Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lessons Learned

Over the past 8 years, I have learned many lessons about teaching. Specifically, I learned many lessons about how to make my job sustainable, so that I didn’t have regular mental breakdowns, or quit, so that I kept my cool in the classroom and didn’t cry on the way home. This year, I have had a much harder time holding on to these lessons. I have cried many days after school. Once, I had to turn the reins over to my assistant and leave the room to take deep breaths. I am working far, far too hard, as hard as I worked my first and second years of teaching. I can feel myself reaching the brink of sanity on a regular basis.

I have tried to get better at leaving work at a reasonable time. My goal is not to stay more than one hour after I am done teaching, and I have been more and more successful at that. I have tried to get regular exercise, with mixed results. But the other things I know, that I have to reclaim, have remained elusive. I am writing them down now in order to promise myself that I will re-dedicate myself to these things that I learned gradually, over many years of teaching, and that have kept me sane.

1. My students arrive in my classroom with a certain level of skills. I have no control over that level, over what they did or did not learn before getting to me. My job is to meet them at that starting place and move them forward, as far as I can. I can’t work magic; I can only do what I can do. They will make progress in my class. In fact, they will learn a lot. They may not get where they are supposed to be by the end of second grade, but that is because no one can make up for all that they have not learned yet, at least not in only one year of school. I can do what I can do, and that is all, and it has to be enough, even if we all wish it could be more.

2. If I don’t get all of my work done, or all of my lessons planned to perfection, it’s okay. If I’m not ready for something today, I’ll do it tomorrow.

3. I know how to be a regular education teacher, and I know how to be a special education teacher. Although they overlap greatly, they are two jobs. In one classroom, one adult can do one of those jobs. I can and do infuse my everyday teaching with what I know about special ed,, but I can’t do two jobs at the same time.

4. I can’t do other people’s work for them. Even if I think I can do it better than they can, I have to let them do it or I will resent them and overwork myself.

5. Sometimes, my response to stress is to try to do more, work harder, be more prepared, and control everything more. If I can do a little more strategic thinking and feel better, then great. But if I am working too long, until my brain is foggy, my eyes watering, and my nerves tightly wound, it’s counter-productive.

6. I have to let go of things being perfect in my classroom. This means I have to let other adults run activities and lessons their way, even if I think it would be better if I did it, so that I can have a break. I have to relinquish what happens in my room when I am not there, or with my class when I am not in charge. I don’t have time to worry about that which I cannot control.

7. Having fun is important. Even though my kids are so far behind, and I want to teach them so, so much, we need to play, and build with blocks, and sing, and dance, and be silly sometimes. (One point for me: I have instituted a painting / building / playing time at least twice a week in my classroom, as a time for us to enjoy each other and practice key social skills, and not go crazy from just doing academics all the time.)

8. Breathing is important. Exercising is important. Not working all the time is essential. Crying is good. It is also even better when you don’t need to cry so much. We’ll get there.

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