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July15, 2009

Vol. 109, No. 16

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‘Trial by fire’

Four members of Princeton’s Class of 2008 who joined Teach for America kept journals or blog posts of their first-year teaching experiences.

Posted on July 15, 2009

Here are excerpts from the writings of Emily Farley '08, Meaghan Petersack '08, Kit Tollerson '08, and Sarah Zaslow '08.

Rm. 245, Walter L. Cohen High School: A Day in the Life

By Emily Farley ’08

(Editor’s note: To protect the identity of students, initials have been used instead of their names.)

School starts at 8 a.m. When the bell rings at 7:55, however, there isn’t a student to be seen in our hallway. Cohen’s vice principal makes her daily announcement: “Teachers, class has begun. Please step into the hallway to welcome your students to class.” Dutifully, I stand by my door. F. wanders in, hoping to take advantage of the early-morning lull to fit in some free time on the computer. Still, I wait by the door. The flood of students starts slowly, with crowds of black- and green-poloed high schoolers wandering the stark hallways in groups. Their mission? To avoid entering a classroom until the very last minute.

I take attendance at 8:15. By 8:15, there are a handful of rowdy boys in my classroom, talking about the latest school drama and paying careful attention to the activity in the hallway. I remind them that their job is to come in, sit down, and start the “Power Up,” our daily warm-up exercises for which they receive a grade. “But the hallway be poppin’, Ms. Farley! I’m about to, OK? All right, all right!” I submit attendance, with more than half of my first period class marked absent. By the end of the period, the majority of them will be in class, having been chased into the room by administrators and security guards patrolling the hallways.

My daily fight to get first period settled and on task is one of the biggest hurdles of the day. My struggle is complicated by the other miscellaneous tasks of first period – homeroom paperwork, the morning announcements, and the daily “Word of the Day,” not to mention the assorted surveys and studies that researchers ask teachers to carry out in homeroom classes. Finding time to teach content in first period is difficult. I keep the lessons as short as possible, but I usually squeeze in the day’s new lesson between the daily tasks of checking homework, welcoming late students to class, and marking each student “late to school” as they arrive.

By 9:15, Cohen High School has settled into its daily routine. With first period under way and most students having gone through the high security check at the school’s entrance, the security team is on duty in the hallways and most students are in class. Students who misbehave in my class are subject to the “three strikes” rule. Three warnings and I send them out of class, either to the discipline office or to “chill” in the hallway. Sending students out of class is my biggest weapon. Class is a social opportunity, and most students resent the embarrassment and the isolation of leaving the classroom. The only thing they dislike more is me calling their parents and explaining their behavior in class to their families.

Second period begins at 9:36. First period leaves my class in a stampede, while my second-period students trickle in quietly and get to work. It is with a sense of relief that I begin second period. With only one more class to go before lunch, I know that the morning – and my math classes – are almost over for the day.

Second period is uneventful, mostly because the class is small and the students in the class are relatively well behaved. The bell rings at 11:12 to bring the freshmen to lunch in the cafeteria.

I teach only freshmen. The freshmen at Cohen are part of the Cohen Health Sciences Academy, a high school academy that is in its first year. To distinguish the freshmen from the green-shirted upperclassmen (who are not in the academy), the freshmen wear black. They eat lunch together and have all of the same teachers. This helps me to know most of the freshmen at Cohen, regardless of whether or not they are in my classes.

With all of the freshmen gathered together in the cafeteria, lunch is the best time to speak to students outside of class. If my schedule allows, I spend time in the cafeteria talking to students about their class work, their attendance, their personal lives, or their interests. Getting to know each student helps me to handle him or her in the context of a larger class. Any leverage I can gain helps – knowing that a student is on the football team, for example, lets me call on the football coaches to keep him in line. Ditto for the drill team, the dance team, or the band.

Third period, the class immediately following lunch, is my off period. I spend much of my time preparing for my afternoon classes or tracking down materials and resources for my classroom. When other teachers are out of school – which is the case every day – I am sometimes asked to cover their classes. The days when I cover an additional class during my off period are my longest, and most unbearable, days at school.

I teach reading in the afternoon. The curriculum that I teach is a highly scripted, district-mandated program that is billed as an intervention program for students who are years behind in reading. The students spend each day working on the classroom computers, completing class work in their notebooks, and reading a book that is on their reading level. My role in this class is mostly a coordinator role. I structure the classroom rotations and oversee most student work, but my input into the lesson is minimal. I am a disciplinarian, a facilitator, a provider of grades and of materials, and the person “in charge.” Otherwise, the class runs without me.

One afternoon hurdle is the daily school snack. Now that school runs until 4:30 p.m., students receive a snack at the beginning of fifth period. It is my job to fetch the snacks from the cafeteria and distribute the snacks to my fifth period. Our school “snack procedure,” as it’s called, is a source of endless headache. Students in my fourth period will take the snacks if they are not hidden in my locked cabinet. Students in fifth period complain endlessly if they do not get their snack, and upperclassmen come to my door throughout fifth period to ask for an additional snack. A day without a snack-related incident is a day with an uneventful afternoon.

