I first met Kelli Webb during the first month of my first year teaching.

Well, I don’t actually recall the day that I met her. My first two weeks of teaching were such a whirlwind–the details meld together into a trauma of botched activities, stuttering lessons, clunky worksheets, and the occasional discipline issue (which soon became frequent discipline issues).

I do, however, remember when I first saw Kelli’s fifth period. My Assistant Principal—after watching the vehicular collision that was my fifth period—said, “You have to watch Kelli teach.”

The next day during my planning period, I followed A.P. into the back of Kelli’s class with my notebook, completely clueless for what I would write down.

I wish I had videotaped it—it was pure poetry. Like watching Olympic figure skating.

First, the students filed in with subdued murmurs and sat down quietly. I had seen these students during lunch—they were not quiet people. Kelli taught Algebra Readiness, an 8th grade class for students who didn’t pass Pre-Algebra last year. A rough-and-rowdy bunch of surly teens with odors and attitudes sour enough to curdle the milk in your gramma’s teacup. It wasn’t even my class, and I got nervous.

“Miss Webb, I don’t got a pencil.”

“Please take out your packet and turn to S.P. 15.” Kelli calmly intoned over the rustle of paper. The bell had just sounded and all her students were in their seats, most with their pencils out. I looked around the room and thought I was dreaming:

  • Her 18 students were evenly spread throughout the room, most of them alone at a table.
  • All the hats were off.
  • Nobody touched each other.
  • No backpacks or purses were in laps, all rested on the floor or the chair next to them.
  • Most of the students had their packets out and were hunched over them, silently working.

Kelli began to weave through the rows, giving little comments.

“Thank you for getting started, Jamal.”
“Good start, Maria. Put your mirror away, please.”

And this was when I knew I was in the presence of greatness:

“Miguel, please spit out your gum.”

Miguel curled his lip, “I don’t have any gum.”

“Let me tell you what I don’t do.” Kelli bristled, straightening to her full six-foot-two and narrowing her eyes. “I don’t argue with children. Spit it out.”

I’m surprised Miguel didn’t piss himself. I got chills just writing that.

Miguel paused, considering his chances of winning a battle with a woman twice his size and thrice his age. He wisely stood and leaned over the trashcan as Kelli moved on to other tables. The thunk of his gum in the metal wastebasket was the only noise in room A5, save for the delicate scratch of pencil on paper.

After about five minutes, Kelli produced some more magic. She went through the worksheet with the class.

Now, any teacher can walk through problems, but nobody in Ms. Webb’s class got bored. She pulled names from a cup of popsicle sticks (what teachers called “random sampling” in those days) and asked students for their responses.

Ms. Webb: Ysela, number 5.
Ysela: Umm… I didn’t get it.
Ms. Webb: Okay, what do you think we should do first?
Ysela: Umm…. Take away seven?
Ms. Webb: (grimaces) Ooh! Is there a mathematical way to say that?
Ysela: Umm…Subtract seven from both sides of the equation.
Ms Webb: Oh, much better. I like that. Damon, take over number 5.

It was magical. She coaxed answers from students who hate math (or so they tell their friends). These students have made a career out of coasting and doing nothing, but they have nowhere to hide from the watchful eye of Ms. Webb.

And risk.

No… not that one.

Non-teachers may not realize this, but Ysela was hoping to be ignored, skipped, and left at peace. Getting students like Ysela to take a stab at a foreign problem is hard work. By eighth grade, she’s learned that the three magic words “I don’t know” will get her skipped in most other classes, and enough skips will get her ignored entirely.

In Ms. Webb’s class, there was no ignored seat, no back of the class, no hats pulled down, and no students get to pass on a problem. If you don’t know, take a guess.

It’s one of several things that I’ve stolen for my own class.