Saturday, April 26, 2014

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times"... a decade of teaching - Part 1

I do not pretend to know or understand all of what I am about to speak on, but I have been teaching 5th grade now for 10 years - a decade - so, I think sometimes experience speaks for itself.  Since I am officially on maternity leave now, waiting for Keegan to come Tuesday or earlier, I thought I would sit down and write out some thoughts and memories and feelings about teaching, from teaching, for teaching, and against teaching in the next couple of posts.

Let's see... how much do I actually remember? Ha!  I say that, because after 10 years of countless meetings, parent/teacher conferences, papers graded, field trips, hours planning, and more than 460 5th graders, sometimes it all blurs together!  I mean, the first year seemed to last forever, and I couldn't believe I was going to have to repeat that process over and over again until my age and years of experience added together to equal 90!  But once I walked back into my classroom in August at the start of my second year, I realized it would go much faster now that I knew what I was doing... well, a little bit more of what I was doing :)

That first year made me both suicidal and practically narcoleptic!  It wasn't that my students were so awful, because looking back on it, they really weren't.  I just didn't know what I was doing.  Sure, I went to 4 years of college, had worked in daycares and preschools, had babysat, and knew I liked kids - that's all there is to it, right?!  Wrong.  It is like knowing how to cook and maybe cooking a couple times a week for yourself in college, and then getting married and having kids and having to provide a meal 3 times a day, 7 days a week, for several people... it is the same skill, but on an intense level of repetition and responsibility!

There were a group of boys that year, that if they were in my class now, I probably would sarcastically respond to some of their "humor" that was really disrespect, and it would be diffused immediately.  They are just 10-11 years old, after all.  But as a 21-year-old who didn't have children of her own, I was now responsible for the reading and writing and spelling skills of 40+ children, as well as their safety and behavior.  Those boys knew I was a first year teacher, and it never fails that kids test 1st year teachers like crazy!  I would say it is their sinful nature.  Child psychology would say it is only a child's attempt at seeing if they are in a safe environment or not.

Either way it doesn't really matter WHY; it is definitely difficult to know how to handle it!  I remember trying to start out heavy and serious and strict... but somehow it didn't work out.  If you don't win them that first day/week, you will spend the rest of the year spinning your wheels with no results.  That is the truth.  But no one models for you how to do that.  Sure, you can read books and articles and talk to other teachers, but no class, school, and teacher mix is ever the same way twice... it is an ever-changing formula that may explode all over the lab!

I took a nap every day after school that first year, because I was so exhausted all of the time.  My roommate came home one day and found me face down in the carpet, asleep.  The DVD player was open.  I had fallen asleep before I had pushed play!  I would randomly fall asleep on the couch and wake up there the next morning.  My roommate said she tried waking me up, but that it was like I was dead.

One day in October of that first year of teaching, I went into the back room of my house to do some laundry.  I sorted my clothes, started a load, and went to clean out the lint trap... it was at least 3 inches thick with lint!  I immediately freaked out, not because my roommate hadn't cleaned out the lint trap, but because I realized that I hadn't done laundry since school had started - and it was October!  I completely overlooked and forgave the fact that this incredible fire hazard had been present in my utility room because my roommate didn't know to clean out the dryer's lint trap.  I immediately told her that I was overwhelmingly sorry for not doing my laundry for 3 months!  I had been so preoccupied with teaching and being exhausted that I didn't even notice that someone else was washing my clothes!  I felt so terrible for taking advantage of her, but was so grateful she hadn't said anything about it before... because I might have broken down and just sobbed at the weight of one more responsibility on my shoulders!

I did end up crying in my principal's office that year.  Thankfully I have always had a female principal who understands what I am talking about when I have ended up crying on her desk!  Not that men administrators can't be understanding, I just would have been too scared to cry and stay in their office to discuss my issues!  One of my students had told me something that broke my heart!  She was so brave to say in a sweet, shy voice, "Miss Kruse, sometimes it feels like being good isn't worth it, because only the bad kids get all your attention."

And she was right!  I spent so much time disciplining these boys that were trying to get under my skin, that I constantly neglected to thank and reward the students that were doing what they were supposed to every day!  I am so thankful for that sweet little girl, who is now an adult, because she taught me something invaluable to teaching.

I was also put on a Plan for Improvement that year by my principal.  She said it wasn't because I was terrible, but that it was because she knew I had great potential... but she wanted to develop my teaching.  She made me go observe master teachers several times a week during my planning period and take notes.  Then I had to implement some of the practices I saw in other classrooms, and see how they worked for me.  I wrote reflections over all of this, and had to report them to her periodically.  That was the most incredible time, watching and listening to teachers who had been doing this so long!  I learned so much that I wouldn't have if that principal had merely said I was satisfactory on an evaluation.

