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Virginia Journal of Education


First Person: Narratives from the Classroom

 

Teaching: Being All Things to All Students



By Amy Issadore Bloom

It took only a few weeks into my first teaching job to learn how brutally honest first-graders can be.

What’s that dot on your face? Um, a pimple, thanks.

Why are your eyes funny today? Because I’m not wearing make-up.

Why aren’t you taller? I’ve wondered that too.

Why don’t you have kids? I’m not married.

My Mom isn’t married. Let’s get back to our work.

But it was Cris, who had spoken his first English words only months earlier, who caught me the most off guard. He looked at my arms, and blurted out “Why you have too much hair?”

Confusing “too much,” “so much” and “a lot” is common among English language learners. Either way, even the grammatically correct version of that observation would have been fairly insulting, and it made me self-conscious.
 
Cris was my most beginning English student, and because of a drop in anticipated enrollment, he ended up being the only one at that basic level. We had a lot of private classes, and bonded quickly. I spoke enough Spanish to help him survive and feel a little more comfortable at school, where there were surprisingly no other Spanish-speaking kids.
 
One day, during Circle Time in Ms. Smith’s first grade class, the students were answering the question, “Who is your best friend?” They rattled off names, giggling when they heard their own.

Cris hesitated, looked up at me for reassurance, and with extreme concentration said, “Ms. Issadore is my best friend.” I was flattered, but quickly encouraged him to pick a friend, and gestured somewhat dramatically to his classmates.

Experienced teachers advise you to keep some distance from the students, establish yourself as an authority. Whatever you do, they warn, don’t start off too soft. This, they all agreed, was my problem. But how can you suddenly be less nice? The jig was up—the kids knew how I felt about them.
 
If I worked only with small groups, it would have been fine. But halfway through the year, I was assigned as an assistant to the first grade, and also “asked” to teach Spanish classes. Those classes (which I didn’t feel comfortable teaching in the first place) were a total disaster. I planned and planned, but the classes ultimately ended with another teacher coming in and yelling at the students for their poor behavior. The problem wasn’t just me, but rather a group of urban students who knew mostly intimidation and coercion from the adults in their life. This, combined with my inexperience in the classroom, made for trouble.

It’s hard to re-shape people’s perceptions. I tried to imitate the style of the other teachers because I felt that I wasn’t enough. Unlike the current generation of twenty-somethings, who seem completely at ease with themselves as they start their own businesses, give motivational TED talks, and document it all on Instagram, I was much more insecure. I lacked the confidence to let Cris announce I was his friend, without feeling like I was jeopardizing my authority as a teacher.
 
The truth was, most of the time, my lessons with him were the best part of my day, the thing keeping me from quitting. I should have just smiled, and not corrected him during that Circle Time.
 
That year, one of the first grade parents gave me a Mother’s Day card. I worked closely with her son, who needed a lot of extra attention to get his work completed. She was an intimidating woman, all Mama Bear protective of her “baby,” who was a behavioral challenge.

I thanked her, and explained I wasn’t a mother. (I was the only teacher at the school without kids). She told me, “Oh, but you are like a mother to these children during the school day.”

She was right. I was getting them ice and band-aids when they fell. I was the one listening and offering tissues as they cried over lost things. I was cheering as they read their first sentences.
 
Working with children requires the ability to be flexible, to accept the many demands not just of our job responsibilities, but our personality. My mistake that first year wasn’t necessarily that I was too nice, but that I didn’t establish clear rules, routines and consequences. I didn’t have confidence in my own ability, and it showed.
 
As I’ve gained more experience as an educator, as the role of teacher has come to define who I am, I know that sometimes we are different things for different students. We can be sweet or sarcastic. We can listen like a friend or coddle like a parent.

So Cris, wherever you are, thank you for being my special friend, despite my hairy arms.

Issadore Bloom (bloomindc@gmail.com), a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. To read more of her writing, visit her blog at www.bloomindc.com.

 

 


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