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The Birthday Present

“Dear Ms. Pallister,” reads the meticulous handwriting of a second-grader at my school. “Happy Birthday! The school commutiay would’nt be the same without you! I remember you helped me and M with math about coins. Are you excited that today is your birthday? Or, you are not very excited? I adore you very much! Sincerely, A.”

“Dear Ms. Pallister,” reads another. “Happy Birthday you are the tec good teechr tetr in Plot! Love, T.” and on the back, “wiuh you are A tech tecch r wiuh?” This one has green marker looped in a zigzag around every word and is one of the few I really can’t decipher.

Another simply says in pencil in the upper left corner “u p y o g” and underneath that “You pick your own gift,” and in the middle in green marker, “Ms. Pallister.” I am potentially the most intrigued by this card, but there is no identifying sign anywhere on it, so I don’t know which child is promising me a gift of my choice, or if that is necessarily even the intended message.

One of the most continually astounding and often frustrating aspects of teaching in an elementary school is seeing the dramatic spans of academic achievement and developmental ability within a single classroom. I am continually torn in how to respond to that gap.

Should my colleagues and I be panicking and drilling, drilling, drilling these lower students with the basic skill sets — spelling, phonics, math facts — at the sacrifice of our more holistic approach? Or should we recognize that all students develop at different rates, and continue to teach each child how to think about things, make connections, and understand the underlying foundations of learning, confident that things will fall into place? It’s obviously a balancing act of each response in moderation and individualized for the situation, but I’m always left thinking I’m leaning too much in one direction or the other, no matter how I sway.

In my limited four years as an educator, I’ve had the opportunity to look through a number of lenses at the New York City education scene: Teach For America corps member and a Teach For America Corps Member Advisor (if you will, the indoctrinated and the indoctrinator), out-of-classroom teacher and classroom teacher, special education teacher and general education teacher, public school teacher and charter school teacher, employed teacher and unemployed teacher, not to mention last in and first out as a founding member of a progressively-minded educational non-profit organization.

Each of these experiences has imparted something essential and invaluable to who I am as an educator, yet each one has also left me incredibly disillusioned about some core aspect of the thing itself. While I can’t possibly tackle each of those experiences in my first post here, I know they will each come up as I continue to try to tease out some of the nuances in the incredibly complicated conversation about education right now and how I see it affecting the way I teach the 5-, 6-, and 7-year-old children that walk into my half of a classroom every day.

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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