Tag Archives: first year of teaching

Minding Your Own Business

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For my third year of teaching, along with switching schools for the third time, I also started teaching third grade. Previously I had identified as a middle school teacher, ending the day reeking of sixth and seventh grade hormone dust, much to the chagrin of my roommates. The transition to becoming a third grade teacher was, let’s just say, tearful. For everyone involved.

For starters, third graders are tattle-tales. The neighborhood rubbernecker has nothing on a third grade student. They are relentless in their scrutiny of their peers, and itch for the moment to tell on anyone who falls out of line. This can be tiresome. Multiply it by thirty students and it is downright exhausting.

The result: I coined my first third grade teacher catch phrase. After intentional instruction and “family meetings” with my students on the rug, the mantra we created and reiterated was, “If, for the rest of your life you only worry about yourself, that will be enough.”

This provided plenty of humor when students would come up to me and say, “I know I’m supposed to be worrying about myself, but Anaya just ate the eraser on her pencil.” But oddly enough, making this part of the daily rhetoric helped calm down the tattling, and helped steer the conversation toward self-reflection, a skill that has recently been difficult for me.

I’m generally a reflective person. Probably an overly reflective person. I’m the person who reflects on my reflecting. I have full conversations play out in my head and have, on more than one occasion, been known to make hand motions or facial expressions in fitting with my rehashing of an event. I promise I’m not crazy. Well, not too crazy.

But lately there’s been some stuff going on. Lots of big life changes. Family members are moving to other countries. I’m missing my parents, who live 400 miles away. The routines of my job are not automatic, so the mental requirement is taxing, and I’m examining every movement under a microscope. Reflecting on my reflecting, if you will.

While this has been going on, I’ve noticed a trend. The more stuff going on in my personal life, the more pissed off I get at the news. Mind you, there is always plenty in the news to get worked up about. It never disappoints. But a lot of the time I can still find that inner calm and resolve, keep chipping away at my piece of work to do, my part in creating the world I want to see. Or something like that.

Not lately. Lately I’ve been seeing Facebook status updates and having twenty minute rants to my husband, or my friends, or the check out person at the grocery store. No seriously. Lately I’ve been seeking out information from friends that will allow me to get opinionated and ornery. Lately I want to get out my measuring stick and start whacking knuckles to keep everyone in line.

There’s this rush I get when I am angry. It’s heady and powerful. There’s something so satisfying about identifying as righteous and holding myself a full two feet (two hundred feet) above everyone else.

So anyway, I go to church, at least a couple of Sundays a month, and one of the things that we talk about in church is when Jesus says to look at the log in your own eye before being concerned about the fleck of dust in your neighbor’s eye. And I think it’s pretty amazing how easy it is to see those small flecks in everyone else’s eyes, and how hard it is to notice the log in my own, weighing me down day after day.

Put another way, by my favorite Ani Difranco, “I’ve got something to prove, as long as I’ve got something that needs improvement.”

Maybe part of it is that it is so much easier to feel powerful than to feel powerless. It’s so much easier to look at Facebook and the world news and pronounce myself the arbitrator of right and wrong, and hypothesize whether or not our country should go to war than it is to do the pile of dishes that has migrated its way into our living room.

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It’s so much easier to look at my friend’s financial decisions and raise my eyebrows and shake my head than it is to reflect on whether or not we should be eating out for the fourth day this week.

It’s so much easier to look out than to look in.

This past week I have been coaching first year teachers. There have been so many surprises, so many ways in which the teachers have already surpassed my expectations of what it means to teach for a first year (my expectations being set, of course, at the most basic, fall on your face level of my first year). There has been one refrain I’ve heard over and over.

“They are (fill in number here) graders. They should know how to act by now!”

My response has stayed the same. Maybe they should know how to do this by now. But let’s say that they don’t. Let’s say that they don’t know how to do this. How are you going to teach them?

Because, after all, there’s a lot of things I should know by now.

