(Things remaining out of reach)
Since finishing my first year of teaching, I’ve tried to take a moment at the end of the school year to reflect on the year and what I’ve learned. I ended my first year a little shell shocked, began to pull things together for a second year, and by my third year could see some structure emerging from the chaos. The following year I was working with kids in Spain on a Fulbright grant, but something about my reduced responsibility as an assistant, the shortened work week, the long lunch breaks (with real plates and silverware), the frequent holidays or strikes, the Mediterranean two blocks away, the distinct lack of snowy Michigan commutes, and the weekend travel made it seem more like a sabbatical. At the end of the year I was busy packing up, watching things burn, and walking the Camino, with no time to reflect – at least not in a digital format.
So it’s my fifth year of teaching, and I’m back in the mitten, at another Detroit charter school, teaching K-8 Spanish once again. The school year wrapped up weeks ago, and the summer “break” is speeding by. I still haven’t gathered the words to summarize this past year.
Things are looking up. My new school has the central organization and supportive leadership that was lacking previously. I have tuition assistance, a real contract and benefits, and administration who listens to ideas and input from staff. There is a lot of parent participation, and the school feels like a community. This helps to balance the fact that I am back on a cart instead of in a classroom, and that I am teaching 7-8 classes a day, 10-13 classes per semester (with a varied and inconsistent amounts of time with each group, that’s approximately 35 lesson plans a week!)
This year, for some reason I am finding it hard to cobble together a list of things I’ve learned, or things I did right this year. Starting at a new school is like going back to your first year of teaching in many ways. You have to get to know new staff and new students, a new set of school policies and politics, new expectations and curriculum. (Unless you are a Spanish teacher and just do everything from scratch.) On the other hand, unlike a first year teacher, I had a sizable collection of lesson ideas and resources from my previous lessons, along with lots of cultural tidbits and increased fluency (albeit a bit lispy) from my year in Spain.
As a first year teacher, however, I made up for my lack of experience with determination and an optimism in the face of the reality which (sometimes literally) punched me right in the idealistic face. For some reason that idealism and optimism is what was missing this year. For years, a voice in my head kept reassuring me that this would get easier, that I would get better at it, that I would learn, that they would learn. Something about looking back on five years has muffled that voice. It might be the expanding black pit of student loan debt, the long commute with eyelids fluttering on the highway, the student casualties that rack up whenever you work with large numbers of young people, especially in the environment I work in – students defiant or failing or suspended or expelled or more concretely lost to suicide, cancer, violence, tragedy. More than anything, what was drowning everything else out was purely selfish: exhaustion. I’ve seen other teachers bite the dust – lack of budget, lack of all-powerful standardized test scores, too many opinions, too much work for not enough pay. I’ve heard the statistics of teacher attrition for years, and somehow assumed I wouldn’t burn out.
I thought that five years in I would have figured things out a little more, that I wouldn’t constantly be overdrafting my bank account, that I would have time for family and friends and grocery shopping and sleep. More importantly, I thought I would be a better teacher. As it turns out, to be a good teacher you have to have drive and enthusiasm and the willingness to give up a lot of things for your job, but you also need to have a reservoir of mental stability. I didn’t have that this year.
I still care about my job and about my profession. (I even care about this soul sucking M.A. that is inching closer each day.) Even more than that, I care about my students. They are worth the exhausting hours and emotional roller coasters. So I’m going to remind myself of that, and I’m going to pick my mantra back up and trust that it is going to get better.
(And it probably will. A few more weeks and wedding planning will be done. A few more semesters and grad school will be, too.)
Maybe that’s the hurdle I crossed this year as a teacher: I kept my head above water. I taught the things I knew how to teach. I put together delusional outlines of the things I planned to teach each grade, and then usually scrapped them as schedules changed without warning, or my own time limitations caught up with me. Kids learned Spanish, sometimes despite me. (The blessings of working with the younger grades.) We sang, and had mini-dialogs, and greeted each other in Spanish in the hallways, and rapped about ourselves using describing adjectives. Onward and upward.
By the end of the year the kids wrote down the things they could do in Spanish after spending the quarter with me, in the form of “I Can” statements.
Of course, the first and second graders illustrated theirs in adorable ways.
(I like the one kid’s honesty about his achievement. “I can name one color in Spanish and that is rojo.”)
Okay, okay. I’ve learned things.
I can name one thing I did this year: I kept going.
I can recall and describe my reasons for doing what I do.
I can make progress, inch by inch.
I can become a better teacher.
I can try again this coming year.