"There's power in looking silly and not caring that you do." Amy Poehler
It's no big surprise to hear that teachers do more than teach. I'm not the first person to point out that on any given day I am an actress, a disciplinarian, an evil dictator, a nurse, a therapist, an inspirational speaker, a judge, a stand-up comedian, a friend, a big sister, and, oh yeah, a teacher. And sometimes, for the kids, I play the fool.
Homebase is one of the things that makes my school special. A fifteen-minute daily homeroom where we build relationships and character, and occasionally throw in with competitions and silliness. We play BINGO, we compete in the Homebase Olympics against other homebases, we have serious conversations about life and how we treat other people. This fifteen minute time slot can sometimes feel overwhelming. There's so much to do in such a short amount of time! Why am I expending so much energy on something that's not even an academic class?
But at the best times, it reminds me of who we are at my school: we are a place where relationships matter most. We are a place where kids know that we care. Middle school is one of the most torturous stages of human development. Think back to your own experience. I know full well how much people hate middle school because I see the looks on their faces every time someone asks what I do for a living. Homebase in my school makes adolescence a little less painful for those going through it. No, it's not academic, and in the age of standardized testing mania, it could easily be dismissed as a waste of educational time. But it's not. Those fifteen minutes a day teach plenty of lessons, and if there's a lesson from this week it's this: it's okay to make a fool of yourself every once in a while.
Our homebase mission for the week was to re-write holiday songs to fit our homebase theme (Hauptsteen's Jalapenos in my case), and create a music video. My kids created a medley. I told them I would not write, direct, or take charge of the project, but I would make a fool of myself in whatever ways they chose. As a treat to anyone who reads this, enjoy the video. We had a kick-butt thirteen-year-old girl director, a collaborative group of lyricists, and our chorus members dubbed over some of the worst singing. And yeah, there's a 32-year-old English teacher whose main acting skills seem to be opening her mouth ridiculously wide and jumping around. It's silly. It was a fun group project. And for the week we spent creating it, maybe middle school was a little less awful for the kids battling through it.
One of my biggest character flaws is that I don't show enough empathy for others (just ask my mom and sister). This isn't a conscious decision to be harsh or cruel; it's because I believe that we often take advantage of others' empathy and use it as an excuse for our own lack of agency. Too much empathy can be dangerous when it encourages others to feel sorry for themselves instead of taking action. It's not that I don't have compassion; I couldn't devote my life to teaching if I didn't. But I'm wary of showing too much sympathy for others. I'd prefer to spur them into action or give constructive advice instead.
This is constant topic in my school during staff meetings. When do we show leniency and compassion, and when is it actually more compassionate to hold our students to strict accountability? That mythical "real world" we always attempt to prepare students for doesn't care about their hardships, so are we doing them any favors by being too kind? This debate never has a definitive answer. Every situation is unique, and the amount of compassion I'm able to show on a daily basis is dependent on a variety of factors: the student in question, the severity of the situation, how hungry I am, if I'm low on sleep due to grading, et cetera. Today, my compassion was put to the test.
My 8th graders had a "ticket to enter" my room today. I do this when they absolutely have to have something with them in order to participate in the day's lesson. For example, a ticket to enter on a peer response day would be a draft of writing. You don't enter through the door of my room until you have the necessary item. Students who don't have their "ticket" go to the office to work until they are ready to join us with the completed work. I rarely give homework in my class, and the "tickets" are always something we've worked on in class. Using it as a ticket means that most students won't misplace the work because they don't want to do it again.
Today's ticket to enter was a page of "found" words from "Paul Revere's Ride" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. We'd spent a few days reading the poem, and then collected words and phrases that stood out to us. Students needed their list of words for class so we could start writing found poetry today.
I sent three boys to the office today because they had incomplete lists. All three are usually responsible students in my class. Refusing a ticket to enter means it's a late assignment in my class (my school requires teachers to track late assignments for all students as a data point). Since I don't usually give homework, and I allow extensions on writing assignments, late assignment numbers in my class are typically nonexistent. The three boys were not happy, but fair is fair, and they know what my policy has always been. In their respective classes, each boy was quick to finish his list and rejoin the class after 10-15 minutes. I didn't think much of it, except that I was bummed that I'd have to add their names to the list and possibly ruin their late homework data for the year; I knew for a fact that at least two of them had zero late assignments so far.