I should probably know by now how to worry about myself. I should know how to spend time in quiet and reflection. I should know how to cry when I am sad and how to laugh when I’m happy and how to hold other people in love and kindness. And sometimes I do. And sometimes I don’t.

Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of good teachers in my life, ones who have assumed that regardless of what I should know, sometimes I need to be taught again.

I have teachers who remind me what it is to be the person I am, the person I want to be. Like my husband gently reminding me that the first week of the school year is always impossible. Or Karen reminding me that it never hurts to go out for a walk. And Lenora telling me that maybe it’s time to lay off of Facebook for a little while, at least until a little balance returns to my life. My teachers step in and tell me it’s time to put down the measuring stick, all the knuckles are broken.

In short, they remind me that If, for the rest of my life I only worry about myself, that will be enough.

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I’m going to a bonfire tonight.  And I certainly have some firewood to contribute, at least metaphorically speaking.

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You’re Doing It Right (At Least Some Of It)

The worst part of the first year of teaching is failing. Not failing once, or twice. No, failing hundreds of times, again and again.

Or at least, that’s my opinion.

Nothing I was doing was right. From the first day, not know how to respond when Tiara told me I had a nice ass, to the day before Christmas vacation when, in a moment of bonding I “walked it out” to Unk and Royal told me “I didn’t ever be needing to be doing that again,” I grasped desperately for each inch of progress, and mostly felt the rocks give way on my climb toward improvement.

Dramatic? Maybe. But that first year was dramatic.

I’m coaching new teachers and it is the week before school starts. Tensions are high, and the consensus amongst everyone is that everything is overwhelming. Some are masking it more than others, some are grasping at the progress like I did my first year, others have let go of the cliffside altogether and are bracing for the crash at the bottom.

This summer I had two months of professional development about how to be a coach. There was a lot to learn. One of the components we were taught was to view coaching from a “strengths-based approach”. Amongst the other “learnings” of the summer, that one seemed a little unnecessary. Why was it worth mentioning that we believe in celebrating strengths? Duh. I am familiar with the compliment sandwich: start with a positive, then say what you really want to say, end with a positive.

Truthfully, I’ve always preferred the “Atkins-diet approach”. Give it to me straight. Tell me how I’m failing. Rip off the bandaid and stop the sugar coating. Leave off the bread.

I know, don’t you wish I was your coach?

But the importance of “strength-based coaching” was been reiterated to me this week in my professional and private life.

While I’ve been busy meeting teachers and helping set up classrooms, my son has been busy learning how to walk. He isn’t there yet, but he’s gotten very creative in finding props to use as walkers so he can move around the room. His favorite is the coffee table.

He’s been pulling himself up onto furniture for awhile now, but the newest development is to pull himself up, rock slightly forward and backward, and then let go of the table. For increasingly longer increments of time he has started to stand and then either puts his hands back on the table or falls on his butt.

The first time this happened he had such an incredible look of concentration, which was immediately broken by my exclamation of “YOU’RE STANDING! YOU’RE STANDING!!!” Grabbing back onto me, he grinned, sat down, and started clapping for himself.

And that, my friends, is the strengths-based model. Seeing something someone is doing well, and naming it for them so they know to keep doing it.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about. How my idea of only thinking about the bad stuff so I can be better assumes that I know when I’m doing things well. And a lot of times I don’t. A lot of times I feel like there’s nothing but bad stuff. A lot of times I’m afraid to believe in the good stuff, because it makes me vulnerable to disappointment when something happens that shatters the image or calls my confidence into question.

When I watch my son let go of his grip and stand there proudly on his own, my first thought isn’t, “Well, there you go again, not able to stand up.” My first thought is jubilation. My first thought is fondness and pride and love. The same fondness and pride and love that I deny myself, because I’m so busy tearing myself down.

