A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 13 2010

The Dragon in the Classroom

My roommates thought I was exaggerating again just to make my story sound more jaw-dropping (we teachers always like to boast superlatively about the most inconsequential of things).  At the time, I suspected they were right.  There really was no way my classroom could have been 130 degrees hot.  I knew I had a good temperature sense, but maybe–just maybe–this time I was completely off.

Yet, this short story on another aspect of the physical learning environment will show that my intuition was probably right.


After a woefully-short but unbelievably restful winter break, I returned to my school, on the morning of Monday January 4th, as eager as I’d ever been to be back in my classroom.  In fact, I was so keen on preparing my classroom that I arrived at 7am–the earliest I’d ever come to school.  After signing in, pulling a random assortment of educational pamphlets out of my metal mailbox and dreamily skating down the newly-waxed hallway, I stopped at my door.

I sighed, content and feeling like I had arrived home.  I isolated my classroom key from my burdensome lanyard and swung open the door.  I must have been delusional, because I was expecting to see a pristine classroom (as spotless as I had left it after cleaning it before break).  Instead, I felt a burst of hot air escaping from the room and enveloping my shivering body.

I was stunned. I was mad. I was sad.  From what I could tell, someone had left the heater on full blast for quite some time–possibly the entire break!  We certainly had a cold winter. We certainly had old pipes (30-40 years old, according to our custodian) that continuously run the risk of bursting (as it did in my classroom in December).  We certainly wanted to be on the safe side by overheating our rooms over the break.  Right?

Wrong.  The heat that I felt was overpowering.  I immediately used a during-reading strategy and made a connection to a previous experience.  A couple summers ago, I spent some time in the United Arab Emirates, where I got to dune bash and camel-ride in the hot Arabian desert.  I remember stepping outside of the 4WD into the heat.  I remember hearing that it was about 50 degrees celsius.  My classroom felt as hot.  No. Hotter.  I ball-parked 120 to 130 degrees.  Why? Almost every single one of my posters had fallen off; the adhesive material had literally melted onto the wall.  The desks were sizzling; you could have almost fried an egg on top of the “Congress Park” graffiti scrawled across one of the desks.

The problem is that my classroom is unbearably warm even when the heater is “off”.  There is a lot of hot water running through the pipes–enough to make a classroom uncomfortably warm.  So one can only imagine what the heat is like when the heater is on full blast.  Instead of having a mouse as a classroom pet, it felt like a wheezing dragon was guest for the day.

I propped open my door, threw open both my windows and turned my fan on high.  For an hour, my room “cooled” down.  Yet, when my first student rolled in at 8:35, the first thing he said was not “Hi, Mr. K, Happy New Year!” It was “Mr. K, why’s it so damn hot in here?”  Frustrated, I told him that our classroom had had some serious heating problems.  Eventually, temps settled down and life returned to normal.

(This was over a week ago.)


Yesterday, Monday, January 11, I walked into my classroom again.  Same story.  This time I was ready to protest.  I had put a large note on the control panel for the heater stating “DO NOT TURN ON!”  Someone had ignored my command.  I went through the same routine.  Prop open all openings, ventilate the room as well as possible, and tolerate the string of student complaints.  Having already experienced this ordeal before, I was back to my normal self in no time.

Today, Tuesday, January 12, I finally discovered the most fascinating thing.  After a tiring day of proctoring for the DC BAS, I decided I’d dip into the secret stash of incentive candy that I had bought specifically for my students (2 lb Costco assorted candy bags are amazing).  I pulled out a gummy savers minipack, a twizzler and a minibox of Nerds.

During my candy dining experience, I like to begin with soft candies.  The gummy savers were a natural first course.  Here is what I opened up:

Inside, however, I found an unexpected gift.  Magically,  I had a full-blown gummy pancake in my hands:

I thought, “strange! Didn’t realize gummy savers could have these kinds of defects!”  After 2.5 seconds of bewilderment, everything clicked into place.  The heat in my classroom had melted my gummy savers.  The rings had completely dissolved into a pleasant swirl of colors and flavors.  (Note: I chose not to eat this pancake because it didn’t have the right texture.)

This anecdote provides a few things.  First, it gives me the immediate reassurance that my initial guesstimate was not off base.  In fact, I was probably quite accurate.  Heck, these gummy bear soaps melt at 120 degrees. Second, it gives me proof to wave in front of my skeptical teacher roommates (“Hah! See!“).  Finally, it gives me the fuel, once again, to become incensed by the physical learning environment that my students must deal with at school.

It’s damn near impossible to learn when your classroom is 130 degrees, when pipes are leaking rusty water all over the classroom, or when mice are slaloming through the haphazard tower of text books stacked in the corner.


The heating problem in my classroom does provide one opportunity, however.  I can now create a classroom with a temperature gradient that can meet every student’s needs.  I prop the window open and instruct the cold-seeking students to sit under it.  Students who are hypersensitive to the cold sit on the far side of the classroom, where our class dragon can breath over their shoulders.  Those who just want a warm seat can sit in the middle.

TFA tells us to make the most of what we have, to work with what is given to us (work within our “locus of control”).  We can bitch and moan about all manner of things, but, at the end of the day, we better fix whatever problem lies before us.  This dragon beast is a big seemingly-intractable problem.  But I’m not going to let it stand in the way between me, my students on the one side and achievement on the other. Time to slay some more dragons.
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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

D.C. Region
High School

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