Friday, June 1, 2018

Dear First Year Teacher,

Gosh I read so many of these things. Dear First Year Teacher, 10 Ways to Establish Classroom Management on Day 1, and Dear First Year Teacher, 7 Things I Wish I Would've Known When I Started Teaching. 

That's not at all what this is.

Your education taught you all of that stuff. And if it didn't, it should have. And if it should have, no sweat. You learn more in your first classroom experiences than you ever did in a lecture hall anyway.

I have full faith that you'll figure it out. You're smart like that. You're a teacher, of course, so you have all the basics. You're flexible, you're an improvisor, and you likely run a good portion of your life on trial and error. And if you don't now, you will soon.

I'm not here to tell you all the things I gleaned as I first year teacher - for a lot of reasons. For one, we'd here all day, and two, every teacher works in a different school in a different setting, and we all learn different things at different times because we all need different things. For example, I wouldn't dare tell a private school high school choir director how to run their classroom because I teach inner city kindergarten and that's a completely different world.

I'm also not going to tell you all the things I gleaned because you don't need me to. You know what you need to know and you'll learn what you'll need to learn.

But mostly, I'm not going to tell you all the things I gleaned because that's not as beneficial as what I'm here to say.


I haven't been teaching for very long, so I may seem a little unqualified to write to you. But in a way, dear sister/brother, I am the most qualified to talk to you. Because I am fresh out. Just one week ago, I wished my first class of kindergarteners a wonderful summer and waved them goodbye on the bus.

They will return to school as first graders.

And I will return a second year teacher.

So save this post to your facebook feed or put a link to your notes in your phone. Because right now, you just got a job! And you are so excited! And you are so creatively planning and organizing and buying classroom materials right and left!

But a few weeks in, you're going to feel like quitting. And that's when you come back to me.

Don't get me wrong. You'll love what you do. And you'll never hate it. You'll just be so... overwhelmed. Because you don't know what you don't know. But everyone else does. They're telling you about standards and curriculum and scope and sequences like you've been there forever, and you're likely nodding your head waiting for context clues so you don't have to ask what a scope and sequence is.

And then comes the inevitable time when they'll notice you're totally clueless, so they'll just ask: "So, how long have you been teaching?"

"This is my first year," you'll say, half excited and half praying they'll cut you some slack.

And your comment is usually followed by one response, and one response alone: the sympathetic eyes, the memory sigh, and the three words you'll eventually dread hearing: "It gets better."

And it does get better, I suppose, but in that moment, you're drowning. So you won't want to hear that one day you'll be a swimmer like the rest of them. You want to be a swimmer now. An organized swimmer - with a cute classroom and an education blog and a store on Teachers Pay Teachers just like the rest of them.

But there's two things I need you to remember in your time of drowning.

1. Don't quit. 

and 2. Keep your focus. 

Don't quit comes first. Because if you quit, not only will you not impact the lives of children as I'm suspecting was your mission when you first became an education major, but there will also be no way for you to run a classroom resource blog, or create a classroom store, or become super teacher, if you are no longer in the classroom. 

You may find that your setting is not for you. Maybe you belong in a private school instead of a Title 1. Maybe the opposite is true. You should find no shame in this, and over the summer, you should work toward getting where you need to be. Because you just didn't know the difference when you accepted job #1. You didn't know what kind of teacher you were, nor did you know what kind of teacher your students needed. Self care is so important for teachers because you cannot pour from an empty cup. So if you are not where you are thriving, get somewhere you can thrive. You deserve to thrive, and your students deserve for you to thrive.

But do not quit mid-semester. Do not quit mid-year. Do not quit mid-week like you will feel like doing (like some of your co-workers will). Because kids are kids, and the world is screwed up enough. They see plenty of quitters. They will grow up seeing a lot of people give up on them. Your primary job, as a teacher, is to not be one of those people. So in your time of overwhelmed frustration, please remember. Despite your need for self care, despite your wish to be in a different setting, despite how much you feel like you are drowning - you did not become a teacher for you. No one does. You did it for the kids, and you need to stay for the kids. Summer is your time. So wait until summer before you search to get plugged in elsewhere.

And once you've decided to stay, whether you like your setting and school or not, your primary goal becomes surviving and thriving. What questions should you ask that will speed your process along? What questions should you definitely not ask because it will ruin your credibility in parents' eyes? What can you do to make that lesson better? What strategies can you put in place so your principal won't walk by hearing you scream at your kids ever again? What supports can you ask for? And who can you ask? A team member? An administrator? Another teacher?

