They Once Called Me Coach

Last Wednesday, after a late afternoon thunderstorm wiped the sky of its dark imperfections,  I stood before the Robbinsville High School graduating class and delivered the commencement address I entitled “Trust Your Change.”

Later the night, while enjoying a well deserved post-graduation beverage, a colleague asked me how long I’d been working on the speech.

I told him I had been brainstorming for a few months.

But the next morning, over a cup of coffee, I realized that the seeds of the speech took root four years prior when members of the graduating class, who were merely freshman, witnessed one of the most difficult admissions of my life.

Here’s what happened.

It was early September. The classroom was warm and bright with afternoon sunshine.

I sat behind my desk. The players sat in the desks before me.

I was quiet. They were quiet. The room was quiet.

In fact, in my world, those days were filled with long quiet stretches, as if everything was waiting for something. As if life was pacing a hospital floor.

They were teenage boys who thought they were in trouble, so they carried themselves with all the intimacies of teenage boys in trouble. Bowed heads, bent eye brows, dropped shoulders.

The day before we lost 8-0. Which, in high school varsity soccer, is a blowout.

They were expecting me to yell. To call them an embarrassment.  To challenge their character and commitment. To level an edict of longer, harder practices. There would be less smiling, less fun. More running. More yelling. Until they learned how to practice and play hard. Until they learned to dig deeper, to break through self-made thresholds and not quit on themselves, on their teammates, on the program they represented.

Initially, I pursued a teaching career because I wanted to coach.

In 2006, when I was hired to teach English at Robbinsville High School, I was appointed the first varsity head coach in program’s history.

In fact, this was a big moment in my history.

At 26 I was handed the responsibility of building a high school soccer program in central New Jersey, an area whose soil was rich in soccer tradition.

In those early years we didn’t win many games. But other coaches complimented me on the way we played. The local paper did a story on the program’s positive development. We were making progress.

I ran a fairly tight ship. My preseason workouts were physically and mentally demanding. I held my players accountable on and off the field.

I wanted the program to be a positive force in the players lives. A program that offered instruction both on and off the field. That taught players to replace entitlement with perseverance. Arrogance with integrity. A program that taught players how to embrace adversity.

A few days before I led my players into my classroom, my doctor told me that the next few months were going to be littered with tests. MRI’s. CAT Scans, blood work and a lot of waiting.

The doctor put his hand on my shoulder, instructed me to spend time with my family, prioritize, and remove as much unnecessary stress from my life.

The classroom was bright and warm.

I remember how quiet it was. How they were looking at me with lowered eyes. Afraid of the scolding that they seemed destined for.

I don’t know how I started but I’m sure it was not as graceful as I would have liked.

At some point I told my team I was resigning as their coach.

I admitted to them that I was sick and physically unable to be the coach they needed. And though I didn’t say it, they knew it– I was scared.

I addressed the freshmen specifically. I apologized for my brevity. I told them that I hope I would be around (meaning alive) in four years to see them graduate high school.

Things were quite for awhile.

Then, not knowing what else to do or say, I looked at the assistant coaches, at the team and said, “Alright boys, time to go to work.”

Last week

Under a high sun and a wide open blue sky, I stood on the same field I had coached for 9 years and told the graduating class of 2017 to trust their change.

Here’s the inside of my speech binder. To the left, is what I said to myself before I began.

Four years have passed.

Those freshmen are now high school graduates.

I am still sick but very much alive.

There are some days when I miss coaching.

Days when the sun is just right. When in one afternoon, summer folds into fall all at once.

I miss the intensity, the competitiveness.

I miss the halftime speeches.

The victories. The defeats.

But most of all, I miss the players.

The camaraderie. The bond that forms between player and coach.

The candid conversations about how sports and all its trials and tribulations teach us all we need to know about life.

I miss watching my players transform from boys into young men, a massive change that happens as fast and as subtle as a summer thunderstorm, a storm that dawns a perfect afternoon, with a sun that is strong and bright and a sky that is unclouded and forever.

Be well,

Jay

Proudly standing with two former players, Brendan (left) and Ralph (right).

“Trust Your Change.” My Commencement Address at the Robbinsville High School Graduation

On June 21, 2017 I was fortunate enough to deliver the commencement address at the Robbinsville High School graduation. Over 2,000 people were in attendance.  Below is the audio and transcript of my speech. 


