The Fear of a Blank Classroom

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(Photo Credit: Erin Schulz)

In college, I double-majored in education and creative writing, so I’m familiar with the fear of a blank page. For me, facing a blank page is difficult not because I don’t have any idea about what to write, but because I have so many ideas that I care about. And until I start writing, they’re perfect. Once I put my fingers to the keyboard, things get a lot messier.

I was struck by that same feeling on Thursday, when I went to check out my classroom. I have tons of ideas about what I want and need in my classroom. Thanks to this post I have a thousand books to move into my new class. I have a whole list of procedural posters to create, not to mention tracking systems. I’m not an interior decorator! I can’t even keep my bedroom in an organized state of chaos.

I created a Pinterest board a few weeks ago, solely to pin classroom organization and decoration posts. I’m not sure if this was a good idea. I’ve got lots of inspiration now, but also a fair dose of intimidation. Where do people find all of these boxes? Or these ideas? My handwriting does not automatically look like an artsy Microsoft font, and I’m sure some of my students will be better at cutting straight lines then I am. I could spend days on Pinterest, staring at the creative work of other teachers. It’s only helpful until it turns into blatant procrastination.

The empty classroom terrifies me for the same reasons as a blank page: I have so many ideas and I’m paralyzed by my inner editor. The inner editor, a concept I was introduced to by Chris Baty’s book No Plot No Problem, is the voice that critiques my best creative efforts. The inner editor expects perfection immediately. And that’s a problem, because first drafts are never pretty. Instead of making me a better writer, the inner editor stops me from writing at all.

I’m headed into my classroom in a few minutes to start assembling bookshelves and wrangling tables, and I’m not taking my inner editor with me. I’ll bring her later, when I have a rough-draft of the room laid out. I’m sure it won’t start off perfect, but one thing I learned from being a creative writing major is that it’s easier to make something great when you have something to start with.

Wish me luck, and feel free to reply with advice, pictures, or links about how you create your perfect classroom!

Back To Being Ms. Garvey

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(Photo credit: Vero Villa)

Just about this time last year, I was hiking over the Pyrenees, starting a 500-mile walking pilgrimage across Spain. Eight months ago I was dancing on the beaches of Thailand with thousands of strangers under the full moon. Five months ago I was taking shots of snake blood and motorbiking down the coast of Vietnam a la Top Gear. Three months ago I was watching the sunrise from a hot air balloon over the fairy-chimney-shaped rocks of Turkey.

No job, no responsibilities, no deadlines.

And yet for some reason, in April I signed away that life of travel and freedom so I could spend last week in a meeting room in hot and humid Houston, attending sessions on the planning and execution of middle school history objectives.

People told me I was crazy when I left the classroom at the end of the 2013-2014 school year to backpack solo around the world…and an equal number of people told me I was crazy when I decided to come back.

But the children were waiting, the job offer was there, and here I am.

At my KIPP onboarding (terrifyingly called KIPPnotizing—but that’s another story), Mike Feinberg referenced Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken to symbolize the difficult choice our students make when they choose the long hours and high expectations of attending a KIPP public charter school.

While I believe in Mike’s interpretation, I think it’s just as important for us to remind our kids that not all decisions are as binary. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—as a 2010 corps member and a world traveler; as a new-to-the-classroom Big KIPPster and an experienced teacher with three years under my belt; as a Connecticut Yankee and a lover of all things Texas—I’ve been taking both roads my entire life.

I went on an incredible adventure last year, but that doesn’t mean this year will be any less incredible. I am back to being Ms. Garvey, and I can’t wait to share this year’s adventure with you.

