Pushing Chalk: Recollections on a Classroom Life

Hey, teacher leave them kids alone.

-Pink Floyd “Another Brick in the Wall” 1979

“What is a rock?”

I actually asked this question of my Earth & Space Science class of ninth graders.  It was probably my third year of teaching.  I was in a public school near Wilkes-Barre, PA.  There were thirty kids in my class which was being held in an annex of the actual school where I worked.  The back wall of the room echoed my voice back to me.  I was fingering a piece of chalk.  As I stood waiting for a response, a thought came to me.  Did I realize just how goofy and stupid I just sounded?  Did these ninth graders really care what a rock was?  Did it matter in any way to them?  Did it matter at all?

The year was probably 1975.  The school district, as well as the whole Susquehanna valley had gone through a terrible flood in 1972, and they were still suffering from flooded buildings and lack of classroom space.  It was no surprise I was hold my class in an annex…where the walls echoed.

I only had one lesson plan to prepare because I taught the very same thing, five times a day, to classes of thirty or so students.

That was my first teaching job.  I had been working on my Master of Arts in Teaching in S.U.N.Y. Binghamton when I got a tip on a full-time teaching job in Pennsylvania.  I had accumulated enough credits to be provisionally certified in that state.  I left the classroom of Binghamton on a Friday and on Monday, I stood on the other side of the desk.  Now, S.U.N.Y. Binghamton, (now Binghamton University) had a great program with their MAT in Earth Science.  But, even though I student taught, was video-taped and critiqued, they never prepared you to stand in front of thirty ninth graders, alone, and learn classroom management skills in about three minutes.  Because, if you didn’t get the students when the starting gun went off, you would never have them.

I learned quick.

There was a few fellow teachers there that taught me something about education and how they valued it.  One teacher had just completed his Masters for permanent certification.  I recall him saying that he was NEVER going to take another class again in his life.  I thought this was a strange thing for a professional educator to say.  It spoke more to his basic philosophy of the value of education than anything I heard since.

I shared a study hall (about 80 students) with another “experienced” teacher.  We would sit at the dining hall table where he would watch the kids and I would work on the N.Y.Times crossword puzzle.  One day, early in September, he told me he was going to give me some valuable advice on how to avoid discipline problems.

“Watch this,” he said.

He had seen a kid whispering to another somewhere across the room.  John (not his real name) went straight for the kid and hauled him into the hall where he proceeded to yell at the student until the kid began to cry.  He then brought the offender back to his seat and returned to sitting beside me.

“If you pick out a kid, like I just did, take him into the hall and shout until he cries, you’ll never have a discipline problem.”

John’s teaching style was rooted in the minimalist category.  He would put a film on the projector.  Turn it on and then head to the nearest phone to talk to his wife about how things were going at the furniture store they owned.

I learned a lot from John.

My years in that school did harden me for problematic issues.  I was attacked in the hallway by a ninth grader who already had a police record.  One of my former students was murdered by his father (or so the story goes), who took the kid and hung him from a tree in the back yard.  Another of my former students used to rely on a crooked doctor to supply him with drugs.  One afternoon, the boy went for his dose and the doctor refused.  So, naturally, the kid bludgeoned the doctor to death.

By the late 1970’s, I’d had enough of that school and all the emotional baggage that came with it.  I left and took a job in Connecticut.  I never even emptied my file cabinet.

I put in two years at a public school in Fairfield County.  The attitude of teachers, parents and students was an even 180 degrees from what I had come from.  I loved the job.  Everyone was so “into” their profession and the students were more than pleasant to teach.  unfortunately, the district had a strict policy of “last hired, first fired”.  I had taken the job as a one year replacement and, due to a tragic accident, it had turned into a two-year job.  Then they closed a school and the older teachers bumped the younger ones.

I went job seeking.

Then another tip paid off.  A private all-girls school in Stamford was in need of a science teacher.  I interviewed.  I inked the contract and entered the realm of the independent schools.  I never looked back.

Here, I had freedom.  No lesson plans to file.  No discipline problems.  The trade-off was in salary.  I would have made much more in the public sector, but I chose the job that gave me freedom and respect.

Now, to make a long story short, I ended my career teaching in the private schools of Manhattan.  My first job was at the Quaker school in the East Village.  Wow.  I rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous.  I would see Susan Sarandon waiting in the hall with her stroller.  One Sunday night, I watched her give out an Oscar.  On Tuesday, I held the door for her.  I even met Raffi, the Mick Jagger of the kindergarten set.

After two years at the Friends school, I moved up to the upper east side to a small school that went from N/K to 8th grade.  We fed the really famous schools like Dalton, Trinity and Horace Mann.  Our auctions and fundraisers were held in such venues as the Hard Rock Cafe, Copacabana, Hotel St. Pierre and the Russian Tea Room.  I was at this school on 9/11.  A parent of one of my students (a former Secret Service agent) passed me in the hall and told me that a few minutes earlier, a plane had gone into the Trade Center.  Later, I went down to the front desk to see whose parents were arriving, and I would get the child from whatever class he or she was in at that time.   One of my students was getting books from her locker as I waited to take her to her waiting father.

“Mr. Egan,” she asked. “is this like Pearl Harbor?”

Several days later, one 8th grade boy asked if he could speak to the upper school assembly (we had one every Friday).  I sat with my class as he went up to the small stage holding something folded.  He stood, alone in front of all the grade 5 to 8 students, and held out an American flag.  He wanted to offer it to the school to fly from our flag pole.  His voice broke and he had to halt his speech.  The room was silent.  The tears rolled down my cheeks.  He found the strength to finish by telling us that the flag had once covered his grandfather’s casket.  His grandfather was a WWII veteran.

I was proud that I risen to hold onto a great position in one of the toughest educational environments in the country.  When I retired in 2005, our tuition was close to that of Yale, (and our selection process for our kindergarten was even tougher than Yale).

Was I a good teacher?  Only the students, some of whom hold PhD degrees, can say.  But I never tired of the fascinating position I held.  I had kids from grade 4 to 12, the ground zero of raging hormones.  Yet, from out of the chaos of emotion they carried in their young brains, I saw eager anticipation for the future.  They looked forward to a life of choices and they were anxious to get on with it.  As I aged, my memories began collecting in my minds vault.  The kids, however, wore their energy and curiosity in their eyes, in their smiles and in their giggles, however silly it all seemed to them at the time.

So, I had gone from a nervous rookie who had to learn the ropes of teaching in a few minutes, to teaching and being an advisor to sixth graders.  The educational world had changed a lot.  My first class averages in 1973 were done with a slide-rule.  When I retired, I was teaching PowerPoint.

My last day in the classroom wasn’t spent pushing chalk.

I simply snapped the cap onto the felt dry-erase marker.

Here are a few selections of my photo memories:

Image

One of my students from Corfe Hills School in England.  I was an exchange teacher to Dorset in 1984-85.

Image

One of my home room class photos in John Jay Park.  The East River is in the background.

Image

Another sixth grade home room.  All these kids are now professionals in the fields they chose.  Look closely into their eyes.

One comment on “Pushing Chalk: Recollections on a Classroom Life

  1. “My first class averages in 1973 were done with a slide-rule. When I retired, I was teaching PowerPoint.” What an amazing transformation. Such great memories. Thanks for sharing.

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