July 7, 2004: Perspective
By Billy Goodman ’80
Billy Goodman ’80, an occasional PAW contributor, teaches middle-school science in New Jersey.
One year ago I left a dream job – no boss, no set hours, no commute – for the unknown. I set aside a 20-year science journalism career that I loved, a home office, and a chance to play tennis at lunch. In its place, I became the object of adolescent angst, derision, and, sometimes, disrespect. I became a middle-school teacher.
I teach science to eighth graders. If you feed and care for an eighth grader, or once did, you may be questioning my sanity. But I often wrote for middle-school students, and I loved the energy I felt when I visited middle schools. I found the debate swirling around science and math education fascinating and had to be a part of it.
A year later, I still love teaching enough to re-up for another year. But I don’t always like it. Teaching adolescents is full of frustrations, from trying to get students to think for themselves, to putting up with whispering and giggles directed at you, to answering the same question four times in five minutes. Don’t 14-year-olds listen to anyone but themselves?
New Jersey permits teachers to take an “alternate route” to teaching. With no education training, I demonstrated my competence by having a degree in the subject I wanted to teach (a master’s in ecology to go with my biology A.B.) and passing a national teacher examination in biology. I also had to take a year-long course devised for alternate-route teachers that met every Wednesday evening and one Saturday each month.
My alternate-route colleagues told stories of harrowing first-year assignments – districts where teachers spend their own money on basic supplies, where students enter school through metal detectors, and where students openly confront teachers. By comparison, my first job has been a cakewalk. I teach in an upper-middle-class suburb with a strong commitment to education. My classrooms are large, with both student desks and laboratory stations. I have working microscopes and balances and all sorts of other modern equipment. My colleagues share lesson plans and tips.
While I don’t have to face violence or hostility, disrespect and apathy can be as bad. In an overachieving district where all the students are – supposedly – above average, some students have a sense of entitlement. After lunch, the cafeteria tables and floor are a mess, as if the students are expecting their mothers to clean up after them. Hallways are filled with student detritus, which often as not gets kicked rather than picked up. This sense of entitlement spilled over into the classroom, where most students expect nothing less than A’s and B’s. But some don’t feel a need to work hard for their grades.
I was startled to see few students taking notes when I presented information to the class. They were used to tests that came straight from the textbook, and were surprised to find that I rarely used the barely mediocre text. Nevertheless, many didn’t study for exams.
My eighth graders are an incredibly social bunch. They might just have had lunch together, yet still need to talk about almost anything but science. I tried the typical teacher response of splitting up friends and moving them apart, but my students were so social that when I solved one problem I created others by forming new social groups.
When I asked students to be quiet, some would mumble, “Sorry, sorry,” though it’s not clear they were. Others would reply, indignantly, “But I was just . . . ” as if the subject of their extracurricular conversation absolved them of rudeness. I’ve had to ask for quiet more than I’d like, especially since my goal isn’t a silent classroom, but one where the conversation is focused on science.
Worse than chaos is apathy. Continental drift, radioactive decay, and natural selection are just so interesting, why couldn’t my students see that? Of course, such topics may not be inherently interesting and it’s my job to make them so. Standing in front of 14-year-olds and lecturing doesn’t work. You have to be a bit of an entertainer.
That can be difficult when dealing with children who seem resistant to learning for learning’s sake. Every time a student asked me, after I presented some information or introduced a new topic, “Do we have to know this?” I groaned inside. One student would inquire, before she even put her books down, “Can we watch a video today?” I couldn’t really blame her – she and her classmates have grown used to seeing videos regularly in most of their classes.
Videos undercut one of the most important lessons about teaching this age group: Students need to move about and be active in their learning. Yet incorporating hands-on learning has been another real challenge. For starters, I didn’t have my own room, but traveled between science rooms pushing a cart loaded with my materials. With only 42 minutes for class, minus time for lab setup and cleanup, the window for learning is awfully narrow.
Still, some of my group activities proved successful. I had students develop an understanding of natural selection by acting the part of foraging birds, using binder clips as beaks and marbles and beans for the food. I pitted boys against the girls in a race for survival to make the lesson more engaging – my kids loved anything that included competition.
If I failed to engage the students quickly in a group activity, their attention wandered. During one lesson, paper plates that groups were supposed to use to make pie charts proved too tempting; several students used them instead as Frisbees.
Teachers at my school often said that only one parent in a family worked, so the other could go to school with their children. As in many towns where education is important, parents stay involved. I was warned that parents might be pushy, but I almost always found them supportive, especially if I took the initiative to contact them.
One of my students hung out with a tough crowd and had not experienced much success in school. But she showed signs of leadership and drive – helping to quiet the class and keep them on task. She got interested in genetics, worked hard, and earned one of the highest grades on a test.
I called her mother at the hair salon where she worked, and she immediately assumed the worst. When I praised her daughter instead, she was overjoyed and thankful. The daughter came in smiling the next day and continued to work hard the rest of the year.
As a writer, I was always at the edge of my comfort level, learning new things. Teaching has been no different. Students need to see that their teachers are learning alongside them.