My rite of passage into the teaching profession was a grueling contest of cunning wit and enduring grit. Would an aspiring 22-year old novice survive a ruthless pack of wolves cleverly disguised as sixth graders?
I cut my teaching teeth in Prince Rupert, a rugged fishing town 500 miles up the coast from Vancouver, B.C.. King Edward Elementary School served as a melting pot of well-mannered middle-class children and rough “wrong-side-of-the-tracks” kids. The latter was predominant.
In October, only a month after I had begun my final assignment as student-teacher, the principal approached me. “I understand you’re looking for a job,” he began. “I have a vacancy in January.”
Hmm, this is a little unusual, I thought, since we’re but a few weeks into the term.“What have you got?” I asked. Teaching positions were scarce at the time. He described the following situation.
By the middle of October, these sixth graders had driven two seasoned professionals to nervous breakdown and exhausted the full roster of substitute teachers. (You couldn’t pay them enough to take this class of hooligans…not even for a day!) The class was now under the firm hand of a diminutive, old-fashioned school-marm, a veteran who had been coaxed out of comfortable retirement to hold off these budding terrorists until “someone suitable” could be found.
A clever scheme formed in my mind. “Let me observe the class for the remainder of the term as a ‘student teacher’ being mentored by Mrs. McGibbon. Don’t let the students know I am their teacher come January.”
I sat at the back of the class aghast at the macabre theatre playing out before me. Like a pack of vicious wolves these 11-year olds tried everything their mischievous minds could conjure to break down the brave old war-horse at the helm. Only her courage, experience, and love for children carried Mrs. McGibbon safely through the entire term and back into welcome retirement.
Day after day I studied each student thoroughly, interacting with them whenever possible. I learned not only their names, but how each thought, their likes, their dislikes, their family background, anything and everything that would help me understand who and what I was up against! I memorized their every move.
You can imagine the initial shock on the first day of the new term when I was introduced as their new teacher. Their next move was predictable. Almost imperceptibly, eyes flashed the message from student to student, ‘This rookie is easy prey. Let the games begin!’
As I wrote on the chalkboard, one after another dug into their arsenal of mischief. Without turning around, I called each by name and by misdeed. By mid-day, the entire class was convinced Mr. Dahl had eyes in the back of his head!
The remaining two terms of the school year changed my ideas about teaching. This class shifted my focus from methods and teaching to facilitating and learning. They set me on a quest to understand how children learn.
As the year progressed, these students began to achieve academic success, much to the amazement of the principal and the rest of the staff. The secret was not really my cleverness, nor my diligence as a CIA spy, but my willingness to learn the 3 R’s of teaching.
THE 3 R’s OF TEACHING
As the students saw that even under fire I…
- respected them as people (not animals!),
- respected them as individuals (not a bunch of misfits!),
- respected their personal and academic potential (no teacher, not even their parents, thought they could amount to anything!),
one by one surrendered and began a journey with me on a pathway of learning and discovery none of them even imagined existed.
As our trust of each other grew, we shared our inner selves. Unresolved emotions surfaced and we learned how to address personal issues and resolve conflicts without resorting to violence and bullying. Relationships emerged—students and teacher, students with peers. (Although some parents engaged in the process, others in that situation simply weren’t interested.)
My biggest challenge was motivation. Learning was not a high priority in the dysfunctional families in which most of these kids lived. They saw little value or need for school. In short, school was a year-long prison sentence repeated 12 times. Most would drop out by 9th grade.
The learning environment and classroom dynamics had to change.
- Lessons, assignments, homework shifted from useless and boring to meaningful and fun!
- Organized team sports played during the lunch break created a positive outlet for pent-up energy.
- A school choir gave opportunity for cultural expression.
None of the staff thought the energy and creativity of “this kind of kid” could be harnessed. Yet, here they were, enjoying school and actually learning, too.
My journey in education has been a colorful adventure in learning. I owe my start to this rambunctious class of sixth graders, a pack of wolves who initiated me in the 3 R’s of teaching and made a facilitator of learning out of me.
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