First Person

It’s a New Year. Show Yourself and Your Students a Little Grace

—Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action
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The start of a new year is a time for being brutal on ourselves. Resolutions often read like court orders from a curmudgeonly judge. Lose 15 pounds, you slothful sack of excuses! Run five miles every morning, rain or shine, doughboy! That unforgiving voice often forges our teaching resolutions, too.

Teachers are under a tremendous amount of pressure. Our job is almost comically hard. Bad policies add new burdens each year but rarely remove any of the old ones. Most of us experience moments of deep doubt about whether we are meeting the many needs of the children in our care.

After 17 years in this profession, despite awards and accolades and hearing what a great teacher I am from people who have never seen me teach, I still don’t feel so confident about my teaching.

My classroom is a mess. Every few weeks, I make a valiant but doomed attempt to tidy it up. When I do, I find faded art projects from the first week of school and reading levels for former 2nd graders who are in junior high now.

Many of the kids in my class aren’t making the progress I had hoped. I have students below grade level who are not on track to catch up, and the year is half over. (Gulp.)

I’m too mean to the kids. Last year, when I had my 2nd graders write down what they wanted me to Start, Keep, and Stop doing, a third of the class wrote some version of "Stop yelling." (I didn’t think I was.) I’m too easily frustrated with these very young kids, and they can feel it.

Now that 2018 has come, the drill sergeant in me sees a perfect opportunity to pound out a whole battery of New Year’s teaching resolutions in all-caps: TIDY UP YOUR DUMP OF A CLASSROOM! GET EVERY CHILD TO GRADE-LEVEL BY MAY! STOP YELLING AT LITTLE KIDS, YOU JERK!

But I have gone down that path in the past. Once the fire fades and dismal February limps in, I inevitably realize that the only thing achieved by being tough on myself has been to make the kids’ lives a little worse.

We are too interconnected with our students to fully separate their well-being from our own. When I’m harsh, unforgiving, and impatient with my own shortcomings, I tend to be the same with the little humans in my care. When I remember instead to diagnose health as well as illness, to see strengths as well as flaws, my students are happier and they learn more.

So this year, I’m going to buck the trend. I’m going to make a single, simple resolution that may sound like I’m going way too easy on my flaws and failings as a teacher.

Be gentle on yourself. Be patient. Show yourself a little grace.

There’s a corollary: Be gentle on your students, too. They’re trying hard to be their best selves. Show them the same grace.

Here’s what that grace will look like in my classroom from January to May:

Look for strengths, not just gaps. After you read with a child, start off your feedback with something he or she is doing well. At conferences during Writer’s Workshop, point out a strength in the child’s writing before jumping to misspellings and missing punctuation. When parent-teacher conferences roll around, start by praising both the parent and the child for something they’re doing better now than they were when the year began. Parenting is hard, and worn-out moms and dads need to hear it—especially those parents who are struggling.

Practice patience. It’s not the same thing as lowering expectations. Sometimes our students need a fire lit in their bellies, someone pushing them to be their better selves. But in this distorted age of reverence for cut scores and the multiple-choice test, when so many kids can tell you their end-of-year goal on the Measures of Academic Progress test but can’t tell you why it’s important to become a good reader, we tend to think the only results that matter come from tests. Loving school, or hating it, is a result, too. We have to remember how hard this work is for many of our students. They need time to move toward mastery, at a pace that isn’t so frenzied it drives the joy out of the work.

Balance goal-setting with celebration. When I was running up hills in training for a race, once in awhile I’d turn around and run backwards. It felt fundamentally different to see how far I had come, rather than the obstacle looming ahead. Show kids their writing from September, and point out how much longer and better their stories are now. Find a book that was right on their level at the beginning of the year, and have them read it now to see how easy it has become. If they see and feel how far they have come, knowing how far they still have to go by the end of the year won’t seem so daunting.

Frame reminders for behavior in a caring way. On a recent tour of schools in New Zealand, a principal began an assembly in a noisy auditorium by saying, "Quiet down, please, so I can tell you how proud of you I am and how much I love you." Instant silence. I tend to let anger and impatience creep into my voice when reminding the kids for the 100th time that during Shared Reading, it’s a good idea to look at the words we’re reading rather than staring down at the rug. My students respond a lot better when I tell them, "I care about you, so I want you to have a good life. To do that, you need to become a great reader, and reading along with us right now will help you become a great reader." It’s the same correction, but it’s rooted in love rather than annoyance.

Words We Rarely Hear

My friend Jon told me that when he’s struggling, he asks himself what counsel he would give if he were his own loving parent. Sometimes the answer involves tough love and brutal truths, but more often it’s gentler than that: You’re doing a good job. You’ll figure it out. Get some rest, and try again tomorrow.

When I was a new parent, sleep-deprived and stumbling, I got so much unsolicited advice I could fill a dreadful textbook with it. You have to let her cry it out, or she’ll never learn to self-soothe. If you keep letting her suck on that binky, her teeth will come in crooked, and she’ll never learn how to talk. (Turns out my daughter somehow learned to speak after all, and her teeth are lovely.)

What I needed to hear instead were the rarest words offered, by far. I can count on one hand the times I heard them, most often from my father-in-law Bruce, bless him. You two are doing a great job of parenting. Trust your instincts. The proof is in the pudding, and your daughter is clearly thriving.

Teachers, like new parents, don’t hear that kind of reassurance and affirmation often enough. We need to offer it to one another, and to ourselves.

So here’s my 2018 New Year’s message to my fellow teachers, parents, and anyone else involved in this great and exhausting profession: This work is incredibly hard, and you’re doing a good job. Not a perfect job—the work is too complex and important for perfection to be a reasonable goal—but a skilled, loving, and honorable job that you should be proud of. Be gentle with yourself and your students. We are all works in progress. We will get there, together, in time.

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