Monday, August 29, 2011

Back on the chain gang

Today was my first day back in my classroom since June, and I'll be totally honest: I was d-r-e-a-d-i-n-g it.  Which is not a good sign, because the summer should have (and usually does!) left me feeling relaxed and refreshed and ready and other pleasantly alliterative r-words to set up my classroom.  New Sharpie flip chart markers!  New table names!  New refrigerator and microwave for my classroom!  ("No matter what happens this year," I said ominously when I bought them on sale at Target, "at least I'll have snacks.") 

I must do a bad job teaching my students to respect our school supplies, or maybe $#@! just happens when you have nearly thirty 8-year-olds in a room, because I've had the misfortune of watching my supplies get destroyed so many times that it almost (almost!) sucks all the joy out of restocking my classroom with new ones.  Every year I buy those cheap plastic sharpeners from Staples on sale for fifty cents, and every year they break three days into the school year (which is likely the fault of shoddy manufacturing, not mishandling by my students), and every year I buy more, reasoning, "Hey, it's fifty cents."  If I added up all the fifty-cent sharpeners Staples has suckered me into purchasing, I could probably afford to purchase a fancy electric sharpener.  (I have one of those, too, but the noise is so ear-splitting that my #1 classroom rule this year instead of "Respect classmates, teachers, schoolwork and property" is likely to be "No one touches the sharpener."  Just kidding.  Probably.) 

Of course, it wasn't just the threat of broken school supplies that gave me pause.  Last year was a really hard year for me.  In some ways, it was my toughest year yet as a teacher because it so deeply shook my confidence in myself and my ability to teach, to work as a member of a team, to keep myself and my classroom organized, to get through to my students.  It was my first year at a new school, and I left it somehow feeling as though I hadn't represented myself the way I wanted. I wasn't happy with myself as a teacher.  I did a lot of thinking about it over the summer, because I knew that the only way to start fresh in a new school year would be -- as self-help-y as it sounds! -- to shift my perspective from excuses (I had a hard time because I didn't get along with my co-teacher, or I had a tough class) to pro-activity (next time, I can try to change...).  Otherwise I could feel myself slipping easily into the role of those stereotypical bitter old teachers everyone is always complaining about. 

When I got my teaching license in college, my professors made me write a statement of purpose defining my teaching philosophy.  I wasn't yet a teacher, so how could I know what my teaching philosophy was?  I just pulled out my fancy portfolio to look at it and it's filled with jargon-y buzzphrases like "empower my students with the ability to take charge of their own learning" and "differentiate instruction for students so that each student may have an opportunity to work at his or her instructional learning level."  It's easy to look back on those words now and laugh at myself: Oh, undergraduate Miss Brave, IF YOU ONLY KNEW.  But it's also easy to take those words in earnest.  Of course students should take charge of their own learning!  How fantastic it would be if teachers would always differentiate instruction for students so that each student may have an opportunity to work at his or her instructional learning level!  (Memo to undergraduate Miss Brave: That is a mouthful.) 

I guess my point is that the education debate sometimes feels so polarized that you're either a bitter old cow of a teacher who's just riding out the years until retirement, or you're a naive eager young teacher who's passionate about revolutionizing the teaching world.  In terms of teaching experience, I'm practically middle-aged (according to this article, almost half of NYC teachers leave the system within six years), and this year like never before I feel a strange pressure to define my teaching philosophy for real this time, not just for pretend in a college class.  And the truth is, despite what the movies would have you believe, I don't think that all it takes to help your students succeed is prove to them that you believe in them.  I think it takes more than that -- a lot more -- and my task this year is to put those puzzle pieces together, to keep all those balls in the air.  Be strict, but not mean.  Be firm, but be flexible. 

There was a really interesting article in the Times magazine recently about "decision fatigue," about how being forced to make lots of decisions -- even seemingly insignificant ones -- can sap your willpower.  Mr. Brave's first reaction when I told him about it was to comment: "That explains why you're so exhausted at the end of a day of teaching."  Then he put on his 8-year-old voice: "Miss Brave, can I go to the bathroom?  Miss Brave, can I sharpen my pencil?"  Teachers make dozens of decisions in the course of a school day.  Last year I got so bogged down in the little decisions -- am I going to let this go or am I keeping him in for recess?  Should I express my opinion or just keep my mouth shut? -- that I forgot to focus on the big ones.  Am I going to try something new or just give up?  Am I going to take charge of this class or aren't I?

So this year as I rearranged and reorganized and readied and other pleasantly alliterative r-words my classroom, I was realistic.  I didn't fantasize about how my sharpeners would stay pristine and unsullied all year.  I didn't tape up my new behavior chart without expecting it to fall down (which it did, moments later...and moments after I tacked it up again...and moments after that...until I finally tracked down my mounting tape!).  But I did get a little geeked out about my hot air balloon nameplates for the door.  And I did name my tables after important values I want my class to display this year.  (Calling the Kindness table to line up is just much cooler than calling Table 3.)  I started with the small decisions, so I could ease in to the bigger ones.  What kind of year are we going to have?  It's not entirely up to me, of course, but I need to set the tone -- and with September 8 drawing nearer, I'll have to make the decision to be ready.


Anonymous said...

This made me laugh but more importantly it got me excited. I have to make a point to read your blog more often. You write so well, and you tell it like it is. The fact that you bring humor to the things that so many can't laugh at makes me confident you'll work through this year with joy. Don't lose your sense of humor.

Erica Thomas said...

I really love the new names of your tables! What a fun idea.

I too am thinking my back to school thoughts.

Have a great year Miss Brave!

Tallinnan Risteilyt said...

School for us here in Finland started already coule of weeks ago and i too am not all that excited about it..

JenLM said...

Wow, we could be the same person right now. It's my 15th year teaching, and I feel like I'm too young to be counting the years to retirement, but have been at this too long to be passionate and excited. And the NYT article about "decision fatigue" really resonated for me. I've been thinking of it a lot as a wife and mother (sometimes it's just easier to say "yes" than to say "no" YET AGAIN....) but Mr. Brave is totally right about all those little decisions we make all day long that sap our strength for the really big, thoughtful ones we need the energy for.

Also, my 7th graders ARE forbidden from using the electric pencil sharpener during class. Last year I actually unplugged it from the wall and stuck it in a closet, I was so sick of the disruption it created EVERY SINGLE TIME. I tried putting mechanical pencils at the tables as a substitute, but they disappeared. Then, I tried tying string around the pencils and TAPING THEM TO THE TABLES. Ended up with string wrapped around broken pencils. Then I gave up and they had to figure out the pencil problem for themselves. And they did.