(Note–Due to rain, the ceremony was delayed 30 minutes.)

Transcript:

Introduction (or my attempt to get the crowd to listen)

First and foremost, I’d like to thank the rain.

Because like study hall or lunch or AP Literature class I used the rain delay to write this speech.

It has not been proofread.

And most of this is written on napkins I found in the commons.

I’d also like to thank…

Dr. Foster, the Robbinsville High School Administration,  the Robbinsville Board of Education, colleagues, family, friends, returning Ravens and of course the graduating class of 2017…Thank you.

I appreciate it. I really do.

But I have a ask to question…

What do you say to a stadium full of people who really don’t care what you have to say?

It’s the predicament I’m in right now.

Understand, I’m honored to be here.

But I know my role.

I am your impediment.

The longer I talk, the longer it will take for us to enjoy the sweet elixir of summer.

My job is to fill the Robbinsville sky with poignant wisdom and worldly perspective as a capacity crowd collectively thinks…

“I hope this guy doesn’t take too long.”

I know how unforgiving those bleaches are.

How the June sun is currently burning a hole through your retina.

How you have surveyed the parking lot and proclaimed, “we are never getting out of here.”

In fact, as irrational as it sounds, some of you are contemplating ditching grandma and her one good hip and walking home and not returning for your car until August.

So… the question remains…what do you say?

Maybe I’m being a little too critical, a bit hyperbolic. I know there are a few people in attendance who want to hear me.

My wife.  Cindy and I are the American dream …we met in high school, married, bought a house in the suburbs, had 3 adorable children and bought a large SUV that looks like a minivan but it’s really an SUV… I’m sure Cindy would like to hear what I have to say.

My mom is here.

My brother Keith is here… Keith told me that he would only listen if I make frequent allusions to the Beatles and give him an air high 5 when I do.

And statistically, one of the 87 Twamley* boys would like to hear me.

(*the Twamleys are a set of triplet boys in the graduating class)

And that’s about it.

4 people.

In the whole stadium.

My wife. My mom.

Keith as long as I allude to the Beatles and give him air high fives.

And one of the 87 Twamleys.

Let’s breakdown my situation even further…

What do I say to 221 soon to be high school graduates who know everything?

Seriously. You do.

If you didn’t, they wouldn’t let you graduate.

That’s a rule in New Jersey… along with other rules like no left turns and knowing all the words to Springsteen’s Thunder Road… the greatest song ever written.

So there’s you–the class of 2017, the smartest people in the world…

And then there’s everybody else.

To most people here I’m a stranger.

And what stranger wants to hear advice from another stranger especially if the advice-giving- stranger is punctuating their suit with a pair of sneakers.

So what do you say to make people listen when the promise of summer and freedom and adulthood are achingly close?

I’ve been turning over this question for weeks.

Turning over the thought that I will spend hours writing this speech, you will spend minutes sort-of-listening and in seconds everything I say will be forgotten.

Then I realized that this moment we are sharing, right here, right now is a microcosm for life.

Because once you graduate, the world is waiting for you and the world doesn’t really care what you have to say.

The class of 2017, for 12 years, you’ve been groomed in a school district that has put you first, has listened to your voice.

A district that has held your hand, entertained you, coddled you, pampered you, made you feel special.

And in a few minutes, once you graduate and if you ever escape the parking lot traffic… the cruel world will turn to you, laugh at your ideas and tell you to be quiet.

So if this is a microcosm for life, and I was graduating high school today what would I need to hear?

I decided the best way to deliver this speech is by telling two stories.

Two stories that have made me the person I am today.

One from high school, one from adulthood.

Two stories that.. ready for this Keith… “come together” (high five) to teach one lesson I wish I learned when I was 18.

Because at 18, I really could have used the…”Help” ( high five)

Do you realize what I just did there?

Do you?

That’s two Beatles allusions in 2 sentences.

The First Story

The first story goes like this…

I’m 14 years old, sitting in freshman English class pretending not to care. Because that’s what the cool kids do– pretend not care.

My teacher,Ms. Baker is handing back our essays–an assignment that required us to write as a Puritan woman being falsely tried as a witch.

I don’t like high school much. The lesson are boring and the homework annoying. The only class I can tolerate is English class.

