wanted to be in International for obvious reasons. I had become fluent in Spanish and French and didn’t want to lose my skills or passion for the languages and cultures.

Well, friends, the job didn’t go as planned. Dreams of big desks, a secretary at my disposal, traveling throughout Latin America to handle the big accounts was just that- dreams. I was out of my league. I was competing for positions against graduates from Wharton School of Business, UVA Business School, and Wake Forest MBAs, and here I was with my little liberal arts degree. I ended up in a little known area of the bank known as Asset Based lending (later dissolved) where I was responsible for traveling locally to small owned businesses to assess their debits and credits. It wasn’t working for me at all.

So, back to the beginning. It was the end of March and it was a Friday. I was in my beautiful corner office staring out the window and made that one phonecall that turned my life upside down in the best way possible. I phoned the local school system, spoke to a man in Human Resources, and asked if they had any job openings for teachers of Spanish and French. Mind you, I had never had any teaching courses, no practice teaching, had no idea what it meant to be a teacher except that I could explain things to people that allows resulted in a clear understanding. I wasn’t worried about discipline of children as my father was a West Point graduate. I knew how to be strict! I knew that I could do this! ” When can you start?” , Mr. Lee asked. ” How does Monday sound?”, I naively replied. I had no idea what a two -week notice for resignation was nor how to handle it. Therefore, I accepted the position, was told to report to a Middle School on Monday morning to meet the principal, and that I would be teaching Spanish, French, and Health.

Now, excited, scared, and a bit lost, I walked down the hall to speak to my boss. I entered into his office and simply told him that I was quitting as I was to start a new job on Monday. The suprise on those big bushy eyebrows was followed by a warm smile, unexpectedly. “I know that you haven’t been happy for awhile. I understand and wish you luck. Next time, Alice, remember that you have to give more notice. But, thank you for letting me know.”  I was lucky. I packed up my few things and headed home to tell my husband.