A couple weeks ago, I had one of those days.
After writing a whole post about how nice my room is, a post that included pictures of the soft-lighting some nice lamps gave, some students working hard, some comfortable seating. After bragging in the post about how students owned the space, how they hung out before school and were comfortable, I had one of those days that made me feel like a total fraud.
We were using Frayer models to define important, complex terms like breakfast (for fun and practice!) and then oppression (Look! We can have fun and do super smart stuff!). It’s the kind of lesson that involves students being able to switch from small group conversations to all-class discussion fairly often. I had faith that my magnetic personality and captivating instruction was more than up to the task.
It was not.
Students talked over and through me all day long. At the beginning of the day, I had the patience to wait, and to bring them back together, and to firmly but warmly discuss how important it was that they listen to each other. By the end of the day, that patience was gone. My blood pressure was up, and I was heading into my two most talkative groups.
By the end of the day, after two students fighting over a Kleenex box ripped it clean in half, and after students took the lotion I always have available for my students and put it on the seat of one of their friends. After calling out a kid in front of the class for talking too much (which I know that I shouldn’t do, but I went ahead and did it anyway), and after two other kids starting talking to each other while I was lecturing someone else about not talking, I left the school frustrated. I hadn’t left the parking lot before my righteous frustration turned to pretty massive disappointment in myself.
I had one of those days, and I knew it could have been a whole lot better if I had been a whole lot better. Man, I hate that.
I hate it, and hated that I wasn’t going back to school the next day. I wouldn’t get to have the conversations with the kids I needed to have, didn’t get to leave the week on a high note.
I would be gone the next day, driving straight from the school parking lot to the airport, on my way to see Gerald Dessus, a teacher I had been told was running an inspiringly awesome class on social justice in the heart of West Philadelphia.
I Didn’t Expect This Kind of Inspiration
If you think that it would be tough to go see a great teacher doing great things the day after I knew I had done the same job poorly, then your thoughts match every bit of my worry in the plane and trying to sleep that night. But don’t worry. We were both wrong.
Watching great teachers is a beautiful thing, and Gerald certainly is that. Watching them teach in great schools, schools that center students and are full of joy and love and a whole lot of learning is even better. Mastery Charter Shoemaker is all that and more.
The very best thing about watching Gerald is that I got to see him do right what I did wrong.
Where I relied on charisma and a general uptick in engagement expected from talking about real-world stuff, Gerald had both in far greater quantities. Plus, he still did the important work of structuring his classroom in a way that made students comfortable, capable and accountable.
While they read a letter written when Emmett Till was killed, students searched for meaning, focusing on ideas like cognitive dissonance in addition to core reading skills like summarizing and drawing connections. When they moved to class discussion, students gave tremendous critical insight to the reading, built off of the statements of one another and listened intently to each other’s statements.
Great Teaching Doesn’t Happen by Accident
This didn’t happen by accident. Posters around the room and shared language among the students showed that they had practiced these skills, practiced not just reading but responding to text critically, practiced building on comments from other students rather than waiting for their turn to talk, defined and practiced and were held accountable for listening—really listening—to one another.
My time in Gerald’s class was too short, but was no less motivating and inspiring for it.
I went to bed early that night in anticipation of a morning flight, but stayed awake reflecting on all the work ahead of me, on how many things that would seem natural, like how to talk and how to listen. I thought about how so many things seem too complex for a middle school classrooms, like understanding a powerful moment when your understanding of reality does not match the world around you, and how it may drive you to action. These things can and should be done with every student.
I fell asleep less obsessed with my recent failures, more excited to build something better.