Teaching was Awesome

Learning from My Kids

Ever since my firstborn was three years old, I craved being a teacher. I taught him the alphabet by having him type it on the computer in my bedroom. In order to know the next letter, he had to run back to his bedroom and look it up on the alphabet wallpaper border there. Then he'd have to memorize what each letter looked like long enough to run back to my room and find it on the keyboard. It worked like a charm. He is now a literary and computer wizard.

That was 1992. Since then, I made up all kinds of learning experiences and worksheets for my children. Every time they asked what I wanted for Christmas or my birthday, my answer was the same: "something in writing." My son has always come through with some great essay or poem for me.

On the other hand, I learned more from my daughter. She never loved writing any more than she loved reading. She's a social creature. She learned most of her French by singing and dancing to a conjugation song. Fun teachers loved her. Serious teachers said "her head is in the clouds." She aced her third-grade math class with Miss Fun, and nearly failed math in fourth grade with Miss Serious. In Miss Serious's class, she was afraid to ask questions, then got in trouble for asking other students. She got publicly scolded so much that she made silly nervous mistakes.

One day, my daughter faked being sick so she didn't have to go to school. I didn't fall for it and forced her till she was crying in the parking lot, too afraid to go to class. She finally spilled the beans that she hadn't done her homework for Miss Serious because she had forgotten her book, and she knew there would be a public condemnation to face for it. I saw loud and clear how much power a student's comfort level has over their ability to learn.

Meanwhile, I got awfully tired of hearing adults call teenagers lazy. Nobody works hard at something they don't see a benefit in. And young people have rarely seen enough life to understand the benefit of education, discipline, healthy habits, etc. I developed a habit of thinking of ways to get kids interested in academic topics. I wrote them down for that teaching job I might have someday.

St. Johns County School District

In 2008, I applied for a teaching certificate, but then took a great writing job. In 2010 when the writing assignment reached completion and my job morphed into sales, I looked back at teaching. My teaching certificate was temporary; I had seven Education courses to complete in order to make it permanent. I enrolled in the Educator Preparation Institute (EPI) at St. Johns River State College. I also put my application in for a teaching position with the St. Johns County School District.

A friend warned me that his wife had been waiting two years for a position with St. Johns County. However, I was quickly offered a job as an Associate Teacher, a new position created by the district to address the recent class size limit legislation. Associate Teachers were certified teachers co-teaching with existing teachers in oversized classes. They are not responsible for lesson planning or accountability test scores, and they receive two-thirds the pay ($26,000). For me, it was great because I could leave campus when school was out and dedicate my evenings and weekends to my EPI coursework.

It turned out to be not great. But I'll save those details for the "Teaching was Awful" article. This article is for the good stuff.

What was great was the exposure I received. My two years as an Associate Teacher had me working with nine different teachers, seven different subjects, and two high schools. The range of personalities and teaching styles among those teachers was amazing. I took notes on what I'd like to emulate and avoid from each teacher's style. I picked up so many wonderful classroom management ideas that by the time I got my own classroom, I had more good ideas than the veteran teachers I worked with. One colleague said,

"Boy you got all the bells and whistles, don't you?"

What was also great as an Associate Teacher was the ability to passively observe the students during class. I saw a phenomenal range of learning styles in action. Some students listened quietly and took meticulous notes. Some kept asking their neighbors to repeat or explain what the teacher said. Some slept and doodled. One kid frequently offered comments on what the teacher said; she was frustrated with him, but he insisted that's how he learns.

By far, the most endearing thing I took away from the Associate Teacher position was being a safe haven for struggling students. Only a few students would ask questions during the lesson. The majority waited for a "safe" moment to get one-on-one help without drawing attention to themselves. With the lead teacher always being busy, the really struggling kids just didn't even try. But if I sat down and gave them my undivided attention, they usually made the effort to see if they could master the task. Being free to focus on one student at a time enabled me to save several students from failing the class.

