Monday, June 16, 2014

In This Together

People think teaching is a solitary profession.   “You don’t have an assistant?” they ask with a look of pity on their face.  What they don’t realize, looking in from the outside, is that teaching is most definitely a team sport whether you are lucky enough to have an assistant or not.    More and more, we’re encouraged to view students in our school as “OUR students”…all of them… not yours, mine, and hers.  OURS. 

In my corner of my building, I’ve never known it any other way.  They have always been OUR students, and we have always been in this together.  When I started teaching fourth grade, every regular education teacher on my grade level had 1.5 or less years of experience.  Talk about the blind leading the blind!  We didn’t just teach together…we learned together, we planned together, we laughed together, we tried not to cry too much together, and we shared EVERYTHING…together.  And somehow, seven years passed…and we kept coming back for more, and so did our students.   How and when did we become experienced teachers, together?

What people don’t realize is that you can’t do this job alone.  Well, you can try, as I know from experience (see If I Knew Then), but it won’t end well.  We need feedback, we need other perspectives, we need support, and we need meaningful contact with a human being more than four feet tall.  We need someone to proofread our newsletters and look out for our kids when we need a quick restroom break.  We need someone to laugh with over what little Johnny did that day or listen when we’re concerned about what’s going on for little Johnny at home, and we need that same person to take little Johnny off our hands for half an hour when we’ve reached the end of our rope in our power struggle with him.

For me, I’ve been fortunate to have one of those “someones” right across the hall for seven years straight.  She’s never said a cross word to me, always helped with a smile, been honest when I needed honesty and gentle when I needed gentleness.  Somehow in the midst of loud cafeteria lunches, tedious staff meetings, stressful National Boards attempts, and hours yelling back and forth between our rooms after school, we’ve become good friends and not just co-workers.  We’ve grown into experienced teachers together, and next year, we’ll keep on growing separately, as she changes grade levels and possibly even schools (willingly, but not easily). 

As she’s packed up boxes this past week, it’s made me think about the pieces of her that are tucked away in my heart.  That’s how it is with teaching; we are modeling for each other even when we don’t realize it.  From her, I’ve gained an appreciation for patience with students and creativity in the classroom.  In another co-worker, I admire organization and forethought in her planning.  In yet another, I try to emulate the way she truly connects with her students.  Another of my original 4th grade level colleagues moved away a couple of years ago, and there are things that I still do in my classroom that I learned from her.  We are stronger as a team than we could ever be individually, if only we’ll allow ourselves to learn from each other and not just teach our students.  Who benefits the most?  The students. 

It’s been easy for me to “team” with my coworkers the last few years.  We came into this together, and we needed each other to stay afloat.  But as the “beginner” years of my teaching career draw to a close and I enter into a new phase of at least somewhat knowing what I’m doing, I hope not to lose the spirit of cooperation that has been the theme of these last seven years.  There will always be someone next door who has an idea my students could benefit from and someone across the hall who might need a listening ear.  
...May we never close the doors to our classrooms and forget.

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” 
–Proverbs 27:17

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Speak Up

I’ve remarked to several people that I feel more like a zookeeper than a teacher this week.  I’ve tried to keep my students engaged and haven’t even shown a full-length movie (which is a miracle in itself and will change tomorrow), but it seems no matter what you try to do this time of year, self-control is out of the question.   I’ve spent most of the week barking orders and begging for cooperation.  We’ll all admit the learning is behind us and now we’re just trying to hold it together for a few more days.

With that said, a raised hand is seen more as of an annoyance than an opportunity at this point.  This morning, while I was explaining to my class how the rest of our day’s schedule was going to go, I saw a hand creep up in the back of the room.  I’m sure I sighed under my breath as I called on the student, patiently awaiting either a silly comment or a question about something I’d just gone over.

Instead, the little boy’s voice rang out, “I just wanted to say that this has been a wonderful class.”  What followed was the quietest, most still moment I’ve experienced in my classroom all week.  The other students were as taken aback as I was by this sudden change of mood, and I honestly think many of them were struck by the same wave of emotion that I felt.  Whether you’re 10 years old or 100 years old, you know when you’ve got a good thing, and you feel a pang knowing it won’t last forever. 

I answered, “You’re right, this has been a wonderful class.  I appreciate your pointing that out to all of us,” and before I could finish my thought, two or three more hands shot up and the room was abuzz with similar comments.  We as teachers often force kids to compliment each other or thank other adults, but I can’t think of another time that I’ve witnessed unsolicited outpouring of such gratitude and kindness from a group of kids.  And all because that one little boy was brave enough to speak up and express a sentiment that we all held in our hearts, but were too busy, too distracted, or too afraid to say out loud. 

It was in that moment that I realized two things.  The first was that I’ve done something right with these kids this year.  Even if they have acted like zoo animals this week, they are far from uncivilized when it comes to appreciating a moment and expressing themselves.  The second was that we should all be a little more like that little boy- unafraid to speak up and pour out our hearts to those around us.  He knew the clock was ticking and if he didn’t say it then, he might not get the chance.  Whether we realize it or not, that’s a truth we all live with every day.  So, whatever it is, raise your hand and say it today.  Chances are someone else is feeling it too.

Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.”  Luke 6:45

Saturday, June 7, 2014

While They're Still Mine

The other day at school, I commented on my cracking, fading voice.  I said, “I’ve been having to apologize to people on the weekends for my voice. I have to explain that my kids are so rowdy at the end of the year I’ve been having to raise my voice too much!”  One of my students said, “I didn’t think you had kids?” 

“I’m talking about you guys!” I replied, “ You ARE my kids.” A couple of the kids said, “Duh!” and a few smiled or giggled. But, to me, the truth of that statement hung in the air.  I usually try to avoid using the term “my kids” in the interest of NOT sounding like a crazy lady who doesn’t have her own kids and therefore claims other people’s as her own.  But there’s no denying there’s some truth to that phrase.

There’s nothing else quite like the bittersweet feeling at the end a school year.  Of course, I love summer; I am a teacher.  If not for summer, I’m not sure any of us would take this job on.  But then there’s the other thing, besides summer, that keeps us coming back for more: those kids.  And whether it’s been a smooth year or a more challenging one, it’s never easy letting them go.  There’s always one more thing you wish you had done or said, one more moment you wish you could’ve shared. 

Every class has a personality of its own.  Knowing that never again will that same group of people be together, like that, in our own little world, always leaves me with a unique sense of loss.  Sure, I’ll see them again.  It’s a small town, after all.  But they’ll be taller, wiser, so grown up…so fast.  They’ll shyly glance my way in public, wondering whether or not I remember them, trying to get up the nerve to say hello.  Never again will they bound through the door of my classroom morning after morning, smiling and racing over to my desk to tell me a story before they even bother to take off their book bag. 

So for five more days, while they’re still “mine,” I want to savor each moment.  And I want to make sure they know they ARE “mine,” and they always will be, no matter where life takes them.  They’ve taken up space in a little corner of my heart and changed me, from the inside out, and I can only pray that I’ve done the same for them.  The end of that 180th day doesn’t change that.  It becomes a part of who we are; we become a part of each other.  For always…

The next time someone says to me, “I didn’t think you had kids?” I think for once I’ll just smile, and tell them the truth.  Oh, I have kids all right… more than I can count.  Maybe not in the way that you mean, but in a way that means the world to me.