Classroom Adventures

My teaching career in California which spanned over 24 years,  consisted of two phases:

The second phase was working in a public school teaching second grade, and although the pay was fine, there were many challenges, as our teaching curriculum was dictated from “on high” and was not always attuned to the children, nor to any kind of a relaxed or creative schedule.  I retired from that school system, and although I met a lot of wonderful teachers and families, it was definitely not a favorite teaching experience and often was quite discouraging.

The first phase, however, was at a teacher collective dedicated to the arts and not interested in report cards or standardized tests.  I taught a 3rd/4th combination the first year there, and then taught 4th/5th/6th grade combination with a  wonderful co-teacher for 12 years.  We created the curriculum, we changed it as necessary from year to year, we went on overnights and did lots of art and music, and we had a lot of adventures during my time there.  It was wonderful not having an administrator to tell me exactly what to do, but it was also challenging not having an administrator who could deal with parents and their concerns.  As teachers, we had to do it all, with consensus as the way of resolving issues with each other and our board, and that was often time consuming.  Lots of meetings.

As part of my goodbye to the bay area, and my teaching career, and in my excessive/obsessive songwriting mode, I wrote a song for my co-teacher of 12 years, and friend for many more.  It was easy to write, which tells me that it was absolutely the right thing to do, because she is a woman who means so much to both me and my children, even to my parents, because she’s always been there for me no matter what.

I thought I would use this entry as a way of remembering some of our adventures together, and then I will post her song at the end.

When I first came to this small school, started by anarchists, with Summerhill as a role model, she was teaching kindergarten, and I was to teach a third/fourth combination class.  It was a rocky year for me, extremely challenging parents, and I was a little stubborn and opinionated about what I wanted to do, and the new teacher in the classroom next to me was not very present or skilled.  The year after that, my friend said she was interested in teaching older kids, and wondered if I’d consider co-teaching the group with her, we would use both (connected) classrooms, split the subjects, I would teach language arts, she would teach math, and we would join together on everything else.  It sounded exciting and challenging, and I was up for it.

It turned out that we were a great match for each other.  We both loved reading aloud, so that happened twice in our day, we loved our subjects, and taught about 8 kids at a time for those, while the rest of the class was at drama, music or art.  We created interesting curriculums that we could love as much as the children, and we worked out the camping trips so that we were each doing what came naturally to us.  Really, it worked out so well.

At the beginning of each year we worked many many hours and days, actually 7 days a week for at least three weeks before school, getting the school and the classrooms ready.  Of course the problem with this, was that by the time school started, we were exhausted!  But she was very particular about the organization of the classroom, and would be concentrating on that, while I wanted to talk curriculum, and get into the meat of the matter.  That was always a bit of a conflict, until I just realized that there was no fighting about it — she couldn’t even think curriculum until the environment was just right.  And it didn’t take long for me to fill my classroom with piles of papers and books — it’s a good thing there were 2 classrooms, so that she could escape to her own neat and organized environment when my messier one drove her crazy!

Then there were the open houses.  She always claimed I was a bit of a showboater, and said my teaching would change when people were watching me.  She, however, did not like to do things in front of people, did not like to talk at the presentations we had to give, and preferred to stay in the background, although she was wonderful to talk to one on one with any prospective parent.  That worked out well for both of us — I might be nervous, but I can talk in front of people!

We had to have lots and lots of conferences, because we had them three times/year, and we often had 30 kids, and we both needed to be present for all of them.  That was quite exhausting, but still better than report cards.  We spent a lot of time reassuring parents that their children would eventually learn the times tables, but that we could not spend hours on them in our limited school day.  One time we had some parents that decided they needed to talk to us — and we were to show up at one of their business offices on a Sunday morning and face a whole long table of them in their dissatisfaction.  Interestingly enough, the children from these families were one of our favorite groups of students ever, but the parents were fussing and fussing about things like the times tables, etc.  (It reminds me of how important potty training is when you’re trying to teach your toddler, only to later think that you must have been out of your mind to think that it had so much importance in your life.)  We were a bit intimidated and defensive,  but we met with them, and I guess things were better after that.  We’ve remained friends with several of those parents and students throughout the years.

