Thursday, April 2, 2015

What Year 5 Looks Like

Teachers like to state how many years they have been teaching. There aren't promotions in the teacher world like the business world, so keeping track of our years is one of the few badges of honor we get. And there is something satisfying about knowing you've been in this field for a long time, defying the rumors of "teacher burnout" and returning to the classroom September after September with a fresh tally mark on the resumé.

This is my year five.

The beauty of teaching is being able to start fresh every year, holding on to the lessons, activities, and moments that worked in the classroom, and tossing out all the rest as if they never happened. Those three months of summer can heal a lot of battle wounds suffered over the school year and wash away the bitter aftertaste of a bad teaching moment. September is the fresh sheet to a mattress that seems to get more and more comfortable every year.

Recently, I've realized that I look at my job and the role of being an educator differently every year. I will admit that in my first year as a middle school teacher, I was consumed with being liked by my students. I knew the pitfalls of this and would never have admitted it to myself at the time, but looking back now I am not ashamed to say it. When a person, especially a fresh-out-of-college 22 year old, is placed in front 30 wide-eyed little twelve year olds, it is impossible not to want their adoration and affection. 

Later, as a 23 year old high school teacher, I often had moments where I felt like I was in high school again, completely engulfed in the highs and lows that go hand-in-hand with teenagehood. Being only 5 years older than some of my students, in many ways we were of the same generation. We shared some of the same interests, hobbies, entertainment tastes, and this often made it hard to draw the line between teacher and peer. 

Now, in my fifth year I no longer feel that subconscious desire to prove my worth to my students, and for better or worse, we are no longer a part of the "same generation." Instead, I am beginning to see my students from a more maternal perspective. I once feared students' parents. I felt like they were always scrutinizing me and were waiting for an opportunity to pounce and send an angry e-mail. 

Then I started thinking about the situation from the parents' perspective. I imagined how they must feel having this strange, awkward, hormone-filled mini-adult in their house who never told them anything about school. I imagined their struggling child telling them, "Yeah, the teacher hates me" as an explanation for a low grade, and them feeling protective, and maybe even defensive of their child, when e-mailing his teacher. So I started becoming proactive, and reaching out to my parents before situations got messy, or confused, or lost-in-teenage-translation. It takes only minutes from my day, and it saves the potential stress that could have caused a handful of sleepless nights.   

That's just one example of my growth. As each year of teaching has rolled on, I have begun to see my decisions from a much more objective standpoint. In my first years I would have ignored an eye-rolling, sassy teenage girl, but let her bad attitude grate on me for the rest of the school year. Now, I don't let a single eyeroll go unnoticed. 

Even yesterday I kept a student after class because she didn't look me in the eye when I was talking to her (this was coupled with a lot of sassy, under-her-breath comments).  My exact words were, "If this attitude keeps up, it's going to be a long trimester for both of us. And I don't want that. And you don't want that."

I would have never done this in my first four years of teaching for fear of not being liked. But you know what? Today she came to class, was completely focused, got her work done, and did so with a decently pleasant, unnoticeable, attitude. 

There is something to be said for the cool-relatable-down-to-earth-teacher. I liked being that teacher. It made me feel good. 

But there is a whole lot more to be said about the teacher that does more than just relates to her students. The teacher that doesn't accept lazy work. The teacher that calls a kid out for being completely inappropriate. The teacher that listens to her students, but responds as a role model, not a friend. The teacher that doesn't allow swearing in the classroom. The teacher that rejects an assignment without complete sentences...

But more importantly, the teacher who cares a lot more about who her students turn out to be in the future, than how her students view her right now.

Being that teacher makes me feel a whole lot better.

So today I am admitting that my first four years, while may have still been "successful", were not my golden years of teaching. Even in year five, I know I am not even close to having perfected this career. But, as Hemingway quoted about writing,"We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master." And I certainly hope to be a lifelong apprentice. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Beating the January Blues

I think it is safe to say that every teacher hates the month of January.


