Professional Development Opinion

An Ode to Empty Spaces

By Starr Sackstein — June 29, 2017 4 min read
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As another school year officially comes to a close, I soak in the stillness of the empty space and all of the learning it holds within its once text-rich walls. Saying goodbye is always bittersweet, but when you know you aren’t returning, there is a finality to it that lingers closer to sad.

Teaching is one of those truly connective careers where the weight and responsibility for educating the whole child rests on the whole of a team. None of us are truly alone as every child’s life is touched than any number of us in any given day. That’s why the relationships we build are the bedrock on which all learning happens.

It isn’t just with the kids; it’s also with the adults.

And so the hum of the air conditioning starts for the last time I’ll hear it in this space, long before my colleagues arrive, I’m taking this quiet moment to reflect on my solo year at my current school.

Although I won’t miss the commute (because it is treacherous—sometimes up to two hours in one direction), the people I’ve met here have made an impact that will surely influence wherever my journey takes me next.

Here are some enduring understandings I’m taking away from this year:

  • In a large school, the people have to work harder to make the experience intimate. Small learning communities can bring students and staff together and make sure that students don’t fall through the cracks.
  • Regardless of the size of the school you work in, there is always a core of teachers/administrators/staff who are willing to put the school first for the good of all kids and will continue to volunteer like their own lives depend on it. These dedicated people make their school their families, and it’s what makes that school familiar. I’ve worked with many of these people this year even when (for the first time) I had to put my family first. Their commitment and tireless effort to improve the school community is a testament to what our profession is about.
  • Meetings can be productive when they have a purpose and everyone around the table has a voice that gets heard.
  • Technology is NOT a universal given (but it should be). Technology in the sense that it works and there is an infrastructure that supports the use of it or that the users are as comfortable with it as we expect they should or would be.
  • People have the power to make or break a teaching job, so it’s so important to find your tribe as soon as possible. We need each other, and the kids need us to be on our game even when they don’t realize it.
  • Shifting a culture in a classroom is hard when you are starting from scratch even when you wrote the book on how to do it.
  • Most pedagogical philosophy and practice transfers, you just have to find the language your new school speaks in.
  • Listen first. Then understand. Ask clarifying questions. Listen more. Then speak, maybe.
  • Try to get out of the building at least once a day even just for a walk. The change of scenery is good for productivity and the mind.
  • Laugh often.
  • Don’t take yourself so seriously. Mistakes happen, and a quick, but genuine, apology goes a long way. Model this behavior whenever possible.
  • Try not to take on more than you can do well. (Although sometimes you can’t back out of a commitment once you’ve said yes, too much can sometimes ruin a good thing.)
  • I’m all for being a “yes” person, but saying no sometimes is an art form. Know when to say no and when to stand your ground. Personal sanity is essential to do this job well.
  • Clean desks make for sane minds. There is nothing more therapeutic than reorganizing a work space.
  • Although memorizing the bell schedule can be convenient, it’s always a good idea to have a copy of it with you at all times (and have a few posted around the room just in case). In the whole year I was there, I never memorized the full schedule. I know what time my classes started and ended (most of the time) and the rest of the day was a mystery.
  • Getting to school early for a parking spot and some down time makes for a more centered day. It has become the time I spend reflecting on practice and when I get time to write.
  • Job descriptions never adequately define the actual job... so be prepared and be flexible.
  • Kids are kids no matter where you go. So love them. Respect them and challenge them. Push them as far as you know they can go even when they don’t think they can go any farther.
  • Adult learners are also the same no matter where you go. So get to know them. Let them know you and respect them and learn from them.
  • There is something to learn from everyone... so listen (yes, I know I’ve mentioned this one before, but it is worth mentioning again).
  • A smile is a better way to start the day than a frown, so stand at the door and greet everyone with a smile.
  • Call people by their names as soon as you know their names.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. Learning and adjusting takes time. Sometimes more time than you expect it will. Be gentle.
  • Everyone will make changes for the right reasons. Find people’s reasons and help them want to make changes that help improve student learning.
  • Trust yourself, even if you’re the only crazy walking up while everyone else is walking down.

I can keep adding to this list, but I’m going to end on that last one. This year has been a tremendously challenging and rewarding one, and I made it; there were moments I wasn’t sure I would, but I did and so did you!

And remember, when all else fails, food makes everyone happy and if you want to keep people on their toes, just start running in place for no apparent reason.

Thank you, Long Island City High School, for letting me call you home this last year.

What are your takeaways from this year? Please share

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.