Chilean Chronicles, Part XVI: First Day Teaching Jitters

The first day butterflies never really go away.

I first taught nearly 30 years ago, at Bellehaven Child Development Center in East Menlo Park.
Four afternoons a week during my sophomore year at college I mounted my bike and pumped away from Stanford’s red stucco buildings and palm-tree laced roads. Ideals of social justice, a desire to erase my white privilege, and a burgeoning love of working with children propelled me.

I biked across the bridge that ran over Route 101, past the adolescent boys on Terminal Avenue who lazily threw rocks at me, and arrived at the center.

Silence greeted me.

Hands outstretched or folded neatly underneath one of their cheeks, the 30 children looked like sleeping angels. Their skin tones ranged from mocha to copper to dark black. The window shades draped the room in darkness.

Willie, a bass-voiced childhood friend of Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, and Winetta, a hefty single mother whose ferocity masked her affection for the children, were the teachers. They circulated throughout the room, rousing the children from their post-lunch naps.

The three- to five-year olds stood up like newborn foals. Clearing the crust from their eyes, they stretched their arms above their heads in a continuous fluid movement. They pulled their cots to
Winetta, who stacked them in neat rows of ten, and assembled in a circle on the brown rug in the center of the room.

Willie turned on the record player and placed the needle delicately on the album. The sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” filled the room. Myisha, Shawneequa and the rest of the children clapped for each other as each of them took their turn in the middle of the carpet.

Michael was their favorite. Twirling and break dancing with a vengeance, his signature move was a 360 degree knee spin. He yielded the floor only after Willie insisted.

I stood at the edge of the circle, transfixed. I did not ask questions about their family’s incomes. Nor did I wonder why only two of the children ever had fathers pick them up, or why the kids wore the same clothes day after day and at times smelled unwashed.

I just knew that I was where I belonged, in a place where my values and the people I was spending time with and the pleasure in being with the children all converged.

Yet as much as I enjoyed being among the children, I also felt nervous the first time I moved from observing to leading a group.

I felt nerves two years later, when I took over a lesson for Paul Tamburello, my fourth grade and mentor teacher, and when handled recess duty on my own.

I felt them in the fall of 1989, when I strode around the empty room of desks at Newton North High School, where I did my student teaching,

My stomach tingled with nervous anticipation in August 1992, when I arranged the chairs in my first classroom as a full-time teacher at Brown Middle School in Newton.

The same sensation filled me in August 1995, when I prepared to teach students at the Uthongathi School in Tongaat, South Africa, in the fall of 1997, before I gave my initial session for Facing History and Ourselves, and in the summer of 2001, as I got ready to teach at Longmeadow High School in Western Massachusetts.

A dozen years later, those nerves are still there.

Tomorrow, I´ll teach my first class in Data Journalism at the University of Diego Portales.

The class will be different than the others that I´ve given in that it´ll be in Spanish.

That´s a minor source of anxiety, and I know both that I can communicate well enough and that I´ll make some grammatical errors.

On the most basic level, my nerves are a combination of caring, insecurity, and belief in education´s mission, of wanting very much to make a difference in the students´ lives and wondering if I´ll be able to do just that.

In a commentary he wrote for the Brookline Tab and later read on public radio station WBUR before the beginning of his final year of teaching at Pierce School, Paul Tamburello wrote the following:

How did the years go by so swiftly, how much have I accomplished, what’s my place in the pantheon of my school’s history? More importantly what’s my place in the personal pantheons of the hundreds of fourth graders whom I’ve taught, advised, disciplined, and eaten lunch with for the past 33 years.

For me, the questions are slightly different as I´ve moved in the past decade away from full time teahing and more and more into writing, and the wondering what dent we´ve had and will make on the world through our students is the same.

While it helps to know that we´ve delivered the goods before, each group is a separate adventure, with new actors and as yet unknown challenges.

At 3:30 p.m. the students will file in and take their seats.

Standing in front of them, full of hope, belief and, yes, some nerves, I´ll be there, too.


6 responses to “Chilean Chronicles, Part XVI: First Day Teaching Jitters

  1. Tenacity, courage, intention to succeed, knowledge that you are prepared and give your best every day..a little bit of magic, a little bit of luck, stir them all together and you have the formula that we both used as we entered the classroom in previous stints. Tomorrow will be the same for you, and in Spanish! Thanks for the shout out.

  2. Virginia Freed

    I am feeling similar anxiety as I anticipate teaching an intensive reading and writing course to incoming first-years before the regular semester begins. How can we be nervous with all those years of professional and life experience?

    Maybe we fear our own limitations, the potential for personal embarrassment, or maybe we really want to provide the students with a phenomenal learning experience. Whatever the explanation we have proven yet again we are nothing if not mere mortals.

  3. Ah, teaching. Last night I was haunted by dreams of starting my new school year and not being sufficiently prepared. I like what Virginia said: We are mortals. I remember that Bill Russell (of the perennial champion basketball team the Boston Celtics) threw up before every game. At the highest levels of performance it makes sense for there to be anxiety. Teaching, like basketball, is never rote. Like Paul said, it contains magic. May you find the magic, Jeff, as you begin again.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks so much, Dave, Ginna and Paul, for your generous and kind words of encouragement.

      You´ll all be with me.



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