How have you changed as an educator since you first started?
How haven't I changed would probably take less time to answer, but I suppose I'll stick to the prompt. Anyone who has been reading this blog over the past 29 days could probably answer this question for me since I've included the theme of change in virtually every post I've written. I'll try to attack some different topics for this one.
It wouldn't be fair to think back on my first year of teaching without pausing in horror to remember how dreadful I was at any kind of classroom management. Let kids do what they want until it drives you nuts and then freak out by screaming at them once you've passed the breaking point? Seems legit. Balancing total lack of control with complete authoritarianism every few days isn't confusing at all, is it? There's a reason classroom management is a necessity, even if I wanted to ignore it and not be the teacher with all the rules; you can't accomplish the work of learning if there's no structure in place. My management mantra (stolen from a random Internet search) became "What you allow is what will continue." If I didn't want certain behaviors or actions to continue, then I shouldn't allow them to happen in the first place. Setting down a few basic ground rules at the beginning of the year didn't turn me into a dictator, it just made my boundaries clear. Kids respect that they know where they stand with me and most don't push it past the first few weeks. (And the mantra is applicable to pretty much any life situation.)
I'm more genuine, more real with my students than I was in those first few years. I'm 99% sure this was due to lack of confidence. I wanted them to like me, to validate me somehow as a person. That's not a fair burden to put on middle school kids. They have their own crap to deal with, and they're not here to make me feel better about myself (even though they often do). As confidence in my teaching grew (and let's face it: maturity as an adult) I worried less about being perfect and more about being real. My students generally tend to appreciate that I admit that I'm not always right or that I'm weird or insecure in many ways. I get to know kids better than I did in those first few years because I'm not trying so hard to be an idealized version of a teacher; I'm just the me version of a teacher.
I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating because it's so fundamental to my class now: I can't believe I never used to write with my students. I spent so much time telling them how or what to write, and I gave carefully crafted examples that I perfected behind closed doors, but I never wrote with them. I lost touch of the difficulties of the writing process, the intricacies involved. I forgot the pleasure involved with writing, too. The satisfaction of revision, the frustration with editing: all of it. I'm a happier teacher when I write with my kids, and it reinforces for them that I know what I'm talking about.
The most important change might simply be that I've grown up since my first years of teaching. I was 23 when I started this career. Twenty-three! It's a frightening thing to go from being a college kid with an irregular schedule and lack of responsibility to being a "role model" for future generations. I said dumb stuff. I did dumb stuff. I didn't appreciate or realize the power and influence I had. There was no way to change that other than for me to live and mature, and I'm maybe after nine more years of teaching I'll look back on this time and think some of the same things about the way I am now (although hopefully the instances of stupidity will be fewer). We'll see. I'll have to grow up more to reflect on how maturity eventually impacts my career. Maybe it won't even be an issue in later years. Maybe I'll never grow more sophisticated than I am now. I'm okay with that for now.
How do you envision your teaching changing over the next five years?
I can't begin to answer this question without looking back at the past five years to see how much I've changed in that relatively short period of time. So for today, a brief timeline of the last five years.
2009: My fourth year as teacher. No longer making the horrendous, embarrassing, borderline negligent mistakes of the first year, but not necessarily a better teacher yet, either. I knew I was more comfortable with basics, like classroom management (an absolute necessity at the middle school level), but not enough knowledge or experience to get too far outside of my comfort zone. At the time, I was probably content with what I was doing, but I wasn't creating better writers yet. I especially regret my feedback to student writers from that time: full of nit-picking comments, most not necessarily helpful. One of my teaching ghosts is that I probably (unintentionally) created a hatred for writing in quite a few students back then.
2010: A rough year. It's funny to consider that I can't even remember now what had me so upset, but I remember my fifth year being tumultuous for our entire faculty for some reason. I was unhappy and I remember coming to the realization that something needed to change: either leaving my district or leaving the profession (I did neither).