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What if instead I was willing to eat the bread? Instead of ignoring my husband when he says I’m beautiful, what if I let his opinion sink in, let his vote actually count? Lately I’ve been running an election and it hasn’t been a democracy. What if instead of barely listening to the good stuff from my boss because I’m so busy bracing myself for all the mistakes, I allowed myself to consider how those good things happened and take some time to think through how to continue to make them happen. What if I took a deep breath and said, “YOU’RE STANDING!” I’m still a beginner at this coaching and parenting thing, and sometimes standing is it’s own miracle.

As cynical as I am about the compliment sandwich and the strengths-based approach, is it worse than my inner critic?

As I walk through the halls of the school next Tuesday, I have no idea what I will see. I imagine it possible that more than one of my teachers will, like I did my first day, look at the clock at 10:00am and realize they are in for one of the longest, worst rides of their lives. Regardless, I want to be the person who can see the good in what they are doing it, name it, and encourage them to continue on (possibly after having a good cry and a glass of wine).

And then, when I come home, I want to think back on the day and not just cringe at the bad stuff, but smile at the good stuff, too. And then maybe I’ll have some wine, or maybe a sandwich, including the bread.

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P.S. The sandwich in the picture is from Little Goat restaurant here in Chicago, and was (I’m ashamed to admit) the picture I took to brag about my meal on Facebook. Regardless your feelings of this post or compliment sandwiches, let me highly recommend this pulled pork sandwich of deliciousness.

5 Tips I’ve Learned About Work From My Mentor

I walked the quarter mile from the Metra train to my first school for my first teaching job lugging my wheeled suitcase behind me the whole way. The suitcase was full of my personal collection of children’s books, gleaned from my childhood library and garage sales.

I was one of several thousand twenty-two year old white woman applying for the same few teaching positions in Chicago Public Schools and my job and life experience had little to recommend me. I finally got a job after interviewing with the principal at a job fair, answering her questions while she ate Cheetos out of the snack-sized bag. She promised to call me. She didn’t. So I called her every day for weeks until I finally managed to get an interview at the school. The interview consisted of a tour of the building, bullet holes in the classroom windows and all, after which the principal looked at me and said, “Are you sure you want to work here?” I answered in the affirmative, and a few weeks later I showed up for teacher inservice.

I knew very little about how to be a teacher or how to be a worker. I was still learning how to pretend to be an adult.

In her book Lean In Sheryl Sandberg talks about the need for women to find a mentor in their profession. This insider can help them develop as an employee and help them hurdle the potential pitfalls in their job. I was fortunate enough to run into exactly this person on my first day of work. Enter: Karen.

Karen had previously made partner in her law firm when she decided to change careers to become a Chicago Public School teacher in one of the more challenging schools in the district. Karen walked into the office of the school on my first day, took one look at me, and immediately took me in as her project. Since that day she has grown from being my mentor to being one of my best friends. In honor of her birthday I offer you five lessons I’ve learned from her about how to be a better employee (and maybe how to be a better person.)

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1. Sit in the Front

When I’m in new situations I try to squeeze in unnoticed, sitting near the back, slouching in my seat, keeping a book or notebook nearby to detract attention. But this was not Karen’s style. I spent a lot of time watching her, trying to figure out what it was about her that got her so much recognition and praise. And then I realized it. She always sat in the front. For everything. Often directly in front of the speaker. Often she would even go a step further and talk to the speaker afterward, always finding some relevant question or point from what they said.

We all know it’s not cool to sit in the front. Or to be “that person”. But Karen changed my mind of this. She was known by everyone: the boss, the boss’s boss, the other teachers, the parents, and the students. She made herself seen, and once she was seen her ideas were acknowledged and affirmed. Of course this could backfire if you don’t want to be seen. However, Karen wasn’t afraid of being seen making mistakes. Instead, she invited people to come into her classroom, preparing opportunities to be seen at her best (and she was often the best). Her fifth year of teaching she won a DRIVE award for teaching with a $2500 stipend for excellence. It worked.

