I’m an oldie. An oldie but goodie. I think. I hope. I try to be.
I remember the day that I realized I was now one of the veteran teachers on staff…one that some newbies looked to for advice…maybe even answers. Yikes.
It was a Thursday after school. I was sweaty, exhausted, relieved, and satisfied. A common range of emotions – ways of being in this topsy turvy job of teaching math to middle schoolers. I had just finished my positive email home which may have been responsible for the satisfied feeling.
Sidebar: I did this every single day to make sure I ended on a high note. One positive email home to share something awesome about one of my ~120 students with their family. A great way to end the day. I highly recommend it.
I sat twirling on my Ikea desk chair going over the events of the day in my head. I had reviewed my exit slips so I was pretty much ready for tomorrow…but still I sat. I had a particularly great class that day but the not-so-productive conversation with a colleague later had me wondering what my next step should be. Could I, should I, share what happened? With who? To what end? I opted instead to do what I often do at the end of the day…I journaled a little to reflect and remember. Here is some of what I wrote.
Good day today? I think so…maybe? I think it might be the start of something great…fingers crossed! It was the period before lunch where it all came apart before coming together. 10:50-12:00. That extra ten minutes always felt like fifty. My least favorite period. On top of that, today I was frustrated. I had a great lesson planned and it was not going well. I knew it was a great cause because the two classes prior had the same lesson. While it did go a different direction in each class, it landed. It was productive. Engaging. This class? Not so much. Frustrating too since this was 8-5, my favorite class. I could usually count on participation, great conversations, and thoughtful questions. Not today. We had no chemistry. Kids were talking when I was talking, others were tuned out. I am sure I saw one boy check his watch, roll his eyes, and sigh at least three times. My voice was getting louder, slower, and snarkier. Yikes. I stopped mid sentence and got a drink of water. I took a deep breath and sat down. I didn’t have a fight in me – not today. The students noticed and waited for what was next. Maybe it was the sitting down that piqued their interest…I never sit down.
I took another deep breath. Instead of a fight we had a conversation. I started by saying, “Well this is not working.” Instead of telling them how awesome the other two classes were and how uncooperative they were being – a rant that was literally playing out in my head at that very moment, I said it again. “This is not working.” And then “…what’s going on today everybody?”
There was almost a full minute of silence where students debated what I meant, what was safe to say, and what I would want to hear. This may be because my vein was likely visible in my neck. Heehee. According to my students this is a sure sign that my frustration may have reached a breaking point. Then, one of my lovely students offered their perspective. “This is the worst period – no offense. We just had gym. We are hungry, tired, and can’t concentrate. Well that’s true for me anyway.” This was followed by cautious nodding around the room.
“Well I can’t change the schedule”, I said. “We have to have math now, on this day, this period every Thursday. So what should we do?” Crickets. “No – please tell me. Help me. I really want some solid advice. We have to make this work. Let’s figure it out.”
The next 15 minutes or so I listened and recorded their suggestions. Some good, some great, some terrible. It was a real conversation. An attempt at problem solving. I tried to model how to respectfully disagree with someone and how to value all voices. I distributed then collected index cards so some suggestions could be anonymous. After hashing it out, we decided together that we would try a few things in this class the following week.
- A detailed and visible class agenda.
- Independent work time with choices.
- Fun challenge to close.
When we had our plan one kid said, “Isn’t this what we already do?” I laughed to myself. Well yes and no.
This is what we decided could work for us.
Not what I decided would work for them.
It felt good. Something shifted.
It’s hard to describe if you were not there – not part of it. Which probably led to the second part of my reflection that day.
When lunchtime finally arrived, I retreated to my happy place in a friend’s classroom. Laughing, venting, and gearing up for the afternoon with “my people” on staff when one of the newbies shared what they had overheard that morning. He had stopped by my neighbor’s class with a question for her during her prep period. My neighbor and I shared a door, and through it they could hear my class pre-breakthrough conversation. They heard kids not listening and the frustration in my voice. “JoAnn – they were not listening to you!?!” (Surprise in his voice.)
It was not a question but yet a question.
I understood. I have a good reputation. I am organized, prepared and I know my stuff. I have solid classroom management, build good relationships with my students and their parents, and share resources with staff. I am positive but realistic, confident not cocky. I love my job and I am sure that it shows. I could see he was trying to reconcile this knowledge with what he overheard today. Ha! Newbies!
I started to share with him the condensed version of events. “Yeah, it definitely started off rough! I have those days too ya know! The class was tired. I was frustrated. But we had a good conversation and we decided that next week I’m going to try …”
Nope. He wasn’t having it.
“What? No! They need to be quiet. They need to do what you say no matter what! They need to stay in for detention! They need…”
He had lots more us versus them ideas and I let him rant for a while. He was trying to be supportive. Who am I to say what is right or what will work best for him?
What I know is I left school that day feeling really good. I remember that day, that feeling.
What I didn’t remember and what still makes me laugh out loud are my scribbly reflections with their hand drawn emojis. This one ended with “A good day. Don’t try to give advice to newbies that know everything…They need to make their own mistakes!”
I don’t remember having another class with that group that escalated to a vein popping crescendo. And I don’t remember altering or designing specifically with that post phys ed class in mind. Just having a conversation with my students and really listening and problem solving together seemed to make a difference. Or maybe I’m remembering things the way I want to remember them – who knows?
As for offering advice to new teachers? I didn’t get it right that day but I’m not sure, even now, how I could have or if I should have tried to steer that conversation in a different and more productive direction. I may not be qualified to give advice at all. I think the best thing I can do is point out that I have ideas and lessons that work and ones that fail just like everyone else. If there is a point in an educator’s career where they have it all figured out – I haven’t gotten there yet and I’ve been at it for quite a while.
I do have some strengths that have gotten me this far. I love my job and I love what I teach. I truly believe that my enthusiasm for learning, trying new things and sharing ideas is the good kind of contagious. I come super prepared but I try to be flexible enough to let the conversations go where the learners need them to go. I work really hard to build a safe and positive learning community. I listen more than I talk. I focus on the bright spots. I give and receive timely feedback. I seek out, learn from and collaborate with other positive people. I reflect and revise and reflect and revise. And stickers! Middle schoolers still love stickers!
This is not advice…I don’t give advice.
Just me sharing what has worked for me so far.
Me: an oldie but goodie.