Miami Herald: Teaching Wisdom

Originally Published in the Miami Herald:
Teaching Wisdom
by Jared Goyette
In the four years it took Hialeah High School teacher Roxanna Elden to publish her new book, See Me After Class, she received dozens of rejection letters, but where others might have found disappointment, she saw something more. Each letter, she noticed, was more detailed than the previous one. “No” became “maybe next time.” She collected all the letters in a packet and passed them out to students in her creative writing class to show them what writers have to go through.“You have to know what progress looks like,” said Elden, 30, a language arts and creative writing instructor at Hialeah High since 2004. “Sometimes, it comes in the form of more personal rejection letters.”

Her persistence paid off. The book, a guide for new teachers, was published by Kaplan in June. Shortly afterward she held a reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables, and the room was packed with colleagues and students who had come to see a teacher known not only for her determination but for her willingness to talk about her experiences with her dry sense of humor, characteristics that show through in the book.

One of Elden’s students that attended the reading, Nicole Gonzalez, 17, had followed Elden’s progress from the beginning. “It was pretty inspiring because all throughout my sophomore year, she would get to class happy one day because she thought she had found her big break, but then would come the next day and be kind of dejected because it didn’t work out,” Gonzales said. “But it seemed like the idea of giving up never really occurred to her — she just kept trying until she got her book published.”

In the book, Elden writes about the contrast between what new teachers often expect from what they actually find once the first bell rings. Her style is both irreverent and witty.

In one passage, she describes what it’s like for a teacher when a class starts to get out control.

“Your class begins to remind you of a bar full of little drunk people, they want constant attention and often don’t realize how loud they are talking.”

Elden’s comedic touch has served her well in the classroom.

“She makes it fun,” said Verena Cabrera, principal of Hialeah High. “Her tone of voice, and her body language in the class, is cool, and that gets across with the kids.”

One of Elden’s creative writing students, Roselind Romero, 17, agreed.

“A majority of teachers tend to stick to the book, teach you the material for the test so you can pass and that’s it,” she said. “Ms. Elden takes it a step further, and uses a human touch, and has this really fantastic, dry sense of humor.”

As Elden sees it, new teachers are sometimes caught off guard by what they find in the classroom because they’ve watched too many movies: she scoffs at the romanticized version of her profession in films, where a self-righteous teacher takes on the school system, inspires his or her students, and learns a few dance moves along the way.

“Every teacher has watched all those movies when they were in high school and college and maybe that’s what made them want to be a teacher, but then they find themselves comparing themselves to those movies and wondering, `Why is this not happening for me?’ ” Elden seeks to fill the gap between new teachers’ expectations and reality with practical advice drawn from her experience and that of other teachers whom she interviewed.

She covers a wide range of subjects, from time management to overprotective parents. In one chapter, she addresses the risks teachers face if they try to be friends with their students.

“If you are too worried about students liking you, they will pick up on this and be very sweet at first, and then run around your room like animals and cause property damage the rest of the year,” Elden writes. “You, meanwhile, will turn into the incarnation of evil as you try to tighten the reins.”

Her relatively short tenure in the classroom — Elden has only been teaching for seven years — led her to worry about what her more experienced colleagues would think of her book. So far, the reaction has been positive. “They understand that someone who has been a new teacher more recently knows what it feels like,” she said. “People get that a book like this needed to be written.”

Cabrera, Elden’s principal, said the she thinks the book could be used in school programs to train new teachers.

“This is a book written by someone that is experiencing all these things and that is talking to other people that have been there,” she said.

Article written by Jared Goyette.