Send-Off: What I Wish My Students Knew

Send-Off. noun. Parting words; good wishes for a person starting on another journey.

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They warned me.

They said that Gilead was quiet, uneventful. Just an old man reflecting on his life, leaving letters for his son. Don’t expect much plot. Don’t even expect chapters. They were right.

It was beautiful.

In Gilead, the novel by Marilynne Robinson, John Ames is dying. He leaves behind a young wife and son, and he wants his child to know stories that the boy is not yet ready to hear. He wants to pass on the fear of his grandfather’s one-eyed gaze, the emptiness of the weeks-long walk with his father across the prairie, the simple and deep love for the light bathing the church pews in the morning, the feeling of a baby’s brow beneath his hand. His words breathe forgiveness, and loving friendship, and contentment with long-anticipated family, and gentle lament for an unknown future.

I’ve found myself returning to this book, in ways literal and figurative. The companion book Lila is now in my hands, its pages rounding out the story of John Ames’s wife. His letters, also, roll around in my head. The idea of thoughts shared for later, for when your absence is felt, intrigues me.

I don’t plan on dying anytime soon. But our school year is slipping away, quickly. I will soon say goodbye to the students who have filled my classroom. Like all endings, it is bittersweet.

This is the first class that’s been mine. They know to get their journals on Wednesdays, to find library passes in the checked box, to grab a book reviews on the front table. I’ve tested my nonverbal signals and exit directions and wait time on them. They laugh at mentions of Cookie Monster and chicken. They groan every day when, after interrupting me, they must return quietly to their seats before I dismiss them for lunch. One kid knows me well enough to ask me to solve a math problem so he can laugh at the confusion on my face, my eyebrows scrunched in concentration. Another says that she’s adopted the hand gestures I unconsciously make.

We might not notice each others’ absences right away. It’s likely that they won’t think much on me after June 10. They will move on to eighth grade, then to high school, then to colleges and jobs and children of their own. They will have many more teachers, and the memory of that one tall one from 7th grade will fall away.

My memories of them will fade too. In 20 years, I will have forgotten some of their names. I might not remember the tiny gymnastics leotard one student showed us from 2nd grade, that one family endured a house fire while their student was in my class, that one brought donuts to celebrate her birthday, that one gave a speech on getting lost in life and cried, and that another girl that ran across the room to hug her.

I hope they still read, after they’ve left my room. Some have learned to love books this year. One boy wrote a note telling me so. One girl didn’t consider herself a reader a few months ago, and she’s now reading 2,000 pages a week. It’s easier to decide that you’ll enjoy the 20 minutes we spend reading each day, I guess. Maybe having a teacher shoving book recommendations at you helps, too. For those who don’t love it (because they are legion, and they are loud), maybe, just once this summer, or next year, or on break from college, they’ll shut the screen and crack a book. It will do them good.

I hope they think, too. Much of school get it done, and not think. It’s true in my classroom too often. May their curiosity not be ruined and their minds not be dulled by it. When they can vote, as some of them are so excited to do, I pray that they do their research, that they consider carefully. If given the chance, they ought to vote for my student who read the Constitution one day during independent reading. I sure would. When seeking advice, may they turn to trusted authors and advisors. They will check the credibility of their sources, we can only pray.

I hope they know that they’ll make it through these awkward years. They’re sprouting into teenagers before my eyes. One boy began the year as a kid, who apologized for talking too much and thought school was “kinda fun.” He’s now a teen, with an attitude around his friends. I know his kindness and curiosity will reappear, even in public, someday. The others will learn how to apply eyeliner correctly and to wear pants other than leggings and to turn off Clash of Clans and to not care if others think they’re “cringey.” I have faith.

I hope they know they are valued. In their writing and speeches and their book choices, I see the people they are becoming. They are empathetic. They are funny. They are optimistic (occasionally). They want to be computer engineers and athletic trainers and nurses and authors and fathers and mothers. When they are absent, we notice. Their lives are precious. Even when they feel forgotten, they are not.

These are the things lost in the pre-adolescent brain fog, in my tiredness on Tuesday mornings, in the general insanity of May. I can barely make them stop talking after lunch, much less communicate that I care about more than how many pages they read last week and how many missing assignments they have.

We still have time before we part ways. (Too much, it feels some days.) I pray that in these last lingering days of the school year, in the hours of time we still share, they see a glimpse of truth. Even when they’ve forgotten The Outsiders and my presence and the hush of our room during silent reading, may they remember what I tried, and often failed to teach: Their ideas are important. Their minds are worth cultivating. They matter.

 

Faithful: What Matters in Education (and Life)

faithful. adjective.”Thorough performance of a duty; steady in allegiance; reliable.”

