Friday, September 21, 2012

A Letter to Myself

Dear Maddie in Your First Year of Teaching,

Hello! It's me...or rather, you, from the future. In my third year of teaching, I am writing to you, first year Maddie, with some words of (still somewhat green) wisdom.

I realize right now your life feels foreign to you. Suddenly your days are timestamped with the ringing of bells and the swift ins-and-outs of 30 nervous, fidgeting, exuberant little pre-teens. You are getting acclimated to being asked 15 different questions within a 2 minute time period, to repeating yourself to the point of numbness, and to the strange sweaty scent that follows an 8th grade boy in to your classroom after gym class. This is your new life. I promise, you will get used to it (well...maybe not used to that smell).

Please know that the students are just as nervous as you. They will test you. They will complain. They will push your buttons. Stop concerning yourself that it is because you aren't well-liked, or you aren't fun, or you aren't good enough. They are doing this for no reason other than that they are kids. They want to know where they stand with you. They want to know if you are someone they can trust. You might begin every class with a deep breath, squinting your eyes in fear of what is going to happen, but remember that you are a real teacher now. You are in control of your classroom. You create the environment that sets the tone for the entire year. You are the adult. Even if some days that fact in itself surprises you.

Know that sometimes it is okay to fail. Some lessons won't work. Some lessons may cause blank stares with silences so deafening that blinking eyelids sound like bass drums. Admit to yourself that your lesson failed, but don't hash it out. Tomorrow is coming too quickly to mourn over something so insignificant. You will forget how you fail many times in your first two years, but your success stories will leave lasting impacts.

Know that teenage girls are professional eye-rollers and scoffers. 

Know that teenage boys are professional class disruptors and lesson de-railers.

Don't let either of these things bother you. They are both insecure and that is okay. Middle school and high school is a time of heightened insecurity, self-consciousness and awkwardness. The best thing you can do is roll with everything that happens--to smile or laugh or to flash the dreaded teacher look when they do something worthy of either. Don't feel guilty because you do more smiling and laughing than the latter. You still do in your 3rd year.

Know that it's okay to take a risk. It is okay to do something different than your colleagues. Don't doubt yourself because you are young and don't feel self-conscious that you are being judged by them. There will be days that you are convinced another teacher is "sizing you up" but don't brood over this. It doesn't matter. Approval from other teachers isn't why you became a teacher. 

Know that you need to step out of your classroom a couple times a day to stay sane.

Know that the hallway is as chaotic as the freshmen explain it to be.

Know that that quiet girl in the back row, who you have prodded relentlessly, who seems to despise everything about you and English class, is learning something. Some of your quietest students will light up next year when they see you in the hallway.

Know that you have to have a life, and an identity, outside of teaching. It is okay to do something on a week night. Make time for yourself and for your friends or else you will lose your mind. Even though teaching is your passion, it cannot run your life. You are still young. You are still you.

Know that there are some students you will never forget. You will meet a few of these students in your first year. These will be the students who electrify your classroom be it with their writing, their humor, their compassion, or simply just them. These students will keep you going.

Know that September is exciting, November is frustrating, January is grueling, and May is beautiful.

Know that you will face a new obstacle every day, but this is why you chose this job. You love the challenges it brings you. Most importantly though, you have to remember to stay positive through these challenges. There are many disgruntled teachers. Don't let their negativity conquer you. 

I am writing this to you because in my third year of teaching, I have learned all of this, yes, but I also need to remind myself of all of this. Taking time like this to reflect and digest my life is necessary and needed and healthy. 

So, as a plea to the future me, know that writing is important. This blog that you created 2 years ago to sort out and untangle the excitement and uncertainties of your first year of teaching is still just as important now in your third. Keep writing.

Until next time I feel wise enough to write again...

Yours truly,


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Reflections on College

I Googled my name tonight.

Don’t act like you’ve never done it before.

I came across the abstract for the paper I submitted and presented at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research in Montana my last year of college. My English department’s newsletter interviewed me on my paper and wrote: She describes her work as an exploration of “the complexities of the mirror that not only exposes our complex identities but also exposes the multi-layered issues of morality in the postmodern era.”

