Recently, I was having a conversation where I was asked about what being a teacher is like. There’s really no good explanation that I’ve been able to come up with yet for my experience because each day is so different from the others. As I’ve come to do over my past seven months in service as an LV, I began to tell a story to illustrate my experience.
There’s one sixth grader in particular who I have a really challenging relationship with. This student is incredibly bright, but is often among my most unmotivated and disruptive students. No matter what approach I have taken, we always seem to butt heads. I have tried to pinpoint the exact moment that things went so haywire between us, but nothing concrete has surfaced. I’ve cried over this student (and others) and my own feelings of failure associated with not being able to get through to him.
A few weeks ago, one of this student’s best friends contacted me to meet about his own grade in social studies. We went over the assignments that he was missing and I mentioned that he might want to change his seat—friends are great, but not if they distract you during class. This student then turned the suggestions onto me. While, yes, he pulled a classic student move and told me how boring notes are, he did offer a solution—Silent Speed Ball Review (think Musical Chairs, but with more hand-eye coordination and trivia to save yourself from elimination). I’m pretty open to suggestions from my students, so I told him that we could try it out.
When the day came, I briefed the class on the expectations and possibility of Silent Speed Ball Review. Never before has my classwork been completed so quickly and completely by so many students. As we began the game, the student I haven’t been able to get through to suddenly had a million questions. The one I remember most clearly had to do with the consequences for people who didn’t take the activity seriously. I could have stopped time. I could have asked him why he was suddenly so concerned about this when he wasted time in class almost every day. I could have told him just how frustrating it is to try and deal with that exact situation every day of the week. I could have done a lot of things. Instead, I told him that he was going to be in charge of making that decision—he would be our “referee.”
At the end of the game, I reminded students to submit their notes on Google Classroom. Students packed up their binders and I dismissed class. Someone brought me the ball that had been used in the game, and I put it away in the desk. When I turned around, our “referee” was writing on the board. We made eye contact and he quickly ran out of class. Bracing myself for any number of possible notes and/or drawings, I went to the board. What I found was something that I couldn’t have imagined—“best class.”
As I wrapped up this story, I noticed that the person I was speaking with had become very quiet. After a momentary lull, she mentioned how what really stuck out to her was just how present I had been in the moment. I could have interpreted the questions that this student had as yet another way of wasting time, of trying to get a reaction out of me. I could have let myself be overwhelmed by frustration. Instead, I recognized the moment for what it was and I had chosen to empower him.
I want to emphasize now how difficult being present in the classroom has often been for me. I did not study education. I did not student teach. Truthfully, I didn’t really know that I would be teaching “for real” until I arrived at my site. I don’t think that there is anything in the world that could have prepared me for just how challenging being a classroom teacher is. Among the top descriptions I would give for myself are quiet, introverted and sensitive. These are three traits that, for me, have been very difficult to navigate and hold true to while also teaching. My nature also inclines to preferring stability and predictability—two things that are often difficult to find in a middle school.
At the time that I’m writing this article, the entire world feels unstable and unpredictable. At San Miguel School in Washington, D.C., we’re just beginning our second week of distance learning. Being present with students when you’re scattered across geography is hard enough, let alone when trying to account for differentials in access to internet, technology and time to complete assignments. I have students who are quarantined with their entire extended family in their houses and apartments. There are students with whom I’ve exchanged emails every day during “regular” school hours, and there are students who I haven’t heard from in over a week. What does being present for my students look like now?
In trying to answer this question, there’s been a lot of trial and error. I send bilingual emails to parents every morning detailing that day’s assignment. I update my gradebook as often as possible but with students submitting their assignments (including those that are past due) at all hours of the day, it can be overwhelming. I have online “office hours” every day that most students don’t use. Many of the students who have tried to use this resource have had a lot of difficulty figuring out Google Hangouts and Zoom. To try and combat this problem specifically, I created a “teacher Instagram” where I can video chat with students, share videos explaining lessons, and post other material that’s not available via Google Classroom. By using Instagram, I’m using a platform that almost all of my students are familiar with and have access to. So far, it’s working well.
This period of distance learning is teaching me that there really isn’t any set way to be present for my students. One common thread that I’ve noticed in my “successes,” though, is the importance of moving beyond myself. In the physical classroom, that might mean surrendering a little bit of control to a student “referee” or taking a moment to breathe through the initial reaction I have to a comment or question. During distance learning, moving beyond myself means challenging my comfort zone. If I didn’t have to video chat or set up recorded lessons where I can hear the sound of my voice on a nearly constant loop, I wouldn’t. Sometimes, moving beyond myself means sending at least 10 emails back-and-forth with a student and his mom in the space of 10 minutes because technology isn’t working and their Wi-Fi connection isn’t strong enough to support video chat.
There is a Lasallian text that speaks on the centrality of “radical availability” as an educator. Serving as a teacher—and particularly as a teacher at this moment in time—is anything but simple. In order to become my most available self and serve my students, I have to do a lot of self-reflection. I have to adapt the “less than satisfactory” parts of myself that I might be able to avoid if I was doing something else with my life.
No one can know exactly what waits ahead for us right now. For my part, I’m focusing on what I can do to be present right now for the students who are entrusted to my care—no matter what challenges are thrown my way.
Olivia Brophy is a first-year volunteer at San Miguel School in D.C. serving as the teacher for sixth grade social studies, sixth/seventh grade independent reading, seventh/eighth grade high school prep, study hall, academic intervention and occasional translator. She is a 2019 graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California with a degree in global studies and Spanish (minor in anthropology).