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At the beginning of January, the teachers on my team analyzed the scores from our latest round of standardized testing. I was not entirely pleased. Not because proctoring tests is not exactly my favorite use of my time (ahem), but because there was more red in my results than I wanted to see.

I skedaddled back to my classroom and spent my prep comparing data and brainstorming how to bring nonfiction scores up and having a minor panic that I’m not an okay teacher and my lessons aren’t purposeful and I must have missed something crucial in college even though I didn’t skip class and maybe a real, qualified adult needs to be in my classroom at all times.

Then I forgot to go to a meeting, as one does.

After these solid affirmations of my competency, I turned on On Being for my commute. Krista Tippet interviewed Eugene Peterson, the pastor who translated The Message paraphrase of the Bible. Part of their conversation stuck with me:

“The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller and smaller tasks we’re going to take on, because they’re the only ones with which you can be effective. But there has to be a standard that trumps effectiveness. And I have a word that I use for myself that helps me walk this path…that’s the word faithfulness. Faithfulness has to trump effectiveness.”

I cling, very tightly, to the norm of effectiveness.

I realized just how tightly again a few weeks later. My class was reading Arithmetic, a poem about the challenges of math. My quick pre-reading activity was having students discuss their least favorite class. That would get them engaged, I thought. Maybe it did. But as they talked, I heard what felt like a chorus of “ELA, ELA, ELA” across the classroom.

I brushed it off, at first. Later that evening, though, I realized how deeply their responses shook me when I turned teary and resistant to the idea of going to school in the morning. Was this not proof that all of my efforts were for naught? I was working late to grade, trying to plan things that seemed marginally interesting, and sharing snippets of my life so students could build relationships. If no one appreciated any of this, why was I showing up? No one was convinced that the way poets play with language is amazing. No one valued silent reading time. No one liked it. I had failed.

Let’s pause and summarize: I am a teacher who believes that in order to be effective, I must have stellar test scores and all 98 of my students must love every minute of my class. In addition, based on the educational theories I believe, most class time should be spent challenging students to use higher-order thinking to develop real-life reading and writing skills while also making them better citizens.

We have a problem.

I cannot do that effectively. No way.

Recognizing this leaves me leaning heavy on Eugene Peterson’s words: faithfulness has to trump effectiveness.

I still want to know what will create through the roof MCA scores. I want to know how much those scores actually matter. I want to know how to help struggling readers love my class, when every assignment requires intense effort from them. If I knew those answers, and had mind controlling abilities, I might be an awfully effective teacher.

But having all those answers, and all that control, isn’t possible. Being faithful is.

Right now, in the doldrums of February, faithfulness is simple but hard. It looks like continuing to get out of bed on Monday mornings. And Tuesday mornings. And Friday mornings. It means forcing kids to research beyond skimming Wikipedia because I believe that skill actually matters. It means brainstorming reading challenges so more of the munchkins read outside of class, even for ten minutes. It looks like making lessons as engaging as I can, not so my kids will love me but because it’s the best for their learning.

Faithfulness, in my attitude and effort and passion for my kids and my content, will be enough. It trumps effectiveness. For the sake of our students and our careers, it has to.

 

 

 

Classroom: 10 Tricks That Keep Me Sane

Classroom. noun. A place of learning (I hope!) and where I spend a large portion of my life.

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Welcome to my classroom!

Confession: I’m a novice teacher, with an entire half a year of experience under my belt. I’m not sure you should take my advice.

But… I’m willing to risk it. I love seeing what other teacher’s classrooms look like, especially if they aren’t Pinterest perfect. My room sure isn’t – attainable (definition: so easy a beginner could come up with it after an hour of Internet searching) is more my style. And my very attainable set-up and organization this year have worked well – I’m happy, at least, and the students haven’t complained. So, without further ado, here are 10 things that are streamlining our lives in ELA 7 and preventing me from going crazy.

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1. Lamps and extra lighting. Oh, the horrors of overhead florescent lights. I had to turn them on to take photos, but when kids are in the room, we have only one of three light switches flipped. Two lamps and Christmas lights brighten things up and keep the room cozy. I have not once regretted spending $14 on lighting.

2. Numbered desks. Student desks are arranged in pods.  Each desk in each group has a number that’s written on the corner in Sharpie paint pen. I can tell #2s to turn in their pod’s work or #4s to record answers for group discussions. It’s makes everyone feel like they’re getting a fair deal and streamlines classroom procedures. (In theory) the paint pen comes off easily at the end of the year. I am so glad I overheard a teacher in the lounge talking about this strategy last year, because I LOVE it.

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3. The supply shelves. Note the basic “I ran out of ideas for bulletin boards, so here’s a poster,” weekly agenda, and instructional posters in this photo as well. Having all supplies that students can use centralized on these shelves simplifies everything. The boxes hold students’ journals, our class set of whiteboards, and copies of logic puzzles that students are allowed to work on when they’ve finished assignments. The drawers hold index cards, extra loose-leaf paper, construction paper, whiteboard markers, and clipboards. They might get labels…by December…maybe.