2011: That drastic change was finding the MA:TESS program through UNI. From the time when I was a kid and originally realized people could become a "master" of my favorite subject, I'd always dreamed of earning my MA in English someday (without ever considering what it would entail besides more reading and writing and talking with other people who do those things). When I randomly saw the brochure for an English program specifically tailored to working English teachers, I was sold. The summer of 2011 was when I took IWP Level 1 in Charles City with Kirstey Ewald and Brad Weidenaar as facilitators, and as I've mentioned before, it was revolutionary and integral to the teacher I am today. The changes were immediate and this was the turning point. Instead of doing what other teachers in my building and district did just because that's what we do, I started delving into professional literature, seeking out English organizations, and reaching a wider network of other teachers since my location allowed me to isolate myself too much. IWP humbled me, and if more teachers confronted their weaknesses in this kind of thoughtful, gentle environment, we would have a stronger teaching force across the board. But I get it. It's difficult to admit (or even recognize) that you're a sub-par teacher if you don't know any different. I knew I wasn't satisfied in many ways those first few years, but I didn't realize how much I needed to learn until IWP. I'm grateful I took the class so early in my teaching career so I could start on the path I'm on now.
2012: Much like 2011, a year of learning and applying and reflecting. Between the TESS program and IWP, my classroom began it's evolution into an experimental zone. I got comfortable with being uncomfortable during my teaching in order to see what works best for me and my students. Continuing the realization that no lessons or assignments or units are ever "perfect" and set in stone.
2013: Between exams, research, and writing to finish up the program, I was already stressed. But then other factors added to it: an anonymous parent "reporting" to my school that I should be fired due to a beautiful (and yes, "artistic") photo a friend took of me with my husband and my bare shoulders, and another anonymous complaint that someone had seen a photo of me drinking a (gasp!) beer (not wildly partying; just a 31 year old woman drinking a beer). I was sickened and fed up: it didn't matter how much I did for the kids each day, how hard I worked and how much they learned. If I didn't fit the plastic, saintly, irreproachable version of a "perfect" teacher at all times, then no one in the community would ever care, so why should I? In the midst of all of my hard work and some really kick @$$ improvements in my classroom, I was ready to quit this profession forever because it wasn't worth it to feel personally attacked. I stewed about it for months, looking for different jobs, thinking about what it would be like to join the corporate world. And then I didn't. School has a way of sucking you back in, and regardless of those two complaints, I was doing amazing things in my classroom. I was putting my new research on response to student writing into practice every single day, analyzing what worked and what didn't and celebrating the growth that I could see over such short periods of time. How could any other job compare to the kind of magic I get to work on a regular basis? I'm still saddened that people felt the need to report me as some kind of dangerous influence what with all the husband adoring and age appropriate beer drinking, but I can't control what other people think. Maybe it was one person who had a vendetta. Maybe there's a super awesome secret society devoted to hating me because I'm tough on their kids. I don't know, but I can't let it affect me to the point where it makes me hate my job and question what I do best.
And here were are now, in 2014. Wild ride those past five years, huh? So when this blog challenge asks me to envision how my teaching will change in the next five years, I can't. My teaching is always changing; it's what I do. Yes, I have certain units and stories and themes that I always gravitate back to, but I've never taught them the same way twice. I tweak, I add, I subtract, and I love to experiment. Sometimes it's fireworks and sometimes it's duds, but it's always different and always evolving. In the next five years, I think (hope) I'll change by developing thicker skin, and not allowing minor distractions to upset me so much. I hope I keep my love for change and learning constant. In five years, I still want to be on the incredible journey that started in 2011 with IWP, ICTE/NCTE, and TESS.
Edit: I realized after writing this that maybe some would be curious about the picture I got reported for, so I thought I'd include it. Maybe some would agree that it's inappropriate for a teacher and you'll stop reading this blog, but it's one of my favorite photos ever taken. My best friend took this photo of my husband and me in a ditch across the road from our farm house. The love on both sides of the camera that day was palpable. Please also know that I never placed this photo in my classroom or where kids would see it attached to me; the offended person actively searched for it on my friend's professional photography website (which you can find at facebook.com/iwritelight).
One of my biggest accomplishments in teaching has been the transition to allowing my students to see me as a writer, and sometimes it's exhausting.
Before I took IWP Level 1 (side note: I firmly believe EVERY English teacher should be required to take this class) I spent a lot of time handcrafting perfect essay or research paper examples to display for my students, to show them how it should be done. A lot of teachers do this because examples are helpful. The problem of course, was that I wasn't showing them how to do anything. I was showing them a perfectly polished piece that an adult with English training had crafted behind closed doors until it was perfect, without showing the struggle or thought I put into it. Kelly Gallagher calls this a "Grecian Urn": giving them an untouchable example to live up to without showing how it got to be that good (Teaching Adolescent Writers). So four years ago, I started writing with my students.
