Her freshman year

Last modified: 6/23/2010 12:00:00 AM
It didn't take the students long to see the blue notes stuck on the desktops in their fifth-floor classroom. "Oh, hell no," said a girl with her blond hair pulled high in a ponytail.

"Do we have assigned seats? I might leave this class," said another girl.

The ponytailed girl turned to her neighbor, a girl wearing a zebra-striped hoodie. "I'm not sitting next to this girl. She scares me."

Jennifer Richard had been watching to see how her civics class would react to the seating assignments. The 23-year-old Concord High School teacher was two weeks into her first job, and she had decided it was time to curb the chattiness of the upperclassmen in period six. The group had been the rowdiest of her five classes, seemingly less interested in college than her other civics section and brasher than the freshmen in her three sections of geography and cultures. She'd wondered during the previous period, as her freshmen talked about global demographics, whether she would be forced to assign her first detention in the upcoming civics class.

Richard had wanted to be a teacher since she was in high school, and she came to Concord High directly from the University of New Hampshire. She agreed last August to let the Monitor follow her first year teaching, to share with readers the challenges, successes and exhaustion of those inaugural semesters with students all her own.

For Richard, it was a year of new roles in familiar trappings. She had moved back home with her parents in Windham, and at night she graded assignments on the same couch where she had done her own homework five years earlier. Fresh-faced and blond, she was mistaken for a student throughout the year by colleagues and pupils alike. But she often found herself amazed that only a few years separated her from some students, when they would laugh uproariously at the phrase "penal code" or a mention of the Tutsi people of Central Africa.

A year of student teaching had made Richard confident before a class. But, by fortune or design, only motivated and well-behaved students were placed in the two classes she taught as a UNH master's-degree student at Oyster River High School in Durham. She had never disciplined a student or struggled to convince one that school was worthwhile. She hadn't known what it felt like to grade homework into the night after waking at 5:30 a.m. and standing before teenagers all day.

Richard learned all those things this year, as her students learned about Indian castes and Spanish conquistadors, about the separation of powers and how a bill becomes a law. And during the first semester, when every lesson was untested, every outburst or silence met anew, they nearly overwhelmed.

 Potential for chaos

During the first days of school, Richard detected a potential for chaos in period six. She'd described the behavior to her colleagues at lunch, when the social studies team gathered with sandwiches and leftovers around long office tables. Stacie Boyajian, a member of the department since 1994, offered to take a look at Richard's class. She arrived not long after, claiming she needed to do work at the empty desk in the back.

"I faked them out and watched them," she recalled later.

Boyajian, who became a mentor to Richard, told the younger teacher her class included kids known to act out. Some would try to throw a teacher off course, and with style. "With the mix in the room, other kids wanted to see that show," she said.

In sixth-period civics on that early September day, Richard called into the hallway the girl who had mocked her new neighbor but let the girl return when she agreed to do her work. Richard stood in front of the students, her face devoid of the smile she'd shown her freshmen that morning. She asked if any of them had seen President Obama's address to students a day earlier.

"I heard it was pointless," a boy called out. "It was just about education."

Richard asked if the class would like to watch it and got a lone "no." She set the kids working on questions about the Declaration of Independence and went around answering questions. When she turned her back, wads of paper flew through the air. A boy shook a girl's bottled soda and opened it, and the fizz ran down her desk. But by the end of the period, after Richard had solicited a few answers about the Declaration's influences, some of the strain had left her face. It had been the group's quietest class so far, maybe even a turning point. Down in the cafeteria, where she had to monitor students, Richard told Boyajian about the day.

"I think they were really testing me," she said. "That was their little two-week test to see if I can be a teacher. I'm hopeful they're going to start looking at me as a teacher and not someone to hang out with in class."

 Constantly changing

Richard had always liked school. In eighth grade, she remembers being the only student excited to study the Civil War. When she was a junior at Salem High School and could choose a career to explore, she interned two hours a day with her sixth-grade teacher. Some of her time at Windham Middle School was spent correcting tests, but by the end of the semester she also planned and led a few of her own lessons.

She leaned more and more toward teaching, not out of a grand ambition to change lives, but because she thought she would enjoy going to work every day. She had found quickly that the job was never dull, with any group of kids responding differently to a lesson on any given day.

"I just love that it's constantly changing," she said. "It keeps it fun."

So long as no student outburst is under way, Richard stands at ease in her classes, and she's quick to joke. She'll tease, gently, the more outgoing kids, and she'll take a joke from them.

When Richard mentioned to a civics class that she'd been in Boston during a waterline break this spring, Kevin Jordan, a 16-year-old, responded, "Oh that's what that smell is."

"I'm sure she heard me, she just didn't acknowledge it," he said later. "She understands we're just fooling around. We're not being serious. I like when you can joke with teachers and they won't say anything."

Richard chose high school so she could teach higher-level skills, but also because she thought the age group would allow her to be herself in the classroom, using sarcasm and sharing her opinions and experiences. She felt comfortable standing before a class because she'd done it so many times, getting a taste during her high school internship but really adjusting to the planning and moderating and explaining in graduate school, when she alone taught a yearlong class and a semester class.

"That was when I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to throw up I'm so nervous,' " she said. "That was really, really nerve-racking. . . . I had no idea what I should be doing. And so that year was wonderful for me because it gave me a lot of confidence and taught me a lot about what I should be doing."

From the start, Richard taught her classes with variety. She hoped each student would find something engaging in the mix of discussions, readings, group work and occasional lectures. She encouraged creativity, asking civics students to craft a government for life on a desert island and freshman geography students to make a creation myth modeled on the Mayan version.

