Thursday, July 30, 2015

My Teacher Bag and the Other Random Crap I Keep Stashed in My Classroom

I was packing up my teacher bag last night in preparation for finally getting into my classroom to work this weekend and thought I'd let you guys take a peak inside.

By the way, if you are a teacher and you don't have a teacher bag, you're doing it wrong. This is a necessity, people! I mean, who would Mary Poppins be without her magical carpet bag? She'd just be any other boring English nanny! Would Santa really be Santa if he didn't have that giant magical bag of toys? Nope. Where would Dora the Explorer be without her backpack? She'd just be a lost little girl wandering through the world with an anthropomorphic purple monkey wearing red boots. And, teacher friend, who would you be without your teacher bag? You would probably be someone who is either A) a disorganized or B) such a badass at your job that you need never transport your work to home (in which case, your Majesty, I grovel at your feet).

Got a little carried away there. Moving on...

Alrighty, so there are all kinds of useful vessels that can be used as teacher bags. Backpacks are a very good option, as are tote bags, satchels, and laptop bags. Less traditional but nonetheless functional options could include a gym bag, a milk crate, or one of those sturdy brown paper bags with handles you get from Cracker Barrel.

Here is my teacher bag.

I feel I should go on record as saying that I don't buy Thirty-One stuff because, as freaking adorable as it all is and as much as I like it, I'm not willing to drop that kind of dough on a tote bag. #stingy #teachersalary My mother-in-law, however, is the queen of gift-giving and she is the one who so graciously gifted me this perfect teacher bag. This bad boy has SEVEN outside pockets and a very spacious interior, but it is also still small enough to be convenient. Bonus points for the color scheme.

This is my grading file. I've used it for several years, now, and it's actually holding up quite nicely. This is my system I use for taking home student work. I keep everything filed by class period and keep a file of answer keys as well. Great way to stash paperwork that needs to travel without losing too many things.

That's my school iPad, which is paradoxically the most useless and the most useful piece of technology I own. I mean, I own no other Apple products, so it's not at all compatible with any other technology in my life, but it's really useful for grading student papers that are turned in using It's also synced up to my work emails, so if I feel like doing even more work from home, I can access my emails very quickly.

That's a student handbook/planner (from last year, might I add; I just included it for the picture lol). While all the important dates and lesson planning goes into my Sanity Saver, it's nice to keep one of these handy for a reference. It includes the school's policies on everything, the delay schedules, all of the sporting events, and most other major events throughout the school year.

That's my pen case with a selection of pretty ink pens. I also keep a pair of scissors handy along with the pen that comes with a real Smash Book (it has a black felt-tip pen on one end and a glue stick on the other... so handy!).

I typically carry a book with me everywhere I go. In the summertime, I just keep one in my purse, but during the school year I don't usually carry a purse, so the personal reading book goes in my teacher bag (along with my car keys, wallet, etc.). I think if I'm going to ask my students to read and hope to help them develop a love of reading, I need them to see me reading for enjoyment too. Usually throughout the school year I read novels suggested by students. Just getting started with this one.

My Sanity Saver and my Smash Books go in my teacher bag too. Other things that may or may not make an appearance in my bag include:

  • chewing gum
  • binder clips
  • paper clips
  • tape
  • highlighters
  • a ruler
  • bandaids
  • Post-It notes (actually, I do have Post-It notes in there, but they are currently stuck to the back cover of my Smash Book)

After writing this fun post about the things teachers really have on their back-to-school shopping lists, it got me thinking about the non-school supplies things that I keep stashed in my classroom. When you spend 8+ hours a day (and oftentimes it's more like 10+ hours) in your classroom, sometimes there's just some other random crap that needs to be hiding out in your classroom. Things like:
  • deodorant
  • toothbrush/toothpaste/floss/mouthwash
  • comb/brush
  • mousse
  • hair spray
  • chapstick
  • emergency lunch items (cans of soup, tuna lunch kits)
  • snacks (microwave popcorn, trail mix, Kind bars)
  • a dressy change of clothes (for the morning you spill your coffee all over your clothes)
  • a cruddy change of clothes (for the afternoon you're going to be cleaning out the prop room)
  • a pair of comfortable shoes
  • Ibuprofen
  • allergy medicine
  • antacids
  • Jolly Ranchers (if you're pregnant and sick as a dog like I was)
  • feminine hygiene products (if you're a lady teacher in a high school, I can pretty much guarantee at least one young lady will ask you for one of these)
  • a hundred different cardigans
  • bobby pins
  • mascara
  • concealer
  • lotion
  • several dollars in quarters and singles for the vending machine
  • paper 
  • plates
  • plastic forks
  • napkins
  • a Tide pen
  • Febreeze
So I'm very curious... what am I missing? What absolute necessity is in your teacher bag? What are the really bizarre essentials you keep in your classroom?

