The Week Before the First Week of School

Just like the kids, I always get a little sad, but a little psyched for the first week of school. While it sucks getting up before the sun, I love seeing all my (teacher) friends again. I love having an excuse to get new clothes because it’s “back-to-school sale” time. And while I don’t have a new backpack or lunch box, my equivalent of a new bulletin board (Olympic puns! e.g. Kerri Walsh Jennings had a ball on the beach) and a fresh pile of sticky notes is about the same.

Every year I make a quiet resolution that “this year will be different.” I am determined that the calm I find in the summer month will transfer into my classroom world, that I will not become stressed out at the drop of a hat. I have my lesson plans written, and they have a new life in them. I added more movement and even singing into my lessons. I have adorable little closure activities, my favorite being: “When you are at the dinner table tonight and someone asks you what did you do in school today, tell a neighbor what you will say about this class.” It’s perfect! It summarizes the lesson, makes everyone contribute, and has that good wholesome family element. (Plus, if they do it, then the parents think I’m the memorable teacher.)

But, like my lovely summer tan, this enthusiasm and “summer me” will fade. I wish it wouldn’t, but it will. I think it fades because kids are kids, and they fall short of our expectations and let us down at times. When I’ll sing my song I came up with this summer, they will look at me, possibly too cool for school, and not buy in. Then, because I’m human, my feelings will be a little hurt, and I will question if I should do the cute song next time. Or, they will bomb the quiz half way to the test, and I’ll think perhaps I shouldn’t do the fun activity but should reteach the concept in a more explicit way. Before you know it, it’ll be November, and I’ll be the same semi-bitter, pasty skinned teacher who left the classroom last June.

So as I close my week before my first week of school, I am trying to find a balance. On that first day, I am going to greet my new students with the enthusiasm they deserve, and I’m going to try all the new ideas I worked on this summer. But, since this is not my first rodeo, I’m also going set another mini resolution. I have a big sign I made in my classroom that says, “Keep things in perspective.” It’s helped me on many occasions. In that vein my addition for this year’s goal is to not let the little things drag me down so much or so fast. Kids are awesome, and when they “let me down,” it’s not personal, and I have to carry on. I have to continue to give them my best even when they don’t give me their best. I have to start this year knowing that despite my brilliant new plans, they are still in their early teen years and will frustrate me the same way every other group has (and possibly in new ways as well). And that’s ok.

I’ll let you know the week after the first week of school if I have been at all successful.

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Hoarders

The first step to getting better is admitting you have a problem. I am a digital hoarder. For some people, it’s pizza boxes and used car parts, for me it’s anything I can open on a screen. My fellow teachers are going to have to help me evaluate how serious this problem is because just like the lady profiled on the show Hoarders, I have no idea how deep I am in digital piles. I climb over digital stacks of mail on my way to bed each night, and I fear that after years of saying, “I’ll clean it out soon,” I’ve surrounded myself in a virtual mess.

First, I’d like to clarify that I do not suffer from the conditions that cause physical hoarding, which is very serious, and I’m not trying to make light of it. Like most people, I save many physical things. However, you will not find piles of papers in my home, with the understandable exception of my husband’s pile of magazines and computer print outs, which we/I will continue to forgive, or the stack of paper I am trying to grade at that time. I keep physical objects for sentimental, utilitarian, and aesthetic purposes. But, I regularly make trips to Good Will and calls to the Vets to donate physical things I no longer need. When it comes to my digital life, however…

Let’s start with my emails. I just spent an hour and a half going through my personal email account, which lists over 2500 “primary” emails that I’m saving. In my personal quest to “clean out” this email inbox, I find myself having a hard time deleting certain types of emails. Why can’t I get rid of email confirmations? Confirmation of purchases, memberships, vacations, they are all there, hoarded for some future purpose I can’t predict. When you change your password to any account, they send an email to let you know the password was changed; I have 71 emails about password requests and changes, and I can’t bring myself to delete them. It makes no sense. I logically understand that I have no need to remember the date I changed my Ticketmaster password, joined a gym, or renewed my subscription to Real Simple, and yet all those emails sit there, judging me and reminding me of my digital hoarding tendency.

My school email is similar in its overwhelming, wow-I-am-a-hoarder function, but I feel slightly less embarrassed by this email hoarding. There are some emails that on the surface seem useless, but you will want them when you get that kid’s younger sibling five years later and the mom says you have no idea what you’re doing. In those circumstances, which are not as uncommon as you may hope, you will be so glad you saved that email where said parent raved about how you changed her elder daughter’s life. Or, when the principal asks why you didn’t submit something, you can forward your original email that you submitted well before the deadline with a humble apology for not making it clear in the subject line (you know she’s busy, etc. etc.). These are two silly scenarios, but you get the picture. In teaching, it is better to have it and not need it than to need it but not have it (shout out to my high school French teacher who said that phrase so often it’s been chiseled into my brain).