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4. Supply buckets. Each group of desks has its own bucket of colored pencils. Goodbye broken pencils strewn across the floor! Highlighters used to be included in the buckets, but did you know you can build a tower of highlighers while listening to an audio recording? And all your friends will catch on? And then the highlighters will earn their own bucket because your teacher isn’t an idiot?

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5. Our very very loose Adventure theme. I have some things from my own travels around my desk, but these posters are the decoration “focal point.” Applying that term is a stretch. Please don’t look too closely at the slapdash (but free!) “frame” of black chart paper, attached to the poster with sticky tack, then stuck to the wall with magnets. I do love this theme, and these posters, though, and that’s what counts.

rules.jpg 5. The inherited in/out boxes. Piles all over my desk stress me out, and this tower keeps all those assignments organized and out of sight. The trays at the bottom hold extra materials. Students get to dig through the drawer when they’ve lost something.

Other stuff: The white milk crate on the floor is our lost and found. The magazine holder has book reviews, which students fill out and tape into their journal every time they finish a book. In theory, the black tray on the table is for absent work. This is a nice concept, but I am atrocious at updating it. I have, at least, been keeping a paper copy of attendance. Seeing who was gone for what assignment is now SO MUCH easier. I’ll be honest, I haven’t had to strongly enforce those classroom rules laid out on the poster yet. However, I can sense that the time is coming. Soon.

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6. All the paper organization on ye ol’ desk. I am high maintenance about order.

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A very recent update: binders with resources and materials go right behind my desk. Easy access (i.e. not having to get out of my chair) means I actually look at them – and, on good days, file stuff in them.

papers.JPG The giant mail organizer is partly organized by day of the week for each of my preps – see fancy masking tape labels. It has worked wonders. The rest of it holds random stuff that I need on hand but haven’t found a great way to organize yet. I hate filing, so the upright organizer accumulates things that I’ve collected for each class period and materials that need to go into my unit binders. The expanding file folder is golden for transporting grading home – I try not to do it too often, but it happens.

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7. A clean desk. (This is not clean.) During the day my desk mostly looks…worse than this.  I am, however, enough of a weirdo that I clean it off every single afternoon before I leave. Things that help: I’m attempting to put my copies of answer keys and such and all handouts for the day into the stand-up organizer so I don’t set them down randomly/have to give kids a marginally content-related discussion question while I go on a mad hunt. It works better the more I do it. That purple binder has class lists in page protectors for easy note-taking. I keep class lists and weekly attendance sheets on a clipboard, which is buried in this photo. Taking out a binder each hour is legitimately too much work.

8. The cup of #2 pencils is for students to use. (See metal cup and purple/white sign in above photo.) They have to leave a phone/iPad or shoe as ransom so they don’t forget to return the pencil. This cup is nearly full a month in, so I’d say it’s working!

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9. The cell phone sign. Red = no phones, yellow = headphones allowed, and green = phones allowed for academic reasons. The signs are stuck to the front whiteboard with a magnet. Students take them very seriously and remind me to change them if I forget.

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10. Book recommendations.  I put bored students in my homeroom to work making this poster of books I’ve read recently and would recommend. It helps me think of recommendations, and I’ve already heard students discussing the merits of the books on it. I’ll add to it as I read more. This idea was borrowed from other awesome teachers on my team.

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Things I gave up on: Keeping track of every book in my classroom library. Alphabetizing the classroom library. Basically, the classroom library. Perfectly backing every learning target sign with coordinating construction paper and laminating them. (Taking advantage of bored students during advisory is worth messy posters.) Keeping those pods at perfect angles.

Things I’ll continue: Keeping a secret chocolate stash. Making kids pick their paper scraps off the floor. Trying new things. Creating a place where students can learn and grow.

 

What am I missing? What are YOUR best classroom tips?

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Goals: Back to School Edition

Goals. noun. The object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.

In other words: How I’m Going to Stay Sane and Make This School Year Super Fantastically Awesome

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The school nightmares have begun. They started in July, honestly, but now they’re justified. August is disappearing. All the bloggers are beginning to lust over fall layers (stop that nonsense). I am beginning to panic about turning standards and scribbled notes and Pinterest bookmarks into real lesson plans.

As school year prep ramps up, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to teach better this year. My teaching experience barely registers on a resume, but in my 16 weeks of full-time teaching last spring, I learned a lot. I know how to survive this year just a bit better (I think). Here are my goals to make that happen.

