Archives for category: For new teachers

Or, how do you prepare?

This has always been a mystery to me.  How do you prepare to teach a bunch of kids you haven’t met yet?  You can’t know how to speak to them or connect to them until you know a little bit about them.  .  .  But you have to do something on the first few days while you size them up and they do the same with you.

What I have done in the past is to ask them to read V.S. Naipaul’s beautiful short story “B. Wordsworth” and then a letter I’ve written and photocopied about the story, and on the back of that they write a letter to me talking about the story, about my letter, and about themselves.  I wish I could say that took up most of the 90 minutes I typically see them, but it’s only about a half an hour.  “B. Wordsworth” says a lot about paying attention, about mindfulness, and about teaching.  It’s great.  But they can’t really take in anything on day 1 and maybe that’s better saved for later.

I’ve been told that you should do your most pizzazzy lesson on the first day so they go home all agog and tell their mums and dads.  That’s poor advice in my opinion.  Why would you want to set yourself up so the entire rest of your course is a let-down?  And anyway, they won’t remember it.  Day 1 is a blur.

I’ve also been told that you shouldn’t smile til Christmas.  This reminds me of a saying my father used to cite:  “A woman, a horse, and a walnut tree: the more you beat ’em, the better they be.”  I can’t speak for walnut trees, but I bet even the horses reject that piece of cruelty.

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(Don’t let them hurt you, kiddo!)

No, the thing to do on day 1 is something that comes out of your own heart, expresses your values, respects the kids and yourself, and recognizes that we all need time and space to decide our feelings on anything so important as our new teacher.

I myself am not a fan of icebreakers, so I don’t do one.  If you like them when they’re offered to you, great.  Go for it.  For me, that would be phony.  This year I might give them an article (The Atlantic has one now about smartphones ruining a generation) and ask them to read and discuss in small groups and then open it up to discuss all together.  Or go over procedures, introduce myself, and give them the article to take home to read and begin Wednesday with a discussion.

I don’t know.  So the true answer to what am I doing this weekend is that I am sleeping as much as I can, buying plastic containers to pack lunches, visiting with my family, re-stringing my guitars, going for walks, having dinner with friends, and altogether living my life– invoking the muses to grace my creativity and imagination with lesson ideas that will inspire my students big time.

In other words, I’ll figure it out.  Ideally before the first kids arrive on Tuesday.

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(Can’t wait to meet those scary, wonderful kids).

We’ve had our last day of “professional development” for the nonce and that’s  good thing.  You can only take so much.  It took a little while and some kind companionship (a.k.a. complaining with colleagues) to correct  course.

What happens sometimes is that we are given an article to read that touts some new method for engaging students and fostering learning.  New methods are great and engaged students who learn is what it’s all about, so you’d think that would be helpful.  The problem is that the method is overhyped.  Always.  It’s not just an answer, it’s the answer, the be-all, end-all, slam-dunk, fool-proof, can’t-miss solution to every problem any teacher ever had.  A classroom library of wonderful books will mean that literally Not One Student will fail to learn to love reading!  Postcards of fine art (Matisse, Kahlo, Klimt) will mean that every single, solitary, disengaged, angry kid will suddenly fall in love with creative expression and analyze poetry like Ph.D!  And I mean all of them:  Jose, Marisol, Eduardo, Spike, Dylan, Natasha, Olivia, and Sven.  The postcards will transform your classroom into a thrumming hive of learning and never again will you know the doldrums.  Your students will all win Pulitzers and thank you.

It stems from a fervent wish that teaching were a science rather than an art.  A lot of bad thinking about education stems from this wish.  Standards imply that if teachers just knew what to teach, they could succeed with every kid.  Merit pay rests on the assumption that if teachers were more motivated (by money) they would succeed with every kid.  There has to be some foolproof, can’t-miss, slam-dunk way that we could make all those interchangeable non-entities called teachers do stuff that would guarantee success with every kid.

