Teaching is Relentless; Be Extra

Last year I took four of my high school students to a nearby middle school to talk about writing. We had a great time, and on the way home, they started talking about new teachers in our school.

“It’s always an interesting social experiment when you get a brand-new teacher,” said Michael. “You can just see them wear out before your eyes.”

“Yes, yes!” they all chimed in.

I laughed.  “Oh surely not. They’re young. They have boundless energy.”

“No, it’s not like that. They’re enthusiastic up to a point in the semester—” Katrin said.

“—and then they just give up,” David said.

“Do you mean the kids are mean to them?” I asked.

“No, it’s not even that,” Jenna said. “They just give up.”

“They literally break down by degrees,” said Katrin.

As I return for my 24thyear, I think about all the new teachers who will be entering the classroom for the first time.  Lots of optimism, nervous anticipation, maybe a little dread. You’ve prepared your plans, you’ve arranged your room. What is waiting for you, however, is something you cannot possibly plan for, arrange, or anticipate. The first year of teaching is like the first crush, the first heartache, the first roller coaster, the first house fire all wrapped up into one.

Managing a classroom of teenagers for the first time is a difficult thing; managing a class of teenagers in order for them to learn something for the first time is on the dismantling-a-bomb-blindfolded-with-one-hand level of difficulty. You don’t learn how to do this well your first year. Or even your second year. To be honest, I’m still learning.

Many people who aren’t teachers don’t know what it takes to motivate a mob of disaffected fourteen-year-olds. Most people might think we just stand up and deliver some kind of Remember the Titans speech and everyone falls out on the floor and starts learning. When, in fact, it’s more like preparing, then delivering six 50-minute interactive sales presentations back-to-back with 30 + clients in each session, some openly hostile and disruptive.  And you have to convince them to trust you, follow you, to buy what you’re selling. That’s only the first day of the first week. You’ve got 174 more. It’s an unscripted, non-stop, relentless performance of exaggerated proportions.

But here’s what veteran teachers know:  teaching is overwhelming and can, if you let it, overwhelm you. It can bury you. And your students can watch as you collapse.

Or you can be extra.

Extra is one of those words that’s been around the teen smack vernacular for some time now, but doesn’t seem to have abated in usefulness. On Urban Dictionary, my favorite definition (as posted by Performingfartist ) is “Doing the absolute damn most. For no reason.”

I like this definition very much.

When you look at veteran teachers, you have to think: what’s their secret? How have they hung on so long? And I think the answer is in their ability to be mind-bendingly, odds-defyingly EXTRA.

Good teachers are the absolute damn most.  All the time. In your face. Good teachers are sold out to knowledge. They are stoked about the path. They love to learn, and they want their students to love to learn as well.

Can’t understand a concept the first time it’s explained? Extra breaks it down, uses a different approach. Maybe a third or fourth time. With hand puppets. Extra reads a new book over the weekend and can’t wait to tell her students about it. Extra high fives the struggling. Extra learns how to pronounce all the names correctly. Extra knows your mom has chemotherapy this week. Extra collaborates with other teachers, reads professional books, always strives to get better at teaching.

I’m not saying new teachers should do extra things, like stay at school until midnight or spend all weekend lesson planning. That’s madness. I’m saying whatever dream led you to chase this profession, major on that. Social change, writing, reading, community, empowerment, whatever – be that thing.

Extra is a sense of humor, a deep, abiding love for students, a clear-eyed sincerity and earnestness that builds trust. Extra uses tech or gaming or poetry or music. Extra is any means necessary. Extra is every child, every day.

When I think about my colleagues, especially the veterans who have thrived and survived in this profession, it’s because they have fun at their job. They are #ALLIN. My veteran colleagues at Lafayette (Exhibit A: Our science department) break out in song in the middle of class, bring their guitar to class, wear funny hats, make up crazy mnemonics to help students remember content.

In Teachers (1984) my favorite teacher movie, (and by favorite, I mean, most ridiculous), the best teacher in the whole school is a mental patient who is mistaken for the history teacher substitute and spends the whole movie pretending to be George Washington.  How much would you learn about the Revolutionary War if you were being taught by someone who literally believed he was George Washington?

So here’s my Remember The Titans speech for new teachers:   You will get through it.  This, too, shall pass. But don’t give up. Don’t dissolve, wilt, or crumble. Go out with other teachers. Find a tightly-knit, sacred support group where you feel safe.  Wail and scream over iced coffee or buckets of beer if that’s your thing, then get up the next morning, brush your teeth and get after it. Get crazy after it. Get so extra after it that you become the teacher who is the absolute most.

For the best reason ever.

 

 

Here’s a Radical Thought: Admit to Your Students You’re Human

“I’m not self-actualized on all these myself,” said Dr. Caryn Huber, Dean of Students, to a faculty of 200 teachers during our opening day professional development. She was introducing a powerpoint that featured the prescribed behavioral qualities we would like our students to master to achieve social, emotional, and academic success.

It was a surprising admission. So surprising, in fact, that I wrote it down. It’s the first time I’d ever heard an administrator (or any one in front of a PD) say this out loud:  that every day we ask kids to act in ways that we ourselves as adults haven’t mastered yet.

We ask kids to set SMART goals, manage their time well, bounce back in the face of failure, interact with peers not of their social group, be compassionate, be responsive, be engaged and curious, be driven and goal-oriented.  But the truth of the adult world is very few of us have that list in the bag.  How many of us have our anger truly in check? How many of us respond with compassion every single time? How many of us sit with  new people at faculty meetings?

Dr. Huber’s admission was a rarity,  yet it shouldn’t be.  Admitting our humanness should be on center stage in every classroom and every PD.  Our shortcomings or weak spots or unevolved selves are some of the most powerful things we could share with our students. That our own struggle to learn is not on display every day in every classroom is a waste of a powerful demonstration on the notion of growth mindset.

I’m not suggesting you talk to your students about your addiction, your divorce, or your abysmal financial situation.  I’m suggesting you share the hills and valleys of your own intellectual journey, the one you’re still on.  My colleague Vickie Moriarity wrote a blog recently about failing her Google test, and the empathy she developed for those students who try and try again to learn content they just can’t master.  Vickie’s own failure and her continued journey to gain Google certification will be a powerful model of resilience for her students.

Teachers sometimes present themselves as having arrived at guru status. Perhaps I have presented myself as a master of things of which I am not because pretending to have all the answers is reassuring to me.  If kids can figure out things on their own, why am I even in the room?  But isn’t that the key consideration in all project-based learning, namely,  what is my role in an educational landscape where the answers are not solid, objective realities, but fluid, in-progress creations?

We often speak through our ego, which manifests itself as dictatorial control when we’re in front of our students.  We have the answers.  We have mastered this content.  Really though, when was the last time I have participated in the kinds of thinking I am demanding of my students?

Am I asking students to write an argument on a controversial claim? When was the last time I wrote an argument on a controversial claim from start to finish with evidence and works cited and clear organization? Am I asking students to write a poem? When was the last time I attempted to channel human experience into figurative language?

Being real about our struggles is a powerful teaching tool.  And more importantly, we need to talk about it.  Dr. Huber tapped into that on opening day:  confession is good for the soul. Admit that we don’t always have our act together.  Make that admission into a testimony.  Our stories will connect us more tightly to one another when we share them with our students.  Sharing the story of your own attempts to learn something, or hey, actually writing and mathing with your students (what a concept!) and letting them see you struggle will be the biggest (and most long lasting) lesson they will learn all year. Be the thing you teach. Show students how it’s done by doing it with them, and sometimes failing. Show them that too.