For once I'm going to push aside the academic papers and just draw upon my own experiences from teaching. So this post will have less to do with research and will instead attempt to unroll a personal reflection of sorts. This little shake-up offers me the double advantage of helping me resurrect the deeper motivations which compelled me to engage in research aimed at improving teacher expertise in the first place, and to provide a more 'real-life' account of why teaching and the role of practical knowledge matters to me beyond the boundaries of scholarly concerns and the inevitable research that goes hand in hand with them.
When I was working with ESL (English as a Second Language) students in East Harlem (New York City) I often reminded them that focusing on the 5 Ws [who, what, when, where, why] , which were represented on a large hand on a prominent wall in the classroom, was a handy tool for summarizing many types of information. It was a simple prompt to kick start tasks like writing personal narratives about significant moments from the students’ lives, it was a quick and easy way to write up a book review and draw out the key themes for other prospective readers in the class, and it was an effective strategy to draft an outline for the essays written for the grueling standardized tests that consumed so much of their valuable school time. The other key question word - the how - might even seem a lot more manageable once the Ws were out of the way. The suggestion delivered results in the classroom, so we'll see how well it works here.
Who: Although there are many faces which slowly come into focus when I close my eyes and conjure up memories of my first year in the NYC public schools, there are some which are more prominent than others. Sometimes it seems a bit of a miracle that I remember anything at all from that first year. It was arguably the most difficult, demanding, intense, and overwhelming year of my life, and many of the most confusing and challenging moments still remain buried in the blackness of my inability to process all that took place, both personally and professionally. Rabi is one student whom I remember instantly. Though he doesn't fit the profile of a typical student success story, he was one of the students that kept me from drowning in this difficult year. His ability to help me find my way as a teacher had nothing to do with what a studious or charming student he way, as neither of these words are apt as a description. It had everything to do with the challenges he presented: his underdeveloped literacy skills, his lack of consistent schooling, his unwillingness to accept his need for language support since he could 'talk good English already', his indiscreet gang affiliation, and his frequent need for attention that often led to disruptions and fights (in and outside of the classroom).
What: Last week I was riding my bike home, pushing hard against the wind and trying to ignore the cold winter rain pelting my unprotected face. As a distraction I was trying to work out the lyrics to a Boudewijn de Groot song, something about hoe sterk is de eenzame fietser, but I couldn’t get past the first line. So my mind flitted through a few random thoughts and settled on an imaginary slide show envisioning the current lives of some of my former students. I still have a loose level of contact with a few through facebook, those which remained my students for consecutive years. But the 8th graders who left our building after my first year of teaching had dispersed to futures still unknown to me. A few had passed by to say hi several times after their departure because they lived in the neighborhood around the school and often had brothers, sisters, or cousins in my class. I was grateful that Rabi had been one of them. He had even given me a photo so I wouldn’t forget him. Eventually his adolescent interests found other distractions, and I only saw him once by coincidence on the street when I was biking to my grad classes over at TC (Teachers College). That was the image that returned: his un-tressed fro held back by a headband whose color I couldn’t remember (but which I had wondered about whether or not it was a gang signifier); his slightly slimmer body from a recent growth spurt; his huge smile that helped me believe things were going all right for him and that he might even be happy to see me. Where was he now? Had he fulfilled the statistical prophecy and dropped-out of school, or had he defied the predictions? Was he still in New York, or had a gone back to the Dominican Republic? Did he have a job, a wife, his own child? And would I ever find a way to thank him for what he had taught me?
When: Before the school year began, the teacher training problem I was in begin fast and furious, and we had to cover a lot of ground at an intense pace. There were hundreds of hours of in-school observations to fulfill, loads of instructional theories to comprehend, school placement contracts (a.k.a. a teaching position) to secure, practical experience to accrue via summer school, coursework to take part in, and the NYCDOE (Department of Education) paperwork to manage, all in the first 3 ½ months. So many hoops to jump through. Yet none of this was nearly as daunting as the reality that would sink in when I stood before the students in September. In the beginning, Rabi was one of the students who seemed to darken my efforts to shine in the classroom. He was tardy, disrespectful in class, openly aggressive towards other kids, never deterred by the threat of detention, and in so many ways an unsavory student. I blamed him for a lot of my classroom management failures, because even veteran teachers seemed to have a hard time reaching him and reigning in his wayward disruptiveness. My accomplished Assistant Principal, who had often been quite informative, didn’t know what to do with him either. He wasn’t even allowed in the office most of the time because he harassed her, the secretary, other students, and often was a catalyst for further chaos. When I consulted her about the Rabi-dilemma, I was told, in exasperation, to just figure it out. The key to the solution of this so-called Rabi-dilemma, I eventually found out, had nothing to do with classroom management theories, and was not something that could be gleaned from other teachers’ experiences. It had to do with building a bond, and then trust, and then figuring out how to meet each other half-way so that everyone (meaning me as the teacher, my students, and Rabi in particular) could learn to ‘do school’ together. The bond began in an abrupt moment I had not bargained for, sometime during the second month of my first year of public school teaching.
