First-Year Teaching for the Twenty-First Time

I had an epiphany today.  I finally figured out why I kind of feel like I’m stumbling and running all at the same time with my classes.

Although I have been teaching for twenty-one years and feel really good about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, I realized that I really am doing a first year all over again.

Which is a bit disconcerting.

I can’t really remember the last time I felt this new, this much like a novice, an academic neonate.  I have taught tenth grade before.

I’ve taught world literature before.

I’m really not teaching anything new this year.

But how I’m teaching it is very different.

Which is a bit disconcerting.

My pacing feels a bit off which frustrates me because, by this point, I have my pacing down.

And I seem to be presenting a nice mixture of challenge with critical thought while not sacrificing who I am in terms of giving students a fair (at least I think fair) amount of time to get the work done.  I work with them in their education.  It’s not about me teaching them.  I want to help them learn, not give them information like a shiny plaything.

And I am reflecting and thinking about looking at what I am doing and seeing the long line of Maybe I should have done that differently.  Which is good.  I think a trademark of a good teacher is one who is willing to adapt and evolve and know that no matter how much preparation goes into a lesson plant that maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t always work.

Good intentions are good.  But they aren’t what a person a teacher.

Today, I executed what I thought was a great lesson plan in my AP Literature class.  Now, I’ve been teaching AP Lit for twelve years.  I’ve got this baby down.  We’re reading Taming of the Shrew.  I’ve taught that before as well.  So, confidence level=high.

I spent the weekend grading and looking over what the students have been doing and thinking about what they have learned in class before.  And so I created a jigsaw activity for the students to complete.  In one group, they will analyze Taming of the Shrew  through a critical lens.  They will have to define the lens, analyze the play through that lens, give quotes that will reflect their analysis, and write commentary that will show their critical-lens-analysis.  Then, they were going to move to another group (this is the jigsaw part of it) and were going to teach each other about their lenses, taking notes and comparing/contrasting what they learned.

Pacing was off.  I got the kids into their first sets of groups and it seemed like a couple groups were going at a nice pace.  A couple groups seemed to fly through their work.  It was this amusement park of literary analysis and distracted conversation.  I felt like I had flubbed.

Smart kids still looked bored.  Kids who had never heard of literary criticism looked over-whelmed.

Rewind.  Restart.

We never got into the second groups.  We’re going to do that next class.  We’re also going to analyze Acts 2-4 in terms of Stockholm Syndrome and discuss whether or not we can apply 21st Century knowledge to 1590 Shakespearean plays.

I like it.  They might like it.  I’m not certain.

Which leads me back to my title.  Teaching sometimes is a guessing game.  I know what I want to teach. I have read the literature with the students.  Read the criticism.  Read the history about the time period in which the literature was written.  Read discussion questions, Sparknotes summaries, and other related information.

I create a lesson plan/activity that will get the students thinking (hopefully).  Start the work.  Try to get the ball rolling.

And the ball just seems to flatten out in the middle of the room and we’re just staring at this ball the is doing a whole lot of nothing.

Or the ball launches off the walls and is amazing in its frenetic activity that keeps everyone entranced.

A good lesson depends on my preparatory work.  A good lesson depends on the students actually reading and thinking about what they read before they walk into class (and I don’t mean the five minutes before class).  A good lesson depends on my energy level being high (which it wasn’t today because I kept on waking up last night).  A good lesson depends on my students’ energy being high and them being interested and invested in what we are doing.  A good lesson depends on the weather, the temperature of the classroom (my room is so cold, I keep blankets in there for my students), the moon (I am being serious here), and what teachers have been doing in their classrooms that day (which I really don’t know but it’s amazing how much of an effect it can have).

And this leads me back to the point that I feel like a first-year teacher all over again.

The tenth graders are brilliant and have skills that I alternate between over and under-estimating.  Sometimes, I get it just right.  Other times, I feel like I’m trying to thread a needle while blindfolded.  Now, don’t start shooting accusatory looks at my colleagues.  They’re amazing and did everything they could to help me prepare for this school year.

I have enough handouts that I could simply not create anything this year if I didn’t want to.  I have more books than I could dream of using.  More lesson ideas than I know what to do with.

But I need to do some of this on my own because….well…that’s the nature of me.  I can be independent to a fault.  When I was in seventh grade, my father tried to “help” me write a paper once.  And by “helping” I mean that he tried to write the paper for me. I felt horrible, threw away the paper that he “helped” compose, and started over again.  My words weren’t as pretty.

But they were mine.

This year is not going to be a year of failures.  This year is going to be amazing because I refuse to allow it to be anything other than the success that I know I can craft.  My students are too amazing and my colleagues are too supportive for me to do anything other than feel the incredible euphoria of success.

But the hike up that hill is a bit hard right now.

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