Get Your Hands Dirty

It only took four days of teaching for my immune system to cave. I spent the weekend in a Nyquil-induced coma of recovery, dreaming of all the prep time I was losing. I didn’t get much planning done, but what I ended up finding was time to reflect. The most buoyant memories of my week floated to the surface easily as I half-slept on the couch ignoring the History Channel.

When I thought back to the teachers who influenced me most, one image just kept popping up: my high school chemistry teacher’s hands. It may sound like an odd memory, but he showed his work through his hands. There was evidence of his effort and energy as a teacher there. He was a volleyball coach, chemist, and veteran educator at Blue Springs High School, South of Kansas City, Missouri. Always at the board writing furiously, his hands were continuously covered in a dull yellow chalk dust that most kids today would mistake for fertilizer or curry powder (I’m not even sure there is a chalk board in my high school anymore).

I found pretty quickly that, by third hour, my teacher was ready to demonstrate enthalpy, stoichiometry, and Boyle’s Law in as many ways as it took for me to get it. His board had been covered, erased, and covered again several times over by this point and he was anticipating our questions. His was one of the toughest classes I have ever taken to this day. What I remember today has less to do with what was on his tests than what was on his hands.

I hope to show at least one student the same kind of symbol in my teaching. I want my students to understand what I give to them of myself. Last week, I was writing on the board for the third hour in a row, I noticed my hands were turning black with the soot of my dry-erase markers. Inside, I started to smile; I found a new energy to propel myself forward.

When I look back at that high school chemistry class, I remember the chalk most, but it makes me wonder: what am I forgetting? What myriad of gestures went unnoticed while I was a student? Even if I can’t remember every explicit example, I know there are just as many teachers whom I liked and I can’t
say why. Sometimes, the art of conversation, of managing group work, or engendering accountability are what make teachers who they are.

Last week, my students spent a day writing about the qualities of good teachers and students. They reflected upon their favorite experiences in the classroom and also shared some more difficult moments. On each question, the students had time to reflect on paper independently for a few minutes before sharing with a partner nearby. After they had listened to one another, they took a few minutes to reflect in writing again about what their partner had said. From the pair-sharing, I took answers from the whole class to put on the board. Each student had to reflect one last time on the ideas of the entire room.

I like this cycle of participation because it allows for a gradual swell into whole-group discussion. Sometimes I have found that teachers jump right from quiet individual work to whole-group work with no transition. When you leave out the steps in between, the discussion goes from a beautiful wale swimming in the deep ocean to beached in no time, and you’re left to revive it. In my structure, I tried to allow all students to get the time they need, individually, to ponder a question before sharing in a comfortable partner situation. Eventually, students get to hear a sampling of the entire class’s thoughts and reflect again.

Each student needed one of those levels of discussion and collaboration to succeed. I gave them the chance to review the lesson structure and give three positive of negative feedback points. In dong that, I heard a lot of split thoughts (for example, “I liked/didn’t like group work’), but just about everyone liked at least one aspect of the structure. I promised to read their anonymous critiques and make changes to the lesson accordingly.

As week two begins and my first-week sickness subsides, I’m trying to keep the good things in mind. I’m trying to get my hands a little dirtier than I did before.

3 thoughts on “Get Your Hands Dirty

  1. Welcome to teaching :-D Everyone’s first year (as I understand it) is filled with sickness, and their immune system doesn’t generally get hardened until the second.

    MSU is expecting a swine flu outbreak any day now, probably in the next three weeks. Any concern about that where you are?

  2. Stephen!! I didn’t know you had a website. I read your entry…it was so good! I’m going to keep reading these. They are really good!

  3. Stephen.
    It is so exciting to read your thoughts about your new vocation! Hope you feel better soon! Keep up the good work, and keep us informed about your thoughts and experiences as the school year progresses.

    G’ma Monica

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