Pop Links 8.19.14: Pay Kids To Go To School; Discuss Mike Brown; Teacher-Led Administration; Behavior Management App

  • To break the cycle of poverty, a Memphis school district is banking on the idea that paying students to go to school will produce better results. Read more about the controversial incentive system.
  • The Michael Brown shooting and its aftermath have dominated the news media for the past few days, but how will you discuss this complicated topic with your students? NPR offers guidance for broaching the topic in class.
  • At one Boston school, teachers are given a say in all aspects of running the school. PBS explores the inner workings of this innovative teacher-led school administration.
  • Have some unruly students in your classroom? There’s an app for that! Manage class behavior with ClassDojo, an app and website which allows you to easily keep track of individual student’s actions.
  • TFANet Resource: Tracker

Motivation Monday: Today

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By |August 18th, 2014|General|0 Comments|

Coming Home

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It is a cool afternoon in September. My stomach aches, my hands are sweaty, and I’m standing at the whiteboard of a local school, apparently to help prep them for PSATs. I shouldn’t be so nervous—I did something like this for two years under more emotionally taxing circumstances. Still, I haven’t been in front of a classroom for nearly the same amount of time, and every fear I had about myself as a teacher starts racing through my head:

What if I can’t do this?

What if I’m horrible again?

What if the kids are so bored they walk out?

I write “Ms. Torres” on the board.

***

When I last wrote about my time as a teacher, I shared my reflections on why I had chosen to leave the classroom, as well as revealed a perhaps eternal truth: there are some choices in life that will consistently leave you asking, “What if?” What if I had stayed? What if I had continued teaching, following my once-dream job?

I still believe I made the right choice. That said, remembering the fire in my belly about becoming a teacher, recalling how passionate I was to go to work most days, it ached a little to revisit.  Any time I thought about the classroom, I thought about a line I had written when applying to Teach For America:

There are few things in my life that are certain. I don’t know how much I’ll pay for a gallon of gas next week…There is one thing that I am certain I want to do: I want to teach.

My most recent role at Teach For America was community listening. I heard a lot of the stories people share about their classroom. Each time, I left feeling inspired, but also a twinge of… what was it? Jealousy? Regret? Remorse?

I thought I had left the dream of teaching behind to pursue a “larger impact.” Wasn’t that what I was doing?

***

Students began to file in, a little meekly at first. Were they nervous? Scared of this random twentysomething in an awkwardly fitting dress at the front of the room?

Don’t worry, guys. You can’t be half as terrified as I am right now.

“Hi there! Find a seat anywhere. I’m Ms. Torres. I’m your teacher today.”

***

I hadn’t been looking for a new job—that’s what I told everyone, including myself. I had only gotten my California credential transferred to Hawaii so I could get better part-time gigs as a tutor or maybe an afterschool specialist to be around students again. I was fine at my new job on staff with TFA. I mean, I liked it, I loved the people I worked with, and I appreciated an opportunity to be on social media as part of my job. That was great.

Sometimes, though, as the afternoon would wind down, and some of our MTLDs would go visit classrooms, or I would see what corps members were posting about their students, I would be left looking at the blue glow of the computer screen, wondering, “Is this what my career is?”

Let me clarify: I absolutely do not mean to say that the dedicated people who work in front of computer screens every day—at TFA or otherwise—aren’t amazing, devoted, or doing worthwhile work. They often are. But, I was left with a few glaring facts about myself:

  1. I missed working with students.
  2. I liked teaching, and didn’t know if two years had given me an adequate perspective on if I was any good at it.
  3. The more I worked, the more I realized that meaningful change did not mean leveraging my voice or the organization’s voice, but those of communities we were serving.
  4. Teach For America (and its donors) and I (and my student loans) had put time and effort into making me into a good teacher, and I didn’t know if I had adequately used that gift.
  5. I missed working with students.

***

The lesson goes better than I expected. I am nervous, especially about teaching math to kids who probably were more advanced in algebraic ability than I am at this point. Still, the kids talk to each other, engage in some discussion about the “why” of certain techniques, and even laugh a little. They file out of the room, a few saying, “Thanks! See you on Thursday!” as they do.

I breathe a sigh of relief when they leave. The knot in my stomach unwinds, and I start to think about what I would do differently in the next lesson.