As I tell you this I can hear the clacks of Ms.Baker’s heels on the classroom tile floor.

Ms.Baker arrives, hands me my essay, smiles and tells me I have talent, that I should keep writing.

She spins and clacks away and before I can smile the kid sitting behind me, the middle linebacker on the freshman football team, whispers “loser” in my ear.

Right then in freshman English class I submitted.

Right then I began to distrust myself.

If my high school offered a class on intuition… I’d failed.

For a long time, almost 20 years, I silenced my voice, my desire write and connect to others because I was afraid of what other people might say.

I listened too closely to opinions.

Don’t listen.

I bought the fabrications the world was selling.

Don’t buy them.

The Second Story

The second story is one that most of the graduating class is familiar with.

On the first day of the school year I decide that instead of handing out a syllabus, or introducing classroom procedures I would simply to tell a story.

A story that I hoped had enough drama to hold the attention of a room full of angsty 12th graders.

This year I introduced my students to the writing strategy known as full circle.

Full circle is also a band from Central New Jersey currently on hiatus. They have lovely album called “This Long Used Trail”  available on Spotify and Soundcloud.

In fact….As you wait in post graduation traffic in your SUV that looks like a minivan but is not a minivan, you just need extra cargo space to fit your kid’s beach toys… you should check them out.

Standing proudly with the members of Full Circle.

To model the full circle strategy it’s only fitting on the last day of school I tell the same story I told on the first day of school which only seemed like… “Yesterday “ ( high 5)

Class of 2017… this might blow your mind…on the first day of class, while you were admiring each other’s tan……I was writing the end to our story.

All at once I was saying, “Hello, goodbye” (high five).

No, Joe Natalie*…

(a student who, after a rousing lecture on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road… asked if I was God.)

I am not God…

I am the Walrus (Keith … high five)

Senior English…

Representing…

What… What…

The second story goes like this…

It’s March 2010.

I’m in my car driving south on 95, into the heart of Philadelphia.

After muscling through evening traffic I find myself on North 20th Street, a block away from the Philadelphia Public Library.

I get of my car, shut the door, turn up my coat collar to the whipping wind and walk south along North 20 Street.

At the corner of Vine Street I hook a left, climb a flight of stairs and find myself in the quiet warmth of the Public Library.

I cross a marble floor, move down a staircase, into an auditorium to see and listen to my literary hero- whose words strengthened my beliefs on writing, storytelling and love and beauty and the purpose of life.

For 90 minutes  author Tim O’Brien, writer of The Things They Carried, read from his novel and talked about it. He fielded questions and gave writing advice to novice writers like myself.

Then it was over.

I exit the library, hook a right onto North 20th and march into the howling wind.

I progress up North 20 with the library is on my immediate right.

When I look over to my right… I see Tim O’Brien, alone, leaning against the library, under the throes of a lamp light, smoking a cigarette.

I stop.

I turn toward him.

I must be 30 feet from Tim O’Brien, my literary hero.

I step forward.

29 feet.

Like some anxious fanboy I turn over all the things I’m about to say to him.

28 feet.

I reach into my bag and pull out my copy of The Thing They Carried. One of the most important books of the 20th century.

27 feet.

It’s at 27 feet where I got nervous. Where I began to distrust myself.

I take a step back.

28 feet.

What would I say to a stranger that is compelling and interesting? What do I say that would inspired him to listen?

29 feet.

The march wind whips my back. Why would a ground breaking author waste his time with me?  What if he told me to shut up and go home?

I slip my copy of The Things They Carried into my bag and turn and head north, and open my car door and drive home and pull into my driveway and crawl into my bed and realize in a way I’m still 14, still sitting in freshman English class, still distrusting myself.

Class of 2017, there will be many fine chapters in your book. Stories of victory, love and pride.

Scoring your dream job.

Feeling the love while slow dancing to Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” at your dream wedding.

And the swell of pride felt when you buy an SUV that looks like a minivan but is an SUV so your family can enjoy the extra leg room.

But those chapters are often short.

The chapters where sadness, regret, shame are the subjects are the longest, hardest to finish yet they are the stories that make life interesting.

They’re interesting because they test your intrinsic commitment.

My two stories are about regret and judgment and distrusting myself.

Yet I’m so grateful for them, for what they taught me–how you must endure difficulties to find out who you are and what you stand for.

