My Turn: The view from the teaching trenches

Posted: Monday, February 24, 2003

A random thought or theme has been rolling around in my head lately. Being a math teacher, this is not uncommon. I like to think these random thoughts are seeds of inspiration. Last week we had teacher in-service and parent conferences. It was a nice respite after the last month and a half to sit down with adults and talk about kids and education and how we can continue to grow. Teachers spend so much time being the only one over 20 in their world that adult reminders are refreshing.

At the in-service, a fairly new teacher asked me if my sixth year of teaching is easier than his third year. It made me think back over my diverse six years (nearly, but I am really not counting) of teaching and how the experience of teaching has changed for me. In six years, I have spent some serious time in three different trenches.

Being in the trenches in the school environment I equate to doing battle with yourself, your curriculum and/or your students. Doing battle with yourself is when you are trying to do everything at once. You are a new teacher figuring out what that means for you. You are relearning material you really haven't focused on since you were in high school, and you are questioning why you ever became a teacher. I battled with this for along time but I think I see the light.

Spending my first three years in the Phoenix Program was the best experience a new teacher could ask for. I had a structure, a way to grade, some freedom to be creative, and a team. Those were three beautiful, yet demanding years. I learned a ton about teaching, the value of a team, new technology, and most of all I learned about the importance of cultivating community in your classroom. I also struggled with the team, we produced project ideas that could have been better, tighter, and I had conflicts with kids that were destructive to me and to them. The Phoenix trench was a challenge I'm very glad I fell into.

I rarely do battle with kids anymore, meaning my classes are generally discipline free, though sometimes chatty. My first year out of the Phoenix Program and into the main building was my fourth and most difficult year. I was back at square one. On top of that I taught algebra 1 and geometry.

These are the two required math courses all JDHS students must pass. Teaching these classes is to be in the wild and sometimes explosive trenches of the math jungle. I didn't have a team to talk to. Everyone seemed so busy and on top of life. I wanted to be creative within the confines of the core, yet the discipline issues sometimes threw me back into wondering whether I was really cut out for teaching.

I really admire Bob Van Slyke for publicly recognizing that teachers need a full week of break in March. I know the week poses problems for parents, but good teaching requires energy and random thoughts and inspiration. Spring break helps us recharge for the sprint down the tight rope of keeping students focused on learning until June. Teachers teaching any required subject especially need it.

I am partially out of the trenches this year, I feel great about teaching, I know my material and am enjoying teaching an elective math course that is new to me and keeps me learning. Most of all I have some sense of community in my classes. We learn together and share our learning. We bust on one another and get refocused. We do projects to switch it up and apply our learning. Teaching an elective math course is a first for me. I can see why teachers, as they gain seniority, often move toward teaching those classes, aside from the academic challenge. Some teachers like it in the trenches (teaching required classes), some refuse to go back.

So I said back to that new teacher that he was in all three trenches, so hang in there, ask questions, and it will get better. My personality demands that I teach a course for at most three years and then I need a change. When that time comes please remind me to head back to the trenches for a little reminder of what new teachers have to deal with.

• Mary-Lou Gervais teaches math at Juneau-Douglas High School.

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