Giving thanks for tiny breakthroughs

Last year was my first at my current school, and private hand-wringing permeated the experience. Colleen (my wife) was masterful at talking me down, legitimating my frustrations and highlighting little successes. Thank God she was there; it would be too easy to forget about those tiny, everyday wins without her.

This year has started much more smoothly for me, and I’ve only broken out in three or four bouts of evening-time speechifying. (Colleen still handles them like a champion.) It’s easy, teaching five classes and dozens of students, to laser in on disappointing, embarrassing, or infuriating shortcomings. They’re everywhere. Keeping a sharp eye on what isn’t entirely working is a crucial piece of the reflection process, and an indispensable facet of teaching well.

But I’m pushing all of that aside this week. It’s Thanksgiving, and we deserve a collective sigh of accomplishment. My list below is the typed equivalent of the contented grunt that involuntarily escapes when after falling into an easy chair after hours of raking leaves— or teaching. The good classroom moments, the tiny breakthroughs, are everywhere, and attention must be paid:

  • Four of my students that graduated in June and are now in college popped by my classroom to say they’re doing well. Two of them gave me props in front of one of my current classes of seniors. Their number-one piece of advice to the high school students: learn how to study.
  • My students rose to the occasion when a local journalist visited our class this week. They asked excellent questions, listened intently, and were charming as hell. Previous experiences with guests have brought mixed results and occasional mortification (for me), but this was a home run and a confidence booster.
  • Three students who were not reading The Kite Runner and pulling zeroes on classwork are now reading and it didn’t take Crazy Joe Clark-like measures to make it happen. In fact, they noticed how engaged their peers were during class discussions and seemed to want in on the action.
  • Most of the kids are finally writing “a lot” as two distinct words. (My next campaign: the difference between “apart” and “a part.”)
  • Two of the five recipients of my college letters of recommendation seemed to genuinely appreciate them. Hugs happened.
  • One student correctly used the word “nuanced” in discussion today.

Once I get started, more and more tiny breakthroughs keep coming to mind. This job is exhausting, but it’s never boring. I’m going to spend Thanksgiving break trying to remember more of these good moments— or to forget about school entirely. What are some of your tiny breakthroughs?

In my perpetually-running internal monologue, there will be no mentions of my unadorned class walls, teenagers sucking their teeth at me, ungraded reading quizzes, whining about grades, upcoming formal observations, incomplete lesson plans, 5:15 wake-ups, the fragmented unit plan I need to finish and put into action by next week, Derrick Jackson’s attitude, how to get assignments to my student who got herself suspended…

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