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Sink or Swim


Under extreme conditions, these rookie teachers dove in.


By Alain Jehlen and Cindy Long


Some days it feels like the sharks are circling. Teaching is a challenge, especially the first few years. But for some, the dangers are more daunting than for others.  Here are some colleagues whose first years were truly extreme, but they survived—and they're still at it.

Stage Fright

During her first few weeks of teaching, Connye Lacombe struggled to be a good sport. She was bounced from room to room as her new school was painted and plastered (work that started, inexplicably, in September), but she never complained: "As a new teacher, mine was not to question why."

But that was before her classroom was moved to the stage in the auditorium during the hottest October days on record in Minnesota.

She shared the space with another class, so the heavy plastic stage curtains had to be kept closed, cutting off ventilation. She stood under stage lights—sweat pouring down her face, glasses fogging—and attempted to teach a class of rowdy inner-city teenagers math, sans blackboard.

Then the workmen started replacing the metal lockers in the hall. "I had to yell to be heard over the banging," she recalls.

Lacombe never thought she'd be grateful to have her classroom relocated to the basement. But with windows, ventilation, good lighting, and comfortable temperatures, it was like a spa vacation compared to the stage.

She'd visit her classroom from time to time to check on progress, only to discover nothing had been done. It wasn't painted and plastered until February.

"The fact that they were trying to remodel a school while kids were in it was my first indication that common sense and logic do not apply in school administration," she says.

Lacombe was brought up to follow orders (her father was a Marine drill sergeant) but she says new teachers shouldn't have to do the same. "You don't need to put up with extreme situations like that," she says. "Don't be afraid to speak up."

Little Kid, Big Trouble

When Cari Molina was a new teacher, she was assigned to a cash-strapped elementary school in one of the poorest towns in Southern California. She expected to have at-risk students in her classroom. But she didn't bargain for Jorge—a delinquent fourth- grader with a rap sheet.

At the ripe old age of 9, Jorge was already on probation with the Sheriff's department, and Molina was required to fax in his grades and notes about his behavior to the probation officer. The news was rarely good. Jorge missed assignments, disrupted class, got into fistfights on the playground, and used language that would make a sailor's jaw drop.

Still wet behind the ears, Molina had no experience dealing with students like Jorge, but she had a gut feeling about him, so she didn't give up.

"They're all tough guys. That's how they make it through life and in the neighborhoods they come from," says Molina. "I learned to get past that to see the child within."

"Jorge taught me that at-risk students need second, third, fourth, and fifth chances," Molina says. "As much as I taught him never to give up on his education, he taught me never to give up on students."

Her continued faith in Jorge paid off. He became a better student and started behaving, if only in her classroom.

"Believe in your students," Molina says. "They'll always remember that you did."

The 90 Percent Solution

As a first-year teacher, you expect problems, but you can usually be confident that you'll be able to talk with your students. Not Sue Pearson. Her first year, in Corona, California, 20 of her 30 first- and second-graders spoke no English, and Pearson spoke no Spanish. She did have a bilingual aide, but only for 45 minutes a day.

So what did this neophyte do? She acted and drew.

"More than 90 percent of communication is body language and tone," she says. "To communicate 'mountain,' you can show a picture of a mountain, or make it with your arms. I flapped my wings, made a lot of exaggerated motions, and pointed to things."

Her charges managed to get across their most urgent messages without words, too. "The bathroom dance is the same in any language," she observes.

It helped that these small children needed to learn a lot of things that did not involve complex verbal structures. "How we line up, how we sit down, how we get a drink of water—they learn these things by watching the teacher or other kids, just like little ducklings."

She even managed to teach literacy skills because most letter sounds are the same or similar in Spanish and English. And the bilingual aide was great, when she was there. Soon, Pearson started learning Spanish, while the children picked up English. Even before they could speak, they could understand much of what she was saying.

A shared language would have been better, of course. To teach effectively, she notes, you have to gauge a student's comprehension, and that's hard if you can't understand the child's language. But Pearson continued to teach classes that included non-English speakers for several more years. At one point, she had students who spoke 17 languages.

