Love Whom You Teach

I ran out of my classroom, into the parking lot, and threw a satchel of markers, colored paper, and stickers in the back seat. I had exactly an hour and a half before I had to be back to teach my senior elective on poetry. I was headed to Mitchell Elementary School to my daughter’s fourth grade class to be a “guest lecturer” on poetry.

Two months before at Back-to-School night I had whimsically signed up on a list that was circulating the room titled “Possible Parent Activities”. There was a place for your name (under “Guest lecturer”) and your “expertise”. There were already four names, each with an expertise – photography, making pancakes, hand sewing, calligraphy so far –when it came around to me.

Young, energetic Miss Newman had called me later that week to schedule a forty-minute slot with Abby’s class to share my “expertise” in poetry. Thankfully, our schools were within five miles of each other, and I could zoom over in between my classes.

When I walked into Abby’s classroom of twenty-five smiling faces, Abby leaped out of her chair to hug me. Miss Newman introduced me to the class, and I began a lesson on cinquains, a very teachable, fun poetry form. For the remaining time that I was there, questions, bodies, and laughter swarmed as kids were creating their own cinquains with assorted art supplies.

All I remember thinking while I was with this animated bustle of kids for forty minutes was, How does she do this all day? Seventh and twelfth graders I get. Nine year olds seemed like whirling dervishes to me – a full school day with them? I couldn’t imagine it.

How do you know which age group works for you?

My husband has only taught juniors and seniors in high school – history electives on challenging but important topics like genocide and the Vietnam War. He has tough, compelling discussions every day. One fall semester he had to take over an eighth grade civics class for a colleague.

“How do you work with middle school kids – they’re nuts – they’re all over the place!” he said when he came home that night.

It’s true. You either love middle school students as a teacher, or you don’t. It’s an energy, humor thing for me. I like their teetering on adulthood but still with some part of them planted in childhood – that endearing earnestness I love.

I remember chaperoning a weekend ski trip of both middle and high school students. One of the staff from the motel we were staying at found a small plastic bag of marijuana in the lounge area only our group was using for meals, TV, and card playing while we weren’t on the mountain. That night we convened the whole group of fifteen kids.

“Someone from the motel has notified us of something that we have to address. One or more of you has broken a community rule and has jeopardized our taking these kinds of trips, and we want you to come forward to talk with us privately at some point this evening about what you did.”

We left it vague and wanted the student who had brought the drugs to feel the guilt of taking advantage of this kind of a fun trip.

At the end of the meeting as people were starting to watch TV and play cards, a middle school boy sidled up to me.

“Miss Dickenson, umm, I’m sorry, but Teddy and I were jumping on our beds last night.”

I had to bite my lip not to smile when I responded, “Thanks for letting me know, Dan – please no more jumping on the beds.”

How perfect. How sweet. It’s exactly why I love middle school kids.

I also love seniors. Ironically, in their last year in high school, kids seem to regain some of the lack of inhibition and unadulterated joy I witness in the seventh grade. It’s almost like the too-cool-for-school sense of the previous four years can be shed now that they have one foot out of the door. I have been teaching seventh and twelfth grades for many years because I love the energy each group brings to class.

I hope Miss Newman is still creating magic with fourth graders. I was so impressed with her unflappability and her obvious delight and love for nine year olds. I remember feeling so lucky that Abby had her as a teacher as I was driving back to kids I knew and understood.

As a teacher it’s vital to find the age and grade level that make you the best teacher. You’ll know when the age works because it’s where you feel most yourself, where you find joy and comfort and inspiration.

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