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Mr. White’s classroom

(late August events, as recalled in September)

One of my three alarm clocks awakened me at 4:30am on Monday, August 22. The fabled anxiety of a brand new teacher still hadn’t hit me yet. All summer I braced for rookie nervousness to suddenly strike at some inopportune moment. Was a panic attack still lurking around the corner, or had life experience and maturity really prepared me to handle this new adventure with confidence and composure?

As I carried out my morning routine and drove to Bonnabel, I reflected on the long path leading up to this moment: The nine-year engineering stint at Lockheed Martin, the increasing job dissatisfaction, the sense of stagnation and career aimlessness, the suggestion by aunt Margaret to consider teaching, pondering life with such a humungous pay cut, the discussions with local teachers, the application to Teach For America, the disappointing rejection from TFA, the subsequent search for a regional alternative certification program in New Orleans, the application to Teach Greater New Orleans, the acceptance into TGNO, the “investment” purchase of another condo in California, the renting out of two condos, the move to Louisiana, the summer training, the misadventures of finding an apartment… Today would be the biggest milestone yet in the journey, yet it still somehow felt like just another day!

I arrived at my classroom, which I had semi-decorated on Friday. The previous teacher who used this classroom, Ms. Johnson, left for the year due to medical reasons. She certainly had more girly tastes in her room décor, punctuated by a flowery poster with a poem about friendship and a pink inflatable bunny on top of storage closet. Not exactly my style… but rather than tear down all her wall decorations, I took down or moved only as many as I needed to make room for mine. Thus far I only had a half-dozen Lockheed Martin posters and a few more from an education store. From the ceiling I hung a dozen colorful geometric paper models that I constructed from my “Unit Origami” book – a throwback to my old college pastime. I figured my students could participate in evolving the classroom appearance through the year.

A critical part of my success or failure would be my selection of a teacher persona. Would I be the “drill sergeant” barking out orders and instilling fear? (Nah, I’d need a more aggressive personality to pull that off.) Would I be the “laid-back cool teacher” that everyone likes? (Nope, it’s too hard to maintain strong discipline with this approach, especially in the first year.) My best option was to be “the professional.” I would preach high expectations. I would proclaim to my students that they don’t need to earn my respect. They already have it, but it’s theirs to lose through poor behavior and low effort. I would demonstrate my respect to them by addressing them as “Sir/Mister” and “Miss,” and demand the same in return. I’d consistently enforce the classroom rules, and remind them that I don’t “punish” them. Rather, they make choices on how to act, and earn favorable or unfavorable consequences for their behavior.

This incarnation of “Mr. White” was quite ironic, considering how my normal clothing rotation at Lockheed Martin included a tacky black t-shirt with the image a smiling pig, and a bright orange button-up shirt patterned with the naked cartoon man from the Operation game. Doing my job well was important to me, but I wasn’t inclined to wear a suit while sitting in front of a CAD (Computer Aided Design) workstation all day. My new situation was different though. I was determined to establish a firm tone and set high expectations from the start. If adopting a classier dress code could help me deliver my message more convincingly, I was willing to make that sacrifice. For the first week, I decided to wear dress shirts and ties for the first four days (fresh from the local Goodwill store), and finish the week with a “casual Friday.” I would later need to revise this plan, upon discovering my susceptibility to huge armpit sweat pools in this damn Southern humidity.

As with most jobs, I knew that the real development of my and teaching style would occur on the job. However I had given much thought about how I wanted my classroom to operate, and felt pretty well prepared to face the first day. As my first class filed in that Monday morning, I greeted each student at the doorway with a handshake and a sincere welcome.