Classroom Alchemy

“Hey, how was Philadelphia?” asked Darius*, as I checked his work (“Sketch a parabola in which b=0”).

“Pittsburgh,” I said, pleased and taken aback. It was Wednesday, first day back after our 4-day Veterans Day weekend. Sometime on the previous Thursday, I’d mentioned casually I was going back east for my uncle’s 70th birthday. Six days later, Darius remembered my plans.

“The family reunion, right?”

“Yeah. How nice of you to remember. I had a wonderful time.”

I moved back to the front, checking for universal understanding of the impact that b=0 had on the position of a parabola, and then told everyone to sketch a parabola in which c=0.

“Did a lot of people show up?” Darius asked across the room.

“They did! Over 90 people. All my uncles and aunts on my dad’s side, and several of their cousins. Eleven of my fourteen surviving cousins on that side. At least 9 of the next generation–my son’s. And even some tiny members of the generation after that—the great-great-grandchildren of my dad’s parents.”

“Wow. Did you know them all?”

“Some of them I’d never met before, because they hadn’t been born the last time I’d visited. Others I’ve known all my life, like some cousins, and my aunt and uncles. We even had someone from my grandfather’s generation. Aunt Ruth–my dad’s aunt–who is 94, looks fantastic, and just came back from a trip to Paris.”

“Was the food good?” from Harres.

“Outstanding. It was simple, nothing dramatic. They put the food on different tables throughout the room.”

“Oh, I don’t like that,” Darius again. “I always want everything, and can’t decide which table.”

“There was a table with two big haunches of meat. One roast beef, one ham, with really good bread rolls. I had no trouble deciding which table.”

After we finished up c=0 and they were figuring out the significance of a parabola with just one zero/solution, Darius waited again until I was checking on his work.

“Did you talk to people there?”

“Me? Oh, yes. Non-stop talking. There were so many people I hadn’t seen in years, and then others I wanted to get to know. I wish I’d had more time. I need to go back more often. If I wait as long again, I’ll be older than my uncle is now.”

“I went to a family reunion one time.”

“You did? How was it?”

“No one talked to me. I was like this.” and Darius humorously mimed standing all alone, silent, looking about for something to do.

So that’s why he remembered.

“Darius, I can tell you for certain that no one at my family reunion was sitting all by himself. I’m sorry. That probably wasn’t fun.”

“Yeah. It was weird. I didn’t know anyone there, and they were all talking to each other.”

“That would totally suck. I’m sorry. We’d have asked all about you.”

As they worked out the next task, I had a brief moment of introspection. Darius, who’s a cool cat in every sense, is far less likely to be the one sitting alone at a party than, say, me, a cranky introvert who has to brave up for crowds so she can exercise her natural garrulousness. I know that my uncles, or my dad, would have probably joked about a teenaged African American appearing at the party. Some or all of them, egged on by siblings and downstream kin, would one up each other with ribald wordplay and puns about where and who had done what when to add color to the family tree. But they’d have sought him out, gotten him some food, grilled him on his life story, likes and dislikes, found out his plans after high school. Looked for links and common interests, bring in others to get conversation going. But would I have done everything to reach out? Or would I have been too busy enjoying not being the one sitting alone?

As the bell rang, I was actually showing Darius and others some family pictures from the night, which sounds impossibly boring, but they seemed genuinely interested in seeing evidence of my stories.

“I’m really sorry you felt isolated at your own family reunion, Darius.”

“Yeah. It’s always the same. I’m like the whitest person when I’m with my black relatives, and the darkest person when I’m with my white relatives.”

“Well, you’d have been the darkest person at my family reunion, for sure. I don’t think our bloodline moves east of Aberdeen. Maybe London. We’re pretty thoroughly white folks. But even though you felt isolated because of your race, some of it could just be family dynamics. My family’s big, boisterous. Really loud.”

“Everyone here was loud. They just were loud to everyone else but me.”

Kameron* punched his arm lightly. “I hear ya.” At Darius’s look, he elaborated. “I’m half black. My mom’s white.”

“Oh, then you know.”

“Does your black family ask if you’re ‘all-black’?”

“You get that too? Isn’t that idiotic? Like they’re measuring?”

“Well, gee, I guess at least the white side of the family didn’t ask if you were ‘all-white’.” I pointed out, and they cracked up.

“There’s a lot of research and profiles on biracial kids, did you know?”

“Really?” Both Kameron and Darius looked interested.

“Yes, that feeling you both have of not being one nor the other, of being slightly separate, is not uncommon. It’s also not unique to kids with one black and one white parent. Biracial Asians have similar feelings, whether their other parent is black, white, or Hispanic.”

“Huh. Really.”

“Sure. There are some good books that you can read about other teens with the same background. You should check them out. In any case, I promise you, Darius, that you wouldn’t have been all by yourself at our family reunion.”