My advice: Find a second year teacher. They know all the answers you need because they aren't new, but they will never look down upon you because they are new enough. They remember. And trust me, they don't just empathize with you. They downright pity you. Because they remember.

Your #1 goal becomes staying focused until May. And here's what I mean...

You want to be a swimmer. You want to be a great teacher, with a resource blog, and a curriculum store being sold to teachers nationwide. Maybe you want to be head of school committee, perhaps have a larger role on the leadership team. Maybe you want to have a closer relationship to your principal, to your team, or to other teams in the building.

Let's face it: You want to be super teacher! You didn't just come here to work, you came here to play. To succeed. To excel. You want a Pinterest worthy classroom. You want to be a teacher of Instagram. But remember...

That's not why you signed up for this...

This job is thankless. You get little to no attention, especially your first year.

This job is also cheap. We get wonderful benefits and we get a summer, but for having to purchase our own classroom supplies, we really don't get paid that much.

But you knew this when you signed up to be an education major. So I'm not really sure why you're so surprised now... That you aren't getting any credit. That you aren't getting much money. That you aren't applauded by your parents and you aren't thanked by your kids for staying two hours late and skipping dinner to plan that math game that lasted twenty five minutes.

But I invite you to remember. Because somewhere sat a high school graduate, perhaps a man or woman who had quit a job they weren't passionate about, who applied for a university and enrolled in an education program.

Why? 

Did you like kids? Did you want to make a difference? Did you have an awful teacher who made you want to be the good version? Did you have an amazing teacher you wanted to duplicate?

Perhaps all of the above are true.

We've heard it all a thousand times.

Teaching. We're not in it for the income. We're in it for the outcome. 

Remember this. Focus yourself, and remember. When you feel like screaming, why are you there? When you feel like crying, what made you sign up for this?

Teaching is not easy, and everyone in education knows that whether they've been there for a year or for fifty years. No one blames you for wanting to scream. Or wanting to cry. Or wanting to have a glass of wine when you get home or wanting to buy a venti coffee on the way to work or wanting to do something that will help you get through the day.

No one blames you. Do what you need to do. 

There are two things you aren't allowed to do:

You aren't allowed to quit.

And you aren't allowed to lose focus.

Because both of those things translate to letting down your students. And that is not what you came to do.

Don't forget your kids in all of this. And don't just remember them; use them. As a resource. They'll help you more than you know. Not just because they'll bring you teacher gifts and cute cards and pictures they drew at home, but because they're people, too. They know when you're having an off day, and they understand. Because they have off days, too. Sometimes they didn't get the toy they wanted at home - their brother got to play with it instead. Sometimes they failed a test, or they got a paper back that was an F even though they worked for weeks on it. Sometimes they worked too late at their after school job, or they babysat their sister all night because their mom had to work. Sometimes they're tired. Sometimes they're hungry. Sometimes they don't want to be there either.

Just. Like. You.

There is nothing wrong with telling them. 

My classroom dynamic completely changed when I started treating my five year olds as if they were twenty. I sat down one morning and straight up told them, "Friends, I'm feeling a little run down today. I'm so frustrated that my head hurts, and I have so much going on today that I feel like crying sometimes. So if I'm not as full of energy as I usually am, I want you to know why," and then, out of sheer trial and error, I decided to add, "Do you think you guys could help me out today?"

Boy, did they ever help me out that day. They hugged me more than they had all year. When I asked them to do something, they did it, and if they noticed that someone wasn't following directions, they whipped them into shape, too. They picked up the room and pushed in chairs during times of transition because they knew how much I valued clean spaces when stressed. And when I thanked them for their help at the end of the day, one of them spoke up and said, "It's really no problem Miss Harper. You do the same for us every day."

Darn right I do. And I bet you do, too, first year teacher.

Your students notice, whether they tell you or not.

Your parents notice, even when they seem mad at you.

Your administrators notice, even when they have a million things on their plate and can't let you know that moment.

The resource blog will come, as will your following on Pinterest and Instagram. You'll have enough curriculum for Teachers Pay Teachers in due time. But for now, be okay with only having one or two things up to sell.

Right now, don't focus on being super teacher. Because your kids don't need you to be a top TPT seller. They just need you to teach, and teach your heart out. After all, this is your first teaching job, and your first group of kids - the group of kids you will be closest to for the rest of your career because you both learned together. And you only get this first year once.

