Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Day 37 of 365: Teaching: A Retrospective

Yesterday was my very first tai chi class with the yoga studio. Not a demo, not a freebie "let's see if you can magically generate students," but an actual class. As an independent contractor.

I started out all nerves. I laughed anxiously, I actually dropped my fan in the middle of one demonstration (the biggest fear when doing fan form), but, by the end, I found my beat, and everything went smoothly. When I mentioned that this was my first class since a demo class in March (and, before that, another demo in November), one of the students said, "Well, you could've fooled me."

So now I'm on board, although only time and enrollment will tell how many classes I'll be teaching. It's a completely different ballgame, teaching tai chi to adults. It's different, but welcomed. I couldn't help, however, but think back on my years of teaching children, especially the year I taught Pre-K.

To put simply: if every class had been like my Pre-K class, I probably never would've quit.

It was hard work. Damn hard work. I was putting in 50 hours a week (and only getting paid for 40). And that's on top of the classes I was taking at night to get certified as a teacher, staff meetings, parent-teacher conferences, workshops (and planning a wedding and a move, as well as doing various modeling gigs, etc, etc, etc). There were times I would look out at my classroom and feel the type of tired that rests in your bones. The kind that makes you smile weakly and sigh before you can even take a step forward. I was essentially a newbie teacher -- I had nothing but a 4-month student teaching and a 4-month span as a pre-school 3s teacher under my belt -- and I was getting no help from anybody, especially not administration.

But I loved those students in a way that a teacher only does with their first true classroom. Most of them are in the second grade by now, and a good portion of them still hold such a dear place in my heart.

Like Lin*. Lin had immigrated with her parents from China to America when she was only 3-years-old. My first memory as a lead teacher actually is of Lin. It was storytime, and the students were running over to the circle time rug. As my then-coteacher gathered her books, I found Lin, sitting by the bookshelves, tears silently streaming down her face. I instinctively sat down next to her, pulled her onto my lap, and hugged her.

She was my girl from then on. I watched as she slowly got used to the room, learning English as only a 4-year-old can: first with individual words. A very small smattering of individual words. And, with what felt like overnight, phrases and even full sentences. She went from the shy girl who clung to her teacher to the micro-socialite, who even had a boyfriend in the classroom (or, as she told me that spring, "he is my special, special, special friend.")

Lin was on the cusp, meaning that she had the choice of going into kindergarten that fall, or staying another year in pre-k. Her parents originally decided to keep Lin in pre-k another year, until they heard that I was moving. Within a week, they alerted the school and told them that they had changed their mind. Of all the proud moments I had as a teacher, knowing that parents were willing to keep their child in a classroom another year purely because of the teacher is one of the most incredible.

Or Damien. To say Damien was misunderstood was an understatement. He was a rough-and-tumble kid. He liked talking back. He would snap his fingers at people. But he was so undeniably smart. He had an eye for structure and mechanics like no 5-year-old I had ever seen. He would build these elaborate contraptions with legos and k'nex and would only disassemble it at clean-up if I took a picture of it first.

Halfway through the year, Damien's father up and left. A father who had fashioned a necklace out of a house key and linked chain (so that Damien would always have the key to his father's heart) had disappeared overnight, moving up to New Hampshire with his girlfriend (a girlfriend he had been seeing on the side, much to the surprise of everyone, including his wife).

My biggest fear was that Damien would graduate up to kindergarten and elementary and find himself with teachers who didn't get him. Who only saw a rough-and-tumble kid who was prone to emotional outbursts ever since his father disappeared. I didn't even announce to my classroom where I was moving to, for fear that Damien would associate New Hampshire with, "Where people in my life disappear to."

As a graduation present, I printed out every picture of Damien's constructions, and pieced them together into a picturebook. I wrote a note on the back cover, telling him just how smart and inventive he was, and how I couldn't wait to see what he could do as a mechanical engineer or architect. Of all the students I have had (or will ever had), I pray that that little gift was enough to set things in motion. I know what the statistics are for boys of lower income brackets, whose fathers are no longer in the picture. And I hope that he'll be the one to defy those numbers.

I had never worked with an autistic child before Eric. My background with special needs was pitiful. And, even more, not only was I working with an autistic child, but I was working with a bullied autistic child. It was like feeling my way in the dark, but I found some sort of a path. I worked with his specialist and devised educational plans. I sung very specific songs to him when he was having issues with his routine. I kept open dialogue with the parents (who are, to this day, some of my favorite. If there is ever a family to be born with special needs under, it was this family. Their love and dedication was the stuff others wish for). I watched him become more vocal, more social. It got to the point that the specialist had to tell me, "He's doing wonders interacting with you. Now it's time to take a step back and see how he'll interact with his peers."

I still get updates on their (Eric and his twin brother) lives via their father on Facebook. It's been incredible watching them grow up and just see how insightful and proactive their parents on in the world of Autism Spectrum Disorders.

I know you're not supposed to have favorites. But I'll let you in on a little secret: every teacher does. Every teacher has students they bond with better than others. We do our best not to let it interfere with our interactions, but the truth still stands. My last day with those kiddos was possibly the hardest in my life. I remember going on from their graduation ceremony (a ceremony that I planned in my free time with zero help from admin, mind you), straight home and into bed, so emotionally exhausted that I passed out by 8 pm.

It's a hard job, and I don't regret leaving the early education world in the least, but I'm happy that I have some of the memories that I do, and I hold onto hope that I made a positive difference in at least a few children's lives.

* all names changed

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