Not-So-Happy Summer's-Almost-Over!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sanity Saver: Evolved

Since I first introduced you to my Sanity Saver back in 2012(!) my organizational needs have changed. Over the last few years, several of the records I used to keep in my Sanity Saver binder have moved to being digital. I'm all for this, of course, because I love me some technology. But as much as I love working on the computer and storing things online, there are some tasks that I prefer to take care of on paper. My Sanity Saver is still an absolute necessity in the classroom, but it changes as I change. I thought I would show you what it looks like nowadays.

One obvious difference: it's no longer a binder. This is new for me this year. I'm giving the spiral-binding a try to see if it holds up a bit better. I got the book printed and bound at Staples. It has a clear plastic front cover and a black vinyl back cover. The color turned out great! I'm really pleased with the printing and definitely plan on getting more stuff printed and bound like this.

You would think that, after five years of working at my building, I would have the address and phone number memorized. Nope, not yet. So that's on the About Me page, along with a space for my class schedule and the number of students in each period. That's handy info to have.

I also created an account log for all of the random accounts I have to keep for school.

I am currently doing a terrible job of keeping track of my professional growth points, which I will need to renew my license in a couple years. So hopefully this will help me stay on track.

My calendar is still present, of course, in a lovely assortment of colors. :)

This section is right before my planning pages. I am notorious for planning on days that are not actually available for lessons, so hopefully this will keep me from making that mistake.

I used a calendar like this last year when doing my long-term planning and LOVED IT. Seriously, it makes it so clear what's going on all year and how many days it's going to take to do it. I goofed, though. I meant to get two of these in the Sanity Saver, one for each subject I teach, but I only got the one. Oh well, I can make it work. #thatswhatdifferentcolorpensarefor #nottheterracottaorcatpukecolorsthough #periwinkleforthewin

This is the shorter version of my weekly lesson planning forms I use (the one that's available to you here!). I decided this year it made a lot more sense to plan my subjects, not my class periods, because I honestly was leaving a lot of space blank. This also made my planner much more affordable, which is kind of important. Kind of.

While I will still continue to print my students' accommodations, I created a little cheat sheet this year where I can just jot down their names and place a check mark in the boxes of their accommodations.

Parent Contact Log is still present.

This Discipline Record is new for me. At my current school, we usually just fire off an email to our assistant principal when we have a discipline problem and he records it in our system. It's a very laid back system. At my old school, we had to fill out referrals for discipline issues and that system seemed much firmer to me. I need something in the middle. I want to do a better job keeping track of the (few and far between) discipline issues I have in my classroom, especially the cell phone problem. I think this will do the trick because it will be at hand (being part of my Sanity Saver) and the form is concise. It will give me a record, something I miss from my old school, while not being disruptive to class time, which was problematic at the old school.

Note-taking space. I like graph paper for notes.

The back cover (great place to store sticky notes!)
Things that are notably missing:

  • a grade book - honestly, nowadays I just find it a whole heck of a lot easier to print copies of my digital grade book at the end of the week or every other week than to enter everything twice.
  • attendance - I have a new system for attendance (this will be my second year using it) that I'm much happier with
  • student data - all on the computer now
  • theatre - outgrew the Sanity Saver and needed a binder all of its own
  • copies of standards - I live in Indiana. Our Frankenstandards mutate on a regular basis. I'm better off to just follow along with whatever the DOE's flavor of the month looks like.
  • freshmen class info - I'm still the class sponsor, but this section was actually pretty useless. Didn't have anything in there!
Since I generated some new documents this year while putting this together, I'm sharing! The Accommodations Cheat Sheet is an editable Word document to you and is a freebie! The other items are going up in my Teachers Pay Teachers store and are only $1.50 apiece. Check them out!