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2. Read the Mass E-mails

Every week our principal would send out an email telling the staff the announcements for the week. I would generally read the weekly memo, but I was in the minority in that regard. I remember Karen telling me to print out the memos and put them in a binder. She has this thing about binders. I looked at her as if she had turned into a seal. Not only did that seem useless, it was a clear waste of paper.

But I did it. And over time I started to see trends in what appeared in the memos. I started to notice what my principal cared about and ways I could stand out from the crowd. Paging through old memos gave me insight into the goals and vision of my administrative team I otherwise might not have had, and gave me immediate conversation points when called upon by my principal.

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3. Contribute to the Team

Among other challenges my first year of teaching, I found myself strapped for cash. Especially once my student loans came due and I inherited a car from my sister (which cut down my morning commute by an hour and a half each day, but increased expenses). Therefore, when my colleague walked into my classroom in the middle of chaos, ahem, “a lesson” and told me that she was part of the social committee and was collecting twenty dollars from everyone, I dismissed her.

I asked Karen about it later and she said, “You gotta give to the social committee.” I argued with her, but she stood firm. She said, “There are things you do because it builds investment and buy in, and shows you’re part of the team.” I gave the money, and I gained the friendships of my colleagues, people I desperately needed to help me that year, and people I still keep in contact with today.

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4. Take Advantage of the Additional Opportunities

While flailing as a teacher my first year, I was also taking graduate courses to earn my teaching certificate. These classes met three nights a week. Then there was planning lessons and gathering the necessary materials for my classroom. Add to that making copies at Staples everyday since requests for copies to be made at the school had to be submitted a week in advance, which was a week more advanced preparation that I ever had my first year. Free time was at a premium and was mostly spent drinking, crying, or in panic attacks.

There are thousands of opportunities for free trainings and workshops and professional development for teachers. And Karen dragged me to them all, mostly by bribing me with hot chocolate. But these extras were almost always incredible. There were tons of free giveaways, I met important people in the field, I collaborated with other teachers, and I learned a ton about what it meant to be a good teacher, and how I could become one, someday.

Would it have been easier to sleep in on my Saturdays? Yes. Am I a better teacher because I went to the trainings? Absolutely.

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5. Give it Something Extra

It’s an ongoing joke that Karen buys the heaviest, glossiest paper that money can buy. I once asked her to print out sub plans for me, and she printed 150 pages of worksheets on 75 pound, high gloss paper. I came back the next day to find the prettiest, color-ink worksheets sitting completed on my desk. Laughing, I told her that I didn’t think the kids needed to be doing multiplication tables on vellum. She just said, “But it’s so nice to write on that paper.”

We may have to agree to disagree on the quality of our paper, but paying attention to the small details and going above and beyond is a point of agreement. When covering bulletin boards, Karen used fabric instead of paper. And not just any fabric, coordinated and brightly colored fabric. And she kept a couch in her room for the students to sit on in the library.

By doing the extra, she became a magnet for people. As you can imagine, her students love her.

I haven’t “arrived” in my field, so the advice here is shared humbly, with the caveat that it is all anecdotal with no formal research backing. That being said, taking these tips from watching and listening to Karen has allowed me to be pretty successful in all my workplaces thus far. Except maybe when I work with her. Then she steals the show. But it’s worth it to get to be on her team.

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Catching Vomit In My Hands: A Teaching Fail and A Parenting Win

teacherrachel(#TBT: me, my first year of teaching)

The hardest part about the first year of teaching is that you have no instincts to draw upon to help you as you face a sea of faces; twelve year olds with zits the size of Mount Doom and still you are the most self-conscious one in the room. In that moment you are as far away from knowing what it means to teach a seventh grader as the distance you’ve tried to wedge between you and your seventh grade memories. In that moment you become about as qualified to teach seventh graders as, well, your seventh grade self.

Or maybe I’m just speaking for me.

I did, after all, go through an alternative certification program that gave me a teaching certificate after six weeks of teaching summer school while attending evening classes. (These classes were held in a run down Chicago Public School building where the water was not suitable for drinking and the classrooms were on the third floor of the un-airconditioned building. I got heat stroke. But seriously, that’s everyone’s entry into teaching, right?)

