HEY GUYS! I made it to the end of October. I'm really proud of myself.
Not saying that everything is going to be smooth sailing from here, but I know that things will never be as difficult as it was in the first two months ever again for these reasons:
1. I have a better idea of my "audience". After hours and hours with my students, I now know a bit more about what gets them excited, what encourages them, what discourages them, what distracts them, and what stresses them out.
After spending two years in foreign countries, my first day meeting my students and the weeks that followed felt like taking a plunge in dark, icy waters from a hovering rescue helicopter. I had no idea what to expect and I was scared out of my skin. Now, for as long as I teach in Oakland, I'll never have to relive that initial dive. I'm swimming in deep waters now.
2. I'm more comfortable being in front of my class of students and more comfortable talking to my students one-on-one in age- and cognitive-appropriate way to get through to most of them. I'll raise my voice when I have to, lower my voice when I really have to, use my motherly, it's-going-to-be-okay voice when I need to, and will crack a smile when I can't help but to. I'm really falling in love with these kids. Some of these kids.
3. I have some buy-in with some students--while I do want students to be self-motivated and be committed to doing well for themselves, for whatever reason, I also have students who want to do well in order to please me. They show off their work to me, they light up when I congratulate them for doing well and say things like "look at Ms. April all happy because we got the right answer!"
4. I've formed bonds with staff and students. I've had a student come check on me the two times I left the class crying (yes, two times.) and say to me "the class just doesn't listen to teachers... I remember this one teacher left in the middle of class because we just weren't listening to him. You need a break, Ms. April. You should stay home tomorrow, put your feet up, watch some T.V., and grade some papers or whatever it is that teachers do to relax." I thought that was really cool of her, and a good reminder that students help support teachers just as much as teachers support students. I feel invested in this school, in my work, in my coworkers, and in my students. I don't want to ever give up on them.
- - -
And finally, some takeaways from these past couple of months:
1. If things are too hard for me, make it easier. Even though I was taught to make a three- (or even four-) column lesson plan, I've learned to make a three- to five- point lesson plan. It usually looks like this:
- Classwork 2 (if time)
- Homework: unfinished classwork
I still remember a bit of advice given to me a few years back in my (even) earl(ier) years of teaching. Me: "I have to make a seating chart, grade these papers, call home, finish setting up my classroom... I don't know what to do first!" Her: "Do whatever you want. Do what makes you happy. And don't do anything else."
I get it now. I cap myself at 2 hours of extra work outside of work, but sometimes I don't even do that. If I find myself reaching a point where I know I'm going to be bitter going into work the next day because I'm not rested enough, I cut myself off. Some days at school are harder than others and I have to compensate by that by having extra relaxing evenings. That's just how it goes. And the next day, life goes on. Nothing disastrous will happen. Nothing disastrous ever happens.
2. Few, if any, students are critical of what and how I teach. The only one critical of my practice is me and the only ones rooting for my improvement are my coworkers. At best, students do the work I put out in front of them, retain some information, and regurgitate said information on a test. Every now and then, I challenge them to apply what we learned to come up with creative solutions or explanations to something or another. At worst, students revolt and show their disdain for school or for my class in particular by cutting class, running amuck, or some other shenanigans. Regardless, no students (or even other teachers, for that matter) have quick and easy answers for me on how I'm teaching correctly and how I'm royally f-ing things up.
That's why I'm getting more comfortable with just having something for students to do every day. I'll get better one day. What I have now is not bad. As long as I have something and as long as I keep coming, I'm doing my job, and I'll continue to grow.
3. I'm doing some things right. I had a transformative moment yesterday. A student came up to me at the end of the period. I don't know too much about him--just that he's been absent lately, that he has a social worker, and that he'd been in and out of trouble before coming to our school and in the past week or so. I also remember that he had a cold once, and I pulled him aside and asked him if he was okay. That's it.
Anyway, yesterday, he asked me if we could talk. Before I could really asses what kind of 'talk' he needed, he started unloading all the stress he had been carrying around for the past year or more-- he told me about being out on the streets in the past few years, about how he started turning things around when he had his son last year, how he's just trying to make ends meet for his son, his girlfriend, and his mom, how he's been doing alright in sticking to his probation but fell off last week and is now getting sent to a group home...
All I could do was listen. He didn't ask me any questions, he just talked and talked. He talked about how he's been so stressed and didn't know what to do. He talked about his new philosophy on life and how he decided that money shouldn't be used for anything else but bills and food and that nothing else is necessary in life. He talked about how everything he does now, he does for his son. He almost broke when he told me that he's stressed about leaving for this group home because he's going to miss his son's 1st birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and his own birthday with his don and that Thanksgiving will be especially hard because it's his favorite holiday.
And then he told me that his therapist told him that if he's stressed, he should talk to someone who he trusts.
And he told me that he trusts me. What? Me? He said, "you're a really good teacher. You really care about us. I can see it in your eyes when you teach us, when you talk to us. I feel better already just talking this all out, I feel less stressed."
I teared up when he said that. What have I done to show that I care? I feel like I come to school every day thinking about nothing else but what I'm teaching, whether or not I'll be able to make all the copies I need, and whether or not an apple pie or hamburger will go flying across the room today (both have happened. In one class period.). I don't know, but that moment was a huge reminder to me for why I teach.
4. Growth and improvement doesn't have to mean reaching benchmarks. I'm learning to let go of set ideas of what a great teacher "should" do. I'm learning to stop looking forward to the day that I "finally" become a great teacher. I just show up every day, embrace who I am as I am right now as best I can, and every now and then, I try new things. In fact, I'm becoming more fearless in trying new things. The worst that can happen is that it doesn't work at all and then the class period is over. The second worst thing that can happen is that it doesn't work right away, but we keep working on it until it does work. The best thing that can happen is success. Either way, there's no harm in trying.
As eager as I was to show my supervisor my ability to learn and adapt and grow as quickly as possible, I admitted to her that right now, I don't want advice. I don't want tips on how I can do things better or tips on new things to try. "Great," she said,"you're staying the course."
She said that when she observes and coaches me, she's not going to give me advice. She's going to tell me what she sees that I'm doing well and act as a sort of mirror to my practice. She said that by nature of my wanting to even make my job easier for myself, I'm going to make adjustments as I see necessary and only as rapidly or as slowly as I can handle.
By allowing me to grow at my own pace and to try things out on my own or seek advice only on the things I want to work on, I'm able to grow more organically into a better teacher that I can't even visualize yet. I don't have to grow into a set, cookie-cutter mold of a stellar teacher. I can just keep trying to get better.
- - -
I'm tired, but satisfied with myself, the work that I've done, and my trajectory in this work. It's a pretty awesome feeling, one I've never had in a job before. My experiences in the last three years forced me to reflect on my mindset and how to be at peace with myself. Now, as cliché as it sounds, I'm learning what it feels like to have purpose. I believe that small acts of kindness have huge effects while my small missteps and mistakes largely go unnoticed.
That's pretty cool. I can live with that.
Photo Credit: Uwe Kils