Yes, you read that last part of the other post correctly. If you listen to country music, then you know that I was one of those teachers Alan Jackson sang about in his song. I was standing in front of a classroom full of 7th graders, one of which was to be my future sister-in-law and her 24 other friends and classmates. Next door was my neighbor, Ms. Jones who taught social studies and English language arts. We shared students by rotating throughout the day. We shared a door and could always pop in to ask a question or get help. On this day, we needed something more than just a few ideas for a lesson or copies to be made. On this day, we needed to explain to our students something that we as teachers could not even begin to fathom or describe.
At 0840, there was no announcement as to what had happened. I was about to take a break with my lesson when at 0930 or so, the principal announced that we needed to turn on our TVs. The TVs in the school did not get a quality reception– the picture was fuzzy and cut out every few seconds. But what we could see was a building with billowing smoke and the newcasters’ voices filled with dread and punctuated with static and silence from the poor reception.
My students, including Lara, were asking what was happening. What were we all watching? I couldn’t say anything more than something hit the building and it didn’t look good. The grainy TV made it appear as though the top of the building was no longer there. Before we could talk about this more, the students left for gym and Marianne and I sat and watched the TV. Our planning period was consumed by what we could see on the TV. Just minutes before the students returned from gym, our hearts simultaneously stopped. The towers were falling. We sat there speechless not because we necessarily knew anyone who worked in the World Trade Center, but because we had no idea of what to say to our students when they walked in the door moments later.
We turned to each other without saying a word and slowly walked back into our own classroom, unsure of what to say or do next.
We knew that a large number of our students, my sister-in-law included, were military kids who accessed the base. Once second tower fell, the Air Force base would be on lock down. Some of our students who lived in base would likely be checked out of school and brought to their homes on base. Meanwhile, I knew that my boyfriend/to-be-fiance would be stranded somewhere in North Carolina at a small airport without anyway of contacting me. My classroom felt suddenly lonely and crowded all in the same breath. And I knew my 13 year-old students had to have felt the same way. I am not one to sugarcoat things in life, but this was beyond my sense of reality.
This was only my second day as a teacher…
I’ll be honest when I admit that I don’t remember much of that afternoon. I don’t remember what I said to my students nor will I try to rack my brain to remember. Because what I said or did isn’t important to recall now. What was important (and still is) that I have to remember that my new teachers now may face similar situations that I haven’t prepared them for. I can’t give them a checklist for when things go wrong in a lesson or for when they are (but I hope they never are) in moments of shock and disbelief and still need to be there for their kids. What I do remember is the next morning I opened up the first hour to talk about what we heard, saw, and felt. That time was necessary because we don’t and never should be teaching in a bubble. Teachers work and live with someone’s child every day for almost 9 months. Teaching means you’re part of a big community, a world that both includes you and people you haven’t met before (and might never meet).
That Tuesday morning taught me more in a single day about myself as a teacher than all of the years I prepared for the profession. The next morning, I learned to practice more humility, grace, and strength. I learned that my job as a teacher was more than the stereotypical “teach the standards” responsibilities. Nope.
My students need time with me to unpack things that they hear, see, or experience, even if it isn’t in the standards or in the “walk throughs” my principal would do. As Rochelle Gutierrez and many others who have written (or are currently writing about this) about this would argue, it is long overdue for the collective “we” as teachers and schools to rehumanize our classrooms by:
- honoring students’ cultural, linguistic, home and community resources
- opening our classrooms up as spaces for collective, collaborative learning with families and communities
- advocating for students and their families/communities
- carefully noting our language that is rooted in deficit-based perspectives and reframing the words we choose to emphasize students’ strengths and brilliance
- interrupting what it means to do, know, use, learn, and teach mathematics (among many other ways that you can read more about)
16 years later, I now remember this day for more than one reason. Not only was it my second day of teaching, but also because we lost a friend that day.. My husband’s best friend lost his life that day as he worked in the Pentagon. He left behind a new wife who met him in kindergarten. Tonight, as I have done every day since we met 8 years ago, I’ll stop by the store and get a Boddingtons to share and enjoy the sunset.
As I prepare to teach my 14th cohort of elementary math methods class this morning, I am getting a little emotional to think about who I was 16 years ago and what I’ve done since then. How many new teachers have to had the pleasure to work with over the years? What kinds of amazing work are they doing now? What can I say to my teachers today to help them situate their work in a humanistic stance that honors the messiness of life and celebrates the brilliance of our kids? How do we help our teachers prepare for the unexpected and help their kids navigate difficult situations? I don’t know the answers to this, but I am sure curious as to what others might think.