My First Education Inspiration – Jesse

I entered the world of middle school education  in mid-year. I arrived with no expectations, which was definitely a good thing. Middle schoolers and those that teach them are there own little species. The classes that I was assigned  were mostly 6th and 7th grade math classes that had survived several long-term substitutes. In the late 80’s, there were very few job opportunities, and the Santa Cruz area had notoriously low salaries. I signed on for a contract of just less than 20,000 per year. Such a low salary meant having to get a 10-month contract to afford rent each month, but also looking for full-time seasonal work in the summer.

Also common for the time; the interviews included questions about extracurricular responsibilities as an implied requirement for getting hired. The very first California Mathematics Framework had just come out, and I knew all the catch phrases that I needed to embed in my answers to get  hired; manipulatives, collaborative groups, and hands-on learning. I got hired with an understanding that I would teach a variety of classes in different rooms all day,  coach after-school sports, and be completely self-sufficient. New teachers received minimal professional development in classroom management and lesson planning with any mentoring being random self-selection, if at all. It truly was sink or swim as a young classroom teacher, but I at least, had multiple years of experience already working with kids.

I taught two 8th grade level math classes, one 7th grade level math class, and two 6th grade “math lab” classes. The grade level classes were close to contractual limits of 32, but the Math Lab classes were designed to be smaller for students who were achieving well below grade level. The creation of such classes were done with good intent, but without clear criteria for being placed, the Math Lab Classes were nothing more than “behavioral gulags” As word got out across campus of the new young math teacher, I started receiving “special” student transfers from all over. My math labs were pretty quickly reaching 25 students. Compounding the situation were the negotiations involved with using teacher’s classrooms during their prep period. One teacher was so distrustful of my presence, that she never left the room while I was teaching. Another made it clear that the chalkboard, chalk and most of the desks were completely off limits. In one of these 6th grade classes, sat Jesse, a young Latino.

Jesse was infamous at the school for all the wrong reasons. I heard about him from some of the other 6th grade teachers. To hear the horrible things being attributed to Jesse, he might as well have been in a ‘fast-track’ program for juvenile hall. There was almost true joy being expressed one day by a colleague who exclaimed, “I already have Jesse’s detentions written, so all I need to do is add a date and off he goes.” Although I firmly believed in the “self-fulfilling prophecy” and the danger of pre-conceived perceptions, I did sit Jesse as close to me as I could as a precaution.

I was able to manage Jesse fairly well on most days, and I frequently managed one-to-one conversations with him if I passed him sitting in the office for another disciplinary action. It was an unwritten understanding that new teachers did not send students to the office, as it was seen as a sign of weakness.  I learned quickly that I would need to invest energy building a relationship with him.

With years of experience, I can now conclude that Jesse had highly sophisticated school survival skills. Getting kicked out of class was sometimes better than being called out for not understanding the lesson. I have since witnessed many “Jessies” sitting in other teacher’s classrooms. They are usually excluded physically, socially, and intellectually. They are not called on to participate, and the only attention they receive is negative in nature.

As the year was winding down, classrooms used time for more engaging projects. The school had a traditional 6th grade egg drop. Each student in each science class would build a contraption to help an egg land safely without breaking. Each 6th grade teacher would have a competition for class winner. The class winner would then have their eggs dropped in a big event when the local fire department would volunteer their big hook and ladder for the drop. Jesse not only won his class competition, but the overall competition.

At the same time, my classes were having their own engineering competition building a miniature bridge out of a finite set of toothpicks. Using Elmer’s glue and toothpicks students built bridges that were tested for strength and durability. Jesse not only built the winning bridge, but his weight capacity of approximately 13 pounds lasted as the record for many years afterwards.

Jesse wasn’t dumb, nor was he a troublemaker. He was just not learning the things in school that showed off his incredible intelligence. The school was clearly not meeting his needs and was failing Jesse, not the other way around. That “aha” moment stills sticks with me, and is the inspiration for my chapter. “Why Children Never Misspell Bad Words”. When something is important to children, they invest themselves in learning it.

Jess faded into adulthood. He had two younger siblings and an amazing dad. His father attended every parent conference and every extracurricular activity for his kids. Many years later, there was a picture on the front page of the local Santa Cruz paper, it was two soldiers peering out over a sand dune at the beginning of the Iraq War. Someone recognized one of the soldiers as being a local boy on the front lines. It was Jessie! Sometimes the satisfaction for a teacher doesn’t come right away, but when it does, it sure feels good! Thank you Jessie for giving me a lifelong lesson.

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2 Responses to “My First Education Inspiration – Jesse

  • Nice article

  • While i was reading i kept wondering what happen to jesse he needs to let us know what happened to him. good job Mr.Rastatter.

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