1. It's cold. Very cold.
2. You leave the house in the dark and arrive in the dark. Unless your classroom has a window (thankfully mine does) you are literally in darkness 24 hours a day, 5 days a week.
3. You are used to your students and they are used to you. This can be good and bad...but ultimately it just means that the luster of a new school year has not only worn off, it's become very dull.
4. It's easy to get in to a rut with your teaching materials.
5. Spring Break seems like it's light years away.
6. The word "testing" seems to linger like a subtle whisper around every corner. "Testing's coming up..." "Are the kids prepared for the test?" "We need to raise test scores this year..."

Yuck. January.

This is also the time of year that people in general are a little crabby (probably the lack of Vitamin D) so teachers are getting ornery. Last week in a meeting, a teacher was boastfully talking about how she was going to quit and start a coffee shop, her lifelong dream. The rest of us chimed in on how we would help her get started. Our meeting was diverted for at least 10 minutes as we all relished in the thought of taking coffee orders and smelling like espresso.

Rather than float away on caffeine dreams, I decided to consciously try a few things to keep my January from feeling like a wasted-crabby-blur-of-a-month and to make sure I'm staying excited about my curriculum and keeping my students on their toes. Here are a few...

1. I'm forcing myself to learn a new app once a week. There are plenty of resources out there and my school has a ton of awesome references for great apps (our tech department has a Pinterest board of tech ideas, my personal favorite). The apps I've embraced are free and easy to use. Last week I played around with Doceri and this week I am looking at ClassroomDojo (though that's a bit less fitting for high school students).

2. I'm "thinking Spring." And by that I mean I'm looking ahead...way ahead...and making important planning decisions for the Spring right now. In about 3 weeks I will be starting Romeo & Juliet, my absolutely favorite unit to teach. I'm pumped that because my school is on a Trimester schedule, I'll be teaching it this tri and again at the end of the school year. As it's my 5th go-around in teaching this unit, I'm trying to add a few more activities and supplements to what I've done in the past just to keep myself excited about this unit. I also took elements from my old unit, mixed with some of my new ideas and began to "pretty them up" a bit so I can hopefully sell it on my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Here's a preview below. It's a li'l nonfiction (but very biased) news article to please the Common Core. This is free at my TPT store now, with a set of close reading questions and a teacher key.

3. On that same note, I created a new and improved 2015 Teaching Planner for my TPT site. It's so pretty it's tempting to have this one printed out as well. But I'll hold back until next school year.

4. I'm trying to embrace vocab units in my lessons. Ugh, I hate vocab just as much as any high school student. To me, "vocab" in English class is synonymous with "boring worksheet where I'll memorize the words and never actually learn them." Up until this trimester, that's exactly what it was in my class. I'd hand out the lesson on Monday, never mention it again the entire week, then un-enthusiastically roll through the answers on Friday. Well, I took some time out of my prep to make some Vocab activities that actually relate to the novels we are reading in class (To Kill a Mockingbird in one, Lord of the Flies in the other). These actually use the words in context of the book and inspire a bit of competition...which every high school teacher knows is the key to a teenager's heart. I still don't feel 100% awesome about vocabulary, but I'm getting there.

5. I ordered new books for my classroom library on Amazon! I am especially excited about this because I rarely have cash that I feel justified in spending on classroom library books. Lately a lot of my students have been perusing my classroom library. Possibly because the shelf is so darn cute. It's a 1950's greeting card rack from an old drug store, discovered at a Minneapolis thrift store this summer, and turned in to this gem...

Anywho, so with a Christmas Amazon Gift Card, I ordered 6 new books that should be here by February (ugh, I can't wait!!) I'm so excited to read these and do some book talks with my students. Several of my students have been stopping in my classroom between classes to talk about great YA books with me and I love making that connection.

So those are just a few of my "conscious" decisions to help beat the January blues and keep me feeling good about my job. Another "conscious" decision I would like to make is taking a trip to Hawaii to escape these negative temps but that's just not in the cards for me. *Sigh*