For the last four years you’ve been a cliché.

A brain. An athlete. A basket case. A princess. A criminal.

You’ve played a stock character in a stage production.

But what will you do now?

Those cliches are cute in high school and movies about high school but in the reality of adulthood cliches are boring and uninspiring.

Intuition does not get easier with age.

Self-reliance comes with a real cost.

And a fear of judgement lingers long after high school.

I can only hope that you find the courage to trust yourself, to take the risk to be heard.

You’re impressionable–miles away from figuring out who you are and yet you’re about to change in immense and unknown ways.

Change for yourself and what you believe is right for you.

Trust your change.  

Like this speech, high school will end. Your graduation gown will lie in rags at your feet. And adulthood will begin.

But your identity, your voice, your story is just taking shape and important questions await…

What will be the subject of your next chapter?

Will you be a minor character in your own life?

Will your story be the thing that connects you to others?

It’s so easy to plagiarize your life.

Don’t do it.

It’s so easy to believe your own fiction.

Don’t believe it.

Before I go…

I challenge you…

To relax.

Trust yourself.

Avoid cliches.

Be authentic.

And toil until you to find the courage to tell your story with absolute allegiance to your truth.

Finally, I have a last request…

To quote the ancient Detroit philosopher Eminem…

“If you had one shot, one opportunity to

seize a picture  with the class of 2017

would you capture it or just let it slip?”

Class of 2017 and everyone in attendance…

It’s been an honor and privilege…

Good luck with the traffic, thank you and be well.

This One Simple Tool Will Make You a More Effective Writing Teacher

Teenagers are notorious for their lack of attention and internal busyness– especially in a classroom. They live in a chronic state of unawareness and have a cantankerous yearning to be somewhere else.

“I want to go to sleep.”

“I want to go home.”

“I’m starving, when’s lunch?”

And in these modern times of computers and smartphones, the teenage attention span is quite slim (and seems to be getting slimmer by the day).

As writing teachers, this wandering teenage mind is one of the greatest challenges we face.

So how do we tame the teenage monkey mind? How do we get a classroom of unfocused students focused and prepared to write?

The answer, is a surprisingly simple one. (And yet took me many painful years to figure it out.)

A timer.

In recent years, a timer as become my most important and effective teaching tool to tame the wild teenage mind.

 

The use of a timer in the classroom creates three things…

  1. focus
  2. urgency
  3. a goal

Experience has shown me that students actually enjoy the demands of the timer. It teaches them that in brief, focused bursts they can overcome procrastination and actually accomplish things.

Lesson Plan

Let’s say you want to have your students write a narrative piece on failure.

Here’s a simple 3 step, 240 second process you can implement to get students started, focused and excited to write…

Step 1 (180 seconds)

  1. Have students write the heading “Times I failed today…” on a blank page.
  2. Set a timer for 30 seconds.
  3. Beneath the heading, tell the students that when the timer begins, to scratch down all of today’s failures (these can be internal and external). Tell them they’re not writing sentences. Just a word or phrase (Alarm clock) that indicates a failure. I call this word or phrase a “working title”.
  4. Ready, Set…Go!

Prior to and during Step 1 it’s vital to stress that students are not to worry about spelling or grammar. This worry will only slow them down and restrict the process. Encourage students write messy. Tell them that this activity is not for a grade and that their list only has to make sense to them.

I would then repeat Step 1 two more times, each with a new heading, “Times I failed this week…”, then “Times I failed this year… “. I would also expand the time– 60 seconds for the former, 90 seconds for the latter.

Step 2 (30 seconds)

Have students evaluate all three lists. Have them mark three moments of failure that they still think about. That if they had the power, would turn back time and do over. 30 seconds. Go!

Step 3 (30 seconds)

Finally, evaluate the marked three failures. Which one still keeps you up at night? Which one has changed you the most? Mark that one. 30 seconds. Go!

This one failure will be the focus for the narrative writing assignment on failure.

Collectively, the three steps are 240 seconds of focused brainstorming that, when completed provide each student with a powerful, personal moment that harbors all the intimate ingredients needed for a good writing piece.

Furthermore, after just 240 seconds, the page should be littered with ideas. For students, this littering is rewarding. Students can be messy, not be judged (which is a natural confidence booster) and in a brief time realize that they’re lives are worthy of writing about.

