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Slice of Life: Making Amends

This summer, when writing’s been challenging for me, I’ve started to use Twitter as a place to draft my thoughts in series of Tweets and then revisit later as blog post. There’s something about limiting myself to the small writing of just 280 characters that makes it feel a little more manageable.

Yesterday, my friend Julie Jee Tweeted about her teaching life, specifically how her concerns as a teacher have changed over time:

So much of what Julie wrote resonated with me, so I ended up stringing together some thoughts as I reflected on my own teaching career:

This. Looking back to my early teaching life, my biggest concerns as a T were so small —

I spent too much time focusing on management when I should have focused on relationships with kids. On seeing, really seeing them.

Too much time focusing on content when I should have focused on character.

Too much time focusing on having answers rather than seeking the right questions.

Too much time focusing on “rules” versus the rights of my students to read, to write, and to speak authentically. When we put too much focus on the small things (like I did)—like quizzing kids on discrete pieces of information, answering every study guide questions, or taking points off for a comma splice—our teaching becomes small.

Worse, Ss learning becomes small, too. Education—especially public education—is perhaps the biggest and most important endeavor we take on as a society, as collective human beings.

We can’t afford to focus on the small things. There are so many bigger, pressing, urgent issues we face today.

How are we helping Ss think through issues of racism, sexism, and bigotry?

How are we helping Ss understand and grapple with justice and freedom—and the absence of these for too many people in society today? How do we help Ss think about injustice beyond what’s happened in “the past”—whether through the textbooks or the novels we assign—but instead see injustice as a clear and present danger? #DisruptTexts

My biggest shifts in my teaching occurred when I stopped spending so much time and energy on the small things that were really more about compliance than engagement.

Teaching is exhausting, but if it’s the small things that I focus on, it becomes demoralizing too. The big issues we face as a society are overwhelming, but at least putting our energies there keeps our focus on what’s really important.

I always come back to this question posed in Making Thinking Visible.

How much of what we’re doing in school is just about school (the small things) versus the real world (the big things)? Are we preparing kids to be good at school or for changing the world?

I want to think bigger. And do better.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that I’ll be closing in on 20 years in the classroom soon (Year 18, here I come!). I never imagined myself to be one of those “lifers”—the teachers who go into the classroom and end up teaching for 30+ years (like so many of my own high school teachers were). I couldn’t imagine doing the same thing or being in the sample place for that long. Now I realize how wrong I was in my assumptions; teaching is probably one of the most dynamic, ever-changing professions out there.

To my surprise, a former student who follows me on Twitter responded to my thread. 

Sometimes I forget that former students are following me on social media, so this Tweet caught me by surprise and of course, gave me all the feelings.

I wish I could take even a little credit for helping Liz in whatever way I could have or as her Tweet suggests. The truth is that Liz was amazing person, then and now. We’ve kept in touch here and there over the years, and since we’re connected on social media, I get to see glimpses into her life as she traverses the globe. (It’s a simultaneously wonderful and weird experience seeing your former students out in the world. On the one hand, you feel a sense of pride and happiness for them and all that they’re accomplishing. On the other hand, it’s a reminder to yourself that you’re still back here in the classroom, doing your thing. 🙂 )

Coincidentally, or serendipitously, I’ve had several former students reach out to me in the last few months. One of them, Dylan Kane, was my student more than 10 years ago as a 9th grader and he now teaches math. He was sitting in a conference session led by my friend Marian Dingle at Twitter Math Camp when Marian mentioned my name and he made the connection. When he emailed me, his memories of our class time together were a little different from Liz’s. His email started with an apology for being difficult back in 9th grade (he used a different word, but we’ll keep this PG). The funny thing is, I didn’t remember him like that at all—just that he was engaging, curious, and yes, a little chatty, but generally a great kid. And even though I only knew him for a brief time when he was 14, I could see him becoming a teacher—and a great one, too.

A few years ago, I hit a turning point in my career. I started to lose track of when I had which students, and in some ways, they started to jumble together in the wonderful mess of my memory. You start to lose the details, but the feeling remains. I think this happens with both teachers and students when we look back at our classroom experiences.

