What My Book Abandoners Taught Me About My First Year of Teaching

Like a puppy at the pound, I’ve seen many books abandoned by my middle school students this year.  Thankfully, I work in a district that supports positive and productive strategies to work through book abandonment.  Instead of forcing students to finish a book (aka forcing them to fake read), we have discussion about it.  We analyze our reading habits.  One strategy I found to be effective this year was to keep a story arc clipped to my clipboard I use for conferences.  When I confer with a reader and they are contemplating abandoning a book, I pull out the story arc and ask them to show me where they are in the book.  When they realize the best is yet to come, they sometimes hang onto the book for a while longer.  (Next year, I’d like to take this strategy one step further with my habitual abandoners and have them mark with a X where they are when they abandon a book.  I predict that those Xs will often be crowded in one area.)

Now, as my first year of teaching comes to a close, I am compelled to analyze my own story arc.  This was originally shared with me by my mentor in the district at the very beginning of the year and has pushed me forward during the rough times.  Often, we see teachers within their first five years make the decision to leave the profession, much like my book abandonders I discussed earlier.  If you are considering going into teaching or are considering leaving the profession, consider where you are on this continuum.

1.  Anticipation:  key characteristics involve romanticizing the teaching profession and perhaps being a little idealistic.  I believe the key here is to maintain your hope and optimism while balancing reality.  Allowing yourself to find joy in the small breakthroughs will help you get through the low patches.

2. Survival:  this is the feeling of drowning, when you don’t have time to reflect on what got you there.  The good news is that sometimes adrenaline can push you through this phase–we have the hope that the turmoil will subside as long as we “just keep swimming.”

3. Disillusionment:  this is where we start to question our competency  and commitment.  This is where we start catching all the sicknesses.  This is where every waking thought is about our students (and let’s be honest, they show up in our dreams, too).  This is where learning gets messy and classroom management becomes our biggest undertaking.  This is where we need grace and flexibility, thank you Lord! This phase can be the longest, slow-moving phase.  So take your Vitamin C and be gracious with yourself, please!  Caution: Don’t make any life changing decisions while disillusioned!

4. Rejuvenation:  Ah.  Breath of fresh air.  We’re finally getting into the swing of things here. We understand the procedures, we are accepting the realities of teaching, and we are finding some success somewhere.

5. Reflection: we begin looking back over the highlights of the year and planning for the next (in fact, I’m out of the classroom today doing scheduling for next year!). We are reinvigorated with a new vision.   Spring is in the air!

This framework helped me tremendously in understanding my own journey and giving me the language to process through what was happening amidst the circus that was my first year (seriously, so much fun, a little chaotic, and I got to wear lots of hats).  I was invited to speak on a panel for first-year teachers and I do believe this arc provides a nice framework with which to design better programs to guide the transitions that come with being a new teacher.  It’s a huge undertaking!  Hats off to all of you who have made it through your first year and good luck to you whether you decide to keep teaching or share your passion another way!

 

The suspense is over!

desk

I apologize for making you wait three unbearable weeks to hear the riveting prose of my novice attempts at being a teacher. (Does this give you any indication how busy the life of a student teacher who is simultaneously planning a wedding, taking classes towards a Master’s degree, and interning is? I need a nap…) However, since I understand the value of reflection, I’ll sacrifice a few more minutes of precious sleep to update you on my progress towards becoming a real-life, honest to goodness teacher.

At the very beginning of my education to become a teacher leader, I was asked to write down 10 statements I believe to be truths about teaching. After my first few weeks of student teaching, I feel the need to add a few and reiterate some truths on that list.

1. 8th graders do not want to be seen with the Spec Ed teacher.
Last week, one of my students was late for my class. Before she finally showed up, another student told me that the tardy student purposely arrives late to my class so as not to be seen walking into my classroom. A pull-out ELA/History classroom.
This. Is hard for me to accept. It’s something I’ve never experienced before and I believe in making genuine connections with my students, so it’s hard not to take it personally. This experience, however, has exemplified, for me, the need for inclusion in our schools. The connection I have made with this student is not enough. She feels marginalized by her placement in my class, even though I believe she is brilliant and hard-working. Because that’s not what others see when they see her walk through my doorway. I need others to know that she is bright, talented, and driven. The best way to teach them this is to teach them in the same classroom.
2. Children are inherently good.
Sure, they may be annoying, or dirty, or a little strange. But they are inherently good. And if you no longer believe this, you better get out of the profession.
3. Hope.
As a teacher coming into the profession during the governance of Walker, I face a lot of discouraging testimony and situations to navigate and it’s hard not to get bogged down by all of the hoops to jump through. But I can’t give up hope now. There are students who need me.
4. Sometimes you have to explicitly teach social norms.
And it’s going to be awkward at first. Actually, I haven’t quite gotten to the point where it’s not awkward anymore. Updates yet to come….
5. Warm, but firm.
It’s all about balance. Your students need to know that you deeply and genuinely care for them in order to for them to feel safe enough to flourish. We all know that learning hurts, and it can be embarrassing at times. Students need to feel that they are not being judged, but being encouraged to take risks. Students also need to know that you believe that they can achieve great things. Holding your students to the highest standards is important for their confidence, motivation, and future success. If you believe they can, they’ll believe they can.
6. You must establish rapport and classroom expectations at the beginning of the year…and maintain them!
As a student teacher during the 2nd semester of the year, I am faced with the particular challenge of jumping in to a classroom whose routines, guidelines, and expectations are already established…and have already begun to slip. Once this happens, it is twice the work to get your classroom back to where it needs to be. I definitely don’t believe in not smiling until November, but expectations need to be clear from day one.
7. There is no such thing as teaching, but being a teacher.
Teaching is not just a 9-5 job you go to each day. Being a teacher encompasses your whole being. I’ve even been having dreams (nightmares?) in which I am planning my lessons for the next day. It never stops.

And neither do I. Off to school!