Have the best classroom ever. Yeah. Right. Actually, the Pinterest people who have perfect classrooms, where every single thing is color coordinated and bedecked with labels and cutesy font, stress me out. They also must have a side job to fund such decoration, because how. Realistically: have a classroom that is clean, organized, and makes up for a depressing lack of windows. I learn over and over how much my mood is influenced by my physical surroundings, and having a room that looks mostly cohesive and has minimal clutter will make me more sane. Also: avoid the Target dollar section, because their teacher supplies are hypnotizing. All these color-coordinated labels? That are dry erase? For only a dollar? I’ll take 64, please.

Have a life outside of school. I’m hoping for quality time with the people I love (even on weeknights!), tiny adventures on weekends, and one yoga class a week. I think even this introverted teacher can handle that.

Focus on positive affirmation. It was so easy to get sucked into the “This class is too hard to manage, and these few negative students are stealing all of my attention, and my good kids are getting lost in the shuffle” last year. I hate that – kids doing good things deserve affirmation, especially in the weirdo years of middle school. That miraculous Target dollar section had “Student of the Week” awards that will hopefully motivate me to acknowledge all the awesome that happens in my classroom.

Simplify as much as possible. I do not have the personality for a minimalist lifestyle. I do, however, see the value in simplifying non-essential decisions as much as possible. This looks like choosing outfits the night before (from a smaller closet of things that I love, not a bigger closet I simply tolerate), or having a few staple lunch options (either leftovers or salad) and packing them before I go to sleep. Both of these make mornings more streamlined. Awesome. My brain does not make good choices before 7:00 am.

Be kind but relentlessly consistent with behavior management. Mistakes in classroom management I made last year: 3978. Mistakes in classroom management I will probably make this year: 3976. How I’ll lose those two? I will absolutely nail important classroom procedures (like how exactly silent reading time is supposed to look) into kids’ brains early, and I will be unwavering in following through on my classroom consequences plan. I got caught last year saying, “This is the last time…” and then not following through. It made my classroom way too crazy, and it will not happen again. That’s pretty much all I can guarantee at this point.

Stay on top of grading. I love Language Arts. Even grammar. (Especially grammar.) I do not love the grading that goes with Language Arts. It gets worse if I ignore it for a while and things pile up into overwhelming stacks, so I commit that students will get their work back no later than a week after they’ve turned it in.* **

*Even if it’s writing projects. I might need to develop superhuman powers.

**I reserve the right to recant this statement because I may regret everything.

Drink all the tea. Thank you, Jesus, for caffeine and for warm coffee mugs to hold when the classroom chaos begins to rise.

Prioritize what truly matters. In my class: reading things that inspire and challenge, writing to communicate effectively, and creating an environment of respect and growth. In my life: loving people well, and walking more with God each day.

 

How are you going to make this season the best ever?

Learned

Learned. verb. To have aquired knowledge or skill through instruction or experience.
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Dear Ms. Christenson,

Two weeks ago, you finished your first half a year as a teacher. You are still breathing. Congratulations.

The weeks since you started passed in a haze. You barely remember the last week of school, much less the past few months. (It’s possible that you’ve blocked it out.) But try to imagine yourself back in the public library at the end of February, itching to start. You had just karate kicked around your kitchen when you found out you got the job. You are planning bell ringers and finding clever classroom rules memes. Your anticipation is bubbling over.You currently believe that:

  • You are remarkably prepared. For everything.
  • Your ability to pay attention in your college education courses and create a lesson plan from which kids might maybe learn something means you will automatically be fine
  • All those people who say that the first year is painful aren’t trying quite enough/don’t have good work-life balance/missed crucial chapters in college textbooks/don’t get enough sleep
  • In terms of classroom management, you are a strong, likeable pillar of consistency
  • Your engaging lessons and winning personality and organizational abilities will cause all memory of the teacher whose class you are taking over to be erased from kids’ minds.
  • You will not cry about school.
  • Or take grading home.
  • Or yell at your class.
  • Or have a student who flips desks over on the last day (literally) because his friend is not present.

You will be wrong. About everything. Mostly.

This adventure will not be what you expect. It will be hard. You dread Monday mornings. Wonder if being unemployed is really so bad after all. Cry. Count the days until summer break.

But you will also learn.

You will learn what works for you as a teacher. Playing music when challenging classes enter the room makes everyone – or at least you – feel slightly less vicious. Planning lessons around what you enjoy, like that lesson comparing a Hamilton song with the historical event it describes, will make you enjoy your work more. Posting directions that kids should begin as soon as they enter the room will (theoretically) result in less wasted time. Reading alongside students during silent reading makes them cooperate more. Your instructional style is still developing, but it’s gaining clarity with every class.

You will learn that your job is not to be liked or to entertain. It is to teach. Your students are in your class to learn. Some days the kids might find it boring. Some days the 90 minutes you share with them might drag. Some days they might never want to read another nonfiction article ever again. But when you don’t let them off easily, when you teach them to push through, when you make them work a little harder, they grow.

