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Seasons of change

December 31, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been pretty quiet online this year, largely because there were so many changes in my life, and so many big emotions about those changes, that I didn’t really even know where to begin.  But with the changing of the year, it feels like a good time to look back and reflect on the last 12 months.

I spent the first half of my year with an amazing, challenging, intensely emotional group of students who made a lasting mark on my heart.  Over our time together, I grew both more comfortable as a teacher and at the same time more unsure of my ability to ever be the teacher I wanted to be, or to gain the emotional distance necessary to make year after year of teaching sustainable.  By June I never wanted to say goodbye to my students and couldn’t imagine spending another day with them – or starting all over again with a new group the following year.

All of those conflicting emotions – plus some expert advocacy by my mother – led to a very different second half of the year.  In May I interviewed with my father’s boss for a position at the federal contractor he’s worked for since 2002.  Two weeks after school ended, I started as a Senior Business Analyst at the company – and it’s been great.  My day to day interactions are with the two VPs, the COO, and my father, and the entire leadership team has been shockingly open to my (many, many) ideas, suggestions, and initiatives.  I’ve been able to define my scope of responsibilities as we go, taking on projects I find exciting and that make a difference to the company.  In early fall, I led a recruitment process that added two new people to our team, making me a supervisor after just four months on the job.

It’s pretty different from teaching.

The new job brought a lot of other new things, including a new car, new apartment, new work wardrobe, new furniture, new commute.  I love my little red Prius, with my first-ever vanity plates, and its crazy-good gas mileage makes my marathon commute a little easier to deal with.  (Literally, it’s a marathon – 26.2 miles door to door.)  After spending all of August with my very patient mom and dad, I moved into a gorgeous one-bedroom apartment in September and spent most of September and October furnishing and stocking it.  (It turns out that after 5+ years of downsizing apartments, I had no tables, no dishes, no glasses…)

And running through the entire year, of course, was trapeze.  It’s grown from an important hobby that provided me with a sense of community to a defining part of who I am and a huge part of my social life.  I spent March through October intensely focused on building my trampoline skills (until my coach ran off to join the circus), and since September my flying has moved forward in leaps and bounds.  In the last few months I’ve taken multiple tricks and skills out of safety lines, which means I’m taking more and more responsibility for what I do in the air.  And it’s exhilarating. I’ve always been a confident person, but as I’ve progressed in trapeze, I’ve gained a completely different sense of confidence, one that’s rooted both in a better knowledge of my body and what I can do with it, but also in constantly, and successfully, pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone.  When I’m feeling uncertain at work or in a new social situation, there’s something very powerful about remembering, hey, I can do a back 1.25 tuck, drop safely from 23 feet in the air, or grab a return bar and go all the way back to the board.  If I can do those things, surely the day-to-day challenges of life are manageable.

All in all, it’s been a very good year, and there’s a lot more to look forward to in the year to come.

Validation

January 11, 2012 1 comment

Last year was hard. My boss didn’t like most of what I did in the classroom and let me know it all year.  If one of my six-year-olds was (gasp!) wiggling on the carpet, she’d write in her notes that the class was off-task and not learning.  This time last year, we had an hour-long meeting to explain that I might not be recommended for reappointment that spring.

Flash forward. I have a new evaluator who thinks deeply about teachers’ practices.  We’ve talked informally about my class throughout the year, we are in 2 hours a week of team meetings together, and she’s been in to observe a few times. We had a 15 minute mid-year meeting today in which she said that I am exceeding expectations on 7 of the 23 professional standards and she’s recommending me for reappointment.  She explained that she’d thought a lot about the observations she’d done in my classroom and even talked with my mentor to think through her evaluation of it.  She said that her first impression was that the kids were behaving rather “loosely” with me (yet would sit up ramrod straight when she looked at them), and that threw her off a little.  But then when she looked more closely, she saw that I was constantly checking for understanding, pushing kids to explain their thinking, and providing enough freedom for the “hard to fit in” kids in my class to feel comfortable and find success.  She said, essentially, that my management style is not her own, but that if it works for me, she’s fine with it, because she can see that it’s working for the kids.

Forgive me a flowery moment: this is like a balm to my soul.

I’ve spent the last year and half filled with fear, doubt, and a sense of incompetence because my classroom simply doesn’t look like the other classrooms.  I know my kids are learning, but when other people see or hear our room, I feel judged – that I can’t control them, that I don’t know how to keep them in line.  And the truth is, I don’t – not in the way other teachers do.  I cannot for the life of me get a class full of six-year-olds to line up straight and silent (though I’ve seen it done).  But I kind of don’t care about that, which is probably why I can’t do it.  It’s just not a battle I feel like waging when there are so many other things that matter more to me.  Honestly, the one major non-academic battle I’ve fought this year is to have students stop touching the levers on my chair.  Drove me nuts.  They stopped.  I’m sure if I really, truly cared I would figure out how to have a quieter, less wiggly class.  But I love the roly-poly, puppy nature of six-year-olds.  I love their random conversations and off-topic explorations.  I let them conspire with a buddy sometimes instead of reading because I want to see what they’ll come up with.  I watch them change the rules of the math games and invent totally new activities, then I talk with them about what they’ve figured out.  Not all of the freedom I give them is productive, and I definitely feel sometimes like my kids are less “polished” than many of the other teachers’, but they’re learning to think, to explore, to test boundaries.