Another student that I'll never forget was a farm kid, a dairy farm kid, and he told me that his cows didn't care if he could read or write.  I told him that in the future, small farms were probably not going to be able to support families anymore, and that he needed a backup plan.  At the end of that year, he told me that he sort of liked reading now, and he thought he might even go to college when he got older!

It was March before I felt comfortable that first year actually handling disruptive behavior.  I definitely was no master teacher by any means, but I was no longer constantly second-guessing myself.  I realized that learning was the purpose of any classroom, I was a trained professional on how to get students to learn, and that anything that interrupted or distracted from learning was not acceptable or appropriate.

It has been amazing to see those first students grow up and become adults.  In fact, one of the our first college Wednesday night Bible study groups this school year, one of the college guys asked me what my maiden name was and if I ever taught at Fort Gibson.  I recognized his face right away, and realized he was one of my students during my full-internship a decade ago!  And then a few weeks later, another college guy came to Bible study - and we recognized each other right away - he was one of my students during my first year of teaching!

I'll be honest, and say that when these former students who are now in college and high school ask to be my friend on Facebook, and I am able to see how they have matured and what they are doing with their lives... I am just thankful they can get into college!  I was so scared those first couple of years that they wouldn't be able to read or write on an acceptable level because I had messed them up!

The funny thing is, they usually look almost the same - just taller.  Perhaps their voice is different too, but moral character and personality is usually shaped in a child by the time they enter my 5th grade classroom.

I guess I haven't really changed much either... except this is actually from my second year of teaching.  I can't find the picture from my first :(

Something that has changed drastically in the past decade of teaching, though, is how deeply my students think.  That first year, my students were much better at problem solving and thinking about deeper topics.  We would do quick-writes on topics about life, you know, like "What does it mean to 'Reach for the stars.  That way, if you don't make it, you'll be in the clouds.'?"  Those kids would think about it, write about it, and then we would have a discussion.  My students now either couldn't or wouldn't do it.  They'd either not understand the quote or would make a joke out of it or would just say "I don't get it" without trying.  It is sad, truly.  Somehow in the past 10 years, children have stopped thinking and being able to express their thoughts.

I love teaching.  It truly is a wonderful experience to see, what I call, the "light bulb moment", when they finally understand something they didn't before!  Unfortunately, it seems to happen less and less.  I don't know what the answer is to all of it, but I have my theories.  10 years ago most of my students lived with one or both of his/her parents.  Now, probably half of my students are being raised by grandparents or aunts and uncles - it seems moms and dads are so caught up with their own repetitive, cyclical problems to care for these young people.  I think there is so much entertainment out there these days where kids never have to think deeply or solve problems on their own.  I also think it was safer 10 years ago to let kids explore and play.  Even as a parent, I wonder how it will make Emersyn a different kind of person than her father or myself, because we never let Emersyn out of our sight!  I wonder if that stumps her development in her moral and intellectual processing?

Anyway, it is funny how I think back to how hard that first year seemed, and it really wasn't because of the students I had or the curriculum I taught.  It was because it was the first time in my life that I had had to do something I wasn't completely adequate to do.  And it stressed me out that I couldn't be and do all that the job required of me to be successful as I defined it.

Since then I have realized that everyone in teaching is inadequate to be successful completely.  There aren't enough hours in the day, money in the funds, or energy to give every single student every single moment of attention they need... but now I am okay with that.  It still bothers me in an abstract way - I find myself wishing every room had an assistant, or that I only had half the students, or that my contract actually listed the number of hours I really spend on the job instead of the laughable "745am-315pm, 5 days a week, 9 months out of the year" that is printed on the annual document I sign.

But it doesn't keep me up nights anymore, and doesn't make me fall asleep with exhaustion in the floor in front of my DVD player in the middle of the afternoon.  All I do is my best every day, during the reasonable amount of time I have to dedicate to it each day, and then I know that is all I can do.  I cannot be superwoman.  I cannot sacrifice the quality of time and energy for my husband and children in order to be more successful at my job and still have a clear conscience.  I do my best with what I have.

I also learned after a few years, that my job is for two purposes:  to provide for myself and to contribute to the world.  It isn't my existence.  It sure feels like it should be, in order to meet the demands.  But realistically, it is just a job.  A good one.  A hard one.

One that I may or may not miss for these next few years that I am home more with Emersyn and Keegan, and anyone else that comes along.  All I know is I know this past decade was not wasted.  It has grown me, not just in the profession, but as a person.

I am better at 30, than at 20, because of those 460+ students, along with their essays, personalities, parents, and presence in my life.  I am happily, with maybe just a touch of fear and sadness, hanging up my hat and walking away for a while.  But this is just the tip of the iceberg of my memories, feelings, and thoughts on this topic.  I'm sure I'll revisit it soon.

We are having a baby boy in 3 days!  I am so excited and nervous!  And it has probably kept my mind from focusing on how much I'll miss teaching!  Who has time to be sad and miss something, when all this anticipation and wonder fills my mind?!

Happy Baby-Having to Me!

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