So spend it learning. Spend it teaching. Spend it enjoying. 

Come in to school early enough to set up your day so you aren't stressed once it begins.

Leave when school is done and award yourself with time.

You can grade those papers from your couch while watching Netflix. And if you don't want to, they'll still be there for you to do tomorrow.

Don't get burnt out on year one, because we desperately need you to stick around. If you had the heart for teaching enough to sign up for it in the first place, you have the heart for teaching now. Even when you're stressed. Even when you're overwhelmed. Even when you feel like quitting and doing something else. Your brain will try and convince you to give up once or twice.

Don't listen.

You are brave. You are powerful. You are strong.

And you are an absolute God-send to go into a school every day and pour into the lives of our future.

You is kind. You is smart. You is VERY important.

Cheers to your year, first year teacher!

It does get better, but this year can be pretty great, too.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

#NationalWalkoutDay - Wonderful Idea or Waste of Time?


Many have had a lot of questions for me - in light of recent Florida events and a viral blog post - regarding the nationwide walkouts that occurred this past Wednesday. Do I support it? Is it legal? How did I handle it? How did my school handle it? And most prominently... Do I think it's a good thing? Or is it just a way to get out of class play?

What are your feelings regarding #NationalWalkoutDay?
I think both, I suppose. And keep in mind, I teach kindergarten - so few of my students were prepared to leave for it. There were only a few who could figure out what time it was, ...and then every other kindergartener decided they needed to get up and leave too.

Personally, I think it's ridiculous that students so young participated. Not because they were too young (I truly believe age has nothing to do with it), but because of maturity. Maturity is also a problem in higher grades. But lasting impact is the biggest issue in all grades.

I think the walkout itself was a wonderful idea. Except no one is talking about it anymore. So in a way, we wasted 17 minutes of instructional time right before the third quarter was brought to a close for something that made the national news for a day. Then we all moved on to something else. And honestly, I think those 17 victims deserve a little more than that.

But maturity. Many students will jump up and protest to get out of class. Because they want to miss math. Or because they want desperately to fit in with that cool progressive on student council that just might make them popular enough to be Student Body President next year. The motives are still selfish. And I don't support that at all.

So how did you handle #NationalWalkoutDay in your classroom?
The rule in Miss Harper's room was: if you can tell me why you are walking out, and explain your position in its entirety, then you may leave to participate - whether I agree with your position or not. If you cannot tell me why you are walking out (i.e. you are leaving to goof off with your friend in the hallway), then you may not leave to participate. Only one of my students could tell me why he thought it important to participate, and I let him go.

How did your school, as a whole, handle #NationalWalkoutDay?
I'm glad you asked. Because before you think I'm an awful teacher for letting / not letting my students participate, you should know that my school as a whole participated. Can you imagine your boss giving a company order and you doing your own thing? Can you spell F-I-R-E-D?

But, my school administration wasn't stupid about it either. I was actually very impressed with the way they went about it. Allowing walkouts is an extreme safety violation (students who were counted "in the building" on attendance rosters were leaving without checking out or say where they were going), and come on ya'll. It's a National WalkOUT Day for students against gun violence. Talk about making yourself a target for the next shooting.

But heaven forbid we prohibit a student's freedom of speech. This was a battle I feel my district, as a whole, simply didn't want to fight.

So instead, my school created a designated area within the building for students to walk out of class and go to instead. They all gathered in the gym for 17 minutes, and then returned to class. As a metropolitan public school district, we recognize that demonstrations - when knowledge and motives are correct and moral - can be a very good thing.

How impactful do you expect #NationalWalkoutDay to be on an immediate level / long term? 
I am heartbroken - yet so proud - that one of my kinders recognized violence and chose to demonstrate safely and peacefully. That's like...12 battles won at a school like mine! But - if you've been around the blog for a while, you know one of my biggest peeves is empty words and mild actions.

Let me restate something I mentioned earlier: I think the walkout itself was a wonderful idea. Except no one is talking about it anymore. So in a way, we wasted 17 minutes of instructional time right before the third quarter was brought to a close for something that made the national news for a day. Then we all moved on to something else. And honestly, I think those 17 victims deserve a little more than that.

One walkout does nothing except raise awareness. Which is great, except we've been raising awareness since Columbine. We've been ready for step 2 since Sandy Hook, and still haven't done it.

