There's nothing like the slow smile of recognition when a child realizes I'm not a stranger, after all.
I taught at Margaret Scott School from September through January last year, then changed schools until the end of the year. The plan was for me to remain at Hartley, the other school, until next January, then switch back to Scott for a full year. This way, the PE teacher I was trading places with and I could move just once a calendar year, yet still do full half-years at each school. But then plans changed: the Portland Arts Tax kicked in, and my position was altered to have me at Scott full-time, year-round.
It was hard to say goodbye to the Hartley students in June, knowing I wouldn't be coming back at all. It was also nerve-wracking to have no idea where I would be teaching in September: I'd been in the gym, a location that, except for convenience to the administration, becomes more unworkable in my mind the farther I get from it. With PE continuing for at least half the year, that was not going to work, so somewhere in the Scott building would have to be found for me--or I'd have to be on a cart. I got no word, either way, what was going to happen, only learning that I had a dedicated class room (actually about 70% of a classroom, with the rest given over to a computer lab that's only in use for 20 minutes of my own teaching day) when I returned to the building to pick up my ID two weeks ago.
After a busy summer with relatively little actual vacation time (I went on a study trip to Ghana! We got married! We bought our house!), and six days of inservice with far too little time for me to prepare for my first day, I was not as excited about Thursday's first student day as I should have been. I could've used a week or two more of off time, really needed at least one more planning day, but I had none of that. Ready or not, children were coming. I started meeting them on bus duty, putting stickers on their shirts to let their classroom teachers know which bus to put them on after school.
All around me, I saw faces I recognized, on bodies that were bigger than I remembered. A lot of growing can happen in seven months. A lot can happen to children's memories, as well, and at first there were few who acknowledged my identity. Once they started coming into my room, though, the awareness began to sink in.
I know that, for many of them, the biggest memory barrier was environmental: we weren't in a gym, and I wasn't using an amplification system for my voice (though I may yet turn to that--my voice was exhausted after just two days). They weren't used to seeing me in a normal room, or hearing my voice without electronic enhancement. Some, on first coming into the room, said to me, confusion on their faces, "Hey, weren't you the music teacher?" My room, you see, was the ELD (English Language Development) room last year, so there's an additional barrier to recognition: am I teaching ELD now? And when did they start teaching it to Anglo kids?
Over the course of our half hour together, recognition slowly dawned on their faces, and with it the slow shy smile of a child realizing there's an adult in this room who cares and is here to share something wonderful--and is someone who was doing the same thing last year, in a different place.
Children crave consistency. I've been in schools where I know I followed a teacher less engaging than myself, and yet heard how much students missed him or her. I assume the same happened when my successor came into the building. It's not about who's the better teacher in such cases; it's that children want to know what to expect when they enter a room.
Many of the children I teach come from homes where dinner and bedtime hours are erratic; where parents and parental figures come and go; and where love is not always expressed in ways that make sense to children. They come to school seeking the consistency and routines their home lives lack, the discipline their parents and guardians mete out erratically, the love that they don't know how to share. When we who are the staff of this school are at our best, we provide all these things for them; plus we give them an education.
The confusion at my presence, five months before I was supposed to be here, in a room that wasn't supposed to be mine, is completely understandable. The stress it places on the child's expectations is a temporary thing. The smile and the sentiment behind it--"Hey! I know you!"--is my reward for sticking with this school, this district, and continuing to bring music into the lives of children who need it almost as much as they need the breakfasts we also provide.
The reward for me is the parallel smile that comes to me: "Hey! I know you, too--and I'm very glad to see you!"