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Teaching Secrets: Hang on to the Magic

By Gail Tillery — June 16, 2010 5 min read
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It was a Monday last spring in the middle of testing season. At the lunch time “venting” session, people were whining and complaining about the testing schedule, which was indeed an indescribable disaster. I totally understood why people were so angry and frustrated, and I didn’t blame them for getting their frustrations out among friends. However, as we were leaving, one of the young teachers in the room said something that really resonated with me: “Twenty-six years and four days.”

It took us a moment to get what she was saying. What did that random time period have to do with anything? Then it hit me: She was pointing out how long it would be until she could retire. The other teachers and I kind of giggled nervously. But it got me thinking. What kind of a profession are we in where people count down the days and years to retirement? How could such an amazing young teacher become so disheartened in her fourth year of teaching?

When I thought more about these questions, I understood the reason for her despair. She would absolutely tell you that her unhappiness has nothing to do with the kids, and everything to do with the forces outside of her control. They’re the same things that drive every teacher crazy. Politicians. Testing. Merit pay. Budget cuts and teacher furloughs. Parents who don’t care. Parents who care too much and hover. People in charge of our work who are clueless and don’t know what they’re doing. All the extraneous forces that combine to suck the life out of even the most positive teachers in the profession.

As I thought about this wonderful young woman who is like the daughter I never had. As I thought about future novice teachers who will face the same issues, I asked myself, “How can I be part of the solution? How can I help young teachers see that, despite the current insanity around our work, this job is still the most magical one there is? I offer the following to the novice teachers out there who are about to embark on their careers.

Lesson one: Acceptance. One of the best prayers ever is the Serenity Prayer, which teaches us to accept the things we cannot change. The way education is set up in this country, teachers do not control their own work. Until legislators get out of the middle of it all, we will continue to struggle with top-down decisions that aren’t good for kids. We can rant and whine and cry about it all we want, but we still have to get on with the business of teaching the kids who come to us every day. (Although I firmly believe that if enough legislators had to be in a building for even one day, standardized tests would end tomorrow.) Thus, we must take a deep breath, remind ourselves to control the things we can control, and go from there.

Lesson two: Holiness. No, I don’t really mean this in the religious sense. What I mean is, what we do with kids is holy and sacred because it changes lives. We provide lifelines to kids who have no one. We turn kids on to knowledge. We listen to their dramas, let them cry themselves out, help them work through their problems....I could go on and on about what millions of teachers do for millions of kids every day. The excellent teachers in the world are not in the classroom to deliver knowledge and skills alone; they are also there to provide life lessons to children whose futures will be brighter because a teacher cared for them.

I was watching M*A*S*H the other day (my favorite show, ever, forever) and thinking of all the lives that were saved by units like these in the last few wars. I was also thinking, “What must it feel like to know you saved a life?” And then I realized I’ve done the same thing many times in my classroom. Not literally, of course, but just as importantly. When I help a kid learn a new skill, when I help him or her try one more time instead of giving up and quitting school or making life-altering negative decisions, I am saving lives, too.

Lesson three: Don’t take it personally. This lesson is especially important for high school teachers. When we pour our time, energy, and hearts into planning lessons for students, and then they grouse and complain and aren’t engaged, we get our feelings hurt. Let go of that. The students’ lack of interest and snarky attitudes are not about you as a person. The flip side of this, of course, is to spend the time and energy to create the most engaging lessons possible, but we have to understand that we can’t reach every kid every day.

Lesson four: Understand that there are people out there who are content to be mediocre. When I first came to a public school after 12 years of teaching in a private school, I jumped in with both feet and got involved in as many leadership positions as I could. While many of my new colleagues were supportive, others were a little judgmental and critical. I went to a trusted administrator about it, and she told me, “If you step out in front, there will always be people who try to shoot you down.” Step out anyway.

Lesson five: Stay away from the Dark Side. You will learn quickly who the positive people are. Gravitate to them in your department and in your building. Stay away from the people who hate their job and are counting down the days until school ends. They will pull you down with them if you let them.

Lesson six (a corollary to lesson five): Don’t let the turkeys get you down. College in the 80’s was all about how many buttons you could display on your clothing or your bag. One button I still have in my classroom is a picture of an elephant who is lying on his stomach with his legs spread everywhere. He is covered in turkeys. Enough said.

Lesson seven: Be in balance. Remember that your job is not your life. Your life is your life. When you leave the building, leave everything in it: the kids you can’t reach, the kids who are hurting, the Eeyorish colleagues, the insane demands, all the negative stuff. Do not burden your spirit with it. After all, it will all still be there when you come back. Work out, be quiet, worship, sleep, read, laugh. You’ll be suicidal by Thanksgiving if you don’t.

Lesson eight: Own your power. I have written in other places about how to take charge of your classroom. This version of owning your power is about realizing that every day of your life, you have the power to make a child’s life better or worse. You will interact with hundreds, if not thousands, of children through your career, and you will not remember them all. But they will remember you and how you made them feel—whether it was good or bad. Choose your words carefully, take deep breaths, and understand the impact you can have on a child.

Teaching is an art and a science. It is hard every day and challenging every day. But every day something akin to miracles happen in teachers’ rooms. Use these lessons to make your room miraculous.


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