When I walked into my first Baltimore public school classroom several years ago, I received an abundance of advice from the veteran teachers who crowded the teacher’s lounge: Don’t smile until October. No, waiting until Christmas was even better. Listening to the children tell you stories only encourages them and you won’t get anything done. Don’t let anyone see you hug the children. Parents are not your friends.
I had come from the small, noisy worlds of early childhood classrooms where sticky hugs were as common as story books and sad faces were comforted by being scooped up into warm laps. A place where lesson plans could be abandoned to hunt bugs. I was taken aback by the way these teachers seemed to insist that I keep my distance from the children; that I would only be respected if I kept a grim, unsmiling face.
I also had come from far away (the Pacific Northwest), quite suddenly it seemed. I arrived at BWI in the middle of the night and woke to a quite different and puzzling world. I was busy negotiating the nuances of community and culture daily. I was balanced at the edge of my comfort zone. I felt both reckless and brave. I trusted the advice of my peers because, in my new and unsettled world, it seemed dangerous not to.
So I got ready. I hung bulletin board paper with bright, crinkly borders and bought the good crayons. I spent hours peering into the teacher’s manual, convinced if I could just decode the text, it would have the answer to why Shakira couldn’t remember her letters or why everyone forgot the number 15.
Then before I knew it, my world was full of children. Some announced themselves immediately and loudly. Others peeked from behind their chairs and checked me out for weeks before whispering to me who they were. And secretly, I started listening to their stories and sneaking in hugs. I started to carry them with me, their joy and their sadness, and it infused the work I did with them. I started to understand that Shakira needed to touch things to understand them and that Devin and Jordan had to move. Through their excitement, their jumbled early morning announcements, and sometimes their anger, they taught me to teach them and it was a lesson I was grateful to learn.
Although I am well-educated, teaching is not something I was taught by a professor. Some call teaching an art, others speak of it as performance. I believe that teaching is a trick of connection, a spark when two minds meet. I believe that neither one of us walks away from that spark unmarked, but it is that small fire in life that lights our way. I believe that the primary action of teaching is to love.
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