Thursday, July 25, 2013

"The Floating Teacher"

            The first three years of my career in education, I “floated.” The term, floating, is a misnomer. The word generates a cartoon image of this cherub-faced teacher drifting through the hallways like a helium balloon, gently tethered to the educational world by colorful hair ribbons and neon shoe strings. Instead, the teacher descends into the lowest level of Dante’s Inferno. The phrase, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” took on a new meaning as I struggled to find my footing as a new teacher while trying not to disturb or disrupt the other teachers forced to share their rooms with me.
            One hour of the day, I used the room of Ms. H, my wonderful mentor and friend. I did my student teaching under the guidance of this enthusiastic teacher, so she welcomed me into her room with open arms. She found space in her closets for me to store my personal belongings and kept me sane whenever I broke into frustrated tears.
The second hour of the day, my class and I met in Mr. M’s classroom. This tyrannical man refused to leave the room because he couldn’t trust me, a first year teacher, to control my twelve-year-old students. He threw a fit one rainy day when a couple of boys tracked mud into the room. Face red and veins bulging, he forced the boys to crawl on their hands and knees to pick up each clump. After class, he stormed out of the room to file a complaint with the principal that my students were too messy. Since clods of mud dotted the entire hallway between his room and the office, his gripe went unheeded. However, his actions made me and my students feel horribly unwelcome in his classroom. I held my breath each and every day that something would set him off. One day during the first few weeks of school, he left the room long enough for me to explain to my students that I desperately needed their help and support. This group of students remains lodged in my memory as the best class that ever lived.  
A third teacher, Ms. W fluctuated from day-to-day on how much she welcomed me or my kids into her room. I believe she hated the idea of someone invading her space. Teachers become very territorial about their rooms. They bring in little pieces of themselves and their home lives—pictures of their pets and children, favorite knickknacks or gifts from previous students, or saved projects and sample work placed on  special display. Sharing space with an “outsider” creates tension even if the other person tries to be as invisible as possible. Eventually, Ms. W realized I had a wicked sense of humor, and we became friends.
I ended my day at the room of Ms. T, a lovely Southern lady. More than thirty years later, I still treasure the open friendship she gave me from the moment I entered her room. She welcomed my students with all of their little quirks into her space with open arms. Sometimes I watched her instruct her classes and quickly learned the value of a good, skilled teacher.
Condemning the first year teacher to roam the hallways either builds character or leads to burn-out. I grew determined to capture my own classroom, so I kept a smile on my face and cried or complained to the co-workers I learned would keep my woe private. When I finally received my own classroom, I vowed to welcome any “floating” teacher. I volunteered each year to have any of the roaming teachers in my room, and I made certain I cleared closet space and drawer space for that teacher. Supplies like tape, paper clips, and staplers remained unlocked and available (some of the teachers actually locked their supplies away, so I had to carry those along with the classroom set of books from room to room). I never placed tape on the floor to mark where the desks should line-up, as one teacher had done, and I never yelled at the other teacher’s students. I hope that all of those “floating” teachers felt relief and welcome whenever they entered our room.  

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

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