written by Matt Repka, corps member on the Serve DC Team serving at Johnson Middle School
City Year Washington, DC serves in 14 of the highest-need District of Columbia public schools, where corps members work full-time to address the dropout crisis in American education by working as tutors, mentors and role models. But corps members are hardly alone in their fight. Every day across the District, teachers, administrators and other educators work to turn around the lowest-performing schools and close the achievement gap. This is one such story.
The door swings wide open at 2:00 on the dot, and 12 students from this 7th grade cohort spill into the classroom. They grab desks and begin to move them toward the back of the class. Ms. Wallin asks the class to space itself out. Six minutes are posted to the timer, and the last catalyst of the day is underway.
At 2:20, following the protracted ejection of a student who was eating in the front row of the room quiz corrections begin. Ms. Wallin, having learned the lessons of the prior two classes, starts a brief division walkthrough to help with grade calculations.
“We know this,” a student complains.
Ms. Wallin distributes the quizzes through the class. One student got a 101 – the highest in the class. Students begin comparing grades. “I got a 98 percent!” one yells. There’s a 66 here, a 95 there, and on the faces of these 7th graders, a range of emotions – some frustration, a little disillusionment, interspersed with real pride.
The lack of a City Year corps member is especially pronounced compared to the first and second classes of the day. As quiz corrections begin, Ms. Wallin is besieged by questions. Self-directed work presents more of a challenge, as it is more given to distraction and misbehavior. Without a corps member to provide support, and no supplemental special education instructor present for the time being, the mood of the classroom is beginning to spiral out of control as students become stuck and frustrated.
City Year, in this context, is an essential support not only for the students, but for teachers as well. “Most of these students need to be in a three-to one, two to one student to adult ratio setting. They have such a hard time self-regulating,” Ms. Wallin says. “Increasing the number of adults that can be active and patient supporters of their work and emotional well-being is huge. I can’t imagine how much worse it would be without [City Year].”
Over the course of this class period, behavioral problems escalate higher than before. It is now 2:50, and Ms. Wallin has had enough. “FIVE,” she yells. “FOUR. THREE.” Three or four students fall silent. “TWO.” Another group ceases talking and looks up.
“ONE.” The class is silent.
“In 15 minutes, I’m collecting your work and it’s going into the gradebook – whatever you have,” Ms. Wallin says..
Being a teacher can be a lonely, solitary job. No one seems willing or ready to do solo work. So it falls to one person to do the work of twenty – teaching the group, working one-on-one, and enforcing discipline all at once.
At 2:56, Ms. Wallin ejects three more students from the class. They had been singing a song – hamonized, loud enough for all to hear, with accompanying percussion – that disparaged another girl in the class.
At 3:15, students’ work is collected, and each one is dismissed by name. The three students that were ejected for singing return to the class. Ms. Wallin addresses them, her words echoing in an empty classroom.
“It is absolutely unacceptable to make someone feel uncomfortable in this school. That’s going to Djossou,” [the 7th grade’s prime disciplinarian] she tells them. “All of you need to think about the impacts of your actions.” Their day now finished, the students trudge out of the classroom.
For the first time since instruction began after lunch, Ms. Wallin takes a seat. At 3:18, a student comes in to get a piece of paper signed, then another. It’s one of the misbehaving students from second period. He’s here to sharpen pencils for Ms. Wallin.
Even after the students are gone, the work continues. After the school day concludes, there are staff meetings to attend, lesson plans to write, tomorrow’s labs to set up, and boxes full of science supplies to sift through in search of more resources. Last year, Ms. Wallin did a lot of after-school one-on-one tutoring, but this year, she’s had to scale that back.
Today, her first task is to write disciplinary referrals from the 4th period bullying incident. She organizes papers, outlining the flow of tomorrow’s lesson. A sixth-grader comes in looking for math help. Another teacher comes in to check in on the status of a student. The two take a moment to discuss end-of-year field trips, and resolve to plan them at a later time.
At 5:30, it’s time to leave Johnson for the day. Granted, the work is never really finished – it “ends up following me home quite a bit,” Ms. Wallin says. Tonight, she’ll go to the store to buy materials for a lab that’s a couple weeks down the road.
“I feel exhausted,” says Ms. Wallin. “Most days I feel like I’m treading water. It’s like a mentor of mine once talked about – in teaching, you have to appreciate the ‘penny moments’” – like picking up pennies off the sidewalk. “We look for hundred-dollar-bill moments all the time. But did I have ‘penny moments’ sprinkled throughout the day today? Absolutely. I try each day to reflect on that.”
So what motivates her to come back, to go through this experience day in and day out? “A lot of times it’s thinking about the students who never get mentioned – the ones who aren’t the high flyers when it comes to causing issues,” Ms. Wallin says. “That’s because those students do great work. And it is a huge injustice that we have students that are so capable and so kind and so respectful and so driven in a school where they are always overshadowed by the craziness around them, and where the opportunity to have the education they deserve is robbed of them by their circumstance.
“To me that’s frustrating, and for them, I come back every day. I get motivated by that. But the motivation is not bulletproof,” she admits.
Ms. Wallin’s commitment to TFA runs through this year. After this, she plans to stay in the education world, though it may not be in a middle school classroom. “Every piece of education reform feels like a very hopeful moment,” she says. “It’s about, can we deliver on what we know is already possible? I’m excited about doing that in whatever way I can.”
When asked about her legacy here, Ms. Wallin turns realistic, even solemn: “My hope is that I walk away feeling like I did the very best to ensure that my students felt valued and successful and excited about learning,” she says. “That there’s some seed planted in them that propels them forward as they think about high school, about college, about what it is they will do with their individual gifts.”
But for now, things are best taken one day at a time. Tomorrow is a new opportunitywith new challenges to confront, filled with another relentless torrent of students, worksheets, problems, questions and answers. A new group of students to teach, their personal paths and academic futures to chart amid the chaos. Penny moments to be collected off the cold pavement of Southeast Washington, DC, saved for another time and place.
It’ll be just another day at Johnson.