Where (and a bit more of ‘what’): Violence was a given at my school, so hall fights were definitely not a rare phenomenon. I had been advised – mostly for legal reasons and as a self-protective measure – not to interfere in fights between students, wherever and whenever I saw them. This counsel came from my teacher training, from my fellow teachers, and even from the students themselves. It was hard advice to swallow since these were just young kids (falling somewhere between the ages of 10 and 15). Still, I tried. I focused on teaching, improving my lessons, accomplishing learning goals, ignoring jaunts and belligerence, and let a lot of unacceptable behavior slide since I didn’t know what to do about it anyway. But I could not manage to keep this distance when I saw, through the small window of my closed classroom door, a four-student fight explode in the hallway. Actually, I heard it before I saw it, and though I was in the middle of the lesson, I instinctively went to the door to see what kind of bomb had gone off. Three kids, all in uniform (but perhaps displaying gang colors I was too green to detect), were pounding on one student. Something flared-up within me, and against the seasoned advice from all sides, I lunged towards the gnarled mess of students and started pulling off the attackers. Behind me my students had rushed to the door for a better view of the excitement. Because I was so focused on dodging the fists that were still striking, my hearing seemed suspended and the whole moment was just a mechanical, visual process of breaking up a fight.
I don’t remember what or if I said anything to the attackers. The whole scene was so out of place that they were startled by my intervention, and stood there stunned as they tried to make sense of what/who had stopped the fight. The smallest and most frenzied fighter spoke first. Omitting the cursing and uncomplimentary language he actually used, he said something along the lines of, “How dare you, teacher lady. You’re extremely lucky I didn’t bash you in the face. You’re so short I thought you were another student, and I was about to mess you up.” I don’t remember how I responded. I was completely shocked that his response was to be angry with me for interfering with his business, and that the only reason it seemed to matter that I was a teacher was because he knew there would be more serious consequences if he had hit a teacher. I think I mumbled something ineffective, explained that I was trying to teach, that it wasn’t really a fair fight with a ratio of 3 to 1, and that he was lucky I didn’t know his name. At that point, he and his crew were already wandering back to wherever they had come from. The only one remaining was the student still on the ground. By coincidence, he turned out to be one of my students. He told me I didn’t need to help him, as if it was a bit shameful that I had intervened. I dropped the subject, asked him why he was late, and we walked into the classroom together, a few steps behind the crowd that had been at the door. He went and sat next to Rabi, who was exuding a rare air of quiet, puzzled contemplation.
Why: When the class ended and the students moved on, Rabi lingered. He said he wanted to tell me something. I said I wasn’t in the mood. Internally I was thinking about the incident report I should fill out, and was trying to figure out what kind of school I actually worked in, feeling a bit like I had lived out a scene in a bad movie. In spite of my disinterest, he kept speaking. Ultimately I became moved by this effort of his, the fact that he took the time to elucidate something which he vaguely realized I couldn’t understand. He told me that the kid in the hall was right, that I was lucky he hadn’t socked me in the face. He explained, in his logic, why I should never get involved in fights at school, how I could never know if these kids had weapons, or if they would be waiting for me after school because they thought I would get them into trouble. Basically, he schooled me. He gave me insight into a perspective that none of my previous life experience could have provided. He grounded me in the realities of the community in which I had chosen to teach. He shared his insider knowledge, his practical knowledge, teaching me how to get by, to get a feel for how I might be perceived by the students in the school, and to figure out how to evade further endangerment. Why he had decided to offer up this advice and contribute to my own education, I can not say.
What I can say is that his contribution not only opened my eyes wider to the realities of urban education, it helped me to see, in an episodic and lived way, that some, maybe all, of my students possessed a wealth of knowledge that might only rarely express itself in an academic framework. Nonetheless, this was their knowledge, and it had a value far more profound than I had realized. This value translated to survival for them in many situations, but it was also extended useful knowledge for me, and necessary insights for me to teach them in ways that might be meaningful. It opened up spaces for us to meet more as people sharing the same space – the same school context – in spite of the distance between our lives and our backgrounds. This knowledge also became the glue that bound me to Rabi, and his sharing of this knowledge became the moment that my image of him shifted. He stopped being a classroom management nightmare and started being an agent of change, a student who needed a different kind of attention and required a different approach to teaching, because he came to class with a different set of knowledge and abilities, one which I had been too stubborn and ignorant to acknowledge before. Those few minutes of conversation together, the life lesson that Rabi spontaneously espoused, merged into many, many hours spent together after school. Often this was spent doing the classwork and the homework that Rabi didn’t manage to do on his own, or working on the story he was writing for our class project, but sometimes it was just spent chatting, showing me things on the internet or displaying his sketches, many times drawing other students into the exchange.
It was also a moment where I passed beyond the edges of the theories of pedagogy and internalized beliefs based on my own experience as a student or a teacher-in-training. I would have to learn how to leave some of these presumptions behind because they did not align with the reality of my work. It was the moment when I stepped onto the bridge that would bring me closer to the shores of teaching experience, the place where I would begin to build and re-build, sometimes slowly and painfully, the practical knowledge that would inform and improve my teaching expertise. As I close this reflection and remember the moment now as a turning point in how I perceived my students, I owe a lot to of credit to Rabi. Through Rabi I finally began to understand all this talk I had heard about bonding with your students and developing honest, human relationships with them, friendships even. Through him I gained a precious insight into the worth and currency of the practical knowledge of students, which through time and experience morphs into the indispensable treasure of teachers’ practical knowledge.