But teaching is not a science.  Parenting isn’t either, and every attempt (Dr. Spock, are you listening?) to treat it as a science ignored the essential role of loving, creative, good-humored parents.  Parents are unique.  Kids are unique.  Families are unique.  Parenting comes out of the deepest values of the mum and dad as they love their ever-changing and one-of-a-kind kid.  Sometimes that works out great.  Sometimes kids don’t get what they need or parents can’t figure out how to help their kid.  But standardizing it is the opposite of the answer.  You wouldn’t get better parenting if you offered parents bonuses for meeting some criteria or other.

By now I hope we know that if someone says to a parent with a kid with a problem, “Oh, that’s easy.  All you do is.  .  . ” they should walk away.  When someone talks like that, all it means is that their kid didn’t have the problem your kid does.  Lucky them.  Or they found a solution that worked, for a while, with that particular kid.  Again, lucky them.  You can try their idea, but you go into it with wisdom, prepared to abandon the method of it antagonizes your kid.  There are very few universals.

And so it is with teaching.  I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve, lots of methods I can trot out when they seem promising, but any lesson might work with some of the kids but never all.  Or might work, mostly, with one class and fail totally with another.  What remains is my love, my excitement about learning, my faith in them as smart people who can get excited about learning, too.  Just as you only ever learn to be a parent to the kids you actually have, so you only ever learn to teach the students you’ve actually had.  Each class poses new challenges and while some of what you’ve learned may work, you’re also probably going to have to figure out all new ways to reach them.

Teachers aren’t cogs or widgets (nor are students).  Our passion, ingenuity, and love are what make the thing work.  The methods don’t mean any more than whether a family likes to read Dr. Seuss or Beatrix Potter to their kids.  It depends.

Sorry, Powers That Be.  You’re never going to help teachers do a better job until you recognize our individuality, our own creativity, our passionate motivation, and our un-bribe-able love as the heart of it all.

But yeah, it is nice to show them some Matisse.

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Today was a three hour faculty meeting.  I couldn’t even tell you what all we heard about, although all of it was (no doubt) vital.  We heard about what tech platforms will be discontinued, which will be coming on, who’s new in the building, what the bell schedule will be for extended advisory, oh me oh my.  If we taught our classes the way they run faculty meetings.  .  .

But I know they’re doing their best with directives from above.  The point is that it’s all disorienting and confusing yet somehow we have to get ready to meet our kids.  Then add to that our A.L.I.C.E. training, which means we watched videos on our computers about how to climb out a window if an armed intruder tries to kill us and our kids.  No kidding.  A.L.I.C.E.  stands for Alert, Lock-down, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate.  Such is the first day back for teachers.

And that’s all important.  I’m not suggesting that any of it was wasted: it’s just hard.  They know it’s hard.  They wish we could talk about education.

As my principal did.  He ended with a plea: we’re here for the kids.  All of this was about how to make it better for kids.  Even A.L.I.C.E. is about kids.  No matter what we seem to be talking about, what we’re really talking about is kids.

That can be hard to remember, but it’s always true.  In the midst of all of it, don’t forget what we’re here for.  They’re all just somebody’s kid.

K feeds Zoe

(Note: when overwhelmed, it helps to cuddle a baby)

 

Sometimes you see something and you know you’ll be talking about it in class one day.  This one struck me as highly useful.

Picture a beautiful summer day and I’m walking on a sidewalk on a quiet, not heavily traveled street, on my way back from walking the labyrinth.  Outside the Michener Museum, a car stops.  The driver, a woman on a cell phone, makes no effort to pull over and make room for another car, but there’s nobody behind her.  She is dropping off her daughter, as I supposed, who is in the passenger seat, texting or handling some kind of business.  Someone comes up behind them.  The two women don’t see that car.  The car waits a little bit, and then gives a little toot on the horn as it pulls around them.  The woman looks up from her phone and puts her hand out the window to give them the finger.  I hear both her and the daughter say something angry, but I didn’t catch the specifics.  The daughter gets out of the car and crosses the street to go to maybe a job at the Michener and the mother roars off in the car, angry and nettled.

If the woman had pulled over, or even into the adjacent parking lot, she and her daughter could have had some quiet to handle their business and not trouble anyone.  So why not do that?  She set herself up for an unpleasant interaction.  She did everything she reasonably could to guarantee a rotten start to her day.  The car behind her wasn’t behaving aggressively.  They just wanted to get where they wanted to go, along a public street.