Let’s just say I got “on the job training”. A whole lot of it.

I’m a fast learner, so I realized I had taken a belly flop into the deep end of the pool when my plan for helping students enter the school building from the playground on the morning of my first day of teaching went something along the lines of, “We’re in room 210. See you up there.” All the rest of the teachers stood confidently facing their students, telling them the designated stopping points along the way to their classroom. Then in a spell of jujitsu magic, their students neatly filed into one line and silently entered the school.

I think my line may have been able to accomplish this sometime around May. Fine, I’m exaggerating. Sometime around June. If we ever did get that together. There’s a lot about that first year I’ve blocked from memory. But seriously, that’s everyone’s entry into teaching, right?

That wonderful year of my life (my first year of teaching) comes to mind frequently these days as I find myself once again at the beginning of something, something I face without the instincts of a veteran. By this, I mean mothering. I’m still in my first year of mothering, and while I don’t have to do tasks like teach my son how to line up in a straight line, I often find myself surprised by how a simple task can seem impossible. Like how to put a sleeping child into a crib without said child waking up and screaming. (The equivalent of Indiana Jones attempting to take the golden statue…no. sudden.movements.)

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While I was living in Philadelphia during my sophomore year of college I became friends with a woman named Keia. She had a beautiful one year old daughter that was crawling around everywhere. I would follow Keia around pretty much all the time so that I could hold and play with her daughter. One day at church we were sitting in a luncheon and I was holding her daughter when the little girl started to cough. Before I registered what was happening, Keia had turned around in her chair, flung her hands forward in front of her daughter, and her daughter threw up in her mom’s cupped hands.

Gross, I know. But also kind of amazing. I developed a new awe for Keia that day. I think I shouted out something like, “You’re a MOM!” By which I meant, of course, “You have those mother instincts!” The ones that tell you when your child is puking. (Motherhood is glamorous, what can I say?)

Which leads me to this week. Our son has been sick for the past five days with what I assume is a cold and a fever. It is way harder than I ever thought it would be to watch my child wheeze. And maybe a little cute that he has a cough that makes him sound like a pack-a-day smoker. OK, not cute. Sad.

He’s been sleeping in bed with us the past five days which is bad news for everyone. But it was that or wake up fifteen times a night to go get him, help him fall asleep, and then put him back in his crib again. (Refer to earlier note about my skill in the area of putting a baby into a crib.) Turns out the latter is even worse news for everyone. It also turns out that my twenty seven inch long son is able to dominate sleeping space, leaving my husband and me mere inches of space on our king-sized bed.

Anyway, two mornings ago at about five in the morning my son wanted to nurse. Having mastered the art of sleep-nursing I fell asleep, waking up at six in the morning only to realize he was still nursing. I tried to cut him off, but he was having none of it. That is, until he started coughing. And then he promptly threw up all over the bed. Approximately an hour’s worth of milk, all over the sheets.

I kicked my husband awake and held our son out to him so I could get something to clean up the bed. In the four seconds it took me to get off the bed our son started coughing again and then threw up all over my husband.

Neither of us possessed Keia’s instincts. It was our first rodeo. We didn’t know. WE WEREN’T PREPARED!!

And that’s what it is to be a new teacher or a new parent or a new anything, I assume. It takes a long time to feel like you have any mastery over anything. And usually once you do, the game has changed and the rules are different and suddenly you don’t know who’s winning in volleyball anymore. (Seriously, rally scoring? What is that?)

But I know that this changes. Over time, the instincts start to kick in.

I know that I can now get most anyone to line up in single file lines with ease and maybe even a little finesse. I don’t know when that turning point happened, only that it has. After eight years of teaching I can walk into a school and instinctively know where the stopping points should be when directing thirty students from one area of a school to another. Eight years in it still isn’t always easy, but it is habit.

