Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Expressions for Excellence in Education

I've always felt young, like I just got out of college. It hit me a few years ago when I delivered my daughter to "my" college campus, that it was now "her" college campus, and my days of celebrating basketball championships in the middle of the street there were probably over. And in a school, as the average birth year of the teaching staff begins to dip below the year I began teaching, it becomes apparent that I am what some would call an "experienced teacher." As the years continue, I realize that there are expressions that I use, over and over, when giving advice to beginning teachers. So here, in no particular order, are my "Expressions for Excellence in Education:"

1. Hit the floor running, and breathe when you leave.
I have always been one of the first teachers to pull into the parking lot in the mornings. I believe that getting to work a good twenty to thirty minutes before the "official" start time is necessary for me. First of all, it gives me time to think quietly about my day. Also, it alleviates the problem of standing in line at a copy machine or finding a jammed copy machine that was left blinking wildly by a teacher who didn't attempt to fix it. After the copies are made, the agenda and goals are on the board, and the room is ready, there's time for having nice morning adult conversations (there may not be another opportunity until after school) and time for student relationship building that can happen as students arrive into the building.

Let me say that I do understand that there are sometimes circumstances. The year my son was a senior in high school, I flew into the school parking lot on two wheels every morning just as the second hand on the office clock was announcing that I was late. But if I didn't stay at home until he was safely belted into his car to drive to school, he wouldn't go. Not that he was a rebellious kid; he just kept falling asleep - in the bathtub, on the breakfast table...basically he slept on any flat surface. He just admitted about a month ago, at the age of 24, that during his senior year he was always up half the night practicing his newly acquired skill of Instant Messaging. (Now he tells me!) So I do know that it may be difficult to get to the building early. However, the earlier, the better is my suggestion for starting the day off relaxed and ready.

I feel the same way about the end of the school day. I tell beginning teachers to beware of the 3:30 Club. The 3:30 Club is made up of teachers who walk to the bus parking lot (if they have bus duty) with their purses and bookbags on their shoulders. Here's the warning: if you get between them and the door at 3:30 (or whatever time school is out,) it's over. And for goodness sakes, don't risk your life walking across the faculty parking lot at that time!

I prefer to take my time in the afternoons, grade a few papers, look over some lesson plans, straighten up my classroom from the day's activities, and get it ready for the next day. Again, after school is a great time to catch up with colleagues; I believe we are the happiest in our jobs when we work with our best friends! We have to nurture those relationships. Also, I like to wander around the school in the afternoons to see what my students are up to. There's nothing better than grading a few papers outside on the bleachers on a warm fall day during football season. My students, who should be paying attention to their coaches, always wave wildly when they see me in those stands like they didn't just see me in class thirty minutes before! My goal every day is to leave ready for the morning. Of course, I usually think of something to add to my lesson at night while I'm at home, which is why I also like to arrive early.

The "breathe when you leave" part? That means that teachers need to take care of themselves and relax during their hours out of school. This doesn't mean they can't grade the occasional paper or do schoolwork. For me, it's very relaxing to do my lesson plans on Sunday afternoons. Turn on a little professional football, and plan the week! But this routine may not work for some teachers. I tell new teachers to figure out what works for them, but to make sure they take care of themselves; in other words, BREATHE.

2. Always remember, the show must go on.
I have always said that teaching is a performance. Standing in front of (or facilitating around) a classroom of kids of any age requires energy and enthusiasm. We don't work behind a computer screen at a desk all day so we can't just slump in our seats if we feel like it. There have been many days in my career when I have looked at the clock to see that it was time for my next group to come to me. I can't do it, I would think. But I would take a deep breath, put a smile on my face (it's okay if it's fake at first) and start slapping some fives when those kids entered the room. Pretty soon their energy level would match mine, my smile would be real, and we would go from there. I'm not saying that teachers can't ever be sick; instead, the idea is to prepare ourselves for the "audience" and be the best we can be when we're with them. Our students deserve no less.

