Well, I asked…

By the last few minutes of class on the Thursday of the first full week of school, I was losing my voice and, occasionally, my patience – and I was trying to disguise both. My brand new grade 9 students were, ahem, perhaps not as prepared for high school as students in other years – and I’m not talking about academics.

I expected this, of course. They’ve been in pandemic schooling, such as it was, for a year and a half. They haven’t been in a physical school building since April. During that same time, I watched my own child, only one year younger than the motley group in front of me, try to “multitask” by playing video games during particularly dull social studies lessons and attempt to learn while sprawling & squirming in a beanbag. I know that on-line school and in person are different beasts. But it’s September and we’re back in person and the pandemic continues, so we’ve put a bunch of 14-year-olds into classes that last two and a half hours each. Even if their teachers give them a 15 minute break during the class before mine, they still don’t get much motion. They are not prepared for this.

On Thursday, I stood in front of them as they popped out of their seats, asked to use the restroom, snuck out their phones, played tic-tac-toe during writing time and talked during instruction. Behind my mask, I bit my lower lip to hide a smile, but I knew that the chaos needed to be tamed – at least a little – before we could learn. So I asked what they needed.

“More time outside!”
“More free time!”
“Time to use our phones!
“Time to talk to our friends!”

Time time time – of course they wanted the thing I felt the least inclined to give. Time in class is too precious to waste. I harumphed. I definitely said, “Well, I’ll think about it” in the annoying way that adults say they’ll think about something when they mean “I’ll say no tomorrow.”

And then a strange thing happened: I thought about it. Thursday evening, I kept picturing S waving his hand in the air or K up and out of his seat again. I saw M sliding her phone out of the desk, eyeing me to see if I was watching. I thought about Matthew Kay’s book Not Light, But Fire and his suggestion that teachers “burn five minutes” at the beginning of class for chatting and getting to know students and their concerns. I thought of Cornelius Minor’s We Got This, which I’m rereading, and his insistence that listening is teachers’ superpower. I know that true listening means both hearing what the students are saying and responding to it by making changes in the classroom.

As I sat in front of the computer, revising Friday’s lesson plan to include the myriad things that we had not gotten to on Thursday, the students’ communication – spoken and unspoken – ran through my head. They were going to take the time they needed whether I “gave” it to them or not. They had trusted me enough to share what they thought would help them learn. My job was to listen.

I looked at the lesson plan again and added the word “apologize” to the top.

Friday, I started by telling them that I was sorry I hadn’t listened carefully the day before. I told them that it took me a while, but I had heard them, and I showed them where I had built in outdoor time, chat time & phone time. I wish I could tell you that they magically settled into their desks and learned, but they didn’t. I still ended up confiscating pushpins (no, you cannot use them to poke your friends) and telling one student that he simply had to find a way to stop wandering the room. Nevertheless, they know I heard them. I suspect that things will get better… maybe next week.

The day before the day before

It’s almost five o’clock on Tuesday evening. I am sitting at a student desk in the front of my classroom because, as it turns out, that’s where the plug is. While I know this means I will probably need to rearrange my classroom tomorrow, that’s ok. I like this view: I can see all of my bookshelves, full and mostly organized – the result of hours and hours of work. Truly, it’s not nearly enough books, but I’ve collected them by hook and by crook – a few dollars here, a used book there, an occasional email plea – so I’m please with how many I have. To walk into this room is to know we read here.

The small classroom window to my right is open and, because the door to my left is ajar, I can feel a gentle air current that’s slightly at odds with the rhythmic sound of basketballs on the court outside. A community court, I think, it has been busy all day but now the grunts and laughter seem louder because the school is quieter. I know that this quiet is telling me to go home, and I will. I will. I will.

I look up again. The bulletin boards are still largely bare and the black space stares at me, reminding me of things to come. I haven’t yet put up my posters – that’s for tomorrow. I don’t have too many and they’re not too big, but I like the pop of colour they bring and I value the welcoming words on each one. I know, too, that I must leave these boards empty for now so that my students can make this space their own. Soon they will be here and their work will fill our spaces. Soon, the room will not be mine, but ours. I wonder what it will look like? I wonder who will be in this space? I look up again, taking it in, trying to be in the moment and failing.

I am not in this moment – the moment of the books and the breeze and the basketball and the blank bulletin boards. My poor system is still settling from the three fire alarms today – all accidental, all forcing us outside, forcing us to be in the now when we are desperately trying to prepare for the future, for Thursday when the students arrive.

I am back there, under the tree during a fire alarm, having an impromptu department meeting to discuss class assignments. I am in the hallways, trying to learn everyone’s names, realizing again and again the importance of faces that I cannot see. And I am already in the bookroom again, tomorrow, shelving one final box of books. I am already imagining where I will place the posters that are now on the desk in front of me. If it’s here, can they read it? Where will they sit? Who will take comfort in or find courage from these words? Who will they be, these students? Who are they now, in their homes, at their jobs, maybe on the basketball court, bouncing, bouncing and loving these last hours of summer?

Whoever they are, I hope they know that these moments right before the classroom fills, these moments are full of trembling anticipation for me, their teacher, too. Today I am in the past and in the future. Thursday – Thursday! – I will be in the moment and we will begin a new school year and the mysterious alchemy of learning and loving learning will start to work and then… magic.

One more deep breath. Now to close the windows, stop the breeze and go home.