Posted in Teaching

Year 15: What I’ve Learned, Where I Am, What I Hope

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Year 1

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.

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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.

 

Posted in Teaching

The Eagle Has Ringworm! And Other Things You Don’t Expect to Say at Work

 

Several years ago, at 4:10 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, I found myself running up some stairs, down a hallway, through a break room, and into an office, yelling, “THE EAGLE HAS RINGWORM!” Why? Because teaching is a really weird job that often makes you say words you never thought would come out of your mouth.

That afternoon’s strange vocalization was brought on by a case of Hindsight Hearing. Hindsight Hearing is when you realize, after the fact, that you heard something that concerns you, and it happens a lot when you’re a middle school teacher. For instance, maybe your students are working in groups. The classroom is loud, but it’s loud in that we’re-being-productive-and-learning sort of way, so you let it go. You’re wandering around the room, checking in on each group, but while you’re talking to one group, your super-teacher hearing is registering, on some subconscious level, what the group next door is saying. Later, during your conference period, while you’re taking ten deep breaths in a row and trying to convince yourself that the stack of grading on your desk won’t eat every minute of your personal time this week, you hear it—that snippet of conversation from three hours ago that lodged itself in your brain.

“If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll stay home tomorrow, because [Name] isn’t messing around.”

And suddenly, you realize there’s a fight planned for tomorrow after school. And you know you now have to spend the rest of your conference period talking to the counselor and the AP instead of making a dent in that pile of papers.

This is Hindsight Hearing. It’s kind of awesome and kind of just really annoying.

In the case of the eagle and the ringworm, it was actually two separate snippets of conversation that floated into my brain during the day and waited until just after the final bell rang to dislodge themselves and make sense.

Snippet #1:
Student A- “How is that kitten you rescued?”
Student B- “Ohmygod, it’s so cute! Oh, but it gave me ringworm…”

Snippet #2:
Student B- “Guess what? I get to wear the mascot costume at the football game today!”

Cut to me standing in my principal’s office, out of breath, telling her our soon-to-be-mascot has a highly contagious skin condition.

Seriously. You can’t make these things up.

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Other Things You Don’t Expect to Say at Work:

“Could you please ask the principal to come to the seventh grade hallway? One of the lockers is vibrating.”

[It turned out to be an electric toothbrush.]

“Emma, will you please cut Patrick’s heart out?”

[Well, he couldn’t cut his own heart out. He injured his hand.]

“Take that book out of your mouth.”

[When you work in an elementary school library, you will say this daily.]

“Please don’t stick paperclips in your eye anymore.”

[#TheMoreYouKnow]

“No, you may not Google pictures of bombs!”

[“But I just need to see how to draw one.” Still no. Watch more Bugs Bunny cartoons.]

“So, in this line of your poem, I think you meant to write ‘whitey tighties’ but what you actually wrote was ‘witty titties’.”

[Best spelling error ever.]

“Whose pants are these?”

[It remains a mystery.]

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*****

I love my job. I also love that the fact that summer is five short weeks away.

Posted in Reading, Teaching

Reuniting with The Outsiders

 

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Some books become part of our lives.

The first time I read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was in 1990, when I was in the seventh grade. I checked it out of the library for a book report. I don’t remember why I picked that novel. I wasn’t a big reader at the time, so maybe someone recommended it to me, or maybe it was on a list of options, and I chose it based on the title. I don’t know. I don’t even actually remember reading it, though I know I did and liked it. Honestly, only two things stand out about the experience: the movie and the cover of my book report.

imagesI remember renting the movie on VHS and watching it with my parents. I can vividly picture laying on the living room floor in front of the television, watching the rumble scene. My mom had told me there were a lot of famous actors in it, including Tom Cruise. I had a big crush on him at the time (I was obsessed with Top Gun) so I couldn’t wait to see it. I remember liking the movie but being extremely disappointed with Tom Cruise’s role.

I have no idea what I wrote in my book report, but I remember the cover. I drew a big, pretty house with lots of windows and curtains, and in front of it, I drew a tall wooden fence. My English teacher, Coach Day, took off points for my cover, writing something like, “What does this have to do with the book?” in his comments. I was embarrassed that he didn’t get it and too shy at the time to explain myself. I guess he was expecting greasers and switchblades, but I drew my cover from the point of view of the main characters. They were outside the fence, separated from the big nice house. I loved Coach Day, but my symbolism was apparently lost on him.

Nine years passed before I came across Ponyboy and his gang again. I had just graduated from college and was about to start my teaching career, so I was brushing up on the novels I’d be reading with my seventh graders. The Outsiders was one of them. I bought a copy and read it again.

Over the course of the next thirteen years, I would read The Outsiders forty-one more times.

I read it aloud to three classes a day for twelve years and then five classes a day for one more year. I read it until I had entire sections of the book memorized. I read it until, during the last class of the day, I could stare creepily at an off task student while reading without missing a single word. I read it—the same paperback copy every single year—until every page was marked and highlighted, the paper soft as velvet against my skin. I explained slang terms like “cooler” (jail) and “heater” (gun) to almost a thousand students. I watched their jaws drop when I told them the book was written by a teenager. I perfected my “We’ll just have to wait and see” when the kids asked if Johnny would be okay and cherished the silence in the room when he told Ponyboy to “Stay gold.”

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At the beginning of my teaching career, when we taught a different class novel every six weeks, I always read The Outsiders first. It was the only book every student loved, and it taught them to trust me. As the years went on and education changed and the focus shifted from guided reading to independent reading, the number of class novels dwindled to two. But one of them was always The Outsiders. Every year.

And then I quit teaching.

In my post about why I left the classroom, I wrote, “Although part of me still can’t believe it, after forty-three readings of The Outsiders, I have survived my final rumble with the Socs, seen Dally crumple under the streetlight with a look of ‘grim triumph’ for the last time, and will tell Ponyboy to ‘stay gold’ no more.” Saying goodbye to the gang really was one of the hardest parts of leaving.

Four years passed. Then, last summer, I found out that a new 50th Anniversary Edition of the book was being published on November 1, 2016, the day after my 40th birthday. I marked the date on my calendar and added the book to my wish list, but I was a little sad. Sad that such a big milestone was coming, and I had no students to share it with.

By the time my birthday and the novel’s anniversary arrived, I’d gone back to teaching. Seventh grade. My new school only reads one class novel a year, and guess what it is?

Today, I introduce Ponyboy Curtis to a whole new group of seventh graders. I can’t wait to see him again.