***

My hands were shaking. It was late afternoon on a Friday, and I was sitting on a bench at the beach. I was watching the waves beat against the stones, never more unsure of what I was doing with my whole life.

A little over a week before, in my search for tutoring jobs, I had stumbled across a school a few of my friends taught at that was seeking an English teacher. I liked the school a lot—a focus on tech and near where I lived. On a whim, I decided to apply. I figured that half the state would be applying, so I thought nothing of it.

Three days later, they invited me in for an interview. I thought it went well.

Three days after that, I was sitting there, waiting for the call that would tell me what came next.

Throughout the entire process, I was leapfrogging over my own internal sense of conflict. Was this what I wanted? I had only been at Teach For America as a staff member for a little over two years (what is it with us and two years?!). I hadn’t thought about going back into the classroom for at least another year, maybe not until I had kids of my own.

Throughout the entire process, I had pushed forward, thinking, Well, if they offer me the job, I don’t have to take it. I could say no. I could stay away from the classroom for all the reasons I remembered—the long hours, the occasionally demoralizing look at test scores, the sometimes rowdy students. I could keep doing what I do now.

Another thought came: But is what you’re doing really the most you can be doing? Is this the job that makes you the most happy? Are you making the “larger impact” that you wanted? Or is there another group of kids whose voice you want to help find?A wave came up, lapped the shore, churned the water, pulled it back.

The phone rang.

***

A few days after that first prep class, my manager emails me. “I thought you might want to see an evals from one student on your first lesson. :)”

“She is very good at teaching.“

I laugh. Six words make my day.

***

Yes, it’s perhaps an eternal truth that some choices will leave you wondering, “What If?” There’s no way to know the future and to look down the path you ultimately didn’t take.

I think it’s possible, though, to be granted another shot, the optimism to realize that you not only could have been great, but still have the opportunity to do something great. Then, it’s not a question of can, but a question of choice: will you choose to do more? Or will you stay on the path you know pretty well already?

It was important for me to take a step back at the end of my TFA commitment and reassess who I was and what I needed. Now, it is essential to realize that where I needed to be and who I need to be standing with was there all along, waiting to welcome me back.

Students need teachers who not only want to teach, but want to provide them the platform. What kind of future would I choose to build? One for myself, or one for them, too?

So, for all the whiteboards I come into contact with in the future, for all the classrooms I hope to learn in and help lead: I hope you’re ready.

Ms. Torres is back.

 

Goodbye, Dread

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(Photo credit: DieselDemon)

August came without welcome, and nightmares of the first day of school began unbidden with the memory of Delia choking Robert to the floor dancing at the forefront on my mind. I hadn’t thought of school much in June or July, and when I did, it was accompanied with a feeling I coined as “the dread.”

When a friend from my hometown asked how I felt about going back to school, I laughed, embarrassed at the truth:

“Honestly, I’m dreading it.”

She nodded. “I knew you’d be feeling that way.”

And so I began to tell Rachel and her husband, Thomas, about “the dread” while we ate cheese covered fries and wings.  I told them about the way I was planning to survive from Monday to Friday and enjoy a respite from Saturday to Sunday.

As I spoke, a guilty feeling surrounded me as I remembered talking with incoming corps members about how much I love my kids, love teaching, and want to keep doing it. I remembered feeling a glow surrounding me then, a love that made my heart feel bigger and fuller, a hope that burned and sparked in me.

“I want to remember the good!” I said. “But every time I try, I see Delia choking Robert to the floor.”

Rachel told me to read my old blogs.

“You wrote about the good things, Lydia,” she told me. “Little lessons you learned, that kind of thing. Read it. I think that will help.”

The next morning I googled TeacherPop clicked my little picture in the author’s section, and began scrolling through posts. I started with A Wall Full of Love, and then skipped around until I found the one I needed to read.

The post about the danger of the only story I seem to remember. The story of Delia chocking Robert:

“…negative focus is draining. When we are told that the future of the world is at stake … that we must make a change or else … we focus on the “or else.” A black hole begins to open. Everyone is already too tired. We don’t need another struggle to haunt us.