You will learn (again) the importance of relationships. Your students want to know more about you than why you think grammar is important. They will ask about your boyfriend. They will wonder if you go to church. They will suspect that you are a liberal because you have never praised Donald Trump. They will Internet stalk you and attempt to follow you on Instagram. Once they know you, they may not hate you. A surprising kid will say, as you nearly force him out the door on the last day, that really, you weren’t that bad. One of the bright eighth graders with her head screwed on straight will thank you for being a great teacher.

You will learn that you are not alone. The kids who have gone bonkers in your class are going bonkers for other teachers, too. Friends who are in similar teaching situations are experiencing the same spells of frustration/disillusionment/insanity. People who love you will text you encouragement and let you cry on the phone and tell you that you’re doing fine and give you advice and make you laugh and talk about things other than school with you. You need these people.

You will learn more about who you are and how you work. Having two prep times in one day does not increase your productivity. When your emotions are beginning to rage in the evenings, going for a run or making a new recipe reduces them to a simmer. Writing down bright spots in your day forces you to remember that your life and job are not hopeless.

You will learn that you can do this. Even when teaching is hard and stressful and frustrating, you can still show up and do the work. After a summer of breathing deeply, maybe you can even do it again.

First-Year Teacher: Survivor Edition

First-year teacher. noun. A title given to teachers who are brand new and just figuring out how on earth to do this teaching thing. See also: Ms. Christenson.

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My kind of survival.

 

So this great thing happened last week.

It’s called spring break.

I KNOW. Even though I’m not in college, I still get spring break. These are the perks of being a teacher, y’all. Because after working for all of 3 weeks, I was exhausted and more desperate for a break than the kids.

Why was I so excited about spring break, you ask? Allow me to list the reasons.

  • Having a teacher work day so I could do important things like: Have time to get iced chai before arriving at work. Update bulletin boards. Organize files. Plan stuff. Regain sense of order.
  • Getting to NOT be a teacher. For an entire 9 days. Thus gaining back 95% of my brain space.
  • Flying to DC!!! Seeing the boyfriend!!!
  • Walking through museums and getting to take my own sweet time and NOT being the person who’s shushing/rangling/managing all the kids on all the tours
  • Eating lunch OUTSIDE for an HOUR with the boyfriend (not for twenty minutes in the staff lunch room, nice as the other teachers are)
  • Wearing leggings! And jeans! And Converse! On days that aren’t Friday!
  • Being awake enough in the evenings to do things like host parties! Go to concerts! Run through the National Mall! Go to restaurants just for dessert at 10:00! Watch an entire movie! Eat birthday dinners until 11:00 pm!
  • Celebrating my sister’s birthday with donuts and cheesecake and concerts with my family
  • Having brunch with the whole clan (how often does that happen?) and thrifting with people who do things like try on/accidentally split acid-washed jean shorts at the seams

What loveliness.

But then Sunday came. Boo. I hit what Teach of Love, Teach blog fame calls The Sunday Afternoon Megasad Life Hole.

I had already had slumps toward sadness in moments of the weekend. I had cried before getting on the plane. (I always do.) I had flown home to snow and an empty apartment. I had one afternoon of desolate napping and Internet surfing. And that was before everyone left.

Once Sunday afternoon quieted, I was stuck to the couch, feeling alone and hopeless and full of dread about returning to school. No matter that I had just returned from a wonderful trip to DC to then spend the weekend having fun with my family.

This is the suckiest feeling. I want to enjoy teaching! I want to be excited about seeing my students! I want to think “Yay! I get to talk about a subject I love today!” But on Sunday afternoon, my thoughts were more of the following gloomy variety: I think I’m bad at this. We’re going to have to start from square one with behavior management, aren’t we? How am I qualified for this again? Do I really need a job?

And then I read this post where I discovered this phenomenon had a name. I realized that I am not the only one who gets weary just thinking about Monday morning. It does not make me a bad teacher. And there is something I can do about it. Other than pray for miracles. Though that never hurts.

Here’s my own list of amazingly awesome mood boosters, for Megasad Sundays or Mopey Mondays or Terrible Tuesdays or whatever day of the week I need a reminder that my life is going to be okay.