What I Wish We Would've Done Instead Of #NationalWalkoutDay. 

  • Said "Hello!" to someone we don't know
    • We could've easily made this opportunity about growing friendships and fostering the school community within our own school, rather than simply bringing awareness against something that has been going on for far too long. 
  • Wrote a note to someone you don't normally talk to, specifically the "kid in the corner"
    • A lot of schools had "Walk Ups" instead of "Walk Outs." Who is that kid in the corner? Have you even noticed he's there? What about that girl who eats lunch by herself every day? What about the freshman who never quite got into a club, and now it's too late to join one? That kid - right there - could be our next shooter. He is depressed. She is aggressively anxious. And most importantly, they are alone. One friend might be all they need, rather than a gun, to make them feel as though they matter. If they need attention so badly that they will shoot up a school and die while doing it, then a good friend is an excellent alternative. *Disclaimer* They probably won't be easy to like. But it is oh so important that we give them a chance. 
  • Teachers banded together during their planning time to design / explore an SEL curriculum that actually benefitted their kids at their grade level
    • There are multiple curriculums for this everywhere, but we don't use them. "This doesn't fit my grade level!" teachers say. My response: Change it so it does. "My kids don't like doing the activities!" teachers say. My response: Create new ones. "There's not enough time in the day!" teachers say. My response: Make time. "That's just one more thing I have to plan for!" teachers say. And I get it. Believe me, I do. But my response: Lazy. This is not about you. 
  • Left compliment cards
    • Why didn't we use the time to write letters? Create notes? Make cards? Leave them in desks? On lockers? Posted to bathroom mirrors? These are the places students frequent. It's also the same places they retreat to just before shooting up a school, news reports have told me. Why don't we do this more? And why are we still raising awareness instead of becoming part of the solution in light of the problem? 
  • Decorated schools with Take-What-You-Needs.
    • You've probably seen these before. Take what you need! the papers read. And then there are little strips to tear off at the bottom that say confidence or smiles or laughter or love. Let's take this one step further, shall we? On the back of confidence, write the name and office hours of the school counselor. On the back of smiles, write a compliment that could be applicable to anyone, like "I'm glad you showed up to school today," or "You are the only one on this planet designed to be you." On the back of laughter, write the name of your funniest friend and an invitation to join to the two of you for lunch. On the back of love, write your phone number. 
  • Passed a law
    • But seriously, why have we not really done this yet. 
  • Lock In
    • Teachers lock the door for 17 minutes. Students gather on the carpet, or in a circle around their high school desks. Primary Classrooms: Discuss diversity, and reinforce the idea that good people aren't all good and bad people aren't all bad. We're all just people making decisions. Ask them what kinds of decisions they will make and why. Ask them ways they could be a good friend and why. Ask them ways they could "change the world' and why. Trust me, they will have some big ideas. Secondary Classrooms: Discuss the events of these school shootings. State some of the causes and problems we see in society. Discuss what we can do - yes even us "little people" - to become part of the solution. 
I'm not saying we shouldn't have protested or demonstrated. Actually quite the opposite. I think we should've done it and more. I don't think we should've used these 17 minutes to march and protest and then head right back to class after putting our posters away. I think we should've used these 17 minutes to bring attention to the 17 lives lost with hope, positivity, and strives toward solutions. 

This is a little much, don't you think? you might say. Isn't it wrong to expect our young kids and young adults to sacrifice time and effort to ensure other people's happiness?

Well. No, not really. Ha! Not if I'm being honest with you, no. I don't. I don't think it's wrong to expect our young kids to make friends in an open and forward way. I don't think it's wrong to reach out to the introvert in the corner. I don't think it's wrong to compliment people, to build them up, to encourage them in all that they do. I do not think this means we are taking responsibility for their happiness, because that is impossible. But I do not think it is wrong to sacrifice time and effort so that people might be happier. 

Actually, I think it's basic humanity. 

If you've already forgotten about #NationalWalkoutDay, shame on you. You missed the whole point. But here's the deal. We've raised awareness. We've done the protests. Now let's actually do something about it. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Today I Swore I Was A Time Traveler

About a year ago, I passed through the Atlanta airport less than 24 hours after surgery. I was traveling to Nashville, Tennessee to see Dylan Roth about a week after we made the decision to get back together following five years apart. I had a semester of college left, and I would move to be with him immediately following graduation. Which I did. It was the best stupid decision I'd made in my life.