And so I realize that in telling you my horror story from Friday, complete with choke marks and suspensions, I am not motivating anyone to make a change.”

My eye scanned the words, drinking them in as I reached the poem at the bottom:

Sometimes I walk into my school and I find joy spread across the hallways.
I find joy in the face of a blond chubby boy lit up at the first bars of “Eye of the Tiger.”
I find joy when I try to belt out Mary Mary’s “
Can’t Give Up Now” as we prepare fifth grade for the Black History Month performance.
I find joy when I try using social media for homework, and students like all my science-themed photos on Instagram.
I find joy when Matt says, “Ms. Freeman, do you have anything broken, like technology?”
And more joy when he fixes it.
I find joy when I remember Delia’s insight into the Syrian conflict earlier this year.
I find joy when Robert tells another student that he has so much to live for.
I find joy when Devon sings about butter.
And even more joy when Anya leads a cheer about radiation being a form of heat transfer.
I find joy in hugs, in notes, in subtle brilliance, and in unmasked cleverness.
I find joy when students can explain why we have seasons, and I find joy when Jimmy dances his way through an interactive quiz:

correct answer after correct answer.

Because in a world of darkness,
in a world of despair,
moments of joy can guide and teach us,
reminding us that in the greatest of struggles lies the greatest of hopes.

We all have to make a cognitive choice on what to spend our energy focusing on. I am struggling to not remember Delia’s hands around Robert’s neck, and instead to remember her sassy smile and her daily, “How you doin’, Miss Freeman?”

And so, with discipline and drive I am seeking out the memorials, the pictures, the videos, and the sentences of hope that I recorded over the last year. My mind has seemed to erase those good things and wants to play the bad on repeat.

But I’m tired of “the dread.”

I want my hope back.

Pop Links 8.14.14: Mike Brown; Student Loan & Health; Buzzfeed Classroom Hacks

  • Brittany Packnett, the Executive Director of TFA – St. Louis, reflects on Mike Brown: “Education didn’t kill Mike Brown.  Racism did.”
  • Student loans are no longer detrimental to young graduates’ bank accounts – it also affects their health. Read more about the connection with student loan debt and physical health.
  • Get ready for the new school year with 37 tips and tricks to make your classroom life easier from the most trusted source on the internet, Buzzfeed!
  • TFANet Resource: Place Value
By |August 14th, 2014|General|0 Comments|

First Impressions: Moving In

It’s officially August, which means the back-to-school commercials are everywhere. I’m sure I’ve never been so excited about school supply sales at Target! The Washington Corps is halfway through a two-week stint in Seattle, hard at work preparing for our first weeks in the classroom.

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(Photo Credit: Waldemar Merger)

It was the same this time. I’ve been in Chicago, in Seattle, and flying over the country late at night, looking down at constellations of city lights. A lot of my fellow corps members have mentioned feeling uncomfortable with everything that is still up in the air. But I didn’t think I minded all the back-and-forth and quality time with my suitcases until I stood on our back porch and felt like I was home.

I know that my experience here is different from a lot of new corps members. Some of us are still finding our placements, or looking for a place to live. And unlike a lot of corps members, I’m moving into a small community that smells like farming. I feel at home in a town that is 45 minutes from anywhere and 3 hours from anywhere “important.” But in the next few weeks, all the 2014 corps members share this experience of finding our new place and putting down our first roots.

This week we are focused on setting goals for our classrooms, navigating our tracking systems, and refreshing our management skills. In a lot of ways, the concrete nature and urgency is like it’s been all summer, but now that I see where I’m going, I have so much more energy to dedicate to the work.

For those of you who are still looking for school placements, homes, or necessary furniture: Good luck! It’s coming soon! And for all of us who are in the messy and stressy process of moving: Congratulations! Enjoy the treasures you find in your new community—whether these are constellations or coffee shops. We are so lucky to have whole new communities and homes to explore! Things are about to get even more hectic, so stay tuned.