September turns my heart to school. Not just the school where I teach now, but all the schools I’ve taught in and all the schools I’ve attended. In August, sales circulars paint a perennial picture of rosy cheeks, pigtails, and shiny lunchboxes. I appreciate pretty folders and fresh pens as much as the next person (okay, maybe a little more than the next person), but money can’t buy the bright flush of possibility. Let’s be honest. Sometimes school is a place where a person can grow into herself, but sometimes school suffocates.
Flash back to last fall, when David taught theatre to impoverished middle schoolers, smack dab in the heartland of Kansas. Wednesday of his first week he broke up a fistfight in the hall, then intervened when a 12-year-old passed a suicidal note during a relaxation exercise. All before the lunch bell.
David’s wince-worthy stories brought me back to my darkest days in the classroom. I’ve traversed the spectrum of teaching milieus: a low-income public school, a middle class public school, a wealthy public school, a private Montessori school, and these days a charter Montessori school. A friend entering the teaching profession recently asked me for a few tricks of the trade. My mind went as blank as a summer whiteboard. She might as well have asked me how to swim without getting wet. That’s the terrible secret of teaching: there are no tricks.
No tricks for teachers, no tricks for students, and no tricks for the parents watching from the shoreline (or in some cases paddling in to lend a hand). Sure, we can access a dizzying array of books and websites chock full of philosophies and techniques. But no amount of information alters the hard, cold, save-your-tears-till-the-last-student-closes-the-door-behind-her reality that most classrooms witness as much pain as learning.
So forget tricks. I’ve invested in life jackets. During the stormy seasons of school life, these practices have kept me afloat. I reckon they’ll work as well for parents and students as they do for teachers.
Say thank you. My first year teaching middle school music beat me down. Chorus rehearsals fell inches short of pandemonium. The hundred-plus seventh and eighth graders treated me like I was wasting their time, and I felt less and less inclined to disagree. Toward the end of September, in an act that felt more like desperation than inspiration, I began writing thank you notes to the quiet, focused kids. I could hardly see them in the midst of the mayhem, but after school I needed to remind myself that they existed. Years later, Nicole confessed she was planning to quit chorus the day she received that note. If she’d quit, she probably wouldn’t have gone on to assist me with shows in her high school and college years. We probably wouldn’t have become great friends. Thanking someone turns her from an acquaintance into an ally. Whether it’s an email to a hard-working teaching assistant or a few words to a kind classmate, gratitude has transformative power.
Take nothing personally. Take everything personally. One of my favorite teaching mantras is It’s Not About You. When you’re standing in front of two-dozen vacant-eyed adolescents, their apathy feels like an affront, but it’s nothing personal. It’s the math quiz he just failed. It’s the friend who didn’t text her back last night. It’s the father who didn’t show up or the sister who’s in the hospital. Every single person in the room woke up early and walked through those heavy doors with his game face on. For some kids, just getting there is a miracle.
Which brings me to my other favorite mantra. It’s About You. When we have it in us to drop our game faces and open our hearts, schools change. For teachers, that might mean inviting a student to join a club or calling a parent to share a child’s success. For parents, it could mean chaperoning a field trip or listening to a daughter’s frustration without finding someone to blame. Parents and educators alike can recognize problems and work toward systemic change. It starts with realizing it’s not about you. And it is.
Harness the power of your imagination. When school life feels out of control, the imagination goes wild. It comes up with culprits. It conjures detailed worst-case scenarios. A common name for this phenomenon is worry, and it’s a biological response along the lines of breathing. Going cold turkey is like trying to stop a freight train with a baby gate. The mind is a powerful engine; the most we can hope to do is reroute it.
My father reminded me of this back in 2008, when I started teaching at Stoneridge Children’s Montessori School. A handful of second grade boys seemed intent on sabotaging every lesson, and their classmates were picking up the game. “Have you tried praying for them?” Dad asked. After the initial flash of annoyance, I recognized his alternative to self-pity. I could imagine things getting better. A common name for this practice is prayer, but you don’t have to call it that. I began envisioning those rapscallions learning to trust me, and you know what? They did. Change happened the way it generally does: ploddingly, with regressions, plateaus, and the occasional leap forward. But rerouting my imagination paid off immediately in the quality of my daily experience.
Laugh. Our worst moments tend to fuel our most memorable stories. When David told me about the fistfight last year, I commended him for his bravery. “If you saw those puny sixth graders, you wouldn’t be so impressed,” he quipped. Chuckling didn’t change the fact that he was breaking up fights between classes, but it sure made it easier to get through the day.
David and I are both a month into new teaching jobs, and thus far the scales tilt more toward joy than jaw-clenching. I carve a little stillness into each day and let the reality sink in: we’re happy.
But happiness no longer seems like the point. As a child I ached for approval and affection. As an adolescent I strived for straight A’s. It took me a few years of teaching to realize I wanted more than success for my students and myself; I wanted transformation. It took another half dozen years to accept that transformation rarely feels comfortable. Nobody stays dry while learning to swim.
Thinking over the past decade, I’m pretty sure hardship birthed every satisfying relationship in my life. The sixth grade student whose little sister died became one of my strongest musicians. Ian leads his a cappella group in college now, and he says singing is how he honors Mary’s memory.
Three and a half years ago Suzanne and I sat in the Atomic Café, bemoaning our hyper-focused teaching lives. Her caffeinated whim to start a book club (we needed deadlines if we were ever going to read for pleasure) resulted in a circle of friends who care for each other with surpassing tenderness and cheer.
School is like the rest of life: we can’t fight the wind and rain. But in the midst of choppy waters, we offer each other small kindnesses that function as life preservers. In a month or a few years, when the skies have cleared, we marvel at all the loving people in our lives. And if we’re in the market for transformation, isn’t that all we really need?