"I think a lot of kids would say they have a relative amount of fun in my class," Richard said. "You know, it's not like hanging out with your friends on a Friday night. But compared to just sitting there and listening to a lecture, I try to vary it up and do some hands-on things and get the kids up and moving around."

By October, Richard felt as if she knew her 120 students, who needed encouragement and who could fly solo, and she checked in with individual students during group work.

"I feel I know what's going on in their heads almost," she said. "I can look at them and know, okay, you like me, you're bored to tears, you think I'm stupid. It's really becoming clear."

During the creation myth project in geography class, Richard crouched down to talk with a freshman girl working by herself. When she saw the girl had erased her story, Richard said, sympathetically, "I think it sounded really good. I'm a perfectionist, too. Sometimes it really stinks not to be happy with something you do."

A moment earlier, she had checked on a trio of boys who had been giggling with a deck of cards. She read with a straight face their version of creation, in which martial arts legend Chuck Norris bests God in a poker game and goes on to create mankind.

"Okay, so they were created with the knowledge that Chuck Norris is the man, but why?" she said. "Include why these people were created. And you might want to include something about why they worship him."

Time and again, students interviewed said they enjoyed Richard's classes for their animated spirit and the diversity of assignments. That held even for some kids who weren't enthralled by geography or civics.

"The stuff we learn is boring, but the class itself, the energy in the class, is fun," said Kurtis Alves, a 14-year-old in one of her geography classes.

 Long hours

That first semester, the work never seemed to end. Richard would plan after school and then grade so late into the night - spending as long as 30 minutes reading and commenting on a single student's essay - that her mother, Pattie Richard, worried how she would ever have a life beyond school.

"I was so worried at first," Pattie Richard said. "I said, 'How are you going to have a family? How are you going to have kids?' I just couldn't imagine it was this much work."

But Richard found her greatest challenges in the conjoined problems of bad behavior and student apathy, and she felt those problems surrounding her three days a week when sixth-period civics met on the fifth floor. Each of her classes had kids with behavior problems and students who didn't do work, but in that civics class, Richard thought half of the 25 students were actively disruptive and disrespectful. Months later, she said she tries not to think about the class.

"Almost every day was like a nightmare," she said. "It was a nightmare. It was an absolute nightmare."

One girl mocked Richard's clothes, saying an embroidered corduroy skirt she'd bought in Spain was so ugly the girl's grandmother would wear it. Richard responded that she didn't really care.

"It would have been way more of a hassle to kick her out, write her up, deal with the aftermath of it than to just . . . disengage," Richard said. "It doesn't hurt me. It doesn't hurt my feelings. I love that skirt. I don't care what anybody else thinks about it."

That wasn't the worst of it. Richard asked kids to put their phones away, and they yelled at her. Boys drew penises on classroom posters. Students swiped objects off the teacher's desk.

She cried on two afternoons, sitting in the student center with Boyajian and feeling her face flush as she relived something from that day's class. But she said she never doubted her abilities as a teacher.

"I knew that I had four other classes that respected me and that I had some degree of control over and that looked at me as a teacher and not a fool like these kids did," she said. "I think it would have made any teacher crazy. And if I had sat there and wondered whether it was because I'm a bad teacher or because I'm a first-year teacher, I think it would have just driven me insane."

The bad behavior could be upsetting, but handling it was a skill Richard knew she would have to learn in her first year. And she felt she did, learning to assess when a student should be talked to on the side and when he should be sent to meet with an administrator. Chris Makris, a 25-year veteran of the Concord High social studies department, often saw Richard at work when he popped into his classroom, where she taught two geography classes, and he saw her correct behavior with precision and confidence.

"When she disciplines, she's got the skill of a surgeon," Makris said. "She isolates the problem and deals with it effectively, on the side, as she should."

Dale Bunker, a 16-year-old in one of the geography classes, said Richard is able to keep order without seeming harsh.

"She stands her own ground," he said. "She's not a jerk about it, but if it gets out of control she would send someone to the office. . . . It seems like she's been a teacher her whole life."

What surprised Richard at her new job was not the misbehavior so much as the apathy she saw in students who would refuse to do their work. Richard called home as soon as a student missed two homework assignments, and the next day would tell the student about it. Some students would pledge to change but wouldn't, and others would shrug. They were a distinct minority of her students, but some showed such a commitment to doing nothing that it stunned her. Of her students who failed their class, she said some had completed no work at all.

"There's just a certain group of people, students, they are just so lazy," she said. "They would rather spend their hour and a half in my class sitting and staring at the wall than even trying to do any, like, the smallest amount of work. It's really frustrating, especially when you try and you put time and effort into coming up with something you think is going to work, and then it doesn't."

She tried group projects, creative projects, tailoring assignments to a student's tangentially related interests. She contacted some parents 10 or 15 times. The refusal to work didn't make her mad, she said. It just confused her.

"There's certain behaviors I just don't get," she said. "Like, you're here for an hour and a half anyways. Why not just do some work? . . . You have to be here, get a degree while you're here. It's like, plain and simple to me."

Throughout the semester, Richard had allowed students to turn in late assignments at any time, and she let them rewrite papers to bring up their grades. On the day before January exams, she received 100 assignments and raced to grade them along with the geography midterms and civics finals.

Along with the relief she felt when her sixth-period students filed out of their final exam, there was a small comfort.

"Miss Richard, we know we put you through hell, but you were great," she recalled a few students saying as they shook her hand after the exam.

The semester was done. She was exhausted.

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