Whatever we're working on in class, I do it too, in real time. I project my writing over AirPlay and tell students that if they get lost or stuck, they can take a few moments to watch what I do. This gives me the opportunity to point out the little things that are easy for me to forget as a writer: how I every time I write I end up deleting more than I type, how I constantly stop to read and reread what I've already written before I know where I'm going, and how sometimes I pick a bad topic and get writer's block. It shows my students that I'm not a perfect writer all the time, but that I work at it so my writing is constantly getting better. It shows them that the first thing you put on paper isn't necessarily the best. It also shows them that I know what I'm talking about and how to help them because I don't sit in a palace and dictate; I do the same work I'm asking them to do.
It isn't always easy. Yesterday I wrote three different thesis statements on three different research topics for my 7th grade classes who are doing formal research for the first time. In my three 8th grade sections, I wrote different personal narrative rough drafts on wildly different topics. By 7th period, I was dying. I was out of inspiration, I had picked a lackluster topic, and that was when I realized what a great moment for my teaching it was: kids feel the same way. It's easy to have empathy in emotional situations, but it's much harder when hearing yet another student complain about school or a particular assignment. Writing with my kids gives me empathy for the little things. It's not easy what I'm asking them to do each day, and I need to remember that by experiencing it from their point of view.
It's uncomfortable at first, to put yourself in a vulnerable position when you're supposed to be the expert. But it's worth it, every time. I'm not sure if anyone else in my building knows about this or would care, but it's made all the difference in my effectiveness as a writing teacher.
Today's prompt: What does a good mentor "do"?
This might be the hardest question I've had to face in this blogging challenge (so far). I respect the idea of mentors and I think we all need them in various aspects of our lives, but I'm wary of what I see as forced mentorship, which I think happens all too frequently. Mentors are a powerful influence, but they are relationship that needs to form organically rather than as a mandate.
In my first two years of teaching (as with all Iowa teachers) I was assigned a mentor. I had no opportunity to meet this person beforehand, and the pairing was made solely because she was the person who had previously held my position. I don't want this to sound like I had a disastrous experience; she was a lovely person and kind to me in many ways during those first two years. The problem was, we had nothing in common. Her teaching background was at the Elementary level, moved up to middle school English to cover an empty position. We had a 30+ year difference in age, and virtually no chemistry or common ground. We were always polite and friendly, but I never felt comfortable confiding in her, and spent most of those years as alone and lost as I would have been had I not had a mentor. Looking back, it was more my fault than hers, but it was obvious the relationship was not real since as soon as the required state paperwork was filed at the end of the two year period, we never had a meaningful conversation again. It wasn't until a few years later, when I took my first Iowa Writing Project class that I found true mentorship.
So before I can say what a good mentor does, I think the first step is that a mentor-mentee relationship needs to be a natural thing, formed only after two people have found someone they can connect to (this is starting to sound like dating). Young teachers naturally gravitate toward experienced people they respect and relate to, and those mentors-in-waiting are good at spotting the diamonds in the rough they'd like to work with. For a successful partnership, they need to be allowed to find each other instead of forced together by a mandated checklist.
After that relationship is formed, a good mentor shows rather than tells. Guidance comes through seeing someone put theory into practice and make it real, shows the mentee how to do by example. The mentor also reminds the mentee of the why behind the work we do. The mentee's responsibility is just as great in this scenario: she has to observe, reflect, ask questions, and grow as a teacher.
A mentor stresses the importance of reflection on practice, the (sometimes difficult) admission that teaching is never perfected, only refined through trial and error and dedication. Mentors and mentees need to have enough trust and comfort to be honest about these faults and how to best improve them. Ego is not part of the growth collaboration.
A successful mentor shares his thoughts, beliefs, and ideas with his mentee while still allowing her to forge her own path. A good mentor encourages opportunities for growth and extension beyond just the partnership of two. The mentor also realizes when she can learn something from her mentee, because the relationship should be beneficial to both involved.
Most importantly, a mentor reminds the mentee why we need others in this business: we can't do it better alone. We learn from each other- young, old, new, experienced; we all have something to bring to the table. These partnerships remind us that the sharing of ideas make for better practice across a wider spectrum, and when the benefits of that pass from teachers to students, that's the impact of a true, successful mentor.
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.