Monday, September 7, 2009

Talk is Cheap

Last year at this time I was sitting in a my tiny basement apartment in Queens, trying to prepare myself as best I could for the major undertaking that lay before me- the first year in the classroom. I had a lot of ideas about what it would be like, but none of them quite lined up with what I got.

I really had no idea what was coming. As the first day approached I even grew nervous about the fact that I may not know anything about teaching in this environment. That didn't mean I didn't act like I knew about it. Most of what I knew about urban ed came from a lot of academic articles, a few site visits to schools in the urban Kansas City, Kansas district and the stories my best friend told about her stint as a student teacher in an urban setting. She certainly got her taste of it. Her cooperating teacher walked out the first day and didn't come back until the end of the eight week stint (at which time the students asked who the cooperating teacher was). My experience was nothing like that. In spite of that, I walked a fine line between spouting bullshit about urban education and bouncing stories off of others to get feedback about what it might be like. In retrospect it seems like I was doing more of the former.

Along with being an urban educator comes unique challenges just like any other profession. A lot of very intelligent, very dedicated people fail at it for a large variety of reasons. Movies like Freedom Writers make people think that if you smile enough and have the students write about their feelings the entire day that it will work out just fine. Like other professions, if you've never done this specific job there is no way to know what it's like. Whether you've read a thousand books about it, seen cheesy movies about terrific teachers fighting the good fight, and sat in a classroom from the age of six to the age of twenty-two, it does not show you what it's like being at the front of the classroom.

While I don't think that the "front line" analogy holds up in all circumstances, this might be one area where it does, especially in the first year. Many times soldiers and new teachers march to the front line confident and eager to serve their country, their ideas of service based on stories they've heard, a push to go and fight for freedom or whatever else they've become passionate about, and their own training. From what I can tell from the veterans of foreign wars I know, as well as the veteran teachers I know, nobody continues to say the same things they said about the experiences right out of the school of ed or straight out of boot camp. Once you hit the ground you realize you were watching from the bleachers instead of being on/in the field. There is an enormous difference.

In the classroom you struggle to survive your first year. It's a fact of life in this setting and nothing to be embarrassed about. I'm told that the second year is far better than the first and that the third is better than the second. It's left to be seen by me, but instead of being nervous about this year, I'm actually rather excited about it. In June I was very nervous I would still be bitter, angry and tired of school come September. I'm elated to say that I'm not.

Advice to First-Years: Be flexible. Don't adhere to what you think urban education is or what you think it's supposed to be. If you're coming from outside the urban environment, you're going to need to let go of your own experience in education and determine what's the best way to teach in the new environment. It will be require a whole lot of flexibility, especially at first. If you adapt to the setting you'll survive the first year, which is all most people in the field ask for and expect. Concentrate on that before trying to save the entire campaign.

Today's Wine: Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais l'Ancien Terres Doree Gamay. Beaujolais is the region in France. It was light and dry, pretty standard for the reason, apparently.

Names like this used to be kind of a turn off. I saw a thousand words I didn't recognize and thought I'd stick to the common varieties from California (Merlot, Cabernet, etc.). Now I'm trying to tackle the many regions of France and Italy.
Any ideas about how to best learn about the different wines?

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