Needing to Do Better

My relatively short daily commute unusually includes listening to my local NPR station. That 15-25 minutes or so in the morning and in the afternoon keeps me somewhat informed of what is happening around the world and I am grateful for that. I intentionally listen without any adaptations (rather than to specific NPR podcasts or the NPR One app that would let me have more control over my listening) because I know I live in an echo chamber in many ways and I need to get more than I deliberately choose to get, in the way of news, regularly.

This past week, my commute home has include hearing the Supreme Court nomination hearings. I have been deeply impressed by Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s ability to respond calmly and respectfully to questions that were neither calm nor respectful. I have been angry listening to Senators ask her questions clearly designed to gain political points and not to actually determine her fitness for this role.

Unfortunately, I have also seen myself as I’ve listened. Not in the Senators asking the infuriating questions, thank goodness. But in the ones being silent as their colleagues did so. I saw myself in all the times I have not spoken up when a colleague has been attacked. I have been spineless when people of color have been rudely questioned by other white folks.

An article in Slate made my own past actions crystal clear for me.

Take my word for this one thing: If you have been subject to abuse, bullying, and intimidation, what you really don’t need to hear from people in power is that they think you are “brave,” or that you’re modeling perseverance and grace. What you really want is for someone to stand beside you and take a punch—or throw one. 

I am ashamed of my fear and inaction. I am also hopeful that I am learning and will, in the future, be better able to “take a punch – or throw one” as needed. Because I am sure those moments will arise again.

Tired of It All

On my drive to work this morning I heard something on NPR that made me laugh (it was barely twenty minutes ago and I have no memory of what it was). The laugh almost immediately became tears. That’s where I am right now.

I am as emotionally fragile and raw as I can ever remember being. Every emotion, the easy ones and the hard ones, the ones that feel great and the ones that feel awful, are all right there on the surface. Or, at a minimum, just below the surface. It’s as if they’re all bubbling up, growing, gaining momentum, just waiting for something to release them. A joke, a hug, a frustration.

from Matthew’s Flickr

This happens to me every once in a while. I hit a point at which I can’t handle everything (whatever that might mean) and I have a bit of a breakdown. I just kind of emotionally and physically collapse. I can point to times this has happened in the past. I know the signs and I know I can, eventually, get through it and out the other side.

This time, though, feels different. Maybe it’s having multiple new teammates mid-year. Maybe it’s that my students’ needs seem so much greater than most years. Maybe it’s that I have absurdly overcommitted myself. Maybe it’s a combination of them all. I don’t know.

I just know that showing up for work every day, smiling and talking with my colleagues, is currently a challenge. Even more challenging is responding to my students with patience and grace. The normal things in life all feel much harder than they have in the past.

Last night I made dinner. I order Home Chef meals and I aim to only get the ones labeled Easy. I don’t like to cook and have never really developed the skills. These meals make it doable for me to be the one making sure we have dinner during the week. Last night I looked at the recipe, an easy one, and wanted to cry. It just felt like too much.

I do know this won’t last forever. I can’t see the way out right now, but I know there is one and that I’ll find that path eventually. I can accept that. What I hate is that I can not be the person others need in my life when I am in this place. I can not be the teacher these students need and deserve. I can not be the colleague my teammates deserve. I can not be the mother my children deserve. And so on. (For the record, other than my students, I know people will be just fine. I am not making or breaking any lives here.)

Finally, I’m tired of writing these posts. I think they do help me, to pour this out in black on white. I hope it helps others to know they aren’t alone. If some non-educator gets a glimpse of where educators are right now, that’s even better. But I’d like us not to be here. I’d like us all to be less broken right now.

So. Dang. Tired.

I’m feeling overwhelmed. My hope is that if I write about why I’m feeling this way I will either feel some control over it or I’ll wise up and change something! It remains to be seen.

This school year is hard. It’s hard for educators everywhere, I think. Our team is having an extra tough year. We have eight classroom teachers and three of them have left this year. The reasons are all different and I don’t judge any of them for the choices they’ve made. But we lost one teacher who had been in the classroom for more than a decade and two teachers who’d been teaching for more than five years. We’ve been exceptionally lucky and able to replace all three of them. So our team had two new teachers (one with more than five years of teaching experience and one a first year teacher) start in January. Another, who has taught one year previously, just started yesterday. It’s tough to start mid-year and the rest of us have tried to do all we can to support them.

Our reading teacher had a baby last week (super exciting!). As a result, I’m leading the literacy meetings for our team every week. Which includes planning for them and facilitating them.

This is all in addition to how challenging this year is. I am tired after all of the changes, stresses, and needs to continually adapt that have happened for the past two years. (And came on the heels of me being on admin leave for nearly two months.) The kids are dealing with a lot and they don’t even know it because they’re young. They need a lot of patience, support, and encouragement. All of which are in short supply from me because I’m so worn down. So every day I end up more exhausted and feeling like I failed the children in my care.