That seemed to me a perfect example of how placing yourself at the center of the universe will teach you that everyone is a jerk and out to get you.  But if you see the world as full of reasonable people who all have stuff to do, you pull over and they go around you and you’re happy for them and they for you.

Consideration is its own reward.  Selfishness is its own punishment.  I plan to use this story with my students.  Feel free to adopt it if it’s a parable for your classroom, too.

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(It happened right about here.)

Hi, readers.  Are there 2 or 3 of you now?  Yay!

Today I returned from the eclipse, which I saw near Benton, TN– more on that later.  But I did want to let you know that I have you much in mind as we think about bidding summer farewell and undertaking our vocation and life’s work, for which, I hope, we’re a little more energized than we were in June.

This is just to let you know that I hope to write to you again this year, and maybe not go dark in November as I did last year.  I can’t promise anything.  Who knows what will happen?  Not me.  But as long as I don’t fall off the cliff of meaning into the chasm of dread, fear, and despair, I hope to write to you all the things I wish I had known when I was a newish teacher and all the things I’m still learning as an oldish one.

Interesting focus fact: my husband and I calculate that, if all goes according to plan, I have 9 more years of teaching.  I plan to retire 6/26.  For many teachers, the retirement date is a fetishistic countdown.  Not me.  While I am listing the travels I’d like to make in the off season (Hawaii, Venice, Yosemite) and the things I’d like to learn or ply or bathe in (guitar, weaving, more guitar), I’m also looking at these last 9 years as nearly a third of my career.  What will they be about?  What’s their special job?

And I know the answer!  (naturally):  trying to prepare newish teachers to bring their whole selves to the classroom and create a body of work, to make the world a better place through their cataract of love and knowledge.  My career goal has been to be able to know when I announce my retirement, colleagues, administrators, parents, and students will consider it a loss to my school.  And now I undertake to add to that career goal that I wrote to and for newish teachers in ways that helped them meet the same career goal.

So here we go, into the school year and for me, into the last third.  May we undertake it all with wisdom, courage, honesty, and enthusiasm.  But above all, with love.

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(Image courtesy of the internet– “One Year Bible Blog”)

One of my new-teacher friends asked me to post something about the recent election and it’s taken me a couple of days to think through what I could say.

There isn’t much to say.

But:

What we saw was the revelation of something we might already have known.  We are a divided nation.  Racism and othering of all kinds are real.  People are afraid.  They want easy answers.  They perceive rage and impulsiveness as strength, consideration and thoughtfulness as weakness.  It’s easier to label and withdraw our compassion than to open, inquire, and embrace.

If the election had gone the other way, this state of affairs would differ only in the types of battles we would be fighting.  The protests would be ugly and violent and Congress would set its face implacably against the president.  Any gains would come in the teeth of fierce resistance and shoved down the throats of the angry half of the nation.  We’d be just as divided as we are now, only raging rather than gloating/mourning.

Is it possible that four years of what they think they want will be the best argument for another way?  Is it possible that people will grow tired of fearing one another and want to go to amicable, peaceable co-existence?  That’s the hope to which I cling.

We never needed teachers more than we do now, especially those who teach English and Social Studies.  The compassion that literature imparts and the lessons history holds for us are now vital to our kids’ lives.

Yesterday I put 3 take-aways on the board.

  1.  We must stop being hateful and rotten to one another.  Rude, cruel speech is an attack, an attempt to invalidate another person.  If you slap a label on someone, you’ve put them in a basket, deplorable or otherwise, that means you don’t have to listen to them anymore.  That’s the problem, not the solution.  We must stop, and teach our kids to stop, annihilating with words those with whom they disagree.  And the same for us.  Our new president is a person, not any of the names it might feel good to call him, and so is each one of his supporters.  The only way to heal the rift is to listen and respond with respect.
  2. Truth matters.  Good decisions come not from fear, nor actually from unfounded hope, but from careful understanding of reality.
  3. Kids need to run for public office.  Start by going to your borough hall or township building and finding out what committees you are free to join.  Get involved.  How cool would it be if our  former students ran for school board?  For mayor?  For state representative?

