By Bill Henk – Years ago my wise old dad told me “Never make a promise unless you intend to keep it.”
Well, last week I told a class of fourth graders at the Milwaukee Academy of Science (MAS) that I would blog about my visit with them the following Thursday. And by goodness, I’m a man of my word. So here goes.
The story begins with several professionals around the city being invited to do a little guest teaching by colleagues in our Teach For America Milwaukee (TFAM) office. After all, it never hurts for outsiders to get a feel for the realities of classroom life. At first, I was hesitant, because my regular schedule and workload are ridiculous this time of year, and oddly enough, the thought of working directly with kids again both over-excited and scared me.
I mean, let’s face it. Although I’ve always loved interacting with kids, which is what drew me to the profession in the first place, it would look pretty bad for a dean of education (as well as her/his college and university) to crash and burn while teaching. Worse yet, I knew that there would be observers including the classroom teacher, Blake Shultice (a TFA corps member who is also a graduate student at Marquette no less), and Maurice Thomas, the Executive Director of TFAM, again no less.
In other words, bad lesson — so long credibility.
But when I heard I could do my guest spot at MAS, a school I know quite well since I’ve been on its Board for a decade, I decided to man up. Besides, I was pretty much just supposed to read a book to the kids and call it a day. And for that matter, I’d done a small amount of teaching at my daughter’s Catholic elementary school not long ago, and not only survived, but left feeling like I still kind of “had it.”
Can you say, “Wake-up call?”
Oh, I did everything I could to get ready. Familiarized myself intimately with the book, a very good one by Patricia Polacco called “Thunder Cake,” that Blake had recommended. I practiced my oral reading of it over and over again for dramatic effect. I identified vocabulary words that the kids might find challenging and prepared to teach them. I made a pre-reading activity about children’s fears that fit the theme of the story. I did a deep content dive on thunder and lightning, so I’d be a font of information — armed with insightful commentary, answers to their questions, and some astute comprehension probes of my own. I even did some hefty research on the author, and came up with some pretty interesting facts about her (if I do say so myself) that I intended to spring on them to create the “Wow” effect.
Even so, I was nervous, because it’s not easy to go in as a stranger and connect with kids in ways that will gain and keep their attention, let alone result in them actually learning something. But I knew it could be done, and I felt up to the task. Yessir, Blake and Maurice were going to say, “Hey, that old geezer can really teach; he hasn’t missed a beat.” And most importantly, the kids wouldn’t detect so much as an ounce of instructional rust. On the contrary, they’d come to regard me as cut from the same cloth as the very skilled MAS teachers they enjoy every day of the school year.
In fairness, the lesson didn’t sink nearly to the level of a disaster. It was what I’d call decent, respectable, adequate, acceptable, or OK — nothing to write home about. Put differently, it fell well short of the scintillating pedagogical phenomenon I had hoped to deliver.
At points I struggled to get my rhythm and to think on my feet. Instructional decisions that used to come easily and naturally weren’t there for me like they used to be when I was in my teaching prime. Thankfully, I eventually settled in pretty well and started to manage my time and make adjustments to the activities (that I had overplanned) fairly well. Even so, I never felt like I was orchestrating the classroom in the way I’d expect of an exceptional aspiring teacher or a seasoned veteran. It was just barely “good” enough, not the lesson the kids deserved. They may not have known; but I sure did.
And believe me, the children had nothing to do with the instructional episode’s mediocrity. On the contrary, they could not have been more welcoming, friendly, and cooperative. And almost all of them stayed with me as much as I had earned. Most were very eager to learn and volunteered to answer repeatedly. And I’m pretty sure that some of them hung in there long enough to learn something, a real credit to them.
So, I want to end by thanking the class for receiving me so warmly, being patient, and giving me much more than a chance. They gave me the benefit of the doubt for the full hour I spent with them. By the way, a mere 60 minutes of being at the front of the class left me exhausted. If the goal of the guest teaching was to give visitors an appreciation for the work of a teacher, then this experience qualified as hugely successful — even for someone who already knew. Let’s just say that my appreciation is fully renewed.
Thank you, MAS fourth graders, for reminding me how much I love and miss teaching, how incredibly gratifying it is to help shape young, beautiful minds, and how important it is that you be taught by knowledgeable, skilled, passionate, energetic, determined teachers.
*Photo courtesy of Adam Schmidt, TFA Regional Director of Recruitment. He and Jody Dungey, MAS Director of Development, were also witnesses to a literacy lesson that left a lot to be desired…