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First Days

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

As a former distance runner, I am fond of saying that teaching is a marathon and not a sprint. I’ve never captivated students with an energetic personality or by my physical presence from day one. I am not an imposing guy. I am short and slim, with a quiet voice and an introverted personality. But I’ve learned to establish my authority through work ethic, grit, and perseverance. My routine efforts, combined with an infrequent demonstration of muscle (sending a disruptive student to the dean), created a functioning classroom during my Minnesota teaching days.

I figured this strategy would also work for me at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. This was before I learned that our school had no dean. In fact, in our meetings before the start of the school year, the one question for which I could not get a straight answer was, “What do I do if I have a student who is disrupting the learning process of others?” I was more or less told not to remove a student except in the instance of a physical fight.

So I felt apprehensive going into the first day of the school year as the tenth-grade global history teacher. I decided on a first lesson that would ask students to consider how historians use evidence to construct understandings about the past. I set up five different stations and at each placed an artifact that represented something about my background, such as a high school yearbook and family picture. The plan was to put the students in groups and have them rotate through each station, examining the artifacts and drawing conclusions about this guy who would teach them for the year.

But on the first day of school, students began bouncing of the walls, screaming and embracing, before they even entered my classroom. The tenth-grade students were extremely excited to see one another after a summer apart. Having finally succeeded in ushering the students into classrooms, the noise and energy continued inside. I struggled to make myself heard, and just when it seemed like I had their attention, another student would walk in and the riotousness would start up again. Not knowing what to do, I stood silently in front of the students, prompting one of them to ask me, “Are you afraid of black people?” I cannot remember how I answered, but I was just glad that a student was actually acknowledging my existence. Jolted from my passivity, I spoke loudly enough above the din to explain the directions of my activity.

In four classes that day, the students eventually broke into groups and circulated around the room, but few filled in the worksheet I gave them or spent much time examining the artifacts. At the end of the day, I collected my artifacts only to discover that a couple of them had been defaced. I came home feeling angry and dejected.

The students settled down after the first couple days, but my classes continued to be dysfunctional. In mid-October, I sent an email to my colleagues, which was a veritable cry for help. It read, in part:

. . . To be blunt, some of my classes are chaos . . . I have attempted both structured and unstructured activities . . . I have tried to keep them after school, to wait to begin class until it is quiet, to speak to them via typing on the computer, [to call parents] and to speak to them one-on-one . . .. Students find it easy to take advantage of me and they have pushed the envelope for 5 weeks without real consequence . . . I believe I can generate interest in most of the topics I teach, but the students must meet me halfway by maintaining an orderly classroom . . .

A day later, I got a reply from the principal. He praised me for my honesty, offered some empathy, and said my “voice and truth are something that can galvanize your colleagues.” He also offered to give me some one-on-one support if I wanted it.

I felt affirmed by this response, and promptly wrote back to take him up on his offer. I specifically asked for suggestions about how to begin and end classes, and how to mark transitions within lessons. But he had something else in mind.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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