One of my favorite childhood picture books was The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, as it probably is for decades of children. I'm not sure now what I loved about the book, because as an adult I hate it. Don't get me wrong, I still love Shel and his simplistic beauty, but I absolutely despise the message The Giving Tree sends its readers: love means sacrificing every part of yourself for the benefit of others, even when they don't appreciate it. Until there's nothing left.
This is problematic to me on so many levels. It's book-long endorsement of abusive relationship dynamics: the boy's careless treatment of the tree; the tree's willingness to be destroyed piece by piece in the name of love. It also rewards the martydom of the tree: unconditional love means giving everything you have without asking anything in return.
We read this in school last year as part of a homebase activity on learning life lessons from children's books, and I'm pretty sure my rant single-handedly warped my students' view on this book forever. Yes, giving is an act of love. But it is absolutely unacceptable to be so giving that you lose yourself in the process. (I think at one point in last year's discussion an 8th grader told me to calm down because it's just a children's book.)
What does this have to do with teaching? Because at some point in the last year, it's dawned on me: the teaching profession demands teachers to be Giving Trees. And if we aren't, we are somehow not good teachers.
I teach two full grades of 12-14-year-olds every day. That's currently 132 students. Every day. I teach writing, and I know that writing on a consistent basis with positive feedback is what creates better writers. So I read and comment on at least 132 different pieces of writing every single week. I don't get time during my 8am-4pm contract hours to do this reading and commenting, because during those hours, I am teaching (and holding individual writing conferences, and attending duties, and meeting with other teachers and administrators, and responding to parent emails and concerns, and planning future lessons, and trying to be patient and not cause lasting psychological damage on impressionable young minds). I also coach fall and spring sports, extending my school days during those months to 6pm for practice, and 9-10 pm on meet nights.
With 132 students, and averaging 15 minutes per paper for reading and response (fifteen minutes is a joke; a bad paper can easily take 20-25 minutes to respond to), it takes about 33 hours outside of my 40-hour (50+ hour during spring and fall) work week to do my job. That's a hell of a lot of giving.
Contrary to what this sounds like, I'm not trying to play the martyr here. I knew what I signed up for (mostly). I choose to respond to my students' writing and to have them write so often. I choose to put more on my already-full plate.
And it's not like I get nothing in return. I have hundreds of teenagers who look up to me, ask me for advice, or drop me emails to tell me that I've changed their lives in some way. No physical gift could represent what it feels like to know that you made a positive impact on the lives of teens when they needed it the most.
But last night, a harmless comment hit a raw nerve that's still kind of stinging in the back of my mind. I attended a 9th grade basketball game at the high school, which is something I never do. I attend 7th and 8th grade games all the time during winter sports (and I coach during spring and fall, remember), but I never make it out to the high school. There are various reasons and excuses: I watch the students I currently teach instead of former students, I'm really tired and in need of solitude at the end of most days, I have homework (see above workload), I don't have kids of my own so I don't have a pressing reason to go, etcetera. Last night I made an exception because Carly (my student teacher from last year) wanted to catch up and watch some of our former kids play ball. So we did. It was great. The girls were excited to see us, and we had some time to catch up while we cheered them on. And then a parent leaned over in the stands to say something to me.
First things first, this is a parent I've always gotten along with. She did not mean anything cruel and had no intention to damage. She simply said, "It's nice that you made it out here for a game for once. It's good to see you out in public supporting the kids." I laughed it off because the way she said it made me sound like an invalid. Carly even started laughing and we talked about how it made it sound like I'd been in the nursing home or hospital and was finally feeling well. It's a joke I make a lot about myself because I am kind of a hermit when it comes to small town life. And you know, I have a lot of exciting hobbies outside of my work and this school district.
The comment didn't destroy me, and I'm certainly not upset with the woman who said it. I'm sure many people in the community have thought it. And that's what hits a nerve. I spend eight hours a day, 180 days a year with their children. I spend more time coaching them outside of those hours. I spend even more time with their writing and interacting through comments and emails. I spend more time outside of school thinking and writing here about how I can support those kids even more than I already do. I'll be working a 13-hour day at school today between teaching and running the concession stand for the night. And yes, I also have summers off so I don't quit because who could possibly keep that workload going all year long and not have a complete psychological breakdown? So the idea that because I'm also not sacrificing even more time to attend more activities hit me harder the more I thought about it. When is it enough? When have teachers sacrificed enough of their time and lives for other peoples' kids? When have we given enough to deserve love? How can we attract and retain new teachers if they have to sign their lives away for nine months of the year in order to prove their worth?
