Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Letter to Experienced Teachers

Nearly six years ago, I wrote a letter to first-year teachers. At the time, I was two-and-a-half years into my teaching career, so the pains of being a new teacher were still quite fresh in my mind. I also had come up against enough challenges to offer some survival advice. You can read that letter here.

Now, I am enjoying the winter break of my ninth year of teaching. A lot has changed since those early years, and I feel confident enough in what I know to be true in the life of a teacher that I am going to attempt to help out the group of teachers who may need it most this time of year - the experienced teachers. While I absolutely hope that anyone who runs across this letter will be able to take something away from it, today I am writing specifically to those teachers who've been in the game for a while now but who are not yet sure enough of themselves to say they are "impactful teachers."


Dear Experienced Teacher,

You are wonderful. You are amazing. You are a saint. Thank you for what you do.

You won't hear those words enough, so I thought I'd start out with that.

Have you read The First Days of School by Harry* and Rosemary Wong? I expect you probably have, or you've at the very least skimmed the chapters during your education training in college. Guys, I've had my hands on a lot of books for educators (some by force thank you very much college, but also many by choice thank you very much teacher nerd brain), but this one and Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess are my go-to books. Seriously, if you've never given First Days more than a cursory glance, do yourself a favor and find a copy of this book (the more used, loved, dog-eared and annotated, the better). Read it cover to cover. Process. Do it again.

There are so many highlights to this book, but the part I come back to time and again is from the first chapter. The Wongs describe the four stages that any teacher goes through in their career. I'll paraphrase.

  1. Fantasy a.k.a. If You Love Them Enough Then Everything Will be AMAZING - the belief that, in order to be a successful teacher, all you have to do is be your students' friend and entertain them. If you cover your lessons in enough glitter and the kids bask in the loving glow of your presence, you have done your job. If you are at this stage, your teaching life is like a unicorn fart. It's a lovely puff of color and smells like candy, but is unsubstantial and will dissipate quickly. Also, it's not real.
  2. Survival a.k.a. Keep Your Head Down and Pretend Everything is Fine - after the reality of teaching punches you in the face (repeatedly), you figure the best way to handle this career choice (I mean, seriously, what were you thinking??) is to keep the students busy and quiet. Worksheets and Frickin' Packets and Videos For Days and Silent Seatwork... you feed your students the educational equivalent of Kraft Easy Mac and Ramen Noodles because it is easy, prepackaged, and keeps them quiet.
  3. Mastery a.k.a. This is the Part of the Movie Where the Hero Realizes She's Got to Get Her Shit Together so Cue the Pumped-Up Inspirational Soundtrack - I think that Mastery happens after some sort of Educator Epiphany. The Epiphany will vary from teacher to teacher, but the outcome is that teachers realize they need to have the all the love and ooey-gooey feelings from Fantasy stage combined with the effective practices that make real learning happen. Now you're turning up the heat on your classroom management, feeding your students the whole foods version of educational material instead of the processed stuff, and the goal is student learning, come Hell or high water.
  4. Impact a.k.a. The Mr. Feeny Effect - This, right here, is #teachergoals. If most of us go into this field to make a difference, then this stage is what you've been after all along. This is when your teaching is so, so good that students will come back to you years later and thank you for affecting their lives. Do not be fooled, though. Like our idol George Feeny, you will still have some rough days. Your impact may not been seen until years later. You may even find yourself occasionally dipping your toes into the stagnant waters of Stage 2. However, once you hit the Impact stage, the ebb and flow between the other stages will be temporary. A bad week, a bad semester, or even a bad year may cause you to wallow in the muck briefly, but an Educator Epiphany will drag you out, dust you off, and put you back on your feet. As a teacher of impact, you know it's going to be okay. You have combined the enthusiasm and sparkles of stage 1 and the kicking-ass-and-taking-names of stage 3 and, like a beautiful Pok√©mon, you have evolved into something extraordinary that would be difficult to defeat.
You, dear experienced teacher, could be at any of these four stages in your career. Every teacher's path will vary, but it is a guarantee that all of us will at least hit Stages 1 and 2. The problem arises if we decide to set up camp and stay in Survival stage. If we do this, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We are dooming ourselves to a miserable teaching experience that will lead to burning out and leaving the profession, or worse, burning out and staying in the profession. Stage 2 teachers - and I'm not talking about dabbling in Stage 2 for a short-time, but the long-term Stage 2 teachers - are toxic. Survival-mode teachers who have been in this stage for years are like carbon monoxide - you won't notice them seeping into your classroom, your building, your school culture, but a high concentration of this poisonous gas is deadly.

