Weekly Review: The Teacher Response

Year: 2

In the category of “sentences I never thought I’d have to say,” I say at least once of those sentences a day. I’m presenting them without context this week, because, really, you don’t need context.

Monday: “I don’t know what is on your face, but it is literally all over your face. Please go wash it off.” Five minutes later. “So, it’s all gone from your arms… but you decided to keep it on your face?”

Tuesday: “I don’t care what your reason is, put your shoe back on and focus on your work.”

Wednesday: curriculum day, with other teachers. So I said normal things today, because I was with adults.

Thursday: “How did you fall out of your chair without moving at all?”

Friday: “Please stop making bird sounds.”

On Being Mean

Year: 2

Some weeks in teaching seem to have themes of a sort. This week, I’ve been reminded multiple times of how mean kids can be to each other.

One of my students has been suspended for getting in a fight, and when I saw him in the front office, he told me that he was defending himself. Another kid limped past my classroom because someone shoved him into a basketball pole during lunch. Another student said something so terribly mean about one of his classmates that I had no choice but to send him up to the front office; and this kid, I’ve already had a very recent conversation about respect and being kind to others.

I heard once that everything a person does is an echo. If a person is behaving kindly, they are echoing the kindness that has been shown to them in the past. If a person is behaving unkindly, that person is echoing the pain that has been shown to them. I’ve always thought this to be a powerful analogy to explain general behavior: you react to the people around you, often unconsciously, and it is often a mirrored behavior.

Kids can be mean. It’s so easy to forget until you come into contact with that kind of malevolence. It feels like a kick to the gut, to me, when I see viciousness, like in the behavior I’ve seen done to my kids this week.  I’m never not bothered by it. Kids echo the behavior they see around them, and when they are shown pain, they throw pain back. It’s really difficult to be a witness to that process. As someone who spends their life trying to teach children, and care about them, you just want to protect them as best as you can, but there won’t always be an opportunity to do that.

I wonder if we’re doing something wrong, something that we could be teaching our young ones and aren’t, or if this is a natural part of human behavior that can’t be rerouted. We could teach kids to think about their actions and emotions more, teach kids to reflect more. I don’t really have an answer or opinion. I just can’t help but ask that question when I see a week like this.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the teaching of things, because that’s our job description, that it’s easy to forget that kids have so much to deal with only a daily basis. It is that same lesson I have learned, and will learn, again and again, in teaching: kids are just kids, and you should have compassion above all else.


October: Or, Mile 5 of the Marathon

Year: 2

Last year, when I first began teaching, I didn’t understand why everyone kept hinting at October like it was a monster lurking around the corner. August and September felt pretty considerably difficult to me already, so I didn’t understand how October could be much worse. After my first October, I understood why teachers spoke about October the way they did. It is the first truly difficult month of teaching.

October came, and cleared my head of all doubts.

It is the month that first tests your mental endurance as a teacher. You’ve finished two months of teaching, and you won’t get a full break to rest until the end of December; while the first two months may be overwhelming, you complete them quickly (and largely on adrenaline). I’ve been told this is the honeymoon period, when you’re still getting to know your students and you’re still mentally adjusting to the school year that it doesn’t quite feel like it’s really happening yet. That feeling vanishes in October. When October rolls around, you become unavoidably aware of how long there is before you’re able to take a break. Consider this mile 5 or 6 of a marathon that you’re running: you’re not tired yet, but you just finished the first few miles – which went by so smoothly and quickly that it didn’t even really feel like you’ve been running – and, although you’re not to the exhaustion phase yet, now you’re very aware of how many miles you have to run before you finish.

It is also around the time of the school year that you begin to see students feel comfortable in their classes. This means that you know your students better, which can be great, but it also means that your students feel comfortable enough to act out. So, at the same time that you’re beginning to understand the mental endurance you’ll need to reach even the halfway point of your year, you’re just now reaching the difficult stage of teaching.

This was my first week of October, and I felt the shift immediately. I spent the week pulling a student or two aside with every class of almost every day to discuss their behavior. Nothing terrible happened – it’s still been notably easier than last year, partly, I think, because my students this year are just a calmer bunch – but it felt like a more tiring week than what I’ve seen so far. I’ve had to micromanage just a little bit more. I’ve had to shift to be just a little more strict. In a job like this, when it requires such energy and such attention just to do the bare minimum, small shifts like this can feel significant.

Going into this year’s second quarter and some of the more difficult months of teaching, I’m making it a goal to focus on self-care. I’m meditating regularly, exercising several times a week and (hopefully) sticking to a serious training schedule, balancing my time with friends and my time with myself. It’s so shockingly easy to forget to take care of yourself as a teacher, and I don’t want to forget this year.

Friday Fun Reads

I love bell-work. I’m not being sarcastic. I do love bell-work. Giving students a quick, easy, low-pressure activity to focus them helps lessen my stress as a teacher quite a bit; I do also really, genuinely think it helps kids settle into the lesson and mentally shift from one idea to the other.

“Bell to bell” work, though, is different. This is a new term floating (correction: flying) around the education world right now. The idea is basically that, from the time the bell rings to start class until the time the bell rings to end class, students should be consistently working on subject-related content. I think the general idea is good: keep students engaged, keep them focused on your content, have meaningful lessons that continue for the length of the class.

That being said, screw “bell to bell” teaching in the last 20 minutes of every Friday class, because I’m going to keep reading to my kids for fun.

I started this at the beginning of this school year for the first time. I wanted to encourage my students to see reading as a form of entertainment, relaxation, comfort – I wanted them to see reading as a form of a reward, not just something they had to do. I figured that I’d offer them a choice: they could vote for me to read to them, or they could read their own library books. (Every two weeks, we go to the library, and they check out a book of their own choosing and are required to keep it with them in all classes.) Every Friday, I’d let them vote.

In an overwhelming vote, one truly surprising to me, they have voted for me to read to them. Every single Friday.

This surprised me for a few reasons. The first is that, this year, I have quite a few students who enjoy reading, and I expected them to want to read their own books. The second – the main reason – is that middle school students care about what others think of them, and I expected them to pretend it was too cool to want their teacher to read to them. I thought, regardless of how they really felt, that they would choose to read their own books, just to not have their teacher talking for a precious fifteen or twenty minutes of class.

I learned, again, the same lesson that I have learned with every new experience in teaching: they’re just kids. They want to be kids and they want to remain kids. Regardless of how they act, or what they say, or what they pretend to feel in front of their friends, there’s going to remain that kid-part of them that really enjoys someone reading out loud.

It’s not part of the curriculum. It doesn’t align to the standards. It doesn’t fit with “bell to bell” lessons. But it’s been enormously helpful in my attempt to build a classroom atmosphere that is comfortable and safe, and it’s done wonders in helping students feel comfortable with me. So I’ll keep reading.

Standardized Tests

Year: 2

I’m not saying I hate standardized tests, but I’m not not saying it.

As a student, I struggled to motivate myself or put forth effort on standardized tests. I was the type of student who would put in more effort depending on how much or little I cared about the teacher administering the test. I just didn’t care. I didn’t see the purpose to it. However, I also don’t remember any of my teachers telling me the purpose of standardized tests, which may have helped. This (not not said) dislike of standardized tests runs deep.

As a teacher, I struggle to motivate my students. It is not a good measurement of their skills. It is certainly, doubtlessly, not a measure of their character or their ability to grow and learn. I don’t believe in the purpose of standardized tests. I don’t believe it will make my students, or my classroom, better. Of course, as a teacher, I have to give them, so I do, but I struggle to get my kids to buy into the idea of standardized tests because don’t buy into them.

For many students, particularly in a generation that is increasingly anxious and self-critical, this test is yet another obstacle in between them and a normal level of confidence in a certain subject. It is a beast of a test. It often takes the entire class period, which is 75 minutes long, and sometimes longer for certain students. It is a difficult test, one that I’m not even confident I would necessarily pass myself. The wording of questions is tricky, manipulative. The texts they read are dense and uninteresting. The expectations are high. For students with anxiety, this test is basically a bomb dropped in their lap.

For many more students, it is a boring test that their teacher made them do and that they don’t care about. So why try? They don’t have a reason to do well. (This is where my theoretical motivational skills would come in.) They understand it doesn’t affect their grades. Should I tell my students that some standardized tests affect the amount of funding that goes into their school? That seems like an awful pressure to put on 7th graders.

Now consider  my students. My students come from impoverished homes, difficult personal lives, and a serious academic disadvantage. Within the same year, I teach them the basic structure of a sentence (and sometimes what a noun is) and I attempt to teach them developed analytical skills. These are kids who were not read to when they were younger, who often do not have food at home, who do not often speak English as their first language. It is not fair to use the same test to measure their skills and their level of understanding in a topic that you use to measure the skills of a student who has every possible advantage. It is not fair to use a test that assume everyone has begun at the same point of the race. It is not fair.

Today is a day that I have to administer a standardized test. I’ll encourage my students to do their best, even if I don’t particularly agree with it, and I’ll make sure that the rest of the week is fun for them. After today, they’ll have earned it.

Sometimes, It’s Just Hard

Year: 2

We’re sitting in a big group of teachers, talking to one friend who, up until this year, had taught in the same school as us.  We’ve just watched a musical that our friend performed in. The conversation centers on two of his former students, who’d come to the performance. These students stayed to say hello and congratulate him.

“I don’t want to say they were the reason I left this school,” my friend said. “But they were kind of part of the reason. If I couldn’t get to them – If I couldn’t inspire them to do better – maybe I’d lost my touch.”

From everything I’ve heard, this was a particularly difficult group of kids. This group of kids were eighth graders last year; I’d been in my first year of teaching, working with seventh graders. While I knew some of them, and watched the painful attempts of eighth grade teachers to get through to them, I didn’t really interact with them myself.