Note: As the classroom teacher, you’re the expert on your students. You’re encouraged to modify this strategy to meet the age and level of your students.

Takeaways

  • A timer is essential for a writing classroom since it helps create focus, urgency and a goal.
  • Brainstorming should be structured.
  • Eliminates the “I have nothing to write about” problem.
  • Students can accomplish much more in quick focused bursts, then a long meandering brainstorming session.
  • Students enjoy a focused brainstorm activity.
  • This activity allows students to fill the page with meaningful experiences that can serve as great writing subjects.
  • This “messy” activity provides apprehensive writers with confidence.

Teaching is tough business. Sign up. Get help.

Receive Write on Fight on’s weekly post along with strategies and ruminations on how to transform your classroom into an authentic learning environment.

 

The Power of a Conversation: A Recap of the 2017 Spring Write-a-Thon

Never underestimate the power of a little conversation.

The Write-a-Thon grew its roots in 2015, during a little conversation between my school district’s (Robbinsville, New Jersey) Superintendent, Dr. Steven Mayer and myself.

The crux of the conversation was, “How can we teach teenagers to see writing as an exercise in self-discovery and authenticity not just a forced activity aligned with the harbingers of school?”

So we talked. We listened. We brainstormed.

And 3 months later the first Write-a-Thon was held in my classroom., a 2-hour writing event that afforded students the opportunity to write, to tell their story.

The event hosted 13 writers including Dr. Mayer and received donations and support from my student’s parents, faculty and my own friends and family.

When concluded, the Write-a-Thon raised $1,300 for the Special Olympics of New Jersey.

Write-a-Thon-November 2015.

A few months later, in April 2016, as I was planning the second Write-a-Thon, Dr. Mayer was tragically killed.

The May event was held in his honor.

An event that began with me, fighting tears, recounting our little brainstorming session and how though he is physically gone, his story, his passion is alive and well.

The heart of the Write-a-Thon is simple–show up and tell your story.

This week, the fourth installment of the Write-a-Thon had 30 student writers, ranging from 7th to 12th grade. The event hosted a $500 college scholarship essay challenge and was filmed by the Emmy winning “Classroom Close-up NJ” and will be featured in October 2017 episode.

My experience as both a high school teacher and an adult has taught me that, in the contentious transition between young adulthood and adulthood, it’s easy to get distracted with the noise of the world.

It’s easy to forget about the importance and power of your voice, of your story.

It’s easy to believe your story doesn’t matter.

It’s easy to believe fiction.

The Write-a-Thon is a celebration of the human voice. Of the lasting power of the true human story.

And it’s our stories that stand before us, that become the permanent teachers, forever instructing the lives of the living.

Be well,

Jay

Write-a-Thon Supporters

The 2017 Write-a-Thon received tremendous support from the following Robbinsville High School programs:

The Debate Club

Coach Patterson and the Robbinsville Football Program

Robbinsville Boys Lacrosse

The Drama Club

GSA

The RHS Literary Magazine

The RHS Class of 2019

A Look at the Spring Write-a-Thon

 

Check out more pictures courtesy of NJEA


 

When Former Students Die: A Teacher’s Reflection

If you teach long enough you’ll come to learn that the human story never graduates.

I last saw him 11 years ago.

Waiting for the graduation procession to begin, under that shadow of his squared cap, tassel dangling about his face, he smiled and said, “Mr. Armstrong, can you believe it, they’re actually letting me graduate!”

I smiled, “Yeah, God knows what they were thinking.”

A few years after graduation, he married his high school girlfriend, the girlfriend he sat next to in my English class.

They had a daughter together. Built a life together. And then he died.

He was 29.

In truth, I haven’t thought much about Mark since our time together.  Nothing intentional, it’s just as a teacher, so many lives come in and out of your life that it’s easy to lose track of who has passed through.

Yet when a Facebook post informed me that Mark had died, his name, his smile toggled memory, transporting me back to my old classroom–room 201.

In 2006, we were all young.

Collectively, what we lacked in knowledge we made up for in enthusiasm.

I was 26, inexperienced, short on life-lessons yet excited at the prospect of teaching and inspiring and helping mold the minds of young adults.

Most of the students were 18, fueled by hormones, seduced by the promise of adulthood and all its liquid freedoms.

