Thursday, April 30, 2009
You Never Know What to Expect
In my decade of active teaching artistry, I have learned to only be "so" prepped for walking in the front door of a school, as well as to be prepped for at least two options, no matter what. Countless times I have a concept of what I want my theme or process to be for a group of teachers and classes, only to be surprised once I arrive at the school by any number of contingencies, including the school forgetting the fact that I will be arriving. Better to be prepared with multiple options that can be one-session experiences than to be rigid. Flexibility is the most prized asset a teaching artist can develop, not just to maintain one's sanity but to build positive relationships with the schools in which one works.
My best example of surprise was several years back when I was going to do my first residency at an elementary school in Orange County, NY. I generally visit schools with 500 - 700 students so when I spoke to the principal and asked for a day of in-service with my teaching team before we initiate my residency, I envisioned about five or six teachers to work with so it seemed completely reasonable to me. On the other end of the line, the principal (angel that she is) sighed and paused for a moment. In a measured voice, she replied. "Alright, we can arrange that."
The day came. I had a rolling tote full of picture books, anthologies of poetry for young readers, activities to share with the teachers, chart paper, markers, post-its, my computer, you name it. I was burdened with getting the untenable load from my subcompact car to the conference room. I often feel like a pack mule when I am in schools.
I was greeted royally and that was wonderful. The school is a modern school in which all the facility is on one level. The staff at the entrance were so friendly as they signed me in . The office was a beehive. The principal was very much the queen of the environment and the central command. And somehow, with all that was going on, she even had prepared a spread of morning snacks for her staff and me to fuel our learning together.
But let us not forget the surprise: as everyone congregated, there were 17 teachers and teacher's aides scooting in around the conference table, easily twice to three times the number I had anticipated. I had never asked how many classes there were in the grade level I would be teaching! Lesson learned. No need to worry about ever forgetting that one. I also realized just how deceptive architecture can be. The view from the front door does not allow a visitor to see the four wings of the school of 1,200 elementary students. Wow...not at all what I was expecting but I roll with any and all circumstances.
There are always bumps and obstacles in a residency. Somehow there is also never enough time with the teachers and students. We all learn to make due with the limitations and maximize the opportunities. If a visiting artist is too rigid in his or her needs, expectations, and/or process, it is likely that the experience will face difficulties. This first year involved a lot of getting-to-know-you phases that have led to a long-term relationship with the school. We all learned how to work as partners in the student learning. I think I earned my way onto the team and into the community of the school.
This first project led to subsequent years in the school, friendships that I cherish, faculty who teach me many skills that improve my practice, and extraordinary moments with students. The principal of this school always greeted me as if I were family, we shared books, resources and laughter, celebrated the birth of her grand-twins with hugs and photos, and a mutual regard that has sustained, in spite of her retirement last year. We have plans to know each other for a long time.
In a couple of weeks, I will return to her school, to the teachers I adore, to meet a new crew of 3rd and 4th graders, and to start to build a relationship with the new administration, all new positions. Again, flexibility will be necessary because the climate will have changed but I know I will be going to my "home school" and I will be ready for anything. I hope they are getting ready for me!