I want to be a gentle teacher, the kind whose patience is endless. The kind who forgives her students even as she quietly gives them the tools to repair the mistakes they've made. I want to be that teacher more than anything, but as I look back on my first year in this profession, I realize now how difficult that goal is. There were some days this school year when everything went wrong -- I yelled, my kids seemed to know just how to irritate me, the copier didn't work, the rain kept us inside for recess -- and I left school totally discouraged. More experienced teachers gave me lots of good coping advice -- "I went through the same thing," and "Next year will be better," and "Use your personal days." But in the end what saved me -- and my students -- was books.
Books have always given me permission to treat myself tenderly, and fired my courage and imagination. Now they helped me to go to work another day and do a better job. When I remembered reading's power to alter my lens on the world, I knew I had to let my fourth-grade kids in on the secret; I had to give them that gift of reading in such a way that they would open themselves up to the possibility of being changed forever. I would teach reading passionately so that books could save my children the way they always have saved me.
I didn't want books to be a source of frustration or a reminder of failure, so I structured my classroom to help kids feel like powerful readers. I set up different reading activities, or centers: Kids rotated through the centers in groups and found books at varying levels. They participated in activities that helped them see different purposes for reading -- enjoyment, performing tasks or learning new information. It turns out that this classroom structure also provided me with many chances to practice being a patient and gentle teacher.
In midyear, for example, my fourth-graders and I started six new centers for such activities as reading, copying and writing poetry; illustrating pictures for our Virginia history time line; and reading biographies of Revolutionary figures. The children were learning reading, writing and social studies all at once. Wow, I thought. But then came cleanup, or what was supposed to be cleanup.
The overhead projector was left in the middle of the room, which had been used for the poetry center, and the special pens for it, with their caps off, lay scattered on the cart, the floor and the projector. Damp, ink-stained paper towels littered the cart. A poetry book lay open to a page containing stray pen marks. I prodded the students to put things away, and found myself describing each part of this task through clenched teeth. When the students tucked the cart crookedly into the corner where it belonged, I finally exploded. Walking over, I slammed the projector into its place and screamed,
"THIS is where it belongs!" A silence dropped over the room and I turned to see shocked faces. One girl's mouth actually fell open.
Horrified, I stared at them, but I wasn't finished. As I listened to myself, I fumed at them, "I can't believe how messy you guys are. I thought we could have centers. I guess I was wrong. I thought you would be responsible enough to clean up after yourselves. You've shown me that you can't handle it." I sounded like the teacher on the "Peanuts" TV show: Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah. Where was it coming from?
I sent the kids to their seats to read on their own, our next scheduled activity. Whipping open my journal, I kept myself from crying by writing about what had just happened, willing myself to never let it happen again. When silent reading was over, I called the kids back over to our meeting place on the carpet and apologized. "I was angry, but that's no excuse. I am sorry. That's all."
Then I hung my head in shame. If I can't appreciate the kids for who they are now, I thought, how will I know which tools to give them to help them become smarter people later?
It's this kind of craziness that makes people quit teaching after the first year. They say it's because of big classes, lack of support, unpreparedness. But I think it's the shock that comes with finding out just how inadequate you feel. How mammoth the task is and how small the steps you take each day.
I went home that night and relaxed the knots in my stomach by reading. At the next school break I read even more: Anne Lamott. Alice Walker. J.D. Salinger. Jane Smiley. One of Anne Lamott's books features a character named Rosie. The way Rosie came alive on the page as I read, riven by the neuroses and terrors of your average American childhood, overwhelmed me with its truth. It was while reading Crooked Little Heart, about Rosie's preteen years, that I was seized with an idea. I set down the book and paced the floor. Finally, I strode into the kitchen and wrote my fleeting epiphany on the margins of a grocery list: What matters? I wrote. Then larger, WHAT matters? I thought of how lonely it is to be a kid. I remembered feeling so crazy half the time, so unsure of everything. Then I thought about my decision to change careers and become a teacher, and I knew I had already forgotten the most important thing. First, I wrote in my version of a teacher's Hippocratic oath, love them. I stepped back to look at the words. Then I wrote it again. Love them.
For a while, it worked. I went in each day with renewed energy, saw my students through tender, concerned eyes and used love as a verb. Slowly, though, the other stuff crept back in. Until I had a chance to curl up with Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses and somehow reconnected.
By the end of the year, I came to see my job -- the reading part of it -- as finding any way to share this passion with the students. We have a box in our classroom library labeled "Books We Love," and the kids can fill out a reviewer's bookmark, slip their favorites into the collection and share them with the rest of the class. I began to sneak in references to the books I was reading. I showed the students my signed copy of Crooked Little Heart, obtained when I attended a reading by Lamott at Politics and Prose bookstore. And I shared with them what she'd said about writing -- for example, that you shouldn't be afraid to start writing badly, and that writing is an act of faith. I even read them a rough draft of this article, and they helped me revise it.
Three times during the year our PTA and an organization called Reading Is Fundamental donated enough books to our school so that each child could choose one to keep. One girl couldn't decide, and asked me for help. "Oh," I said, picking up Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia and pressing it close to my heart, "this is a good one. It'll make you cry."
Plucking it from my arms, she made her way to the librarian's desk to have it stamped as a gift and to write her name inside. By week's end, she was at the most poignant chapter of the book, and as I watched her during our silent reading time, I knew she was hooked. As I sat there, I thought of all the ways I felt I'd failed the children over the year, failed to live up to my own expectations of what I would be like as a teacher, and felt grateful. Not only were books saving me, they were making a difference to my kids as well.
Mathina Carkci this fall will begin her second year teaching fourth grade at Bailey's Elementary School in Falls Church.