They weren’t malicious.

Just kids straddling adulthood. Bursting with energy. Kids uninterested in dated stories scratched in stale books written by dead white guys.

It was in those days when I began to learn how your students’ lives wedge themselves into your life. How their drama becomes your drama. How their remarks and actions and attitudes confound you, unnerve you, keep you up at night and make you question the fate of the world.

But teach long enough and it all begins to run together.

Summers are merely conjunctions linking one run-on school year to the next.

And in this rambling life sentence, the days and weeks and years overlap. The names and faces and voices that were once so prominent, so sharp in your life only round and dull over time.

But when you learn a former student has died and you hear their name, you read their obituary, something happens. A key is turned, an engine started and the memory machine chokes and begins its work.

It’s been 11 years but…

I remember…

…the class consisted of mostly males. It often felt and sounded and even smelled like a locker room. Based with deep laughs ,those students in room 201 were unconcerned with things like death, poetry and me–a young teacher fixed with a knotted tie, polished shoes teaching his little heart out.

I remember…

…how the classroom windows faced east and how in the Spring sun would rise and blaze through the thin windows and how after lunch, room 201 turned into a cinder block oven.

I remember…

…Mark complaining it was just too hot to learn.

I remember…

…for most of the school year Mark slouched in his seat. Legs stretched out as far as they would go. In his hands, he would often work a hand grip. Squeezing the tension and releasing, until one hand would tire then he would switch to the other.

I remember…

…how his girlfriend sat beside him in class. How they would slide their desks close together. How he would rest his free hand on her knee and continue to work the hand grip with the other.

I remember…

…when they weren’t flirting they were fighting.

I remember…

…during a stretch of days, in late May when the outside world hummed with life and there was little reason to pay attention to me, Mark’s feet were flat on the floor, elbows on the desk, hand grip unseen, eyes glued to the pages of the book we were reading, The Things They Carried.

I remember…

…he told the class to shut up when I was reading how Curt Lemon, a 19 year old U.S. soldier, walked carelessly through the Vietnam jungle, stepped on a mine and blew himself apart.

I remember…

…Mark holding a copy of the book, standing in the class doorway looking at me and smiling and saying, “I really like this book.”

Mark wasn’t the first of my former students to die however, it’s always hard to imagine your former students dead.

Because when you taught them, they were young and indestructible and alive. As if they would always be that way.

It’s not in the job description, no one tells you this, but teachers are carriers of life.

Every student’s story, no matter how big or small, how dramatic or pedestrian is fixed with an intangible weight.  A weight that you carry with you, from lesson to lesson, from year to year, forever. So when you learn that a former student has died, that former student and their former life is suddenly present, is suddenly now.

And 11 years later, when you’re on your couch, scrolling through your Facebook feed and you read the news and see the face, you retreat into memory and you feel a familiar heat and hear the straining echoes of your first lessons and your big blue eyes dart across the classroom to find a smiling young man, working hand grips with one hand, cupping his girlfriend’s knee with the other, waiting for high school to end.

Waiting for life to begin.

Be well,

Jay

Playing School (or why I still want to be a teacher)-Guest Post

Playing School (or why I still want to be a teacher) is guest post written by  Julianne Frascella. Julianne is currently a 12th grade student in my AP Literature class at Robbinsville High School (NJ). She will be attending The College of New Jersey in September 2017.


It was like we were playing school.

Except, this was not supposed to be a game.

Wearing old glasses with the lenses popped out and clacking about in my mom’s oversized black high heels, I asserted myself as the head teacher. A pointer with the white gloved finger at the tip, in hand, I was in charge and my classroom was an orderly hierarchy.

One person played teacher.

In my classroom, I had a diverse array of students, consisting of teddies, American Girl dolls, Barbies, Power Rangers, and my little brother.

Arranged one behind the other in columns of four, my class of twelve “students” arrived each day, sitting neatly with their legs tucked under their makeshift cardboard desks. Strips of construction paper glued to the tops, printed with their first and last names in Sharpie, the letters stretching to reach the dotted lines.

The teacher’s desk (which magically transformed into a coffee table when “school” let out) was shoved in the corner, the swivel sofa behind it imitated the staple teacher’s spinny chair. My Barbie laptop plopped upon it, I clacked my fingers against the keys, typing very professional emails to the principal.