And that’s all for my day job. In addition, I am currently co-authoring a book, teaching one section of a children’s literature course at a local college, serving on the boards of two educational organizations and the board of one parent theater organization, and parenting two teenagers. All of which are choices I made and I recognize that. I will roll off one of those boards this summer (and possibly the parent one). The book should be finished by summer as well. Summer just feels like a very long way away.

It’s A Lot

Some years ago I looped from fourth grade to fifth grade with my students. Many friends, both teachers and non-teachers, were concerned that this move would be rough, as I was pregnant at the time. Again and again I heard, “Won’t it be a lot to learn a new curriculum?”

My response was always, “Probably, but I won’t have to learn new kids.”

Usually when I think about this, I’m thinking about how hard the start of the year is when I don’t know my students yet. I don’t know their interests or skill sets. I don’t know the challenges they’re facing (and I do recognize that I might never truly know that). I don’t know when and how to push them to try harder or try again. It takes a long time, maybe the first couple of months, to really know that about my kids.

It got me thinking about all of the things teachers need to know, just know, have in their heads all the time, about their students.

  • the student’s strengths academically, socially, and in any other way
  • the student’s needs academically, socially, and in any other way
  • the student’s interests and hobbies to connect their learning
  • any allergies or other health issues the student has
  • when the student gas been absent and missed an assignment or test
  • any current challenges the student is facing (ill family member, loved one moving away, etc.)
  • what their coat and backpack look like so I can take them to the clinic if the child is going home
  • if they’re going home a different way than normal
There’s a lot of similarities, aren’t there? Just one of many things to keep in my head.

And the list goes on.

I. Am. Tired.

Today was nonstop, but that’s not really remarkable. That’s pretty much par for the course as an elementary school teacher. What’s making today stand out for me is how clearly it illustrates the challenges teachers are facing. Today feels a bit like a textbook example of what it means to be a teacher in 2022. (It should be noted that I have one student ‘on pause’ because a family member tested positive so I have to make sure I post assignments in our LMS and open zoom for our focus lessons three times per day.)

I have multiple students with diagnosed anxiety disorders. I would find that surprising, given that I teach third graders, but my oldest was diagnosed at about this age and these kids, in their own ways, remind me so much of her.

One of these kiddos had a pretty good day today. There was a lot of need for attention from me and confirmation that they were doing okay. But that’s normal. There weren’t any tears or meltdowns. On the whole, the day went smoothly.

Another one wasn’t as lucky today. Something went wrong at P.E. (during which time I was giving a prospective colleague a tour of the building and being a part of her interview). By the time I got on the scene, a half hour or more later, the poor kiddo was basically in the fetal position at the foot of the stairs by our gym. One of our amazing counselors, another phenomenal teacher, and a rockstar IA were all there trying to help. The IA agreed to pick my class up from their special and take them back to the room to grab their snacks (bonus that it was that simple in that moment) while I stayed with this friend to help.

Maybe because this poor kiddo had been coping with this situation for so long, they were able to talk to me about it once the stairwell cleared. It was probably the first time all year this kid had been able to talk about what happened and what they needed. They weren’t sure why they had been so impacted (the impetus was a pretty small thing) and that makes total sense to me. It was, I think, the straw that broke the back, not the one thing that caused the problem. We managed to talk a bit and then go back to the room. I needed something from the office so I sent this kiddo with a note, which gave them even more of a break. By the time snack was over, they were ready to play strategy games with friends without a problem.

When I think about today, I’m struck by the constant need to be on and serving others in some way. From 9:00 am, when kids first began arriving in my room, until almost 4:30 pm, when the last one left, I had, at most, 20 minutes to myself, when I ate my lunch. Otherwise I was teaching, working with kids in small groups or one on one, or being a part of the interview process for this prospective colleague.

That is a lot. It is exhausting. It requires mental and physical stamina.

And then, a kid hits the wall and needs A LOT more from me.

That’s what it is to be a teacher. Anytime, but especially right now. The needs are constantly changing, shifting. It’s one of the things that has kept me in this job. It is a challenge again and again. I can’t get complacent. I have to keep learning, keep growing, keep trying to be better.

It is also exhausting. I’m tired and not sure how much I can keep giving kids all they need and deserve.

Looking for Positives

It is easy to see the tough moments, the errors made, the disappointments. They’re also hard to forget. The high points feel good in the moment, but don’t always stick with me as strongly as their counterparts. I have to be conscious of that and focus on the wins so that I can keep going.

There were many low points today. Some that can be laid at my feet and others over which I have no control. I’m not going to write about those. They weight heavily enough without me giving them extra time and space in my brain right now.