I refuse to be a teacher martyr. I will sacrifice when necessary, but I will not allow my entire life to be consumed by this profession. It is unhealthy for any person to suffer so much for their job that they can't have a life, and it sets a poor example for future generations to watch their teachers accept martyrdom as a requirement for excellence.
Last month, our district received word that our Teacher Leadership Compensation grant application had been approved. I'm excited about this for a few reasons: a) I've never written a grant before, and since I did a lot of the actual writing on this one, I feel a certain amount of pride, and b) I think the idea behind the grant is noble. Teachers should be encouraged and recognized for their leadership. The grant is good! We got the grant! Everything's great! So why am I feeling so much trepidation right now as we move forward?
I always repeat the William Zinsser quote, "Writing is thinking on paper" when my students are struggling to express themselves. This blog will have to serve as my way to solidify my thinking on what has me so nervous. In no particular order, here are some TLC reservations or worries.
Hiring positions. Part of the grant included determining who would serve on the hiring committee for the new leadership positions. Since all of the teachers who served on the TLC writing committee were nominated and voted on by their peers, the administrators thought it logical for the TLC writing committee to serve as the TLC hiring committee (all administrators in the district have also been on the committee for the entire process). I don't disagree with this. If my colleagues thought I was a good enough leader to write the grant and represent our middle school in the process of creating TLC roles, then I would hope they have enough trust in me to give solid input in the hiring process. Besides, who knows the the TLC roles better than those of us who have been working on the grant for the past year?
And it's not that I'm nervous about giving input in hiring decisions. I sat in on interviews with my principal last year, and was very vocal (and ultimately successful) in persuading my principal to hire our new social studies teacher. Evaluating and expressing are two main purposes for writing, and I think any English teacher should be competent evaluators and be able to express ourselves well in a team interview discussion.
I'm nervous about the hiring process for two main reasons, and both have to do with the small town environment that I work and live in. I don't want the hiring to be based on who is well-liked if they aren't also competent and good leaders. In my book, competency and wanting to be in charge of stuff don't always come in the same package as often as I'd prefer. Adding in likability can screw that up even more. Sometimes leaders who are the most competent aren't the most popular, and people who are the most generally liked aren't willing to be leaders. The burden of wading through people who apply to find the right fit is daunting. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but I sure as hell don't want to give someone a leadership position out of pity or small town nepotism.
What if people don't apply? The grant requires many people to take on new leadership positions. While this excites some people, there are certainly those who have no interest, or their only interest is the "compensation" part of the plan. What if not enough people are interested? What if that leaves us with unsatisfactory choices?
What about me? I fully intend to apply for a leadership position. The two I'm interested in would both keep me in my classroom 100%, which is part of what's appealing to me. Working with student-writers is what I love about education, so it wouldn't make sense to leave that. I'm interested in being a model teacher or a mentor teacher. I love having people in my classroom watching what I do, so I think the model makes sense. I'm also a fan of trying out new techniques and activities, so I think modeling for other teachers and working with instructional coaches to create an open environment would be fun. I also love helping out new and young teachers, so mentorship would be fun.
My problem isn't that I don't think I'd be good at both of these positions; it's that I worry that I'm not likable enough to people who don't know me well. As I've said before, I've been described by others as intimidating because I am a straight shooter and I dislike mindless small talk. I like to get stuff done, and I don't spend a lot of time worrying about if people like me or not. That could be a big problem. I'm not a monster with a trail of bodies I've stepped on to achieve greatness, but I've certainly never played the political game of trying to boost my PR with, well, anyone.
I serve on the Executive Board of the Iowa Council of Teachers of English. I was part of an Iowa Writing Project Teacher Leadership Cohort. I've been a Cooperating Teacher for an Iowa State University Teacher Ed. student teacher. I've presented my MA research on teaching writing at the ICTE Fall Conference. All of those things qualify me as a self-motivated teacher leader, but my concern comes back to the likability factor. Will I be hired by my peers if I've never shown enthusiasm to engage with them over coffee and rolls at mandatory district breakfasts? If the committee was made up of my actual middle school colleagues, I wouldn't have any doubt. But since I'm the only middle school teacher on the hiring committee, it puts me at a disadvantage. Keep in mind that I also spent a year trying to team-write a grant with these people, in which two of us did the actual writing while the others chimed in with ideas. Was I always patient as people went on tangents while I was trying to focus on the work? Do I even need to answer that? My lack of interest in social pleasantries might come back to bite me.