My dear experienced teacher friend, if I could offer you only a single piece of advice, it would be this: reflect. Reflect on your practice all the time. Do it every single day. You can do this informally - a stream-of-consciousness deep think during your commute, talking shop with a Stage 3 or Stage 4 colleague - or you can do this formally - write in a reflection journal, keep a blog. You need to take your own temperature regularly and figure out which stage you are in. Ask yourself these questions:
  • (Before school) How do I feel about going to school today?
  • (At lunch) How do I feel about this day?
  • (After school) How do I feel about how the day went?
  • What good things happened in my classroom today?
  • If I used that pain scale hanging in the doctor's office to rate my teaching life, what pain level am I at right now?
  • If I was a student in my class, how would I feel about class today?
Reflection leads to growth. We ask our students to show what they know and to reflect on their learning. We should do what we ask our students to do.

So here's a question: what do we do if we are not in the stage we want to be in?

One of the best things about teaching is that it is never too late. To quote another teacher who is quoted in First Days, "Teaching, unlike most professions, gives us the opportunity to start fresh each and every day, each and ever year" (The First Days of School 8). If you need a fresh start, I'd like to share some advice I've picked up along the way.

If you are in Fantasy mode...
  • Keep your joy! Find all the things you love about teaching and cling to them! I so frequently look back on the joys on my day or week and think, I actually get paid to do this?! You must zealously guard your happiness and do not let toxicity steal it from you!
  • That being said, you've got to add some substance. You are living in a shimmering cloud of unicorn fart. That cloud will eventually be replaced by the repugnant smell of Reality. How are your lessons? Are they all superficial awesomeness with no real learning happening? There are some core questions teachers can ask themselves as they lesson plan. I'm a big fan of "What do we want students to know and be able to do?" I find this question (especially the "be able to do" bit) to be very useful in focusing my lessons.
  • Check yo self before you wreck yo self. How's your classroom management? No, really. How is your classroom management? There is an Official List of Top 5 Teacher Mistakes Of All Time and Crappy Classroom Management fills all five slots. You may be thinking, "Well golly, my classroom is such a paradise I don't really need a management plan," to which I say, "Oh, that's so nice, but remind me again what you will do when Tommy Terrorist Who Has Been Expelled From Four Different Schools comes in on the first day at his new school and draws a phallic likeness on your whiteboard."
If you are in Survival mode...
  • Unpopular Opinion #1: Pinterest might be enabling your Survival mode. Get off of Pinterest. Pinterest is not a good place for Survival mode teachers to go because so many teachers are posting their very best survival gear! "My students spent six weeks on this 107 page Frickin' Packet!" "This stations activity consisted of five different busysheets! Students rotated from one station to the next every eight minutes and silently completed the paper. They did so much today!" You guys, over the course of the last year I have come to hate the word "busy." Being "busy" does not equal being productive! Ever heard of the guy who walks around very purposefully with a wrench or a hammer in his hand? No one will stop him to ask for help, because clearly he's "busy" with something else, when in fact he is doing nothing productive at all. He just "looks busy." Take a break from Pinterest and start finding quality sources to help you out instead of wading through the internet's equivalent of a junk drawer because, to be honest, if you are in Survival mode, you don't know what tools to look for in that junk drawer! Go to the really excellent resources, like The Cornerstone for Teachers, Ditch That Textbook, Cult of Pedagogy, Shake Up Learning, and Alice Keeler. You can also check out the (sorely outdated) More Ed Blogs tab at the top of the page.
  • Unpopular Opinion #2: Fancy font does not equal quality resources. Be very choosy about your Teachers Pay Teachers purchases. There are some truly wonderful resources on Teachers Pay Teachers. But, real talk again, there are some truly awful resources with little depth that are just so, so pretty. You know what else is pretty? All the pretty labels on all the pre-packaged food at the grocery store! I cannot more highly recommend following the Classroom Chef approach to structuring your lessons. These guys are math teachers, but this can apply to any content area. (John and Matt's book is on my to read list.)
