Thursday, May 18, 2017

I'm starting to think that maybe children aren't universally terrifying after all.

I don’t really know what to do with small children. I didn’t have to acquire much experience in this department growing up—my brother is only three years younger than I am, all of our cousins are older than that, and by the time I reached babysitting age it was already firmly established that I was not the right teenage girl to ask to help out in the nursery.

Despite having known this fact about myself since elementary school, I managed to forget it entirely in my senior year of college. That’s when I encountered the attractive whirlwind of powerful marketing and well-meaning hubris that is Teach For America.

For anyone unfamiliar with the organization, Teach For America (TFA) is a program that recruits brand-new, maximally idealistic college graduates and enlists them to teach for two years in severely underperforming schools. TFA specifically seeks graduates who did not study education in college, because the organization prefers a fresh receptacle for its own systems and values without interference from clutter such as “years of training” or “classroom experience.”

After acceptance into the program, TFA teachers undergo a five-week summer training called “Institute,” which is obviously sufficient to cover all of the skills a 22-year-old could need in order to manage and serve a classroom of academically disadvantaged students. The TFA website calls Institute “a rigorous and intensive experience,” which is presumably the result of the public relations team reworking their original slogan.

From Institute (where I learned that showers are so your roommates can’t hear you cry), I went on to my very own classroom of first graders in rural southern Louisiana. There it quickly became clear that those hours of instruction and practice in lesson planning had not addressed my extreme lack of experience with six-year-olds. My determination to eliminate educational inequity did not prepare me for the child who brought a pocketful of playground gravel back to class to throw at me...

... or the child with surprisingly good spelling and penmanship for a first-grader.

I want to be very clear on this point: These problems sprang from my extreme lack of confidence and ability in classroom management, and not from any fundamental fault with these children. They are almost definitely not evil in their cores at all. And they certainly didn’t ask to be subjected to the authority of that shouty white lady who kind of sounds like she might cry.

After a couple of months, it was obvious to everyone that my ability to explain subtraction was no match for my inability to get anyone to sit still, keep their shoes on, and stop spitting sunflower seeds at each other long enough to listen. I left the program early and came home with more than a little psychological baggage.

 Fortunately, there have been a few changes over time. For one thing, it’s been eight and a half years since I left Teach For America, so I almost never have the nightmares anymore.

For another, I have recently gotten to know a few little kids who seem not to mean me any physical or emotional harm! This experience is distinctly preferable, and in fact I have found that it can even be fun. For instance, several months ago I had a graduation party at which the first guests to arrive included friends of mine with their 5-year-old twins, Lucy and Batman. Also in attendance was a large and delicious-looking cake. I let the kids know that there were not enough people present yet to cut the cake, and we would have to wait until some more arrived. Lucy spent the intervening time making sure that the presence of a cake in the room remained at the front of my mind.

By the middle of the party (during which Lucy got plenty of frosting on her cake), there were four children under the age of six in my house. I am proud to report that I did not find this situation even a little bit harrowing.

Funny how context can change your experience. It’s almost as though Teach For America has significant organizational failings that should not be interpreted as a direct indictment of children’s character or my worth as a person. Huh.