Saturday, June 12, 2010

Musings on the End

One of the best things about a job that revolves around an academic year is the regular opportunity for beginnings and endings. Beginnings are an opportunity to make resolutions, set goals, and start over; endings are times to reflect on the successes and failures of the past year, and tally up the regrets.

As this school year drags its wretched self toward extinction, I have many more regrets than successes. I look back at what I wrote at the end of last year, and it is like reminiscing about a long-lost love. Last year I exulted in the classroom community, delighted in my students' accomplishments, and laughed and marveled often at their words.  This year, each day I come home weighted down by the awareness of what my students still can't do. They still can't do much math. They still aren't great writers. (They are good readers, I have to admit. That much we've got going for us.)

Worse, they still don't treat each other nicely. They don't have stamina, or independence. They fall prey to the whims of their emotions, riding the highs and lows like a bottle floating helplessly on a wave, with seemingly no ability to modulate.

If teachers need to feel successful in order to stay in the profession, then this is an example of how it should never be. Deep inside, I know I'm a pretty good teacher. I've got a lot left to learn (who doesn't?), but I have given years of sweat and tears to the travail of mastering this job. Still, I can't work miracles.

The honest truth is that I didn't pay enough attention to spelling because I was handling tantrums. I didn't build their independent problem-solving skills because I was trying to keep the noise level hovering around "loud" instead of "ear-splitting." I wasn't aware enough of everyone's progress in math because I was breaking up habitual shouting matches about who gets to go first and who is fat and ugly and who bumped whom as they walked by. And I didn't teach my most struggling students enough about anything because I devoted my time to the majority, who came in with such low skills in all areas that I focused my energies there.  It was as if, after 8 years of teaching, I was a first-year teacher all over again.

This is a hard way to end the year -- to face up to the fact that, despite working my hardest, there are too many things out of my control.  I have tried all the tricks I could think of, and in the end, they need too much, and don't yet have the self-regulation skills that are so essential to academic (and personal) success.  I came in this year full of energy, fueled by two great years, and as I head toward the finish line, I am running on fumes, with no reserves.

Yesterday, someone told me that, all year, it never looked like I was at the end of my rope.  She could never tell that I was just surviving, counting down the days until the end.  I'm glad, but I'm also aware that the work of making it seem effortless takes a huge toll.  Holding it together all day (and I think I was only successful at this about 70% of the time) is what gives me the tight knot in the center of my upper back. It's what makes me cry on the way home.  It's what has me lying awake at midnight, or slumped against the doorframe on the kitchen floor while I dejectedly reflect on my day.

In two weeks, I'll say good-bye to this class for the last time, and walk out the door with my bag to get on a plane to Yellowstone.  I need this summer vacation like never before, if I am to come back to the job that I love in the fall.  There will be another beginning, in just 2 short months, but for now, I raise my glass to long-awaited endings.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Double-Dip Feelings

Last week contained the highlight of my teaching year, one of the highlights of my career: the culminating presentation of our yearlong study of Boston Neighborhoods. I knew, even weeks ahead of time, that it was going to be fantastic, unprecedented, memorable. The kids' work was stellar, with vibrant, detailed illustrations and clear, reflective writing. People were going to be blown away.

Honestly, the teaching in the 6 weeks leading up to this presentation was pretty damn good, too. We did draft after draft of their writing, adding powerful words, personal connections, opening sentences to draw the reader in, "connectors" to combine short sentences into longer sentences. And we did draft after draft of their illustrations, meeting in small groups where students provided feedback to each other on successive drafts. Every student did between 4 and 10 drafts of their illustration, and the final products were stunning.

Before the presentation, we tried to reflect with the students. Why did we study our city all year, anyway? Why do you need to know about your community? Why did we do so many drafts of our work? Why did it matter that we did a good job on it?

At first, they struggled with these questions. Why did we do so many drafts? "Because my teacher is crazy about the drafts," wrote Mehki. Why does it matter that your work is good? "Because the teachers told us it had to be." Why did we learn about Boston all year? Blank stares.

