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 Lists, Teaching

Carie’s Lists: 11 Reasons for Teachers to Get Excited About Back-to-School

BackToSchool

It’s that time of year again. Commercial breaks are filled with bright-colored backpacks and smiling children and actors portraying calm, confident teachers with not a hair out of place. Department stores put up giant signs shaped like pencils and everywhere you look, it’s SALE SALE SALE! It’s Back-to-School time.

But, the thing is, it’s NOT actually time to go back to school yet. It’s still a few weeks away, a few precious weeks for those educators who need every second of their well-deserved breaks. I see posts from teacher friends on Facebook, and I remember what it was like to have my summer cut short by insensitive advertising and early reminders.

Teacher 1– “Stop with all the Back-to-School stuff! It’s not even August yet!”

Teacher 2– “I can’t turn on the TV or leave the house without being reminded that summer is almost over. If you need me, I’ll be sitting at home in the dark eating chocolate.”

Teacher 3– “If I hear one more person say, ‘School is almost here!’ I’m going to snap.”

Poor teachers.

Hiding in your house eating chocolate will only save you for so long. Eventually, you have to accept that it is almost Back-to-School time. Since it’s unavoidable, you might as well get excited about it. Here are some things to look forward to.

11 Reasons for Teachers to Get Excited About Back-to-School

Supplies

1. School Supplies

While the commercials for school supplies may be unsettling, the actual shopping for school supplies is kind of awesome. It was one of my favorite things about being a teacher. When asked why they teach, other people tend to cite things like: an affection for children, a desire to make the world a better place, and an interest in their subject matter. I quickly realized that “the smell of fresh composition books and a love of sharpening pencils” was not an appropriate answer.

2. Free AC

August in Texas means 100-degree temperatures, and 100-degree temperatures mean high electricity bills. Instead of paying for your comfort out of your own pocket, set your home AC to 80 and bask in the freezing cold temperatures of your classroom instead.

3. Get Away From Your Kids

I’m not a parent myself, but I assume that, no matter how much you love your offspring, two months straight with them is too much. I think I’m right, because there’s a lot less complaining about Back-to-School stuff from my teacher friends who have children. Look forward to those hours of kid-free inservice meetings and staff development seminars. Think of it as “me time.”

4. Once Again Be Among the Day People

If you don’t have kids, there’s a good chance you’ve become somewhat vampire-like as the summer weeks have passed. Going back to school is your chance to blink into the sunlight, see what’s changed in the world, be among the day people again. (That first morning, though, might be a little rough.)

5. Annual Strangest Name Competition

Yes, those last few inservice days before school starts can be stressful, but then there’s the moment when you get your class rosters and everything stops while you scan the lists and compare names. I always enjoyed looking for siblings of kids I’d taught and any celebrity impersonators. (I’ve taught Will Smith and Rachel Green.) But the most fun is competing with fellow teachers for the most unusual student names. Unfortunately, I can’t claim to be the winner here. A friend of mine once taught twin girls who both had the exact same name. True story.

Possibilities

6. Endless Possibilities

You have a brand new, unopened planner. The dry erase boards are clean. No one has been late to your class yet or forgotten to turn in an assignment. Maybe this year you won’t get behind. Maybe this year you’ll finally figure out how to grade everything and still have a life. Maybe this year there will be no ill-timed fire drills, few parent conferences, and free donuts every single Friday. Maybe, just maybe. Until it begins, the possibilities are endless.

7. The Old “Naked at School” Dream

With the start of school, you can also look forward to the school-related nightmares. Maybe the “I’m changing clothes in my classroom and I forgot to lock the door” classic or the “How have I taught all day without realizing I forgot my pants?” variation. Or perhaps you prefer the “I’m back in high school and can’t find the classroom for my final” or the “I just realized I never actually graduated college” options. It doesn’t matter what you choose—they’re all good. Just remember, the best part is waking up.

8. First Day of School

I always loved the first day of school. First days are full of excitement and enthusiasm and usually at least one poor lost soul whose day you get to brighten just by knowing where room 1132 is. It may be hard to look forward to the 100th day of school or the 43rd or even sometimes the 2nd, but you should always look forward to the first. Read about some of my favorite first day traditions here.

9. Fresh Start

Part of the beauty of the first day is the fact that it exists at all. Teaching is one of the few jobs I know that has a clear beginning and a clear ending and a little (sometimes not enough) breathing room in between. The fact that you get that fresh start is a blessing. No matter how hard the year is, no matter how difficult the students (or the parents) are, no matter how far behind you get in your curriculum, the last day of school will eventually come, and two months later you’ll get the chance to start all over again. Be grateful for that.

The Many Faces of Ms. Kinder/Juettner - The middle left photo has got to be my first year of teaching because I look 12.
The Many Faces of Ms. Kinder/Juettner, a.k.a A Collage of Bad Hair Days: Here are 9 of my 13 faculty yearbook pics. (The other 4 are MIA.) The middle left photo must be my first year of teaching because I think I look 12.

10. School Pictures

In these days of phone pics and selfies and constant photo documentation, there’s nothing quite so old school as sitting on a stool in front of a blue backdrop and having your picture taken for the yearbook. Back straight, feet on the X, chin up, aaaaaaaaaand SMILE! As a teacher, I never knew what to do with the sheets of photos I was given each year, which is why I have a box full of them now. Still, picture day is a classic school moment and should be appreciated accordingly.

11. You Love What You Do

The best reason to get excited about Back-to-School time? Deep down you love what you do. Yes, you wish the summer were longer; yes, you deserve a much higher salary; yes, there will be days when you will have to force yourself to get out of bed and go back to that classroom. But you’ll do it, and most of the time, you’ll like it. Being a teacher is not just what you do, it’s who you are. It’s who I used to be too and honestly, all those Back-to-School commercials just make me wistful for seating charts and first day packets and decorating the covers of writer’s notebooks.

So embrace the Back-to-School time. Shop for glue sticks with gusto, come up with a wacky new way to organize your classroom, and revel in every unexpected jeans day the administration throws your way. When the first day comes, you’ll be ready. And I’ll be cheering for you.