Sunday, January 09, 2011

Learning the Ropes: What it’s like to be a new teacher in a boarding school.*

My mother was a public school teacher and instilled in me a love of learning at a very young age. What this means is that when I started attending public school and we began to learn the basics of reading and writing, I was already ahead of most of the other students in my class. It was my hand that shot up every time the teacher asked a question while the other students sat silent, confused and lost. That is, until she stopped calling on me. Then, bored and impatient, I began blurting out answers which earned me the labels of trouble-maker, hyperactive and unruly, when what I really was, was bored.

It is difficult for me to blame the teacher, who was, after all, overburdened with kids and under-prepared to deal with a student like me when most of the class didn’t know their alphabet yet. She tried to keep us all moving at the same pace, regardless of each student’s learning needs. This is not an uncommon experience for students, but now that I’ve followed in my mother’s footsteps and become a teacher, I strive to approach things differently.

One of the things that surprised me most about coming to an independent boarding school is how willing students are to seek help or enrichment on their own. Surprisingly, it seems that most kids know what they need from us, their teachers, and in the boarding school environment they are naturally encouraged to ask for it. Perhaps it’s because the ready access to faculty helps these students learn to self-advocate. We know each other on a variety of levels and so we become more holistic members of our community, rather than resigning each other to our “student” and “teacher” boxes. It’s much less intimidating to ask someone for help over lasagna in the dining hall than it is to face a teacher behind his or her desk in the classroom.

The closeness of the boarding school community helps teachers build relationships with kids outside of the classroom, which in turn helps us teach inside the classroom. If I happen to see a student score a particularly awesome goal, listen to her summary of a lecture she attended with her advisor or even serve as the faculty-mentor to a club, I have that much more power to connect with her in class the next day. I know my students strengths and difficulties as athletes, dorm kids, dinner mates, weekend-trip buddies and members of my English class. As a result, my students feel comfortable approaching me as a mentor, not merely as the distributor of grades.

The experiences of my students at our boarding school are shockingly different from my experiences as a student in a public school. Here, teachers have more access to their kids and can provide any necessary remediation at a time that’s convenient to both the student and the teacher. My students know where I live, and they come to me for help after sports practice, before dinner and during study hall. By the same token, those students who can move faster through a given subject can come for extra discussions and help on a more complex project. No longer am I forced to hold my more gifted students back while I work with other students to bring them up to speed!

Now that I’ve made a point of studying my craft, I have the language to articulate the major problem I encountered as a student in a public school. It wasn’t that my teachers were “mean” and it certainly wasn’t that I had an undiagnosed case of ADHD. Instead, the problem was the lack of differentiation in the classroom. My teachers simply couldn’t allow me to move at my own pace. Unlike my public school peers, I don’t face that same challenge to the same degree. Simply put, I have way more time to spend with my students and thus, every one of them is able to get what she needs.
Yes, this means that even when I’m exhausted and just want to collapse on the couch to watch a movie, there is that tap on my front door that means my day isn’t over yet. But would I trade the next hour of intense conversation and guidance for a frustrated student in an unproductive classroom? Not in a million years.

*Originally published in Seen Magazine, credited to Jillian Bledsoe. There is a strange story behind this article. Basically, Jillian was tasked to write it, didn't have time, so I wrote at draft for her. She edited it, and it was published under her name. She wanted it to be credited to me. I wanted it to be credited to both of us because she edited it pretty thoroughly.


Unknown said...

I'm going to go ahead and take a little credit here, for you starting school already ahead of the other students and all......:) I thoroughly enjoyed playing teacher while you were my student when we were little.

CLBledsoe said...

You're the reason I write like a leftie...