But we worked on it more. I thought about what were the right questions to ask. I asked "Why?" a lot of times, pushing their thinking deeper. We made lists of their answers. And by the time Wednesday night came, not only did they have good answers, they had practiced the questions with partners, and when the adult audience walked around and asked them to reflect on their work and how it changed them, they could talk about it.

It was definitely a highlight of my teaching career. It is a kind of teaching I have been striving to reach for a number of years. It's not perfect -- not at all -- but I am getting better each year. People were impressed by the curriculum, the caliber of the work, and the weightiness of the themes our students are talking about. It was real stuff, meaningful, and it touched the kids, their families, and the community members who attended.

Here is some of what my class said they "learned about learning:"
  • Take feedback and continue working, even if you feel upset.
  • Treat your work gently.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Be in control of yourself (have discipline).
  • Be proud to show off your work.
  • Try really hard, because something might be hard for you, but it might come out how you want it.
  • You need to do things over and over again in order to get better at it.
  • Try something first before not doing it.
I came home that night flying high. I couldn't sleep. I woke up early the next morning, my mind racing with ideas to follow up such deep reflection, such powerful work. We would write letters! Design thank-you cards! Write reflective journal entries!

At school I hung their work around the classroom, so it would be reminiscent of the community center where the work was displayed the night before. It looked beautiful. I put student-made signs up outside the room, and their reflections in the hallway. I hung sheets of paper, covered in congratulatory notes and feedback from the previous night, on the white board. It was a space made for celebrating and reflecting.

Within half an hour of my students' arrival, though, things were back to normal. There were no quiet moments of self-reflection, of thanks given to peers (or, God forbid, teachers), of excitement and pride. No, within half an hour, two students had been removed from the room because of defiance and temper tantrums. The other 18 were left wriggling restlessly on the rug, occasionally insulting each other, jumping out of their seats without permission and glaring when asked to sit, and staring fixedly into space instead of paying attention to what anyone else was saying.

It was just how most mornings have been this year with this class: a constant struggle to remain calm (on my part), to maintain order, and to facilitate communication and learning among a group that has a very hard time co-existing in a small space. I began to deflate, coming down gradually, taking deep breaths in an attempt to stay equanimous, perhaps even hold onto some of my feelings of success. Within ten minutes, I gave up.

Earlier this year, my class had a short discussion about mixed feelings, how you can feel more than one thing at a time. Later, my social-worker friend lent me a children's book, Double Dip Feelings, which is about just that. This week was a week of double-dip feelings for me: elation, success, pride, excitement; frustration, exhaustion, hopelessness, apathy.

At the end of a school year, there are many small moments of success to celebrate. The students who made two years of progress in reading in one year. Eighth graders who, during their portfolio presentations, mention learning to read from me in first grade class. Kids who, in tough moments of final presentations and good-byes, are reflective and poised in surprising ways, giving you glimpses and reminders of how far they have come and what your teaching may have meant to them.

"Sometimes we don't know why we're doing this, or if we're accomplishing anything," my principal said at staff meeting on Friday. "And then we have final events like these, and we know exactly why we've been doing it, even though it has taken every last breath in our bodies to do it."

There's the tough part: every last breath in our bodies, every scrap of energy and will-power. Our mental and physical health suffers, our relationships are strained, we regularly disappoint ourselves because we can't do more. It all seems worth it during these moments of success, but how long can one person sustain it? At what price? What is the lifespan of a healthy teaching career?

I'm hoping to extend the life of my classroom career by combining teaching with other pursuits next year. Teaching half time, and exploring bigger ideas during the other half, will hopefully sustain me so I can keep doing the thing that good teachers most need to do: stay in teaching. This week I was sad at the idea of doing less of this work, and then I was relieved. Such high highs and such low lows -- which, really, is probably the definition of teaching.