Photo: alamosbasement / Creative CommonsSeven years ago, I took a position as a semester-long substitute for a teacher on maternity leave at an inner city public charter school in Washington, DC. I expected to be a good teacher. I think many recent college graduates regard teaching this way; at least for women, teaching, like mothering, is something you do instinctively. Maybe this is part of the reason we don't pay our teachers as much as our plumbers or our accountants; I know I cannot find my way around a tax return or fix a toilet.
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For many of my friends, a teaching stint provided an intermediary step before they took on "real jobs" as lawyers and doctors. During graduate school, I taught writing at local colleges. And I assumed teaching high school wouldn't be that different from teaching college. Some of my college students were 18 years old, while others were adults returning to school. But all of them wanted to be there.
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I was assigned to teach World History to three classes of eighth graders and World Geography to high school seniors. From the moment I stepped into the classroom, chaos reigned. The kids swore, threw spitballs and chairs until I sent them to the security station in the hall. But this left me teaching two quiet, studious girls in an empty room, so I stopped sending them.
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Some days I was too nice, desperate to connect with students; I'd give away my lunch, my metro card, whatever they asked for. I saw glimpses of the potential locked up in these little people; one boy showed me his secret notebook of poetry and one of the cool girls asked in a whisper how she might become a veterinarian. Mostly though, I could not get them to sit down long enough to engage in an activity or take a test.
Half-way through the semester, an eighth grader threatened to blow up my car, and I went back to calling security. I felt scared to face the assistant principal who asked if I'd like to return after the summer. I thought of the school's beloved English teacher with a tenure of nearly 30 years in the DC system -- you could hear a pin drop in her class -- and the young father who horsed around with the kids in the halls but shouted directives that made students form lines and shut their mouths.
The truth was that teaching young, under-resourced students was extremely challenging; it did not come naturally and required a dedication to teaching high school that I did not posses. I wanted to teach people who wanted to be taught. So after the summer, when I found myself longing to return to my college writing classes, that's what I did.
Amanda Freeman writes about single parenting and blended families for magazines including Redbook, Parents, Pregnancy and the Washington Post Magazine. She runs creative writing workshops for single moms, and is getting her PhD in the Sociology of the American family. Find Amanda at amandalynnefreeman.com
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