Some expert teaching advice I got during that first year was, “Focus on those things which you can control.” Which I now know is also expert life advice.

Most days the thing I can control is getting out of bed and doing the best I can all over again.

But I have a good end to this story. Yesterday morning I woke up and started nursing my son. About ten minutes in he started coughing. I held him upright and my husband and I both shot out our hands and he promptly vomited into them.

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Instincts. They are amazing things. So is not having to wash the sheets two days in a row.

I told you I’m a fast learner.

-Rachel

The View Past The Limit

I got through my first year of teaching by getting drunk every Saturday and going to church every Sunday. It isn’t a pretty truth but there it is. It helped that my roommates made sure I wasn’t alone on the weekends in case I had panic attacks. And Karen kept me hydrated on a nearly daily basis with Starbucks hot chocolate.

On weekends before my sister and brother in law moved out of the country, I would ride the train to their home an hour west and play with my nephews and cry for hours on my sister’s bed. Suffice it to say it was the hardest year of my life.

Early on I got a care package from a dear friend in Minnesota, a teacher himself. When I called to thank him I asked, “How do you do this? How can you possibly survive being a teacher? I don’t think I can make it through the year.”

He said, “Yeah, but it’s like marriage. You can’t let yourself think about divorce. You don’t give yourself that option.”

There are plenty of really good reasons why people get divorced. That’s not the point of this blog. His words have stayed with me because they offered me a different truth. By giving myself the option of leaving, I would be gone long before I walked out of the door.

A few days later while talking (crying) to my dad on the phone he said the other big truth of that year. “Raye, pretty soon this year will be a distant memory.”

I didn’t leave. That year was impossibly hard. The kind of hard that plumbs the depths and changes you forever. The kind that leaves you sitting in Lake Michigan a month after the end of the school year, so drunk you can only crawl, screaming at God until there aren’t any more tears, there isn’t any more voice.

I started therapy the following week. (I like to imagine that God was sitting next to me in Lake Michigan.)

Parenting, for me, has been a different kind of hard, but the same kinds of panic. The first few weeks my husband had to rearrange his schedule to be available in the event that I started to go to the dark place, as I like to think of it. The first few weeks, I visited the dark place daily. But as time has gone on, the visits have spread farther and farther apart.

I don’t get drunk anymore. I still go to church (almost) every Sunday.

But parenting, like teaching, has taken me to the edge of the place where I draw my limits, where I put up my boundaries. And then it has put me in a M52 turbojet and taken off. I don’t really know what or where my boundaries are anymore.

Last night my baby woke up at 11:30pm, shortly after we went to bed following a dinner with friends. He did not fall back asleep until 1:45am. We are welcoming his first tooth. My alarm went off this morning at 5:15am. I honestly don’t know how I got myself out of bed this morning.

I didn’t know it was possible to be exhausted to the point of nausea, and still cradle my son with awe and wonder, even as the thought, “This is ending with you going back to sleep whether you like it or not” scrolls across my brain like a screensaver.

Last Sunday I was driving home from a friend’s house, baby in the backseat. I was trying to wrap my mind around how I would find the inner resolve to get through the work week. It was dark, and I was waiting at a red light. I looked to the east, and there was the moon. Full, and so bright the whole sky was awake.

It reminded me of that first year teaching. Everyday I drove down Lake Shore Drive. And everyday I made a point to look out over Lake Michigan and admire the beauty of the sun coming up, its rays kissing the water, showing off its artistic ability. I thought of it as choosing life each day, instead of choosing death. Choosing to live that day, instead of just surviving. Choosing not to walk out the door. Choosing to remember that the day would not come again.

The light turned green and I was brought back to the present. I drove the rest of the way home, but I kept glancing over at that full moon. There was not an answer to my questions, other than to get up each morning and do the next thing.

But for right then, there was just that moment, that moon, that sky. There was just the decision to choose life.

And the awareness that one day, this too will be a distant memory.FullMoon660

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