Sanity Saver and two Smash Books
Here they are... my keys to an organized 2015-2016 school year! What will you be using to keep you on track this year?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Real Back-to-School Shopping List

I don't think Uncle Sam had finished his Pabst Blue Ribbon or fired off his last bottle rocket before the Wal-Marts of the U.S. unfurled their giant Back to School banners and the whole joint started smelling like crayons and kindergarten. I confess that my heart beats a little faster when I stroll through the aisles of school supplies. My love of office supplies is seriously in my list of Top 5 Reasons I Became a Teacher in the First Place. This time of year is early Christmas for me, except all the gifts are FOR MYSELF. My husband is out of town on business right now and when I told him I was going to spend all of our money on school supplies, he laughed nervously. Laughter because he know's I'm kidding, but the nerves because he knows I might not be.

Take my money, Target Dollar Spot!
We all tend to have a little shopping list put together of some classroom necessities before the kiddies come running back in. Pencils, pens, paper, etc. This is the list we show our spouses and families and say, "My gosh, look at all of the supplies my darling students need that the school won't provide!" and they say, "Wow, you are a good teacher! That's so good of you to make sure your kids have everything they need." That's also where my husband says, "Umm... will it really cost $300 to get that stuff?"

No, sweetheart, no it won't.

Because there's another list.

The real list. The list of the true necessities.

This is the real back-to-school shopping list.
  • Coffee (not the unleaded stuff... the real stuff)
  • Bourbon (or other alcoholic beverage of choice)
  • Dr. Scholl's Massaging Gel Insoles
  • The jumbo pack of gorgeous ink pens in a brilliant array of colors. I mean, no one in their right mind will ever use the weird terra cotta colored pen or the one that looks like cat puke, but it's completely worth it for that periwinkle color you can't get anywhere else.
Original Image Source
  • A new lunchbox. Sure, you've got one from every year of your teaching career stashed in that weird cabinet in your kitchen, but this one... this is the one.
  • Lunch containers for your new lunch box, because you will definitely make better lunch choices when your Tupperware matches.
  • A box of chocolate Pop Tarts because, let's face it, that goal you made about eating a healthy breakfast every morning is pretty ambitious.
  • A cut-and-color ("Aww, you like my hair? That's sweet. I just woke up looking this fabulous.")
  • The most annoying alarm clock you can find, because that will definitely help you get up on time.
  • A cute new tumbler cup... for water, of course.
  • A super-fancy, very expensive planner that will ultimately be pretty useless but LOOK AT ALL THOSE COLORS AND THE CUTE OWLS! (Erin Condren, I'm looking at you, chick.)
  • The cutest new first-day-of-school outfit that walks the fine line between "that super nice totally approachable teacher" and "that bitch who don't take shit off anyone."
  • The Target Dollar Spot (the whole thing)
  • 7 of the exact same cheap little basket in an array of pleasing colors
Target strikes again!
  • A new teacher bag... so many pockets!
  • A Cerberus/Fluffy action figure*
  • Funny signs to hang in your classroom**
  • A dozen new books for your classroom library (pending your reading and approval, of course)
  • A "system that is guaranteed to make you a better teacher" (filing system, paper distribution, discipline records, cat herding)
  • Ibuprofen
That basically sums up my list! What kinds of goodies do you have hiding out on your secret back-to-school shopping list? Please share in the comments! Should be good for a laugh. :)

*Check! Bought it on vacation.
**Check again! It's a "No Whining Zone" sign and will go above my door, I think.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Seven Qualities of the Skills-Based Classroom Environment