We did have some wonderful wonderful patient and kind people as parents as well.  One time during my first year, we went to the Exploratorium.  I was driving the old car that we used for such field trips, and our administrative assistant was driving a van full of kids as well.  We had a great trip, got ready to leave, counted the children, got in the cars and took off.  When we were on the Golden Gate Bridge, I realized that one of my children was missing.  I pulled up next to the van and had the student in the passenger seat yell across, “Do you have Anthony?”  When the answer was no, we pulled off at the first exit and turned around quickly.  Well, it turned out that Anthony decided to go to the bathroom after the count, and didn’t make it to the car.  He had gone crying to the Exploratorium office, they had called the school, and he was waiting, somewhat upset.  I was a wreck of course, quickly got him in the car and we took off again.  When we arrived at school, he went to his Mom, and she never ever said a negative thing to me, just was glad to have him back.  I will never forget her kindness in that way, because I was berating myself for a long time after that, and you can believe I did a million counts whenever we were coming back from a field trip!

Another time when Jo and I took the children “camping” (which means we always stayed in cabins or tent cabins or lodges), we decided to take a hike.  We followed the map as best we could, we walked across fields, tried to follow a fire road, and eventually found ourselves down in the nearby town after several hours, a lot of tired feet, and only a vague idea of where we’d been going.  We went to the fire station and asked if someone could take a couple of us back up to the camp so we could get the vehicles and come down to drive the kids back, because we knew that was the only way we’d make it, and it was late in the day.   Luckily, that worked, but our students did not let us forget that we had gotten them lost on our camping trip, and had to get the firefighters to help us.

Another camping experience happened with that group of students in the above paragraph, when we were up by Calistoga sleeping in tent cabins.  I was sleeping on the deck of a cabin with several students and another parent , a wonderful naturalist, who was great at identifying plants and things in nature.  In the night, I had to go to the bathroom, and was ready to step off the deck, when I heard a very large growl.  I scrambled to the parent’s bed and tried to wake him up, scared to death, and sure that it was a bear.  He awoke with great difficulty, and then pretty much fell right back asleep!   I waited as long as I could, then crept quietly beneath the tent cabin and peed in the dirt, running as fast as I could back into my bed afterwards, and sleeping with difficulty the rest of the night.  I did give him some teasing the next day, but we heard that there was a bear in the area, and I was glad that was the last night we were there!

My friend and I had little systems that really worked for us.  For example, I would type the newsletter, while she sat next to me and dictated most of it.  I would say a lot of the hard stuff to parents, she would back me up.  She would take charge of making the class quilt for the spring fair, I would lead singing every Friday.  She would organize the kitchen crews on the camping trips,  and lead the hikes, and I would organize the art project and entertainment. (And we both enforced the hour long silent time on those trips, where kids were supposed to do something independently, read or draw or sit in nature, but nothing where they’d be communicating with others or causing problems for us to deal with).

My friend was so much better at behavior management than me, and she often had quite sneaky ways of getting the truth out of the children when they’d done something they shouldn’t have done.  Once a boy in our class sprayed the fire extinguisher all around the kindergarten room, but we hadn’t seen him, only suspected it was him.  Instead of asking him if he did it, she asked him why he did it, and he ended up telling, without realizing that he was admitting guilt without being presumed innocent.

Once a year we had something we called Reading Week, during which we had a readathon.  For our older students, it lasted basically for 3 days, lots of reading, lots of snacks, lots of peace!  My friend and I would set up our lawn chairs, one in each classroom, with our stack of books, and read right along with the children.  We exchanged books sometimes, and talked about them during the breaks.  The kids had sleeping bags and stuffies and books and comic books and magazines, anything that was reading material.  We’d take breaks every hour, and then get back to it.  We all loved it.  I’ll never forget reading my first Barbara Kingsolver during a readathon.

Of course we had our share of interesting students — the one who would never take off his jacket or hood, another who sneakily climbed a tree to sit in quietly and try to overhear the adult conversations (we had a lot of outdoor space, and the classrooms were enclosed in little buildings, 2 to a building with lots of walking space in between), one who took a bra and stuffed it down the toilet on a camping trip, the little group of wannabe smokers, who thought they could get away with it in the bathroom, the one who wrote me a sweet short story about lesbians as a parting gift when she graduated, and one who taught us to make crepes, and stayed in the back of the classroom with the electric frypan for ages, patiently making one for every student.  Of course I could go on and on and on.  Interesting, challenging, creative, and wonderful students who have the same qualities now as they had then.

Besides teaching together during those years, my friend and I saw each other through raising our children, the changing of partners, incredible sadness, some depression, loneliness, and a lot of laughter.  When I left that school, the hardest part was leaving my friend, so we made regular get togethers so we could keep in touch.  For a while they were at the nail salon, and now they are at each other’s homes, having lunch and doing our knitting/crocheting projects. We talk about grandchildren as well as children, and we compare notes on what we know about the students we taught — grown and doing amazing things all over the world.  We are both cancer survivors, and know how important it is to appreciate each day, as well as enjoy our new and slower pace of life.  I feel so lucky to know her.


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