A peek into my school email shows that the first email I have saved in my primary inbox (not a categorized folder, but the inbox I open at login) is from August 22, 2006. My hope is that it was the first email I ever got, and that my refusal to delete it is because of the sentimental value of my first work email received. I have emails that explain how to work our grading and attendance system that was phased out probably seven years ago. Hopefully, these emails still exist because it’s just too overwhelming a task to sort through emails that old, but I may have found my project for tomorrow.

Each year I taught is also given its own folder in my school account and within that folder is a subfolder for each class period I taught. Starting around the time we got that new attendance program, we have been emailed the daily attendance all 180 days we have students in the building. And, surprise, I keep them. Starting in 2011, I have the attendance email from every single day. WHY? What good could this possibly do me? Notice that like a hoarder, I try to rationalize that they are in neat folders and easy to access, like the man who tells you that the pile closest to the door are the newspapers from 2011 and the piles go in chronological order as you make your way toward the “dining room.” If I were to print out the files I’m saving, it would be literal hoarding. I have two pictures to demonstrate: the first shows two binders of emails I got for ONE CLASS PERIOD OF KIDS IN A SINGLE YEAR, the other shows two folders of emails I received over two years just about changes to our curriculum. Ok, it’s settled, my project for tomorrow is absolutely cleaning out my virtual mess, starting with those attendance emails!

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If only it were just emails, no my metaphoric stacks extend beyond that dining room, through the kitchen, and well into the rafters of the garage. In the “old days,” teachers had filing cabinets where they kept a few copies of each activity. When the filing cabinet was full, there were two options, clean it out or buy another filing cabinet. When I inherited my classroom, there were four filing cabinets with a total of 11 drawers full of teacher clutter. Now, I have a mere one and a half drawers of printed materials, which is next to nothing. I keep a nice one-inch binder for each unit I teach, and all ten are lined up nicely on a single shelf. I am NOT a physical hoarder; my sickness stems from the flashdrive.

I call mine a flashdrive, but it’s the same as a jump drive or USB or whatever you call that device. That beautiful little two-inch miracle that holds EVERYTHING in one tiny digital space. I love my flashdrive, and should I ever lose it, you will never see me again because I will lose my mind. I do back it up when I remember, but an external harddrive is just not as sexy as my adorable, super flashdrive.

My current flashdrive and I started our relationship in 2010. Everything I created before that is in a folder called “Old.” Since 2010, each school year has its own folder (are you seeing a pattern yet) and within each academic year is a subfolder for each unit. Our curriculum evolves each year, but there have not been drastic overhauls, so I teach, within reason, the same things I taught ten years ago. For example, my students create their own suspenseful story around Halloween. And each year, I open the previous year’s “Suspense” folder, reread my project criteria, change next to nothing, and then resave it as the same name but in the new year’s folder. As a result I now have EIGHT copies of a document called “Create Story Criteria” (I am missing two years from my “Old,” pre-2010 folder). Why am I saving old versions of a document? In my neat hardcopy binders, lined sweetly on my physical shelf, I throw away the old version and just keep the newest version of whatever I have. Why don’t I do this with my poor little flashdrive? Why do I have four to eight versions of everything I’ve ever done? Why am I making my flashdrive carry around eight filing cabinets worth of handouts?

I actually know why. It’s because it’s digital. I can’t see it. As long as I don’t open the older folders, I don’t see the piles that are spilling out of the windows. And, I can hide my hoarding because no one else can see my digital mayhem to shame me into cleaning out. Thus, the reason for this post: if I can publicly shame myself, I can also hold myself accountable for tidying up my digital life.

I’d like to be able to say that is the end of my clinging to digital things, but it’s not. I have at least two blogs that I no longer use but never bothered to delete. I also have at least two websites that I used to use with my students that have been dead in space for years. But, as long as I can’t see it, apparently, my brain thinks it’s ok to hoard digitally.

I am currently reading a wonderful book about writing by Anne Lamott called Bird by Bird (thank you Rachel for the loan!), and in it is the wonderful idea of taking things in baby steps. She talks about driving a car at night. You can only see a few yards in front of you, and yet, you always get to your destination no matter how far away it is. Similarly, in life (and writing), we can take things in these small steps, concentrating on just one small task in front of us, and eventually arriving at our destination. I’ve decided this is my new motto for life. So, I’m going to cling to this metaphor as I embark on my virtual spring-cleaning because I can get this done, bird-by-bird.

 

 


The First Time I Cried at School

Despite the fact that I was a sensitive child with untamed frizzy locks of brown hair, and despite the fact that I had teeth pulled and wore a retainer from age thirteen to seventeen, a time when it is vital that girls look flawless, I have no memory of crying in school. I have brief memories of being teased when I tried to pull off a fashion statement that was never going to fly in my tiny town where the 4H club was one of the biggest student organizations and won more prizes than all the varsity teams combined. I also have passing memories of feeling left out and friendless, as all students do. But, I have no memories of crying in school, until I was a teacher.

People say that student teaching is the hardest thing you will ever do in your teaching career, or that nothing is more challenging than being a first year teacher. I had amazing experiences during both these periods, and I did not shed a single tear. The first time I ever cried at school was during my second year of teaching.

