Confessions of a first-year teacher (20 years later)

jeremie-cremer-4419 Jérémie Crémer

I should have taken a few years off after college and done some traveling, exploring, and growing up,

but instead, I landed my first teaching job.

I thought that getting a job was the next logical step in the whole new world of adulting, so I took the first offer that came to me.  I was to be one of four teachers on a freshmen “team” teaching high needs students and providing the wraparound support they needed.  These students hated school, weren’t accustomed to success, and just wanted to get through the day.  Fresh off my student teaching experience with college-bound juniors and a short gig teaching motivated ski-racers, I was sorely unprepared for this first real gig.

In short, they ate me alive.  But let me back up a minute and tell you a couple of things about myself: first, I’m 5’2″ (on a good day–maybe with my clogs on), have the nasally voice of a prepubescent teen, and have a pixie-like face.  I blend easily with a crew of high school students.  But at 22, I didn’t want to blend.  I wanted to differentiate myself from my students, because I thought that teachers had to be separate if they were to be respected, and how could one teach in a class without some semblance of a line between teacher and student?

Traditional classroom
Okay, maybe it wasn’t this bad.  But you see how clear the roles are??

So I trucked myself to Barbara Moss (I’m dating myself, and also admitting my poor fashion sense…I’ve improved, I swear) and bought as many dresses as my meager salary would allow, bought my first of many pairs of clogs, and refreshed my make-up supply (minimal is an ample description).  I wore my long, blonde hair in a tight bun at the base of my neck and tried to act professionally, which at the time meant following the lessons of my mentors and establishing strict ground rules with my students.

I wasn’t fooling anyone.  Those students knew that I was in over my head, and much to my surprise, many of them tolerated it.  They endured my vocabulary lists, listened to me “go over” the readings from the homework they didn’t do, and failed test after test that I gave them.  In our team meetings (teachers, not students–we hadn’t figured that out yet), I defended my grading policies of creating a system that rewarded only the hardest worker (read: student who completes all required tasks) and penalized those who didn’t.  I asserted that I had high expectations.

Really, I didn’t have a clue about education, learning, or what those students needed.  So hung up on my own need to establish authority, I failed to see my greatest strength–I was only seven years older than my students.  I could relate to them in ways that my mentors could not.  I could leverage the small gap in our age to help them learn.  The adversity they dealt with in their everyday lives (broken families, homelessness, drug issues, teen pregnancy, etc.) couldn’t hold a candle to what I was trying to teach them about literature, and I missed the boat.  I wasn’t even in the same sea.

To those students, I want to say I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.

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It took a while for me to loosen up in the classroom, but I did begin to get a clue the following year.  Assigned another challenging group of sophomores, I started to let down my guard ever so slightly.  I took the time to talk with each student; I showed films that took me out of my comfort zone but engaged them; I started a mountain bike club to share one of my passions.

Through these small risks, I built relationships.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized the importance of doing so, but I did see improvements each time I invested in them.

Adversity is a teacher in and of itself.  The situations that new teachers face–isolation, unmotivated students, cluelessness about school culture–seem to be the norm.  How I wish I could go back to those days and help those students in my classes–help them see that their opinions matter, that there is more to life than homework (but reading a good book is one of life’s pleasures), that they could learn to be better communicators without writing the standard five-paragraph essay multiple times in a semester.  I wish I could go back to my former self and give permission to lighten up.  But I can’t.  What I can do, however, is do right by the students I have the good fortune to teach now.  I invest in relationships with them.  I blur the line between us–recognizing that it’s not sacrificing respect but building it.  I take risks in an attempt to reach them, to challenge their thinking, and to lead them to new learning.  I get it now.  I’m pretty sure.

Innovation: Rowland Foundation paves the way

Thanks to Gabrielle Marquette of Fearless Teachers for buddy blogging with me this week!

 

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Imagine this: as an educator, you are awarded a $100,000 grant which allows you to take time out of the classroom to research and implement a transformational idea.  You can use the funds to travel to innovative schools, to attend conferences to further your learning, to hire consultants to work with your school, or any other activity that might help you in your venture.  With the help of your administration and a steering committee, you work to transform your school into a place that best serves the needs of students.

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Sound like a dream?  It is, but it’s available to Vermont educators through the graciousness of the Rowland Foundation, which seeks to usher forth the work of innovative educators, and in turn to truly transform Vermont schools.

Recognizing that this is the exception, Rowland fellows are able to experience all of Couros’ elements to look for in today’s classrooms.  A few to note:

Time for reflection:

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This is the ultimate gift of the Rowland Foundation.  Time to reflect on why education is the way it is, how change happens, and the true meaning of  innovation is something most educators only have time for if they disregard the more pressing issue of planning classroom lessons.  During the sabbatical, fellows meet five times per year and engage in reflective protocols; they blog about their experiences, successes, and insights, and they have deep discussions with others who are engaged in similar work.  Wouldn’t it be incredible if we somehow built into our systems the opportunity for every teacher to take a sabbatical every few years?  How might that change our schools?           

Choice:

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The Rowland foundation literally trusts teachers every year to make choices about what to do with $100,000 no questions asked.  This can be overwhelming at first.  There is a sense of guilt that comes with many years of explaining where each penny of your budget is headed.  But, once a Rowland fellow can let go of that guilt, the level of creativity and innovation that is possible increases exponentially.  One experience leads to another; questions begin to unfold; learning about one new idea leads to a desire to know about ten more new ideas.  This is another level of overwhelming that requires working through but at each turn the learning ascends drastically.  While there are moments of paralyzed wonder, the ability to respond to a curiosity and have the freedom to do it in whatever way you choose is extremely liberating and leads to deep learning, creativity and ultimately innovation.

Problem finders/ solvers:

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The Rowland fellowship stresses that we are engaging in an inquiry process.  Unlike most learning experiences, there really is no expectation for a final or finished product.  There is no paper, no formal presentation or defense.  The fact that there is no expected outcome is again, liberating.  It allows for experimentation, revision, or major pivots if that makes sense.  In general, learning experiences have an expected outcome.  But with inquiry, learning changes our thinking along the way and what made sense at the start doesn’t always make sense in the end.  Learning experiences where the process is more important than the product allow for real problem solving to occur.

Opportunities for Innovation:

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Because of the focus on inquiry, Rowland fellows are free to experiment.  This is key to innovation, as  sometimes those experiments fail.  However, fellows are able to incorporate these lessons and move forward with a better plan.  They are free to imagine possibilities and make progress with other stakeholders in their schools.  They function as models of innovative thinking and often inspire their colleagues to follow suit.

Trust is paramount in order for any of these eight elements to work

–whether it be in a classroom with  students or with professional development.  Innovation happens by embracing the fact that failures happen but can ultimately be overcome with solid relationship foundations.  Vermont owes thanks to the Rowland  Foundation for supporting innovative teachers with the ambition and drive to transform its schools.  

 

References:

Frith, Caleb. Think. Digital image. Unsplash. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

Street, Jamie. “Sparklers after Sunset, by Jamie Street | Unsplash.” Back to Unsplash. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

Tietsworth, Justin. “Lead The Way, by Justin Tietsworth | Unsplash.” Back to Unsplash. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.