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Education Desk: The Rookie - Part I

The first year of teaching is a little bit like jumping into the ocean. You can practice in a swimming pool and pretend you’re in the ocean. You can sit on a boat and watch other people dive in. But until you do it yourself, there’s no way to know how the waves are going to feel or how you’ll fend off the jellyfish and sharks. Jeniece Baines is one of those brand new teachers.

She teaches reading and writing to 7th graders at Franklin Middle School in Champaign.

Q: Did you want to teach middle school? Was that the age group you wanted to teach?

A: Yeah.

Q: Why?

A: I actually tried the younger grades, because they’re so cute, you’d just want to teach them. But they’re so needy. And they don’t know the basic skills, and I feel like… I don’t want to teach them basic skills. I was in a 1st grade classroom, and one week we were going to do this project on butterflies, and they needed to use scissors. And then the teacher realized they didn’t know how to use scissors. So she had to do a separate lesson on how to use scissors. I am not patient enough to teach how to use scissors.

Q: So why not high school?

A: They’re too old, too sassy. I feel like there’s a great need for middle school teachers, especially since [middle school kids are] going through puberty and actually walking around to go to different classes, so everything’s pretty much new and adjusting. I feel like I can be like that help for them during this great need [laughs].

Q: At the time when nobody else wants them because they smell funny.

A: Yes, they do have a strange smell. I have a special Febreeze to spray after every couple of classes.

Q: But there’s something you like about those kids.

A: Yes. I feel like my personality is the personality of a middle-schooler. It’s at that level where I can joke around with them but then they’ll still listen.

Q: I read somewhere that the biggest fear everybody has is public speaking. And teaching almost seems like public speaking all day every day. So on the first day of school, when you were about to be solo teacher, how did you feel about that?

A: Oh my goodness I was so nervous…. But then, it’s so weird. It’s like a switch turned on right when the students came in, I was in teacher mode. I was like, ‘Hi, guys, welcome to my class, this is everything you’re going to be doing…’ And once the day was over, I was like wow, I did it! It was just so weird, because once I’m in front of my class, it’s easy for me to just speak and talk to them. But even like talking to my co-workers, to like, um, tell them how my classroom is progressing, I’m like, ‘Uh, can I just write it down and tell you?’ So I don’t know what it is, but it’s so different when I’m in front of my students.

Q: I notice you use the terms “my class” and “my students.” You’re really taking ownership of that.

A: Yeah, because I guess it’s now my responsibility to lead these kids on to where they need to be. And it is a huge responsibility that you’ve taken in all of these like 130 kids and you have that responsibility of helping them reach their next ability level.

Q: How old are you?

A: 23.

Q: And you don’t have kids. So one thing I’ve always said as a parent is that I feel like parenting is this series of pop quizzes, because everything’s a precedent… and it’s exhausting. I would imagine that teaching is similar?

A: I believe so. Yes. I mean, it’s weird because they feel like my children, even though I didn’t bear them or give birth to them, because everything I say is pretty much truth. And if you’re not sure, you have to tell them, because then they won’t believe you if they find out it’s not true. So you just have to be like, ‘I don’t know.’ And they’re okay with that!”

Q: What have you found out that you like about teaching, and what have you found out that you don’t like?

A: I love that they all have different personalities. It’s a lot, actually, but I love it. When they’re really passionate about something and they want to share with me and tell me about it, I’m like oh my gosh, yes! Please be passionate! I like seeing that joy when they get passionate about something. I want them to experience that every day. I’m like yes, this is what reading is. Yes! Love it! Continue to read!

But then it really sucks when they’re like, ‘I don’t really like this book, I don’t want to read it,’ or ‘I don’t want to read. Why do we have to read?’ And I’m like: This is reading class. We’re going to read.

Q: What has surprised you about teaching?

A: All of the work that is actually put into it. With student teaching, we only get so much, because it’s not really our classroom. And when we do take over, we’re just taking over the lessons and stuff. But there’s so much work that goes behind the scenes, like creating the classroom management and the lessons and the grading and the teacher evaluations and all that stuff. It is a lot. It’s overwhelming.

Q: How long do you think you’re going to do this? Can you see yourself teaching for years?

A: Sure. I mean, right now, I just want to kind of crawl into bed for a couple of years (laughs). But yeah, I can see myself teaching for a while. I might not see the product of all the work that I’ve done until maybe years later, but it’s worth it.

Q: And what you think you might see years later is what? Some kid coming back to you and saying, ‘Hey Ms. Baines!’

A: Yeah, something like that. Or just seeing them being successful elsewhere. They don’t even have to come back and say it was specifically me, but just seeing that they are successful in whatever they’re doing.

Q: Last question. You’re six feet tall? Six-one? Okay, does that help with classroom management?

A: You would think, because I tower over them. It does, some parts. But when I talk, I guess I’m just too nice. For a moment, my height will get them, so if they stand in front of me and try to intimidate me, I’m just looking down on them [she demonstrates]. Sorry! So I give them a face too. I’ve developed my ‘teacher stares.’ I never see them personally, but I hear they’re pretty intense (laughs). So I think height has an advantage…

Q: You would think it does, but your quiet, introvert personality ….

A: … bleeds through. I mean, at first I think they were like ‘Whoa!’ but then they realized I’m a big softie. And they’re like [shrug] and I’m like ‘No! I can be mean!’ (laughing) So I’ve got to like bring out that mean side. Figure it out. Because it’s not natural for me.

We’ll check in with Ms. Baines again during the spring semester.


After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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