Long Distance Mentoring

Sometime in the spring I started reading a blog called Not Living on Ramen, authored by physics major E.C. who writes about personal finance, mostly. I don’t know how I found this blog, but one of the first posts I read was about E.C.’s plan to do some teaching before going back to school for a Ph.D. So I kept reading the blog.

E.C. has graduated and joined up with Teach for America, and is teaching summer school in Texas before moving on to a position in the Mississippi delta. The last blog post has taken me back to my first teaching experiences, not as a student teacher, but as a real teacher.

I graduated from college with a teaching certificate, a physics degree, and a pile of resumés and letters of recommendation. I didn’t find a job. After the summer job that I did manage to find, I moved in with my boyfriend in a city I didn’t know, and tried to find work. I substituted sporadically in various schools until my boyfriend dumped me. After living with my parents for a few weeks, I moved back to the place I knew the most people and mooched off friends until I could get work. Thank you for your generosity, friends! I had less than $100 to my name, over $10,000 in student loan debt, and I was scared.

I got hired two places: an orthodox Jewish school, where I taught Conceptual Physics and ChemCom (Chemistry in the Community) to small classes of all girls four days a week starting in January, and an urban, comprehensive public school where I taught chemistry and 9th grade physical science starting in February.

The orthodox Jewish school was fine. The girls were nice, happy to teach me a few words of Hebrew and explain about davening, and we had an extra-long Passover vacation. But every morning at the urban school, I felt sick to my stomach. I had no idea what I was supposed to be teaching in the chemistry curriculum, the kids had been “taught” by daily substitutes starting in October when the previous teacher left for a suburban school (the bureaucracy of the city system made it impossible for them to hire me starting in December, even though they needed a teacher and I was available), and on my first day there not only did I burn out my car battery by having left the lights on, I couldn’t get to my car right after school because there was a large brawl in the street outside the school.

My 9th graders that semester figured they didn’t have to do anything to pass, since they hadn’t had to do anything for months and were still passing. Several needed medication for ADHD but weren’t taking it, and one sly girl pulled the alarm on my first day so that ever after, if I had an emergency in the room an needed help, nobody would come because they would assume it was another case of me being hoodwinked by students. The chemistry students were mostly immigrants from a variety of Asian countries, some of them working in factories at night and attending school during the day. Two Chinese boys kept that class under control for me—the science department chair told me that when they were freshmen those boys had left school and walked over to another school where they beat up a teacher before returning to their own classes.

I had never, in my sheltered upbringing, encountered kids like these. I went to a public school for gifted students from 5th grade to 12th grade, and I went to an elite private liberal arts college. It was a trial by fire.

I was also desperate. I didn’t know what I could possibly do if teaching didn’t work out. I had no money, no apartment, no training for anything else. So I kept at it, doggedly making my way into the city every morning, and out to the suburbs four afternoons a week, and trying to make it work.

At the public school, the lab assistant and the science department chair were the most helpful people. These wonderful, positive, strong black women comforted me and also explained with no nonsense what the story was. When a girl said I was “triflin’” and I had no idea what she meant, that got explained to me. They told me about the Chinese boys, and fed me lunch once a week: salad and baked potato.

I barely remember the lessons I taught, but I vividly recall the bare classroom, the lack of chemistry books (the kids had stolen them to take home and study for the exam—like I said, these were asian immigrants), the walls of the bathroom stall I hid in every morning, and the day I was told by my supervisor that not enough kids were passing my class and more of them had to pass. That was my last day in that building, after school was out. I was only “provisional” in my status with the school district, and I needed a job for the fall. So I looked at the kids with the highest failing grades, and I changed them to passing grades.

I have never done that since.

Anyway, I have been communicating with E.C., giving advice and sending books.

  • Yes, starting out as a teacher is very challenging!
  • Having lesson plans is key. Know what you want students to accomplish. How will you be able to tell when they’ve accomplished it? Plan more stuff than you think you have time for, just in case. Then if things go faster than expected you can start the next thing without having time for kids to get into mischief.
  • Activities keep kids engaged. Make sure every activity has a purpose.
  • When you have a long period of time to fill up with lessons, break it up into approximate 20-minute segments, with a mix of activity and practice and discussion and work to hand in.
  • Reward students for good behavior and for academic accomplishment
  • Get students to write as often as you can. Also, get students to graph data and interpret the graphs as often as you can. These are some of the best skills they can have as they continue in school.
  • Unfortunately, every class is different and what works with one class won’t necessarily work with another. You have to learn each class when you meet them.

I’ve sent E.C. a box containing Harry Wong’s The First Days of School, which is a very helpful classroom management resource. I also sent some Active Physics books, a book of lab activities, a book of easy science demonstrations, and one of the most inspirational books I read in college: Herbert Kohl’s 36 Children. When I was starting out as a teacher, I got books from several sources. My folk dance teacher had a bunch of physics books that her ex-husband had left in her house. That is how I acquired some Harvard Project Physics readers and handbooks, and some second-edition PSSC paperbacks. One of my friends from back home sent books she had acquired when she was a science teacher. Her brother also sent me some books-I think that is from whom I got my first copy of Paul Hewitt’s Conceptual Physics.

I’m glad to be able to offer books and advice. I remember that knot in my stomach so well. If what I am doing helps even a little, it is worth it.

Good luck, E.C.! Call if you need to!

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