This is it. This is the time of year I always know is coming and yet never seem ready for.
I remember seeing this graph in mentoring and induction training during my first year of teaching:
I saw this graph in September or October of that first year. Very much in "survival" mode, but not yet bottoming out into disillusionment.
And then came January and February.
I remember thinking back to that graph during January and finding a small amount of comfort in the fact that I wasn't the only one; that the particular time of year was hard on everyone. Small comfort.
The problem is that the graph was always presented to me as something first-year teachers go through. It's true; there has never been a year quite as awful and tumultuous as that first one, but I don't think the cycle is limited to first years.
Maybe the highs aren't as high and the lows aren't as low (not in the same way, at least), but my emotions throughout each school year fall into variations of this same predictable pattern.
There's nothing that gets me through January and February except the knowledge that each day passed is a little closer to March. By March I can usually see the light again. By March I can pull my head out of my own ass.
Right now, as of last week, I am camped out in the lowest pit of my teacher despair. I have allowed the everyday minor moments of disrespect and irresponsibility that are part of teaching teenagers to eat away at me. I have been bitter and short tempered. I have allowed my discontent to seep into my interactions with students, creating an environment in my classroom that, while not unsafe, is certainly not pleasant and conducive to all of us doing our best. I have been so visibly frustrated that some of my students are worried I might quit my job and have sent me intervention emails and pep-talks.
There is no kick in the butt quite like the moment when you have to accept that a fourteen-year-old has more perspective and maturity than you do about the situation. Message received.
The majority of my students are doing their part; it's time for me to get over the frustrations I'm having with the ones who aren't. Some will come around; some might not during the time I have them. I can't control everything they do or won't do, nor would I ever want to.
I can control my own attitude and how it affects my classroom environment. January's not over yet, and February is always the longest shortest month of the year, but it's time for me to start digging myself out of the hole.
The Des Moines Register published an article last week on how the national teacher shortage is starting to impact the state of Iowa. While the article doesn't come to one solid conclusion about the exact reason for the shortage, their main reasoning is the state's stricter requirements for becoming a teacher, including reaching a certain score on the ETS Praxis Assessments in their content areas.
I am by no means against having high standards for teachers. I am passionate about my profession, and there are many times when I've had to rectify that my personal standards for professional learning and growth can't be imposed on every classroom teacher. (Nor am I always able to live up to the standards set by other educators I admire.) I love being a teacher, and I believe the profession is strongest when we have people who are motivated to keep growing. Asking people for a career of never-ending growth and adaptability is as high of a standard as you can set.
I do have a problem with setting expectations for preservice teachers that are connected to a standardized test. Any teacher can tell you that few standardized tests measure what a student is truly capable of. So why the heck would we base whether a person has the potential to be a quality educator on a standardized test that's taken before they even have the experience of being a teacher? I know that efficiency guides this type of thinking; it's easier to make a decision based on a test score rather than looking at something that would be more labor intensive, like a portfolio. It doesn't matter that they can retake the Praxis until they earn the appropriate score. It's a hoop to jump through that still doesn't guarantee success or high standards for new teachers.
Admittedly, my bristling at the Praxis exam is because of a bad experience. The requirements were not as strict when I was a pre-service teacher, and I was only required to pass the Praxis I to gain admission to the education department at my university. I showed up on a Saturday morning, ready to do my best. Standardized tests never fazed me. I always performed well on them with little effort.
Except something happened to the batch of tests we received that day. The essay portion wasn't included in some of them, and I was one of those unlucky chosen few. Instead of sending those of us who didn't receive a complete test home, the administrator made photocopies of the essay portion and gave them to us. This doesn't sound like a monumental deal, but it wrecked the testing environment for me. I scrambled to finish the written portion; something that should have come naturally to me as an English major. The time wasted on waiting for my photocopy was not added to my testing time; I was still expected to complete the test in the same window as everyone who had a complete test packet from the get-go. I was flustered and could not focus on anything other than my frustration with factors outside of my control. No doubt the test was not administered along the required guidelines, and I had reasonable grounds to fight the outcome if I didn't meet the required score. It didn't come to that. I squeaked by with a score that was passable at the time, and the memory remains as my worst testing experience.
