Taking Notes

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 28 2011

First nine weeks…

Well, the first nine weeks are almost over, the first round of parent teacher conferences are coming up, I’m nowhere near where I want to be as a teacher, and I’m an even worse blogger.  In the interest of organization, I’ll start with the lows and then transition to the highs, but to be clear the lows and the highs have not been two clearly distinct phases.  Even during the lowest lows there were wonderful moments and even when I think things are starting to go a lot better there are moments (sometimes whole days) where I feel like I’ve been hit by a freight train.  A freight train full of litle kid germs, inappropriately loud noises, and conflicting advice.

I would say the biggest low came around weeks 3-4.  The “honeymoon” had ended at that point and let’s just say my classroom looked nothing like the vision I had set for it (granted it still doesn’t).  All I was thinking about 24/7 was how to improve things.  Forget long term plans, even weekly plans, I was up til all hours planning for the next day, just barely keeping my head above water.

Anyone can tell you teaching is hard, and especially the first year, so I don’t feel like going into details about my specific challenges (maybe another day).  What I will say is that in addition to the usual trials and tribulations I added a lot of hurdles for myself.

Basically for about a month I was a miserable heap.  I’ve never been able to use the word “curmudgeon” in a sentence before but I think I can fairly say I was a curmudgeon.  The thing is there wasn’t any one outside circumstance that made me miserable- I guilted myself into being miserable.  In retrospect it’s so obvious that there is NEVER an outside circumstance that can make you miserable, mind over matter ya ya ya but I’ll just tell you what happened anyways.

I was so frustrated because my kids were so far behind  and all I could see was how far we needed to go that I was forgetting to see the incremental progress we were making.  I felt like I was running repeatedly into a brick wall, headfirst, because I  cared so much and was trying so hard and still just not succeeding. This has happened to me before, see the chapter of my life called “college basketball career,” but it was even worse as a teacher because the stakes are so much higher.  I’m not just letting myself or my teammates down, but 25 eager, curious, energetic, perfect 5 year-olds.  As much as I felt that I had let my team down during my low points in college, it is nothing compared to the feeling I had as a teacher.  My kids depend on me and not just a “we’re really counting on you to make that free throw” kind of depend but a “I can’t even tie my own shoes, speak up for myself, or read street signs” kind of depend on you.

There were times when I wouldn’t let myself do enjoyable things because I wasn’t a good enough teacher.  I felt too guilty, my thought process was that until I figured out to get my stuff together I didn’t deserve anything for myself, and I tortured myself spending every waking moment beating myself up over little things and constantly trying to re-invent the wheel.  It was to the point I was waking up 3 and 4 times a night thinking about school.

It was horrible, for the kids, for me, for the para-pro I work with and for pretty much anyone who had to be in contact with me.  Everyone in my life (all the adults anyways) were telling me things like, “oh, it’s okay it’s only your first year” or, “give yourself time” or, “I’m sure you aren’t THAT bad.”  I wouldn’t listen to any of them, all I could think about was this advice I remembered from some source who ironically I do not remember, “beware of teachers who, when you present a problem to them, try to make you feel better rather than to help make the situation better for the child.”  I had taken this advice too much to heart, mistakenly believing that it was mutually exclusive of any advice that suggested I be patient with myself, or, God forbid, that I should “do something for myself every once in a while.”

But then I had one of those a-ha moments. One of my more sensitive students was crying because he just couldn’t master writing his 3′s and I was trying to encourage him to keep trying.  He kept saying “but I can’t” so I told him, “no, it’s not that you can’t, you just can’t YET.” Then the camera pulled out and turned 180 degrees and I realized I was speaking to myself more than him. “You will be able to soon, you just can’t yet… you have to keep trying.”

Reflecting on that moment on the way home, I realized that I needed to stop trying to force things.  Not that I was going to stop working hard, just that I was going to stop being a crazy person.  I decided to listen to the advice of my fellow educators, because I realized I needed to fix my own attitude and outlook before I could do anything for my kids.  No one likes someone who is perpetually burnt out, not even kindergarteners, and so I promised myself I would take some (not  a lot, but some) time each week strictly for myself and not thinking, worrying, or panicking about my classroom.  I also started making sure that in addition to my daily to-do lists, I wrote a few positive things too.  So on a sticky note right next to “next week lesson plans” there will always be something like “remember when K and B collaborated on such and such task” or “S made his behavior goal and showed everyone at his table how all the points add up.”

I wish I could create some kind of graph of visual to show you how much more effective I have become, not as a teacher specifically but just a more effective human being.  First of all I sleep through the night (albeit sometimes out of sheer exhaustion).  I even smile and laugh sometimes and have a semblance of a sense of humor again.  Instead of looking for silver bullets and quick fixes in our classroom, I let myself take a deep breath, look at the big picture and try to make improvements that will last, even if they have to be implemented gradually.

Our class has a long way to go, but at least things are getting better. Not better in the sense that each day is better (we sometimes still take a step or two backwards) but better in the sense that there is a general upwards trend, and I am at least beginning to be confident that my kids will be prepared for the first grade by the time they leave my class.

3 Responses

  1. Absolutely lovely post. Thank you for putting into words the most important lesson I think new teachers have to learn (and that I had to learn last year), that we’re just not there, yet.

    I found another thing that helped was to focusing on improving on my strengths, first, which weren’t even strengths, yet, because the learning curve for things that are with my nature is much faster than the learning curve for things that are not in my nature.

    For example, my classroom management wasn’t as strong, but I’ve really honed my organization skills, so I made it a point to get stronger at data tracking, which helped motivate my students to work hard to reach a goal, which helped with classroom management!

  2. Ross Jensen

    Such a great reflection. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Leah Rozen

    No one ever feels comfortable at a new job for at least several months. That’s just how it is, especially a first job. It gets better (just like the bullying campaign promises).

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