Professional Development Seminar
Scenario 1
When you walk through the door at the God-forsaken time of 7:30 a.m., they hand you a fat packet (it's the entire PowerPoint presentation on Skills-Based Curriculum they are about to show you, printed six slides to a page) and point you in the direction of the free breakfast. You're in a conference room with long tables, packed in shoulder-to-shoulder with your colleagues like sardines in a can, and everyone is facing the stage, where sits a projector, a laptop, and a projection screen that screams "GOOD MORNING TEACHERS!" at you. The room sounds like a beehive, filled with the murmur of teaching anecdotes, bitter administration complaints, and coffee breath. You can feel that frantic morning energy that so many teachers have with a net of "we're-not-morning-people" teachers keeping it all in check. After thirty minutes of chit chat and breakfast and getting your space all set up (mega-packet at hand, pretty ink pens lined up, six different highlighters, a pad of Post-It notes within easy reach... wait, just me?), a voice booms in over the sound system and your speaker begins the presentation. And she talks... and she talks... and she talks... and she reads to you from her PowerPoint (in my own little hell, the PowerPoint is lime green with red text, the potato-quality pictures don't have borders, and there are pixelated gifs flickering like lightning bugs from every direction)... and she shows you a picture of a textbook and expects you to be able to read that from your seat in the very back of the room... and you sit and are expected to absorb and memorize this stuff for the next six hours... and you glance at your watch and Jesus-dammit-it-has-only-been-fifteen-minutes-we-have-to-do-this-for-HOW-LONG-and-when-is-lunch?? And before you know it, it's 8:30 a.m. and you're sitting with a lead belly full of free doughnuts, your fingers are twitching from all of that coffee and surplus energy, and you and your teacher buddy on your right keep jabbing each other in the ribs to keep the other awake while you and your teacher buddy on your left swap doodles poking fun at the presenter's hair.
Learning happening here? Very little.


Professional Development Seminar
Scenario 2
Unfortunately, it's still 7:30 a.m. and they are still offering sugar and caffeine to fuel your morning. But in this scenario, when you walk through the door, you are handed a much smaller packet. This packet has very little text on it; instead, there are lots of big, open spaces for you to write things down. It's still a conference room, but the seating arrangement varies wildly in the room. There are long conference tables available for seating as well as smaller, more intimate round tables, standing tables, and even some single chairs with a foldable table for writing space. Everyone is free to choose the seating arrangement that best suits them. There appear to be resources scattered about the room: posters, books, binders, etc. There is still a stage with a projector, laptop, and screen, but in addition to greeting you, the screen charges you with a task: "Use the first page in your packet to develop a working definition of 'skills-based curriculum.' You may collaborate with others in your team, talk to folks from other schools, or you may explore the resources in the room on your own. Compare and contrast skills-based curriculum to knowledge-based curriculum using the Vinn Diagram on the handout before writing your working definition. You have thirty minutes to complete this task." So now the room is still a beehive and there's still all of this energy, but it is being put to use. The extroverts are flitting around from group to group, discussing their varying understandings of skills-based and knowledge-based curriculum. The introverts are working in small groups or on their own, quietly exploring the resources available in the room to develop their definitions. Everyone does what works best for them and the majority appear to be on task. At 7:55, the presenter asks everyone to wrap up their work and return to their chosen seats. The presenter speaks briefly before assigning everyone another related task and everyone is back at work.
Learning happening here? A considerable amount.

Workin' it like a Rube Goldberg machine.
*     *     *

In the two scenarios above, there are several consistencies. Both seminars had the participants walking through the door at 7:30 a.m., with the actual "begin time" at 8:00 a.m. Both seminars were about skills-based curriculum. Both had a speaker, and a presentation. Both seminars had free doughnuts! (You guys know how a feel about doughnuts... yum...) One huge difference between these scenarios, though, is the environment. Your classroom environment is a game-changer! It can make or break your year. Like the two scenarios above, our students come to us at an early hour, fueled by caffeine and sugar, and we have to find a useful outlet for all of that energy. Or worse, we get them after the crash from all that junk and we have to figure out how to keep them awake and get them moving. Last week I shared with you some of my tips for developing a skills-based curriculum, but I think it's also important to talk about how to create a classroom environment that encourages this kind of engagement. If we want our students to actually do things in our classroom instead of just existing for forty-five or more minutes, we have to build a classroom environment that encourages productivity. There is a lot of research out there on the environment of the classroom. It's definitely one of those one-size-will-not-fit-all topics. The trick to creating a productive, safe, and positive classroom environment is trial-and-error. You have to figure out what's going to work best for you and your students and don't be afraid to change something that doesn't work! My own classroom is ever-evolving. After five years of teaching and one year of skills-based curriculum, here are seven qualities I'm beginning to find necessary for my own classroom environment.
  1. Purposeful Design
  2. Task-Oriented
  3. Resource Abundant
  4. Flexible Seating
  5. Student-Led and Teacher-Facilitated
  6. Collaborative AND Independent
  7. S.M.A.R.T Goals
Purposeful Design
A game plan is absolutely necessary when designing your physical classroom environment. Everything in the classroom needs to serve a purpose and it should serve that purpose well. In the second scenario above, the learning space was set up with great purpose, based on the other qualities. Every year when I tinker with my classroom layout, I try to organize the space with great purpose, based off of my reflections from the past year and my plans for the upcoming year.