3. Put on your cheerleading uniform.
Yes, we have to encourage and inspire. We know that. Some of our students come to us from dismal situations. I often wonder how some of them can even put one foot in front of the other to get to the bus stop. But they do, and while they're with me, I'm going to do what I can to make their school day the best it can be.

But I'm not only talking about students. We need to cheer each other on, too. Schools can be negative, toxic places. The job is stressful, and hopefully we aren't complaining to kids all day. So when teachers get together, there can be some "venting." That's when I put on my metaphorical cheerleading uniform and go at it. Don't worry - I don't act like Little Mary Sunshine. I do understand, and many times agree with, the stresses that are discussed in team rooms and school hallways. But I do try to listen to my colleagues and, hopefully, put a positive spin on things if I can.

Also, I feel strongly that it's important to be cheerleaders for our profession. I am weary from hearing "if you can't do...teach..." and other misrepresentations of what we do every day. We have to market ourselves as the professionals that we are. Some have the idea that teachers are still Charlie Brown's wa-wa-wa-ing lecturers, whacking kids with yard sticks if they misbehave. Instead, we are committed professionals who believe in purposeful instruction and who have our students' best interests at heart. Many of us hold advanced degrees and national certification. And as we speak to others, in the grocery store or by the neighborhood pool, we must embody that professionalism instead of feeding fuel to the negative fire that surrounds many of our neighborhood schools.

4. If you make them the enemy, you will lose.
The rest of this expression goes like this: there are more of them, and they have an audience. As a middle school teacher, this is one saying that I share with teachers often. Teaching cannot be an "us" and "them" situation. In the community of a school, we are all family, and when the students know this (and FEEL this,) they are much more likely to cooperate, be pleasant, and LEARN. If instead they are aware of the animosity a teacher feels toward them, they will push back, and it probably won't be pretty. Being in this thing together is much more productive and much less stressful. A student on your side can be the difference between loving your job and dreading getting up in the morning. Do what needs to be done to ensure they're on your being on theirs.

5. Don't hide your light under a bushel.
I can't take credit for this one. I believe it was mentioned in the Bible in reference to the Sermon on the Mount. Also, it was mentioned by my Mama about once a week as I was growing up. Basically, it means "don't hide your talent." I share this one with new teachers as I encourage them to use their talents, maybe some that aren't always so obvious, to make their teaching experience more enjoyable. For example, I love to write poetry. I'm not a published poet, but I don't need to be. I have a captive audience every day! By sharing my poetry, and bits of my personal life, I'm able to connect to my students in a way that may be difficult otherwise. Other teachers use their athletic talents to inspire students; I've worked with two Ultimate Frisbee playing teachers (in two different schools) who have taught their students these skills while at the same time teaching teamwork and perseverance. One of my dearest teacher friends teaches math and clogging at the same time; if only she had been my math teacher!

Another way I hope new teachers will shine their lights is by marketing themselves as professionals. Each parent who has a child sitting in a classroom should know the credentials that got that teacher there - college degrees, honors and awards received, types of experiences (not necessarily years of experience but types - has the teacher worked with different grade levels before or taught other subjects?) I believe teachers should have a pamphlet ready to hand to classroom visitors that includes all the highlights of the teaching career. And don't forget that all important webpage. In this technological world, we should be marketing ourselves as professional educators for all the world (wide web) to see.

These are the expressions that I find myself saying to teachers over and over. There are others, shorter versions than these, that I throw out every now and again. "He IS the boss of you" is one I use when teachers are complaining about the principal's expectations. But that story is for another day. For now, I'll just continue to look back over the years I've been teaching and wonder when I stopped asking so many questions and somehow got so old that I started answering a few. And I'll continue to rejoice in the fact that my daughter has now graduated from my university. Basketball season is not that far away...


Sallie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sallie said...

Loved reading your blog. Yours is one I'll come back to. Excellent advice for new teachers.

JenAnsbach said...

Well said! I saw this as an article in Teacher magazine. I think I'm going to take some papers outside to grade during sporting events this year. Thank you for the idea. And thank you for posting this. Great blog.