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:
- I don’t care about students.
- I am not doing what’s right for students.
- I will never be good enough.
- Maybe I am too old to change.
- I am not working hard enough.
- 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.