Put Your Ego in Your Pocket for a Week

Let me tell you a story. It has to do with something I feel very passionate about lately. Something that I believe eats away at the heart of school culture: it’s the super teacher fairy tale.

I will start my story by telling you I have failed many times in the classroom.

After I began teaching Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study in October of 2015, I had a breakdown in late November, one month after I’d started implementing the first unit.  It was a Saturday afternoon when I sat in my home office, curled into a ball on the chair, nearly crying. I had paralyzing anxiety about the revisions in the middle school ELA curriculum and so many questions, most of them focused on me and how I felt: How was I ever going to maintain this level of stamina for an entire year? How was I going to confer with EVERY kid EVERY week when I had 140 of them? How was I going to grade all of this writing? Why did my administrators think this curriculum was a good idea? Why wasn’t I getting more support? Why haven’t I received the training I need?”

The last question I asked–and I did eventually ask it–was “Is this really good for kids?” But honestly, it was an afterthought. I was so overwhelmed and so disheartened during this period that I didn’t take the time to really consider my students and the effect the changes had on them.

During the entirety of 2015-2016 school year, I was on all the writer’s workshop and Lucy Calkins Facebook pages kvetching with colleagues from around the country about how unrealistic, unwieldy, and ungratifying teaching UoS was. I commiserated–growled really–with colleagues who felt the same way. I felt validated, bitter, and enslaved, so I vented.

I finally finished the first unit. I deemed it drudgery and dreaded the following year when I was required to implement all three units. I did it, though, and I am glad that I did. Even though I was complaining on social media, I was also researching how to make it all come together. After all, I had between 28 and 34 students in each of my 5 classes; I couldn’t conference with every student every week; and I wasn’t going to be able to grade all the writing, even if I gave up every weekend to do so. THIS WAS (and is) THE REALITY. And I had to face it.

Meanwhile, in my department meetings, and especially on Twitter, the message I received from the highlight reel was that if I can’t do all these things:

  1. I don’t care about students.
  2. I am not doing what’s right for students.
  3. I will never be good enough.
  4. Maybe I am too old to change.
  5. I am not working hard enough.
  6. I am in the wrong profession.

Basically, I sucked.

That’s how I felt for most of the year. The last time I had felt this unequipped was during my first five years of teaching, and my feelings were validated when I talked to colleagues I encountered on a daily basis.

Do the addition: I was not doing exactly what my colleagues were doing + none of them ever admitted their struggles = I was failing.

I worked too hard that year. I nearly burned myself out. And I did not bond with my students on the level that I could have.

This is what happens when we believe in the superteacher myth.

This post is for all of you out there who have felt as though you weren’t good enough. I am here to tell you that the people who begin their sentences with phrases “I do” when they should be talking about kids are showing you their highlight reel. They are afraid of admitting that they too grapple messily with a new curriculum or a particular student’s behavior. Their “I do” statements are a mask for their vulnerabilities and their failures. We all want to look good in front of others. But teaching is not a competition. At least it shouldn’t be. I don’t necessarily believe in all the fabricated celebrations and forced building up of others. I do, however, believe in admitting to our colleagues that we have failed. Let’s face it–Teaching is HARD. Besides being a stepmother, a role at which I failed miserably, it is the hardest part that I have ever had to play.

So I propose that we eliminate the “I do” statements for a week. Instead, try using the following phrases to frame your ideas:

  • “Today my students _____.”
  • “Today my students tried _____, and the results were _____.
  • “Today one of my students said _____.”
  • Tomorrow my students will try _____.”
  • Today my students practiced _____.”

Try putting your ego in your pocket for one week, and leave it there.

Put the focus on the students’ accomplishments instead of your own. Speak this way to your colleagues. Speak this way to yourself in your reflections. Shift your perspective. What changes do you notice? Where did the conversation lead? What observations did you make?

And while you’re at it, share one of your failures with a colleague. What did you do this week that didn’t work? Notice the response you receive. Did that person respond with an “I do” statement? Or did he/she listen to you and share a similar experience? Maybe this colleague helped you figure out why something didn’t work or how you can make it work next time. If you do not get the response you want the first time, don’t stop trying. Culture changes with baby steps. You could be the one who turns the tide in the right direction, even if it’s between only you and one colleague.

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A Year Cut Short

I came home from work early today, hoping to fit in a short run. The sun was shining for the first time all day. I decided to run without my iPod to enjoy the sounds of spring. About 1/4 mile from my house, the rain started. “Stop!” I yelled at the sky, thinking today the universe would listen to me. But it didn’t.