In the meantime of our long distance, we had made plans to visit as often as possible. Which was why I had planned to drive to Nashville that weekend despite my post-surgery state. The problem was, I was still whacked out on anesthetic and wasn't allowed to drive. But, if you know me, I don't give up that easily. So alas, here I came - via plane - my body covered in bright orange high-power antiseptic, wrapped with a compression pack in a 10-foot ace bandage to keep my stitches clean and intact.

I know what you're thinking. And you're right.

I'm an absolute crackpot.

But I was a crackpot in love. So I'm sure my doctor had wanted to prohibit me from traveling altogether, but I really appreciate him giving me the antiseptic bandage because I was going to do it anyway. That's just kind of who I am as a person.


Last weekend, I was passing through that same airport again. Not visiting Nashville like I was so many months ago, but returning home. 

That's when I saw her. She was about 18. Maybe 19. Book shopping, with her dark brown hair in a long wavy ponytail and a Starbucks coffee practically sewn to her palm.

"It's a good book," I told her peering over her shoulder, "You should get it."

"Thanks!" she looked up and her blue eyes met mine, "I was deciding between these two." She pulled out another.

I shrugged. "Get both."

Her eyes widened. "You read my mind."

I smiled.

"Where are you headed?" she asked me.

"Home," I was thankful I could finally say, "To Nashville. You?"

"Chicago," she told me, "My boyfriend goes to school there."

I giggled to myself. "Long distance sucks, huh."

"Yeah," she said, "And it's expensive, too."

Darn right... I thought to myself. "Is the end in sight?" I asked her.

"Oh, yes. Thank goodness," she told me, "We're both freshmen. We dated in high school and broke up to go to different places. It wasn't worth it. I'm transferring there in the fall."

I stood dumbfounded - noting the hair. The eyes. The book. The coffee. The scenario. This girl was a younger me. A me who had forgiven faster. Got over her pain quicker. Reconnected within months, rather than years. An alternate universe Bethany, who was making the exact same future in a totally different way.

"I know it sounds stupid," she validated herself as I realized I hadn't responded yet, "I'm so not the girl who moves for a boy..."

"No, no, I get it," I interrupted her, "I'm not that girl either."

She waited for more.

"But I did it."

She breathed a sigh of relief.

"Really?!"

"Yep. Moved to Nashville less than a year ago for my high school sweetie. We didn't talk for five years. But we reconnected and felt it was worth another shot."

"And was it?!"

"Definitely."

"Woah. How long have you guys been together?"

"A little over a year now."

"Ahh!" she squealed as if we were suddenly best friends at a teenage sleepover, "That's so great. Think there's a ring in your future?"

I had to see that coming. That's always the next question in line.

"Not anytime soon," I laughed, "It's just not the most important thing right now."

"Is it not?"

At first I thought she was joking, but I looked more closely to find that she was really asking. As if she was waiting to find out what was the most important thing right now. Waiting to find out if she was about to do it wrong.

"I mean clearly you love him," she persisted.

"Oh clearly!" I reassured her, "But I just think the most important thing is loving life. Loving what you're doing. Where you're doing it. And who you're doing it with."

She nodded as if she understood.

"Do you like Chicago?"

"It's not my first choice," she shrugged, "But it's a good city. I like being there. There's lots to do."

I smiled again.

"I hope we end up like you guys," she told me.

I glanced back to the book in her hand. Milk & Honey by Rupi Kaur. My copy sat on my nightstand at home. Dog eared and weathered, spine practically crumpled, the pages stained with ink and tears. It was the ultimate self love book for a 20-something woman - full of poems about beauty and love despite hardship and trial.

"Something tells me you will," I told her.

I turned to return to my gate. "Hey," I called to her just before leaving. She paused to look up. "What are you majoring in?"

"Undecided!" she shouted to the door, "But I'm thinking about being a teacher."


****************************************************************


I didn't ask for her name. I knew I'd be scared out of my wits if it turned out to be Bethany, and I also didn't want it to ruin the idea that I might be in a younger parallel universe if it was something else. So I left it there. No name, no number, no email - no way to ever get in touch again.

But I wish you the best, little one. You are crazy for moving for a boy. But you're also very happy. I can tell.


P.S. - I'm sure you'll make an awesome teacher. Have you ever thought about starting a blog?