I had taken a bit of a break from writing over the past week. I passed over ideas that I wanted to write about in the interest of Getting Stuff Done.
(My sad little internal cheer for the week: No time for distractions or discourse! No time for fun! Get Stuff Done!!!)
And I’ve been crossing things off my to-do list left and right.
(Though I definitely do not think I will be adopting my sad little cheer as a mantra any time soon. Blech.)
Be warned – this post is long and it’s been comprised of so many things that have been swirling in my brain over the last week and it probably should have been 20 posts instead of one. Forgive me.
But I happened to sneak in a few breaks over the past week (which I have found is good for keeping me moving – if I spend too long on any one thing, it tends to be counter-productive) and I saw a few posts. Let me catch you up on my reading:
- Teri Lesense shared in her blog post inspired by the haunting resignation letter shared on Saturday’s Answer Sheet (which I would have missed in the flurry of activity here that day if she hadn’t shared it). Thank God that Teri keeps ripping up her resignation letters because we’re all better for having her voice and expertise shared out on her blog, on Twitter, at conferences, in her books and articles. Her reasons for staying are all about connections and collaborations with her PLN near and far so we can all do better for our students.
- Christine McCartney shared her Letter of Resolution – an answer to the letters of resignation that have been posted widely. Not only does Christine vow not to leave the classroom, but she promises that she won’t be sitting back quietly and waiting to see what kind of madness we have to do/deal with next as a passive observer or innocent bystander.
- Teri Lesense was writing in this post about her own optimism – that teachers are using best practices despite all the mandates and scripted curriculums out there, that things will change, and that This Too Shall Pass. And it is all because of her PLN…which is so much more than just a PLN.
- Beth Shaum made the big reveal of her video – and awesomely named blog – about teacher retention. The first stat she shares is appalling – 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching. She offers the many and varied reasons why teachers leave, but then she shares what teachers have sent her about why they choose to stay. (Full disclosure: I am one of those teachers who submitted material to be included in her video.) It’s a beautiful and thoughtful video. I’m still heartbroken that she has resigned her current position, but I have no doubt that Beth will be doing great things for students (and her fellow teachers!) somehow, somewhere in the future.
- This NYT op-ed (Teachers: Will We Ever Learn? by Jal Mehta) got shared widely in my newsfeeds on Friday by teachers and non teachers alike. The first time I read it through, I noticed that some information had hyperlinks to see the original source of information (this always makes me feel better to know people’s sources), but that others – notably this: “In the nations that lead the international rankings — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada — teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States.” – didn’t have any such source attached. That particular statistic never fails to get me angry because I have yet to see where it has come from. It’s a maddening piece for a zillion different reasons, many of which I will probably never write about. I love the idea of treating teachers as professionals – something I truly believed we are – and I’m all for the idea of more education and mentoring and prep before we’re certified (though there are some serious worries about what might happen if this the development of this hypothetical new certification system were put into the wrong hands).
- Katherine Sokolowski wrote this amazing blog post and poem about why she chooses to stay in the classroom and teach – a post inspired by Beth’s video. Oh, Katherine…you write what I’m thinking before I ever get the chance to think it through – and so much better than I would.
- Sarah Mulhern Gross’s excellent post “You’re Too Smart to be a Teacher!” was a direct response to the NYT op-ed shared above. It hit home. Maybe a little too close to home.
Confession time: I was one of those people who resisted the idea of teaching – never even gave it a thought – because I was “too smart” to go into teaching. It hurts to even type that. I don’t know where the attitude came from. Certainly not my nurse mother and minister father who have the utmost respect for teachers. I loved – and still love – my teachers. I thought the world of them.
Perhaps it’s the fact that I had my heart set on medicine from the time I was young. Perhaps it’s because no one ever suggested teaching to me. Perhaps it’s because I observed enough about how teachers were treated by their students and the parents and the tax-paying public and the politicians already back then that I never ever thought about it as a possibility for me.
Teaching wasn’t even something that crossed my mind until I had to figure out (after I was married) what I was going to do with my life. After I decided I didn’t want to go to med school. After I didn’t get into a physician’s assistant program. After I decided I didn’t want to relocate to do pharmacy school. After I dropped out of nursing school when I realized I didn’t have the personality to sit back and rely on others making decisions.
Bless my husband’s patience as I sought to “find myself” in those years after I graduated from college. I was looking for something to do to augment my part-time pharmacy technician’s wages and came across an ad for emergency substitutes in the three neighboring school districts where I lived. You needed clearances and a bachelor’s degree. I could do that. I applied and was added to the sub rolls and the calls came in.
I learned quickly that unless I was called to substitute for the elementary librarian that I did not have the stamina to spend that many hours with the same group of students that were much smaller in stature (not in personality) than me. I’d come home feeling beaten and exhausted. (Elementary teachers, I thank you a thousand times a day that you can do that magic you do day in and day out – I cannot.)
But on those days when I was teaching at the middle school or high school, I couldn’t feel more enlivened. Not only did the bell ring every 45 minutes or so and bring me a fresh group of students, but I had the most engaging conversations! At least, I did when I didn’t get left to supervise worksheets or videos or tests.
