The Sounds of Silence: Lessons for a Teacher

Maia Gallagher-Siudzinski attended Haldane until 2007 and recently graduated from Brandeis University where she studied Economics and Secondary Education. While at Brandeis Maia chose to student teach at a public school in Dorchester, an ethnically diverse working class neighborhood in south Boston. The following is her story about one day, one class. Student names and teacher’s name have been changed.  

The day begins

“Ms. O? Hey, Ms. O! What’s wrong with your voice?” It was Stefon shouting from the back of the room. Ms. O’Garro looked at him with steely confidence and pointed at the board.

The class began like most others. Stefon chucking his pen across the room to Jamel who had ‘gone-long’ in anticipation of the pass. Paulina sinking deeper under her desk yanking the strings on her black hoody. Ashley and Christy hunched over the space between them giggling loudly and pointing at Andy. Tommy staring at his desk, binder pressed to his sunken chest, head down, left shoe untied.

On the peeling, yellowed walls were hand-made posters that reminded students to R.E.S.P.E.C.T. and R.E.A.D. In the corner sat an old 1990’s gray desktop, the only working computer on the floor. The directions for today’s “Do Now” were written on the board, since the over head projector’s light bulb had blown out. The homework tray near the door held only two pieces of crumpled paper as the room filled with 28 twelve-year-olds.

Trouble ahead?

As I surveyed the scene I remembered my first day at the school.

“So, what grade will you be working with?” a veteran teacher asked with a cheerful smile, as I sat in the teacher’s room wearing my best “teacher outfit’” and clutching a fresh ream of paper in one arm. The school required teachers to supply their own copy paper.

“Seventh grade,” I responded.  Her smile quickly became a terrified frown.

“That’s a though group. I’ve been teaching for 12 years and the year I had them, I thought about quitting once a week.”

With that uplifting introduction I plunged into student teaching. During my first week, a student had an earring ripped out of his ear, another threatened to stab his classmate with a pair of scissors and a third confessed that she was cutting herself. Luckily, I had Ms. O’Garro as a cooperating teacher. She was officially in charge of the class and taught two periods each day which I observed and assisted with.

Today I was in for a surprise.

A veteran teacher shows the way

Ms. O’Garro moved to the front of the room and quickly wrote on the board: “Please Sit Down and Start the Do Now.”  She said nothing. Slowly, she circulated around gesturing to students. ‘Open your notebooks’ she gestured, opening her hands like a book. She told the class to ‘Get started!’ by placing paper and a pencil on a student’s desk and pointing at the board. When she made it back to the front of the room about half the students were working on the “Do Now”.

Under her first blackboard instruction she wrote, “When you finish raise your hand.” Two hands went up… then three. A few more students stopped talking and tried to figure out why their classmates had suddenly raised their hands. Before long a confused hush fell over the room.

Again using the blackboard Ms. O’Garro wrote, “Sarah, explain your answer for #1,” She then swiveled her gaze around to Jamel, flashing him a deadly stare just as he tried to chuck his pen back to Stefon. Seeing her reaction he slowly lowered his throwing arm and sat down. She then moved between Ashley and Christy forcing them to stop whispering.

Lessons learned

Ms. O’Garro did not say one word or make a single noise during the entire period, but the students still learned. She used her physical presence and “looks” to keep order. The class stayed fairly quiet throughout the period as students listened to their classmates explain answers or watched their teacher write out the next step to a problem. Some student’s worked at their own pace looking back up at the board for the next direction or a hint – only when they were ready to.

On this one day Ms. O’Garro taught me important lessons that I hope never to forget. First, remember that every child has an innate desire to learn. Even the most challenging group of seventh graders can surprise you with their curiosity and work ethic — if you provide them with the right environment.

Second, great rewards can come from taking great risks. During my semester working with her, Ms. O’Garro took many risks, constantly pushing herself as an educator. Some of these risks, like teaching a class in silence, paid off. Others were less successful, but each provided students with an opportunity to learn and to grow. Each was a lesson on teaching.

Comments are closed.