Two teachers last year made comments, multiple times, about how that group of kids were among the most difficult teaching years of their lives. The assistant principal joked in a distinctly non-joking tone that they were the reason she became an assistant principal.

Apparently, during the conversation my friend had with these students, a large part of the conversation involved students apologizing to him. They’d felt terrible about their behavior to him – especially with his leaving the school – and gave a lengthy, heartfelt apology. It was a moment of closure for him, he said, and it made him feel a bit better about leaving.

I couldn’t help but think about how this conversation represented just another way that teaching is a particularly unique job, and just another way that people misunderstand the job. Sometimes, it’s just hard. More difficult, stressful, and painful than the average career can be. Sometimes, it’s so hard that people who have dedicated their lives to this career consider quitting. This is true regardless of how long you’ve taught; there will be years, even after more than a decade of teaching, that someone considers leaving because one year can be so difficult it feels like it’ll break them.

My friend also had a lucky moment. These students didn’t have to come to his show, and didn’t have to apologize; I would guess that there are many teachers who have a year as difficult as my friend’s year, but those many teachers don’t get the same moment of closure. That makes the hard times even harder. Maybe a group of kids will feel bad about how they treated their teacher, but their teacher doesn’t know that. Their teacher may well just think they couldn’t get through to that class. Their teacher may just think that was one incredibly difficult year of teaching, without ever knowing the true impact they had on their students.

Sometimes, it’s just hard. There’s no resolution. There’s no understanding that at some point it will get easier, or that you won’t have any more terribly-behaved students. There’s no year in your teaching career where it becomes magically easy and smooth all the time. My friend was a legend in my district. He was a legend. The teacher kids talk about like he saved their lives, and for some of them, he probably did. He is the Hollywood depiction of the inspirational teacher. He’s been teaching for over a decade, and last year, he left for a job that was no longer a full-time teacher. That’s an incredibly important point about teaching that many people don’t realize, or neglect to mention, or ignore in their commentary of the education profession. Sometimes, no matter how much your experience, talent, or passion, this job is just really hard.

The Call Home

Year: 1

My mom is a teacher. For much of her career, she taught special ed preschool, but she’s also taught several other grades at the elementary level. She’s currently finishing her PhD so that she can teach college students how to become teachers. She is the picturesque preschool teacher: incredibly kind, optimistic, enthusiastic, and patient as a saint. She always knew that she wanted to be a teacher; my mom has always been one of the teachers to consider her profession a calling.

By October, I didn’t know how to tell her that I hated my job.

I refrained from calling my family and talking honestly about teaching. It always seemed too difficult to discuss without crying, and after the help they’d given me to get through college and become a teacher, I didn’t want them to feel like their help had gone to waste. I also didn’t know if they would understand how difficult this particular job was. Even though we already had a teacher in the family before I graduate, I couldn’t remember hearing stories from my mom about the experiences I was seeing in my classroom. I especially didn’t want to disappoint my mom, who had been so supportive of me and so excited when I expressed the desire to become a teacher.

One day, during lunch, I called my mom. In the silence of my classroom, hoping that no teachers or students would walk in, I broke down in tears. I told my mom about my students’ lives, how their behavior had only worsened throughout the year, how I didn’t feel effective, how I didn’t like my job, how I was afraid I’d chosen the wrong profession. Every part of this job seemed impossibly hard. Being the wonderful person she is, my mom listened and gave me advice I’d needed to hear.

“I’d been worried to tell you, because of how you feel about teaching,” I confessed to her, trying to quiet my tearful breathing. My mom laughed a bit before responding: “Oh, Torey, I didn’t enjoy teaching until at least year three.”

Oh wow. Pitiful as it is, I had never considered how my mom may have struggled during her first few years of teaching. She went on to remind me that every teacher has been in my position, crying in frustration at his or her desk. If a teacher acts like that hasn’t happened, my mom told me, that teacher lied. That conversation was a small but important turning point for me; I didn’t yet have solid relationships with my colleagues, my friends were still struggling with their first years of teaching, and I still had a difficult and stressful job to do, but I had the important reminder that I was not alone or abnormal or weak in my stress.

What that statement says about teaching as a profession is up to interpretation, and also up to how optimistic or pessimistic you are as a person. I feel distinctly better this year compared to last year, though I’m not yet in the dreaded October (cue horror movie music), so it’s difficult to say for certain right now.

But, I think, it’s important for teachers (like me) to remember that this is a difficult job because it’s a job for humans, and humans are messy and difficult. It is far more stressful than a “normal” job, and if you’re not stressed during your first year of teaching, you’re either lying to me or you’re superhuman. (No offense, but you’re probably not superhuman, so you might as well be honest here.) That first confession that someone makes about how extremely ridiculously insanely difficult the first year of teaching is – to your mom, friend, girlfriend, colleague, whoever – is an important confession. It is the first step to leaning on other people for support and help, which is absolutely necessary in a job like this. First year teachers, don’t be like me. Don’t wait until October to admit that it’s hard. Make that phone call home.