Hey fam! Sorry LL is late this week! It’s been a crazy couple of weeks, complete with a car accident, my mom coming to town, Maid of Honor duties, my new job starting, and a camping trip. Hopefully I’ll have some time to recover this week and get the blog back on schedule. But I hope the anticipation was worth it and you enjoy this week’s post!
A few weeks ago, I had the exciting opportunity to start a new collaboration with Heidi of Educator on Fire — this school year, Heidi and I will chat and blog together to follow my journey from grad student to For Realskies teacher. We kicked things off with a video interview about my blog, my thesis, and (of course) my new teaching gig. One question Heidi asked really stuck with me:
“What is your wish for yourself this school year, as a professional?”
It took me a long time — almost three days! — to figure out an answer to this question. And it turns out, the fact that it took me so dang long to think of an answer was the answer, because at the end of those three days I realized a disappointing truth: I had never allowed myself to prioritize my needs or my happiness in the classroom. I was so wrapped up in trying to be what I thought other people needed that eventually, I simply stopped being myself when I was teaching. So when Heidi asked me what my wish was during our interview, I said,
“I want to be my full self in the classroom.”
Now, I don’t want to process my entire employment history with y’all, but suffice to say that I’ve walked one heck of a windy trail on my way to finally, after eleven years, 150+ job applications, twenty job interviews, and several “I’m kind of teaching but I’m not a teacher” jobs, becoming an English Language Arts teacher. You don’t read that many rejection letters for a decade and come out of it without feeling a bit insecure. Throw into the mix a cross-country move, a heavy dose of culture shock, the humbling effects of being a white ally, and a few years of working for an exploitative/abusive boss, and you can lose your bearings completely.
That’s where I was when I decided to get my M.Ed., and I am glad to say that I now truly believe that the struggle was worth it. Many years of trying to be what (I thought) bosses, donors, co-workers, and students wanted me to be taught me a lot about what it means to be my full self.
Seven lessons I learned the hard way, and how they can help all of us be better, more authentic teachers:
- Expect to feel uncomfortable at first. Every class of students will be used to a certain routine, group dynamic, and teaching style. Just because they haven’t gotten comfortable with your expectations and classroom management approaches by September doesn’t mean that you’re failing. When I first made the switch from after-school to in-school programs, it took a long time for my 8th graders and I to get into a positive dynamic. In fact, we didn’t hit our stride until January (but once we did, it was beautiful!). Granted, I now have some tools that can reduce that uncomfortable period, but I still expect to have a couple months of things just…. being kinda’ hard.
Truth is, transitions simply take a long time, especially if you start in mid-year, teach the youngest grade at your school, there’s been a change in school leadership, or if you work with a more transient population. So try to resist the urge to implement a new class-wide behavior plan or instructional strategy if the students are still struggling with it — that rocky patch is part of the process of forming a healthy group dynamic, and trying a whole new strategy can actually prolong the struggle instead of resolving it!
- Stereotypes are harmful. Even when a stereotype sounds positive, it’s still harmful – either because its roots are in inequality, or because failure to live up to that stereotype can damage our self-esteem. For teachers, one of the most pervasive stereotypes is the “Ms. Honey” (from Matilda), that magical teacher who sacrifices everything and wants nothing but to make her students happy. When you can’t live up to that ideal, it’s easy to feel like you aren’t cut out to be a teacher. But don’t believe the hype! You can be a great teacher without being Ms. Honey. I don’t give off a warm-and-fuzzy vibe (thanks, bitchy resting face). I don’t hug my students at the end of every day or come up with a different secret handshake for all 70 of them. I don’t stay up til midnight grading and coming up with new projects for my students. That’s okay. We don’t have to dance with our students in a viral video to be a good teacher any more than we have to give up our lives outside of school. If our students learn from us, trust us, and feel safe with us, then guess what? We’re good teachers.
- Students don’t need heroes. This was a big one for me to unlearn when I moved to the South. Regardless of what Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers tell us, our students don’t need us to be their saviors. Our students are not waiting around for us to magically unlock their potential. They’re just trying to learn the skills they need to make it through life, and hopefully doing it in a place that makes them feel safe and valuable. All they really need is to be around adults who demonstrate competence, compassion, and confidence. We can be that adult without pretending to be Superman.
