Teaching in the inner city in a low-income neighborhood, you get used to the same problems year after year. Unfilled positions. Lack of subs. Inordinately large class sizes. Ornery kids taking advantage of the chaos. If there’s one thing a teacher learns in this position, it’s how to be flexible. We are routinely asked to take on things never conceived of when accepting the job. And though it’s usually phrased in the form of a question, the expectation is that we will happily comply.
Normally, I truly am happy to comply. I was sent to Phoenix by Teach for America and I knew I’d be teaching in extremely challenging circumstances. That first year, for instance, was horrendous. As a computer science major through college, I was equipped to teach solely by a meager five week crash course put on by Teach for America over the summer. I was then thrown into a sixth grade classroom composed of insolent rebels, who relentlessly endeavored to take over. My classroom was a nightmare of papers strewn all over the place, and my principal even came in after school one Friday afternoon and spent THREE HOURS helping me to create organizational systems! So yea, I never had the fantasy that this would be a normal job.
Despite the challenges, I’m fiercely committed to giving my students the best I can. After that hellish first year, I spent five years teaching third grade, where I fell in love with the profession. And then, with much fear and trembling, I moved back into middle school to eighth grade, which I began loving even more than third. However, each year since I started teaching eighth grade, I’ve been asked to do something that always causes the same moral dilemma. Midway through each year, I’ve been asked to add a significant number of students to my already large classes. Always the same story. We lost a teacher. The long term sub can’t handle the kids. We can’t fill the position. By this time, I’ve already built a strong community with my current students. Procedures are in place and students are making solid progress as a result. Radically changing the makeup of my classes will put us back to Ground Zero.
As I’ve wrestled with this dilemma time and time again, I’ve often come to the question, “What’s best for my students?” Which has made the dilemma even more difficult. Because the answer is obvious. What’s best for my students is unequivocally NOT to double their class size! Adding even ten more students to each class is going to cause at least a two-week hiatus in the progress we’ve been making as I re-teach my procedures to the new group. That’s ten more students I need to give attention to, taking individual time away from the originals. That’s ten more papers to grade, cutting back on the amount of time I can spend writing meaningful feedback on each one. But if the answer is so obvious, why do I always feel so terribly bad about saying no? By this past year, I’ve developed enough rapport with my administration that I could have said no, and they would have worked around me. But I haven’t been able to do so. And I think it’s more than my people-pleasing nature.
Last year, I was the only eighth grade math teacher for 240 students. The other position never got filled. Three teachers went through the class and none could handle the behaviors. One hundred-twenty students spent the first half of their eighth grade year without Math. Even the most difficult children were complaining that they just wanted to do some Math! For a month, I considered the possibility of taking them all on. It would mean class sizes of sixty to eighty. Eighth graders. One classroom. And only me. Could that possibly be what’s best for the 120 I already had? How much attention could I really give anyone if I had class sizes of eighty?
As a Christian, my faith plays into everything I do. I began to consider the guy in the Bible who tried to avoid caring for certain “untouchables” by asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds that your neighbors are more than just the people living next door. Your neighbor includes the foreigners and the outcasts, and everyone else on the bottom rung of society’s ladder. Jesus was commanding that his followers look beyond their comfort zones when caring for people. So I started asking the question, “Who are my students?”
This radically changed my perspective. What if my students are more than just the ones who started the school year with me? If I’m the only Math teacher in eighth grade, and there are 240 students, aren’t they all my students? Why cap my class at forty? If there are kids down the hall wanting to learn Math, and I’m teaching Math, why not open the door? Granted, I’ve come a long way since that first year in my class management. Through observing strong teachers, reading, and lots of experimentation, I’ve learned to connect with the bizarre creature that is the middle-schooler and put systems in place to effectively manage a class.
So I opened the door with as much optimism and enthusiasm as I could muster. I had two classes of seventy-five and two classes of forty-five. I put my learned classroom management skills into hyperdrive with a plethora of labeled storage bins, purposeful seating charts, cooperative learning activities, and stern expectations. For example, if a team left items on their table instead of returning them to their bin, they would all earn lunch detention. They learned quickly to keep tidy! The “originals” who started the year in my classroom certainly suffered. But I was able to make a difference to so many more students. The success I had that year as a result of expanding my view of who my students were was magnificent. And the next year, after losing a seventh grade Math teacher, I was asked to take on two seventh grade classes. Again, it disrupted the good things I already had going with my eighth graders, but again, my influence expanded, and I was able to positively impact two grade levels instead of just one.
I’m not saying everyone should be teaching class sizes of seventy-five. And even with my skill set, it could have been a train wreck. But what if we teachers all tweaked our mindsets a bit? What if more of us expanded our views of who constitutes our students? What if instead of grumbling about the extra students and responsibilities added to our classes, we welcomed all students warmly? The impact that we could have would be limitless! Who are your students?