Education
1:00 am
Thu November 7, 2013

New MPS Teacher Finds Pleasures, Pressures in First Months

Daniel Timothy Graves describes a classroom assignment to his second graders
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

MPS has hundreds of new teachers this year, because so many veterans retired in spring.

WUWM wanted to know what it’s like to begin a teaching career in the large, urban district. So we visited a newcomer in summer, as he set up his classroom. Daniel Timothy Graves teaches second grade at Fratney, in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood.

When we first met Graves, he was eager for students to arrive. More than two months later, he still relishes their presence, while finding the job more complex than he expected.

On our second visit, it’s a Friday afternoon, and the energy level in the classroom is high. Yet “Mr. Dan” keeps the kids engaged. He tells them – in Spanish – that it’s time to sit on the rug depicting the world map, and to listen. Fratney is a bilingual school.

After Graves wins the kids’ attention, he turns to the white board and sketches the water cycle, including the ocean, clouds and glaciers. The second graders are wowed, when Graves tells them the water they drink today was around when dinosaurs walked the earth.

He gives the students a weekend homework assignment: observe nature. Graves delights them by handing out tiny notebooks, about the size of their hands, for them to jot down their thoughts.

Graves taught high school outside MPS for a few years, before embarking on a longer career, at the Urban Ecology Center. When we met him in August, he was excited to share his love of nature with his second graders, through field trips and gardening projects. He says he’s accomplished some of his goals, but now realizes it takes time to lay the groundwork.

“Everything is having to build background knowledge, and it’s expounded like 100 times because for three-quarters of the students that I work with, Spanish is their second language. So imagine the kind of vocabulary that goes into understanding what the water cycle is. You have to activate that vocabulary in English and in Spanish. And in Spanish, you're getting new words that you’ve never heard before – in English, even, too. It’s new in both languages,” Graves says.

Graves says he’s bumped into other challenges, as well. For example, there’s never enough time to plan lessons during the school day, so he spends about 20 hours each weekend preparing for the following week. Another pressure bearing on him: he’s working on his certification to teach second grade. Until now, he’s only been certified to instruct older kids.

“And there are some family issues going on right now, too, with my son. My little son has to have a surgery, so that’s like on top of everything else, so it’s just like a lot of stuff going on right now, and then report cards -- and the surgery is going to happen right before their report cards. So this morning, I was like (having a) nervous breakdown -- I’m glad you didn’t come at 8:00 this morning, you would have seen me wiping away tears from my eyes,” Graves laughs.

Graves draws the water cycle, which the students have been studying recently
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Yet Graves looks past this year’s stresses, confident his second year will be simpler. His certification program will be over, and he won’t have to create lesson plans from scratch. There should be more time to focus on the job’s pleasures.

“The kids are so sweet, they really are, especially individually. I think when you get into the group mentality, it gets a little harder. But they’re so sweet and they’re so curious. They are so excited about learning, they are so excited about observing -- they all want to be scientists,” Graves says.

The rewards and pressures of teaching seem to have sunken to levels deeper than planning class projects.

“It’s a really hard profession. For people who don’t understand it, you need to try it before you can judge it. The demands are so high, the stakes are so high. These are peoples' most important things, their children, and they’re entrusting me with the knowledge that their kids are going to have by the end of second grade. It’s a very grave, almost like a sacred thing.”

We’ll check in with Graves again at the winter break, to hear his impressions of the first half of the school year.