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First Person

I thought I was Mary Poppins. Then I got in front of a classroom.

The jumper, the clucker, and the teacher who lost control

By Anna Sims

“Welcome to Writing Club!” I say. “Who’s excited to write?”

No one responds in the affirmative.

I am standing in the library of a public elementary school, facing a room full of fidgety third, fourth, and fifth graders, and at this point, I’m still confident. I spent my high school years nannying for a family with 12 kids, like a modern day Mary Poppins in the flesh.

True, I’ve rarely interacted with children in almost a decade. But now, I need money; I recently quit my job to enroll in a graduate writing program. And when I saw the posting on my school’s job board — seeking after-school writing teachers, no classroom experience required — I figured, this will be easy.

It hasn’t occurred to me that these kids might not enjoy writing, that they’re here because their parents are stuck at work for another hour and the juggling and fencing clubs were full. I am, in other words, delusional. That delusion does not last.

In fact, the speed at which I lose control is dizzying. What the students are excited about, it turns out, is yelling and chasing one another around the room. One boy stands on his chair and just jumps up and down. It occurs to me that I could scream, “Fire!” — while surrounded by actual flames — and no one would listen. 

“Maybe we should start with rules,” I shout, deciding this is how I will establish Writing Club as a place of law and order. “Who has an idea for what one of our rules should be?”

“We should have fun!” Chair-Jumping Boy says. 

“I think you should stop jumping on your chair,” I counter.

“Okay,” he says, continuing to jump on his chair.

There’s an old cliché about the teacher who becomes the pupil herself. But the only thing I learn from these children is that I hate them.

Things do not improve from here. And that is my fault. Starting with rules is a boring way to begin anything — an insight I never needed during my nannying days, when afternoons were dedicated to games and snacks. More to the point, authority is something you project, not announce. I need to enter a room and assert that I deserve to be listened to because I said so … without having to say so. I have no idea how to do this.

I realize in this moment that advertising a teaching job as “no classroom experience required” was lunacy. Where else does one learn how to delicately wrangle a young boy into his seat? Teaching is a skill, and it’s hard in the best of circumstances. Getting kids to focus on a task as sedentary as writing, after they’ve been cooped up in school all day, might be physically impossible.

Never have I more resented Mary Poppins, a woman with a literal bag of magic tricks to win over the Banks children.

In lieu of magic, or the icebreaker games the kids insist they don’t want to play, I ask the students to tell me their names and some facts about themselves. After two students go, it’s clear that no one is listening, and that includes me. I’m focused on the two fourth grade girls who are staring at me like I am the lamest human ever put before them, and a boy who has started clucking like a chicken.

Then, suddenly, Chair-Jumping Boy leaps off his perch, grabs the bag of pencils I brought for the writing it’s increasingly clear we’re not going to do, and starts running. And like an idiot, I follow him. 

He races inside a reading fort set up in the corner of the room. I peek my head in the entryway, prepared to demand he return my pencils this instant, before realizing what I’ve done — or, more precisely, what he has done. Like a baby who drops his pacifier, knowing that the grownups will always pick it up, Chair-Jumping Boy knows that if he creates a disturbance, I will take the bait. He’s the one in control.

I back away, sans pencils, and return to the front of the class. Then, I lose it.

“You guys are not listening to me!” I bellow. “If you don’t listen, then we are not going to write!”

Nothing changes. The students pay just as little attention now as they have all class. Except that actually, things are infinitely worse. Not only have I have failed to throw an effective temper tantrum, but I have used the only leverage I have — no listening to me, no writing for you! — and the students have responded: They do not care.

There’s an old cliché about the teacher who enters a classroom ready to impart her wisdom on students, only to become the pupil herself. This is not what happened to me. The only thing I learn from these children is that I hate them. And also, I suppose, “Don’t chase kids into forts.” It will get better over the course of the school year, as I realize more explicitly what not to do, but few and far between will be the moments when students produce a viable piece of writing.

Still, I keep teaching. Three years later, I’m in charge of college students — an inarguably tamer age group — and I’m a master of commanding authority when I stand in front of the room. The secret of my success, I think, is having dismally failed — knowing that everything can go wrong, and I’ll still make it out alive. Students can jump, sprint off, or cluck; it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

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Anna Sims is a writer based in Boston.


Illustration by iStock

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