I think, if anything, I just treated Liz like a person—saw her for the quirky, sensitive, joyful, and just really smart person she was. That’s it. I’m not sure there’s anything special beyond that. And really, that’s all I’ve ever really tried to do with all my students, although, as we all know, it doesn’t always turn out that way. For every student that remembers me fondly like Liz does, I wonder how many feel differently. These are the students that can keep a teacher up at night…

When I look back at my early teaching years, I can see with 20/20 hindsight how so many of my practices fell short, even failed kids. Honestly, I’m still learning, and I might say the same thing a few years from now as I reflect on my teaching today. We are all works in progress, after all.

Speaking of looking back, I’ll never forget something my former principal, Tim Donovan, once said to the faculty. It was the faculty’s first day back to school during the morning convocation. He closed his welcome back speech with this one important reminder: Kids won’t remember the facts and content of what you teach them. When our kids look back on their time at Stoga (our school’s nickname), they won’t remember any of that stuff. But what they will remember is how they felt when they were in your room.

How they felt when they were in your room.

Since I heard those words, they’ve been a sort of mantra for me when I think about my classroom. In the nitty gritty debates about this or that curricular decision, I try to remember that one of the most important things I can do as an educator is to ensure that kids feel welcomed, safe, and seen. I haven’t ever reached all my students in any given year, but it’s worth trying, and it’s a standard that’s worth reaching. It’s especially important to reach kids whose identities are often systematically left unseen in our curricular decisions and practices, however unintentionally. I think about, for example, all the queer kids I’ve had in class throughout the years and the ways in which their experiences have or haven’t been noticed, acknowledged. Earlier this summer, ILA streamed their equity panel on LGBTQIA issues. So much of the discussion reminded me how important our relationships with kids are and the communities we nurture for them and with them in our classrooms. I need to do better.

This coming fall will be first official year as department chair. The first thing I plan to do is make one small step in doing better by sharing the GLSEN stickers I purchased after listening to the ILA panel. Maybe it won’t make a difference, maybe it will—I’ll err on the side of optimism. It’ll be one small step at making amends.

Filed under: Blog, Slice of Life

About the Author

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English teacher, writer, book nerd, photography enthusiast, and passionate about education for equity and freedom. Daughter of immigrants. Wife to best friend. Mom to three Jedi-in-training. She/her/hers

4 Comments

  1. So inspiring. Although my teaching experience is with kiddos much younger – I feel what you are saying about focusing on the small things when we need to focus on the big picture. Where my kiddos were not facing the big problems of today head on – they were facing their own form of daily problems at home. It broke my heart when I had to focus on rules, standards, and assessments when they needed love, attention, smiles, hugs, and to feel safe and listened too. Great post – thank you for sharing. And thank you for making change in our world!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love the emphasis on authenticity and deep learning vs. compliance and getting hung on small things that have such little value. That your former students reach out to you and celebrate you tells of your transformational journey; it’s often greater than we realize. Great changes come one small step at a time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi friend!
    You are the reason I ended up here in this amazing community of writers. So I write as another student/colleague.
    I’m thinking a lot about this sentence as I prepare for a new school year in which I plan & hope to make some changes in my practice: “My biggest shifts in my teaching occurred when I stopped spending so much time and energy on the small things that were really more about compliance than engagement.”
    What will happen when I shift my focus on engagement, involvement, development and away from compliance?
    I wonder. I appreciate this post and your writing in general as it always gives me pause and encouragement. With your words I take heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I had the privilege of two important things happening to me in the past week:
    1) I had lunch with one of my former students when I was attending the TCRWP Writing Institute. It was lovely to catch up as adults, despite an almost 20-year age difference.
    2) Yesterday, I received an email, out of the blue email, from a different former student. It thanked me for making a difference in her life.
    Both students mentioned writing workshop as being transformative.
    At the time I taught them, I worried about a lot of the small things. I was too focused on classroom management and didn’t spend as much time as I would’ve liked having kids write for social justice purposes. But your post and their kind words to me make me think they’re doing that important work now (as 22-year-olds) thanks to the solid foundation they had in my class and in other teachers’ rooms.
    That said, if I could go back in time, I would’ve done many things differently.

    Liked by 1 person

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