Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 19 2011

learning from the best

I don’t think I talk about my mom enough. So I’m going to, because she’s the best. She teaches 7th grade at a kind of down-and-out middle school (re: science is cut for reading, music is cut for test prep, etc.) in our hometown, and I happen to be typing this from her desk at the front of the room (I’m home on a last-minute surprise break, SCOREEE).

I’m ashamed that I don’t even know when my mom went back to school to get her teaching certificate. I measure my life, sometimes, in weird ways–for example, right after my mom went back to school, we gave away our puppy. And I know that a few years ago I ran into the puppy with his new owner, and he was graying around the nose. So–ten years?

I often drop by my mom’s classroom whenever I get the (rare) chance because it’s one of the best classrooms I’ve been in. Before I started teaching, I couldn’t really measure a good classroom–kids are kind of relatively quiet, okay, asking questions, maybe–but now I see near perfection in the way she teaches. I’m jealous, frankly. And I have her genes (well, fifty percent of them. The other fifty percent belong to a man who coaxes toddlers into dentist chairs all day) shouldn’t I be set?? Right now, for example, the kids are looking at liquid in graduated cylinders, switching whenever my mom says so, and it is completely and deadly silent. Like, hear-the-buzz-of-the-air-conditioner silent. Like, I-don’t-know-if-silence-like-this-exists-in-Oklahoma silent. And they’re twelve. And you know they WANT to tap their pencils and draw on each other and snap their silly bands, because they’re twelve. But they don’t. If they ever so much as try to, there’s this “Stop talking,” thing that my mom does, so firm but also it’s like you want her to love you. I know, because I heard it at least once a week from ages two to eighteen.

My mom wanted me to sit in for this sixth period because yesterday was a blowout, she said. Yesterday it got so bad that they put their heads down on their desks for ten minutes. Today is turnaround, day 1. She lined them up in the back of the room and gave them new seats, and because they’re 12, there was a lot of foot-dragging chest-heaving lip-smacking “Ughhhh,” like, “I CAN’T sit next to her,” and my mom was incredibly simple and calm and it was basically “I DON’T CARE.” I used to be afraid to say I didn’t care, because with my kids, it’s kind of been one whole “I don’t care” educational experience. If I told them I didn’t care, I reasoned, even about the littlest thing, wouldn’t I just be reverting back to that reason they got to my classroom at a fourth-grade reading level?

But the thing with my mom is, she DOES care. And it’s obvious. And she has this amazing balance between strictness and love, to the point where if she yells at you, there’s at least a sixty-percent chance you’ll go in the bathroom and cry about it, because you want her so much to care about you. Which she always will, no matter what, even if you’re completely obnoxious. And trust me, nobody knows obnoxious like me, her daughter, for my entire life.

My mom just doesn’t care about petty stuff, because there’s no time. For the first time this year they only get science for half the year. Stakes are high and time is short, as with everything in education, as I’ve learned.

What’s heartening about this visit is that my mom doesn’t teach at a perfect school (in fact, I’ve realized, there is no such thing as a perfect school). She teaches in a school where fights are common, where discipline is hazy, where political motives often outweigh student needs. And yet when these kids come into her classroom, they know what’s up. And if they forget what’s up, my mother will kindly and firmly remind them. In watching her, it’s so obvious where change comes from–inside the classroom.

I’m heading back to Oklahoma in a few days for another week off, in which I’ll be essentially camping out at school and planning with my co-teacher about how exactly we’re going to turn our classroom around. Because in order to affect change on the outside, we have to start within the four walls of our classroom. Maybe someday soon I’ll be confident enough in my own abilities to have my mom drop in and see me. I can only hope.

2 Responses

  1. els

    how do you get all this time off?! I’m so jealous :)

  2. jane

    Oh Jessica, this is wonderful. You described your Mom in such a great way—a passionate teacher who cares about those kids and is up against a lot of difficult circumstances trying to teach them. Those kids are lucky to have her.

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