My experience with the Praxis was not representative of my future success as a teacher. Hell, my first five years of teaching were not representative of my capabilities. I needed time to develop my strengths and confront my weaknesses, and that wouldn't have happened if I had been barred from ever entering the profession based on a test score.
I also take issue with the idea that simply recruiting top students translates into those people being top teachers. That doesn't mean I don't want intelligent people in the teaching ranks, but I've seen enough top students pass through my classroom over the past eleven years to know that being good at playing the school game doesn't mean you'd make a good teacher. And I've met plenty of people who might not be traditionally successful students who have the empathy, critical thinking, and creativity that could make them phenomenal future educators, even if their GPAs or Praxis scores wouldn't accurately reflect those traits.
Students need all kinds of teachers. One of the things that helps me most in my day to day work with seventh and eighth graders are my recollections of youthful rebellion against teachers and school. I show them my seventh grade report cards that list my lack of attention span and disruptive talking. I tell them about how I failed eighth grade math because of refusal to work and a bad attitude and the meeting we had to have about the problem. I tell them about failing my first grammar class in college as an English major! My students can relate to me as someone who hasn't always enjoyed school or following rules. All of those transgressions (and many more) could have led to me being turned away from the teaching profession if I were applying for my license today.
Instead of punishing pre-service teachers with more obstacles that prevent them from seeking out our profession, we need more development of their abilities to be flexible, lifelong learners. A one-time test or achieving a certain GPA are requirements that are soon forgotten after college.
Requiring teacher candidates to join a national or state level organization for their content area is a possible first step; put them in contact with an immediate network of support based on sound practice rather than the luck of the draw mentorship or PD they might end up with in a random school district or AEA. Use the money spent on widespread testing to instead fund more on-site observations and critical reflections with pre-service teachers during their student teaching placements.
Making it more difficult to become a teacher won't automatically strengthen the teaching profession. Taking the time to nourish and develop the people with the desire to be teachers is a more worthwhile endeavor. It's not a quick fix. Nothing worth doing right ever is.
Tickets to Leave (exit slips, one-sentence reflections, etc.) are a staple in my classroom that I sometimes forget about. I try to use them each time we write in a new genre or attempt a new skill, but then the immediacy of everything else in my daily teaching schedule pushes them aside. Today, I reserved a five minute window at the end of each 7th grade class for in-process reflection.
The thing I love about pausing to reflect during the middle of working on a skill is that it reinforces that writing (especially developing writers' writing) is never finished. We reflect while we're still revising because otherwise young writers have a hard time understanding why revising is so important. Why should I make changes to my paper? It's done. I turned it in.
Reflecting on new skills and how they apply to recent drafts helps make the process of learning to write a little more clear.
Students wrote responses to a non-fiction article last week (shout out to Kelly Gallagher and Dave Stuart, Jr.). After tackling poetry and narratives during the early part of the year, we're ready to put some work into non-fiction reading and informational and argument writing skills and basic structures. As usual, starting something new is not easy.
I am repeating a pattern with this group of 7th graders: teach them the thing, think they know and understand the thing, read their writings and realize they don't understand the thing at all. At first it was frustrating. Now, I'm looking at it with new eyes. Constantly having to re-teach, reflect, and re-write the things means that we are turning into masters of revision, as student-writers and as teacher-planner!
Revision is the best part of writing. It's the part when a writer develops skill and pushes past "good enough" to fully realize what he or she is capable of.
My students reflected today on drafts they wrote last Friday. One week apart, and they're already looking back on their drafts with fresh eyes and are able to make more informed writing choices.
All it took to see how much my students learned in one week (with a snow day thrown in, even!):
1. An index card.
2. The direction to start their reflection with "I noticed..."
3. Their writing notebooks open to the notes from minilessons on formal essay components and their iPads open to their original drafts.
4. Five minutes to think.
Okay, maybe not everyone noticed what I was hoping for, but even noticing that you don't like writing but are still able to write more is a success in my book.