For the last year, I’ve been taught to think of myself as a failed classroom manager and therefore a failure as a teacher.  Today’s evaluation reminds me that while I may fail to look like everyone else, I’m succeeding at putting my teaching philosophy into practice.  As I read what I’ve just written about my classroom it sounds exactly like the application essay I wrote about teaching and learning to get hired for this job.  My goal for the rest of this year is to approach each day with a sense of positive purpose for what I’m choosing to do in my classroom and let go of the needless guilt and worry about how things might appear.  If I’m happy, my kids are happy, and they’re learning, that works for me.

Teaching 2.0

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s a new school year and I’m happy to say it’s off to a great start.  I have 16 kids on my roster (although I’ve had two days so far with just 13), and they could not be more different in personality or tone from last year’s group.

The kids are so remarkably well-behaved that I’m getting almost-shocked feedback from other teachers and administrators, complimenting me on what a good job I’m doing with my class.  Many have implied that it’s the difference between being a first year teacher and a “veteran” second year teacher.  I’m sure that’s part of it, but really, I have very different kids this year.  They are highly verbal kids from stable families and they all have basic reading skills – and some are already reading at end-of-first-grade levels.  When I asked them to turn and talk to someone on the carpet about the question I posed, they all turned to someone of their own choosing, with many looking around to check that everyone had a partner, and took turns whispering quietly with their partner, then turned back to me as soon as I called for attention.

Here’s that same scene in last year’s class.  I tell them they’re going to turn and talk with a partner about the question.  I assign partners, trying to keep the aggressive kids away from each other and the limited-English proficiency kids paired with a (supportive) higher-level speaker.  I can’t do all of these things, so I partner with 3 of the kids no one else will work with (or who won’t work with anyone else).  I tell them which partner will talk first, and give them a sentence frame to help structure their talking.  While I try to coax something out of the kids I’m working with, I hear a child behind me yell “he won’t talk!” and another yell “she said YOU go first!”  When I’ve dealt with this and try to call them back together, they keep talking, even louder than before, but not about the question.

I know I’m doing a lot of things better – shockingly, it does help to know what one’s doing – but I can’t take full credit for an awesome class.  They’ve come in to me ready to learn, and it is astounding how much easier it feels to teach when that’s the case.

Change of plans

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Tomorrow was supposed to be a holiday (making this a lovely three-day weekend), but because of our snow days, it’s going to be a full day of school.

A full day of school might not sound awful, but Mondays are supposed to be early dismissal days.  It’s the way the county deals with not giving us enough planning time during the rest of the week.  So instead of a four-day week, or even a regular week with Monday planning time, we’re going to have the only five-full-days-with-no-planning-time week of the year.  Combined with the frustrating conversation with my principal and assistant principal on Friday afternoon, I am feeling pretty cranky about the upcoming week and about school in general.  I’ve been enjoying my class more each day and feeling more drawn to keep teaching, but at the same time I feel less and less interested in actually working in a school next year.

I have no idea where this leaves me, other than obsessively researching long vacations to exotic destinations as soon as school lets out.  (If anyone has any recommendations in Latin America or the Caribbean, I’d love to hear them.)

 

Tears…and not from the kids

September 30, 2010 3 comments

This hasn’t been a great week.  I thought yesterday was bad, when I had to stop the math lesson after 10 minutes because the students’ behavior was out of control.  Then today it got worse, as I came into my classroom from the overwhelming Language Arts planning meeting to find a new child in my room.  Then it kept going downhill as I got so flustered by the new kid that I ruined the Writing Workshop routine and the students responded by being chaotic for an hour.  Then, still flustered, I tried to start my Reading lesson but ended up in a stand-off with last week’s new student over a hat – her third stand-off with a teacher that morning.  As the rest of the class watched, awestruck, the literacy specialist decided to march her down to the office.  The office tried to blame it on the student not knowing English, but the specialist was very clear: “she knows exactly what she’s doing.”

I had been looking forward to the kids being away for an hour at art, but instead of having a chance to calm down, I realized I had no idea what my afternoon math lesson would be and didn’t even know how to make a plan for it.  I slowly pulled myself together and managed a semblance of a plan and sat in the dark in my room, crying, while I drew 17 happy face and frowny face charts to use for sorting in groups of 10.  Then about 10 minutes before I had to pick my kids up from lunch I checked my email and saw that the guy I hit it off with this weekend – the first guy I’ve liked in over a year and a half – doesn’t think we should see each other again.  On a good day I might have felt disappointed.  Today, I literally sobbed in the corner of my classroom until it was time to pick the kids up from lunch.

