Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 22 2011

Choosing math class over free time

At the end of January, our other 8th grade math teacher quit. He at least lasted longer than the girl who started in that spot last year (she quit in October), but that is the end of the third teacher in that spot since I’ve started.

I think it’s extraordinarily wrong to quit on kids in the middle of the year, but what this guy did was actually worse. It was his first year and he was having a lot of trouble being a math teacher, so he pretty much stopped bothering months ago. On the days when he did teach, it was often something random, wrong, or at the wrong grade level. On other days, he would put something up on the board and then tell the kids they could screw around as long as they pretended he was teaching if administration walked in. (Mind you, my school knew much of what was going on, but it takes a months-long, work-intensive process to fire a teacher. Even in their first year. Even if they literally are not teaching. Not my school’s fault… that’s the system. Don’t get me started on that.)

So the guy eventually quit officially, and left three classes of eighth graders and one class of seventh graders who have not learned any math. His classes are so out-0f-control and unaccustomed to structure or work that the substitute hates them. Administration is having a lot of trouble finding someone qualified to both teach math and handle those kids.

Until they find someone, I’ve offered to teach his 8th grade classes too. I go in for 10-20 minutes while my kids are doing the warm-up and multiplication intervention and don’t need me. I teach his kids a lesson on something I think is important (hello, algebra), and then I leave them to practice with the sub while I go back to my room and teach my kids their own lesson. It actually works relatively smoothly.

The crazy part is how incredibly well-behaved those kids are while I’m in the classroom. They stay quiet, they take notes, they do their work. It’s not because I’m a miracle worker with crazy kids. It’s because on the first day, I told them they had lots of fun in math class up until now, but they weren’t going to pass in high school unless they did some learning and this was an emergency. I told them it wasn’t too late for them, but they’d have to work really hard and we’d have to cut all the things that weren’t important from the curriculum. I told them that I wasn’t there to practice my classroom management and I refuse to waste my original students’ time, so if they couldn’t behave I simply wouldn’t come back. For all that they might be crazy middle school students, deep down they actually do want to learn. When given the choice between being crazy every day for math class and sitting quietly to learn the material, they actually pick the latter. It’s adorable and inspiring and SO SAD that their old math teacher didn’t take advantage of that.

The best day was a few weeks ago, when one of the World’s Most Difficult Students, back from suspension and unaccustomed to the new math teacher arrangement, started acting out in class. I kicked her out, and told the class that anyone else who didn’t want to learn could walk out with her. With all the bravado of someone used to causing trouble, she looked with delight at her classmates and said, “Did you hear that? We can all leave. Let’s go!”

No lie, every kid in the class looked at her, looked back at me, and then got back to work. Every single one. She walked out alone. Some of her classmates worked so well that they finished early and came to my room for more work. They really want to be learning.

7 Responses

  1. Wess

    This breaks my heart and reminds me of my kids at Institute. Also, way to be a badass and teach two classes at once.

  2. Stephanie

    Those kids a lucky they have you. Kudos.

  3. Keep up the good work. An inspiring look at just how much our children have in them to learn and grow. We just need to be willing to see it.

  4. briana

    As an incoming Phoenix corps member, I love reading your blog to hear about all your stories. It’s so great that you’re able to teach two classes in one period. This story is just another example of how students want to learn and want to do well if we hold high expectations for them and actually believe those expectations. Keep up the great work!

  5. adrilicious

    It’s totally amazing that you’re teaching two classes, and that students are responsive to how much you want to teach them. The system sucks to be sure, but you’re amazing!

  6. Marisa

    You are amazing!

  7. Mama Grizzly | mathinaz linked to this post.

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