……a master teacher chat on advice, relationships & the first year experience by Stacey James McAdoo…
Art, it’s said, isn’t created in a vacuum. Collaboration, community, creativity, and culture all play a vital role in the artist’s ability to create. The same holds for teaching and learning, which is why I welcomed the opportunity to participate in the Little Rock School District’s most recent Novice Teacher Support Session. It was also a bonus that the session was moderated by the highly esteemed Ms. Crystal Green Braswell!
I read somewhere that the average child knows approximately 5,000 words by the time he/she is four years old. And that typically by the time we reach middle age, we know more than 40,000 words. Based on that I should be able to come up with more than a few words to express my adoration for Ms. Braswell, but I continuously fall short each time I try.
Not only is Ms. Braswell a rock star mother who works full time as Cloverdale Middle School’s Student Achievement Intervention Specialist and part-time for LRSD as a Novice Teacher/Master Mentor Facilitator, she somehow still manages to make the time to be my sounding board, shield and safe place when the world around me becomes too much to bear. And for her professional and personal mentorship, I am eternally grateful.
My relationship with Ms. Braswell brings us full circle to the purpose of the Novice Teacher Support Sessions. These face-to-face meetings provide the novice teachers an opportunity to connect not only with their mentor but also with other novice teachers (teaching in various disciplines, grade levels and school buildings) for an evening of collaboration, discussion and professional development on a multitude of topics. This particular session included a master teacher chat segment that I was asked to participate in. Listed below are the questions asked and my answers.
Knowing what you know now, what one piece of advice do you wish you would have had during your first year?
I can’t think of anything that I wish I would have received, but I do know what the best advice was. It was to never to say anything that I couldn’t back up. During my first year of teaching, I had this one student. You know, THE one. She was your stereotypical “fun” student. She spoke loudly, was disruptive, wouldn’t complete the work or stay on task….and I was never able to get ahold of her mother by phone. Every number we had on file was out of service or wrong. This one day I had had enough. I needed help. And even though I knew that you should never say anything out of anger or frustration, this day I was operating through the “frog/reptilian” part of my brain. After another failed attempt to reach her mother, I told the student I was going to meet her at her house after school because I was gonna to talk with her mother one way or another. My declaration didn’t go over too well with the student. And to be honest, I surprised myself when I heard words fall from my lips. She immediately started rolling her neck and saying stuff like, “On the blood, you ain’t comin’ over to my house!” at the top of her lungs so everyone in the classroom could hear.
She lived in the part of town that before eminent domain and gentrification got ahold of it, would have been considered by some to be “the hood.” I didn’t want to go over to her house, but I desperately needed to speak with her mother because I needed some strategies, tips, and suggestions on how to effectively reach this child. By the end of that class period, her loud and aggressive tone had shrunk to a quiet “Please don’t come over to my house.”
When the dismissal bell rang, I grabbed my personal belongings, the piece of paper that housed her address and headed to her home. An older gentleman who I presumed to be her grandfather was sitting on the porch smiling when I arrived. “You really came. Go on in, her momma’s waiting,” I was instructed. The three of us had a great conversation, and I never had another problem with her for the rest of the year. Or anyone for that matter. News quickly spread, and I became known as that teacher.
But to loop back around to your original question of what piece of advice do I wish I would have received, I think it would be to truly embrace the quote that one of my mentors (Marie Parker by way of Marva Collins) used to always say: “We are never in the land of the done.” There are a couple of different takes on that quote. One is that we (as educators, professionals and humans) are always evolving, learning and growing…that we are always becoming…and will never “arrive.” The other is quite literal — as educators we will truly never be able to complete all the work or fulfill all the expectations placed upon us. We must learn how to prioritize and pick our battles. When the mandates, requirements and to do lists are more than there are hours to complete them, I determine their importance and ranking by asking myself “If I don’t do x, y and z will it hurt my students?” If it won’t, then it gets pushed to the backburner.
Have you been successful with building relationships with your students? How so?
I think I’ve been very successful in building relationships. It’s probably my strongest attribute. While attending sporting events, dances, extracurricular activities, and allowing students to eat lunch in your classroom, etc. are valuable, those things are done on one’s personal time and should not be expected or required of teachers. I try hard to create a classroom environment that’s safe, nurturing, and promotes trusting relationships. Therefore, I spend quite a bit of time getting to know my students during the academic day. And although we’re in this age of testing where’s a lot of pressure to get through all the content, in my heart of hearts I believe that my students are more important than the subjects that I teach.
At the beginning of each class period, we essentially do what would be referred to as Rise and Shine in elementary school. We journal, sing a song (a modified version of Veggie Tales “I am A Promise” or Barney’s “I Love You” if I’m feeling down), do a recitation or choral reading of a quote, solve logic questions and talk about what we’ve been up to or learned since we last saw each other. We do this virtually Every. Single. Day. Initially, these high school students think (or pretend) it’s corny to sing and whatnot, but that usually doesn’t last too long. Whenever students come back to visit me (sometimes even decades later) or I run into them somewhere in the community, I’m almost always greeted with a quote or our classroom song.
Another way that I build relationships is by having frequent contact with parents. Early in my career, a master math teacher named Ms. Marilyn Rutledge told me that before school starts, she calls the parents of all 150 of her students to introduce herself to them. I remember being wowed and impressed with that. Then I learned that it not only established a positive line of communication with the family before any classroom incidents, but it also lets you know immediately what numbers work and which ones don’t. I can’t say that I have always called all 150 parents prior to school starting, but I do always try to call parents (especially the ones of my “fun” students) on the first or second day of class to brag on them and let them know how much I am already enjoying having them in class.
How hard was your first year of teaching? Describe your experience. What kept you connected to the profession?
Honestly, I rocked my first year of teaching. For the most part, I felt very prepared and had a great year, which in hindsight is very remarkable. Let me back up a little bit. I am a nontraditionally certified educator. I always knew I wanted to teach, but I dodged it for a while for various reasons – namely the pay and declining respect extended to the profession. But when my brother (my baby brother and only sibling) died unexpectedly in a car accident, I knew life was too short for me to continue running from my calling. So, I cut off my hair, quit my job, and paid money to receive training for a job that would pay less than what I was making as an administrative assistant. While attending the alternative certification training, I saw a flyer for a master’s in teaching degree and decided to go that route instead. During my first year of teaching I was grieving, raising two children under the age of 3, attending graduate school (that I finished in less than a year), sponsoring the Writeous Spoken Word Poetry Club (and several others) and securing grants to publish books of my students’ writings.
I don’t know how I did it. That’s not exactly true. I do. I had (and have) a lot of help and great support. And I took advantage of all the resources at my disposal. I had a mentor from my department (Ms. Agnolia B. Gay) that was assigned to me, Ms. Annice Steadman (who probably got tired of me running downstairs into her room or inserting myself in her life) and then there were those around the building and elsewhere that I latched on or assigned myself to just on GP (general purposes). I took every smile and salutation as an invitation to share what my students were learning or to ask questions about whatever I needed clarity on. And if my colleagues didn’t care, want to hear or help – I sure couldn’t tell (or was too green to see).
Regarding what kept me connected to the profession, aside from a wonderful village and support system, I would have to say the memory of my brother Craig (who was my only live pupil amid a classroom of stuffed animals and dolls) and my younger self. I mentioned earlier that I always knew I wanted to teach. Part of that reason was that I wanted to help fill the void and be to others what I needed more of. I can count on my hands the total number of African American teachers I’ve had throughout my entire educational career (including college) and how much it meant to me when I did have them. Not only do I believe that relationships matter, but I also know that representation matters…a lot…especially when you’re under-represented.