  • Go for a walk. Or a run, if feeling ambitious.
  • Read an actual book
  • Do a quick yoga routine.
  • Clean the apartment using Mrs. Meyers peony cleaning spray while listening to One Direction.
  • Flip through old vacation photos.
  • Call someone near and dear.
  • Journal
  • Read a favorite Psalm
  • Bake chocolate chip cookies.
  • Try making a new recipe.
  • Do an easy craft. (Redo the chalkboard? Paint some polka dots? Letter something? Pull out the coloring book?)
  • Watch a favorite chick flick
  • Write a letter
  • Meal or outfit plan for the week. (Am I the only weirdo who finds joy in “jammin’ on my planner,” as Leslie Knope calls it?)
  • Go to the library and camp out with a few magazines.
  • Play the Ellie Holcomb Pandora station
  • Make plans to get coffee with someone.
  • Draft a blog post.
  • Paint my nails with something sparkly.
  • Watch Parks and Rec.
  • Wander through the Art Institute, the Conservatory, or another favorite free place
  • Find the “Bang Bang” Just Dance video on YouTube. Dance to it.
  • Take a 20-minute nap
  • Make hot chocolate
  • Browse the Pinterest board of my favorite things

Oh, and the biggest one of all: quit overanalyzing and assuming the worst. Because even if you have a Megasad Sunday, it doesn’t mean that you will have a Megasad Week. (Case in point: this week has been surprisingly not sucky, even after all that angst.)

Here’s to more intentionality and joy, to fewer Megasad Sundays and clouds of dread.

 

Anything I missed? What are your favorite get-happy activities?

First-Year Teacher (Week 2)

First-year teacher. noun. A title given to teachers who are brand new and just figuring out how on earth to do this teaching thing. See also: Ms. Christenson.

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I’ve finished Week 2 of the new-teacher thing. And it’s still weird to answer the question, “So, what do you do?”

“I’m a teacher,” I say. And the cashier at Target or the person in church thinks that I stand in front of a room and talk to kids about books. Which is partly true. But only partly. Here’s what I’ve really done this week.

I have set a lot of boundaries.

I’ve had so many conversations in the hallway over the past five days, about causing distractions and making better choices and having more respect. So many stages have been set for further consequences because we have talked about this and I have given you ample warning and I do not enjoy getting you in trouble but this needs to change. I have no idea if my success rate in this is normal, or if I’m doing this in the most effective way, or if my students will rebel tomorrow. But I’m trying.

 

I’ve graded thousands of papers.

Not quite. But it feels like it. The grading piles up infuriatingly fast, especially at the end of a trimester. My roommate, a fellow teacher, is a rock star about doing all of her grading on the day the students hand in their work. I now understand, and I think she’s a genius. However, this is falling into the category of things-I-should-do-but-can’t-actually-pull-off. Similar to how I should do my dishes every day but don’t.

 

I have cherished any and all moments of silence.

Why do they have to talk all of the time? And ask questions all of the time? And complain all of the time? Am I the only one who drives home from work in silence most days?

 

I have gone to bed at 10:30 on a Friday night. And then slept for 12 hours.

That’s earlier than I go to bed on weeknights. By Friday night, I am so tired I can no longer function. I may never have a social life again. (Not that mine was that wild in the first place. But now there’s no chance.)

 

I have questioned EVERYTHING.

Namely: Am I doing this right? Is this working? Are my students learning anything? Is this going to all fall apart in a week? Is there a color copier in the building? How do I write a referral to the office? Am I actually doing all the stuff (or any of the stuff) I learned in college? What would my supervisor say?

 

I have celebrated the smallest of victories.

Such as: discovering the microphone as a way to maintain my calm conversational voice and still be heard (thanks, Mom). The students quieting down more quickly for a test at the end of the week than they did at the beginning. Having a girl ask me about the book I’m reading. My eighth graders’ looks at my over-the-top enthusiasm to their classmate’s comment about liking Parks and Rec. Not forgetting to leave a students’ homework at the Student Services desk. Having one kid tell me, “I noticed your gold stuff today.” (He meant my eye shadow. I almost died.) Feeling like, if nothing else is going right, at least my teacher outfits are okay.

 

I have been a teacher.

 I think.

First-Year Teacher

First-year teacher. noun. A title given to teachers who are brand spanking new and who are acutely feeling their lack of experience. They run on caffeine and enthusiasm. See also: Anna. Or, ahem, Ms. Christenson.

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As some of you may know, I recently started the adventure of my first teaching job. I’ve survived my first week (!!!) of being in the middle school ELA classroom, and it’s been…something. A mostly good, occasionally overwhelming something. My situation is a bit unique, as I’m stepping into a classroom in the middle of the school year. Regardless, I’m sharing my experiences in the hopes other new teachers can find solidarity and encouragement.

No one warns you about the terrifying time between getting hired for a new job and actually starting said job. In the days between getting the yay-new-job phone call and my first day, I desperately wanted to just start. There was only so much I could plan and prepare and anticipate before I got to know the kids and saw them in action. Now that I’ve had 5 days with them, here’s what I’ve learned and what I’m working on.

Kids want someone who is in control.