She now teaches English as a Second Language in Missouri.

"Teaching has so many redeeming moments, when you see the 'Ah-ha!' go off. And I don't know another job where you get to play kickball. The little kid in me responds to the little kid in the kid."

Pearson's advice to first-year teachers in an extreme situation: "Pray hard."

Student Teacher At the Helm

Carol Sanders had her extreme teaching crisis before she really got started.

It was 1983. She was a student teacher, one week into a six-week, get-your-feet-wet experience, when she was unexpectedly pushed into the deep end of the pool: Her cooperating teacher was hospitalized with breast cancer.

Suddenly, she had two high school English classes to teach without help, or even textbooks.

"I had no guidance. No one said, 'Come to me if you have questions.' I don't think I ever met the principal. I couldn't call the cooperating teacher to ask, 'What can I do with Danny?' because she might be dying of cancer."

So what did she do? "I muddled through, one day at a time, making copies of materials I suppose I shouldn't have been making copies of."

Looking back, she says, "I was an idiot not to say, 'Somebody help me!' But I was only 22."

Her message to new teachers: "Never be afraid to ask for help. I've seen many new teachers flounder, but when you offer to help, say, 'No, I'm fine!' The ones who do best are the ones who ask for help."

School on the Rez

On the vast, 17 million-acre stretch of the Navajo Nation, at a dusty outpost called Red Mesa, Daniel Edwards spent his first years teaching high school.

He lived in a trailer on the teacherage, the small housing community for educators on "the rez." He stocked up on groceries and clean socks—the nearest store was more than an hour away, as was the nearest laundromat. In clear weather he could pick up baseball games on the radio to break up the stillness of the evenings. Not that Edwards had many idle evenings—most nights he was preparing for his whopping five-class course load: World History and Geography, Economics, Biology, Journalism, and Native American Studies.

"With a small school and limited staff, a lot of us had to teach 'out of subject,' but we did what we could to provide our students with the same opportunities as larger schools," Edwards says.

He admits it was tough. This was the 1980s, long before the Internet, and there were no textbooks or AV resources for some of his classes. He often traveled to a grocery store up in Cortez, Colorado, where he convinced the guys in the meat department to give him beef hearts, whole squid, and fish for the students to dissect in biology labs.

He also faced cultural challenges. Several students refused to dissect fish because, according to a Navajo legend, they could be ancestors. Edwards had to find an alternative way to include those students. "It was OK to create illustrations of the internal anatomy without actually cutting the fish open," he says. "So those students still learned about the classes of bony fish."

His advice to new teachers: "Be prepared!"

The Teacher Who Cried 'Piggy!'

The low point of Monica Watson's first year (1993) wasn't when one of her 37 fourth-graders showed up hours late because she was caught stealing a car.

Or when one of her boys threw chairs.

No, it was the day a Mom and Grandma were helping her in class, and the principal walked in with two police officers, who put Mom on the floor and cuffed her because she was wanted on a drug charge.

Watson and her class had an emergency plan to deal with the boy who threw chairs. If he had a violent tantrum, she would say, "Piggy!" That signal sent one student to the office to fetch help while the others left the room. Then the boy could be talked down or even physically restrained with less risk.

So when Watson saw the police, she said, "Piggy!" and her students dutifully filed out—although Mom's two daughters were still there to witness the cuffs.

Fortunately, says Watson, "Grandma grabbed the girls and we all talked about it with the social worker." Grandma told them the police thought it would be safer to arrest their Mom in school, where she wouldn't be carrying her gun. And the social worker said even grownups make mistakes.

That social worker, says Watson, helped her cope with many tough challenges, including the violence-prone boy. He was finally removed from her classroom in April.

But the girl who stole the car—that turned out well!

She had stolen it from a neighbor because she missed the bus and was eager to get to school. But she was only 9, and promptly crashed. The police got the neighbors to let the girl do lawn work as restitution and then drove her to school, late but ready to work.

Watson's advice to new teachers: "Find that support!" She sought out teachers who shared her teaching style, even though they taught different grades. "There are always people who will help," she says.

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Published In

August, 2008


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