When the bell rings at 4:30, I take 10 minutes to straighten up my classroom. I erase the board, clear junk out of desks, and make sure that every snack wrapper has made its way to my trash can. With a chance to breathe, I check my school e-mail, often to learn that we have received new students or that a meeting has been moved to that afternoon.

After organizing my things, I make a run for the door. Ten hours at school is more than enough for me; I opt to do the rest of my lesson planning and grading at home, rather than stick around my classroom after school hours.

The best part of the daily routine is this: Each morning, life in Room 245 goes on regardless of what catastrophes happened the day before.

A demanding job with an unbeatable perk

By Meaghan Petersack ’08

It is December, and this is the first opportunity that I have had to really sit down and reflect on my classroom and my experience thus far as a Teach For America corps member. Throughout my time at Princeton I researched child welfare and education policies, but in just three months of teaching I have learned more about the education system, the challenges in struggling schools, and the incredible young people those policies aim to help, than I ever could from any book or article in Firestone.

I have the privilege of teaching 19 kindergarten students at the Arts and Technology Academy public charter school. All of my students (as well as the vast majority of students at the school) are African-American and receive free school lunch. The school is located in northeast Washington in a struggling and sometimes violent community. My commute to work from my apartment in Eastern Market is a mere 10-minute drive but in the span of such a short distance, the “district” transforms from safe and clean historic capital hill row houses to an often unsafe, high-poverty area dotted with public housing projects. The difference between my home community and my school community was perhaps best expressed in the innocent meanderings of one of my kindergarteners.

A female student in my class one day asked me if one of the other white teachers in the school was my sister. When I replied no, she asked, “Well then, do you live in the same country where all of the people look the same?” I tried to explain to her that we all lived in the same country, but she gave me this look that seemed to say, “Ms. Petersack, let’s be real, we do no live in the same country.” My assistant (who is African-American) and I pressed this student further and asked her if the two of us could live in the same neighborhood. She replied confidently, “No, because Ms. Allen is brown and Ms. Petersack is white.” While this might seem like simple kid-talk based on lack of knowledge about the world, it actually reflects quite accurately the world in which this student has spent her life thus far. Everyone in her neighborhood looks like her, and there are no people that look like me in her neighborhood. This spurs the rather logical conclusion that people only live near others of the same race. And to a large extent in D.C., this is very true and reflects not only racial but also socioeconomic differences among people in different neighborhoods (especially those on either side of the Anacostia River).

One of the hardest parts of being a teacher in a low-income community thus far has been seeing the effects of poverty on the daily lives of my students. They have seen relatives locked up, heard gunshots outside of their homes, experienced living with a parent with a drug or alcohol addiction, spent very little time outside of their immediate neighborhoods, and worried about money and food as their parents experience unemployment or foreclosure. I feel the weight of their experiences through my daily interactions with them and their families and sometimes powerless in my ability to help them break that cycle of poverty.

However, within the course of an average school day, I also am inspired by the ability of my students to leave some of their home-life challenges at the door and experience incredible academic and social growth. I have a number of students who entered kindergarten without having gone to pre-kindergarten and absolutely no knowledge of their numbers and letters and very little ability to interact positively with people other than their immediate family members. In particular, there is one student who was very shy at the beginning of the year who was ashamed of his inability to write his name like the other kids or name the letters of the alphabet. I spent time working one-on-one with this student, sent home learning tools, and emphasized to his mother the importance of him learning after school. I also paired him up with a more advanced student in the class. This particular student has experienced significant growth in just a few short months. He now interacts regularly and positively with his peers, has improved his language abilities, loves learning new things and is eager to practice them even outside of school, and has caught up and even surpassed where he needs to be at this point in kindergarten. It has been a highly rewarding experience to be a part of this student’s individual growth and to think that he might be able to beat the odds against him, given a strong foundation early in his school years.

Reflecting on these past few months, I think about the growth my students have made as well as the growth that I have made as a teacher. There have been many rough days when I have doubted my abilities as a teacher and felt frustrated by the obstacles to success. But I always manage to rally from these moments because I know that I can do better, that my students deserve better, and that I have an incredible opportunity to significantly change the trajectory of their education and their lives by giving them a solid kindergarten foundation. In these past few months I have gained a newfound respect for all of my own elementary and upper-school teachers. It is a highly demanding job that comes with few of the company-financed perks of many of the other jobs that can await Princeton graduates. However, it comes with the one essential and, I would argue, unbeatable “perk” of getting to know incredibly bright and loving students and helping them to achieve great academic gains.

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CURRENT ISSUE: July15, 2009