One of my favorite ways to get to know students better is an activity I call Question Stations. I post questions around the room like “What’s something you could teach me?” and “What causes you the most stress?”, and students have a few minutes to circulate and write their answers. One of the questions I ask is “What makes a good teacher?” Normally I get responses like “Someone who gives food” and “Fun” or “Doesn’t give homework.” In one of my classes, I got a response that surprised me. At least 6 kids said “Control over the classroom.” After being in their class for a week, I get it. This is a class with a few highly disruptive kids. The other 90% of the students are respectful and want to learn. They get just as irritated as I do when their class is continually disrupted, when the teacher has to spend more energy on crowd control than on instruction. What my students need right now is a classroom that is well managed with clear boundaries, expectations, and consequences, NOT a chill teacher who is well liked. Continuing to build my skills here is my top priority for the second week.

 Relationships are what makes the classroom go ‘round.

I’m discovering that don’t have fun teaching until I start to know my students. I love my content area, but knowing the kids and their personalities makes everything tick. Establishing relationships also makes all of the classroom management things I’ve been working on seem firm, but not inhuman. To that end, I regret none of the time that I’ve spent on getting to know you activities (even though we could have used more review time for district assessments). I am also sooooo thankful for my ability to learn names with relative speed. This impresses/scares kids (She knows my name!? Am I in trouble?) and helps students feel like I actually care about them individually.

Be confident.

One of the weirdest parts of the transition from student teaching to real teaching is that I have zero feedback on how I’m doing. While student teaching, I had a supervisor popping in once a week and a cooperating teacher who was still an integral part of the classroom. Now I’m all by myself. (Cue dramatic music.) I still have a wonderful team who helps keep me on track with big-picture plans and lesson ideas. But there’s no one watching to tell me that I’m doing exactly what I need to do or to chime in with ideas for helping the more challenging students. Independence is forcing me to grow and trust my own judgment. But it’s also sort of terrifying to know that I’m on my own. I’m trying to fake it in front of my kids. (Though I’m pretty sure my Advanced 8th graders have figured it out…)

 Your brain will begin to lose pieces of very important information.

This week, I have lived off to-do lists and emails to myself late at night and reminders on my phone. If it’s not written down somewhere it swirls around and makes it hard for me to fall asleep and then evaporates by the time I wake up. I cannot remember anything anymore. Is this normal?

Wear a Wonder Woman shirt on Friday.

I mean this literally. I wore a shirt with Wonder Woman’s face on it for casual Friday. But you could wear your own equivalent (Super Girl? Power suit? You do you). I looked back at the week and saw that, hey, I survived. That’s neat. But I also saw 758 things that I would have done differently, or better, or not at all. I saw all the things I still wanted to fix and that weren’t done yet and that whispered that maybe I was sort of a crappy teacher. It took some kind words from my boyfriend to remind me that it’s only week 1. There’s still time, and no one expects my classroom to be a well-oiled machine yet. (With 7th graders, it probably never will be.) So I’m trying to celebrate any and all progress made. I’ve made it through 5 days. I am officially a teacher. Or superhero. Same thing.

 

Stay tuned for more teacherly updates! We’ve got one week down, a whole lot more to go. Here’s to Mondays and tea and forward progress and SSR time.

 

Surprised

Surprised. adjective. To have discovered unexpectedly; being led or brought unaware.

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Student teaching is over. After a week, I’m still blinking, looking around in wonder.

Back in November, when this last leg of student teaching was beginning, I clunked through the transition. I didn’t feel ready for new: a new school, a new group of faces to remember, a new schedule to learn, a new (earlier) start time. Everything felt overwhelming. But I had to go. So I put on a brave face and downed some caffeine and showed up.

The first day was okay. The next day was better. Then, slowly, middle school surprised me.

I grew to know the students in that windowless ELA room. Not just their names, but their personalities. Which ones should not sit in a pod together. Which ones would always volunteer answers, and which ones rarely would. I learned that one kid would like to be famous for eating the most gummy bears in a year, that most think the best teachers give out food, that some twelve-year-olds are stressed by unnecessary noises just like me, and that 7th graders are curious about topics ranging from what’s inside a bowling ball to how planes stay up to “how the world started (besides Jesus)” to whom they’ll marry. I overheard conversations about whether or not Bill and Hillary Clinton are married, about “dabbing,” about how eye size doesn’t change from the time a person is a baby until they’re an adult. Their spurts of wisdom, of enthusiasm, of vibrance, made me grin.

I began to take over more responsibility. My cooperating teacher was gone one day, and it was me (plus a sub) against the world. We survived. The kids didn’t go bonkers. They might have even learned something. We started a research unit. I circulated the room during work time, answering questions with my hair on fire. The hour blazed by and I was not bored once. The teacher shoes began to fit, molding to me. I liked them. It was harder than expected to give them back as my nine weeks ended. For once, I felt like a real teacher. My cooperating teacher had told me early on that I was doing well. It took time for me to actually believe her. But I began to.