There have always been bad ideas scurrying round underfoot, in every age.  The only way to defeat a bad idea is with a better, truer one– and that has happened.  Women got the vote.  Slavery ended.  Kids didn’t have to work in sweatshops.  Products had to be accurately labeled.  Everybody got to go to school.  Rather than wishing we  could ram our good ideas into place, we have learned that we must do the painstaking work of demonstrating their merit.

So that’s what we teachers are going to do.  We will foster respectful, truthful debate and compassion for all humans and encourage our kids to express their views thoughtfully and clearly.  Our new president has four years to do what he can; then, the people will decide on how he did.  He will be judged.

We teachers have the lifetimes of all our combined students to leave a legacy of love and wisdom.

This is a big topic. It might be the biggest topic. In the last post, I suggested it was possible, doable, and good to bring your whole self, with all your loves and passions, to work (as the old prayer book said, “It is meet and right so to do.” I don’t know why my Episcopalian background is surfacing. Maybe it was writing about Saint Paul’s)

I believe that’s true and I’ve found my best work at work from having been fully there with the kids, talking about something true in my life. Possibly painful. Utterly true.  That’s when they get quiet and stop fidgeting and absorb what you say.  You know you’re speaking to their unique, individual hearts.

But if the kids look to you like an undifferentiated mass, and you believe that they will snigger and deride your true self, what to do then?

Hmmm. That, my dears, is a good question. Do you hide yourself or withhold yourself? Sometimes you might. Sometimes you might have to. But that’s the path to survival, not flourishing.

Survival is good! Survival is necessary. In your first few years, survival is your main goal. But there will come a time when you will want to do more than survive.

I sometimes play my guitar a little, at the end of class. I am not a talented nor accomplished guitarist and that’s not modesty but the pure unadorned truth. But I’m lucky enough to have sufficient understanding with my students that they know I know I’m not good and that’s not why I’m doing it. I want to show them what learning looks like. I want to offer them everything I have, even if it isn’t very much, at least not yet. They know they are to ignore my strumming or picking and pretend they can’t hear, because if I think they’re listening I’ll do even worse, but that this is my way of leveling the playing field, being a beginner at something some of them are pretty good at, right out there in front of them.

 

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The encouragement of someone you love helps a lot.

I didn’t have the courage to do this in my early years, but I do now. One of you who (I hope) follows this blog asked me one day after observing my class, “What do you do if they ask you a question and you don’t know the answer?” Oh, T. I love you so! I replied, “You say, ‘Gee, I don’t know! Let’s go find out!’”

Maybe teaching courage is more important than anything else we do, and maybe teaching courage is best done by having it palpably right there in front of them by being goofy or unskilled or ignorant and owning that and going to work on it then and there.

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Teachers get a medal for courage, no matter how scared they feel inside.

 

A new teacher of my beloved acquaintance asked me recently, how do you bring your sense of social justice to a classroom in the culture of your school? He put it really well and I didn’t, but I know what he means. There is the school, and there are the principals and parents and community members with all their expectations and beliefs about what we ought and ought not to teach (everybody has an opinion)—and yet we have ideas about that, too. How do you reconcile all that and not lose your soul?

That, my dears, is a good question.

To answer it, I will tell you a story. But first, let me say that parents do get to trust that teachers aren’t lobbying kids out from under them. They send their kids to school with faith that their teachers are partners in their weighty job of rearing good humans to take up the mantle.  They must not fear that you’re dissuading the kids from all the lessons parents have labored to impart.

Also, kids get to expect that their teacher is there for each of them, not just the ones you love or agree with politically. You’re everybody’s teacher. Period. You may not say or do anything that imperils their trust that you see each student’s noblest potential and aim to teach them toward it.

Okay, here’s the story. I try to remember to tell this to every class. One day, when I was 21 years old, I was walking along with my toddler son under the beech trees of William and Mary. My head was full of all the things I needed to think and he lagged a bit behind, so I turned to wait for him to catch up, and saw him crouching, reaching for something with his hand. Another cigarette butt, I wondered? Toddlers will put anything into their mouths. No, it was something far more interesting.

