People doing things for the first time act unpredictably, a notion all the more true for teens and teachers. Together the two create a volatile mix.
hen I reflect on my first 90 days of teaching in the New York City public school system, I think I understand why every teacher seems to hurtle through an explosive first year. People doing things for the first time act unpredictably, a fact that is all the more true for teens and teachers. The two at once create a volatile mix.
orking in a high school, I have the daily opportunity to witness teenagers experiencing "firsts." Some firsts will one day seem insignificant, like the overachieving student who fails a test or the socially awkward student who finally tells a joke that others find funny. Other firsts will leave indelible impressions on these young people. One of my students got his first A on a paper that he revised five times. Another gave birth in November to a baby who died. A third student ran away from home last weekend.
hese firstsmy own and the students'dart past me in a continual blur of vignettes. I fear that within a year or two, when the routine is familiar and I have time to analyze the vignettes, they will have lost their poignancy. Like a traveler in a foreign country, I want to document the smallest details, but there isn't time or mental space, and once there is, I will no longer have fresh eyes.
know I am one of the luckier ones; few love their jobs as I do. I know first-year teachers who are islands in a haze of chalk dust and a sea of desks, with little support from a staff of jaded, soon-to-be retirees. My situation is entirely different. I teach Humanities to students aged 14-21, from 47 different countries. Brooklyn International High School serves a population of recent immigrants who, upon matriculation, score in the lowest 20th percentile on the state's English language assessment test.
hile my students are sophisticated in their understanding of the social ladder on whose bottom rungs they rest, their innocence generally exceeds that of a typical urban adolescent. They were recently villagers in China, refugees in Kosovo, farmers in Nigeria, or housewives in Bangladesh, among others. Despite their drastic deficiencies in reading and writing, the majority are impressionable and motivated.
ith only 75 students in four classes, I have gotten to know each one well: Lida's head is on the desk because she battles insomnia. John is in a good mood because he got his green belt in Karate this weekend. Manuel wants to spend the period in the nurse's officea wish not unrelated to an impending conference between his teachers and his father.
he most surprising moments have mostly been the ones that were least related to academics. During a drama rehearsal recently, one fourteen year old student feigned illness to avoid participating. When I asked her the source of her sickness, she replied, "I need to think!" I managed to elicit from her the mysterious statement, "I saw something on the sixth floor!" After much prying, it turned out that what she had seen was a boy in her class, who had, in the stairwell, asked her out. This was the first time anyone had made romantic overtures to her. The experience had thrown her into terrible turmoil, reminding me of the fragility of "firsts."
erhaps I too, am experiencing that fragility of firsts, as I stumble my way clumsily through this first year of teaching. My impressions are as raw as my students', my sensitivity as heightened, but I am glad for it. In a few years my drama student will have a stock of come-ons to laugh over and dates to compare. In a few years I will have racked up hundreds of stories to laugh over and classes to compare. I look forward to that faraway time of wisdom, but for now I am living purely in the present. Just like my students.