Monday, October 15, 2018

One For The New Kids

This one goes out to all the new teachers. And those of us who still feel like new teachers no matter how long we've been at it.

This isn't an easy job, but it's the only one I've ever wanted. They say that if you love what you're doing you'll never work a day in your life. That's not true, not with teaching. You'll love what you do and you'll work hard every day. You'll grind and struggle and it'll be worth it because this job is more magical than any other when it all comes together.

This is not the same as advice that says you should sacrifice yourself on the pyre of Being A Great Teacher. That's a lie too. Don't burn the candle at both ends, don't be the candle that burns itself out to light others. You need to burn and burn brightly for a long long time, and sometime that means finding the fuel just for yourself. Anyone who tells you different is selling something or trying to get something out of you for free. The most valuable tool in a teacher's belt isn't technology or connections or curriculum. It's rest. And we all remember that first year. The idea of being fully rested sounds like the punchline to a bad joke. I know that too. You can't help yourself, you go home and think about your kids. You stress about your class. You wonder if you're doing right by them.

We still do that too. But those of us who have managed to find the healthy balance are able to put that aside and have faith that what we're doing actually is the best we can do. That's the goal. Not to be content with what you're teaching, or how, but to accept that you are doing it to the best of your current abilities. That's how we sleep at night, and how we come to school fired up the next day. The day might not be perfect, but at the end we're pretty sure that what we did was done as well as it could have been done. They can't all be home runs, and that's ok.

You're probably got at least one kid you're never going to forget. And not in the good way. A kid that, more than any other, has you banging your head against the wall (metaphorically and otherwise). We've all got that kid in the first year. Mine was a little third grade boy who had had a rougher nine years than I've ever had. The anger and defensiveness he shrouded himself with was overwhelming for first year, oh-so-young Mr Robertson. I did what I could and man did I do it badly. He called me a motherfucker almost every day. I wasn't special though, he called the principal and special ed teacher that too. Kicked at us, struggled everyday. Would make progress, then backslide. His world was spinning and I was not trained to help him like I would have liked to have been. But how do you teach that? We all did our best for him. This story has no happy ending, he was finally expelled near the end of the year because we found a pair of scissors in his desk that had been flattened out so that the blades pointed horizontally, and he'd wrapped tape around the center as a grip. You can do a lot to keep a kid in your class, to try and help, but when that is found in a desk it's no longer up to you. I have no idea what happened to him. I hope he's ok. I wish I'd known more, been better, done more. But I have to believe I did what I could.

I also look back on that year and remember being irritated I had 23 students, because contract said I should have 21. Young fool, I can't remember the last time I had thirty kids. And I complained about low twenties?

When the year is hard and you're feeling overwhelmed, remember that you're probably focusing on the one or two or four kids that you're having the hardest time reaching. Natural. But that means there's thirty who are having their own quieter struggles and successes. Don't tunnel on the ones that are easy to see, and don't focus on what you perceive as negative. It's so easy to see. It's like when you're in a group and you tell a joke and everyone laughs. Everyone except that one guy right there. What the hell is his problem? Notice that everyone else got the joke. Notice the learning everyone is doing. And remember that the person who isn't getting it probably has a good reason and you can work to find that too.

Don't save your kids. You're not a superhero. You're not a magician or an entertainer or a mechanic. We don't fix kids because kids aren't broken. Don't buy into the hype that makes us heroes, the narrative about "some kids don't have anything to go home to" that centers a cultural normality that isn't actually normal. Someone loves the kids in your class. That doesn't mean that the kids aren't having hard times, going through hard things. These two statuses are not mutually exclusive. Don't negatively judge your kids or, through your assumptions, judge their parents or guardians. Start at accepting and giving the benefit of the doubt. Just because the parent or guardian wants the best for the kid in a way that's different than you do doesn't mean they don't want the best for the kid.

No one is really good at this job for at least three years. Probably four. That doesn't mean don't try, it means know the learning curve is steep but worth it. It also means that as you get more confident you won't rest on your laurels. Getting more confident just means you can try harder things and fail bigger. But it won't really feel like failing bigger because your expectations will have grown with your skills.

Watch more experienced teachers, notice things, but don't try to emulate just yet. Take small things, but don't go whole hog. You need to learn all the basic tricks before you can start in on the fancy stuff. Judge yourself against yourself using what your kids are learning and how you feel teaching it. Don't watch the person across the hall and judge yourself against them. Be you. Teach like yourself, and that means taking the time to find who you are. Take what works, break what doesn't so that it will. It's better to break and repurpose than throw away.

Reflect with others, talk it out, but watch for poison. That doesn't mean don't complain. Complaining can get things done. It doesn't mean be relentlessly positive, hiding your head in the clouds is exactly the same as hiding it in the sand. But find that balance where you notice if you're being more negative about your kids than you are being positive. Always lean to positive. Use negative to solve problems. Be confrontational (in a professional way) with people if they aren't giving you the help you need. Fight for you, fight for your kids. What some will label as negative and critical and mean others will see as open and honest and willing to have mature conversations.

Teaching is a great job. It's the best. Kids are hilarious and fun and sharp and so much more entertaining and interesting than most adults. Discovery happens all the time. We get to attack and destroy ignorance of all types. Keep that front and center in your mind. Be who you is, enjoy the job, and come to us for help. No one expects you to know it all. Find mentors who you can trust in your building. They are there. You'll probably cry some days, that's ok. Teaching is hard. Honestly reflect why you felt that way and know it's ok.

Oh, and don't put your work email on your personal device. The district didn't buy it for you, they shouldn't expect you to work from it. Draw the line and hold it.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

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