Will this last? Will TLC be successful? The biggest concern of all. Will this program finally give teachers more control over district-wide professional development? Will people feel more appreciated by their administrators? Will more teachers take advantage of the opportunity to learn from each other and share what they know with others? Will the system we've created on paper work effectively in real life? Does our administration care enough about the teacher leadership part so that this isn't just a money grab? None of those questions can be answered until it starts.
I'm still nervous about the TLC reality that's coming soon. I want this to be successful for all teachers and administrators. I'm a realist and I know this won't be a fix-all band aid for the district, but I'm hoping it can revitalize our teachers and encourage us all to care a little more about our professional growth.
I am a sucker for New Year's resolutions. One of the things I love most about being a teacher is that we have two different opportunities for them: in August when the new school year starts, and in January when we come back from break and everyone else is starting new, too.
Listen, I know the success rate for New Year's resolutions is abysmal. Most people bail on them within the first few days or weeks, if they even set them at all. I am not one of those people. I thrive with resolutions.
It might be one of the areas in which my stubbornness pays off most. I don't have a perfect success rate, but I do use them as guidance for goal setting, and as a goal-oriented person, I put a lot of effort into achieving resolutions at some level. The types of resolutions I make help with my success. I'm not too strict or extreme, and I choose to be realistic about what's possible.
I usually don't tell people what my resolutions are because I find a certain joy in achieving them on my own. That's probably because I'm harder on myself than I allow anyone else to be. I stick to my goals because I don't want to face myself if I have to admit failure. Stubbornness fuels my persistence.
I'll make an exception to my usual secrecy and share my work related resolutions for the rest of the school year here:
1. Take five breaths
This resolution aligns with both my classroom and my yoga practice. One thing I constantly have to hold myself to in my at-home yoga practice is to hold poses for five full breaths. It'll coincide nicely with my classroom. Instead of feeling the need to react quickly, I'll try to remember to take a few breaths before using my words. I did it today by not responding to an email immediately, and by the time I'd thought it through and taken a few breaths, my response completely changed from what it would have been. The world won't end if I take time instead of always responding as quickly as possible.
2. Structured down time
Is that an oxymoron? Here's the thing: I'm ridiculously productive when I'm on a time crunch or a schedule. My principal regularly comments that there is not single moment of wasted time in my classroom, which is why I don't have many management issues. But for as productive as I am in those spaces, I'm the opposite during my planning period, and the 70 (cumulative) minutes before and after school. I'm easily distracted. I get sucked in to unproductive conversations. I stare off into space. This needs to stop. The way I'm going to attempt to combat the issue is by "scheduling" this down time. I work well with lists and time schedules, so this unstructured time needs more structure. A time range for checking and responding to emails, a designated time to read new articles or books on ELA; having a schedule in place will nudge me toward better productivity. This will be the hardest goal, but it could reap the most benefits.
3. Throw things out
This is another resolution that easily coincides with my personal life. I'm not a hoarder, but I am a collector. Comic books, books, poems, articles, short stories, random junk, beauty supplies, running gear, clothes, shoes: if it involves words, can be used as an acting prop, deals with running, or appeals to vanity I will collect as much as possible and keep it. This is a problem in itself, but it's compounded by the fact that I have horrendous organizational skills. This means I have so much junk crammed into random cupboards, drawers, and digital storage apps (Drive, Pinterest, Pocket, DropBox, Google Keep, Evernote...) that I forget about it or can't find it. I'm starting to manage the physical stuff by not accepting new junk and giving away the old, but I need to throw out, delete, or organize the digital items. If certain lessons or units are not as effective as newer options, I need to throw them out. I love to add all the time, but I need to get better at deleting, too. It's okay to not do everything all the time. This is not necessarily a new resolution: this is ongoing. It's something I hope I never stop doing as a teacher. Learn more, do better, replace, repeat.
That's enough for this stretch of January-May. If I have some success with the first two, I'll turn them into habit so they'll become part of my routine. The last one is something I will never be done with. I don't want to be the teacher who stops throwing things out because then I'll be the teacher who never does anything new.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.