Noticing doesn't equal better drafts; the actual transfer remains to be seen. But if they can look at their writing and notice the gaps in skill, and I give them the strategies to develop and the time to work on the skills, then positive changes will happen.
I think I'll continue this seventh grade pattern for now. They might not be the best group of first-draft writers I've ever had, but they might end up the best revisors I've seen in a long time.
I spent one day back at school with my students before I was off to two days of Student-Centered Coaching training with my district's Teacher Leadership team. While it's agonizing to be away from my classroom for two days in a row, especially after a long break, we haven't had a single day of this training that didn't leave me with a flood of thoughts, ideas, and reflections. Julie Wright, a "coach of coaches" with Diane Sweeney's program, is a master.
On Thursday, she wrote three words on the white board at the front of the room:
An oversimplified explanation of this is that when Julie works with teachers, she wants to make sure that she's coaching and not rescuing them. She thinks about what she can do for other people: what strategies or structures can she provide to help with their success? She considers what she can do with them: can they co-teach or co-plan a lesson? And then she designates what can be done by the other person on his/her own to ensure that they are still developing their own independence while being coached.
I'm not an instructional coach, but this easily applies to how I work with my colleagues. While Julie was talking about this from the perspective of making sure she wasn't rescuing people, I knew from the start that's not my problem. I'm not a rescuer. I don't do things for other people because I want to save them, but I'm still guilty of doing too much on my own.
I've known for years that I do too much for myself and others. I am a control freak about the way my classroom is run, and how my practice aligns with my beliefs about teaching writing. A major character flaw in (and outside of) my life as a teacher is that I have a hard time trusting other people's competence. Even just writing that sentence makes me cringe, because I don't think that I'm superior to other people; there are so many ways each day in my classroom in which I feel inferior or not quite good enough. But I also have a hard time trusting other people to care and know as much as I do about writing, developing writers, and providing the right balance of structure and feedback that encourages young writers to thrive and grow. Instead of placing too much trust in my highly competent colleages, I do it all for anyone I might work with so I know it's done the way I want it to be. (Shout out to all the other kids who despised group work in school because you wanted it done "right" so that meant you did everything.)
That doesn't mean that I'm not capable of allowing people to do things by themselves. I can delegate tasks and responsibilities like nobody's business. When I have a plan for the day, I never hesitate to tell my special ed co-teachers and support staff exactly what I want them to be doing during the class period in order to maximize our efficiency as a teaching team.
The laughable part of that, of course, is that we aren't performing as a team at all. I'm not allowing us to be a team because I'm not doing anything with them. With was the preposition that made me cringe. Because I know I'm not good at honestly working with people.
This isn't some kind of confession to being a tyrannical monster, although there are plenty of times when I've allowed myself to slip into that role. And I don't think my colleagues hate working with me; I know they respect my skill set and ask for my opinions and advice.
But I'm not genuinely working with people as much as I should. My tendency has always been to work in isolation, pushing myself to learn and grow on my own terms and time, sharing my ideas after I've already formed them. Even when my principal and my instructional coach work with me during evaluations or coaching cycles, most of the time is spent with me thinking and reflecting out loud, talking myself through my strengths, weaknesses, and goals as an educator. Over the years, my principal has learned to master the art of asking me just the right questions to push me in new directions without making it seem like he's taking away any of my control. When Julie Wright talked about for, with, and by he knew exactly which preposition was my problem. It stuck with me for the next two days of professional development.
I told my instructional coach that I need to let go and learn how to genuinely work with my special ed co-teachers instead of taking control. I can't do this on my own, so I asked her to put us in a team coaching cycle. I am not the only adult in my classroom for five periods out of my eight period day. I need her help to give me permission to trust others enough to work with them as equal partners through the planning and delivering stages of a lesson instead of delegating their roles after I've already predetermined them.
I spend a lot of time focusing on how I can improve in how I interact with my students to provide a more successful learning experience for them. It's also time to throw that same amount of time and energy into how I can improve my work with other teachers.
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.