For example, Dennis could not stay awake during class unless he was talking. His choice of off-topic questions and comments inspired other students to make fun of him, but he fought back like a trooper. He was registered as having a learning disability and ADHD, and failing the lowest-level science available. I offered to tutor him after school, and I found a brilliant mind beneath that goofy exterior. All I had to do was ask him the right questions, and he found his way to the right answers. During test times, I made sure he sat on a stool instead of a chair to help him stay awake. His mother wrote me a sweet email to thank me, but I couldn't help but chalk it up to my availability as a token teacher with no real responsibilities.

Another memorable student was a senior in a class full of freshmen. Jonathan did no work at all and read novels during class, even though he would not graduate high school without that science credit. The lead teacher was too overwhelmed with the large class to do anything about it, so I took on the mission. At first I pleaded with him. Then I threatened to take his novel away. Then I sent him to his counselor for refusing to give me the novel. We battled for much of the year, and I let him read after he finished his class work. He never did a stitch of homework, claiming his mother would beat him if he did homework at home because that meant he didn't perform well enough at school. I didn't know what to do with that except let him know that it was a hard story to believe. I got the priviledge of teaching the last chapter of the year, and the main assignment was an at-home project due after seniors' last day. My boy stopped coming to school, and I was worried he would fail the class for not turning in the last assignment; he was barely passing by a fraction of a percent. Lo and behold, his work was in my mailbox on the due date, and it was one of the best projects I graded. A few days later, I watched him receive his high school diploma.

My two years as an Associate Teacher was extremely valuable, if not lucrative. However, I absolutely could not wait to have my own classes. I thanked the next principal who offered me another Associate Teacher position, but held out for the real deal.

Paxon School for Advanced Studies

The real deal came from Duval County. One of the academic magnet schools needed a Chemistry teacher in a hurry. I had already gained certification in Chemistry because most of my Associate Teacher class assignments were Chemistry. Despite my true schooling being English, Paxon's principal said the candidates for Chemistry teachers were extremely rare, and I was his best option. I was doubtful about that, but he said,

"I can tell you have a heart for kids. If you can just make it fun for my struggling kids, that's all I ask."

Fun I can do.

And I did. Boy did we have some fun.

One of my fellow science teachers told me that there was a nationwide epidemic of failures in high school Chemistry and Physics. That might explain why Duval County adopted a new curriculum called Active Chemistry. There was a counterpart called Active Physics as well. The textbook series aimed to make science fun for students. It sure did!

We started off the year making miniature hydrogen bombs in hollowed-out eggshells. The first chapter had students making movie scenes with special effects created by chemistry. Later in the year they were making miniature flame-throwers by squeezing an orange peel at a candle flame.

I wanted my students to know chemistry was taking place all around them in their daily lives, and they could control much of it. Unfortunaly, most of the traditional labs required chemicals and equipment only found in the school lab. But at Paxon, I was inspired and enabled.

I had no idea teachers were so autonomous.

I made up labs they could replicate at home, using chemicals and equipment they could buy at a regular store. I learned a lot of homestyle tricks and resources from Anne Helmensteien's channel on About.com. My students learned how to make pancakes with and without carbon dioxide. They learned how to make ice cream in a ziploc bag, how to move copper atoms from a penny to a nickel, how to measure the calories in a piece of food, and how to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen--all using household items and maybe a trip to Home Depot.

Yes, the labs were fun for me as well as my students. However, the real fun for me was seeing them struggle with a difficult concept and then GET IT. I can't think of a more gratifying experience. Here are a few memories that will ring through my ears forever:

