Facing the fire hydrant

Reflections on the end of the school year and the moments that feel like they may drown us.

Earlier this month, I brought one of the student teachers from my department along to a policy panel discussion on teacher evaluation.

When we left, he looked completely shell-shocked.

He told me that he and his peers likened student teaching to trying to take a drink from a fire hydrant. Adding policy advocacy to his already long list of things to think about, learn, implement, review, grade, perhaps wasn’t the best activity for the last month of school.  I felt a little guilty about turning the water up. Thankfully, though, even in his overwhelmed state, his enthusiasm was unwavering. The next day, he dove head first into the stream and secured his first teaching job!

Later in the month, I joined my peers as we honored our retirees at an end of the year luncheon. As is tradition at my school, each of the three retirees gave a speech. There were many thanks given to the administrators, teachers, students and peers that shaped them into the educators that they became over the course of their careers.

Each speech was unique, but they all had one thing in common. No one talked about the worst day of their teaching experience. Instead they focused on the moments of their career that kept them going. They talked about the fact that teaching is a career where the rewards often overshadow the difficulties. Their speeches were poignant and celebratory reminders of the impact each of them had on the thousands of students they have taught.

I’ve been teaching for eleven years. There are still many days when I feel like I am lining up to get my dose of high powered water pumped down my throat, but I have also learned how to adjust my stance and angle so that it doesn’t always feel so overwhelming to do what I do every day.

Because here’s the thing: Teaching is a career where the days and years, difficult or easy, go by quickly. The million small decisions that a teacher makes on a daily basis must be made at the speed of life.

Decisions about how to differentiate for students who are struggling, to engage students who are checked out, to celebrate growth and progress become second nature. If we hesitate, then the water can feel like it is knocking us down. If we learn to trust ourselves, there is exhilaration in facing the stream head on.  

There is much to learn from both ends of the spectrum. Brand new teachers are enthusiastic, idealistic and ready to get wet. Retiring teachers have absorbed many ideas and trends and are more than happy to wring out their experiences for our benefit.

As a teacher smack dab in the middle of my career, I am grateful to have both of these perspectives to look to as I finish this school year. Engaging with the student teacher helps me to remember where I’ve been; listening to my seasoned peers inspires me to strive towards where I’m going.

While I am definitely feeling a little waterlogged at the end of May, looking to either side of me, helps me to remember that I’m still thirsty. I hope the water slows down a little over the summer months for all of my teaching friends. I look forward to taking sips of great conversations, books, conferences and virtual collaboration and hope that you will all join me here in the Collaboratory so we can remind each other how much we love the water that surrounds us and prepare ourselves for the fire hydrants we might face next fall.

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  • BillIvey

    “at the speed of life”

    That shall become, appropriately credited of course!, one of my new anchor phrases. The whole piece is lovely and moving. Thank you.

  • SusanGraham

    The Big Gulp!

    You said,”There are still many days when I feel like I am lining up to get my dose of high powered water pumped down my throat, but I have also learned how to adjust my stance and angle so that it doesn’t always feel so overwhelming to do what I do every day.

    When read this I had the image of water hoses being used for crowd control. But I also thought about a log ride at a theme park and that exhilaration of tipping down and the refreshing deluge as you hurtle down that final big chute. 

    And that makes me wonder, when we drink from the fire hydrant of teaching, what makes the difference between those who experience choking and those who walk away enjoying their Big Gulp? .

    If there was ever an overlooked aspect of professional growth for educators, this is it.

  • DeidraGammill

    Who controls the flow?
    Like Susan, I had a myriad of fire hydrant images in mind as I read your beautiful piece. I thought about the different uses for releasing water from the hydrant: if you’re thirsty, drinking from a hydrant will prove painful and probably not satisfy; if it’s a hot day, the hydrant can provide relief and fun. And as Susan pointed out, fire hydrants can also be (mis)used for crowd control. But if there’s a fire, the hydrant becomes a source of rescue. After all, that’s the purpose of the hydrant – to put out fires!

    Education reform and policy are like the fire hydrant, originally designed to protect, to rescue, and to put out fires. At the heart of each reform and policy is someone’s desire to make sure all students are given the highest quality education possible by the brightest and best teachers.

    And yet, while the fire hydrant itself doesn’t change, the motivation and purposes of those who control the hydrant do. The good and the bad become inextricably entwined, like the fire hydrant used to attack freedom marchers in Birmingham on day and put out a house fire the next.

    For educators, I think recognizing that dichotomy is essential. It’s not just about the water; it’s about who controls the water’s flow and determines how it’s used. Ultimately, I believe we need to be the ones in control. The hydrant is a tool for firefighters – you don’t see the mayor controlling the hydrant while the firefighters battle the blaze. So why do politicians control our hydrants?

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    Perfect Metaphor 🙂

    Love this metaphor and think it certainly captures the frenzy that can be our profession, both early and throughout our teaching careers.

    You stated: “There are still many days when I feel like I am lining up to get my dose of high powered water pumped down my throat, but I have also learned how to adjust my stance and angle so that it doesn’t always feel so overwhelming to do what I do every day.” 

    I couldn’t agree more and I think this is a really key thing for new(er) teachers to understand. I too, have been in the profession for 11 years, and some days I feel like it’s my first year all over again, other days I feel like I’ve “hit a groove” (or am riding a smooth wave?) and have actually figured some things out. Throw in new standards or a new evaluation system and it’s fire hydrant 101 for all :).

    I’m struck by new(er) teachers’ perceptions of veteran teachers. Recently at a policy to practice event early career teachers were overheard talking about how they couldn’t wait until they had, “Tons of free time like veteran teachers.” I wasn’t sure whether to smile, sob, or snap back…while certainly I use time (most days) more effectively and efficiently, I think it’s important for early career teachers to understand that while the pace may change and some pieces will fall into place with time, experience and increased expertise, the learning and opportunities to be “infowhelmed” never cease.

    So it might be best to commuicate up front this profession isn’t for the faint of heart. Goggles and snorkels advised for a “deep dive” into this world of teaching and learning.