Room to Improve

At the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, my first year teaching full time, the journalism lab was moved to a “new” classroom.

I put that in quotes because everything in that room felt ancient — from the student desks from which chunks of particle board could be detached, to the the old-school chalkboard in the back, to the retractable wooden wall with a whiteboard plastered across it so that it could no longer actually retract.

But perhaps my favorite detail was the “memorandum” that I found taped to the side of the room’s decrepit wardrobe cabinet after I pulled down some materials that had been left behind. It was advising teachers that due to recent changes in the chemical composition of photographic supplies, students should now wear gloves and goggles when working in the darkroom.

There were several interesting things about this memo. The first was that it was dated February 1983, which made it quite literally older than me. The second, of course, was that this 28-year-old memo was so important that it was STILL hanging from this wardrobe. The third was that as far as I know, Room 225 had never been a photography classroom. (There had, in fact, been a darkroom somewhere in the building, but definitely not in Room 225.)

I still teach in the same classroom today. However, the building was thoroughly renovated several years ago, and the room number has since been changed. The retractable wall was removed, so my room is now twice its original size. And half of what used to be a stairwell became a secondary workspace and supply room that is also part of the journalism lab. All in all, it’s a very nice space, which I’m glad to call my home away from home.

But I do get wistful from time to time for the character and mystique of the old space. Something about the rough, worn out, lived-in appearance made it feel very real. And the way my publication staffs were all packed together — thankfully, we never had more than 15 students on staff in those days — it really forced us to feel like a family (in both the best and worst sense of that word).

In fairness, the room looks a lot nicer in this photo than I remember…

Given the nature of the current school year, which started off with virtual instruction, I’ve thought a lot about the spaces in which we all teach, work, and learn. Even without a dedicated classroom for several months, stuff got done. I am certain students learned things (as long as they weren’t playing Xbox during class). Virtual instruction basically worked, but it didn’t feel, well, good. It didn’t feel special. Digital conference rooms and Google Documents just couldn’t reproduce that sense of vital togetherness where, when you get it right, everyone’s learning feeds off of and reinforces one another.

Hybrid — excuse me, concurrent — instruction these past few months has made the environment a little better, but it’s still not quite right. Full of distancing, hand sanitizer, Virex, plexiglass shields, and surgical masks, classrooms right now exude anything but safety and confidence. Besides looking like a weird, hypochondriacal television studio, my room just isn’t a space where it feels like we’re collectively, willingly, eagerly moving somewhere together.

Maybe that speaks more to my flaws as a teacher than anything else. And perhaps I’m being just a little overly hard on myself. After all, I did recently receive a note from a student for Teacher Appreciation Week describing our classroom as “bright,” and suggesting that this reflected both the people and ideas in it. (She’s a writer; can’t you tell?)

But after all the twists, turns, and strife of 2020-2021, I think I’m kind of justified in feeling a bit numb — feeling like there’s only so much more I can do to recreate what has been lost.

And so, I’m counting down the days until summer. There’s nothing particularly new about that. But this year more than ever, I find myself incredibly eager for the time to recharge. And when I come back next year, perhaps I can make my classroom a special space again.

I’m not such an optimist as to think surgical masks and threats of viral outbreaks will be a thing of the past. But I look forward to having a little more room next year — room to give this all a do-over; room to grow again; room to be the teacher I really hope to be.