It’s May, and I’m worried. As much as I cannot wait for summer vacation along with my teaching colleagues, there are still students that I look at and think, “Just give me one more week. One more week of English class and you’ll be perfectly ready for the challenges of college, or 12th grade, or 11th grade.” It’s an arrogant thought, I know, to think that I’m the single teacher impacting students the most in their 8 periods a day, but I think teaching requires a healthy amount of arrogance.
A brief skim of the interwebs reveals there are a lot of teacher blogs about “surviving May” and all the craziness that comes with testing schedules, warm weather, and assemblies every other day. While that’s the story we often tell each other in the teachers’ lounge or the song and dance we do for our non-teaching friends, I think there is a different, underlying narrative that many teachers feel in the month of May, one that’s less about being tired or “being done with the students” and more about our deep care for them and our secret unwillingness to let them go. Since August or September, we have carefully crafted our classroom culture to ensure that each child in our care is comfortable, safe, and set up for academic success. But even for the best teachers, it’s a delicate equilibrium. Even though we’ve spent the past nine months setting goals and working with relentless optimism to push students forward, in May we face the reality of how much some students still haven’t learned. Consequently, we often take for granted the students we have impacted and focus our springtime decisions exclusively on the ones we’re afraid “aren’t there yet.”
And if academic gains weren’t enough to worry about, there’s something about the impending summertime – two or three months of unsupervised time away from the safety of our classrooms – that entices some students into making stupid decisions. Really stupid decisions. All of this to say, I’ve learned over the past five years that May is a bittersweet time of the year. It’s the time that I am reaping what I sowed back in the fall.
If in September I did a good job crafting a positive classroom culture and setting high expectations for behavior – both social and academic – then these final months are a breeze. If I didn’t do a good job, then each class leaves me wishing I could go back in time to talk some sense into my former self because now I’m a whole school-year wiser. Usually, both situations end up being true, and from period-to-period I go back and forth between congratulating myself on nurturing the next generation of future leaders to wondering if I am solely responsible for humanity’s downfall.
I deal with the emotional rollercoaster by planning. On the spectrum of planning-teacher to executing-teacher, I’m a planner. In my first years of teaching, I used to think that if I could just plan the units and lessons and someone else could teach them, that would be the sweetest gig possible. I now realize that’s ridiculous because 1) I’ve learned to enjoy class time with students and 2) Why would I teach someone else’s lesson plan? Mine are clearly the most brilliant. Duh.
I survive the last months of the school year by sketching out the beginning of the next year. I’m not planning details, but I’m taking note of skills my students are still struggling with, knowledge I meant to give them, or topics we didn’t quite get to. I’m thinking about how I can introduce those earlier, reinforce them more, or make them more memorable. I think about the assignments I wish I’d done, the books I wish I’d read, and I start thinking about my “pie-in-the-sky” curriculum. I start dusting off those books on teaching that I know have great ideas, but I still managed to completely ignore throughout January and February when I needed them most.
That’s what this blog is for: getting ready to teach. Whether you’re a first-year teacher who is thinking “There has to be a better way” or a fifteenth-year teacher who is still thinking the same thing, this blog is for you. Benjamin Franklin once said, “We must learn from the mistakes of others. We’ve haven’t time to make them all ourselves.” There is so much that I wish someone had told me in my first years in the classroom, so many mistakes I could have avoided. Through this blog, I hope you can learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of other teachers that we’ll feature so you can make new mistakes yourself, and then share what you’ve learned from them. As teachers, we talk-the-talk about how mistakes and failures lead to learning, and we are forced to walk-the-walk because the same students show up to our rooms day after day regardless of how terrible yesterday’s lesson was.
I recently had a conversation with a colleague who observed a Socratic seminar in my class (student-led discussion) – one of the few teaching techniques I will proudly claim to have learned how to execute well – who explained that she really wanted to observe the first day I tried it with my students because it might fail the first time, and it’s as important to see something fail as it is to see it succeed. I wish someone had told me that in my first couple years of teaching when I was looking around thinking everyone around me was teaching flawless lessons full of unicorns and cotton candy. Meanwhile, it seemed every lesson I taught crashed and burned. I wish someone had told me that lessons never stop crashing and burning. I wish someone had told me that even for amazing teachers, nothing really goes smoothly until the end of October.
If any of this resonates with you, I hope you’ll stick with me. I’m going to be posting as much about my mistakes as I will be about my successes because in my teaching career I haven’t had a single success without a preceding failure. But out of those failures, I think I’ve learned a lot about how to create a positive classroom culture, how to enforce high academic expectations, and how to help kids be more confident in themselves. I know I can still do better, and this time each year I start getting ready for the next.
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