Out of My Own Way
I am a deer in the headlights kind of student, and my teaching has followed suit. I came to this work with the idea that I was going to make a difference, helping to shape young people’s lives. I thought I’d be sitting in a room with apathetic students, and that somehow a particularly brilliant activity or conversation about literature would change them forever. I believed we would sit in our workshop circles and drool over the language in front of us. I thought I could just show up, work hard, and let them see how great reading and writing truly are. Well, I was wrong. It took my students’ voices, both buoyant and discouraged, and the unending honesty and support from my colleagues to recognize that I have even more to learn than I could have ever imagined. And that’s ok.
My teacher-journey started later than most. I am a good nine years older than the majority of some of my other first-year-teacher-friends. I am lumped into a bracket of people who ought to know technology, a group of young people who catch on quickly. I have never been the type of person who learns on the first try. It takes me time, and I am easily frustrated when I do not get it right. I watch my students and my collaborators absorb skills rapidly and with, what seems like, minimal effort. With a technology driven culture, and a rapidly revolutionizing education system, I constantly feel like I am playing catch up. The odds of my initial instructional goals coming to fruition seem unlikely with this unrelenting handicap. I am letting them down, and it’s often hard to keep my head above water, much less sweep in and shape the future.
It was February, the beginning of our second semester, when I started to see the repercussions of my inexperienced and messy teaching. I’m sure the signs were there sooner, but I was either too stressed to take a minute to reflect or unequivocally avoiding the damage I was creating in my wake. I sat at my desk, and blinked through bloodshot, tear-filled eyes. I could see the yellow paper peeling from my makeshift bulletin board. The sad sparkle of its border lie defeated in the dusty cracks of the chalk ledge. I held the crumpled and stained Blue Book in my lap, rereading her words to me. She’d been the first to say it, “You’re the worst teacher I’ve ever had.” I felt the teenage angst and something deeper driving her statement, but I was sure she hadn’t been the only student who felt this way, and I was confident that there was some truth to it. I wanted more than anything for her to know that I cared, that I was trying.
It was another long day. We had been told that 12-hours in the building was “just part of our school’s culture.” I accepted and let myself be consumed. It was around 7:45 p.m., and I was wondering what I could be doing better. I had heard, time and again, the educators’ adage to “never take anything personally,” but I just couldn’t wrap my head, or my heart, around that. This is deeply personal work, for both student and teacher. These are lives we’re trying to help shape and support, and our own lives are very directly intertwined in the process. How can it not be personal?
It took some reflecting and some time, but I started to see through the fog of my self-pity. I was making it about me. Even reading through this declaration now, I see how much I have worked this into a mission of self-interest. Instead of really working smart, I have been pulling at straws. In place of backwards planning, I have been treading water day-by-day. Instead of using what little technological skills I had in order to make my classroom run smoothly, I have been telling myself that I need to be a pro at everything before I can try anything. There has been little play and no true experimenting. I have been learning, yes, but perhaps focusing on all that I do not know instead of all that I get to learn. In whole, I haven’t been practicing the very things I have asked my students to do in their own learning processes. And I’ve been pouting all along the way.
The practice of creating digital literacy systems for my classroom has been an ominous one. I have been given a multitude of mentor texts, from Fordham University professors and my peers, but I have always been uneasy about trying them out myself. For this coming school year, I have committed myself to creating and implementing a wiki page for my AP Language classes. There has been some serious trial and error, a whole lot of how-to videos from YouTube, and I am nowhere near finished. It is coming along though. I’m starting to understand how to create new pages, add links and content, and thanks to a very generous professor (Rebekah Shoaf), I have a detailed exemplar to glean ideas from.
My first year of teaching was everything they’d said it would be. My social life was a distant memory, I was averaging five hours of sleep a night, I’d lost 15 (necessary) pounds, I’d been sick about a dozen times, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I had convinced myself that trial and error was too dangerous and too staunchly believed that my tech products would never be as great as those I have learned from. While I still sincerely think that I cannot simply look at this last year and tell myself “Well, I’ll do it better next time,” I am more willing to learn from all the times I will fail. It is for my students that I face these uncertainties. I’m sure that a few of my missteps and face plants were mistakes that affected my students, but I have to believe that I gave more than I took away from their learning. I am looking forward, computer in shaky hands, and wanting so much better for my students and for myself.