This morning, during independent reading I spent a bit of time pulling some things together and getting some stuff organized. As I bustled around the room, my third graders read. At one point I heard a gasp. I turned to see what caused it and saw a kiddo reading History Smashers: The Mayflower by Kate Messner. So I had to send a tweet.

When I saw her response later, I pulled this kiddo aside and shared it. He headed back to his table at least two inches taller.

We close out our day (when I can remember) with a tweet. One of our daily class jobs is our Tweeter. After today’s Tweeter composed a tweet about our day, I showed my class the tweet from Kate Messner. By chance, we’re currently reading her Solve This! Forensics so we sent a tweet from our class account. Tomorrow, when we tweet at the end of the day, we’ll see if she’s responded. It brings my third graders an immense amount of joy to hear from authors on Twitter. It’s amazing.

As I took my class to music we passed a sixth grade class, as we do daily. They’d just finished lunch, which they eat in the band room because the cafeteria can’t host them all with good distancing. They were waiting for their teacher. I noticed one girl holding a box of Cheez-Its. I paused to share how much I love them too and then noticed that she had Cheddar Jack Cheez-Its and I always stick with the original (or reduced fat to make me feel less guilty). She immediately asked me, “Would you like to try some?” and poured some into my hand. I’ve never met this girl before. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed those Cheez-Its as much if I’d bought them as I did when they were gifted to me so generously.

As I reflect now, both of those highlights were the result of generosity from someone. We all have so much on our plates and so much weighing on us. Even now, when things are hard in so many ways, there is such generosity and kindness out there.

Finally, this was seen by the fabulous sub who was in the classroom next door to me and her sharing it cracked us all up.

Things are hard. There are many low points and many barriers to success and calm. But I have a fabulous job and I am so lucky.

A Letter to those Fighting Masks

Dear parents and families,

We’ve been a long time in this pandemic. You’ve had your kids at home a lot more than you could have anticipated. Your kids are struggling with all the things they want to do and can’t because of COVID. You are probably feeling the same. I’m right there with you.

You and your kids are probably ready for a lot of these restrictions to go away. I know I am. Teaching in our current setting has limited many of the things I want us to be doing, many of the things we’ve done in previous years. I’d like to have kids sit right beside friends and read together or play a math game. I’d like for kids to be able to choose where to sit and to move when they feel another spot would work better for them. I’d like to have kids gathering on the carpet, listening to a book, and talking to each other about it. My classroom space and our daily routines aren’t what I want them to be and aren’t what I think best serves kids.

I hate that. I truly do.

Even more, though, I would hate it if I thought a student in my classroom was exposed to COVID, took it home, and exposed immunocompromised family members. Or younger siblings who can’t yet be vaccinated. Those young children are ending up in the hospital far more these days than at any point in this pandemic. If wearing masks, keeping distanced, and limiting contact so we can easily trace who might have been exposed will keep those people safe(r), then it is worth it to me.

Since we came back to school in person, almost one year ago, I have not had one student complain about wearing a mask. Do they like wearing them? I doubt it. They do it because they understand it keeps them and others safe(r). They don’t mind making this sacrifice for that.

When you argue that masks should be optional or should be banned, you are teaching your child that their own convenience and comfort are more important than caring for others.

Children learn many unintentional lessons from us everyday. They are watching and listening and absorbing all we do and say. They may not understand what they are learning but that doesn’t stop those lessons from sinking in. We may not intend to teach them some lessons but if our actions and words send a message, kids get it.

Right now, many kids are learning that selfishness is acceptable and their own comfort is the most important thing. Our young children are internalizing this message. They will continue that way without some motivation to change.

Is that really what we want to teach our children? Would it not better serve us and our society to teach children that we should all care for one another? That taking care of each other is everyone’s responsibility?

There have been so many losses in this pandemic. We have all lost so much, whether that is family or friends who have died or whose health remains impacted by their time with COVID, whether it is income lost, whether it is opportunities lost, whether it is time with family and friends lost, whether it is a detriment to mental health, whatever it may be, we have all lost so much.

We can, however, make sure that the next generation does not carry those losses with them forever. We can model for them what a caring, strong society can look like. We have a powerful moment here, an amazing opportunity. Please, remember that when you decide what to show your children. Please, remember that when you decide what you (and we) should and do value.

Sincerely,

A mother and teacher

Another Nightmare

Heads up, this is not education related. I don’t think. I’m honestly not certain yet.

I woke up this morning nearly an hour before my alarm was set to go off. I’m getting older so waking up in the middle of the night isn’t that unusual. Normally I can use a strategy to slow my brain down and get back to sleep. This morning wasn’t one of those times because I woke up from a nightmare.

It hasn’t even been two weeks since I last wrote about having a nightmare. That one definitely seemed to stem from subconscious anxieties. This one, less so. This one is also more gruesome, so if you’re like me and prone to nightmares, you may want to stop reading and walk away.

