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Teaching: Notes from the Front Lines

Two weeks ago, my heart sank when I was told that I would lose my current class of 9th graders and soon be taking over 10th...

Two weeks ago, my heart sank when I was told that I would lose my current class of 9th graders and soon be taking over 10th grade English.The flashbacks of my traumatic first year teaching hit: memories of my incompetence; of how students came to class when and if they wanted; and how they talked through the entirety of my lessons if they weren't already fast asleep.

The current 10th graders were my 9th graders last year, a year when I looked in the mirror and saw my worst self staring back. I felt awful that my kids were neither behaving nor learning. Most of all, I didn't like the way I handled certain situations. I never realized I had a temper until I became a teacher. But when students refuse to be quiet over the course of minutes, days, weeks, and months, eventually you break down.

During my first year, I was trying to keep my head above water. But instead of effectively teaching, I became a master at damage control.

I would be more concerned about potential fights breaking out then teaching grammar. And instead of focusing on the students who were doing what they were supposed to do, my time and energy was fixated solely on the trouble students.

I have now learned to pace myself and effectively manage my time and classroom. I have been able to establish rigorous expectations and a safe environment for my students. This has happened through seeking advice from several teachers and administrators and developing meaningful relationships with my students.

But the sadness of losing my current kids was overwhelmed by having to prepare for the 10th grade class all over again. And as I read over the class roster, there were certain students I was sure that I'd never have to teach again.

Monday came and went without incident. The same can be said of the rest of the week. My students seemed more mature and I was actually enjoying them the second time around. I felt like we accomplished more in a week then we had in several months last year.

At the end of the week, I had a student stay after class. She had been the bane of my existence last year—coming to class late every day, causing a huge scene, talking at will, skipping her near daily detention. I tried everything in the book.

This time around, I complimented her behavior.

“You’re welcome,” she said.

“So, I can’t help but ask: What's different this year?”

“I know you,” she responded.

“You know me? What do you mean by that?” I asked, confused.

“Mr. Donaldson, you are my only teacher that I had last year. The rest of them are all new,” she answered.

I looked over her schedule. She was right. Her science, history, and math teachers were all new to the school.

The teachers from last year left for a variety of reasons. Quite a few teachers transferred to different districts, some went back to school, and some were simply burnt out and quit.

At the beginning of this year, I had a bad attitude. I missed my co-workers and felt isolated. But after this past week of teaching my old students, my fears are gone. I am excited to have my old students again, thrilled by the prospect of achieving this year what was impossible only months ago.

As she left my room, I couldn't help but hope that she knows me next year, too.

David Donaldson is a Baltimore City schoolteacher and baseball coach.

More photographs from David's classroom, taken by Matt Roth, can be found here.

UPDATE: The photos have been removed from this post.\n
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