While I spent more than 25 years in the classroom - gosh that sounds like a lifetime - there was a life before teaching that is worth reflecting on. I didn't become a teacher until I was 31 years old.
So when I left high school there was ZERO plan for post secondary education. My family hadn't the financial means to support me going to college. At the time, I didn't see a reason to go beyond high school either. I joined the workforce when I was 15 years old - less so on purpose, and more so as a result of being in the right place at the wrong time. If you are interested in hearing that whole story, there is a post about that here.
For this post I want to focus on the year and a half that I spent in classrooms as a teacher assistant.
1989 - Teacher Assistant in Dropout Prevention
Yea....can you believe that? There was a program called Dropout Prevention and the kids in said program knew what it was called - so congratulations to the education system of the 1980s for creating such an amazingly self-fulfilling program that kids could join, and then drop out of! My question today is, "WHO? AND WHY?" But this post isn't about that.
When I was hired as a teacher assistant at Addison Mizner Elementary School in 1989 - hired by my former 6th grade teacher turned Principal - I was in the final couple of years of my Bachelor of Arts Degree at Florida Atlantic University. I was assigned to work with Mrs. Smith (a fabricated name) who was the teacher of 14 fourth and fifth graders in a program called Dropout Prevention. These kids were all minority children bused in from the public housing complex in nearby Delray Beach called Carver Estates. I was immediately appalled that the program was named as such, and that all of the kids were African American. They even made comments about it on nearly a daily basis. One kid, Jimmy, once asked me, "Why is Mr. Stansell the only white dude in this class?" It was a fair question with no answer that didn't hurt.
It was the year in that class that helped me to better appreciate the incredible responsibility that comes with being a teacher. I also came to realize that any adult that comes in contact with children is, for better or for worse, a teacher of that child.
We Are All Teachers
Kids are always watching us and making judgments about what they see. They observe, measure, store, and emulate adult behavior constantly. Even though I was studying all of the great minds of the field - Piaget, Plato, Brigham Young, John Dewey, and many more - my book knowledge did not prepare me for the experience of being in a room with children for 7 hours a day, for 180 days.
I decided very early that year to become an astute observer of those kids and how they interact with their world. Those kids taught me a great deal! Despite a long list of obstacles that they would need to overcome, they were loving, smart, funny, deep thinking souls who wanted one thing - someone to believe in them.
It broke my heart to see those kids bused out of their own neighborhoods and into a school that was too far away for them to become an intricate part of their school community. This busing was done in the name of desegregation. Which, by my estimation was a misguided attempt at creating equality for all students. The funny thing is, most of the kids who rode those buses that were in 4th and 5th grade ended up in the Dropout Prevention class anyway. How that manifested itself is that those kids were segregated within the school, creating a separate and inherently unequal education system - something the Supreme Court had already ruled upon.
One Year of Heartbreak
The year I spend in the Dropout Prevention class seemed to break my heart on a daily basis. The difficulties the kids in that class faced each day were well beyond those that should be laid in the laps of 9, 10 and 11 year children.
For most of those kids, they enjoyed 2 meals a day - during school days. Both of those meals were prepared in the school cafeteria. They told me that when they went home there would be no food in the refrigerator or cabinets, and they would be left to do what they could to scrounge a snack of some kind before going to bed. I don't know how we can expect children to learn when they are battling such crippling hunger every day.
To further exaggerate their differences and their difficulties, every day we bused them 45 minutes each way into a school that they only saw on school days. While Addison Mizner has boasted some incredibly gifted teachers and students, the kids from Carver Estates weren't in those classrooms, or with those teachers. And the bus ride seemed to remind them that they weren't a part of this school community. On more than one occasion I had the kids in that class tell me, "This isn't my school. I live in Delray."
