Teacher Appreciation: A Teacher Shows Her Appreciation (pun intended)
Sharon M. Draper, the 1997 National Teacher of the Year and popular young-adult author, consistently reminds me in Not Quite Burned Out: But Crispy Around the Edges “Teaching is often maligned and denigrated by the media and the general public for being a thankless job that offers no rewards…we need to be reminded of the small pleasures and simple joys of working with young people, to overshadow the negativity we see portrayed about our profession” (2001).
As usual, I’ve got an axe to grind and this is my forum/platform to express my thoughts and feelings. Let me first note that I’ll do a little complaining (as is customary and healthy), then (partly in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week) I will (hopefully on a positive note) share the qualities/character traits that I most appreciate in my students, and finally end on a positive note by reflecting over the school year—which has finally concluded as of 12:25 p.m. today. Hip-Hip-Horray!
Grinding the Axe (Thanks Marie [aka Bestie]!)
We (educators) serve a purpose—shaping and molding the minds of the next generation(s)—or at least those are the lies we tell ourselves to keep our heads above water. However, more often than not, we are the first to be crucified, persecuted or called out for our wrong doing. Rarely are teachers acknowledged for the “good” we do—like babysitting the kids that these modern-day parents don’t even interact with (I digress, for now). In recent decades teachers have been in the news for assaulting children, for having inappropriate relationships with children (which is exceptionally high in Florida—just saying), and for not supervising children (because we can’t be inside the classroom and out in the hallway at the same time—I’ve got your back Mrs. Lesh). Never is there news about a teacher having gone above and beyond to ensure that his/her students are amply prepared for life (our district’s mantra for the past three years).
At any rate, for the past ten years I have worked in one of the nation’s largest school districts in Florida. And in these ten years I have experienced the “highs” and “lows” of teaching. There have been moments when I’ve wanted to walk out my classroom, go straight to my vehicle and literally drive off into the sunset—which is absolutely beautiful down here. And then, there have been moments when I’ve walked out of my classroom at the end of the day beaming with elation at the enjoyment and enthusiasm that my students (and myself) recently experienced from one lesson or another. Lately, however, there have been more days when I’ve wanted to never return than days when I couldn’t wait to come back. I’ve come to regard these moments as the “normalities” of teaching. Let me set the record straight by pointing out that there is nothing “normal”, or sane, about teaching. Hell, those who endure this profession for longer than the national average of five years cannot be labeled as “normal”—and as such, we deserve free counseling and/or access to cognitive behavioral therapy, at least a unlimited yoga and meditation for the duration of our teaching careers. The only thing that is “normal” is that each day brings new challenges—some rewarding, some not so much.
As this fifteenth year draws to a close, I’ve been doing whatever I can to “survive”. No, it isn’t my worst year on record (by the way, that was the 2015-2016 school year—and another bag of worms that won’t be expounded upon at the present moment). But, it also hasn’t been the best (because when the BEST YEAR EVER arrives, I’m quitting at the end of it). It started out promising in many ways; however, as time elapsed, I began to feel those all too familiar pangs of frustration and burn out. Similar to my first ever year of teaching where I was ready to throw in the towel, but “couldn’t” because I’d just gone $26,000 deeper in debt to obtain a Masters in Education—one that is not currently recognized, nor financially compensated for by current employer. Now, fourteen years later I’m back in this all too familiar place. And what do I do when I find myself “here” again? I get advice from my friends—the living, breathing ones and those that are bound.
Before you let your mind start wandering with my reference to “bound” friends, understand that I do not endorse the mistreatment of others. Let me make it expertly clear that my “bound” friends are those with which I share my beloved namesake—books. Books are my friends and have been since I was knee-high to an anthill (bad analogy—whatever). Anywho, moments like this allow me to escape into the pages of a book (mostly non-fiction these days) and lose—or perhaps find—myself among the words that give me solace, hope, inspiration and comfort when I’ve been beat down. I recently began reading The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life by Parker J. Palmer. In the first chapter, “The Heart of a Teacher: Identity and Integrity in Teaching,” the author noted, “…good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of a teacher” (2007). Through a series of anecdotal accounts, the author draws the conclusion that “good teachers” are inherently true to themselves. In short, “…good teachers share one trait: a strong sense of personal identity [that] infuses their work”. After some contemplation and reflection, I have taken comfort in the fact that I am authentically me—in and out of the classroom. My personal agenda as a black woman suffuses every decision I make as an educator. There is so much that I hope my students (all of them—regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic standing, religious beliefs, sexual and/or gender orientation) gain from spending 185 days with me. I want them to find their unique voice as a writer, but to also leave being a bit more sure and confident with who they are as individuals—and to not be afraid to be different.