A skills-based curriculum revolved around activity. What can a student do by the end of the lesson? What skill can they now perform? The classroom should encourage activity. I like the idea of students hitting the ground running as soon as they come in. Set high expectations at the beginning of the year. I tell my students, "You will do something in this classroom every single day! Never come in from an absence and ask me if we did anything while you were gone. Of course we did! Ask, 'What did we do yesterday?'" In the second scenario above, the presenter knows that there will be energy and makes use of that energy from the get-go. And for those that aren't energized at the start, this task-oriented seminar gets them moving.

Or, you know, just install a merry-go-round for all that endless energy.
Resource Abundant
This one can be really difficult to achieve, especially if you are in a school that struggles financially. We must try, though, to make our classroom resources plentiful. It's not necessary to have all resources available all the time, I don't think. Your Greek mythology resources don't need to be readily available when you are using World War II for context, for example, but attempt to have some additional resources on hand and available for student-use when appropriate. A university in my area has content kits that they put together for teachers to check out FOR FREE from the university library. Many public libraries, museums, and tourist attractions have something similar, especially for the elementary classrooms. Maybe somewhere near you has resources for loan?

Free resources, I AM COMING FOR YOU!
Flexible Seating
I have tried out all kinds of seating arrangements over the last five years and one thing stands out to me: seating should be flexible. You need to be prepared to have students working as a whole group, in two big groups, in smaller groups of four or six, in pairs, and solo! This is one reason that the desk pods just did not work for me last year. While I always had my smaller groups together, it was often difficult to form any other groups and nigh impossible to get students to work solo. Thus far, the set up that works best for me is to divide my room into two "sides" consisting of columns and rows that face a center aisle. It's easy for whole group instruction, perfect when I need to divide the class into two big groups, easily adaptable for small groups and pair-and-share, and works fairly well for solo endeavors.

While hilarious, this you do not want in your classroom. Make your seating flexible (and sturdy).

Student-Led, Teacher-Facilitated
My first or second year of teaching, I remember a speaker saying that teachers shouldn't be exhausted at the end of the school day because teachers shouldn't be doing all of the work. The students should be the tired ones. I really didn't understand this at all at the time. I figured if I wasn't exhausted by the end of the day I wasn't doing my job right. Nowadays, I understand what that means. I don't know about you guys, but the days I'm the most tired by last bell are the days that I did a whole lot of talking. Lecture days take the starch right out of me... but I feel pretty good on the days that my students are working on skills and I'm moving throughout the room helping, answering questions, etc. That isn't to say I'm not tired at the end of the day, but I'm not flat exhausted. If you're experiencing extreme exhaustion by the end of the school day, perhaps you should take a look at how you're spending your classroom time. You could even try tracking your class time! The students should be doing the work the majority of the time; we should be there to assist, support, guide, and motivate.

If this exhausted kitty and the finger poking him in the ear sums up your 3:00, you might be doing something wrong.
Collaborative AND Independent Work
I think it's absolutely necessary to figure out what kind of people our students are. One of my favorite first week activities is having my students fill out interest inventories, take quizzes to identify learning type, and mind map themselves. I spend a little time in those early days analyzing the results. Actually, this year I plan to use some kind of a system to help me readily see which kids are visual learners, which ones hate reading, which ones are extroverts, etc. Some classrooms are really heavy in collaborative work and others are very heavy in independent work. I am striving to create a classroom where this is balanced and a classroom where my students have a choice in the matter. Students thrive in certain conditions; I'm all about making those conditions possible (well, as possible as I can manage).

