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.