The multi-layered issues of morality in the postmodern era? What does that even mean?

I had to read my abstract a few times until I understood what the hell I was even talking about. My first reaction to this was “wow, I’ve gotten way dumber since college.”

But then I mulled over it a bit.

I’ve been thinking about college a lot lately. I teach seniors, so college is frequently a topic of discussion. I am always fascinated by their plans. Some seniors are so decisive and self-assured. “Well,” they typically respond when prompted, “I’m going to go get my generals done at _______________ and then I’ll be transferring to ____________ where I’m probably going to major in ____________ with a minor in _____________.” How easy and simple and wide open life seems to be to these kids. These are the ones who are successful in high school, who get good grades, who are convinced they have mastered the institution that is education. Their path appears simple and laid out, a process of connecting the dots and following a predetermined plan. I was like them only seven years ago. I was convinced that I would enter college with ease, move as swiftly through it as I had high school, then come out a smoothly-pressed adult with a degree to show for it.

But what no one ever told me was that “college student” is not synonymous with “adult.” While I had mastered the art of wordplay (i.e. “the multi-layered issues of morality in the postmodern era”) no one had ever showed me how to pay bills on time, or how to understand the different types of health insurance, or explained what a Roth-IRA or a 401k was or how important a retirement fund is or what renter’s insurance was.

In fact, when I was introduced to student teaching I realized how very little I even knew about the actual job I was pursuing. Yes, I knew that in order to create a lesson plan I needed to carefully lay out a well-worded objective, and understand the materials needed in order to execute said lesson plan, but did I have a clue how to teach?

This is where college misses the mark. Life skills. Adult reality.

In my first year of teaching, I felt angry about this realization. Being a generation x-er, my first reaction was, of course, to put blame on anyone but myself for my personal struggles. I blamed the institution that branded me my degree. I even fantasized about writing to my university and explaining how little they had prepared me for the actual job I was working. It seemed to me to be a natural connection.

And not only did I feel completely overwhelmed by my job, but bills were suddenly becoming paperweights to other bills. My monthly payments were doubled, my exciting “grown up” paycheck was taking a straight route to paying off my necessities to live. What fun was that?

So, eff you, university, I thought, as I painstakingly wrote out my check to Comcast. And eff you, university, as I responded to an e-mail from an angry mother of a student. Why didn’t you prepare me for this? Why didn’t you tell me that the sweet taste of adult freedom was in reality very, very bitter?

Were my college years only good for teaching me how to write some befuddling essay on some obscure topic like postmodern British literature doppelgangers?


But on second thought, the fact is, college did teach me a lot more than how to write a damn good essay and use phrases like “complexities of identity”. It taught me how to survive off of procrastination and how to thrive off of productivity. It taught me how to live and function with shy, or messy, or crazy roommates. It taught me how balance having a boyfriend and still showing up to class. It taught me how to cure a hangover, or how to just deal with it. It taught me how to make friends who were completely different from me. It taught me how to seek out the people who were like me. It taught me how to function in a places and situations that weren’t natural or comfortable.

It didn’t teach me how to be an adult. This is true. And it didn’t teach me how to be an actual teacher. That is also true. But college didn’t teach me these things in the same way that high school didn’t teach me how to be a college student, nor did middle school prepare me for high school. These things can’t be taught. They can only be experienced.

And while the abstract for an essay I wrote only 2 years ago now seems confusing and wordy, I am still very proud of what I did know in college. So even though it didn’t prepare me for what I experience on a day to day basis in the real, adult world, it shaped who I am. In a way that NCUR abstract that can still be found on Google today is sort of a testament to my college years. It says I learned and executed the absolute maximum of what I could learn as an English major and college student. I can’t blame college for not preparing me for every nuance of the real world, there is no institution that truly can. All I can do is hope that in a few years, just like the few years it took for me to master high school and the few years it took for me to get college, I will have this whole “adult thing” all figured out.

Here’s to hoping…and to my “complex identity […] in the postmodern era.”