  • Elexus lighting a Christmas light by running electricty through water instead of wire; she said, "That's cool" with wonder in her eyes.
  • Katherine writing I LOVE CHEMISTRY on her lab notebook.
  • Theo asking if we could sing the electron configuration song.
  • Ant forever yelling, "Call lithium! Call lithium!" when I drew cards to pick someone to answer a question. You see, in my fourth year, I made a deck of cards with elements on them that were each assigned to a student. I drew a card to ask questions so that no student could ever feel singled out. Ant's version of saying "pick me!" was "Call lithium!" (his assigned element).
  • Jerel making up a song to remember the sig fig rules. It goes to the tune of "Row, Row Your Boat," and he had full-body motions to go along with it:
    (Hug your shoulders and swing side to side.) "Trapped, trapped, trapped always,"
    (Wag your head and finger like no-no.) "Leading never,"
    (Walk sideways while gradually crouching.) "Trailing, trailing, trailing, trailing,"
    (Point a dot in the air.) "Only if there's a decimal."
  • Chymia learning that song the following school year and performing it with me for the rest of the class.
  • Arianna working out atomic energy levels on the board and saying, "Wow, I know stuff."
  • Chris working out the most difficult problem of the year - determining a chemical formula from percentage composition - and saying, "That's so easy!"
  • Sasia saying her CO2 pancake was "off the chain" delicious, and then when another kid complained about his flat pancake, she said, "You must have made a non-CO2 pancake."
  • Hunter and Kyle accepting the priviledge of leaving the lesson to chat in the far corner of the room, then wanting to answer questions from their exile. Then Nina saying, "They can't answer questions; they chose to leave us."
  • Kylei spending the entire year trying to discredit me as a teacher and disrupt class, but accepting my alternate assignment of researching a career plan. She proudly produced a notebook of all the details I had requested, including job market, college requirements, prerequisites for those college classes, financial requirements, and financial aid, all hand-written in perfect font and page formatting. She also bragged about getting perfect scores on my quizzes, even while trying to share her answers with other students.
  • Marquise reminding the class that "hydroxide has to stay hydroxide" when someone wrote a chemical equation that was missing hydroxide's parentheses.
  • Derrick re-submitting an assignment he had improved from super-weak writing form to super-strong sentence structure, supporting details, and citations.
  • Arielle working through her stage fright by taking the last five minutes of class to sing for her peers, and then those peers cheering her on and hugging her.
  • Tori, Nina, Aimee, Arielle, and Theo presenting me with cards and a gift basket to encourage me when my mother was hospitalized.
  • Tony staying after class to share sympathy for my mother because he had lost his own mother the previous school year.
  • All the kids hitting the gong with their individual style to announce they had finished their lab.
  • Other students saying "no way" when the first lab group hit the gong to announce they were finished.
  • Jeremy explaining how salt crystals disassociate in water, beginning with "What happened was..."
  • Royce being quiet in class all year long, then at the end of the year playing and singing "Sarah Smile" to wild cheers from the entire school.
  • Addison saying "That's you, Walter," when Walter's card was drawn to answer a question.
  • Walter saying, "I don't know," when the entire class knew he knew the answer because he was the top student in the class.
  • Evan in coke-bottle glasses telling the class about his experiment of seeing how long he could stare at the sun, and the resulting damage to his eyes.
  • Malcolm saying I was like a cool Ms. Gates.
  • LeAndre and Elijah anonymously alloting some of their own grade points on a group project to Marian because they thought she did more of the work.
  • Lavonya speaking in a growly voice for the dragon in her group's special effects movie.
  • Several students screaming during a video clip of a chunk of lithium floating in a pond and then exploding.
  • Students squealing in terror and protecting themselves with a plexiglass shield as I sprinkled nuclear radiation on them in the form of glitter.
  • Imani finishing first and finding out how tiny hydrogen is when students had to build a model of an atom of the element they were assigned.
  • Tori never finishing her atom model because her element was Xenon, which required 131 beads and multiple pipe cleaners.
  • Isabelo returning his paper to me to correct the grade when I had mistakenly given him too many points.
  • Chasten beginning every answer with, "Well, it's like this..."
  • Imani seeing the purity report of a commercial bottled water and saying, "Oh my God, it's got everything on the periodic table in there."
  • Gabrik offering guessed-explanations with as much science lingo as he could think of
  • Isabel screeching "YES!" when she got a perfect score on an essay I had assigned with a very detailed rubric. When one of the top students in the class grumbled at his own score and asked if anyone had gotten a perfect score, Isabel said, "I did! I worked SO hard on this!"

2015