Learning Curve: Settling In

The last classroom I taught in was a middle-school science room in an inner-city school in a mid-Atlantic state. I had 120 students ranging in age from twelve to fourteen, plus a couple of fifteen-year-olds who had been held back for one reason or another. Each class met for forty minutes; six classes a day, plus my lunch and two prep periods. Twice a week, one of those preps was spent supervising the in-school suspension room. I also had to do hall duty every morning and between classes, and bus duty every afternoon.

Two and a half years later, I once again have a classroom. In almost every way, it’s the exact opposite of the one described above. Where I once stood in front of an inverted U of slate top lab tables and displayed information on an old overhead projector, I now move among groups of desks and chairs sized for smaller people and use a SMART board to teach my 18 third-graders in reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic. In addition to the classroom subjects, I’m also responsible for teaching PE to my kids twice a week and overseeing recess on a daily basis. Once a week, I have common planning with the two teachers who have combined fourth/fifth classrooms. Aside from that meeting and my daily half-hour lunch, I spend the entirety of each school day with my students.

I never really had to concern myself with my middle school students’ reading capabilities. Okay, that’s not quite true. I did need to make sure that they were able to read lab procedures and that they could write well enough to take adequate notes on the topics at hand. I did coach them in better note-taking techniques, and helped them fine-tune their math skills for performing necessary calculations. Overall, however, my focus was on science content.

In contrast, I spend the entirety of my current workday focusing on teaching, strengthening, and reinforcing basic reading and math skills. There are nationwide standards for what students should be able to do at the beginning and end of each grade level. None of my students meet the reading standards for the third grade, although a couple of them are within spitting distance. Their math skills are similarly low; we’ve spent the last seven weeks covering things that should have been learned by the end of second grade.

For the first month I taught, I wore a tie. I did this for a couple of reasons: One, to make a good impression at my first real teaching job; two, to set myself visually apart from the students, many of whom were my height or taller. Even after I stopped wearing the tie on a daily basis, I still wore a button-down, slacks, and dress shoes.

The middle school kids called me Mr. L, just like the kids in the classroom where I did my student teaching. Up here, my students call me Mr. CJ. I’m not the only one addressed as such; of the thirteen certified teachers and numerous other adults in the building, there are only two or three that are addressed by title and last name. Naming conventions aren’t the only things that are more casual here. Instead of the semi-professional clothes I wore back home, here I frequently wear nice jeans or khakis and a flannel shirt buttoned over a t-shirt. I did bring my old “teacher clothes” with me, but have since sent them back to my parents’ place for storage. Not only did I kind of stick out when wearing them but also the clothing items themselves weren’t rugged enough to survive conditions in the tundra. I also have serious doubts that those items would have been warm enough for the upcoming winter.

After a long day of teaching and lesson planning, I would drive twenty-five minutes to the house where I grew up. My parents had kindly allowed me to move back in during grad school, and had told me I was welcome to stay so long as I was substitute teaching. With the amount of work I was putting in to this long-term sub job, I was extremely grateful for the room, board, support, and company. On the weekends, I spent time working at the local natural history museum, visiting friends, going to the theatre, and doing more lesson planning.

The school day here lasts from 8:50 to 3:55. My day is usually a bit longer; I typically get to school somewhere around 6:30 and don’t leave until 5:30 or 6. I spend some of that time planning and preparing for classes. I do reserve a couple of hours for “me” time, though. With no Internet at my place, I can’t do things like check e-mail and Facebook, shop, or read fanfiction, so I make sure to leave time in my day to do that.

After a long day, my two-minute walk home is a welcome change from sitting in rush hour traffic. I live with Cole, a fellow teacher. I doubt we’ll ever be best of friends, but we get along well enough. When I taught in the city, I lived in a completely different neighborhood than the school I taught in, so I didn’t see my students once the school day was over. Here, that’s just not the case. I’m getting used to seeing my students when I walk around the village, whether it’s to the school, to the post office, or going for a run. There’s a basketball court between my place and the school, but other than that there’s no place specifically designated for the kids to gather. The younger kids can often be found clambering over the boardwalk railings or running through the occasional patch of relatively solid ground, looking for berries, insects, or other treasures. The older kids can frequently be seen huddled on the porch of the school or standing on a nearby section of boardwalk, using phones or tablets to access the Internet.

My weekends are spent doing more lesson planning and trying to unwind as much as possible. The size of the village makes getting away from school a bit difficult. There’s no movie theatre, and the only restaurant is really more of a carry-out place. I’m not a religious person, so I don’t spend time at any of the three churches. There is a gym of sorts; in the “old” school building, one room has been set up with a bunch of weight lifting equipment and a treadmill. I’m making a point of working out once or twice a week after school and both days on weekends. I’m also practicing trombone more frequently than I have since I left grad school, with the result that I’ve almost completely re-gained the range I had in college.

One night a week, I drove directly from school to an appointment with my therapist. My parents were supportive of my Transition, and my therapist was helping me work out a plan to get top surgery. He was also a great ear, willing to listen to me rant about how hard I was finding it to be stealth at work. Fortunately, since it was only at work, I could cope.

I have no therapist here. While I’ve said that I’m done hiding, the fact of the matter is that only one person I’ve met since I got here is actually aware of my past, and she lives in another village. I can talk with friends and family back home, but those conversations are limited to letters, phone calls, chats on Facebook, or discussions via Facetime or Skype. Each method is limited in ease of communication and privacy. The end result is that I still feel like part of me is trapped. Hopefully, that can one day change. Until then, I’ll just keep focusing on settling in to my new life.

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4 comments
  1. Hmmm. I have always thought that Alaska would be a tough place to exist as LGBT. Or to exist as anything other than cis, hetero, male. Or simply, I suppose, just to exist. 😕
    It sounds like you should just think of this as a really big adventure.

    • I’m not saying that existing/living up here is easy, but I think you hit on it: It depends, in part, on your mind set.

  2. ravinj said:

    i know this post is a year old, but I’m very interested in learning about how successful you are in accessing health care up there. Did you know there are GT’s who will do sessions via Skype?

    • Honestly, I don’t really deal with the health care system up here. My job’s insurance pays for my hormones, prescribed by my primary doc back home, to be delivered to me via mail. I also haven’t sought out any sort of therapist to talk with since I moved up here. For that aspect of things, I rely on my friends and family.

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