With a good team leader, the possibilities are endless.
S.M.A.R.T Goals

Ultimately, when we choose a skill to teach to our students, we have to make sure they are S.M.A.R.T goals. I think I'm going to print a poster of this to hang in my classroom. We talk about goal-setting and I encourage my students to make smart goals. I should always remind myself to make smart goals for my students.

What are the qualities you look for in a high-functioning classroom environment?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Developing a Skills-Based Curriculum

Skills-based learning is the idea that instead of teaching content and wondering, "What activities should I use to help them learn this content?" we teach skills and wonder, "What content would be useful in helping students develop this skill?"

Instead of saying, 
"I want my students to learn about the sinking of the Titanic, so we will read several articles about it and watch a video. They will have to memorize the date it sank, the location, and know about the impact of the catastrophe on cruise ship safety." (knowledge-based)
Say this:
"I want my students to learn how to analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums to determine the significant details of the event. They will need to know how to determine the main idea of a text, use textual evidence to support their ideas, and evaluate the author's bias. I think that the sinking of the Titanic would be an excellent subject for this skill set." (skills-based)

Instead of saying,
"I want my students to memorize these twenty-five vocab words, their definitions, their parts of speech, and their given synonyms and antonyms." (knowledge-based)
Say this:
"I want my students to use context to determine or clarify the meaning of challenging words." (skills-based)

Instead of saying,
"I want my students to read Romeo and Juliet because it is a staple of high school literature that must be taught." (knowledge-based dogma-based)
Say this:
"I want my students to write an argumentative essay using Romeo and Juliet for context. They will develop a claim about who is responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet and support their claim with evidence from the text." (skills-based)
"I want my students to analyze how dynamic characters develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot of the story. Romeo and Juliet is a character-driven play with several dynamic characters, so I think I will use that." (skills-based)
 "I want my students to identify themes found in both classic and modern literature and analyze those themes to determine which ones are universal. Romeo and Juliet has many universal themes that students will be able to relate to." (skills-based)
To develop a skills-based curriculum, you kind of have to flip around the way you think about creating your curriculum. Before I moved to a skills-based curriculum, I used to think in terms of content units. Okay, I teach freshmen English, so we will definitely have to do Romeo and Juliet. And I really like World War II stuff and Night is a really good book, so we'll do that. The Odyssey is a must, so we've got to do that. And my department head said I have to use this vocab book and we should probably try to get through the whole book by the end of the year, so...

Okay, I'm not saying there isn't any value to a knowledge-based curriculum. I definitely think that a  knowledge-base is necessary... as a foundation for skills-based learning. If the content is being used to further the skill, then that's great.

So, how do you know if what you've got in mind is skills-based instead of knowledge-based? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is the learning active? Are students sitting, absorbing, just taking notes? Or are students in the thick of it and doing things to advance learning? Is this something they have to practice?
  2. Is the learning useful? Not everyone will grow up needing to know what superfluous means off the top of their head, but everyone needs to be able to figure out what words mean based off of context.
  3. Is the learning challenging? We're talking DOK levels 2, 3, and 4 here. Level 1 is basic recall and that is not what skills-based learning is about.
  4. Is the learning creative? Are students being asked to use creative thought? Or are they being asked to absorb?
  5. Is the learning collaborative? Oftentimes a skill is best learned when we collaborate with others. A skills-based curriculum often requires students to work together on a skill.
  6. Is the learning independent? There is also a time and place for independence in the classroom. Are students given the opportunity to independently practice this new skill too?

A common compliment I receive from my students is that they like my class because "we actually do something in there every day." A skills-based curriculum provides an active learning opportunity where students actually "do" something.

If you said to me, "Stephanie, I am only capable of learning one thing about skills-based learning. What is the one thing I need to know to implement this?" then this would be my answer:

Think of everything in "I can" statements. They do this all the time in elementary schools... why aren't we doing this in high schools too? It makes so much sense! What do you want the student to be able to do at the end of the class? They should be able to respond with "I can..."