“So the next one you have, invite me!”

“It’s a deal. Have a good day, guys.”

Such exchanges are classroom alchemy, a magical transformation of mundane, random elements into golden moments. They spring from elixirs of personalities, events, spontaneous conversations, the incidental inspired nudge. They are occasionally unrelated to content knowledge and always irrelevant to test scores. They will never be found in MOOCs, nor in classrooms obsessed with tight transitions. They are criterion deficient; ed schools can, to a limited extent, prepare teachers for such moments only with open-ended assignments that are probably opinion-based.

I don’t confuse alchemy with the meat and potatoes of teaching. Darius and Kameron are both doing very well, improving their competency and fluency in quadratics, modeling real-life situations with algorithms and, importantly, taking on intellectual challenges that don’t immediately hold interest.

But teachers are responsible for more than content, whether we are aware of it or not. We are the first adults students interact with, the first engagement students have with the outside world. Independent of content, we can give students a feeling of competency, of capability, or of frustration and helplessness. We can communicate values both indirectly and directly. We can teach them that work is a serious business, or we can teach them that work can be fun and entertaining—or both. We teach them how to interact with a wide range of personalities, how to ask for help, how to give help. It doesn’t matter if a teacher is determined to convey nothing but content. Simply by the nature of our job, we create an environment that has its own entirely unmeasured learning outcomes.

I am a teacher who focuses primarily on conveying content, as all observers have noted over the years. Yet for a teacher who doesn’t see her job in terms of its emotional impact, I have my fair share of classroom alchemy, the moments of knowing my classroom has been a positive force in the universe, whether for one student, a group, or a class of thirty five.

I never plan these moments. As the great Terry Pratchett noted (with props to Neil Gaiman), you can’t second guess ineffability. It’s just going to come along on its own terms.

*Darius and Kameron both confirmed this exchange as written.


Supervision Signup

On my first day of student teaching, the day before school started, my “cooperating teacher” was taking me down to get a door key. We walked past a line of at least 20 people.

Jake saw my look. “That’s the supervisory duty signup line.”


“Teachers sign up for 5 rounds of supervisor duty. No one wants to get stuck with something awful, so they line up early.”

“What’s something awful?”

“Everyone has their own idea, thank god.”

Teachers are contractually obligated to perform supervision duty. At least high school teachers are.

Administrators tread veeeery carefully about signup procedures for supervisory duty, because teachers don’t like getting stuck with “something awful”.

Some allow first come first serve. At one of my schools, Jack, the math department head, literally came to school at 6:30 am every year and parked his lawn chair by the admin door where we did signups and just wait there until 8:00. He’d done this for ten years or more. Alas, Jack’s little ritual really annoyed a new principal, who declared that no lines could form for signup until 7:50. I know for a fact that 20 teachers deliberately ran like crazy people to hit the line before Jack. I don’t think they cared about supervisory activities that badly; they just wanted to ruin it for Jack. Hey. We’re petty.

My first school was small, and the administrators simply assigned supervisory hours for us, thus allowing me to confirm that my own personal “something awful” was the Winter Dance. The AVP said, “Just make sure the kids don’t dance too close. They have to be dancing. If they’re just grinding, separate them.”

“Um. What?”

“Or you can watch the bathrooms.”

“I’ll do that.”

“Just circulate. Remember, there’s five of them.”


“Something awful” for me: screamingly loud dance mix music in a dark hot gym with seizure-inducing lights flashing. Learning what the AVP meant by “grinding”. Wanting desperately to go home.

Since then, I’ve mostly signed up for sports.

My current school assigns teachers to one of four groups: Purple, Gold, Black, White. Then the colors rotate order fourth, third, second, first, and round again. The teachers in the first group get a half hour to sign up for activities, then the next group. And so on.

I’m in Purple. Last year, we were second. This year, first! Next year, last. So I’ll have a better idea what’s at the bottom of the barrel next year. Please god, not dances.

Since I live about 20 miles from my school, and the wrong way for traffic, I prioritize activities right after school. Then I try to get all my supervisory duty early—since I was first this year, I will have done my 15 hours by November. I’m assuming that next year I’ll be stuck traveling more and staying later.

Supervising sports mostly means watching the game. You check in with the coach. Every so often it involves sitting with the kids selling tickets.

No one ever talks about this which is slightly odd. I mean yeah, it’s boring to think about, but important enough that administrators put a fair degree of energy into making things come out fairly. We teachers are willing to be stuck with it but by god we’d better believe that everyone has an equal chance of getting stuck.

Where did this idea of using teachers for oddball supervisory come from? I actually tried googling to see where the tradition began. No luck so far.

But remember this, the next time your kids go to a dance. Somewhere on the outskirts of that melee of writhing adolescent just-short-of-bacchanalia, a teacher or two is suffering.