It’s Oh So Quiet. (week five)

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Shhhh. Shhhh.

Most of my favorite ten minutes of teaching are about noise:

  • The ten minutes after you have introduced a new project or assignment and get to walk around the room answering and asking questions, redirecting and reinforcing, pushing students to the great idea that is just a bit farther than their good idea.
  • The ten minutes before school starts when students wander in and out of rooms, when we can talk about shows or games we watched or share memes or dog pictures or tell stories or a student swings by because they were thinking about that one thing from class yesterday and went home and read or thought about it and had another question, another idea, another argument they wanted to run past you.
  • Walking into another class during a prep period because I hate sitting, and finding, usually in science or engineering or in the other Language Arts classes in the building, because those are the ones I usually go to, something cool happening, and a student wants to show me their work and then another one does and another, and I get to see their brains work different on different stuff than in my room.
  • The ten minutes it takes to open an assignment a student has turned in, to read or watch or interact with it and see that this student has done something surprising and brilliant, or something especially clever or insightful, or has put in ten hours of work when you asked for two, just because they were interested, or did that thing that they’ve been working really hard to do and just completely nailed it, and then getting to grade that assignment and write an email home about how great this thing was and even share it with some of that student’s other teachers because it’s just that good and you want everyone to see.

I can celebrate that my students this year have already stunned me with their talent, with art pieces that would be hard to believe came from an 8th grader if it hadn’t so perfectly matched the student and the assignment. They’ve fired back fiery and well defended opposition to the reading I had them do. They’ve written with passion and humor. It’s not been perfect, or even often all that great, but the highlights so far have kept hopelessness at bay.

What’s been getting to me though, especially this week, is all the quiet. I’ve never enjoyed the feeling of a school building emptied of students. Too much time with adults reminds me too often of how much adults don’t really like me. I don’t enjoy the feeling of sitting in an empty classroom, staring at my screens while my screens stare at me. I don’t enjoy the quiet.

I don’t like the quiet of the hallways, the quiet, even, of staff conversations stifled or muffled by masks. I hate the quiet of teaching to a grid of black boxes, the quiet, even, the sharp quiet of the extra few seconds between question and answer and the heavy quiet of the questions asked into the nothing and unanswered.

I don’t like the quiet of students without questions, of emails and messages sent without reply.

My favorite ten minutes of teaching this year are any ten minutes that the students get talking. Sometimes it’s been about the thing we read or watched, but mostly it’s been about Fat Bear Week or favorite KPop singers or playing Drawasaurus or showing off pets and even then, even those good moments, I feel like I have to hold the fun up with both hands or it will fall back into the quiet.

I end so many days sore from just sitting and sweaty from doing everything I can to make it feel like we’re not just sitting.

Sometimes, just before that last class ends, a student will unmute and say ‘thank you’ before logging off. Sometimes they start a chain of students, the ‘thank you’s and ‘bye’s overlapping each other. It helps me remember the quiet doesn’t mean they’re not there, that their brains aren’t just as full of furiously messy thoughts as they were last year, that we’re all still getting used to this and comfortable with each other, that I may, eventually, have to ask them to be quiet.

Written by

Author of ‘It Won’t Be Easy.’ 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. @mrtomrad on everything.

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