Tomorrow I begin my fifteenth year of teaching 7th grade English, so naturally some reflection is in order. Last weekend I reminisced about my previous years of teaching on Twitter. (You can see the thread by searching #teacherlife #year15.) But now that the first day with students is almost here, I’m trying to compress all those memories into what really matters. To do that, I’m asking myself three questions:
* What have I learned from my years in the classroom?
* Where am I in my career?
* What do I hope for this school year?
Here’s what I’ve figured out so far:
Some Things I’ve Learned
* Note: I did not learn these lessons the easy way.
- Kids will see through you, so don’t try to be something you’re not or sell something you don’t believe in. There’s no point pretending you’re a scary teacher to be feared if you’re really a softie who’s not going to follow through on discipline, and there’s no point pretending you care about the students if you’re not going to back it up with genuine compassion. They know. There’s also no point trying to pretend a lesson or assignment is important if it’s not. Seventh graders can spot a fake. So what do you do? Be yourself. (A professional, positive, best-version of yourself.) Show them your rules are meant to be followed by giving consistent, fair consequences for misbehavior, but also be kind. In other words, ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT THE STUDENTS. If you don’t, find another job. And call a spade a spade. Once in a while, teachers have to make students do an assignment or activity that just isn’t a good use of their time. Own up to it and explain that this is how life works sometimes, and promise them that when it’s your choice, you will always give them work that matters. Then follow through on that promise. If a student doesn’t understand why something is important, explain it to them. If you can’t explain it to them, reevaluate it.
- Sometimes the students who drive you the most bonkers on the first day of school are not the ones who are going to drive you bonkers on a regular basis. They’re just so excited about school that they can’t contain themselves on the first day. And that’s really adorable.
- When light projector bulbs burn out, they sometimes sound like a gunshot.
- Never underestimate the power of silence. Especially YOURS. Teachers shouldn’t fill every empty space with words. Let your questions sit for a moment before calling on someone to answer. Rather than repeating instructions five times, pause after saying them the first time and let them sink in. To get a chatty class’s attention, don’t talk louder. Whisper. And if finally (FINALLY!) that chatty class calms down and gets quiet and everyone is on task, don’t interrupt to tell them how great they’re doing. Show them with your smile. The school day is often fast-paced, crowded, and noisy. Sadly, teachers are sometimes our own worst behavior problems. Whenever possible, don’t add to all that noise. Lead by example, take breaths between speeches, and respect the power of silence.
- When a student asks you, “Are you cool?” NEVER SAY YES. You’re not. Get over it.
- My job is impossible. That’s not a hyperbole. Or a metaphor. I’m not whining. I’m not exaggerating. Literally, the number of things that we are asked to do with the number of students we are in charge of in the time that we are in charge of them is impossible. It is as if someone has given us a 1,000-piece puzzle, except there are actually 1,227 pieces in the box, and they still expect us to complete the puzzle. We can complete it (it’s difficult, but we can do it) but there are going to be pieces leftover. That’s just how it is. Deciding which ones to include and which to leave out can cause friction between the teachers and the administration or between the teachers and the district or between the teachers and their loved ones who haven’t seen them in a month because they’ve been spending all their time trying to put together an impossible puzzle. I’ve learned that, in the end, you have to do what’s best for kids. Keep the pieces that matter most. Keep the books and the journals and the lessons that really reach them. Keep the piece with that group project that students still remember years later and the one that makes even struggling readers smile. Some of the pieces you leave out might have important sounding acronyms on them. They might be assessment pieces. One might say, “We know this isn’t part of your curriculum, but could you just find a half hour to…” Leave it out. It’s okay. Yes, you might get questions about those pieces. There might be meetings. There will most certainly be emails. But as long as you’re doing what’s best for kids, you’ll be able to defend your choices and therefore sleep at night. After you finish grading papers.
- As important as it is to take care of our students, we also have to take care of ourselves. Tucked inside my many spirals and binders and planners this year are notes reminding me to SIT DOWN (what a novel idea) and BREATHE (it’s actually quite useful) and GO HOME EARLY (meaning on time). My goals this year are not about how quickly I will grade papers. They are about how many times I will go to yoga and how many days a week I will leave work at work. This is hard work, this self care stuff. But it’s important work, and the sooner teachers learn that, the better off they will be both in and out of the classroom.
- Some twelve -year-olds believe if you lose a toe in an accident it will grow back.
- Lockdown drills are commonplace to today’s kids. They came about during my teaching career. I don’t remember what year they started or what the first one was like, but I do remember speaking calmly to my frightened students and telling them why we needed to practice this (to keep you safe, just in case) while also explaining that there are many reasons to go into a lockdown, and many of them don’t involve a person with a gun. They listened, wide eyed, and asked many questions. My students today have been doing lockdown drills since kindergarten. They have grown up with the term “active shooter.” They are quicker and more efficient at closing the blinds and huddling in the corner of the room than I am. Most are unfazed by the drills. I am not.
- You shouldn’t yell “Holy crap!” during the first fire drill (or any fire drill really) no matter how loud it is or how badly it scares you. And if you do, you should always be extra kind to the student who says to you, “Don’t worry. ‘Crap’ isn’t a bad word.” (Thanks, kid.)
Where I Am
I am in a very happy place. Teaching is a hard job anywhere, but I am so fortunate to be in a good school with great students and an amazing faculty. My teammates are the best you could ask for– hard working, caring, supportive, and (most importantly) hilarious. I’ve become so close to them, it’s hard to believe I still haven’t known them a full year. I came back to teaching in mid-September last year and spent the next few months playing catch-up. I’m so excited to be able to meet my students on day 1 this year. I know I sound like a giant nerd, but honestly, Monday can’t come soon enough. I’m ready. 🙂
What I Hope
This year, like every year, I have high hopes for my students and myself. I know I can’t do it all. I know plans will go awry, and lessons will flop, and a poster will unstick from the wall and crash down onto a student’s head during a test, but right now none of that has happened yet. Right now, my planner is still neat and tidy, my big ideas still seem possible, and all my glue sticks still have the caps on. Right now, it’s still all going to work out.
Here are a few things I hope for this coming school year:
- I hope my students are funny.
- I hope my students think I’m funny.
- I hope my posters stay stuck to the wall.
- I hope my books leave my shelves and come back with crumpled covers and soft corners from how much they’ve been read and loved.
- I hope I earn my students’ trust.
- I hope I can run an effective reader/writer workshop in a 46-minute period.
- I hope a desk does not collapse underneath me while I’m sitting on it (like last year).
- I hope I never mispronounce a student’s name more than once.
- I hope my classroom will be a safe space for every single person who enters it. I hope its walls keep out the negativity of the whole world.
- I hope at least once, free breakfast tacos arrive unannounced in the faculty lounge on a day when I have forgotten my breakfast.
- I hope we get one snow day.
- I hope my computer does not crash, my projector does not die, and my overhead screen does not fall off (like last year).
- I hope I don’t get carpal tunnel syndrome.
- I hope, at the end of the school year, every student leaves my class with at least one inspiring lesson or positive memory to carry with them for a long, long time.
- I hope I leave with a hundred.