I had 33 “first days” of school in my teaching career. No matter if was middle school or elementary, no matter if it was Tennessee, Texas, or Nebraska, no matter if it was my first year in the building or my tenth, some things never change. Dozens of obligations and responsibilities pull you and stretch your mind and body:
- The new standards to use when you write lesson plans
- the new discipline policy to learn and teach
- new forms to send home
- a different classroom to set up
- new teammates or teaching partners to get to know
- team planning and setting expectations
- bulletin boards to create
- textbooks and procedures,
- new “best practices” (a new name of an old strategy)
- not enough student desks
- a computer that doesn’t work
- and don’t forget the new teacher evaluation process.
I’m not sure I ever felt fully prepared for the first day, but I just wanted it to come so I could stop going to meetings or moving furniture and meet my students. From the White House to the mayor of your city or town teachers feel the pressure to perform, produce, and problem-solve so that our children can take tests that prove they meet a certain standard. Add that pressure to the complex process of opening school and you get over-whelmed!
With all these negatives or as we could also say “challenges”, what is the beginning teacher to do? What is the veteran teacher to do? Parker Palmer says, “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” (10)
So I say to you – count the blessings; look for the good things that happen every day– every period.
Ann Voscamp’s best-selling book, one thousand gifts, teaches us how to look for God’s gifts in the small and minute, every day gifts. Look for the blessing in the moment. I’ve been learning how to do that this summer by keeping a daily gratitude journal. This is more than the movement from several years ago with Sara Bach Breathnach and Oprah Winfrey. It is finding joy in the “uglybeautiful”; when things are hard, when life is not joyful. If you write three gifts every day, in a year you will have 1000 gifts. I’ve been counting since March and am up to 1700. It has changed my perspective on life – looking for the good.
How can it make a difference for a teacher?
Get a little notebook to keep in your pocket, at your teaching station, or on your desk. At the end of the day, after you’ve completed your last “duty”, sit down and list each period of the day. Write one blessing from each period.
- Remember who caught the joke you made
- who turned in their homework (maybe for the first time),
- who was prepared and waited patiently for you to begin
- who helped another student or showed a kindness?
These small blessings get swallowed up with disruptions, failed technology, or a million interruptions. Keep counting every day. You need to leave your room at the end of the day remembering the good things that happened.
You might even try it when you are waiting for the class clown to find his/her seat or the class to settle. Pull out the notebook and begin writing who you notice is ready. Those are the children who are ready to learn. My last years of teaching were with 8th graders, notorious for their “don’t care” attitudes. I told each class I made very few promises because they are hard to keep, but this one promise I would make: “I promise to teach the students who want to learn and I will do everything in my power to make that possible.” I said this primarily for the benefit of the shy, quiet students who are always doing the right thing. In the midst of chaos, confusion, and disruptions we don’t recognize them nearly enough. The promise I made to myself was that I would do my best to find the key to unlocking the “don’t care” attitudes so they would want to learn. You have to understand 8th graders to know that if I made that promise out loud, it would become a challenge to prove me wrong. Sometimes it helps to sneak up on 8th graders with motivation and compassion.
Take care of yourself this year. I will remind you of that frequently. You need every ounce of creativity, strength, courage, perseverance, sense of humor, and heart to meet your challenges. You are the gate keeper, and your students need you.
I am praying for you that these blessings will be in your path. Keep your heart open, my friend, even though it is bound to be broken if you care enough. Palmer says, “the more you love to teach, the more heartbreaking it can be.” (11)
Palmer, Parker, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, 2007.