As I sweated through my suit in my 95-degree classroom, it occurred to me that I had never been truly nervous for the beginning of school until I became a teacher. As a student, I was always excited. Who will my teacher be? What will we learn? Similar questions stirred in my mind, but now I was responsible for the answers to both. Who will I be as a teacher? What will they learn? It was a case of the blind leading the all-too-closely-watching. Still, things were off to a good start.
The buzz of Spanish that had filled the hallways of this 95 percent Latino school had died down, and the security scanners had been stowed away. The smell of chilaquiles from the staff potluck lingered in the hallways, and even the brick walls seemed to exhale as the commotion of the first moments of the first day of school settled into the morning's work. The kids were listening quietly and attentively; the copy machine had worked without a tantrum in the morning; and my suit added a nice air of authority to my otherwise adolescent appearance.
In the middle of my first few minutes as a teacher on the southwest side of Chicago, as I was spewing off the standard fare about punctuality and attendance, I found my authority challenged. The door swung open and a young Latino boy with a face as round as a basketball bounced his way into the room. He was Alan. He was late. And he did not close the door. I was about to welcome him when he interrupted me, saying, “It’s a dude!”
How to respond?
Somehow, in my five weeks of teacher training over the summer, we had failed to cover the appropriate response to the “It’s a dude!” entrance. Over those weeks, I co-taught high school English to an average of four students, but I never had an Alan. As a new teacher, I lacked the experience to have good judgment, but I made up for it with perseverance. Teaching was not a job, it was an act of social justice, and so I carried on.
“Please t—take your seat,” I managed.
“Oh my god, man. It’s a dude!” said the yet-to-be-seated Alan.
Thus began day one of year one. By my prep period at 10:30 a.m., I was passed out with my head down on my desk and the lights off. By 2:30, when the kids had left, I was passed out again. By the end of the week, I was a rag doll masquerading as a fifth grade teacher.
Around this same time something strange happened to me. For one of the first times in my life, I realized that I was failing. Like me, my students were not where they needed to be. That single fact was the reason I joined Teach For America (TFA): to help kids get a good education and to “catch up.” Suddenly, however, I was confronted by the possibility that I might actually make things worse for these kids.
Fast forward two years, many 90-plus-hour work weeks, and a summer spent creating an integrated curriculum from scratch with the help of two amazing fellow TFA teachers.
As on my first day, I am soaking wet—again.
But this time, it is not sweat. I have just finished a year-end ritual known as “the balloons” with my students. A dozen staff and parents watched as I read Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go to 26 beautiful, brilliant fifth graders, all nervously holding a colored water balloon in their hands. Shortly after, I asked the students to raise their balloons above their heads, and I popped each one as they shouted our class theme: “Repair the World!” In the end, there was only one balloon and one dry head remaining—mine. My students quickly solved the problem.
Still smiling, still dripping, I sat down at my desk after dismissing the kids for the last time. A slightly taller, slightly less-round Alan, now finishing sixth grade, bounced into the room. After laughing about “the balloons,” which he had experienced as my fifth grade student, we chatted about his future for nearly an hour. It was not so much any particular plan, but his relentless hope, burgeoning maturity, and endless humor that made his lasting impression on me. Despite uncertain beginnings and uncertain futures, something happened here. My students succeeded. Therefore, we succeeded.
To the discontent of my principal and many families, I no longer teach fifth grade in Chicago. Critics may point to me as an example of the problem with TFA: many teachers do not stay in the classroom (though many do).
After two years, I left because I still have similar questions to the ones I had on the first day, but the answers have changed. As a teacher, I want to be the mentor to my students who breaks down barriers, rather than builds them up. I want to teach kids to break the line, rather than stand in line. I want to teach kids to create, rather than imitate.
It is not enough to teach kids how to read when the natural world that sustains us is in critical condition. What is the need for teaching addition if there is no clean drinking water? What goal—beyond testing literacy—guides our education system? I left because I am no longer concerned with what my students will learn, but with what they need to learn.
In the end, my story, like teaching, is about relationships. I formed many deep relationships with my students, their families, and my teaching colleagues. Absent, though, was a deep relationship between my students and the natural world. I saw it in the unhealthy food my students were served, and in their ignorance about climate change. I saw it in the rising attention-deficit disorder diagnoses, which may be better defined as nature-deficit disorders.
I have left the classroom to rebuild the vital relationship between kids and Nature. I will be studying permaculture at the Regenerative Design Institute in California. Through this program I will learn how to build sustainable communities that work for both people and the planet.
On the first day of school this year, I will be a student again. Although I am returning to the role of a student, I will always be a teacher. I am Mr. Clarke in my continuing contact with my students, and will someday return to teaching kids, with the forest as my classroom.
Tips for New (and not so new) Teachers
- Teach natural history. Bring the students outdoors. Take on a project that you don’t think you can handle. Just one. Restore a creek, monitor a wetland, inventory local flora and fauna.
- Make mistakes. Learn with the students and let them see you fall and pick yourself back up.
- Be grateful. Every day you get a new chance when students show up. Take time to celebrate success.
- Dress up. A costume and an accent will be remembered well beyond the last day of school. So too will that project or lesson you dress up for.
- Let it go. Realize that what you’re working on may never be perfect. Accept the same of your students so that they don’t burn out, and neither do you.
Brendan Clarke wrote this story for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Brendan is an educator, yoga teacher, writer, and environmentalist. He is a former intern for Yes! Magazine and is currently studying permaculture and nature awareness at the Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas, California.