One of the miracles of teaching is the hidden growth students sometimes make. The blossoms don’t appear immediately, and their blooms take unexpected shape. When I was leaving, one of the boys from my hardest hour came up to me. He had been a quiet one, distracted, reluctant to write unless he could dictate his thoughts. I thought I had annoyed him more than anything. “I’m really sad you’re going to be leaving,” he said. “I am too,” I said. Then I found a thank-you card from him in the pile I received. It was short, neat, written by himself. It touched me more than most. Among the other notes, another girl had written a sweet, thoughtful letter. Among her sentences: “You always helped me when I needed it, you were sooo cheerful and happy and it honestly made my day better.” She, too, had been quiet in class. I had no idea.

On that scared morning at the beginning, I did not anticipate any of these exact things. I couldn’t have. That’s the stickiness of new adventures. Though I suspect that good might come, I always always always want to know precisely what to expect.

It’s undoing me right now, now that student teaching is done, now that I am waiting. Waiting on everything. On my plans for tomorrow and whether I’ll have a sub position or not. On my plans for next month and whether I’ll have a job. On my plans for next fall and whether I’ll be here or across the world. I long for sketched-out plans for my relationships, for my career, for whether I’ll be able to pay rent at the end of the month. Instead, I have nothing concrete for the rest of my life.

But I’m learning, with agonizing slowness, that not knowing, that openness, that waiting, leaves room for God’s surprises. When I let go of my narrow visions of what life could be, it creates space for him to work ordinary miracles. My loaves and fishes look like groceries and job openings and friendships and a car that mostly works.

The unknown, the waiting for assurance, scares me. But so do all great adventures, if they truly deserve the word. I can trace God’s unexpected hand in these past nine weeks of student teaching, if I look. I’m choosing to trust that, in this new season, he’ll surprise me again.

I CAN statements

I CAN statements. plural noun. Objectives or goals put in student friendly terms, so that kids can understand the purpose of a lesson. Also descriptors for what language learners at each level should be able to do. Overall, words that should empower and equip for growth.

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Unfortunately, I’m not teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. Though that would be cool.

Tomorrow, it begins. The kids swarm off the busses and head to their shining classrooms, and my first day of “real” student teaching begins. After doing workshops and meetings and classroom prep last week, I’m nervous and excited and ready for my ESL munchkins to arrive. I know the next few weeks might be a whirlwind. But as I’m writing lesson plans and reviewing the WIDA I CAN statements, these are the objectives I hope I’ll take to heart. These are the lessons I hope I’ll master while student teaching.

I CAN take initiative. I have no idea what I’m doing right now. So I need to step up and do something about that. People will not get mad when I ask questions. They will not feel put out when I ask for help. They will not be bothered when I start conversations. They will not think I’m overstepping my bounds when I speak up. I am worth people’s time.

I CAN embrace imperfection. “Get messy! Make mistakes!” will be my mantra. Ms. Frizzle will be my mentor. Creativity and risk-taking will abound in my teaching. Mistakes will happen, and I will not shy away from them in shame. They are a sign that I am learning and growing. I will try, and fail, and try again. My students will, too.

I CAN be firm but kind. Each child deserves love and attention, and each of them is going through life with challenges that I do not see fully. These kiddos need boundaries, and they need to learn to put on their school face and act appropriately. But they also need a teacher who greets them every morning with a smile, a smile that never changes regardless of their behavior on the previous day. They need a teacher who listens to their ideas and who tells them that they are awesome.

I CAN keep my priorities straight. I will not let state-mandated assessments steal passion from what matters most: my kids and their learning, and my teaching practice and its growth. I will invest my energy into what matters, and into what I’ll carry with me from this experience.

I CAN be honest. I can admit when I am fried, when I am frustrated, when I don’t know and don’t understand. Vulnerable conversations with my people about how I’m really doing will keep me going. I have supports that steady me when I’m wobbling, and I will lean into them hard.

I CAN take care of myself. Tea will be continually on hand for sanity (and caffeine). Bedtimes will be enforced, because I am at heart an 8-year-old who will try to read (or lesson plan) under the covers by flashlight. Fresh produce will be in the fridge and meal plans will be created, even when time and money seem too tight to make real food. Workouts might happen. They should happen. They will happen?

I CAN have a life. This world is far bigger than my corner of the ESL room and the notebook that holds my lesson plans. I will remember that. I will maintain and grow things that are valuable to me, things like writing and relationships, things that are not centered in the classroom. My blog will not die. My friends and family and boyfriend will not go unloved or unseen or unheard from.

I CAN do this thing.

 

Thanks to all who have passed down their wisdom, through Facebook feeds and chats in Target aisles and conversations on living room couches. Your input is priceless, and I’m glad to know that I’m not alone as I step into this new role. To my fellow student teachers, here we go…