Today it’s cold in Florida. One of the coldest days we’ve had this winter. I’m sitting under a warm fuzzy blanket listening to the soulful sound of Sarah Bareilles crooning out ‘I Choose You’ on Pandora. Christmas lights twinkling, my husband lightly snoring next to me on his usual perch on the couch. And all I can think is, ‘Man, am I thankful’! This year is my TENTH wedding anniversary and my heart is overwhelmed with love for my husband and the life that we have been privileged to live through together.
It’s been an amazing year of ups and downs, and as hard as it has been, I’m a different and better person than I was when it started. I’m a smarter person. I’m a stronger person. I never really looked at myself in that light, and I really wish that for all of you. I hope that you see the strength in yourself under the insurmountable pressure that life sometimes puts on you. I hope you can see that you’re tenacious and gritty and fierce.
Last school year, I left a school where I’d taught for almost 10 years. It was a bittersweet change, one I knew I needed, but I questioned the timing of until just recently. Last year, my class was one of my favorite groups to work with in the history of ever. They reflected the best of my teaching, even though I was so often sick because of fibroids that eventually needed to be removed in May. I missed five of the last six weeks with those kids and it broke my heart in a million pieces. They were the best! And their parents! God! Their PARENTS! I couldn’t have wished for a better group of people. They didn’t just love their kid’s teacher. They loved ME, and I’m eternally grateful for them.
After the surgery, the doctors told us that my husband and I would begin the path to IVF. For those of you who know that story, you know the ups and downs and you know just how to pray! I packed the many acutriments of teaching I’d collected and walked out of my old job and into my new one. Two van loads later, my new portable was filled with hope that I would grow in a new way. My new school–a struggling Title 1 school that had seen a revolving door of leadership in the last decade–has been struggling to move from an F to anything different.
Last year, they were a D. My new boss, who I followed here is the eternal optimist. The school is in her hometown, and she’s determined to offer these kids every opportunity to succeed. Every resource she can offer–she’s brought that to the table, including bringing a few teachers with her to grow on this journey. I moved from first grade to third this year. Third is my favorite. My task? Pilot personalized learning for a gen ed classroom of 8 at risk boys. I was offered a para for the entire day. After the first week, I’d broken up three fights, struggled with kids trying to elope from the classroom, or just get up and sit in my rolling chair and spin in it…while I was teaching. I taught absolutely zero content.
I had not gotten through one cute ice breaker or getting to know you lesson. Things I’d spent time making for them were ripped and thrown around the room when they didn’t feel like listening to me anymore. My supervising principal had gotten so comfortable with my tears as I walked into his office, he’d reach for the tissue box and put it at the front edge of his desk while I would fall into a chair and break down again. I am a national board certified teacher. I have 20 years of experience. I was failing at this task. Thankfully, another dear friend of mine transferred with me. She was in the classroom across campus from me. Folks, sometimes, all you need is one person that still believes in you and will move heaven and earth to help you be the person they see you CAN be. Thank God for my friend Karen!
So, we put our classes together for almost three weeks. At first, I just watched and cried a lot. My boys were responding to her, and I was thankful…but I was mostly thinking…how am I going to do that when I go back to my own room? I took over instruction for both classes while she watched. Sometimes, she’d break into the lesson to tell me what I missed and what I needed to do, and then, I’d watch her do what I SHOULD have done. It was hard, but after a few days of that, I was moving through lessons with both third and fourth grade like a champ. I really didn’t want to go all the way across campus again. My boss said there was a resource room next to Karen that was open and I could have it if I wanted. It was smaller than my portable, but, I just knew that I needed more help. The boys helped me decorate the new space. I saw their little faces fall just a bit at the cramped quarters, but they seemed happy to be helpful. A few days after we moved in, the larger REGULAR sized classroom across from my friend became available. My aide and I took the entire weekend to move me for the third time. The boys were so happy with their new space. It dawned on me…this was probably the first time that they were smiling and laughing and it wasn’t at the wrong time or for the wrong reason. Maybe things were looking up?I borrowed all of Karen’s methods. I tried to make my face look like hers would when I was insisting on something. I cut out the cute. I planned for less, but expected more from their behavior in the little that we did. I focused on behavior FIRST before the content…a really new thing for me. I treated that sixth week like it was week 1. The boys didn’t respond right away. On the contrary, there was MORE unwanted behavior. More desks flipped. More chairs thrown. More school supplies tossed across the room. More walking out when they were done with me for the moment. Karen said it might get worse before it got better. She was right. It was around this time that I realized that I’d changed.
I was crying less. Instead of clutching my pearls every time I saw something ridiculous, I leaned IN. I committed to creating class rules on EVERYTHING with my kids. They made up the consequences too. I wrote about that HERE. I held them accountable, and they started holding each OTHER accountable. I did home visits. Worked with parents. Held lunch bunch with the boys. They started talking to me more–about LOTS of things. Some boys told me they had multiple teachers because ‘no one could deal with them’. I heard boys tell me that this was the first time they’d made the honor roll. The first time they thought they were smart. They told me that they knew they were ‘different’ this year–happier. Around week 11, I started ramping up the content. Again, more push back, but…now, I knew where it was coming from, and instead of running away…I ran right INTO it. Challenged them. Pushed them. Reminded them that if they quit on this assignment it might drop them off the honor roll. Told them I’d call their grandma and tell her they’d quit on themselves at school. Made them have lunch and finish their missed assignments in the classroom when they fell out during the lesson–so they didn’t have to miss recess to complete things.We are now at the beginning of the third nine weeks and finally, FINALLY, I am sure that I have earned their trust and that they will come along on any adventure I ask them to. So, when you see my boys looking their best…working hard…smiling and completing tasks…know that it came at great cost. Know that they are sacrificing as much as I am. They too are leaving their fear of failure behind with the hope that this is their year to be a new person. They aren’t perfect. They still have off days, but they are BETTER. So much BETTER. I am proud of all of them…I only have 3 months until the state tests, and I feel the pressure to get them ready. We both spent so much time feeling scared and sorry for ourselves, but now? Now we’ve got the eye of the tiger and we are going forward in a way that is life changing.
I overcame so much this last year, I’m hoping that 2017 will allow me to see the rewards of my work.
Bottom line: If its hard this year, and I know that for some of you, my story is far too much like your own, don’t give up on the idea that you can learn how to do this work. You can. It’s not easy, but the changes I see even at the midway point help me to KNOW that what I’ve already done is worth it.
Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.