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Sunday, February 6, 2011

My First Year of Teaching

Volumes could be written but I’ll spare you. I was twenty when I started teaching and chose a school in which I wanted to teach: Watts Elementary. I had an interview with the principal: He was sitting in a white wicker chair and was nice although nonchalant. The interview went well and I got the job: I would be teaching fourth grade, which was what I wanted.All of the things that I learned in college and all of my education classes did not prepare me for the real thing. Imagine my standing in front of 50 students on the first day of school: A lot of them were as tall as me and I’m tall. Distinctly, I remember what I had on that very day—a brown and white polka dot dress and brown heels. And I remember thinking “How am I going to get through this day?” But I did.Somehow there seemed to be an unwritten code at that time that a teacher had to take home every single manual. Wonderful, not! I had about seven and I would juggle those huge manuals, my pocketbook and proceed to leave the school every afternoon and walk down a giant hill to catch the bus to another close-by city. Worse was that the next day, I had to return with the manuals and on and on. Back then there were no copying machines like today: There was a ditto machine and it used purple ink. I would stand there making copies and have that purple ink all over my hands and nothing would take that stuff off. Purple hands back then was the mark of a teacher. And if you, the reader, have any old teacher-made papers that had math problems in purple, that’s how they were made. Thanks to a wonderful secretary, Mrs. Bennington, for she would make needed copies for every teacher plus doing her regular job. In retrospect, I don't know how she did it all and survived. But she did.There were other unwritten codes at my school: Every teacher had each student do the very same artwork and put that artwork on the bulletin board using only one color of construction paper. Imagine how I shocked the staff when I used two colors and also angled the papers. One elderly teacher came in my classroom and said, “We don’t do that here!” I looked at her and got gutsy and said, “I do.” She never jumped on me again.Every day there were two recesses: A half hour in the morning and the same in the afternoon. Lunch was an hour and teachers or students could go home or eat their lunch in a classroom. How wonderful it was to go out to eat with some teachers at restaurants during lunch time. And there were times that the janitor, Mr. Tanner, actually cooked beans and cornbread on a stove in the lounge and served us lunch! That would never happen in today’s world—ever.Each classroom at this school had a cloakroom [there were no lockers at this school] which was in the back of the room but separated by a wall with a door on each side. This was where the students hung their coats and put their things and it was also where a teacher kept his or her supplies. And if a student were misbehaving, he or she was sent to sit or stand in there.That first year there are many things that stand out in my mind but the following will never be forgotten. There was a red haired boy in my classroom who tried to push every button I had one morning. My first thought was to work this out but I told him to go to the cloakroom and stay there. Classwork was done, recess came and then lunch; upon returning to the classroom I heard a voice saying, “Can I come out now?” The red haired boy had stayed in the cloakroom all that time. I was mortified at what I had done but never had another problem with him the rest of the year. In the spring of that year I thought it would be wonderful to bring in some butterfly cocoons for the students to watch them grow and change. Scouring my backyard at home, I found a nest on a branch and took it in my house. The next day I was so excited and told the students about them and set the cocoons and branches in the windowsill. Days turned into weeks and nothing happened: There was no activity at all in the cocoons.Came the weekend and that following Monday, when I arrived in my classroom I was scared out of my wits: The room was crawling with tent worms! They were everywhere—on the floor, on the walls, on the desks and on my desk. I ran like lightning downstairs to find the janitor: Thank heavens he got those things out of there for I hate worms in any form. So much for my first science experiment—an unexpected horror. And the other horrible thing that happened that year was that one of my students, a boy, came right up to me and said, "I'm sick!"And he proceeded to throw up all over me as well as himself. Someone must have run to the principal for he came to my room, took me home to change clothes and brought me back to school. At the end of that first year, I learned a lot but the most important things that I learned were: To treat each student as an individual, to not be a buddy but to be an adult, never leave a student in the cloakroom, be sure you know the difference between a butterfly cocoon and a tent worm cocoon, to tell a student if he or she is going to throw up to not tell me but to leave the room, do art my own way and let my students do the same and respect the lessons that they taught me. All of them were my teacher that year and to them, I am so grateful for throughout my teaching career, I never forgot my first year or the lessons I learned. I owe you guys!
Sherry Hill

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