At that time, we had administrators who supported the philosophy that 12-14 year olds were like dogs who needed to be taken outside and given time to run around and be stupid so that they could then learn better in the second half of the day. Officially, I neither agree nor disagree with this way of thinking, but I will say that the idea of an unstructured recess period is rarely found, as far as I know, in eighth grade. Our recess was to be outside when the weather permitted, so between 150 and 200 kids would be turned loose on the football field, our dog park, to run until they tired themselves out while two (yes only two) teachers monitored the mayhem. We would then return the students, sweaty and smelly, to the classrooms for another three classes in the afternoon, enjoying their slightly comatose behavior.

*Note, it was somewhere around 2011 that this philosophy was kicked to the curb at my school; the lunch period was extended, and recess evaporated into thin air.

When the weather was poor, which is more than half the time because of the region where we live (almost anywhere is the United States during the months students go to school), those same 150-200 students would be corralled, like cats, into the gymnasium. Cats do not appreciate being corralled, in case you’ve never met a cat. We would organize one game during recess time in the gym, the most popular being dodgeball, and students could either play or watch while sitting on the bleachers. This was equally painful for the recess monitor, i.e. me. While given time outside in the fresh air, students were able to socialize, run around, create their own entertainment, and for the most part, not annoy the teachers. Unfortunately, in the gym students were only looking for ways to leave. There was a constant march of students to and from the bathroom, lockers, and office. Students whined about not being able to play games other than dodgeball or not being on the team with their friends or someone in the stands “looking” at them. It was pretty miserable for all involved.

The first time I cried at school was at recess during my second year of teaching. There was a spirited game of dodgeball in motion, Mrs. H’s afternoon students verses Mr. G’s afternoon students. The stands were filled with the other 150ish eighth graders who had nothing to do but gossip, cheat, tease, and otherwise cause mischief. So, while my comrade in arms (whoever else was on recess duty with me that year) refereed the game, whistling students out and in, I paced back and forth patrolling the stands and trying to put out fires. At the far end of the gym were our troublemakers, those students who are nice enough in class but who are scribbling graffiti on the bathroom walls and “just having fun” by putting each other in headlocks if you give them the slightest bit of wiggle room. When I arrived in front of them, it was clear they were up to no good.

To be honest, I don’t remember why I was reprimanding them. They were the kids who threw spitballs, who swore when the teacher couldn’t catch them, who flicked other kids and then said, “he did it.” But whatever the reason, I was “yelling” at them. It was one of those teacher speeches like, “You know this behavior is unacceptable. I warned you yesterday, so this is strike two. My next step is separating you, and then you’ll be sorry.” You know, one of those half-hearted, no real threat, why-can’t-you-be-a-good-kids, cliché teacher speeches. But, I was a second year teacher monitoring a gymnasium full of corralled cats, so that’s really all I had in my arsenal of discipline techniques.

At that moment, about two-thirds through my reprimand, I was smacked forward from behind with a force strong enough to fold me in two. The blow was directly to the back of my head, so as I stood facing this entourage of thirteen-year-old boys, I collapsed into their laps. I bounced up as quickly as I had been pushed down and spun around to see an errant dodgeball trickling into the corner. I had been smacked, full force, in the back of the head with a dodgeball, assassination style. And the result had been not only my physically pain and humiliation, but a complete undermining of whatever I had been saying to warn the students. It took about two breaths before tears gushed from my eyes.

Normally, I can feel my emotions bubbling to the surface, and I can talk myself down with an internal monologue like, “It’s ok, breathe, hold yourself together, you can cry later,” etc. There was no internal monologue now. I was still facing the dozen or so boys who had just caught my head as I fell onto them, and I was full out crying. The kind of crying where your shoulders shrug up and down and you struggle catch your breath. I did not run from the gym, but I was moving at a good lick. I went straight to the bathroom and didn’t come out until the bell rang.

My tears were mainly because I had been so surprised by the hit. It scared me. But my subconscious immediately also recognized that it was most likely an intentional attack. What are the odds that while yelling at the mischievous boys I would be hit at the same moment with a dodgeball directly and full force in the back of the head? It couldn’t be a coincidence; it had to be intentional, serving the dual purpose of helping those boys not be punished and embarrassing me in front of half of the eighth grade.

The embarrassment continued when some of the girls came to me later to tell me who had thrown the ball. It was, of course, a boy who was friends with the group I was yelling at. The gossip must have gotten back to him that someone had ratted him out because he showed up at my door to apologize, promising that it was an accident, that the ball had just gotten away from him (with the underlying plea of “please don’t write me up”).

In the end, I didn’t write up my “attacker.” I was a second year teacher who believed that all students mean well and can be reached and all that second year teacher stuff. But, I had cried. Out of embarrassment, fear, physical pain, naivety, and I’m sure other things. It was the first time I had ever cried at school, and it would be the last time for another five years. The second time I cried at school would be for very different reasons, but I’ll save that tale for another day.