Chasing Fireflies

Summer has all but rolled up its beach towel for the last time this year. The iced tea is staring contemplatively at its winter companion the kettle on the stove. Kids have adorned classroom walls with the last dispatches from Florida vacations, and teachers everywhere are pondering where to go next to keep their classrooms alive.

Before I go into a classroom, I start by planning certain activities: “lessons” you might call them. The only problem is you can’t plan a real lesson. Not the kind that kids remember as well as their Summer vacation to Siesta Key. Those “lessons” are only opportunities we search for and grab a hold of if we can catch them. They’re like fireflies that start to fade as soon as we close the jar lid. It’s hard to keep them glowing, but that’s what they demand.

The firefly metaphor speaks to something else about teaching which is hard to understand: the impermanence of learning confined within a classroom. Fireflies can’t live in the jars once we trap them for examination and neither can the intrinsic motivation of a group of kids stay trapped for long within four walls.

Student success can only take flight once it is freed from the control of a “teacher” and the classroom. Kids are so used to being subordinate once they get through middle and high school, it’s hard to rekindle any glow that’s left in them. Their love for learning, what made them raise their hand so fervently in elementary school, has been trapped in a compliant glass bulb devoid of any real goals.

If we want to see kids the way we see them the first week of school, when they yearn for our attention, raise their hands out of curiosity and not obligation, and truly seek to learn, we need to make changes in the ways we speak and act as teachers. It’s that intrinsic glow which drives exploration and makes kids move their pencils, scroll their mouse wheels, and engage with others in conversation.

Though we may want to trap them at times, to rally them for a brief moment of awesome light, we can’t lose what makes them glow in the first place. Their luminescence comes from the childlike desire to go somewhere new and to be guided along the way by the others. A hopeful classroom relies on the lights of students to illuminate. An optimistic teacher balances the pursuit of that light with the search for what it will shine on. 

Extending The Honeymoon: How Optimism Shapes My Teaching

Originally posted on TeachHub.com in my series, The Optimistic Educator

Last week I jumped into a new district, a new position, and a whole lot of new challenges. After two years teaching in high schools–one rural and one very urban–I’m exploring an entirely new category of teaching. This year, I’m traveling between two different middle schools working to develop literacy skills in struggling students. The schools are just a short drive across town from one another, but serve entirely different communities in this urban sub-city of Kansas City. Along with the drive between buildings and the extra set of keys, I’ve got several different principals to keep track of–or, maybe they’re keeping track of me–probably both.

So far, I’ve had nothing but encouragement from those principals. The other day during passing, one asked me how I was doing. Over the heads of the slowly moving stampede, I smiled and reassured her I was still very excited about everything. It feels good to be supported and know someone else is enabling you to be your best self. That’s what an effective principal does.

My first few days have been a whirlwind of new experiences with kids. I told my principal how excited I was by what I was seeing in my classes and in the halls. I wanted her to know just how wonderfully fascinated I was with this new age group. If you had asked me five years ago where I’d be today, teaching middle school wouldn’t have been anywhere on my radar. Today, I’m thrilled to be reading, writing, and asking big questions with kids who need a strong partner in learning.

Since I am a fairly young teacher, my own school experiences are still reverberating strongly: especially those from middle school. Who could forget!? In my mind, those years were lost and until now, I’d meant to keep them that way. Middle school was something I survived rather than benefitted from, but now it would be my job to ensure that vision wouldn’t come to pass.

“Well, I hate to tell you…but this first week is kind of a honeymoon period.”

We exchanged a polite chuckle before her radio clicked on and she continued herding. She didn’t know it at the time, but she’d just issued a direct challenge to me. She was really saying, “good luck sustaining this kind of engagement, energy and optimism for another 170 days bud…” I don’t think she meant anything by it other than that I should prepare myself for some adjustments in the next few days. She was only being friendly and helpful with her words of caution.

But me, I’m a bare-knuckled optimist. I don’t easily surrender the foundational attitudes of my students to sweeping generalizations about how the beginning of school usually is. So, maybe there have been week-long honeymoons before; this year will be different. If you don’t start off believing that, where are you leading your kids?

If we’re really going to change how school works, we have to start with changing how teachers and principals talk. What we say out loud matters a lot. The things you say in your head and your heart are your hopes, but what comes out is filtered through a layer of fear. Just like our students, we teachers have fears about doing things right, getting slapped on the wrist, being in the wrong crowd, and it influences all of our decisions.

I may be an optimist, but I’m no fool either. Yes, it does get harder. Yes, kids start to lag when the free pencils, extra passing time, and shiny newness of school wears off a bit. My utmost goal is to keep up that luster in my classroom through my practice and the habits I teach kids. It can’t all be on me to “hope” kids into success. That kind of attitude ignores reality and cheats your kids of objectivity and challenge. If I want hope to happen organically, it has to be as a result of deliberate thoughts, questions, and actions.

When this principal warned me of the honeymoon period, she probably thought nothing of it. My pointing at this incident is a global observation more than an acute one. Teachers and principals are all hopeful people by nature, that’s why we do what we do. But how can that hope transform into meaning when we kill it before it leaves our lips?

I’d challenge the speakers of similar messages to rethink their expressions and to reevaluate their closely held maxims about teaching: like, “you can’t really teach until year five.” Why do we allow these false truisms to cement themselves into our psyche and how can we go about speaking from a place of authentic hope?

The intentions of a teacher, a school, and a community always start with our most fundamental thoughts. If we don’t find ways to keep out the semantics of a dysfunctional status quo, then we’ll continue to allow it to come into being. We must be mindful of the implications of what we speak.

It’s not all smiles and rainbows. It’s not about ignoring the truth. It’s about putting the right seed into the ground before you water. I know the best hopes of our communities lay within our schools, our students, and our educators. Let’s start this year right. We are capable of saying meaningful things to each other which change our actions and challenge our thoughts. Let’s extend the honeymoon one hope at a time.