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back to high school by Alice L. '24

except now I don't know what I'm doing

I’m taking CMS.58601 Introduction to Education this semester, and part of the class involves observing at local middle or high schools. For me, this means appearing at Cambridge Community Charter School, signing in to get a “VISITOR” sticker, and slipping into a physics class every Tuesday and an algebra class every Wednesday.

i. on going (back) to public school

I went to an evangelical Christian school for middle and high school. I have not been in a public school in almost a decade. I feel like I have been sent to Mars.

For one, people at my school had a lot more of a fear of God in them — both metaphorical and literal. I’ve never been in a classroom where students would get up and walk around, or openly be on their phones during class, or talk to their friends. I don’t really know how I feel about this. I had a hard time sitting down in school, so I would’ve loved a little less rigid of a classroom setting; at the same time, I don’t know how much chaos is too much chaos.

It’s also considerably louder than I’m used to. I’ve been hiding earplugs underneath my hair, and it occurs to me that being able to casually make my environment work for me was not something I had the power to do as a child. In the physics class I observe, there are some students who are really really quiet, and I sometimes wonder if the more-chaotic environment hinders their ability to learn. I don’t know what CCCS’s IEP/504 policies look like, and I feel like both my high school and MIT did a decent job of providing accommodations for diagnosed disabilities, but I wonder how many students out there are doing just well enough to avoid being formally categorized as “disabled” and end up struggling silently due to policies that expect students to conform to a certain mold of normalcy.

ii. on teaching

Both the physics teacher and the algebra teacher I observe have a lot of energy, and that seems to really resonate with their students. Unfortunately, I’m a pretty quiet person when I’m in an unfamiliar setting. I wonder if I can buy a “Confident Teacher” costume off of Amazon or something, because I’m going to need a lot more practice on projecting my voice across a room. Or maybe on talking louder than about 40 dB.

CCCS also has a considerably higher percentage of Black students than my school did, and this is the first time that I’ve felt very aware that I did not share the same experiences as most of the people around me. Sure, I didn’t really relate to my affluent White classmates in high school either, but I also didn’t really interact with them — and the same strategy is not exactly conducive to becoming a good teacher. I don’t really want to teach in a saviouristic way, and I become a little more hesitant and a little less confident as a result.

Thankfully for me, both classes I observe do a lot of work in small groups, and both teachers often walk around to talk to students one-on-one. This is something I’m used to from TAing 8.02, and I really enjoy being able to meet students where they’re at in terms of the content. Sometimes it’s still a little awkward to get students to talk to me, but this is understandable — it took me two years of MIT to start going to office hours specifically to ask for help on my psets rather than going after I’d bashed out the entire pset on my own. I don’t know how to make it easier to ask for help, either at CCCS or in 8.02, and I wish I did.

In one physics class, a student asked questions far beyond the assigned worksheet, and it made me really happy that the teacher not only answered her question but gave her more to think about right back. It reminded me of my AP Calculus teacher, who allowed us to use shortcuts as long as we wrote a proof and taught it to the class first, and I’m glad that something I loved about my own education survives across vastly different schools.

iii. on motivation

My high school physics teacher visited me a couple weeks back, and I had started talking to his wife — who teaches middle school algebra — then.

“It’s very different,” she told me, “Joel has a whole class full of motivated students like you, who don’t need any convincing to learn.”

It’s true that the students in the physics class I observe get “stuck” and start asking for help much faster than I did in high school, but I wonder how much of it is an inherent difference in motivation and how much of it is an internalized belief that they aren’t smart enough or a fear that they’ll get it wrong.

I don’t really know how to convince them that it’s okay to scribble down whatever thoughts they have because being wrong is informative all on its own, and I don’t know if it’s my place to do so either. There’s a lot of emphasis on being prepared for the MCAS exam, and that’s probably a scenario where “being wrong for the sake of learning” is not going to be helpful.

iv. on becoming

Sometimes I’m uncomfortably aware that — simply by being an MIT student — people see me as a very successful outcome of the education system, and my thoughts on education are probably rooted in the same premise that it would be good to encourage more students to become like me. There’s also the aspect of knowing that I grew up being told that education was for me, that college was for me, that I was “smart” and it would be a pity if I didn’t get to use my brain as much as I wanted to — and this is almost certainly not the same kind of messaging that many students, especially those in underrepresented groups, get as they grow up.

There’s also the knowledge that I also grew up financially stable enough to be able to view education as something I can do for fun, and I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to view education as a means to a good job and a stable salary rather than something to enjoy. I don’t think that being like me — like people I know at MIT — is the only way to benefit from education. MIT certainly hasn’t made me more interesting as a person — I’m pretty sure people who don’t go to MIT, or college at all, have equally rich inner lives.

And so I don’t know what to encourage students to be “more like”, because I don’t know where they’re coming from or where they want to go. I don’t know how to say that I want to learn how to teach in a way that works for them, and that I don’t want to swoop in to make them fulfill the textbook definition of successful teaching. I wish I could tell them that I genuinely think they are just as capable as I am, and I wish I could sit down to ask them about their lives and their thoughts, and I wish I knew I could possibly do to help them become who they want to be


  1. Introduction to Education back to text