The environmental hazards of sixth grade

05 Feb

I took last week off from substitute teaching to finish up yearly tax stuff, and I missed being in the classroom. It kind of surprises me that I enjoy being there so much, after I decide to go back and pick up three or four days of subbing, stress about it, and head out hoping for the best. It’s not the crazy passion or energy or drive for thrills or adventure of youth, but the sense of purpose and enjoyment and reasonable confidence that I have something to offer that’s so sweet, along with getting paid and feeling appreciated. A net effect, after subtracting the effects of being on the cement floors all day and sometimes straining my voice or sometimes having to be just a delivery person / sitter—in goes the video or out goes the quiz. And subtracting the “bad” days, when I feel out of my depth. Like the day I had about three too many students with “behavior disorders” and not enough support, or the fourth grade class in which the kids were used to being ruled by an iron hand, so when I came along with softer skills, a critical portion of them went wild–no self control at all, and, maybe, no wonder. Compared to my first year of teaching, during which I felt like I was running on empty, reinventing the wheel, barely holding things together, and barely tolerated by the tougher kids, it’s more than a relief to feel this way. There wasn’t a day that went by then that I wouldn’t have been glad to have had school cancelled because of holiday or snow. I loved teacher trainings, because I could sit and listen and make a comment now and then, and be listened to. Though going back after a break was worse. But I almost never called in a sub, because it was too much work to come up with a plan when I was feeling sick. And I was aware that the main sub that would come in was the jolly young woman over whom I’d been hired but knew how to be fun and entertaining and loveable, which I didn’t–at least not with more than half a dozen students at a time and not inside a room.

Last week I was in a 6th grade math class in a new school across town. Good atmosphere, somewhat diverse group of students–more of Sikh extraction, for example. I had to talk almost all day, and keep the kids’ attention on what I was saying to the whole class, which wears out my voice. It’s hard for sixth graders to sustain that attention, too–certain younger boys, especially. They had no more than five minutes of individual work and the rest was me going homework and quizzes as a class, handing out and gathering in papers. I inserted some stretching, breathing (I did five deep breaths while they watched, which had a curiously quieting effect on them), a riddle, and an introduction to how to circle hands in opposite directions, and what’s happening in the brain when one tries.

One thing that impressed me in the two classrooms I was in last week was the clean, non-cluttered, minimalist environment. A simple desk with only a few drawers containing essentials, in and out trays for assignments, tiny podium containing essential daily supplies, few cabinets or shelves or posters. It was refreshing for me, and probably for the students. It was a new building, well designed, carpeted with big windows and good furniture, so it didn’t feel empty or plain, just simple. I know it would be a challenge for me not to have long counters on which to spread out papers and resources, but it might be I will need to impose discipline on my materials management that could transfer to more mental efficiency. I’ll probably do some kind of seasonal variation between a profusely resource rich classroom and a paring down and culling, or at least rotation, of books, decor and materials.

Eleven and twelve year olds get a sense of security from following their usual routine, and show their discomfort if I make any changes. I try to be sensitive to that, but of course I’m often coming in partially blind as to routine–only some teachers mention those little things in the plan. Students notice when I write the plan on a different part of the white board than usual, when I ask a different person to take the attendance record to the secretary, when I hand out or collect materials or correct work in a different way. And they tell me. If I’ve remembered to warn them before class starts that I can’t know all the details of how they teacher does things, and invite them to both help me out and be flexible, things go more smoothly. But even then, and when I remind them that different ways can work too, it’s funny how often I find it’s just prudent to give in and honor what routines and habits I can. so as not to cause undue stress.

If I can master that process of setting and maintaining healthy routines, along with helping students try new things and evolve, I think I can do well as a sixth or fifth grade teacher. Still, I gravitate toward the kids in developmental stages where there’s a natural tendency to bust out, try new things, and challenge the way things are usually done. Maybe I felt I never fit in and feel that once kids, at least some, decide that it’s too demeaning and exhausting to be constantly trying to navigate the world according to what’s socially acceptable and institutionally convenient, they can become themselves truly. And get on with that, since it takes some of us decades, with plenty of fits and starts.

Hard for teachers to do much justice to individuality in the classroom. Or if we do, it’s by continual, pro-active, mindful intention in the face of our still experiencing the class as a mass entity to be managed, swayed, brought along as a group, kept on task and on schedule. You know the effect of looking through some kind of ocular device that can focus near and far? You look at the big picture, then you zoom in, blurring everything on the way, and then, WHAM! there’s in individual flower petal that was there the whole time, but there was no way to notice it until then. It’s like that sometimes when I am as guest teacher, when I suddenly notice the kid who doesn’t otherwise attract notice, often some quiet girl, or any kid who’s not continually drawing attention by asking or answering lots of questions, roaming about during work time, or asking a million questions. Sometimes I talk to myself out loud about that, about how I regret that some people aren’t getting the acknowledgement they need and deserve because of the higher activity/visibility of other students. Also about the difference between extroverts and introverts, and how so much is going on inside some people and it’s so valuable to connect with them and see what they have to contribute, but a big classroom full of people prevents that being an option. Once I looked down to a face at the table just in front of me, where big eyes were looking up at me in understanding and relief.

1 Comment

Posted by on February 5, 2015 in Education, Places & Experiences


One response to “The environmental hazards of sixth grade

  1. jdawgsrunningblog

    February 6, 2015 at 5:34 am

    What a great synthesis and reflection–love the sensitivity–I feel like I learned something about teaching–thank you.


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