I appreciate students who: Express their unique “voice”
During Teacher Appreciation week, one of my students gave me the BEST Thank You card EVER. What made his card the BEST EVER was the unique and thoughtful response he crafted. Recently, we began our exploration of Shakespeare and his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Because our students have limited exposure to Shakespeare and Early Modern English (Elizabethan English), they tend to shy away from the reading of his plays (yes, I’m that teacher, the one who will push them to take on a challenge—with the proper guidance, of course). Alas, they soon learn the futility of their fears because at some point in their lives they have to read one or more of his plays. And because we “care” about them, we make every attempt in Middle School to give them the skills to break down the text in a manner that allows them to understand the plot—and thus appreciate the humor embedded in Shakespeare’s works. Okay, so now that you’ve got some back story, I hope you can understand why the card featured above put a smile, and not a scowl, on my face during Teacher Appreciation Week.
Not only did this kid properly use apostrophes, but he added the right Old English suffixes to make his missive absolutely one of a kind. And that is exactly what I wish for each and every one of my students. And, aside from his proper use of Shakespearean language, I am most appreciative of the following phrase, “…being the most real of mine own teachest’rs”. That line really goteth to thine heart (the cold, dead thing faintly beating in my chest).
I appreciate students who: “Keep it Real”
Real is all that I know to be. Being “real” is what has made me both adored and hated by present and former students (and some of their parents—since we’re really being real). But being real should be at the heart of every teacher. If we are to truly make a lasting impression on our students, we must give to them from our truest self. And that is what Parker Palmer was getting at in the first chapter of his acclaimed text The Courage to Teach. Also, I will never be the teacher that doles out hugs and high fives. And I am SO perfectly okay with that reality. I will never be that teacher who gives out grades to undeserving students (despite the constant meetings and passive-aggressive emails and talks from our school’s administrators). My students know from day one that “I Don’t Give Out Grades, YOU Earn Them”—not because I have a poster on my desk that says this, but it sure does help to remind them. They know this because I tell them (and their parents) this Truth during Open House. Here’s my Truth: I have had to work for everything I have (accomplishments, possessions and pain alike). Nothing was handed to me (except maybe a hard time—which I freely give to ALL of my students). And because of this fact, I believe that EVERY student needs to work (preferably to his/her greatest capacity) to earn a grade. Those students who produce little, if any, work tend to earn less than satisfactory grades.
I appreciate those who: Have a Diligent Work Ethic
On the other side of that proverbial coin: students who are diligent tend to earn higher grades. Carol Dweck points out in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, “Lowering standards just leads to poorly educated students who feel entitled to easy work and lavish praise” (2006). Dweck’s words are part of my email signature at work. It serves as a reminder that I am a person (educator) with integrity. And as such, I’m not going to give a kid a grade just because he or she showed up to class. I don’t get a paycheck for “showing up to work”. I earn it by planning lessons, delivering those planned lessons, and by collaborating with colleagues (many of whom I’d rather ignore than talk to). I earn a living because I show up every day ready (and sometimes, not so ready) to teach and learn with my students. Later in chapter one of Palmer’s book he shared, “If the work we do lacks integrity for us, then we, the work, and the people we do it with will suffer” (2007). These words are poignant. They explained why Sales and Retail Management served as jobs for me and why I’ve made a career of Teaching. I learned early on that I was not successful at selling things that I didn’t believe in—clothes, shoes, and resume databases. It was/is impossible for me to be “authentic” in environments where I lack integrity. I sold clothes and shoes to make a living; I sold resume databases to get away from selling clothes and shoes. But these words also get at the heart of another student document and feedback to a student’s comment (an expected criteria on the Article of the Week, or AOW). In short, I have a great deal of respect for resourceful students as their resourcefulness is a byproduct of their diligence. Kids who Rick Hanson would call resilient. In his most recent book Resilient: How to Grow An Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, he point out: “Mental resources like determination, self-worth, and kindness are what make us resilient: able to cope with adversity and push through challenges in the pursuit of opportunities” (2018).
I appreciate students who: Are Resilient
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been at this gig for fifteen years now, or because I’m a pit bull; but the following comment sent me into a tizzy. How dare a student, whose mother is a “teacher”, have the audacity to state that her teachers don’t care. As my response indicates, I do care. I just don’t care in the ways, methods, strategies, etc. that this particular student desires. Some of my dearest teacher-friends care so much that they make breakfast for the students who’ve done their part to earn A’s and B’s over the course of the school year (love your Rex). Another one of my teacher-friends cares enough to call parents when their kids have done something good (love you Marie). Caring just so happens to be one of the IB Learner Profile traits that we reiterate with our students since we are an IB World School. And yes, I did make the statement at the beginning of the year that I needed to work on being more caring. I meant it in a joking manner (with a pinch of truth). Anyone who knows me intimately knows that my feelings run deep. No, I don’t go around sharing my feelings like some Elementary school teacher (no disrespect to Primary teachers), but I am convinced that a certain level of personal distance needs to be exercised when working with 8th grade students. And now that my sense of “caring” has been questioned, let’s talk about those teachers who “care” so much that they don’t ever read through their student’s work, but will quickly give them full credit for work that is neither complete nor well-written. This year one of my school’s objectives was to push feedback-driven instruction. Not to blow my own horn, but I am the poster child for the feedback-driven classroom. Nearly every assignment I give comes back with some form of feedback if it isn’t collected for completion. There is absolutely no way to read through EVERY assignment, and because of that, yes, some things just get collected/reviewed for completion. But let me make it very clear that those completion assignments aren’t collected very often. Besides, if EVERY assignment was truly scored based on the quality of writing, there would be few students who would be passing. Nevertheless, one message I try to impress upon my students is that quality trumps quantity—ALWAYS!
