This is more of a personal note than a post about my career change, but it’s all I can think about today. My dear friend Laura passed away last night after a long struggle with Stage 4 kidney cancer. She was 38 years old.
Laura was, among many other things, a Montessori teacher. She didn’t study teaching when we were at UW together, but it seemed to be such a great fit for her. She loved kids, learning new things, science…I mean, of COURSE she became a teacher. And her students seemed to love her.
I am sure that seeing Laura’s joy in her students and her profession planted a seed in me to become a teacher, although it took several years to sprout. Laura’s emotions were always near the surface, and if she felt strongly about something, her feelings were often infectious. I remember just listening to her talk about her students, her frustrations and concerns, and her many and obvious joys.
We all knew this was coming for at least 18 months. I felt like I made my peace and said goodbye a while ago. I had a lovely lunch with her and her family in La Crosse, and I remember thinking, “This might be the last time I see her. It’s sad, but I’m glad I got to have this chance.” But I’m still feeling a loss.
I’m not very happy with this post because I feel like it’s too much about me and my dumb feelings. But right now, that’s what I’m dealing with. She was lucky to have a husband and family who loved her dearly, and their loss is far greater. They are in my thoughts now and always.
It’s been a long time since I last posted. I’ve just had a hard time organizing my thoughts. I’ve completed 70 hours of volunteering, and right around hour 50 things started getting real. Two years from now, I will have nearly finished school, including student teaching. That’s exciting–two years seems like a long time, but I’m going to need that much time to get prepared.
Instead of trying to summarize everything, I’m going to describe one class last Tuesday. This is an Orientation level class, which means that the students start with no English, and possibly little schooling in their native language. It’s a lot of vocabulary building, reading simple stories, and sometimes writing sentences.
Second period was approximately 12 students when I started, but it’s doubled in size since late March. (One student also moved up to Level 1–I’m so proud of her!) It’s always awkward to start a new class mid-term (I speak as a student and guess how a teacher would feel) when you’re not sure what the student’s background is, but when the student has trouble communicating in your language, it’s extra rough. I saw a girl a few weeks ago copying the warm-up off the board letter by letter. Not even word by word, but letter by letter. I don’t know if she gained anything from that lesson, but two weeks later, she seems to be making progress.
We had two more new students, because why not? It’s the second week of May. These two seemed to pick up on directions and how the class works fairly quickly. I worked with one, since his partner didn’t speak his language. The other was seated next to a fellow Somali speaker who did a great job helping her.
First, everyone did partnered reading. One student reads while the other holds the bookmark (so they have to follow along), then they switch. This method makes more sense in Level 2, when they switch by paragraph, than it does in Level O, where they switch sentence by sentence.
The stories they read in Level O are fairly interesting and often based on true stories. The students in 1 & 2 read a lot of books meant for little kids, which I imagine can be boring. There are a few simple books for ELL students about things like taking the bus to school and getting a job that are much more age-appropriate, but there’s a need for many more (assuming they can make money and the schools can afford them).
After that, they answered questions about the story guided by the teacher. While this happened, the teacher put me to work cutting some paper for another lesson. This teacher tends to be apologetic when she gives me simple tasks like cutting paper or organizing folders, but I don’t mind. It’s part of the job, it’s helpful, and I can pay attention to the activity in class while I do it.
In the last 15 minutes, the teacher asked me to lead the class in spelling while she did some prep work for a later class. I had seen her do this exercise many times, but I had never led it before. The teacher asked students to hand out 8″ x 11″ white boards, markers, and erasers. I called out a word from the story they had just read (the teacher made a list). The students write the word on the white board and hold it up so I can check to see if it’s correct. I tell people when they get the word right, correct mistakes, and write the word correctly on the board.* I find it really fun for some reason. It feels like a game, even though I don’t keep score.
So that went great! The teacher was happy that she got to do her work, the students were enthusiastic about the activity (they like the game, too), and I got practice leading the class. I’m working on giving simple instructions, since that’s necessary in all teaching, but especially when your audience has limited English skills. I’m making progress. Even just cutting the amount of times I say “probably” by 80% helps. Eye roll.
I did give the students the word “race” to spell, and about half of them wrote “rice.” I said, “Oh, no, ‘rice’ is a different word. Listen carefully: ‘race.'” To which they replied, “What’s rice?” Uhh…it’s food. White food. Little white food. Chinese food has a lot of rice. How do you explain what rice is? I could have said “arroz,” but that would help the African kids not at all. So I don’t know if that was helpful, but they don’t need to learn everything in one day.
One thing I should have done differently: ask for volunteers to pick up the boards, markers, and erasers. I just said, “Hey, someone pick this stuff up,” but it wasn’t any specific student’s responsibility. The students are great about helping, but they need to be prompted sometimes, especially when they’re thinking about getting to their next class. So, noted.
Like I said, it’s becoming more real. I know everyone’s first year is tremendously hard, but I believe I can get through it and do this job. This might even be the elusive passion I’ve searched for, although if it’s not, that’s OK, too. I think that, as long as I like the kids, I can handle the hard parts.
*BTW, my teacher handwriting is pretty sweet! It’s hard to write on the board, and neat handwriting hasn’t always been easy for me. Especially if it has to be neat and large. But after a little practice, it comes out nice, if a little crooked. I find writing in a nice hand to be very satisfying, and I had no idea i had so much D’Nealian left in me. Thanks, Mrs. Kennedy!