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“Beech nuts! Christopher, you found beech nuts!” And I looked up and noticed those regal trees for the first time. “They are the seeds of these big trees. Imagine! If you planted one of these, in time, one of these beautiful trees would grow from it. But these aren’t fertilized. You can tell because they are skinny on their sides. See how they cave in? Let’s look for fat ones. Then we could plant it and make a beech tree!” I was giddy. Looking up, looking down, looking at my son’s fat little hand with the beech nuts in it.

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Then, I suddenly wondered: how do I know this?

Flashback: I am maybe 8 years old. We’re at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on East Avenue in Rochester, New York.

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It’s after the Sunday service and we’re out under the beech trees. My father is walking along, his hands clasped behind his back, looking down. He was always finding 4-leaf clovers and Indian arrowheads—yes! They’d rattle around in the silverware drawer in the kitchen.

“Daddy, what are you looking for?”

“Beech nuts, fertilized ones.”

And he explained to me about the fat ones and thin ones. And he added, “If you could plant a beech tree, you would not have lived in vain.”

Flash forward: my baby’s face, my hands full of beech nuts, my father gone, never to meet this child, a memory recovered, and teaching, in its fullness, revealed. I didn’t even know I knew it, but it lived inside me, waiting for that man’s grandson to spark the memory of love and stewardship.

Teaching, it’s often been said, is like planting a seed. Like planting a beech tree. Like giving your soul in its purest form to a child, for love and no other reason. Because beech trees are sublime and children should walk along beneath them and ponder planting one themselves.

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So that’s how you bring yourself to work. You give them the best you have, at all moments, out of pure love of the world, a love that surpasses your love of yourself or the kids themselves. You do it for the beech trees.

 

I think I may have mentioned to some of you that I had a hard, hard first year of teaching. How hard was it? I remember once standing at the top of 3 flights of stairs considering, merely hypothetically, how much damage I’d do if I flung myself down. Like, going to the hospital for a couple of weeks would be great, but permanent disability would not. What held me back was that I didn’t want anyone to know the haphazard and flighty state of my lesson planning. The only reason I didn’t quit is that I couldn’t come home and tell my husband. We needed the money and it wouldn’t be fair to him. But I really, really wanted to.

On my way to work, I would see the guys out collecting the trash and long to trade places. That was a job with such fantastic advantages. You make the world cleaner and better, you don’t take work home, you see the results of your work right there in front of you, you hang out with your buds all day, you get good exercise, you enjoy nature. . . What’s not to like? And literally none of that is true of teaching—except maybe in time making the world better, although you’ll never know about it if you do.

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Enviable.

Teaching is unpredictable, labor-intensive, typically isolating, frequently embarrassing, indoorsy, stationary, and never, ever done no matter how many hours you put in at home. If you haven’t done it, you can’t probably picture how stressful it is.

And yet. There is just something about spending time with a roomful of fractious kids, and a topic comes up, and (usually because it’s personal and about you) they go entirely quiet, and you know they are all listening with their whole selves to what you’re saying. When you are honest about something hard that happened to you, every ear is grasping what you say. You know that what you learned back then was important, and you know that all those kids hunger for the wisdom you pried out of the experience. You can imagine, maybe, that you’re giving them what they need.

And like collecting the trash, no matter what, you have to show up.  All the suffering you do in your first few years is best done on the job.  Even if it’s cruelly hard and you’d rather be in a hospital bed in traction (or imagine you’d rather that), you will learn a lot just by being there, even if you feel ineffective.  Show up.  Do what you can.  Go home and apply the palliative measures.  Then get up and do it again.

Slowly, by degrees, you’ll have some successes.  A kid will say good morning or make a funny joke, or you’ll help someone write a better sentence or be there with a tissue when they needed one.

Not as tangible as a nice, clean curb with a nice, empty garbage can, but motivating nevertheless.

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Job well done.

Here is a happy scene I happened upon at the wonderful Doylestown Bookshop.

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Brittany and Tyler, both former students of mine, working away at their grading on a Sunday afternoon.  So many good, healthful things here in support of their hard work as teachers: a change of scene, good food and drink, companionship, a stretch of the legs– all while the grading gets done (which pays of big-time with the sense of accomplishment).

There will always be grading, but good thing there will also always be friends and bookstores and coffee and weekend afternoons when we can do a little catching-up.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

Free teacher ramblings.

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