I appreciate students who: Express Depth of Thought
In the chapter titled, “How to Think”, educator and author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough succinctly stated, “…most people won’t tell teenage girls (especially the together, articulate ones) that they are lazy and the quality of their work is unacceptable. And sometimes kids need to hear that, or they have no reason to step up” (2012). And with that statement Paul Tough instantly became one of my educational heroes and his book(s) became one of my “bound” friends.
At the beginning of the school year I decided to engage in an Action Research Project—“There is no FEAR in FEEDBACK”. In years past students have seen, and responded to, teacher feedback (written and verbal) as negative. That being the case, my intention has been for students to remove the negative connotations surrounding the constant feedback I provide over the course of the school year. My objective was to use dedicated time (two days a month) towards conferencing with students one-on-one to provide students with verbal feedback. As a secondary measure, written feedback was provided for students—which was absent of a score point or letter grade for written assignments. Furthermore, it was my hope to provide students the opportunity to meet in small groups (3-5) to engage in student-led conferences with their peers. During these student-led conferences, peers would give and receive verbal and written feedback specific to the writing situation or task. By setting aside consistent, regular, and dedicated opportunities for students to meet with the teacher and in small student-led groups, it was my hope to foster and develop students’ written expression/clarity of ideas. And in the end, students would look at, and feel differently about, feedback.
Okay, so that was the rationale behind the Action Research. If you ask me whether or not ALL of those components were implemented, I cannot in good conscience say that is true. I had lofty goals, and learned that this process of changing my students’ mindsets is an on-going process. Nevertheless, I am pleased to note that at least one of my students (one of those girls that Tough mentioned in the quote above) made some improvement. The feedback form is one of many where I continuously noted that this student’s Commentary lacked depth of thought. Week after week, assignment after assignment, until finally, mid-way through the fourth and final grading period she finally went beyond the literal and simplistic. But what really impressed me was her final Independent Reading Project (IRP). Students chose one of five products to complete after the reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The student created a board game based of the play. It was exquisite, and I told her so right after I looked it over. The craftsmanship and depth of thought that went into her directions proved that students can (and do) rise to the level of expectation(s) that we set for them. We’ve all heard the adage that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and so building a new Mindset in adolescents shouldn’t be expected to change overnight, or even of the course of a school year. But that will never stop me from trying.
What I’ve Learned the Past Fifteen Years
Towards the end of each school year, I tend to do some form of reflection in an effort to improve upon my practice. This year my reflection inspired changes in my Open House Power Point Presentation. I changed up my game by adding the following slides: “’Keys’ to Success”—which is essentially a list of actions that will help students meet the demands of a teacher who challenges her students rather than allowing them to fester in their mediocrity, “What ‘caring’ looks like in room 510”—inspired by the student’s comment about wishing her teachers cared, “I respect…”—a list of character traits that I admire in my students, and “Pet Peeves”—a list of traits that will certainly put you on the train to losing my respect and only interfacing with the Angry Black Woman, the Hulk that resides within me. Even though I don’t feel like I can do this—teaching for another eighteen years (the point at which I will be of retirement age), at the very least I need to ensure that I am doing this with fidelity and integrity. Parker Palmer challenged me to ponder the following…
“…teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability…If a work does not gladden me in these ways, I need to consider laying it down”—Parker J. Palmer
Today, on my fifteenth “Last Day of School” we (my students and I) ended the year differently—with yoga and meditation. I took a chance, and was rewarded with a fulfilling dividend—a positive response from my students. At the start of the day, I moved the desks to the outskirts of the classroom, placed yoga mats on the floor, and spread out my fairy lights. The ambiance and the student’s reception made for the BEST Last Day on the record. Each class entered the room with a mixture of surprise and bafflement. By the time the period ended, the students were relaxed. A few even expressed their newfound interest in yoga and/or meditation. I’ve reflected and drawn the conclusion that you can teach an old [downward] dog new tricks.
Almost every day I consider laying this down. And nearly every August I return to teaching hopeful (even if only on a miniscule level) that the upcoming school year and its students will yield fulfillment and pleasure (I know–silly rabbit– tricks are for kids). For now, I’m not yet ready to call it quits. But I’m damn sure ready for my eight weeks of a teacher’s three R’s: Rest, Recovery and Red wine.
Can somebody point me to the wine cellar, please and thank you?!