I was watching a foot race. It seemed pretty basic and low-key. No big inflatable at the finish line, no timing chips and pads for the runners to cross. Just a long, straight, dirt path with a banner across at the end. And only a handful of runners, all of them women if my memory is accurate (and that’s never certain when it comes to any kind of dreams). I could hear an announcer doing commentary before the race began. The racers/women were stretching at the starting line. The race began and the announcer did his thing (it was definitely a male voice), talking about who was doing better than expected and who might still pull it out.

Racers finished and collapsed just past the finish line (which seems kind of silly, since in my head, the race was super short). The final racer didn’t make it. She tripped just before the end. I don’t know if whoever came in last was stuck no matter what or if there was some kind of time limit that she missed. As she scrambled to get up, looking terrified, race officials (both male) grabbed her from both sides and held her out, just short of the finish line. A jaguar (or some sort of very large, wild cat, it’s just clearly labeled a jaguar in my mind) leapt forward and attacked her. The attack, which my subconscious mind was hoping would be minor, was deadly. I woke up with a jolt.

I knew I couldn’t close my eyes again without continuing to see that image. So my regular, slow-my-brain, soothe-my-soul routines were not an option. It’s going to be a long day with that image seared into my brain.

Was it a result of subconscious anxieties or other emotions? I think dreams often do relate to what we’re going through so it seems likely but I can’t make this one make sense for me. I have some thoughts:

  • the racers were all women
  • the announcer and officials were all men
  • a race is often an analogy for a school year (and many other things, of course)
  • the need to be successful because your life is on the line, quite literally feels like it could mean something

I’m in a profession that is overwhelmingly female while being led overwhelmingly by males. That feels connected to this dream but I can’t make the whole thing make sense. And, honestly, I’d like it to make some sense. It would feel more reasonable and, somehow, slightly less terrifying if I can understand what caused my brain to create this horror.

Small Wins Help

This year, like last year and the year before that, is rough. Like many, probably most, teachers I am feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Knowing that and being many years into my teaching career, I am trying to find the positives and wins in my daily professional life. I don’t manage it daily. Yet.

Yesterday afternoon we worked on this math problem.

It says, “At the pet store there are fish in 5 tanks. There are equal numbers of fish in each tank. If there are between 50 and 75 fish, how many fish could there be in each tank?”

We did it mentally and all together as part of our preparation for a more challenging problem.

The first student proposed that there were 10 fish in each tank. We confirmed that if so that did mean “equal numbers of fish in each tank” and then calculated that there would be a total of 50 fish. (I briefly pointed out that 50 isn’t actually between 50 and 75 but we accepted the response and moved on.)

The next student suggested 20 fish in each tank. Again, we confirmed that it met our expectations for equal numbers and then did the calculations. The student told us that there would be 100 fish total. We checked the problem and realized that was too many fish.

I watched that student, a strong math student who is regularly successful in school, had clearly not anticipated being wrong, especially in front of their classmates, wilt visibly. I was recently chatting with a preservice teacher and, in response to one of her questions, I said that teachers need to share when they make mistakes and to find the positives in their students’ mistakes.

I am not always good at doing the latter. (Several years into teaching, I worked hard to get good at the former. I rock at it now.) Yesterday I paused and considered the 20 fish in each tank and said, “This is fantastic. We already knew that 10 fish in each tank was barely enough to meet the parameters of the question. Now we know that 20 fish in each tank is too many. X has helped us rein in our thinking and figured out where we need to focus. That’s really helpful in problem solving.”

We continued working on the problem with lots of energy and enthusiasm. Students went off to try the more challenging problem (a farm has chickens and cows, there are 20 animals and 56 legs, how many chickens and cows are there) raring to go. I am confident that my response to a ‘wrong’ answer is part of why.

Not only does stopping to recognize and celebrate this small win lift my spirits and give me hope, it reminds me that this is something I value. Hopefully it will help me to view and respond to mistakes in this way more often. It’s not only my students who are used to being right who need me to help them use their mistakes positively, it’s all of my students.

Problem Solving Teacher Shortages

On twitter, Jenn Binis frequently shares #PairedTexts. They fascinate me. Right now, I feel like I’m living a #PairedText.

A school board not too far from me has been discussing burning books and fired their superintendent in a way that is very likely to get them sued.

The governor who was inaugurated on Saturday has issued an executive order that said that school districts can keep mask mandates but parents can choose to have their children ignore them.

I’ve never thought more seriously about leaving the profession. And I’m not alone.

 

Lawmakers are working to make it easier for people to join the profession.

 

Lawmakers are working to make people not want to join the profession.

 

It feels like it gets worse everyday. Somehow I still love the job. I’ve got six more years. I hope I can keep loving it enough to do right by my students for that time.