Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.
This week I had the pleasure of having dinner with three very dedicated, hard working New York City early childhood teachers. Two of them, fairly new to teaching, were full of questions about the inquiry process. At some point during our delicious meal, one of the teachers commented on my wealth of knowledge. I practically choked on my food, thinking of all that I’m still learning about teaching and children and also about the long and bumpy road that I traveled from 1968 until 2014.
It wasn’t until I graduated from college with a degree in Sociology, that I realized teaching was what I truly wanted to do with my life. New York City was desperate for new teachers and, after taking 12 credits of rather simple-minded education courses, I was considered to be ready for the classroom. It was the middle of a semester, and at the advice of my teaching friends, I purchased forty postcards and sent them out to schools all over the borough of Brooklyn. I didn’t realize what was about to happen.
Starting at six in the morning my phone began ringing nonstop. “Can you come to sub today?” The voices of the school secretaries usually had a rather frantic sound to them. After traveling to all corners of this large borough, to totally unfamiliar neighborhoods, I too began to have a frantic pitch to my voice! The life of a new substitute teacher, particularly in unfamiliar schools, is not the “Life of Riley.” After a few weeks I began to wonder if I was making the right career choice. I’m ashamed to say that I was also beginning to wonder if I actually liked children very much!
Just at my point of giving up, I received a call from the assistant principal of P.S. 321, a pulic elementary school in my neighborhood. I was told that if I would substitute teach every day, in any class that needed me, I could take over a kindergarten class in April because the teacher was moving from New York. For what seemed like eons, I came in each day just like a trouper. On one particularly miserable day the children in the “gifted” fifth grade class decided that they did not like my lessons and they began throwing sponges and erasers at me. I was demoralized and didn’t think that I could make it in to substitute teach the next day. When I spoke with the assistant principal to tell her that I wouId take the next day off, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I didn’t continue subbing when and where they needed me, the kindergarten position would be given to another candidate.
I came to work.
Eventually, I had my own class. On my first day with the kindergartens (a morning class and an afternoon class) I proceeded to spill a large container of red paint all of the pretty new pink dress that I foolishly wore to work! I had many lessons to learn!
The next year I taught second grade. I was given some teaching guides, a very helpful paraprofessional, and was told that my children were in the middle of the grade, not ready for second grade work. I, however, was fired up and ready to make this a wonderful year for these 34 seven year olds. But how would I do that? I wasn’t quite sure. Each day I would show up for work no later than 7 a.m. I carefully tied together the legs of two desks and lined each pair up in a nice neat row. If everything were straight and orderly, then it would show that I was in control. Oh, I had so much to learn. Years later, if I saw one of those students, all grown up and walking down the street, I hid from their sight. What must they think of me? What kind of memories could they have from that straight-row year?
What kept me sane that year and the next year when I taught first grade? Well the children of course. They seemed oblivious to how insecure I was and seemed to give me their complete love. Then I had the added support of my colleague, Connie Norgren. Connie and I sat together at our first teacher’s meeting and have been close friends ever since. Connie has truly been my mentor teacher. She just naturally knew what was right for children and she followed her beliefs with her practice. Also, Jennifer Monaghan, the PTA President had faith in me and got PTA funds to support a summer reading course that I took that first year.
In 1970 my husband received a Fulbright Fellowship to Germany and I spent that year reading about 100 novels as I passed the days in the sleepy town of Hesse Lichtenau. When we returned to NY in 1971, I became pregnant and in 1972 gave birth to my marvelous daughter, Simone. When Simone was three years old she was accepted into a wonderful local nursery school, The Storefront School, run by two Bank Street trained teachers. They allowed me to pay for part of the tuition by working half-days in their school . THAT is when I really started learning how to teach young children. I felt as though I were drinking up all that they were modeling in their interactions with their students and in their planning.
Since then I’ve had many different experiences. I’ve taught with some wonderful teachers at P.S. 321 and under three different visionary administrators – William Casey, Peter Heaney and Liz Phillips. I had the privilege of learning from Lucy Calkins when her work, at its beginning stages, was still very inquiry-based. I’ve made three important trips to Reggio Emilia to learn from their educators and children. I could keep adding to this list and it continues to grow.
Why have I subjected you to this long history? It’s to show that teaching is an ongoing journey. Except for a lucky few, many of us don’t naturally know just what to do. We learn and we learn and we learn. And we continue this trip because we love the wonderful payoffs. It’s not a monetary reward but it’s much greater and more important than money. It’s a feeling of being part of something that is more special than one can imagine – the social, emotional and intellectual growth of children. As the Chinese proverb says, “To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping.”