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Any progress is progress, right?

by Zack Simone, middle school ELA teacher

One evening, late in August, as the school year was fast approaching, I was reviewing the student surveys I had administered on the last day of school.  In an attempt to be a reflective teacher (Domain 4, anyone — hello?!) I was attempting to determine which new systems I’d put in place, what went well, and what needed revamping.  See, last year, according to my perception, was like my rookie year (even though it was my second).  I knew a better version of my teacher-self existed.

As I was reading surveys, I stumbled upon “Sam’s.” As I recently had found out that I was going to have Sam again, one of his responses flagged me, as if to say, “You may need to address this.”

In order to understand my initial reaction, you have to know a little about Sam. Sam was a student in one of my most (sheesh, not one of, the most) difficult classes last year.  It didn’t help that as a newbie of sorts, I allowed my emotions to get the better of me, and as opposed to just disciplining Sam, I actually allowed myself to be sarcastic at times, which ultimately didn’t correct Sam’s behavior, but actually, in a strange way, kept him and his classmates entertained.

However, there were moments where I surprised even myself and dealt with Sam’s ever-growing desire to creatively defy authority in new and inspiring ways. For example, I asked him to be my monitor.  At first he seemed taken aback, but later, when I asked, “Why do you think I did that?” he responded with:

“Because you wanted me to behave.”

He got it, he understood; that seemed like progress, right?

Flash-forward to the present: there I was at Dunkin’ Donuts, it’s fairly late, I should have been out enjoying the last few remaining days of relaxation, yet I was staring at Sam’s response.  In regards to my question: “Which lessons were most memorable this year?”  Sam responded, “The lessons Mr. Simone taught me when I got in trouble.”  The Robin Williams in me wanted to write a poem immediately about all the amazing things we as teachers can achieve!  The Michelle Pfeiffer in me said, “Smells like it’s placating season.”

During the first week of the new school year, I had students role play various scenarios regarding our classroom expectations.  Sam was playing a student who disrespects a teacher.  During the skit he called the other actor “stupid” and I immediately paused the skit, my way of showing Sam who was boss.  However, a colleague later offered me stronger advice: why not pull him aside, see if that survey comment was actually genuine, and try to get him on your side.

The day following the skit incident, I asked Sam to speak after class, but it was poor timing, so I mentioned we could speak the next day.  The next day, without my having to prompt him, Sam arrived at my door, prior to going to lunch.

“You wanted to talk to me?”

“I did.  I’m a bit surprised you showed up without my having to call for you.”

“I was curious.”

We sat.  I asked him if what he wrote in the survey was genuine, or was he trying to placate me. Except, he didn’t know what placate meant. Once I explained it to him, however, he responded with…

“No, it was real.  I meant it.”

He appeared genuine. When I asked if he wanted to be a captain or sorts for his class, be the guy to rally them when I needed him to, he admitted that he’d like that. To this day, I’m still a bit shocked about Sam’s change of heart, but I wouldn’t say that I was disappointed.

I have to admit, when it comes to particular things, I still have a lot to learn (balancing engaging lessons with not smiling until after Thanksgiving — can’t I just be engaging and have high expectations?).  I probably spend too much time planning in the evenings, and not enough time during my preps, but already the year feels better. And while I learned a lot about what I wouldn’t want to redo from last year, apparently some of my practices worked. After all, Sam went from drawing degrading pictures of me and writing inappropriate connotations of my last name on hallways walls to… admitting my teaching had affected him.

Moments like these remind me why…you know the rest.

Zack Simone is the pseudonym of a third-year middle school ELA teacher in Queens. If you’d like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org.


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