New teacher diaries

My search for my inner teacher

“You don’t understand, Miss. I’m peeeeeiiiing,” Samantha says on the third day of school. Her request reminds me of Nora, a student from last year. Both Samantha and Nora chose to loudly request to go to the bathroom as they entered the classroom just the day after I explained to my high school students the process for silently asking to go only after the first 10 minutes of class had passed.

When Nora tried that move last year, I remember being caught without a proper response. I was torn. I did not know who I was as a teacher yet. I wanted to appear nice, but also unyielding.

I wanted Nora to know that I cared about her but also that I was the boss of my math classroom. I wanted to show the whole class that I was reasonable, but I also wanted to show them that the expectations I had put in place for them were real. The semblance of confidence in myself as a teacher that I had mustered together for those first few days of school withered in the face of this seemingly minor challenge.

After about 17 too many seconds of thought, I meekly asked her if she really needed to go right that second. She nodded with conviction, grabbed the bathroom pass from my hands and skipped out the door with a triumphant smile on her face, taking my dignity and authority as a teacher with her.

In those early weeks and months, every time a student challenged my authority — in little ways like when Yolanda would refuse to come into the classroom at the start of the period or when Alberto would insist on sharpening his pencil at the very moment that I delivered the key to understanding that day’s lesson, or in big ways, like when Christopher came into the room on all fours barking at me — I found myself at a loss for a response.

We talk at my school about teaching kids how to “do school” in our environment, but last year, the kids taught me. All I knew was how to “do school” as a student in schools that looked nothing like the one I found myself in then. In essence, I had no clue how to “do school” as a teacher in an urban high school. But the students certainly knew how they wanted things done and so they had their way. For months, I went home each day in tears, feeling utterly lost as a teacher.

As the months progressed, that changed. I started to develop a comprehension of what it means to be a teacher in an urban high school in the 21st century. I learned to shape an identity as a teacher. I began to be able to envision how I wanted to act and respond in my classroom. I came to understand that it is possible to be both nice and unyielding, in control and caring. Slowly things turned around, enough that I came into my second year of teaching excited for what the year could hold.

I know now who I am as a teacher, and I am confident in that knowledge. Seven whole days of school have passed now, and I have yet to cry in despair over my inabilities as a teacher even once.

As for Samantha’s loud and poorly timed request to go to the bathroom? It will take far more than that to throw me off my game this year. I give her a long, friendly look in the eye and quietly say, “Wow, Samantha. I really hope that you can wait until the appropriate time to ask. I can’t imagine how embarrassing the alternative would be.” Confused by the warm tone and odd message, she takes her seat. And we’re off!

Bring on year two!

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