I started my teaching career in September 2000 at Intermediate School 33 in Brooklyn, a school that has since closed. I was hired to teach 8th grade English at the same time as Sara Milstein, both of us recent college graduates who quickly became friends.
On the first day, we introduced our rules to our students. “What happens if you break them?” asked a student. We weren’t sure.
The first several months of our teaching careers were an exercise in containing classroom chaos, and many times, we ended the day in tears.
Mr. Omolaja is a presence.*
The other day, I was in the cafeteria with Mr. Omolaja, and our radar went to Manuel, a student with his pants halfway down his thighs. He was slouching.
Mr. Omolaja gestured for Manuel to come over. Manuel ambled over cowboy-style, the only option for walking given the level of his pants.
Mr. Omolaja gestured to his own belt, which was at his waist.
“Manuel, pull your pants up,” he said. “Be like Omolaja.” Continue reading
Miguel,* a 12th grader, has the peacock of backpacks, a thing of color that is wildly beautiful and proud.
Miguel himself is like a peacock, colorful, dynamic, a born leader. He arrived in 2012 from Dominican Republic halfway through 9th grade and at that time, used his leadership to lead himself and group of other boys into trouble.
Between 9th and 10th grade, though, he suddenly matured. He started to study, passing the state Algebra exam in 10th grade.**
However, in the 11th grade, he stopped attending school, and started working full-time in a restaurant. We tried hard to get him to return, with little success.
This year, he suddenly came back with a sense of urgency. Continue reading
Eric is running to his third period class, weaving between throngs of students.
He sees me. He halts. He stands squarely in front of me.
He bows deeply.
“Anyong haseyo sunsengnim,” he says with perfect Korean pronunciation. Good day, honorable teacher.
“Anyong haseyo, hakseng,” I reply. Good day, honorable student.*
He grins and walks to class. Continue reading
“There’s a yellow M&M in stairwell six, on the second floor,” I said to a staff member. “Could you find a student to clean it up?”
He smiled at me, but nodded. I could tell he was thinking, “An M&M? Only an M&M?” We’ve had much worse in our stairwells: milk cartons, used napkins, and my personal un-favorite: ketchup smeared on the banisters.
“Only” an M & M is progress: it means my staff is enlisting students to clean the stairwells throughout the day, which is exactly what I want them to do. Continue reading
Yesterday, when I visited Mr. D’s English class, I didn’t notice Jose.* This is notable.
I always notice Jose. Jose is a student who normally disrupts classes, or wanders the hallways to avoid class. We have spent countless hours trying to support Jose in behaving and learning.
Yet in Mr. D’s English class, I didn’t notice Jose. Why? Because Jose was sitting at a table, quietly annotating a text. He worked throughout the period, causing no disruption. Continue reading