I remember being 19 years old, home for break from college, and sitting in on a class my parents were teaching to adults. I was, by decades, the youngest person in the room. Yet, I contributed to the discussion because I don't have a finely tuned “off-switch.” I may resolve to sit in the background and blend in, but it rarely works out that way for me. At one point, a gentleman in the group talked about how intimidating it was to walk into a room with a youngster like me who had “all the answers.” I was surprised by his comment – I certainly didn’t feel like I had all the answers! In reality, I had all the questions first, coupled with a drive to find answers wherever they could be unearthed.
My current research centers around my classroom management, particularly around my ability to define and enforce two key expectations: a quiet classroom and that students remain in their seats. My teacher education program gave me many tools to manage my classroom, but classroom management is not a transferable skill; rather, it is a skill learned by doing…and doing without a safety net. Most teachers I have talked to name classroom management as the single biggest area of growth for them their first few years. And I am no exception.
Classroom management was not my first choice for research. Initially, I wanted to work on building relational rather than instrumental understanding amongst my students, in response to issues that arose last year. Ever since this dichotomy was pointed out to me in my Master’s program, it crystallized how I think about the way I accumulate knowledge and the way I present knowledge to students in a variety of disciplines. However, after a week in my classroom I realized I still needed to hone my abilities to maintain a sense of order in my classroom. It’s difficult to develop any kind of understanding if you can’t hear instruction!
I’m a Kindergarten teacher… but I try not to let people know. It’s not shame that stops me, it’s that enevitable response: “Awwww, Kindergarten! How cute!”
Yes, the kindergarteners themselves are cute. But, Kindergarten, the grade, is messy, hard work. Set aside that many students are still figuring out what that “bathroom feeling” is, they have only been on IN THE WORLD for five or six years. There’s a lot to learn.
We expect a lot out of kindergarteners, and rightly so. Their minds are primed to soak in tons of information. But, I have learned to temper my expectations in one area: emotional recognition.
Every classroom speaks a question. For me, my classroom is asking about cultural. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that different cultures have different “value” around the world. As a teacher at an international school in a Middle Eastern country, I daily encounter people with differing values working in the same place. The majority of students are local, while most of my colleagues are North American. Despite being taught by North American individuals, the majority of students are not native English speakers and are alien to most North American cultural norms.
For many, mid-October is pumpkin spice season; a time when apples are ripe for picking and our favorite television shows are back in full swing.
For first-year teachers, it’s quite different. They just survived a full month of school and suddenly realize things are not going as planned. They question both their commitment and their competence. Their strategies in teaching, once seen as indestructible tools, are now useless. Back to School night means playing the ultimate “fake it till you make it,” telling parents the year’s plans when they are still unclear in the new teacher’s mind.
I was that teacher last year. Those who worked with me in Action Research Group know this well. My in-person check-ins, blog posts, and reflections at that time would make an outsider question whether or not I’d make it to June.
This year, I’m a second year teacher. I have yet to feel the same type of stress, confusion, and disillusionment I did last year. Maybe I’m more prepared, or perhaps I’m wiser. Maybe both. No matter which, I know much of my newfound confidence comes from the power of observation.
Becoming a Master Teacher: Practice Self Care
I have spent my career studying the systems and experiences that make school a dangerous place for students. This led me to teaching. I felt the way I could make the most impact was to be in the classroom, working directly with students and developing creative and engaging content. I still feel this way. But this is no longer why I teach.
Today, I teach because I thoroughly enjoy going to work every day to hang out with a bunch of teenagers. I teach because sharing my love of history and sociology with others makes me giggle with joy. I teach because, on Friday, a student walked right up to me at the beginning of class and said, to my face, “You know what, Ms. Date, you are a just a grown-up nerd.” I teach because my students are the center of my world, and I love that about them.
Non-teachers may say think this sentiment is “cute”. Some teachers may call it impossible and cliché. Whatever they may think, it’s the truth.
I have a confession to make: I am one of the nearly one million viewers tuning in for HBO’s Vice Principals. The show’s been criticized by notable publications like Slate and The Guardian, and justly so—dozens of cringe-worthy comments and scenes, especially surrounding the racially-charged issue of the new black, female principal, have made me turn away from the television.
But something draws me back. It’s the way I see my school and my colleagues in the show. Sure, it’s distorted and exaggerated for the viewers’ amusement, but when the goings on at the fictional North Jackson High School are familiar. The poorly-run restorative practices room, the gossip in the teachers lounge, and Mr. Gamby – many think, “That happens at my school, but it’s not that bad.” That’s the draw. That’s the dark comedic escape.
Before I became a teacher I genuinely believed in the ludicrous notion that all teachers across the world were associates of a secret society. One in which they only befriended one another and shopped at “teachers only” grocery stores. If such a society exists, then I have not yet received my membership invitation. I did, however, receive a reality check – hitting me hard about seven years ago, on my first day working as a teaching assistant.
It was lunchtime on that fateful day and my 18-year-old brain was channeling my inner-voice fueled by Lindsey Pollak’s From College to Career. I thought (with far too much enthusiasm), I’ll go sit in the teachers’ lounge and network!” I entered the motivational poster-laden door only to find three empty chairs and a forgotten-worksheet covered table. I walked the halls of this seemingly empty school and despondently realized that every one of the staff members was eating lunch alone. Some were on their cellphones, complaining about their work, while others sat in the dark listening to calming music.
We know the people: the burnt-out lawyer, the phony politician, the ego-driven banker. They live in movies and walk our streets. They are the pride and pity of the American ethos—accomplished but hollow; driven but soulless. Perhaps you are even one of them. They may have been so possessed by the desire for success that they found themselves at the apex of their career only to ask, “Why was I so motivated to try so hard in the first place?”
If you trace their steps, they may have graduated college and received straight As. They are likely to have been celebrated for their grit and risk-taking by their friends, family, and teachers. Yet, they lack the one thing our education system consistently fails to instill – passion. We are a nation of creativity, boasting the highest number of patents per capita. We are a nation of philanthropy, giving more to charity than any other nation in the world. But we are also a population plagued with depression, anxiety, and midlife crises often conflating person fulfillment with success.
I’m in my fourth year as a teacher in a low-income community. An era of high-stakes testing, charter schools, the Common Core, Teach for America, and a myriad of other initiatives pushes our nation to provide a better education for our children. The spirit of this movement, despite its controversies and headaches, is nothing short of inspiring. Our nation may be divided over what education reform should entail, but we all agree our children deserve nothing but the best.