Toward the end of third period, the principal came to my room. "Read this to your class at the beginning of the fourth period," she said, handing me a short memo.
I glanced over the first sentence: "Earlier this morning, one of our students, Trevor Grover (not his real name), died of an apparent suicide. ... " I looked up in alarm.
"Please read it exactly as it is written," she continued in a slow, firm voice.
"I will." We stared at each other for a few seconds. Then she was gone.
It was May 24, the last full week of the semester, almost the end of my first year of teaching high school English at "Westy," as everyone called it. Westminster High School in the Denver metro area had been my first choice after graduating from Project Promise, a one-year teacher licensure program for mid-career professionals. I was attracted to Westy because of its diverse population (about one-third of the students are Hispanic and 10 percent are Asian), because education -- not family resources -- was going to determine whether or not most of the students "made it." And because I thought I could make a difference.
As the fourth-period sophomores tumbled into the room, I pored over each of their faces. How familiar those faces were to me now, after a year studying language arts together, testing one another, and learning to trust one another with varying degrees of success. How much I had come to care for them as individuals. But did they know this, and did it matter? I must have seen Trevor go into the room opposite mine a hundred times to take his Future Studies (future studies!) class, but I had never noticed.
Many Questions, But Few Answers
Could one teacher make a difference? That's a question I have been asking myself since I made the decision to switch careers at the age of forty-six. I stopped being a university professor, a scholar of Chinese poetry and textual criticism, and a teacher of comparative literature who read seven languages, and started being a K-12 teacher.
Over the course of my first year I taught students with remarkably different abilities. In the same class, I had students who read at the fifth-grade level and students whose abilities were comparable to college students. I taught students who were eager to learn, students with a "who-cares" attitude, and students who were just plain angry about being in school. Some kids benefited from strong support systems. Others were struggling to function in unstable family situations. Students entered my classroom with different skills and different needs as human beings -- and my days (and often my nights) were consumed with trying to help them.
Teaching in a public high school is much more complex than those outside can imagine. Every day, you are running five different classes, designing and adapting learning activities that you hope will meet the needs of your students while simultaneously fulfilling departmental, building, district, and state standards. Most days, you work from 7 A.M. to 9 P.M., often with just a break for dinner. Despite diminishing sleep, you need to maintain an energy level that matches that of teenagers, while remembering to remain the adult in the classroom. And you must constantly remind yourself of the power you have to affect your kids, for better or worse. You can't afford to be careless, indifferent, hurtful, fake, or oblivious (as you might on an off day with adults) because kids never get over it.
A Teacher and Her Students
It's August 25, the second day of the school year. I ask James to drop by and see me after class. There is something different about James. He's quiet -- almost too quiet. I often find him staring at a blank wall in the corner of the room, his features slack. James doesn't like to speak with other students. He doesn't even move when I ask students to get together in groups.
"You wanted to see me?" James asks when he returns after school. He's got a grip on an Ayn Rand novel that is strong enough to turn his knuckles white.
"I see you're reading Ayn Rand. Is she any good?" He doesn't answer and sits quietly for close to half an hour before finally saying, "People think I'm weird when they get to know me."
That evening, I call James' parents. I almost don't for fear I'm overreacting -- it's only the second day of school, after all. But I discover that James failed most of his classes last year and is becoming increasingly withdrawn. His parents are worried, and I agree to watch out for him.
The next morning, a couple of days later in the week, and then every day after that, James comes into my classroom before school to hang out. Sometimes he talks, sometimes he prefers to be silent. Sometimes we listen to a CD, and sometimes we just work. As the semester goes on, James struggles with panic on timed tests and writing assignments in class, and then he surprises me when he finally begins turning in projects for our Writer's Workshop. James writes like an angel, and nobody knew that about him. I let James and his parents know what a remarkable writer he is. And I think how easily I could have missed him.
As the year goes on, I collect other visitors besides James. They tend to be the mavericks, the loners, floating and dreaming through classes, and the wild kids who only know how to get a teacher's attention by getting into trouble. There's Luis, who sleeps as a way of escaping, and invisible Mai, who "does not turn in assignment regularly" as her report card states, but then comes in just before spring vacation with a novel she has written. ("Would you have time to read it and, like, help me with it? I mean, tell me if it's any good?") Each with his or her own story, just waiting for someone to listen to it.
A Helping Hand, a Sympathetic Ear
As the year goes on, the first-year teachers form a cohort, and we become our own chief support. We sit together at lunch and gradually begin to share our successes and our struggles. At first, we limit our stories to what's working in our classes. We share teaching activities, tell each other where to find teaching materials in our chaotic bookroom, even give each other copies of assessments and rubrics we have created. It takes more time, though, for us to develop enough trust to reveal the problems we're encountering: missing assignments, behavior and attitude problems, or the rising tardiness and absenteeism. As new teachers, we are not prepared to accept these behaviors as normal, but we aren't sure how to correct them, either.
Although you get an emotional release from confiding your problems to a fellow first-year teacher, sooner or later you have to trust a veteran. Even though each of us has been assigned a mentor teacher, for most of us, "mentor" means little more than the person you are entitled to pester a couple of times each semester for help on fulfilling an administrative requirement. I sought out others, though, and in the end, there were three remarkable veterans I opened up to -- a social studies teacher who, the previous year, had been named Colorado Teacher of the Year; a drama teacher, whom I greatly admired for her dedication and sense of humor, and a debate teacher, who let me weep but afterwards didn't think the worse of me for it.
From their candid accounts of their own beginning years as teachers, I learned that most teachers go through these experiences and feel the same doubts.
Yet the realization came to me, growing gradually from unwanted doubt to certainty, that even though I am able to make a difference for some students, I was never going to be able to turn everyone around. One teacher simply can't do it -- no matter how much he or she may want to.
In real life, it takes a whole school to turn things around. It takes teachers and administrators working together, and lots of parent and community involvement to make the kind of difference for all students that will stick. It takes time. When you walk the halls, past door after door that is shut or locked because class is in session, you have to wonder, given the traditional structure of high schools, how teachers will be able get the time and space to move out of our isolation as individual practitioners and enter into real collaboration. And, given the current public fault-finding with teachers by critics demanding accountability, you have to wonder how many teachers will be willing to stick their necks out to talk about how things really are.
The Payoffs of Good Preparation
To stay grounded amidst the chaos, I keep a red wooden apple on my desk, a graduation gift from Barbara McWhorter and Angie Paccione, my teachers at Project Promise. It reminds me of the pledge I took to devote myself to my students' success. Looking back on my Project Promise training, I realize that it transformed my understanding of what it means to be a good teacher.
As a Project Promise student, I learned to become a reflective teacher, to think about the assumptions behind the environment I was creating in the classroom. I learned to pull back from the performance concerns that typically preoccupy beginning teachers and think about my classroom from the students' perspective.
"Students don't care about how much you know until they know how much you care," Angie would counsel us. And so, as I struggled through my first year, I spent time with students, got to know them as people, and encouraged them to know each other through cohort development activities that I wouldn't have valued otherwise.
Through the program's Diversity Institute, I tackled such issues as multiculturalism, conflict resolution, prejudice reduction, gender equity in the classroom, the needs of special student populations, and a wide variety of factors that put students at risk of dropping out, poverty, alcohol and drug addiction, or being part of a dysfunctional or abusive family.
This month-long program included student-teaching experiences at both an urban Denver high school and a prison for juvenile offenders, and it taught me to have compassion for students in trouble. I tracked down students who had stopped coming to class and said whatever was necessary to get them back. I called their parents. I went to their homes on weekends to provide added help. I also kept the class troublemakers with me until we found a way to work together instead of taking the easier way out, which was to expel them.
Project Promise also made me determined not to dumb-down my classroom. Instead, I strived to make it a smarter classroom, with high expectations for all. But I made sure my students had the chance to meet those expectations by providing them scaffolding at every step of the way and not letting them give up. When students failed, I felt frustrated, but I didn't blame them for being lazy or stupid. I tried to figure out how to fix it. I made sure that my students had a choice in learning projects, even when that choice sometimes led to some belly-flops.
I had learned to draw on a wide variety of data-driven research to design learning activities for different classes. Graduates of many schools of education get almost all the theory up front, then wait to apply it in a student-teaching experience at the very end of their programs. I had to begin translating theory into practice within two months of my induction into Project Promise, by teaching for a week in a rural school on the eastern Colorado plains under the watchful eyes of Project Promise professors.
After receiving a detailed critique, more coursework followed, then a second, eleven-week student-teaching assignment in a junior high school in Fort Collins, where I again received ongoing feedback from my instructors. The same cycle of training, practice, and feedback was repeated in a similar high school teaching assignment. By the end of the program, I had five different field experiences and a very clear idea of the issues and challenges I would face as a first-year teacher.
Finally, I found that I had a tremendous advantage as a Project Promise graduate because I had been trained in using technology and had been expected to demonstrate it in field teaching assignments. Knowing how to use multimedia software to create presentations, feeling comfortable with tools for Internet research and with a broad array of hardware and peripheral devices meant that I was able to move beyond word processing to develop learning activities that kids were really interested in, using our computer labs. I also invested in an LCD projector (which I am still paying off) so the kids and I could work on multimedia presentations in class, too. This was one aspect of classwork I think they liked. At least it was different from other English classes they had.
A Look Back -- And a Look Ahead
My mission was to make a difference for my students. Did I succeed?
In a faculty meeting in November, one of the assistant principals announced that she had recently received a phone call from a parent telling her about how I came to his house to work with his daughter. After that visit, he said, the struggling student got on track with all of her courses. The assistant principal then handed me my award -- five $1-off coupons at Wendy's. In January, I was named Westy's literacy coordinator and began helping my colleagues work with students who were struggling with reading and writing.
But these public honors provide only a partial answer to my question.
The fuller answer comes from students like Greg, who came to my classroom with his mother and a chocolate cake to share as I was packing my things at the end of the year. Greg, who sat with me after school. Greg, who sees depths in writing that others miss. Greg, who kept his head down on his desk until he woke up, I hope, for good.
"Just came in to say goodbye," he explains. "I'll miss you. It will be different without you next year." That last part is hard for him to say.
We fix some tea, cut the cake into three large portions, and eat it all right then and there.
Susan Wei, Ph.D., is a graduate of the Project Promise class of 2000. She is currently teaching at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado.