I didn’t want to be a teacher at all when I was younger. I had a few teachers that were really good, but much more were boring, uninspiring, and worst of all indifferent. I wanted nothing to do with it. So I avoided being a teacher for quite a while finding success in other professions. I still functioned in teacher-like roles (children’s theatre, training young workers, coaching a company team, etc.), but I ignored that in my blind aversion to education.
I ignored signs despite finding myself at parties always hanging out with the kids that were present instead of the adults because I could engage better with them. They were more genuine and more interesting. Who wants to discuss the weather or global politics when you can debate the best Boy Wonder or favorite color of M&Ms. I still ran away from teaching for many years. My parents were teachers, so I knew of their struggles first hand. I saw the toll teaching toll on my parents. The exhaustion, the financial challenges, and the lack of support were enough for me to say no. Aside from that though, I had seen my share of poor teachers.
Some of my least favorite teachers were the ones who thought quiet classrooms were effective classrooms. I had teachers who got upset because I wouldn’t stay on task. It’s hard though when the task was a worksheet full of math problems that I finished 10 minutes before my peers. Their solution was to tell me to spend more time checking. I would rudely tell them that it was their job to check it as I was sure they were right. They were, but that only seemed to irritate the teachers more. I would be told to quiet down often and not question what we were doing, but it’s in my nature to question EVERYTHING. So I felt like I was being told to not be myself.
I had a high school American History teacher who was nice but gave a lot of bonus points for participation. I answered enough in-class questions correctly that my grade was high enough to not have to take the final or show up the last two weeks. I got a great grade. I learned almost nothing. I had an AP calculus teacher who held the theory that any lack of sleep caused by excessive homework could be made up on vacations and weekends. We even had a massive homework packet the summer before the class started. I thought it was for practice, so I skimmed on my breaks working at Wendy’s. I understood most of it, so I didn’t bother doing it. Oops. It wasn’t just for practice, and it was a large starting portion of our grade. Oh well, the teacher disliked me because I refused to do much homework, but I aced the exams. Why should I do busy work if I obviously understood the content?
Even in college, I had an astronomy professor who became angry that I would mumble during his mind-numbing lectures so he would try to ask me ‘hard’ questions which were only hard if you knew nothing of astronomy. He didn’t like me either as evidenced by the pencil once chucked at my head. It’s okay, I have fast reflexes.
I did have a few great teachers. Ms. West in 4th grade took a bunch of city kids to a camp in the woods where we canoed and dissected frogs and slept in cabins for a few days. I don’t even know how you could get approval for that nowadays. I would finish my work early so she would let me draw in the back of the class, something I loved. She even gave me art books and supplies from the art teacher. It may have been just to keep me quiet, but I felt she really cared. That mattered most.
So eventually I couldn’t ignore the inclination I had to be an educator. I first tried to teach children’s classes at my church. I was turned down because I was too honest, too young (24?), and too excitable. Years later I would be asked to lead all of those same classes. I found an opportunity teaching music in an after-school program as part of Americorps. I play a lot of instruments, so it made sense. I was decent at it. While there I was told about the NYC Teaching Fellows program which sounded like a great way to get involved with teaching seriously. It is, overall, a wonderful program that brings people to teaching from a myriad of other professions. So I get prepped, get all excited and teach a group of nonmusical adults, fellow interviewees, to play the recorder. Everyone was having fun and within a few minutes, people were playing songs. I was over the moon. That is until I landed hard receiving notification that I wasn’t what they were looking for.
Overall, I have a lot of praise for the Fellows program, but I moped for a while trying to find meaning or purpose in their decision. After a bit of that though I was encouraged by my new wife to not give up and try again. So I signed up the next time they were interviewing. I got a serious hair cut to go with a serious demeanor (as much as I am capable of that). I showed up in a drab suit and taught a drab lesson about quadratic equations (not a commentary on quadratics, just what I did). Three other teachers taught the exact same lesson in my group after me. Maybe I was mildly more knowledgeable or personable than others in the group. Who can say.? What I do know is I was accepted. So the lesson was learned for me to be cautious and quiet. I would be the unseen cog in the grinding wheel of learning. Here I go.
So I began training to become a special education teacher. I chose special education because it seemed like an area where I could still make a positive impact. It wasn’t that I had a great deal of experience. Two of my closest friends were formerly special education students, one with a physical disability and mild cognitive impairment and the other with a more moderate cognitive impairment. My younger brother was, for a short time, also a special education student due to language delays. To me, they were some of my favorite people who also voiced similar dismay with portions of their childhood education. The difference was that their issues seemed about more specific actions by teachers and schools (being ostracized, having classes in the basement, or a lack of empathy) than the broader systemic problems I recalled. So these seemed like fixable problems.
I specifically chose District 75, the New York City district for students with more extreme learning challenges, because it seemed to be where there was the greatest need. When other teachers would learn I taught in District 75, I usually received one of three reactions: disdain, confusion, or feigned admiration.
The disdain was for what they perceived to be a lack of ‘real teaching’ going on with ‘those students’. To be fair, that pejorative was true of a few teachers I encountered in the district, but it was also true of a small minority of teachers everywhere. The difference was that most of those teachers didn’t last long in the harsh terrain that was District 75. I don’t mean harsh to infer bad, but instead that the needs were high and laid-back teaching to the middle without differentiation was an impossibility. You would drown in the students’ needs which are why many of the thirty fellows I started with didn’t last that first year.
The teachers that expressed confusion were the most honest, simply relaying their lack of understanding for how to teach reading and math to students who couldn’t speak, write, or sit still. To them, I would explain my daily routines for as long as they seemed genuinely interested.
Taken day to day and task to task, any goal seems less daunting.
The most frustrating group was definitely the false admirers. The ones whose first reaction to learning about my work was something like, “Oh, I don’t know how you do it. You’re such a saint.” Maybe other teachers also receive praise both deserved and undeserved. It’s hard to know how to react, both because I don’t like the attention and also because you don’t want to challenge anyone who might be an ally regardless of their motivations or misunderstandings. It is annoying though. My reaction usually was trying to make my head shaking less obvious and saying, “You know they pay me, right?”. It isn’t an act of charity, but I do daily try to be a great teacher though I often fall short. Those most painful moments are often when I grow the most.
Teaching to Learn-ing to Teach
I mention that trying, because in the beginning that’s all I was doing. The classes and training on childhood development, Teacher’s College reading groups, and Applied Behavior Analysis prepared me little for my daily work. I should mention that despite my initial experience with the Teaching Fellows program making it clear only serious teachers of boring lessons were wanted, I was initially hired as a music teacher (or more accurately, music therapist) by a fairly kind, dedicated, and open-minded principal. Despite music courses in college, I was not certified in music education. I was certified in elementary and special education and I happened to play a lot of instruments. Also, the fact that I was inexperienced at working with students with autism meant that I did what research I could and then played it by ear. There was definitely a lot of oversight as I was observed about a dozen times that first year. I was visited by school administrators, district arts representatives, and new teacher trainers. I was fine with them being there since they usually brought me new supplies when they came. I didn’t get a lot in terms of insight except for a general “I liked this…you’re doing a great job.” Not much to build on with that.
I was serious enough for a while until I realized the suits and the seriousness were just impeding me in what I was trying to accomplish. So my hair got longer, my clothes more casual, and my teaching more inventive. I tried to learn all I could about my students and the methods other teachers used to reach this unique population through music or any other means. Some I found to be worthwhile and others were discarded. Applied Behavior Analysis was a sticky point as it was advocated so heavily for students with autism, and, despite its success for short-term behavioral changes, I saw clear problems as I have written about in the past.
I created fun learning games like musical note Twister, and it was successful in teaching them notation, though remembering left and right was still a struggle solved through gloves and stickers with letters. I had a great district technology coach show me how to use GarageBand, so I started making music for and with my students. I learned the power of music and technology to improve language development for students with autism. Then we started making movies and when the iPad came out it made musicianship even more accessible. I saw the success that could come for My students and me from having fun and trying new ideas. And from then on I didn’t look back and was content to be the square peg.