Learning to be a teacher

January 24, 1994|By Kenneth Aaron

I WASN'T one of those who "give back to the community."

It's not that I didn't care, but given the pressures of school, job and home, who had the time?

So I surprised myself last year when I asked for an unpaid teaching position at the Roland Park Middle School, one of Baltimore's public schools. (Maybe I wasn't being completely altruistic; I was going to receive class credit at Johns Hopkins University for being an intern.)

My adviser, Gary Wilson, didn't seem to mind my motives. On hearing that I was editor-in-chief of the News-Letter, a Hopkins student newspaper, he invited me to take command of Roland Park's. It was a good fit.

So without a clue or a lesson plan, I stumbled into the world of teaching.

*

Week One -- Gary asked me to come to Roland Park to survey the premises. I had to ride the bus there, for what must have been the first time in years. Back to school, indeed.

I was nervous. What was expected of me? How would I do it? Was I out of my mind?

His friendliness and easy-going attitude made me feel better. Gary remarked, "We would like to publish a six-page issue." Six!? "Once this semester. Maybe twice." Geez, I edited a 22-page weekly on campus!

That shouldn't pose a problem, I squeaked.

Week Two -- This was it: the first day before a class of my own. I didn't quite know what I'd do, but there would be no getting-to-know-you games. I'd always hated those.

I was all dressed up. At least I'd look important. Anxiously, I waited for my charges. A few finally rolled in. Then it hit me: Here I was, still a kid myself, trying to leave a mark on impressionable rTC young minds. Just try not to damage them, I reminded myself.

It was time to start. "Pay attention to Mr. Aaron," Gary told the class.

Mr. Aaron? Wow, how formal!

The night before I'd written a speech about responsible journalism and how much fun it could be. It was inspiring. It was grand.

And in five minutes, it was done. So we played getting-to-know-you games. I began to understand why teachers use them.

I learned early that those cute kids were sharper than I. Nick asked me, "Wasn't your paper the one that got in trouble? For the racist cartoon?"

Well, I choked, yes. A certain cartoon in my paper did offend many.

"You made a really bad decision," he informed me.

Let's talk about it. Later. Much later.

I cut my losses there. Write about anything for next week, I said. And don't embarrass the teacher.

Week Three -- The kids brought back their articles on time, which is more than I could say for my staff at Hopkins. It was

just that the class . . . well, it had a lot to learn.

Take Alex. I spotted him busily drafting an interview with the soccer coach, whose quotes were particularly colorful.

Alex, I asked, the coach really used all those adjectives?

"No. It sounds better like this, though."

But Alex, I said gently, you've put those words in quotes.

"Well," he said, "some of them. But I thought I'd make it better."

I decided that it was time to teach the class something about quotes. Accuracy, context and so on. The students seemed to understand. But they also seemed so afraid of being sued for libel that I feared they would never quote anyone again.

Next Tiffany brought me her album review, which was about five sentences long. I taught her about padding (a skill acquired in higher education). Then she asked if she could review a concert.

Sure, I said. When did you go?

"Oh, I didn't My friend did. But she told me it was really good."

I had a lot of teaching left to do.

Week Four -- The photo staff had been doing nothing the past two weeks, so I prepared a lesson for them. I brought negatives and prints, to show how they're made.

My bald spot proved more interesting. I just couldn't get them to listen.

See, the negative looks like this, and . . .

Nothing.

Well, this paper reacts to light, and . . .

Nothing

Photography had always fascinated me, so their disinterest was disturbing. Mr. Aaron, it seemed, was just another boring teacher. I had let them down.

That really hurt. Do all teachers feel like that?

Maybe so. Gary told me, "We all get frustrated sometimes. You're doing a fine job." I guess I was fishing for a compliment. Gary's words helped.

Week Five --

My home town

A terrible place to live

Really smells

Yucky streets

Land of drug users

A place where kids are not safe

No place for homeless people

Does not have nice clean water.

A student wrote this. Reading it broke my heart. Is this what kids see? Possibly. In 1992, there were nine armed robberies in Baltimore schools, 24 assaults with a deadly weapon, 83 instances of deadly weapon possession.

At Roland Park, a "good school," one student shoved Mayor Schmoke while he was trying to break up a fight. What's going on?

"It's not as bad as it may seem," Gary said. "The majority of the kids in the middle school are in the advanced academic program. They have to maintain certain skill levels of reading and math ability."

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