Every year, I used to ask my seniors, “What worked well? What needs to be changed?” And I would coax out of my students ideas, thoughts, constructive criticism.
Sure, I sometimes kind of smarted.
Ouch! You didn’t like that project? But I put so much time and effort in to setting up that project!
It’s not always that much fun to be a teacher, especially when a lot of hours setting up a unit suddenly falls flat on its face and I’m spending more time picking up little pieces and figuring out why they don’t fit into one another.
When I laid out these ideas, all the angles were congruent and all the ideas were happy and wonderful. Where did I go wrong?
And that’s just it. Going wrong. It’s more than just choosing the wrong path in Frost’s poem and ending up in the middle of a Heart of Darkness. It’s about stopping and assessing and trying to understand whether or not I’m even doing anything right.
Yeah, I’m insecure. Sue me. I do my best to compensate and to fight against my need for reassurance, this need to know that I’m doing everything just fine. No, not just fine. Perfect. Let me be perfect.
And while I’m writing the word perfect, let me keep on shoring up all the dams and bridges and failing foundations that I constructed that are supposed to present the facade of perfection I have worked so hard on creating.
I’m not perfect. But I’m really great at being wrong. It’s one of my better traits.
I have been teaching since 1994 when I did my student teaching. My first two years as a teacher were as a graduate teaching assistant. I have been in the public school sector since 1997.
I know what I’m doing.
Since 2002, I have been working with seniors and I found my niche and my place. Then, in 2003, I started teaching AP Lit and I found my happiness and the place where I knew I belonged. And I had wonderful conversations with my students about what books they enjoyed and what books needed to be tossed.
And I loved it. I learned so much. Last year, I honed the art of teacher-workshopping in which I opened the floor to my students to give me constructive feedback.
Lots of ouch moments. Lots of bruised egos. And when I stopped being defensive, lots of learning.
Because students want to learn. They want to receive an education that will enable them to succeed in their futures. And in order for them to learn, sometimes a teacher has to strip away his/her preconceptions of how he/she is doing and finally listen to the reality of what the students say.
Last year, I was working with all senior classes and they were quick to point out the good lessons and the “please don’t repeat those” lessons. Sure, I wanted to hear about how great I was. I’m not an idiot. But I knew that I wasn’t always going to hear about my greatness so I had to hold onto my emotional Band-Aids and tough it out.
And then, last April, I was given the honor of moving into the gifted-and-talented specialty center in my school to teach 10th graders.
And I felt like I had stepped into a labyrinth.
I was totally lost and over-whelmed. I asked my gifted-and-talented seniors who were graduating from this specialty center what to do. They suggested that I take my AP Literature program or my Dual Enrollment program and just plug in the same lessons.
“But they’re sophomores,” I said.
“Just go a little easier,” was what I was told.
Pretty good advice.
Except, the students are sophomores, not seniors. And in the gap of two years of life-experiences, I could see that I couldn’t just duplicate what I was teaching my AP Lit or Dual Enrollment classrooms. I was going to have to change.
I tried. Over the year, I have re-worked my syllabus over and over again. I added in more reading time in some places, changed the paper styles in other areas. I continued to refine what I was teaching while feeling absurdly lost.
Everything I was teaching I had taught before.
But not to tenth graders.
Not to gifted-and-talented students who think in totally different ways from my seniors. Who have higher stress levels that I have ever seen. Who are brilliant and naive and mature and childish all at the same time.
I have heard more potty jokes this year than I care to remember.
I wasn’t connecting with the students, either. Or, at least, not the way I wanted to. I felt like I was failing my students, my babies, and I didn’t know how to overcome that frustration.
Until today. Several times, students vented their frustration about the work load, about my obscure questions, my expectations.
Yeah, I thought they were just trying to get out of work. I thought they were just whining. But then I listened. I mean, I really sat back and listened. And thought. And took off the defensive plate-armor and thought and listened.
I missed a meeting because I was working with a student. I arrived at play practice late.
And then, when the students rehearsed and I was supposed to be paying attention to offer suggestions, I instead started meeting with the actors who were also my students and talked with them.
“What is working?”
“Am I assigning too much homework?”
“Am I meeting your needs?”
“What can be done to change or improve the class? To meet your needs?”
The small circle of students shifted. Grew. Changed. As one set of actors missed their cue because they were working with me, another set of actors replaced the frantically scurrying set and the questions were repeated.
And I learned. I learned that I wasn’t assigning too much homework (all the time). I learned that my reading pacing was fine and manageable. I learned that I needed to spend more time introducing the literature so that the students could understand the themes just a little better.
I learned that they loved my paper topics which are “choose your own paper topic so long as you write in this voice.”
I learned that they like how my teaching style is non-routine and that things are continually changing without losing connections.
I learned so much.
I learned that I have been hiding behind a shell of dignity because I was afraid they were going to see me as stupid or lost or idiotic. Instead, they were thrilled that they could have some level of mastery over their own subject matter and free choice in their paper topics.
I learned that the students I am currently teaching really aren’t that different from my seniors. Like my seniors, they want to be loved. They want to be taught.
They want to be seen as children and as adults and as people of merit.
They want to be able to laugh and to cry and to know that their tears are sacred and loved and precious. They want to be able to be vulnerable and know that their secrets will be honored and their emotions protected.
I learned that I really do love my students, even if they aren’t my seniors. But I can’t keep on teaching the same students year in and year out. And I can’t keep on teaching the same material year in and year out.
But I can keep on doing the best within me, even if I still flail around and wonder what the hell I just did.
And then, I’ll pick myself up off the floor, look over my crowd of students who will have mirthful expressions in their eyes, and ask them if they want to try again, try something new, or just laugh with me for a moment.