And besides, a savior complex is not going to help anyone. When you think you’re supposed to be a hero, your expectations of your students get out of whack. You start looking for problems to solve and risk treating kids like walking deficits. Or you start expecting overwhelming gratitude from students and parents who only owe you respect and some effort. That’s unrealistic, and it’s not fair to anyone. But if we can stop pretending to be a hero, we can be real, and our kids can too.
- “Don’t take it personally” — but don’t put up with it, either. Whether students are enjoying our class is not a reflection of how “good” we are, but often when teachers see that a lot of students are bored or not participating, they respond by trying to be more fun — bringing in treats, acting less strict, or trying too hard to be “cool.” These things won’t change your classroom for the better, and any attempt to pretend your way into your students’ hearts will just exhaust you. Case in point: A few years ago, a co-teacher told me that I just had to put up with our students doing each other’s makeup and using their school-issued iPads for Snapchat in the middle of class. So I tried to be cool about it… and wound up feeling crazy and miserable because I simply could not teach in that environment! I felt like I was incompetent, the kids hated me, and my co-teacher didn’t care about supporting the program. I was too insecure to address the issue any further, and the semester was a disaster. Instead of using up all my energy acting like someone I wasn’t (which further damaged my rapport with the kids), I needed to focus that energy on improving how I delivered and paced instruction. If students aren’t engaged when you teach, you can try changing up the class format by giving more opportunities for interaction, providing students with more choices, or adding some dramatic flair into the lesson.
- Find your team. Leslie Knope learned over and over again that having the right team matters – and so I have I! The hardest thing for me when I worked at the non-profit was the sense that I was on my own. I was the only person who did full-time in-school programs, my boss had never worked in education before, I had the only STEM program…. In short: nobody at the office had any idea what I did. Any time I faced a challenge, I had to go it alone. If I wanted feedback on a lesson plan, needed advice on how to help students after a community crisis, or just felt uneasy bridging a cultural divide, my only support was Google. It’s awful to feel so isolated, especially when everyone around you is part of a team.
Now, going into the 2017-18 school year, I have a kickass team of teachers and academic coaches alongside me, some of whom have been working at the school since it opened. We’ve already brainstormed a curriculum for next year, talked about teaching styles, and shared resources with each other. Education is a complex, ever-evolving field, and nobody can successfully do this work on their own. Spend time with your coworkers, seek out mentors, and/or join online communities on Facebook or Twitter. Your teammates’ ideas and feedback will help you stay grounded as you discover your talents and needs in the classroom.
- Don’t wait around for an invitation. If you feel ready for a new challenge but aren’t able to find a new job to match, ask for new opportunities at your current job! I was a paraeducator for five years, a position at the very bottom of the instructional staff hierarchy. But I made the best of it, and during my tenure I got to teach Latin vocabulary roots, recruited a guest speaker to perform Beowulf in the original Old English, hosted special workshops on theme days, and even started an after-school theater club! Nobody ever asked me if I was interested doing these things — I just asked. Turns out, people don’t really like to say no. I have never asked for an opportunity and been rejected. On the contrary, in fact! When I worked for the non-profit, my initiative and drive to seek out new challenges earned the award for Programming Professional of the Year for the Southeast region.
- Do the thing that gets you excited! Sometimes, you just have to be willing to do the thing that YOU are passionate about, even if it’s not popular. It’s no secret that I’m a queer, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, athiest, feminist, pro-inclusion special educator – and most of these things are not that popular in the South. I’ve been admonished by a coworker for correcting a student who said being gay is a choice. The administrator at a host school once threatened me because, as part of our organization’s art and activism curriculum, I allowed my students to photograph the appalling conditions on campus. When I decided to plan a day-long, no-cost, inclusive STEM careers conference instead of a series of hour-long, $50 workshops in “select” neighborhoods, my boss thought I was bonkers. But in all three scenarios, I forged ahead; in all three scenarios, the students were more motivated, curious, and engaged than ever before. Your students deserve your enthusiasm and passion – share it with them!
After a decade of trying to appeal to what bosses and coworkers want from me, I’m ready to be true to myself as I look ahead to the new school year. I hope you’re finding ways to be true to yourself, too. Let’s keep reflecting, keep learning, and most of all,
Let’s get free!
What have you done to cope when you were working a job you didn’t love? How do you stay true to yourself when faced with everyone else’s expectations? Teachers, what keeps you feeling confident when things get tough? Let’s talk!