In the Classroom, However Brief

Even though I’ve basically always wanted to be a priest (that’s a loaded phrase: wanted to be a priest–more on that later), there was a time when I gave serious thought to being a classroom teacher. I remember driving through a used car lot with my dad when I was a kid and comparing my inevitable future careers: priest or teacher. Did I want to have to prepare a sermon each week, I asked, or a lesson plan each day? In what ways would teaching be different than preaching?

When college rolled around, I set my mind to studying education. That way, younger Cody argued, I have a backup option–just in case priesthood doesn’t work. I was excited to major in English and minor in secondary education. I’ve been lucky to have mostly great teachers throughout my life. My eventual plans, of course, were to do parochial work, but perhaps also supplement that with classroom work. In retrospect, it was a silly plan for a variety of reasons. Through an odd stroke of fate, the coordinator for the Education Department never responded to(or, perhaps, never received) my emails asking for an appointment. I eventually allowed my potential career in secondary education to fall by the wayside.

Working in the New Haven Public Schools (through the Boost! program, an initiative of the United Way of Greater New Haven), I’ve experienced first hand the maelstrom that is the education system in the United States. The achievement gap in New Haven is among the highest in the country, which makes New Haven’s teachers among the boldest in my opinion. These women and men are mostly amazing. While many of them could be teaching in other districts–luxurious districts, even–they are in New Haven. In spite of working with a whole slew of troubled children, they love their kids and the kids mostly love their teachers. It’s a beautiful, if fragile and temporary, relationship.

In any case, I got a brief glimpse at the stress of teaching the other day. My job is mostly administrative. I file reports, schedule meetings, analyze data. Things of that sort. A special education teacher approached me yesterday and asked if I could lend her a hand. I hesitated for a moment, having had negative results the last time I agreed to do something outside of my (already very vague) job description. I reluctantly agreed, assuring her that I was a not a teacher, had no training in teaching, and didn’t know how to teach.

One her students–a third-grader, K–was having a rough time with some school work. Ms. S’s classroom is next to my office and I regularly hear her duking it out with K to do his work, to focus, and to not get lippy. K insisted that he knew how to do whatever homework he was working on and then get enraged when he couldn’t do it. I sat down next to him, not quite knowing how to begin. To my dismay, he was working on math. Oh Lord, thought I. Here we go. As it turns out, the math was simple–subtracting really big numbers basically. My young pupil was angry with Ms. S and now with Mr. Cody, so refused to move out of his arms-crossed-head-cocked-eyes-rolled position. I shrugged and started doing the subtraction, talking out loud as I did so.

“Can I take 3 from 4?” No answer. “Yes? Good answer, K.”

“How can I take 9 from 3? Borrow from the next number? Good work!”

So on and so forth.

After a few problems, he started to melt out of his tense position. His hand slowly moved to his pencil and he at least looked at the worksheet. A few problems later, he was answering my question. By the end of the worksheet, he was doing the math on his own, relying on me to check his answers or offer a few words of encouragement. I turned him back to his teacher, who–over-worked and under-paid–had moved onto the next student on her list. She thanked me and I went back to my office.

My job description, as I mentioned, is very vague. I’m technically the assistant to the coordinator at my school. My coordinator, however, is a full time teacher, whose priority is with her students (as it well should be.) I end up doing much of the coordinating (What do you coordinate, you may ask? Well, that’s another post, methinks.) It was great breaking up my normal routine–sitting at my desk, wandering down to the staff lounge for coffee, sending emails, making copies–by interacting with another human.

More than that, it was affirming to know that I could help this young man–calm him down, teach him, guide him

. I imagine that the euphoria that followed is the reason why many educators do what they do.
I may not be very good at math (and I’m not), but in that moment, I was good enough to help somebody else.

How wonderful a feeling!


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