I know I wasn’t crying just because of him, or even just because of a crappy week and a crappy morning.  I was crying (then and now) because it was the nth day of feeling completely overwhelmed at how unstoppable and inescapable my current life choices are.  For better or worse, this classroom is my life until the end of June.  No matter how I feel each day, I have to keep getting up and coming in.  No matter how often I feel completely overwhelmed and lost and like I’m failing the kids and overmatched as a teacher, I have to keep coming in.  Even if I become a kind of teacher I never wanted to be and never thought I’d become, I have to keep coming in.  It doesn’t stop.  The days don’t stop coming and the kids don’t stop talking, moving, and needing.

And I know I cry because as I struggle with everything that school is and does, I also struggle to figure out my non-school life.  I’m good at entertaining myself, but I had this glimpse of what’s possible on Saturday and, man, I want it.  I want smart, funny friends to hang out with and a guy who thinks I’m awesome.  I want to feel some sense of possibility for a future that includes a husband and a family.  I don’t want to keep waking up, for years of days of end, just getting through to tomorrow.

I knew that the first year of teaching would be hard, but I thought it would be hard like student teaching was hard – setting high standards for myself and my kids and doing what it took to meet them.  Instead, this is hard in so many ways I didn’t even know would exist.  I told myself during student teaching to hold on to that feeling of “rightness” that I felt when I was with the class.  I felt so often then that I was doing what I was born to do.  Right now though I just feel like I’m barely surviving.  Right now, this isn’t the work I want to be doing and it isn’t the life I want to be living.  I’m hopeful that something will shift and I start to feel better about my choices, but right now I just feel overwhelmed.

(Not) working 9-5

September 12, 2010 1 comment

Since leaving school on Friday afternoon I’ve spent at least 8 hours on school-related work and at least another 3 on freelance work.  Tomorrow I’ll be at school or a professional development seminar from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Tuesday I’ll be at school until 8 p.m. for Back to School Night.  Outside of the peak reading season in admissions or the peak editing season in admissions counseling, I’m not sure I’ve ever put in the kind of hours I have recently, and while I know I should expect to put in a more hours than usual as I learn the ropes, I’m a little worried that my schedule could look like this all year.

Why?  Well, for the other teachers on my team, planning for math means saying, “we can do the penny game Monday – that always works well”  For me it means asking “what’s the penny game?  How do you play it?  What do I need to prepare ahead of time?  How do I introduce it, manage it, and assess it?”  Now repeat that for 4-6 lessons per day, 5 days a week.  Then consider that even with reduced planning needs, the other teachers on my team work very hard, for long hours.  For me to get anywhere near their level of performance that means I’m going to have to work like crazy all year long.

I know my mom will read this and remind me that I’m not supposed to be performing at the same level as my teammates – they’re experienced teachers, this is my first year, and I can’t expect to be just like them right out of the gate.  While I do recognize this, I also know how much my kids need to learn from me this year. I think the challenge of my year – and possibly, my career – will be to figure out how to draw a line between work and life that allows me to give my students what they need and yet also live a sane, enjoyable life.

Everything’s okay (but it’s completely overwhelming)

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Day 2 of first grade is over and it went relatively well.  My kids seemed about as well-behaved as other people’s kids, and we started to do some learning.  While no moment of the day feels out of control, I have to admit that the sum total of the day is drowning me.  I go from activity to activity, running each reasonably well, but I have absolutely no sense of where I’m trying to go or how I hope to get there, so the activities end up feeling like just that – activities to keep both me and the kids busy.  My entire approach to teaching is based on knowing, caring about, and communicating the “why” of what we’re learning, and without that, I feel like I’m just going through motions – playing teacher without actually being a teacher.

On the surface, this seems like a fixable problem – I just need to figure out where I’m headed and I’ll be fine.  It doesn’t feel that easy in practice though.  I am overwhelmed by how much I have to learn – terminology, structures, procedures, state expectations, county expectations, school expectations, in every subject – and by how much I have to remember about the educational theory and practice I’ve learned but haven’t used in 9-10 months – or ever.

And amid this information overload I’m struggling with a tremendous sense of isolation and a sharp sense of loss for my social situation during student teaching.  I ran into a lot of classroom management, lesson planning, and general uncertainty while in Cambridge, but one important difference between then and now was that I had a built-in, highly-interested support group to help me process my day.  During the day I could talk with my assistant teacher, my mentor teacher, or chat with other teachers during the school’s morning break or the hour-long lunch.  In my new school I spend all day alone with my kids, or if I’m not with my kids I’m in a tightly scheduled meeting.  There seems to be very little built-in adult contact within the building.  And it’s not good for me to come home and spend the evening by myself.  I need time for solo reflection, but without some interruption or chance for social processing, I risk getting caught up in discouraging thoughts.  I knew in Cambridge that our daily dinners at the local pub were valuable, but now that I don’t have them I see just how important they were to my resiliency and success in the classroom.  I don’t know how I could replicate this social contact in my new environment, so for now, awareness of the differences will have to be enough.

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