By the time I returned home, after running for 16 minutes and 58 seconds, I was soaked: My run was cut short.

I feel the same way about this school year–it has been cut short.  Why?

  • I haven’t taught my students all that I think I should.
  • I haven’t covered everything that’s in the curriculum.
  • I should have taught a few things much differently than I did.

Then there’s the perpetual echo: Have I prepared my students sufficiently for the PSSAs?

As a teacher, I criticize myself all the time. I didn’t grade any essays today. I forgot to speak to John today. Oh no! I forgot to call the guidance counselor about Kelly’s grade. Why can’t I remember to take care of everything? Why didn’t I say this or that to a student? These are the thoughts that wake me up at night and remind me that I’m not yet good enough, and I’m not accomplishing as much I should. I am often too hard on myself. I don’t forgive myself for being imperfect, for being human.

Today I am thinking differently. Today I am taking some time to contemplate what I do well. Today I am going to transcend self-criticism. Here are a few things that I have done well this year:

  • My students know how to annotate all kinds of texts. I am not kidding about this one. I taught this skill with gusto this year, and if there were an Annotating Text Championship, my students would win.
  • My students wrote every day. Every day that I met with my students, they wrote. It may have been a reflective paragraph in their writer’s notebooks. It may have been a sentence that they modeled and made their own. Some days they wrote essays. No matter what, they had time to think, process, and record their ideas on paper. Of this accomplishment, I am probably most proud.
  • My students read books that they chose. For the first time in several years, my students chose novels that they wanted to read, not ones that were prescribed by the teacher or curriculum. They discovered new authors, new styles of writing, and I believe they also learned that they are not alone.
  • I made the choice to align myself with leaders. I decided midway through the year that I was going to surround myself with like-minded people who believed in positive change and forward movement. This decision has made a notable difference in my practice, my attitude about my job, and my interactions with my students.
  • I allowed my students to teach me how to be kinder and more compassionate. Every year I learn from my students in many ways, but since I began teaching 8th grade, I’ve gained a greater realization of the power of empathy. Empathy can move mountains.

I encourage all my colleagues to take some time once a week and think about what you do well. When you reflect on your day, forgo the readiness to criticize; take some time to praise yourself. Silence the inner self-critic until tomorrow.

Control vs. Conversation

Control is the enemy of authentic conversation.

Just as perfectionism (another form of control) is the enemy of creativity, honest and productive conversation cannot occur if one party is wedded to maintaining control.

As a teacher, I think of conversations with my students. I may have a goal in mind when I enter a conversation, but ultimately, I am not the one in control. I must actively listen to the other parties and validate their ideas. If I don’t, the conversation is counterproductive, and one party inevitably leaves feeling unsatisfied. I think most everyone agrees that effective leaders are good listeners. Even if they don’t immediately act on the feedback they receive, they hear it and consider it.

On Sunday afternoon I listened to Hacking Assessment tltalkradio hosted by Randy Ziegnfuss and Lynn Fuini-Hetten. If you have not yet listened to this podcast, I highly recommend it. You can find it on the website and on iTunes. In season 2, episode 3, Randy and Lynn interviewed Starr Sackstein author of the book, Hacking Assessment, volume three of the Hack Learning Series. I have not yet read the Sackstein’s book or the other two volumes in the series, but since I am an Amazon Prime member, volume 3 will be in my mailbox tomorrow.

One of the main points Ms. Sackstein makes in the podcast is that the most difficult change for teachers is relinquishing control. (You can read more about this topic on Sackstein’s blog.) Letting go of control is uncomfortable and even distressing, but once teachers begin to entrust their students with the power to make decisions, the real magic begins to happen. When I was first learning to play baseball, my father said that every bat has a sweet spot. I believe that every classroom does as well, and it’s the teacher’s job to find it and use it. But the only way to optimize the power of the student-teacher relationship is to experiment, take risks, and ultimately, have fun with the learning process. It can be done. It requires lots of hard work, shifts in mindset for teachers and students, and support from administration, but it can be done.

The most interesting part of the podcast for me was Sackstein’s discussion of grades. She believes that ultimately she allows students to assess their own work, based on the standards, and provide the teacher with evidence to support their evaluation. Sackstein admitted that she still sometimes struggles with giving some students the grades they think they deserve, but ultimately, it’s about the process, not the grade. The grade isn’t as important as what was learned.

I intend to write a follow-up to this post once I start reading Sackstein’s book, so stay tuned.