I can determine the main idea of a text and use textual evidence to support my answer.

I can figure out what a new word means by reading the context it is in.

I can develop a claim for an argumentative essay and support that claim with evidence.

I can analyze a list of themes and determine which themes are universal.

So how do you develop an environment that encourages students to actively "do" instead of just to passively "be"? Stay tuned. :)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Why I Teach

Dear Readers,
I'm going on a vacation. From blogging. Also from my house, and from my state. And from my computer. I won't be gone long, (like... two weeks?) and by popular demand I have a planned post on SKILLS-BASED CURRICULUM that will pop up while I'm away for your reading/teaching/geeking pleasure. I'm going to leave you with another serious post though, because it just felt right to write about this. I was forced into considering why I teach this morning, and I started wondering how many of you ever took the time to think about why you do this crazy thing you do and decided I had to share my thoughts NOW. So, here you go.

*   *   *

A former student and great friend of mine is having a bit of a life crisis at the moment, and I'm sure nearly all of you can relate. He's questioning what he wants to do with his life. We've all been in his shoes... you think you know which way you'll go when you reach this part of your life path, but then you start to wonder about the other road. Where would it take you? Would it be the better journey? Would you find what you're looking for that way? Or is that way the mistake and you should just go with the original plan? It's like I told him in my letter: you know they're going to happen and you can see them coming a mile away, but somehow these crucial little junctures in your life journey just kind of sneak up on you and you think, Oh my God, which way do I go? As I was writing him back, I started getting into why I chose the path that I chose and while I was writing to him, I realized that it's not a topic I've ever really gotten into here. This blog is kind of a record of my time as a teacher so far and my goal for it has evolved. I originally started blogging just for me, just about some life experiences, but my posts about teaching started ringing true to so many other teachers that nowadays I really focus on blogging in the hopes that my teaching experiences and ideas and failures will help other teachers out there in some small way. But I've never told you about why I teach. I've touched on it in some posts (like this one and this one and this one) but I guess I've never given you my story.

So that's today; I want to share with you why I became a teacher in the first place and why I'm still doing it, despite being five years in and a baby and daycare costs and our state governor and ECAs and shit salary and everything else that makes teaching seem like a bad idea.

Why I Became a Teacher: My Inspiration
I'd be willing to bet that behind every really amazing teacher is at least one really amazing teaching mentor or source of teaching inspiration. I have been blessed with many really incredible teachers. My 7th grade teacher I talked about in this post. I had a World Civilizations teacher my freshman year who made me work my ass off. I had never had to work hard in a class until that one. I was one of those special snowflakes that never needed to study until I took World Civ. That teacher was funny as hell, but she also meant business. SO MANY NOTES, SO MANY DATES TO MEMORIZE, SO LITTLE TIME. (Ironic, since the course content basically started at the beginning of time.) I had another history teacher who taught a history elective that changed every semester (we did a history of food and a history of conspiracies) and that was a really cool. I had a really wonderful Spanish teacher for a very brief time who encouraged us to be creative and loud and have fun, as long as we did it in Spanish. I had an honors English 10 teacher with this seriously dry sense of humor who taught me how to write a research paper (and from that point on I've liked writing research papers). My honors English 12 teacher is deserving of his own "Ode to K.T." post for being my greatest inspiration, though he'd probably hate something like that, so I'd never write it. The thing that stands out about all of these teachers, though, is that their classes were different. It was something different every day. Each classroom had a "vibe" that you only got to experience in that room, during that class period. In World Civ, it was this "we're all in the trenches, but we're all in this together" vibe mixed with this "ha ha, she is hilarious and she is crazy and we love her and we hate her" vibe. That one semester of Spanish was a fiesta every day, but in a good way. It was organized chaos and I learned more Spanish in that one semester than in my other three years of Spanish combined. And in that honors English 12 class, it was less of a vibe and more of a "profound feeling" (to use my former student's words). That teacher was real with his students. He was so intelligent, but he was also very wise and worldly. He had his own agenda for that class, for sure. Administrators probably hated his guts sometimes because he wasn’t the kind of teacher who was worried about the standards. You know how many papers I had to write in his class? Like one? Two? And one of them was a letter to my third grade buddy that I had in his class, because he made us all go be third-graders the spring before we graduated to truly appreciate our educational journey and childhood and how far we had come. Our first speech in his class (second week of school!) was an epiphany speech, where we had to have some kind of really personal discovery and we had to lay it on the podium for everyone to see and that one speech made me feel more connected with my peers than anything else ever had. From that moment on, my 5th period English class was a family. We didn’t all get along, and a lot of us didn’t even talk outside of that class, but there was 50 minutes of “profound feeling” every single day in that classroom as the teacher introduced us to the world outside of our little corner by bringing in exotic food and reading amazing literature and giving us these soul-searching tasks that made us think deeply about who we were. And you could tell that whenever we were into it, the teacher was into it, and there was no place he would rather be, because teaching is his calling. He could have done any number of things with his life. He could have gone on to teach at a university, or he could have been a writer, or directed professional theatre, or who knows what else. His potential was intense. But there he was, showing a bunch of kids the world, broadening their horizons, making them realize there is so much more to this life than what could be found in southern Indiana. And I realized that I had to do the same thing as him. I wanted to make a difference to someone, the way he and Mr. B and so many others had made a difference to me.

