My Summer Back in High School, Reflections from a Teaching Artist

I’ve worked with youth and adults in short, friendly teaching periods.

I started teaching through and as private tutor in 2013. In 2014, I joined a small tutoring company and became a tutor for an Alexandria City middle school. With the tutoring company, I led an SAT class and tutored Reading/Writing in-home and in library settings.

I worked with high school in small doses, which wasn’t enough for me. I wanted more experience, more learning.

In 2017, Split This Rock took me on as a teaching artist. My first workshop was with high school students at the 2018 Hyper Bole. It was wonderful. It was an exchange, a conversation on poetry and social justice between teaching artist and student.

Teaching artists are teachers without the teacher baggage.

There’s not much classroom management. No cleaning up messes. No grading. Few interactions with administration. We do the teaching part: the lesson plan and execution. The learning student names. The opening up discussions. The building a safe community. The building a connection, with all five or 20 of them.

Teaching artists have to build a connection within minutes. The workshop ends within an hour or two hours. The youth will only see the teaching artist once in a year, maybe a few times a month, and very few times in a lifetime. This usually works to our benefit; in most school settings, there are fewer behavior issues because you are cool, fun, new.

From a student’s perspective, the teaching artist is that one adult who doesn’t teach “school.” They bring in music, art, theater, or poetry. They talk to students without expecting a right or wrong answer. They use icebreakers or activities.

This summer, I had the three-course teacher experience. For about two months, I was a poetry instructor. I taught poetry four hours daily to a group of primarily high school youth.

Teaching artists are dope until you’re stuck with one on a regular basis.

Where could things possibly have gone wrong? For starters, poetry shouldn’t be done in four daily hours, even as a young person’s “summer job.” After day one as instructor, I was no longer a teaching artist. I had stepped into teacher shoes.

I had no excuses to forget a name. I was there daily.

I could read or perform a poem, say look at me, I’m a poet, but it was no longer “you’re so good,” but that’s old news. I was there daily.

I didn’t have to learn the rules of a classroom; I was the rules. I was the enforcer. I was there daily.

I didn’t ask a teacher about a student’s behavior or comment during class; I was the teacher. I was asking the student. I was there daily.

I didn’t clean up a room once and then leave. I’d clean the room all week. I was there daily.

Though I wasn’t grading, I’d stay behind and look over the youth’s work, ponder what a  poetry line meant as it relates to their personal struggles, to their home life. I was wondering about their home, every day life. I didn’t walk out the door after a workshop was done. I would be in meetings long after the youth had left. I had questions. I had ideas. I needed guidance. I was there the next day.

I had entered a commitment, an instructor-student relationship.

Before the summer program started, the program lead asked us instructors to close our eyes, imagine who we were at 15 or 16 years old. Next, to remember one great teacher we had at that age, what made them great.

I remember panicking at that point. As a youth, I was on my best behavior. I wasn’t a teacher’s priority. None of my teachers really knew me. When asked questions like this I think about my art teacher, who I had both my freshman and sophomore year. She trusted me to have independence, to be confident.

This summer, I made similar mistakes. I know more about the youth who disrupted my lessons than those quiet ones, those following directions. In a classroom with high school youth, of ages 14 to 17, I was back in high school, not knowing where to focus.

The high school madness was new, far removed from my memory.

All the obnoxious don’t-care attitudes. The buzz of too much talking, not enough working. The flirtations masked as annoyances. The physical or social insecurities.

The year I was supposed to start junior year of high school, I started college. I was at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. I walked into this throwback to high school with two years experience as a high school student. Things were bad.

Admittedly, I had a group that is not representative of most classrooms by any means, which is not to say that all classrooms or groups are the same. My youth had negative experiences with teachers, a title that I could not easily brush off no matter how many times I reminded them I wasn’t a teacher.

But, I kind of was.

I had a group very secure in their identity and beliefs, eager to fight off anything clashing with their knowledge. That something was sometimes another youth’s comment. While I could not undo years of misconceptions or homophobic culture, I had to create a safe space, over and over.

Most days, I didn’t get through a lesson plan, responding to the group’s exhaustion or sudden interest in the Bermuda Triangle, in abortion, or rap battles. Most days, we spent trying to understand each other, how they weren’t trying to disrespect me, why I “sugar-coated” things, why they used certain curse words, or why I looked at the world like it could change.

I loved and feared our mornings.

Each day was a new beginning. While I had to struggle to remove ache and grudge from my system, my youth had already moved on, had already forgiven each other, themselves, or me. Though, as long as I live, the group may never forget the time I accidentally got sweet and sour Starburst (which are apparently the worst ever), they trusted me with future candy. Though we had our severe disagreements, the youth called my scolding “‘stress,” saying “we’re just kids.” It was summer.

Teaching a subject matter is easy. The tough part is the fostering a learning, engaged environment. I felt every day move as “teacher.” By some miracle, days turned into weeks. Just like that, my summer back in high school was over.

I took on the role because I decided this summer was going to be my summer. I’ve spent many boring summers. I wanted to change that. With teaching, there’s no room for a dull day.

Despite our struggles, we had laughter. A poem the youth didn’t want to read would become interesting. A poet they thought boring was actually cool. The field trip they thought would be terrible wasn’t that bad. Maybe, just maybe the youth left my classroom with poetry, notions of social justice, and a new outlook on kindness.

Maybe they will bring these lessons into their new classrooms. To teachers everywhere: happy back to school season.

Claudia Rojas is poeta. She’s also a TPS (Temporary Protected Status) holder. 
TPS protects individuals fleeing natural disaster and war on a temporary basis. The program has been extended for many years; no permanent solution has ever been presented. Call your member of Congress today through the tool or find your representative’s info online. Send them a call to immediate action.

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