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Creating a World That’s Safe for Even the Silliest Questions

“Mr. Thompson,” began Nelly, “How come you’ve got such a pointy nose?” He had an inquisitive look of pure wonder on his face.

Later that day, Tonya asked whether I’d become “a little bit more chubbier” over the summer break. There was no judgment in her tone.

So began my fourth year as a New York City elementary school teacher. In both cases I answered matter-of-factly: People have noses of all different shapes, and mine happens to be a little pointier. And, yes, I put on five or ten pounds over the break — very observant of you to notice. I wasn’t offended in either case. My students’ blunt queries brought a smile to my face, endearing them to me all the more.

I was forced to switch grades this year because of an administrative error four years ago that left my school without a class in my setting. I’m also teaching a brand new math curriculum without manipulatives and student reference books because of an ordering mix-up. Less than two weeks into the year, my reading and writing curricula were scrapped by the new literacy coach in exchange for “lessons on monitoring comprehension” without any more guidance than that. And my new guided reading program and literacy centers have been cancelled for an increased focus on independent reading to help my students prepare for the end of year tests.

In the three years I’ve been at my current school, we have had five different literacy coaches, four different ELA curricula, and new data trackers every year in every subject. I feel like a new teacher multiple times a year, starting from scratch without being able to reuse any of my thoughtfully planned lessons or meticulously gathered resources, without ever being an expert in anything I’m doing because I’m doing it for the first time.

But every moment of ferocious frustration and excruciating change brings me back to Nelly and Tonya, and the 30 other sweethearts on my roster. Wide eyed and eager, they will ask me any question that pops into their heads. They will try their best no matter the curriculum. They look to me for guidance in reading, writing, math, and life. No matter the disorganization in my school, I must feign confidence in the things I say and do, for each of these students deserves a self-assured teacher to help pin the center of their world to the ground and stop it from spinning out of control.

So, to my brothers and sisters in teaching I say this: do not ever forget what we signed up for. When you feel surrounded by change or incompetence, when you feel overwhelmed by the legions of educational policy-makers who have never taught a day in their lives, when you feel your own personal life crumbling under the weight of your profession — remember that we are one of the most important sources of stability in our students’ lives. Whether they are living in shelters, whether they are without parents, whether they are struggling to make friends, whether they have yet to decide what kind of people they want to be, we help keep their worlds pinned to the ground. We help stop their lives from spinning out of control. And with the help of their families and our school and neighborhood communities, we make their world feel safe enough to ask why some people have pointy noses, even when the world does not feel safe to us.

Mr. Thompson is the pseudonym of a fourth-year elementary school teacher in Brooklyn. If you’re interested in writing a New Teacher Diary entry for Edwize, send an email to edwize@uft.org.


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