Why I Still Teach, Despite It All: The Calling
A “calling” is “a strong urge toward a particular way of life or career.” In that way, theatre was (and still is) my calling. If theatre is “just a phase," then I’ve been in that phase for fifteen years. Theatre is a huge part of my life. One day I hope to return to the stage as an actor. I ache for that sometimes, I honestly do. I really miss acting.

But I’ve also seen “calling” defined this way: “the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction lived out as a response to his summons and service.” I am not a person of strong religion, but I am a person of great faith. I don't want to get too preachy here, but teaching is my “truth,” at least at this stage in my life. Right now, I feel confident that I am doing exactly what God calls to me to do. Right now, I am truly invested in being a teacher. I’m a believer in helping others and I think I am doing that as a teacher. Do I get the "profound feeling" every single day? Nope. There are days where I want to bash my head against the Smart Board or the stage, depending on where I’m at or what I’m teaching. There are days I wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing. I know I will question that a lot this fall when I put Liam in daycare for the first time. But any time I question God about why He has led me here, I see the answers in the letters hanging behind my desk, the thank you letters that Mr. Martin has his students write to a teacher who has had an impact on them. Some of these are kids that I had no idea I was connecting with. I see the answers when a student comes to me for help, or for a shoulder to cry on. His response is never clearer than it is when I get to watch my students take a bow opening night, that special instant where both of my callings collide.

I have this theory that a lot of theatre kids – myself included – feel a strong urge to go into theatre after high school because we love it so much, because it makes us feel alive and important and necessary, because of that profound feeling you get when the spotlight hits your face. I was very much afraid to let that go. But the thing is… you can experience that feeling elsewhere, if you are called to it. If medicine is your calling, you will know that feeling when someone grasps your hand with tears in his eyes and says, “Thank you. You saved my life.” Trust me… I know. I had a student this year who will remain nameless who thanked me for saving hers. If you are called to write, your curtain call will be the immense feeling that will well up in your chest when you sign a copy of your book for a breathless fan who thanks you for pouring your heart and soul into the words, like my curtain call is when a parent hugs me at her son’s top ten banquet and thanks me for everything I did for her kid.

If there is such a thing as “the meaning of life” I’ve kind of decided right now that our purpose is to figure out what we are called to do and how we will serve others. Some people are called to the theatre; they serve others by helping them experience life through someone else’s eyes. Some people are called to heal; they serve others by giving them a second lease on life. Some people are called to teach; they serve others by sharing knowledge and tools for success later in life.  At this moment in time, I am called to teach, and I will teach until God calls me to do something else with my life.

Is teaching your calling? Or is it something else that draws you into the world of education? I would love to hear about your reasons for being a teacher! Feel free to give a shout-out to your teaching inspiration or to share your reasons in the comments below.

Happy Teaching!