At homebase, I checked my email and saw this:
First, let me say to any parents who might be reading, this is how you write an email to a teacher! I don't know how many times I've felt overwhelming dread when I've seen a parent's name in my inbox because I was terrified of the abuse contained inside. I'm not being dramatic: parent emails are the stuff of nightmares, and too often contain personal attacks that people would never say face to face or over the phone. This mother did it right. She deferred to me as the teacher multiple times, did not rant against me for being an unfair tyrant, and gave an explanation for her son without trying to make it an excuse. The approach she took made a difference. I've certainly had parents battle me over late assignments before, but never with this much tact. I didn't respond right away. I thought about it.
I had no problem forgiving him for the late assignment and pretending it never happened. I love cats, after all, and strongly believe that pets are part of our families. Exceptions can definitely be made for grieving, especially when the first experience many of my students have with loss are when they lose their childhood pets. So what held me back?
Fairness. As a teacher, one of my core values is that I want all of my students to trust that I will treat them fairly. What about the other two boys who earned late assignments today? They didn't have a parent to email me regarding the tragic events of their lives, so they just have to deal with it? I couldn't do that to them, but I knew I needed to show compassion for the boy who lost his friend.
At lunch, I sent all three boys an email:
Yes, I showed compassion, but I'm still a hard ass. One boy sent back a smiley face emoji in response. One sent a "THANK YOU!!!!" The boy in question? He didn't respond.
He stopped by my room after school.
He came in to apologize if he'd acted strangely in class today, and to apologize again for the late assignment. He hadn't even read my email and had no idea that I'd shown mercy. He felt like he'd let me down today and wanted me to know why he wasn't acting like his usual self. I could see the tears starting in his eyes as he tried to explain. I stopped him and told him about the email from his mom. I told him that I was sorry for his loss, and that I'm glad he came to talk to me. There were still tears in his eyes when he left, but there was a sigh of relief when I broke the news about the late assignment.
I can't always bend the rules for every kid who has a bad day, but I know I did the right thing for this kid today.
In an effort to better organize my digital devices, I've been sorting through various note-taking apps on my phone, iPad, and computer to see what's redundant and what best suits my needs. (The answer to this is probably none of them since I am messy, chaotic person and no app can fix this personality flaw.) But I stumbled across a journal entry in Evernote from three years ago. The note was a general reflection on multiple aspects of life, but the top of the list was devoted to my career:
It was the shortest part of the entry, and the most brutal. Emotionally detached, resigned to the idea that teaching wasn't for me anymore. That particular thought was written while I was in the midst of a grad school program that I loved, and teaching two grades of students I still look back on fondly. What the hell was wrong with me? Or, more importantly, what changed?
To say that my happiness in my career has changed drastically since then is an understatement. I can't fathom even on my worst day of teaching right now that I would go home and think that there was a better fit. I am a writing teacher. That's what I'm made for; it's what I do best.
I won't say it was luck that changed things around for me regarding my career. I made my own happiness with teaching by investing in myself. I quit making my life miserable by trying to fit myself into a mold of what I thought an English teacher should do, and instead focused every ounce of my energy into creating an environment that supports adolescents as emerging writers and people. I embraced my abilities as a teacher and writer and starting using them in an authentic way each and every day in my classroom. It's not like I never did those things before that crisis of faith in teaching; it's that I didn't fully realize they were what made me a teacher. I could tell kids how to write and dictate creative assignments to them, but I wasn't using my skills as a writer to work with them, to show them how growth and struggle happens. I wasn't being fair or honest with them about how freaking tough writing is for even the most seasoned writer.
I'm glad I was able to turn it around and rediscover my love for teaching. This note is a distant memory, and one I don't intend to revisit. I know many teachers have similar feelings, but never rekindle their love for their profession, choosing instead to stay in a career that makes them (and their students) miserable. I don't want that to be me. I don't want to come close to the head space I was in three years ago ever again.
Today I wrote three rounds of terrible poetry projected so all of my 8th graders to see my writing process in real time. I sighed at my cliches and groaned with disgust at writer's block that left me holding my pencil still for at least four solid minutes of silence. I'm not just the leader of my classroom community, I'm an active member of it. Teaching writing is challenging and natural and necessary to my existence. I'm glad I didn't give up on myself.
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.