Teaching like it’s 1999

(Sorry if you’ll be singing a Prince song all day now.)

I’m more than a little sad that I didn’t have access to a digital camera during my first three years of teaching, and was too cheap to buy and develop film just for classroom pictures. I had no idea that I’d later start documenting tours of all my classrooms online. And I also didn’t realize how precious those memories would one day be.

Recently I was going through some old notebooks and found a large collection of photos from my very first classroom, in 1999. My heart nearly leaped out of my chest when I saw those images. I don’t remember why I took them, or why I glued them to paper where I had typed up incredibly detailed captions (maybe it was an assignment for my masters degree?) but it makes me really happy that I did.

Sharing the images with you, on the other hand, was not so much fun. The laborious process required me to scan each photo, upload it to the server, add the metadata (don’t ask), type the caption, and format the post. Altogether, it probably took me five (incredibly tedious) hours. But it makes me smile to see that little classroom preserved and on display for the world to see, even if no one else particularly cares.

One of the most special things about this set of pictures is that the students are in them. I can remember each and every one of those kids’ names as I pour over the images. This is the first time I’ve ever shared my students’ faces unblurred on the website before: they’re all over the age of eighteen now (!!) and I’m not disclosing the school’s name or where it’s located. You just have to see the looks of pure joy they’re experiencing in learning.

My heart is actually a little heavy as I think back on those days. It wasn’t that long ago, but so many things have changed in education since 1999. I had a record player¬†and a cassette tape deck in the classroom (in case you’re new to the field, yes, technology in schools has always lagged ridiculously far behind what we use outside of school.) I used felt boards and magnet boards to illustrate concepts. There was no internet access in the building, and without access to high-quality teaching materials online, I bought books to get lesson ideas and made almost every single game and prop from scratch.

My students had no formal testing at all; I wrote up lengthy anecdotal reports each quarter which read more like memoirs than assessments. In fact, there was no curriculum: I wrote and scaffolded the lesson objectives based on my knowledge of child development and chose the themes we studied based on students’ interests. We used project based learning before the term was coined: no skill was taught in isolation, and each lesson and center activity helped students make connections to what they already knew.

I think that’s the other thing that makes these images so special: they remind me of a time when education was focused on children. My first few years of teaching were undoubtedly my favorite because I had the most creative control and freedom to meet students’ needs, and the least amount of micromanagement and assessment demands. I know things weren’t that simple in every school in 1999, and a lot of my wonderful experience was because I taught in early childhood. But even that age group has not been left untouched by the rush to standardize and measure: the pre-kindergarten curriculum today is basically the kindergarten curriculum of 15 years ago.

These pictures take me back to a simpler time. They connect me with what’s really important in the classroom: sparking childrens’ passions, building relationships and community, providing meaningful opportunities for students to problem solve and think creatively. It’s harder now than ever to provide that for our children, and it’s more crucial than ever for me to say thank you to those in the classroom who are continuing to try. Only people who have been teachers know how tough the job really is. The public opinion of educators seems to be at its lowest, but please know that your job has never been more important. You are the buffer between your students and a broken system. You make the difference. Thank you for doing what you do every day in the classroom.

You can view the complete set of pictures from this classroom and their original captions on my new Classroom Photos Before 2003 page. You’ll see each center area, our whole group meeting area, some games and activities I made, and projects we did as a class.

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Subscribe via email for blog updates, exclusive tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mrs. Parker May 15, 2012 at 7:53 pm

Angela,
I also have a scrapbook that my teaching partner and I created of our multiage 1-3 grade classroom from 1999. So much has changed about education since then. One thing I am certain of is that teachers are still as passionate and dedicated as we were back in the “good old days.”

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2 Asiyah May 15, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Why oh why did I wait so long to consider a career in teaching? I remember how fun it was to learn as a student in a Montessori school…now I rue the decision I made to go into corporate America (and stay) for so long. Ah well, no time like the present.

Thanks for the photographic blast from the past!

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3 brazenteacher May 16, 2012 at 2:14 pm

These are not my pictures, but they could be. It’s funny how they send pangs shooting through my own heart. The artist and teacher in me never ceases to be amazed at the power images wield. Had you written nothing at all… had you posted pictures and written something generic: “These remind me of a simpler time” I suspect all the emotions you described in this post would have bubbled up in your readers nevertheless. Thanks for the little trip down memory lane.

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