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.