That year, the teacher in the class decided at some point to spend her time teaching the nine 5th grade students in the class, and to assign me to teach the five 4th grade students. During the mornings the 4th graders and I would sit in the back of the room and I was charged with teaching reading and writing. Mrs. Smith taught math to the whole class in the afternoons.
I developed what I considered to be a good raport with those kids, and one boy in particular became my pal. We will call him Billy. When I first started teaching the 4th graders Billy was not reading on any level really. He was not interested in reading, and told me he was going to play football, so therefore didn't really need school. Billy taught me patience and perserverance beyond measure.
When I visited Billy's home one weekend, just before summer began, I was heartbroken, angry, and motivated all at once. It was my first visit to Carver Estates, but it would not be my last.
What remains with me to this day is how Billy likely saved my life that Sunday morning.
Billy to the Rescue
I had made arrangements with Billy's mother to visit with her and him that Sunday. I wanted to bring some books and magazines for Billy, who had developed an ability to read and a motivation in reading books and magazines about sports. I also wanted to see where he lived. I had been told for months that Carver Estates was a public housing complex, but I didn't know much more about it than that.
When I arrived at Carver I found Bill's building and parked in front of it. I noticed a group of kids playing basketball on courts near his building, but there were no other people around. I parked, exited my car and began looking for the apartment number Billy had given me. As I approached the door, Billy ran out and gave me a hug. We went inside and had a nice visit with Billy's mom and an uncle. They were appreciative of the visit and the books. They told me that Billy talked about me a lot. I told them that I too, spoke of Billy a lot.
As I was leaving there was a gathering of older teenagers, perhaps early 20 somethings, just outside the apartment. I began to walk to my car when one of the boys in the crowd stepped out and asked me, "What are you doing here white boy? You looking for something?" It seemed like he was angry and perhaps looking for a confrontation.
I started to speak when Billy spoke up, "He's my teacher." The confrontation was over. The guy gave me a smile and a nod, then headed back to his group. I thanked Billy again, getting into my car and headed home.
Five Months of Heaven
At the conclusion of that first year as a teacher assistant I put in a request to change assignments for the next year. There were two reasons for the request - one selfish, one selfless.
The selfish reason was that I didn't want to work with that teacher again. She was difficult to work with and I couldn't imagine another semester with her.
The selfless reason was that I knew that at the end of the first semester I would be leaving the job to go into student teaching. I made the point that the kids in the Dropout Prevention program would be better served by having a teacher assistant that was going to stay for the entire year. A change at the semester change would have created a stability challenge for those kids who would be better off with no change of that sort.
My principal approved the change and placed me with two first grade teachers - Mr. Wade and Ms. Rustin. These two teachers boasted more than 50 years combined in the classroom. They were team-teaching at a time when very few in the field did that. Their classrooms were side-by-side and they shared something like 40 kids.
During the five months I spent in their classrooms I learned more about children, teaching and learning than I would have learned in the four years in university classes. Jim Wade and Judy Rustin allowed me to create plans and teach lessons in their classrooms.
When things didn't go as planned, Jim and Judy allowed me to struggle and work through to completion. At the end of each day we would meet to discuss our successes and struggles. I always felt valued and safe in their classroom. When I went into student teaching I felt like a seasoned veteran - having had the experience with what I still consider to be the best two teachers I have met.
A Summer of Fun!
That summer Mr. Wade and I spent a couple of hours a week going back to Carver Estates with board games, balls, and equipment to play with the kids who were home for summer. We would go to the rec center at Carver to meet up with any kids who wanted to play. We played kickball, dodgeball, connect four, scrabble, and any number of game with those kids.
I learned even more about how play creates genuine learning opportunties for us all. We were able to incorporate reading, math, and science into our games in a way that made learning natural and fun. It was the gift that Jim Wade brought to the world - his ability to create fun, meaningful learning experiences for anyone who would jump in!
To this day I speak of Mr. Wade as "The Best Teacher I have ever known." In fact, just yesterday, I spoke those words to an Addison Mizner parent.