Each day, I’d call attendance, logging checks and x’s in my teacher’s book (a stack of white printer paper with three-staples down the side and grid lines that my mom sketched on for me in black pen did the trick).

The whiteboard, the one my dad reluctantly nailed to the wall, displayed the date in the top right corner and the spotlighted Morning Message, exuded cheerfulness in its rainbow letters.

My expectations of a structured classroom developed from the make- believe school in my playroom at home. However, my anticipations were completely defied as I entered the first grade. For most seven-year olds, their largest source of stress stems from a coloring mishap or their word sorting homework.

First grade was a rough year.

My school day often began with hyperventilating at the bus stop and concluded with a bellyache complaint and a nurse visit.

While I should have been enjoying the thrills of the first grade, I was instead inundated with anxiety- a consequence of my classroom environment, a mere discrepancy of my idealistic imaginary classroom.

Our class recycled through at least three teachers over the course of that year, with random substitutes scattered in between. They varied from apathetic to dictatorial, with few falling in between the extremes. And the majority of which, did not have the competence to organize our collapsed classroom.

They’d fumble through the teacher’s desk at the front of the class, which was cluttered with worksheets, yet to be graded and new copies, strewn throughout. They’d quickly scribble their name on the whiteboard upon their arrival, leaving the board bare and dreary otherwise. The date in the corner never seemed to switch, except when it was half erased and fading off.

It was November 3rd for three weeks.

Each day, I’d peek in my classroom to see who was playing teacher. Who would be squinting at the teacher’s book awkwardly trying to sound out our names for attendance? Who would be hollering to quiet down, overwhelmed by the lack of routine and order?

Where is the attendance book? How long do you usually read for? Where do you keep the markers? What are you learning in science?

Different students would jump to their feet arguing whether math or social studies came first on the schedule and whether we left off on chapter three or thirteen in the class novel.

We had twenty- three teachers leading our class, the better of which seemed to be under the age of 8.

And me, praying for an orderly routine, would tremble in my desk, completely distraught by the disorder I was immersed in.

School wasn’t supposed to be a game of role play, yet it had become just that. Wilting in my chair, amidst the mayhem of the classroom, my love for school along with my idealized vision of a harmonized school environment had been tarnished.

I now understand that being a real teacher will differ from my childhood fantasies. Nevertheless, I aspire to carry my childhood passion for teaching throughout my career.

 Why I Still Want to be a Teacher

  1. Offer a Comfortable Place to Learn

The school environment should offer children a consistent routine and a comfortable atmosphere. There is no need to impose extra anxiety on a child by having unexpected changes and irregularities. I want to ensure that my students feel prepared and excited for school each day, not fearful.

  1. Instill Respect as the Foundation of a Child’s Education

Realistically, students will not need to retain the details of American Revolution or the life cycle of a worm. However, they will need well-founded social skills. Classmates can be as much of a hindrance as they are an asset to a child’s education, hence my desire to develop a socially synchronized community within the classroom.

Teachers have a significant hand in shaping the future of society (that’s a lot of power!). Therefore, one of my greatest values is to impart respect as the primacy of learning to instill it as a foundation of future society.

  1. Cherish the Value of Individuality

It is easy to overlook the individual needs of every student with the overwhelming responsibilities of operating a classroom. The instruction of each child should be tailored to their identity, specifically their mannerisms, behaviors, and learning methods. Different tone, approach, and consequences should apply to every distinct child. I never want a child to feel inferior because a situation was not handled to compliment their personalities and abilities; emphasis on a child’s individuality may hold the key to their greatest growth potential.

  1. Emphasize the Inevitability of Imperfections

Learning is infinite, except when hindered by the trepidation of failure.

Dreading to answer a question and fretting over the repulsive B grade has become the reality of the education system from a student’s perspective. As a teacher, I aspire to break this falsified stereotype of failure and rather highlight the value in making mistakes. In fact, I want my classroom to be a place where mistakes are encouraged and no longer seem a place of consistent performance, but instead a place of constant practice.

Despite, my early experiences in the public school system, I still believe in education.

As I am about to leave high school and embark on my future, I often think of myself as a timorous, little girl sitting in a first grade class. I know there are other girls out there just like me and I feel it is my responsibility to make school no longer a place of fear and chaos, but instead the start of an exciting journey.