August 13, 2011

What I Realized From My Very First Time Teaching in a Classroom

It took me a while to get to where I am right now, a full time itinerant teacher within a public school system. Before, I worked in an art store and dabbled in the arts. I was not sure about what I wanted to do. I had fun working there and volunteering my time at various places (museums, schools, events, charities, etc.), but I felt like there was something wrong with me because I did not have a career, even though it had been a few years since I graduated from college. I had a hard time finding full time work in the field of art and history. I started to regret my decision of getting a bachelor's degree in art history. I felt even worse that I was still living with my parents at the time, which American society seem to look down on. It was not like I was being lazy. I was not too dependent on them, I just liked hanging out with my parents and family. I would have been crazy to have left immediately trying to  be on my own in some crappy apartment somewhere, alone. Besides, it gave me the opportunity to really get to know my parents and save tons of money, which helped me out big time in the future.

So, here I was, feeling like a loser and unimportant, because I was not out on my own with a successful full time job that paid me lots of money. In addition, some people made it known that I was even more of a loser because I still lived with my parents. But, all I could do was continue to look for more meaningful work elsewhere and volunteer at various places, while I had fun being with my friends and family.

When I started volunteering in various classrooms and at schools, I discovered that I liked teaching and working with children. However, I was appalled by how many of the classes I worked in were managed. I was depressed by the boring repetitive activities the students were demanded to do in some classes while their teachers barked orders and did most of the talking. But, I still had some interest in teaching or working in an educational environment.

One day, a friend of my brother's recommended me for a summer job at a prestigious private school. She, being a teacher herself, taught art classes to elementary aged children during the summer at their summer camp. She was unable to work that summer and asked me to fill in for her. Somehow she convinced them to hire me, even though I hardly had any experience teaching art or teaching an entire class. I was supposed to start teaching in less than two weeks. I was going to teach painting & drawing and architecture. I was excited. I thought, "This will be so easy and fun. Everyone loves art. This will be a breeze."


On the first day, I stood in the classroom and waited for all 25 or so students to find their seats. I had some activities planned that I could not wait to share with them. The students were pretty quiet as they sat there and stared at me. As soon as I opened my mouth, I quickly learned that I had no idea what I was doing. I started to panic. Most of the kids looked bored already. One student kept talking while I talked, another threw a paper ball at me, while many others looked like they were in their own worlds. A student openly told me that he did not like the activity I had planned for them, which was to sketch their dream house that they would like to build, using a piece of paper and a pencil. He protested, "This is boring. Why are we doing this?" I just ignored him and kept nervously talking about architecture as I walked around looking at what everyone was sketching. He was right, this was boring, and it had only been 5 minutes, we had 45 more minutes to go. I just told everyone that when they are done, we can have "free time", meaning they can do whatever they want. I made the error of not telling them that they need to do this quietly. All hell broke loose when just about everyone decided that they were finished with their sketches and ready for free time. I lost control of the class. They were loud and all over the place. No one would listen to my pleas, "Be quiet!" "No! Don't touch that!" "Put that down!" "Aargh, why is there glue all over the sink?!"

There were a few nice students who sat quietly and continued to work on their sketches. Bless their little hearts. But, they were lost in the midst of chaos and I did not have time to pay attention to these dear souls.

My first day was horrible. I was exhausted at the end of the day. I decided right then and there that I never will be a classroom teacher. I thought I was insane for entertaining the thought of becoming a teacher. But, I did not want to quit, I could use the money.

The next week was total chaos. No one was eagerly participating in my planned lessons and activities. No one would listen to my stories and my knowledge of art and art history, particularly Egyptian and South African art.

The other teachers shook their heads at me and laughed. They gave me suggestions and offered their help and told me that the first time teaching is the hardest. I felt so stupid and useless. If I can't teach, what am I supposed to do now?

I had to come up with something fast.

The next day, when the students came piling in for my architecture class, boisterous and loud, I just stood there and smiled at them trying to remain calm. Some gave me weird looks and then they became quiet once they got to their tables and seats. "What is this?" a student asked pointing at the piles of materials on the table. I said, "If you would like to know, it would be best for you to sit down and listen to me talk, and I think you would be very interested in what I have to say." Intrigued, the students sat down and looked at me. Some were whispering to each other, but I ignored them. I was so excited, I tried not to smile at the fact that it seemed to be working. But, I knew I had to act fast before the moment was gone.

I told them that they will be responsible for designing and making their own buildings using any of the materials they see on their tables. The only rule is that they can be no wider than a piece of cardboard I held up (I believe it was "8x10"). But they can be as tall as they like them to be. I pointed to the different pictures of buildings and structures I had hanging up all over the room. I told them that they could base their creations on the buildings in the pictures. I could not believe that they were listening to me and being quiet. Then, they started asking questions, "Can we work in a group?" "Do you have any pictures of the Eiffel Tower?" "Can we bring our own materials?" "How long do we have?"

I told them that it was going to an ongoing project and that it can go on until the last day of class, if they wish. I made a point of letting them know that it was up to them to make most of the decisions of how the buildings will look and how they will present them.

They went to work immediately. I couldn't believe it.

Throughout the rest of the summer camp art classes, I gave my architecture students small projects, if they wish to take a break from their main project. The best one was when I asked them to create buildings out of sugar cubes. The buildings could be no bigger than an index card, but could be as tall as they want it to be. Some worked in groups, while others worked on their own. I could not believe some of the buildings they made out of sugar cubes and glue! One group of boys (ages 8, 10, and 10) recreated the Empire State building out of sugar cubes. It looked exactly like the building. They did this all on their own, all I provided was a toothpick that they could put on top for the needle. It was amazing. On that day I learned that sometimes we don't give children enough credit.

For my painting and drawing class, I gave them an ongoing project where they could take some of my old clothing I provided them and turn them into new designs. The only rule was that they had to incorporate some painting or drawing in the designs. I gave them an old shirt, jean jacket, pants, and a hat. One boy complained and said that designing clothes was for "sissies". I told him that he could do something else. But, when he saw the other boys having fun turning my jean jacket into "punk rock" wear, he decided to join in and help complete my designs. Really, the reason why many of them were so motivated to recreate my clothes was because I told them that if they finished in time, I would wear the clothes and give them a fashion show. They LOVED this idea. Again, I was amazed at the skills some of these students had! Even though some of the clothes were ridiculous and hideous, I wore them with pride on the last day.

So, what did I learn? Students are creative and willing to do things that they are interested in and have some control of. Everything changed as soon as I gave them the opportunity to participate in their learning. They learned a lot about themselves, what they are capable of, how to work with others, and I would like to think that they learned a thing or two about painting & drawing and architecture. I had some students come up to me and tell me that this was the best class they have ever taken.

I will never forget the look of pride on their faces as they carried their completed projects home.

Even though this class was somewhat a success, I still had a lot to learn about class management. I was absolutely horrible at it! But, I learned that I had the potential of becoming a good teacher and enjoying it.

In addition, the painting & drawing class was where I met a special student who inspired me to pursue deaf education. You can read the story here.

After taking sign language classes for four years and working in a mental health counseling center for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, I went on to graduate school and obtained master degrees in deaf education and early childhood education. I am currently employed as an itinerant teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing. I love my job. I am truly thankful for this job and the journey that took me here.


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  1. What a great post! Thanks for sticking with teaching. :)

  2. Great post! :) You sound like an awesome teacher.

    I wanted to read the other post you linked to but it seems to be broken at the moment...

  3. Thanks! The link should be working now. Sorry about that.

  4. if you are in NYS, please check out for a terrific group of folks who do what you do! If not, maybe you can start a group like it . . .


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