  • Add joy to your day. You guys, I've already passed through the Survival mode stage, and it sucks. It is sad and scary and completely debilitating. It can be hard to feel happy when you are drowning. You must find ways to add joy to your day. Sit down and make a list of everything that brings you joy, and be specific. It does not have to be related to the classroom. Some of my joys include GIF wars with my husband, watching my two boys play together, my Pandora stations and Spotify playlists, eating, art, Googley stuff, and solitude. Once you have your list of joys, make a list of the things about teaching that are sucking the life out of you. For me, the worst parts of teaching are tedious tasks and chaos. Guys, I'm an INFJ. I don't like routine maintenance or paperwork, which are two things we must do as teachers. It's part of the job. So, when I must do something I find boring, I add one (or more!) of my joys to it. Know what I hate to teach? Active reading strategies, because active reading comes very naturally to me and I find the process of teaching "how" to read incredibly tiresome. Know what I love? Cookies and Jolly Ranchers and intriguing photography. So my lessons on active reading strategies include these things because it brings me joy, and when I'm a joyful teacher, my joy rubs off on my students. Know what I hate to spend my prep period doing? Filling out forms of any type. Know what I love? The 80s Cardio station on Pandora and the Songs to Sing in the Shower playlist on Spotify. And Flair pens. I love Flair pens. So if I'm going to spend my prep period doing paperwork that feels completely pointless to me but is mandatory, you better believe I'm going to be screeching "Video Killed the Radio Star" while wielding a Flair pen.
If you are in Mastery mode...
  • Order yourself your favorite beverage and congratulate yourself! You have come out the other side of Survival mode and you are now actively working on being the best teacher you can be. #killingit
  • After you finish that beverage, it's time to do some digging and some serious reflection. What will move you from Mastery mode to Impact mode? By now, you likely have gotten very good at finding all of the pedagogical resources you need. What needs to be done to make your ripple effect bigger? My advice: stay in Stage 3 pedagogically, but it's time to revisit Stage 1 when it comes to building relationships with your students. If you read my last post about my visit to The Ron Clark Academy, you'll recall that RCA strongly believes in balancing the serious stuff with the fun stuff. You absolutely must master the serious stuff - the discipline, the structure, the standards, the academia. But in order to move from Mastery to Impact, you must balance that out with the fun stuff - the creativity, the passion, the joy, the love of students and teaching. Some things to consider doing:
    • Add joy! (See the above section on Survival mode)
    • Be your students' #1 fan, especially for "that kid." Cheer them on, support them, congratulate them, love them even when they are super unlovable. (Real talk: this is so difficult to do, and I'm no master at it. But when I do this right, the impact is immediate.)
    • Conversely to the above point, don't celebrate when students meet expectations. An expectation is, by definition, something that you believe will happen. We are expected to pay our electric bill, and no one gives me a trophy for that. To quote Ron Clark, "Not everybody gets a cookie." We should be celebrated when we go above and beyond expectation.  I expect my students to master the content (80%) on a summative assessment. It goes beyond my expectations when they get a 90% or higher, so we celebrate those As. I expect my students to follow classroom expectations. It goes beyond my expectations when students go out of the way to help each other, so we celebrate that. 
    • Make one-on-one connections with your students. Eat lunch with them sometimes, not out of obligation, but out of interest in their lives. Write them positive notes and emails. Go to their ballgames, concerts, and competitions if you get the chance.
    • Offer them comfort. Work to create an inviting classroom atmosphere (it does not need to look like the world's most expensive bag of Skittles vomited in your room, but that's a blog post for another day).
    • Respect them as people. When possible, let them use the restroom as needed. Allow them to have water. Take a few moments to talk to them about non-school stuff. Remember, you are in the business of making people, not products.
If you are in Impact mode...
  • Can you extend your reach beyond your students? Find another group that you can positively impact! Would one of these roles be appropriate for you?
    • Become an ambassador of sorts between your school and your community, bridging a divide or supporting an already strong connection between the two. 
    • Take a Stage 1 or Stage 2 teacher under your wing and guide them in the right direction.
    • Mentor student teachers and first-year teachers.
    • Assist in coaching teachers by leading meaningful PD. Use my principal's guiding philosophy: feed the hungry.
    • Reach out to students that aren't in your own classroom by leading an organization, starting a new club, or coaching a sport.
    • Be a positive teaching voice online! Spread your impact by joining educator groups in social media, starting a YouTube channel, or keeping a blog (no matter how sporadically you post!).
    • Share the wealth. While I agree that teachers should be compensated for the time and effort they put into quality materials, sometimes the best thing you can offer struggling teachers is a free resource.
My dear friend, I hope this letter finds you in an amazing season of your teaching career. But even if this is not your best season, even if you realize that you are in Survival mode, I implore you to remember this:

It is never too late to make a change.

I made the biggest change of my career (thus far) this year. I have come out the other side a much better teacher and a much happier person. It is never too late.

Happy Teaching!

*Harry Wong. Still funny.