What I’ve Learned During 10 Years In The Classroom

Last Friday marked the end of a my first decade as a full-time classroom teacher. The hundreds of student faces have blurred together over time, and old lesson plans are stashed away in filing cabinets or online folders. There’s plenty about the past decade I will forget or fail to revisit, and that’s ok.

After all, some things stick with us, becoming our sacred tenets about teaching and learning, shaping our personal and professional lives in profound ways.

Whether you’ve finished your first year, tenth, or fifteenth year in the classroom, the summer weeks (or months, if you are lucky) provide us educators a great opportunity to reflect upon and catalog those ideas, ideals, and insights we carry forward from year to year.

2005: I’m teaching 7th grade language arts, and one boy often erupts with rage at any suggestion or direction, from please be quiet or I need you to choose a new seat. It seems as if his brain is a tea kettle on the verge of boiling over. I try to reason, perplexed at why such simple requests are met with incomprehensible rage. I work on building a positive relationship with him; sometimes a colleague and I play pickup basketball with he and his buddies after school. Sports clearly help channel his aggression. He leaps for rebounds and streaks down the court on fast breaks, sneakers making the distinctive squeak during hard cuts, starts and stops.

Six years later, I notice a headline: the same young man had attacked police officers with a metal pipe and was shot to death during a home invasion. He had apparently been treated for mental health issues, but I wonder how long it took for a serious intervention to be made. Sadly, not soon enough.

I’ve learned that students’ mental health issues are too often ignored, eating away at too many kids’ potential to blossom into healthy, productive citizens. We don’t currently have enough social workers and counselors who aren’t consumed by testing administration placed in our schools.

The happiness and well-being of students remains a disturbingly low priority at most schools, as academic goals tied to assessment demands have trumped discussion and structures supporting other worthwhile purposes of education.

This past school year, I adopted mindfulness breathing in place of bellringer activities as a way to embrace a more balanced approach. And I’ve become extra sensitive to going out of my way to gently talk to those students I suspect are in dire need of counseling or other forms of support.

I hope I never see a similar headline again.

2007: I’m teaching 8th grade language arts, and I’m tired of students ask me the following: “Is this for a grade, Mr. B?” I start to question my own pedagogy as too many students chicken-scratch their way through my activities, knowing that marginal effort will result in a completion grade.

Others who persistently struggle don’t see a failing grade or an incomplete as a catalyst for improving their effort, instead; I see crumpled papers arching towards the wastebasket rather than sharpened pencils and consulting with me or classmates.

I’ve learned–over and over again–that grades are a poor motivator for the majority of our students. I’ve turned to tapping into storytelling, curiosity, choice, and authentic project-based learning to extract students too-often dormant but natural desire to learn, a desire that diminishes over time as extrinsic motivation is still too heavily ingrained in the learning process. Especially for high school students, and it’s a shame.

2009:  I’m sitting next to a classmate in an Adirondack chair on a July Vermont day, having escaped the heavy air and stifling Kentucky humidity for six weeks. We’re chatting about the value of digital writing compared to traditional pen and paper assignments, and I feel fortunate being here at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, where I’m enrolled in a dynamic course on emerging new literacies.

The course energizes me. During the fall, I start integrating blogging with middle school students as I consider how changing forms of reading and writing can fit into my language arts classroom; in addition, I begin to read as much as I can about new literacies.

I’ve learned that the most useful professional development is often self-directed. I’m required to fill 24 hours a year as part of my teaching contract, but those hours often feel burdensome. Whether it’s engaging grad-school work like Bread Loaf, Twitter interactions, informal professional learning communities, or independent book studies, many of us carry examples of self-directed PD that has sparked a passion or initiative in ways that required “development” often fails to do.

2010: My father, who has been an elementary school principal for almost 35 years, continues to inspire me with his dedication, flexibility, and interactions with children. As I’m about to transition from teaching middle to high school in a new district, I’m not thinking about following in his footsteps, although many people have asked when I’m getting my administrative credentials.

I’ve learned that I still don’t want to leave the classroom any time soon. I enjoy the spontaneity, laughter, and the intellectual challenge of teaching. I enjoy the opportunity to reinvent and revise, from classroom management structures, to unit plans, to technology integration. Most of all, I enjoy interacting with students who just want sometime to listen, someone to guide them, someone to inspire them.

Compared to being an administrator, I don’t have to anticipate a seemingly overwhelming barrage of challenges and concerns from parents, to employees, to students, and community members–not to mention hundreds of e-mails–day after day.

2013: I’m with my principal, some colleagues, and 11 students from Fern Creek High School in Louisville on the Navajo Nation in Arizona.  The endless horizon and big sky amaze us, as does the opportunity for cultural exchange. We eat blue corn mush and attempt to recite simple sentences in Navajo as our guests gently giggle at our botched utterances.

We’re graciously hosted by Navajo Vice President Rex Lee Jim and other local leaders, and we tour the reservation and convene with Navajo teachers and students at Dine College for a workshop on food and digital literacies, bonding over meals, conservation, and questions about food, culture, and knowledge.  Nobody told us to develop this powerful collaboration; we made it happen.

I’ve learned that effective teacher leadership should not be defined by holding titles but by creating roles and initiatives. During the first five-or-so years of my teaching career, I served on SBDM councils, as a PLC leader, and department chair. I didn’t feel like I was making much positive impact on student learning; instead, I fulfilled duties others had ascribed.

Now, like many other teachers realizing that traditional teacher leadership roles are confining, we’re striving to collaborate with those willing to make things happen, whether it be by bringing students to the Navajo Nation, designing elective courses aligned to the Common Core, or writing grants to provide funding for school gardens, among the countless wonderful things real teacher leaders are accomplishing across the globe.

How about y’all? What insights, ideas, and ideals, will not remain tucked away in a filing cabinet or online folder? What do you carry from year to year? How do these insights inform your personal and professional lives?