I still didn’t see myself as a teacher. This just seemed a nice way to make some extra money until I decided what I was really going to do. A blip. And not anything to share with my alumni magazine at Franklin and Marshall about what I was doing.
I did sub in a high school English class one day and taught one of the many iterations from literature of Dr. Faustus. I had a short period of time to review the teacher’s plans before the kids came in, but I was more concerned with how they might be able to relate to the plot. What would I have sold my soul for in high school? It only took me a few seconds to come up with an answer since I was sitting at the teacher’s desk in the same room where I had taken English classes as a high school student: a prom date. (Thankfully Satan never came by to offer such a deal…) I shared my story several times over that day and gave them some time to think and talk and write before they read to see what Faustus would have sold his soul for.
That story might have just melted into my personal history and been forgotten had I not run into the teacher a week or so later when I was subbing again. She told me she was impressed with what her kids could tell her about the assigned reading when she returned and then asked me over lunch what I was certified to teach. She looked surprised when I said, “Nothing.” She may have been the first person to ever suggest that I consider going into teaching. I don’t even remember her name, but I think I owe her eternal thanks for helping me find who I was.
All of a sudden I looked back over everything I had done over the last umpteen years. I stumbled across a memory of me playing teacher while my mom was at some meeting or other that I had to tag along for. I remembered helping friends study, making practice tests, sharing notes, tutoring classmates, commenting on papers, looking for extra resources that might be useful, recommending books, training new pharmacy technicians…
It was though I was seeing my past, present, and future through new glasses. Everything seemed so crisp and clear where before it had seemed kind of fuzzy.
I registered for courses to start working on my teaching certificate soon afterwards.
At age 28, I got my first full-time teaching position and I learned that there was so much more I needed to learn. I wished that I had more mentoring. I wished I’d had more preparation. I think I was surprised by this (I’m not sure why – perhaps I still thought that teaching wasn’t going to be that hard?), but I wasn’t sure what to do besides talk to my colleagues about how I could handle some things better and to buy lots of professional development books and work from there. Still, it felt lonely in that corner classroom. I was frustrated in June at the end of the year for a thousand reasons – and I worried about whether teaching would get any easier.
After a year there, I switched schools and soon afterwards became a mom. I had a teacher that I co-taught one class with and just being in the same room with her gave me the opportunity to learn from her. That opportunity and excuse to talk to one other adult who had been teaching longer than I had was so helpful.
I started grad school the summer of 2006 and felt like I had expanded my opportunities for improving as a teacher. I already had figured out after two years of teaching full time that the path to becoming a good teacher wasn’t going to be easy and that I wouldn’t just be able to figure it out for myself. I learned over the next couple of years – and I gained new mentors that I’m so glad continue to offer their insight and expertise.
In 2009, I stumbled across two places that would become my lifeline and introduce me to the rest of my PLN: the English Companion Ning and Twitter. My world opened up in ways I cannot begin to explain. I asked questions and got answers from people – people who had more experience and knowledge than I did. I tried new things. I had my failures and successes, but I had a place to think and reflect and learn how to do it better next time. I acquired – and continue to acquire – new mentors and friends. I participated in chats and collaborated on projects. I read and listened and followed blogs and went to conferences and even decided to expand my opportunities for growth even more and applied to be a part of the ISI in the summer of 2010 at our local National Writing Project site – the Capital Area Writing Project.
All of it I did to become a better teacher for my students because I knew that I couldn’t figure out how to be the teacher they needed on my own.
It’s the most difficult job I have ever had. I make a million decisions every day about a million different things that happen in my classroom. There is no standardized list of what to do that works like a magic wand for all students. There is no guide for every scenario that comes your way. There is no easy answer for every curveball heartfelt questions you could get asked. You learn as you go, sometimes through trial and error, always through reflection.
It is the most rewarding job I have ever had. I have heard people call teaching high school a “thankless job” but I’m not so sure I agree. I got a lovely thank you email from a student on Friday night after she finished reading a book I had recommended to her and a typed letter from a former student left for me on my desk the other day after school thanking me for my encouragement and support. I save the tangible thank yous (what my son and I call xoxos) for moments when I need a lift – but I get thanks of less obvious varieties. The drop in to look for a book. The smile on a face when something I said made something click in their brains. The request for another book recommendation. The heartfelt curveball question. The fifteenth draft of their paper. The sharing of a poem or article. Teenagers aren’t always good at saying thanks, but they know how to show it.
And when I look at my students’ faces, I know that I have a responsibility to them as much as to myself to keep getting better because I still have so much to learn. It’s my way of showing them thanks – and thanking the teachers and mentors who have taught and continue to teach me.
There have been more than enough things that have worn me down over the years that I have written my own letters of resignation – thankfully all ripped up and thrown away when I realized that working with students is the only job I can truly imagine for myself.
Why I stay is for my students. Why I stay is also for me. This job is who I am and I am proud to be a teacher.