So very many of my friends are returning to school for their second year or 42nd year of teaching. In fact, many have already returned. I have been working with school districts in California, Texas, Arizona and several other places where the theme seems to be the same: we are excited about the start of the school year, but there is never enough time to get ready! For those of you not in the education world, let me tell you a little secret: teachers spend countless hours and countless amounts of money getting their rooms ready for Open House and that first day of school, when all the new kiddos come in with their new binders, pens and pencils, and Kleenex (yes, we often ask families to send in Kleenex, as there isn't always money in the budget for kids to blow their noses). :)
My work is so very different than it was when I was teaching in a classroom day in and day out. I was in San Antonio last week and had the chance to go to Trinity University (from where I graduated with my degree in Elementary and Special Education) to talk to one of the professors about possible future opportunities to give back to Trinity in the way of teaching there. I got teary-eyed as I parked near the Education Department, a place I spent four years of my life for hours on end, not just taking classes but also working off a bit of financial assistance. This felt like home. I was suddenly time-traveling back 34 years ago when I began taking classes there that would prepare me to take on my first job as a teacher in inner city San Antonio Independent School District in a class filled with students who had been labeled Severely Emotionally Disturbed. What in the world was I doing here at this inner city school, I remember thinking, that first day? Even though I had done my student teaching at this same school, I couldn't imagine what it was going to be like to have my own classroom, my own students, and my own curriculum (there was no set curriculum for my students who were in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades).
I will tell you the truth, and I said this to Pat, the professor with whom I was blessed to converse at Trinity the other day: I cried the first two weeks of teaching. Not during the day, of course. I wouldn't dare let my students see my achilles heel (yet), but I went home every single night and cried about something that had gone wrong. My best plan had been thwarted by an unruly student. My dream of reading them a book they would enjoy fell flat when one of them hit another student. Every day was something else. I would literally go home each night, figure out how to fix that one new problem, go in with my oh-so-confident (but I'm crying on the inside) face on, and we'd move forward, only to play the whack-a-mole game. Some new problem would surface that would have me in tears at day's end and there I would be at night, trying to figure out how to fix it, once again going in the next day believing this one solution would put an end to a gator's head popping back up...to no avail.
You know what finally saved me from needing that tissue that none of my students could afford (and I would have never known to ask them) to bring in?
Lynne Reid Banks' "Indian in the Cupboard".
What?? Some of you are sitting there thinking that no book could save a teacher from a group of 14 Severely Emotionally Disturbed students. But it did!! I went to a bookstore (they used to have those way back when I first started teaching) and bought 15 copies of the book and I made a cupboard. In it, I would place five laminated pictures of items that were a part of the next chapter we would be reading. Every day, a student who had earned the most "points" (we were on a points and level system during that time in the world of Special Education) the day before got the distinct honor (and trust me, nothing was a greater honor, God only knows why) of opening the cupboard to find out what was in there that day before we read the chapter.
Once all five items were taped to the board, all 14 students wrote in their notebooks their predictions for what was going to happen in that day's chapter, based on the clues. Never in the history of humanity had a teacher been so grateful to find a temporary moratorium on the hitting, kicking and cussing that these students had previously exhibited. They actually cared about what was going to happen, so they wrote and guessed (and told others their guesses were stupid, so we obviously had some more work to do, but hey! it was a start!). The next piece was to tell them I wasn't going to read the book to them. I would read a paragraph here and there, but they were simply going to have to work on their reading skills in order to find out what happened in the story. And work, they did! All of a sudden, dictionaries were flying off the shelves (and blessedly, not because they were being thrown at each others' heads) to find out how to pronounce a word or to see its meaning.
We had done it---we had found something that inspired them: mystery and intrigue.
I won't lie to you and tell you that every day was perfect after that.
In fact, over the next two years of teaching at Hawthorne Elementary School, one of my students got put in a juvenile detention center for hitting me (I begged them to let Eric stay; he only hit me because he hated his mom and all women, really) and one got arrested for stealing a car (a little guy, Jesse, who was a 5th grader who couldn't see over the steering wheel). But I also got a chance to take each one of my students on trips to the bookstore and out for lunch on the weekends when they had earned a certain number of points, and we formed relationships. Joy and Reminda (my only girls) took to counseling me on my appearance ("Ooooooh, Miss Armstrong, those are some fancy shoes!" they would say one day then the next day, one would say, "Your face doesn't look right today! Did you put on lipstick??"). And we survived and thrived!
As the school year approaches for many, try to remember what took you into the education field in the first place. I'm guessing it wasn't for the pay, and I am also guessing that, for most of us, it wasn't for the "summers off". No, indeed, for most of us, going into teaching was something we simply HAD to do---we had no choice. It was and is in our blood, in our human make-up and DNA ("Must Teach!" we knew).
I pray blessings for each and every one of you who are getting your new crop of kiddos (young or old---them, not you), and remember that just because you are getting a new crop doesn't mean you need to teach in a silo. You don't have to complete that farm analogy. Share ideas with your teammates. Take a new idea from a professional learning opportunity. Teach a professional learning opportunity, for pete's sake! And remember to keep the passion and mystery alive for your students, no matter their age or the subject.
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