Ask a teacher how many hours he or she works at home, before or after school, to be ready to teach, and most won’t know. I didn’t know until this year when I decided to chart my hours of off-contract time. I donated, invested, 240 hours to my students and my classroom during the first semester of the school year. Six 40-hour weeks donated in 18 weeks. The results don’t surprise me; they don’t dismay me. They don’t make me angry. They are the price of being the kind of teacher I aspire to be – one who is responsive, who knows her students and their abilities, who gives timely feedback and works with students to succeed.
I teach Reading for Pleasure, a semester elective, in a large suburban high school. The class is popular with students, their parents, and the special education department. In any one class, I’m likely to have a National Merit semi-finalist and a special education student. I’ll have AP students and kids who still struggle with reading and writing. I also have kids who like to read, some who don’t, and some who just want to like reading again.
This was the first week of the semester and it was typical – kids coming and going. Assignments done just before students are transferred out of class; other students transferred in without doing the introductory assignments. My head is spinning with kids.
I work extra hard this first week to get to know my students. Ours is a class where everyone reads self-selected books and nearly half of my new students won’t have a clue what kind of books to choose. I need to help them, and that means figuring out who they are.
Within the first few minutes of the first day, students write an introductory letter to me…their likes and dislikes, interests, talents. They tell me know if they have a favorite book or author and what they hope to accomplish in my class. It’s taken me until tonight, Sunday, to read and respond to the letters, and to take notes on what the students have said. What I learned is invaluable, and will be instrumental in helping me find books for my students.
I know who my athletic guys are, and I’ll introduce them to Chris Crutcher. I have a couple of hunters and fishermen – they’ll learn about Gary Paulsen and Jon Krakauer. One boy said he liked to read books about ‘the streets.’ For him, I’ll recommend Paul Volponi and Walter Dean Myers. I have a couple of jokers who wrote outrageous things in their letters, and I’ll respond in kind: Bill Bryson, David Lubar, and the Son of the Mob series.
For my girls, I’ll suggest Simone Elkeles, whose romances are highly predictable but fun to read. Many of them already know Sarah Dessen, so I’ll move on to Sarah Zarr and Lauren Myracle. Laurie Anderson and Jodi Picoult will be popular again.
Many students said they liked adventure and mystery. Neal Shusterman and Scott Westerfield write books that will be perfect.
I have a group of science-fiction and fantasy readers who need books. Some have heard about the Hunger Games, but alas, I have no copies to share…my copies are still in the hands of other students who are taking their time reading. Mortal Instruments is a series my students have heard of, but it’s one I can still recommend. The Inheritance books are big right now, since the final installment came out late last year. I have students who are gleefully working their way through Maximum Ride books, keeping count of where they are in the series.
Carefully reading, responding, and recording all this information is labor-intensive, but it will pay dividends for all of us. I’ll later use everything I’ve learned to give each student an individualized ‘Books to Read Next’ list, with a few suggestions from me at the top of their pages.
I will have made my point with the first assignment that students and what they have to say, are important to me. I promise them I read every word they write, but they won’t believe me until they get a first paper back with my feedback in the margins, on the top and bottom of the paper. Even then, they withhold judgment until they begin to see me respond, again and again. Once the pattern is set, THEN they’ll believe me.
Another first-week assignment is for students and parents to fill out an information sheet. I ask students and parents to tell me whatever they’d like…anything that will make my job easier. Students and parents are so honest.
I’ve learned who’s shy, who is afraid to speak in front of the class. I know who’ll need an extra prod, who will respond to praise. I can tell which parents are involved in their children’s lives. I know my students work long hours after school, that they have medical difficulties that might or might not be shared by the school nurse. One girl has severe rheumatoid arthritis and vision problems; a boy suffered a stroke one year ago. One is ADHD, one needs a seat up close to the front of the room. One is a clown, another can be giggly. My favorite comment was a mom who said her daughter wanted to be me when she grew up!
I might have learned all these details later on in the semester, but what a gift it is to know them now. I could have read the papers later in the semester, but I need to know as much about my students as I can, as quickly as I can.
This week added nearly 18 more hours of outside-the-school day time to my days. The beginning of a semester is exhausting work to start with, and the extra 18 hours were daunting. But, tomorrow I have two sets of graded papers to return to my students; I have records about students’ lives that will be valuable for my work with them.
Currently I have 154 students on my roll – too many. But each is mine, and I’m getting to know him and her. I won’t willingly give up any of them, so I must make peace in my own heart with how to be the teacher each of them needs me to be for the next 18 weeks. That will mean I’ll continue to put in hours before and after school, and on the weekends, to treat each paper with the respect it deserves. To respond to each student with the attention he or she should expect from me and every teacher.