My mechanic, Bruce, knows I'm a teacher, so when I picked up my car one afternoon last week, he asked me what it felt like to get back into "the old routine again." I told him it just takes a little time to get into teaching shape.

As a novice, I was mentally and physically drained at the end of every day. My mind was not able to accommodate the barrage of questions and requests it received. It hadn't yet developed the filter every veteran teacher utilizes if they want to do their job effectively and live to talk about it.

I wasn't used to being on my feet all day either, to feel the burn rise from the soles of my tight-fitting dress shoes, then enter my socks and strike the bottoms of my feet when I finally sat down after dismissing the children. I learned the hard way the importance of wearing sensible shoes; that comfort trumps style every time.

For the first four months of my teaching career, I'd crawl into bed late at night and try to will my body to stop vibrating. I had nightmares about my imagined failures in the classroom. I remember one in which a 10-year-old girl came crying to me, wanting a Band-Aid for a skinned knee. After responding with a heartfelt "Oh, I think you'll live," she promptly bled to death on my classroom floor.

Another one combined elements of "Gulliver's Travels" and "Lord of the Flies." With every rookie misstep, I grew smaller as my students grew larger. With battle faces painted with permanent marker, boys and girls alike wrapped me in duct tape and carried me outside to the preschool sandbox where they tied me to wooden stakes and left me to watch, as they built a pit to roast a certain "pig."

The turning point that first year came in the spring, when I designed a defining lesson and taught it as the principal observed me. My fourth-grade students were studying the Industrial Revolution, a sleep-inducing unit if there ever was one, especially if I followed the standard procedural call on students to read aloud from the textbook and answer the questions at the end of the chapter.

Instead, I drew the basic parts of a 19th century hunting rifle on oak tag, made multiple copies, and cut them out for my students to work with. I set up an assembly line in my classroom. One group of kids attached the stock, others the barrel, still others the trigger and so on. I gave another group the sheets of oak tag, and they cut out each piece and put the rifle together by themselves. The students experienced firsthand the pros and cons of mass production, as a quality control group examined the finished products.

The kids loved it and the principal was impressed, but most importantly, it gave me the confidence to try other outside-the-box teaching strategies. My body stopped buzzing and was energized, not exhausted, at the end of the day.

This year, school began with a three-day week filled with getting-to-know-you activities and these-are-the-rules talks. Even though I did little actual teaching, I was tired that first Friday afternoon. But I knew the following week, when business-as-usual lessons began, that I'd feel better.

And I was right. My sixth-grade students began researching an aspect of viking life so they can become experts and find a creative way to teach what they've learned to their classmates. My writing students learned the importance of focused writing and the power of concrete nouns and active verbs. Their first drafts are full of false starts, detours, and wild-goose chases. In other words, they're failing before they succeed, like all writers.

Before handing me my car keys, Bruce said he couldn't imagine teaching nearly 80 kids every day. "It's what I do," I said, thinking how great it is to be experienced, but that trying new approaches in my classroom will whip me into "playing shape" for the rest of the year.



John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead. His column appears Wednesdays in the Derry News.

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