Sunday, August 23, 2015

Spending Some Time With Teacher Grief

Last Year's Class


Lately I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well my work life seems to be falling into place: I’m working at a steady clip on what I think is a sellable memoir, teaching gratifying poetry playshops for grownups, and I even have two honest-to-goodness creative coaching clients. For friendship, pleasant exercise, and routine, I have my job at Rosemont College Bookstore, and for teaching, I start back soon at the library afterschool program I always loved—which means weekly Apples to Apples Junior and probably starting up the kids’ blog again!

And yet, when my Perfect Life Friend (Do you have one of these? I think Instagram invented them.) posted a picture of her new classroom with exuberant thoughts about fresh pencils and (*shudder*) “Common Core Icebreakers,” the feeling of having failed as a teacher asked me for some attention.

In my relief and joy of coming back to the creative life, I often forget how happy I was this time last year. My classroom was so pretty, all sky-blue fadeless paper and flower border. The flowers were not just to remind me of the creativity and generosity of god, but to reassure me of the beauty, order, and patterns of math as I settled in to be the math, science, and (until test prep time started to eat the enrichment schedule and our souls) poetry teacher.





 I was absolutely in LOVE with my coworkers—with the intern principal who had a cat named after Rory Gilmore and praised my decision to teach “Such Great Heights” as one of our class songs, with my sweet but tough-as-nails 28-years-teaching and SO over it grade partner, with the cute-guy fourth grade teacher down the hall who’d end up hugging me so sweetly when I was crying at the copier by January.


My favorite teacher friend was a red-haired sasspot who would call out the bosses in front of everybody for time-wasting “organization strategies” meant only to impress the constantly visiting superintendant. She rode home with me almost every day, knew the best and worst of both my work and school life, but the trauma of last school year has meant I can’t stand the thought of talking to even the favorites who were part of it. Losing that friendship is one of the saddest, most unfair parts.

But back to last August—our school had extra grants for professional development so we started early and spent two weeks together. The cute intern principal had us write down our thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech and show-called me, so that I was the one who said “Yeah, but David Foster Wallace killed himself, so I don’t think mindfulness is enough. We have to prioritize self-care.” (Really, “This Is Water” is a way to try and push ourselves through a system that doesn’t support our embodiedness or make sense—actually the opposite of water, I’d say.)

We learned lots of Teach Like a Champion strategies, many of which seem totalitarian to me now, especially “100%” (compliance). The intern principal once compared a child reading with her head down instead of sitting straight up and down to Malcolm Gladwell’s Broken Windows—that was the feeling: let one little thing slip, and it will all come crashing down. As optimistic and aesthetically pleasing as the beginning of the school year was, there was a desperation at its center: If I had the right classroom setup, the right folders, the right pencil strategy (If I could spend no more time EVER thinking about pencil strategies or the word “strategy” at all…) the right data-collection binders, the right rituals and routines, I could keep the chaos of the children’s lives at bay and make an island of safety and happiness where kids with even the most horrific circumstances could learn and succeed, where I could learn and succeed.

That was what I was tasked with doing, and I did do it for a lot of each day. I learned, would you believe, to get children who were overflowing with life and passion and creativity to walk silently in a straight line. I filled the classroom with plants and student work and inspirational sayings and more flowers. We had gorgeous room-to-room transitions where the only sound to be heard was my grade partner and I harmonizing to “Lean on Me.”



It was beautiful, and I felt so much love and accomplishment and heavy meaning in every day, so much connection to my fellow humans, connection to my soul. I have so much to say about what prevented order and beauty and love from winning, including (often starring) my own limits, but for now, I just want to acknowledge how much I loved my classroom, and honor the pain of letting it go.

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