I join Ms. Yoon with her first-period class in the Lecture Hall as the entire fifth grade convenes to meet Lynda Blackmon Lowery, voice and inspiration for Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom, a memoir read by the whole grade. Like groups of birds you see flying and changing directions collectively in mosaic design, the fifth-graders group and regroup, moving closer and closer to Ms. Lowery as she recounts memories of her marching for civil rights as a teenager. As they listen, the fifth-grade teachers circle the group, orchestrate a much-needed “stretch time” and manage the mounting questions during the Q&A. High-fives wave through the group when Ms. Lowery shares her current priority: equal pay for women…“even though we, women, do it better!” The session closes with everyone singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round,” followed by a lining up for book signing. The teachers move almost as one, getting lines organized, making sure every young girl has her moment with Ms. Lowery: you almost wouldn’t know they were there.
Ms. Yoon’s next “free” periods are already booked: a strategy session around a student with the Resource Center, followed by a committee meeting. I meet her a bit later for an early lunch, and over sandwiches we discuss her mornings: getting her own two children ready for school, calling her husband at work every morning while she walks her four blocks to school, picking up her daily iced tea lemonade at Yura. Routine is her friend, and design her partner: she’s already planned out the day, the week, the unit. There are no breaks for her today, and in between her fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-grade classes, she meets her 10th-grade advisees for advisory. She’s already sacrificed her lunchtime for her Head of School.
During advisory we celebrate a birthday. Ms. Yoon has brought cupcakes, with an extra one for me. Without making it about herself, Ms. Yoon leads the conversation acknowledging that right now it is “history research season” for the 10th grade. A member of the History Department, Ms. Yoon knows this zone well. Highly animated, the girls share some of their topics: 1920s being not so roaring after all; children during the civil rights movement; mass incarceration of the 1980s. We talk about the “how” of their research, cold-calling in class and yearend workload. There’s some slight message-giving to me, but, nevertheless, this is a group that works closely together, trusts the leader, counts on one another. With the critical exception of bringing the cupcakes, especially that extra one, you wouldn’t see the subtle planning behind the session.
In her seventh-grade class, there’s no mistaking Ms. Yoon’s design as she stewards engagement for the full hour. The topic is West Africa in the Golden Age of Islam; the voice is full-on 12- and 13-year-olds. First there is a fill-in-the-map pre-quiz: this one doesn’t count, and the real one is coming later. Next, students in pairs work together to pull from their homework readings observations about West African daily life, military, justice and religious beliefs: these points are then written on the board by each team for discussion, facilitating further discernment of key points. There is a call for a volunteer to summarize “the deep thought” from the last class, and we end with a robust discussion on salt, gold and camels, “ships of the desert.” Some of the African medieval behaviors travel easily over the years—others not so much. “We won’t judge,” reminds Ms. Yoon, speaking in the collective voice of a cohesive class. The students talk more about camels on the way out.
For the untrained eye, teaching might, at first glance, look familiar—a landscape you think you know. But under that Mr. Chips’ fiction lives an exquisite capacity to plan…for both the expected and the unexpected. Structuring for full engagement, teachers move in and out of careful choreography and jazz-like improvisation. When you walk into that classroom, every day, the only real constant is that you and you alone are responsible for the learning. All the unannounced twists are yours to capitalize on, and all the momentum, rhythm and steps to learning rest on your orchestration, subtle or otherwise. One of my favorite sayings—a neat, little chiasmus—captures the best of teaching: “a failure to plan is a plan to fail.” It’s a beautiful dance.
And then, and here’s the really hard part, teachers have to plan themselves out of that plan. With a Whitmanesque adherence to that second person “you,” teachers are invitational certainly, but when they turn to that “you,” they also name agency where it lives, and that is not with them. Ultimately this may be the largest conundrum in teaching: it’s so thoroughly about you because you, as teacher, have to plan yourself out of the picture. It never quite happens on its own. I remember Ms. Yoon’s nearly invisible role in advisory, her seventh-graders in pairs, at the board pulling out their own key observations from their readings, and I remember the fifth-grade teachers gently moving the full grade from speaker adulation to asking questions. Almost invisible, the planning holds it all together.
Patience, too, is the lifeblood of teaching. The ground beneath our plows takes much cultivating over many seasons. Each individual teacher fits into something bigger: each class, each year being but a chapter of a larger narrative. As Clara Spence wrote, “The earnest teacher must toil patiently for a lifetime in a field wherein the harvest can only ripen after the sower has passed out of sight.” There is both a challenge and a gift in this reality. Once again, it can never be only about you, the single teacher: a rather humbling and yet freeing reminder of the small, but important, part you, yourself, play in what will be called learning. And yet in Clara’s words, what teachers “sow” will indeed grow. You just might not be there to see it all come together. While both complicated and simple simultaneously, this ego-tamping realization calls for a confidence and a self-awareness not found among those needing instant gratification or fast results. Teaching steeps, never boils.
At the end of a long day, Ms. Yoon goes home to her son and her daughter. She clears a place for each of them at the dining room table, and all three of them do their own homework together, dog at their feet and dinner cooking. Time. Time for planning, time for making sure that tomorrow’s classes and every moment are designed for engagement, for learning and for life.