Monday, December 30, 2013

guest post: renewal

 Guest blogger: Jehanne Beaton, Roosevelt High School, Minneapolis

Although it was more than two decades ago, I remember how desperate I was during those December weeks of my first year of teaching.  I just ached for a break.  I counted down to my two weeks away from school and teaching and my students.  My first teaching job landed me in a small, growing city on the opposite end of the country from home and family.  I didn’t know a soul there when I took the job, and it took me a while to develop friends.  Teaching consumed me.  I arrived at school hours before school started and, most days, stayed long after the students had left.  When I wasn’t at school, I was sitting in my miserable, basement studio apartment and grading stacks of middle school social studies assignments at a makeshift desk of a cardboard box covered with beach towels.  Like many young teachers, I had taken on additional work:  coaching, after school tutoring, chaperoning dances, and serving on multiple committees.  I enjoyed my students, but that didn’t mean they didn’t test me.  On the final Friday when the bell rang, signaling school’s two-week hiatus, I left my students’ papers in neat stacks in my classroom and sprinted to my car, driving three hours to the nearest airport.  I just couldn’t get home fast enough.

While away, I searched for ways to renew and sustain my energy and strength.  I reconnected with friends and loved ones, slept as much as my parents would let me, and read for pleasure, rather than out of responsibility.  And I came up with strategies to maintain my beliefs about teaching and kids and to remind myself why I became a teacher in the first place.   Since many of you may be in a similar situation of your own, I thought I’d share two that have served me well.

1.     Seek out your own teacher mentor.  Some districts have figured out that young teachers benefit from consistent and meaningful support from district and building mentors, and they have invested in hiring talented, thoughtful master teachers to serve as coaches and reinforcement.  Other districts, short on funds or foresight, may not.  When I was a young teacher, no such support structure existed at my school.  So I set about finding my own.   By winter break, I had a good sense of which veteran teachers in my building were held in high esteem.  (Ask your students who they believe are their best teachers, the teachers from whom they learn the most, whose classes they most want to attend.  They know and will tell you.)  Then, throwing any discomfort or anxiety out the window, I asked two teachers, one in my department and one who taught Spanish, if I could meet with each of them for lunch every so often to talk teaching.  Since that first year and in every school since, I have sought professional conversation and support from colleagues of my choice, most often teachers whom the students most admired and regarded most highly.  I have asked them to come and observe me teach during their prep time, or if they would give me feedback on a lesson or summative assessment.  By developing these informal mentoring relationships, you will support your own reflective practice and communicate your own growth mindset to your colleagues.  Further, it provides you with a trusted teacher friend who comes to know you and your work.  This person can be an invaluable resource for you in your early years of teaching.

2.     Create a “Why I Teach” Folder:  It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been at it:  every teacher has horrible days. Any teacher who says they don’t is a big, fat liar.  But for each teacher, we also have moments, hours, days that remind us why we entered into this work.  Maybe you’ve received a touching thank you letter from a student or parent.  Maybe one of your students has worked past the edges of their abilities and surpassed your – or even their own – expectations of themselves.  Maybe there’s this moment when you see the learning light up for a student, and they ask a speaker a question that shows you they’ve been listening, they’re thinking, the work you’re doing in class is sinking in….  These are artifacts to hang on to and place in your “Why I Teach” Folder.  I started my “Why I Teach” folder over winter break my first year of teaching.  Every year since then, I drop a few items into it.  It’s thick now, and some items are weathered and stained.  Every time I return to it, thumbing through its contents, I come away more deeply committed to teaching.  Your “Why I Teach” folder will become a place for reflection, contemplation and renewal too, especially when days are hard.  The next time you read some non-teacher newspaper editorialist bad-mouth our profession, or that student of yours, Joe Bagodonuts, has worked your last nerve, or the teacher next door has been condescending about your ‘new teacher ideas’, or you have too much to grade and lessons to write and it seems like you and your students are stuck:  dig out your “Why I Teach” folder.  Re-examine and remember the good of the work.  Of your work.  I can’t tell you how much it helps. 

These two weeks will bring a needed respite to everyone:  your colleagues, your students, even your principals. And it stands as a giant milestone in your first year of teaching:  you’re almost half way there. 

I wish you a wonderful break.  Enjoy every moment.  On your way back, whether it be a three hour drive back from an airport or just Sunday night, at your cardboard box of a desk, scrambling to get those assignments recorded in the gradebook and your lesson plan ironed out for Monday morning, ready yourself with these strategies as one more way to help take care of your professional self. 

Jehanne Beaton spent 14 years in the classroom as a secondary social studies teacher.  Currently, she works as a partnership liaison at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis and is working to complete her Ph.D in Teacher Education and Social Studies Education. 


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