I teach at a school with about 130 total kids in the 7th-12th grades. I’m in a unique position to get to know the kids deeply because, as a resident of an apartment on school property, I am totally embedded in their lives. I am almost always on the basketball court in the park for an hour after school and crash virtually any event that happens on school turf (which, in a small town like Weiner, is pretty much everything). Yet, regardless of my proximity, I slowly realized that even my constant presence with these kids simply wasn’t enough to understand — let alone nurture — their individual identities. What do my students deeply value? How can my classroom be a place that is founded on their values?
Sometime between February and March earlier this year, I began to lose the euphoria I started the year with. I was gripped with an unusual negativity and no longer felt driven by the inexplicable combination of giddiness and tenacious agitation that fueled my work in the first semester. As I was preparing some documents for my principal, I went back through the vision I had written in the beginning of the school year right after Institute. Here was my bottom-line:
“That students understand the power they have to create, interpret, and evolve meaning through reading, writing, and critical thinking – and that they link this power to their opportunity to become leaders in their school and community.”
Overall, not bad, and I’m still committed to creating a place for students that nurtures this bottom-line vision from last year. But honestly, where is the joy?
As I read through the rest of my vision from last year, even my mouth started to dry out. The entire document was full of very crisp, precise, arid descriptions of what I wanted to see from kids and how I was going to lead them there – and rightfully so to a certain extent. Given the gravity of the achievement gaps in the communities we serve, we have to be methodical in our approach. As teachers, our modus operandi must be purposeful and fierce – but certainly that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice the joy of teaching along the way.
What about the idea of seeing reading with my kids as utterly enjoyable? What about the pleasure of sharing my writing with kids because I want them to see how much I like expressing myself in essays and poems? What about modeling discussion participation as a passionate speaker because I believe that civil discourse is one of the most important components of a peaceful society?
The most daunting part about writing my vision as a first year teacher was twofold: one, I didn’t know my students and, two, despite the grandiose qualitative descriptions I wrote of a classroom in its most ideal state, I was pretty anxious about what and how to teach all day every day.
Given the reality of our limited perspective at this point in the year as well as the weight of our role, I started to wonder what else we should keep in mind as we refine our visions for the year ahead. Two big questions seemed to stick out to me as I read through tremendously inspirational examples I had from other first year teachers:
Whether you’re a first, second, or thirteenth year teacher, there are so many things to juggle at the start of the year that your first encounter with new students can seem unmanageably daunting. I’ve talked to many new Teach For America teachers who spent much of their valuable time after Institute making posters and decorating their classrooms. While a comfortable learning environment is important for student achievement, beautiful walls are not paramount for the first day. If you’re already there, bravo! But if you’re among the many others who feel like the sand in your hourglass is falling at a dangerous speed, here are the five non-negotiable things to have ready to go before you start your first week.
It goes without saying that first impressions matter. Your approach to and execution of the first 10 minutes in your classroom are very important. The following list is intended to help you make it count.
I recently sat down with a group of teachers who just finished their Institute experience in the Delta. What caught my attention was how fondly they reflected on the relationships they had built with their CMA.
The bags under their eyes seemed to disappear as they enthusiastically rattled off details from their “personal and purposeful” content sessions, the virtually “instantaneous feedback” they received on their lesson plans, and the cumulative hours and hours of “meaningful conversations rooted in who we were becoming as teachers.” It’s not the case for everyone, but the role a good CMA plays in our development throughout institute is undeniable.
But what happens once you’re out of institute? While we’ll all hopefully have an equally amazing relationship with our MTLDs, their support will be decisively different. Gone are the days of 24-7 lesson plan support, personal counseling, and daily in-class coaching. So what to do?
Quite simply: Find your surrogate CMA.
In addition to the ongoing support of your MTLD, having someone else to turn to in a pinch will be a tremendous asset. Perhaps there’s a particularly strong teacher who you worked with or observed. Perhaps there’s a group of teachers that you collaborated with during Institute or at Kickoff. Maybe you’ve met an experienced teacher at your school with whom you connect, or know of an administrator who you feel particularly supported by. Whoever it is, make them your surrogate CMA. Hound them (respectfully, of course), question them, collaborate, share, and reflect with them.
Below, I’ve outlined a few ideas to get you started.
I’ve long nursed a love-hate obsession with Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body. A self-proclaimed guru in “lifestyle design,” Ferriss writes on his blog about everything from staying in shape to making gobs (and gobs and gobs) of money to aerating wine with a blender. In his quest to generate the perfect lifestyle design, he made an important discovery. Restated as a formula, it looks something like this:
LEARNING + SERVICE = HAPPINESS
Ferriss doesn’t mention teaching in his post, but it’s the first profession that came to my mind as I read.
If that’s true, then why are so many teacher so unhappy?
That quote comes from “The Art of Powerful Questions,” a report published almost a decade ago by The World Café Foundation. I did some research which led me to a more recent piece by Ron Ashkenas in HBR. Asking questions well, it turns out, is an elusive skill. Ashkenas takes on “the art of asking questions” in the business community, but it seems just as applicable to the intricate world of education.
So I adapted his list to the reality of our context. Here it goes: