After I was discharged from the military (honorably even though I had been AWOL for a short time, but that is another story to be told at a later date) I worked for a couple of years in a fabric and dye plant. I wrote about that experience in my entry titled ‘Remembering Jonas’. That work made the decision to get a degree a little bit easier. After graduation I wanted to take the first available teaching position that intrigued me, and my choice proved to be an interesting start to my teaching career.
I began teaching at a state institution/intermediate unit location named Eastern State School and Hospital. The students there were adjudicated youth, mostly from Philadelphia and the surrounding suburban counties. The students were sent there for a range of reasons – some suffered from neglect or abuse, some had delinquency records, and others may have been sent there for after care reasons. There were only about 80 to 100 students with most living in cottages under adult supervision and a small number of the remaining students lived in a locked hospital ward. The classes were small (3 to 10 students in a class) and were formed around the students’ needs and abilities.
! was designated as a full time substitute along with two other teachers. The three of us came to work every day and if there was not a classroom to be subbed into we then worked as a secondary teacher assigned to a primary teacher. It may seem odd to have substitutes report full time, but it was not uncommon for teachers to use mental health days as the year progressed. There was one teacher that had worked there for a few years and he had a tradition of taking a week in September to go fishing down at the shore. I was assigned to his room that first week – I suspect because of being a veteran I was seen as a bit older and perhaps more ready for the task. I wasn’t!
That first week I had two chairs thrown in my direction, was called names that I had not heard before, and was met by refusal to follow any directions that I gave. Each day I would sit with the experienced teachers and review and reflect about what had happened in the classroom. I was thinking that I made a wrong decision about teaching and perhaps it wasn’t meant for me. My colleagues were very encouraging and urged me to keep at it. During my time at that school I learned a few things that carried over into the rest of my teaching career. I learned that trust between students and a teacher is vital, but that trust is not simply granted by the students. It has to be earned. In that same vein I began to realize that establishing relationships, knowing students well, is at the heart of teaching. I also learned that finding a support network of teachers is important, whether that network is in the same building or is a larger network. That knowledge led me to seek out established networks such as the Coalition of Essential Schools, Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (S.E.E.D.), and the Philadelphia Writing Project. All three of these groups were tremendously helpful as I developed my own theory and practice of teaching.
That first school no longer exists and I believe the grounds were taken over and turned into housing and commercial development, but that facility and those teachers and students that I came to know hold a place near and dear in my heart.