Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Summer Vocation

I just finished reading Phillip Done’s book “32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny.” Done is a teacher who writes sincerely and comically of the day-to-day adventures in his classroom. I found myself sympathizing with his tales on more than more occasion. It had me thinking that despite the best efforts of teacher preparation programs there is no way to prepare teachers for the challenges that they will face at school- perhaps most specifically in their first year of teaching.

Upon completing my first year teaching I have taken time this summer to catch my breath and reflect. Now, my Luther College education did instill in me, again and again, the importance for a teacher to reflect. What I didn’t learn in college is that there is very limited time to reflect. Obviously I would reflect on the successes and failures of my lessons- usually on my commute home. Walking around the room between mini-lessons on how to open milk cartons and how to efficiently eat a string cheese in 15 minutes, I was wrapping my mind around the challenges presented during the phonics lesson and preparing a game plan for re-teaching the lesson in a small group after snack time. Reflection happens. However I’m still wondering when and how I’ll make time in my schedule to reflect on my questions of vocational discernment. Is this my life’s calling? Is teaching the job where I get to put my gifts, abilities, and talents to best use? Am I making a difference? These questions are put on the back burner as I’m bombarded with “May I go to the bathroom?” “Can I bring treats for my Wildcat of the Week presentation?” “Is today the day we finish reading James and the Giant Peach?” and “Did we already eat lunch or not?” Perhaps June, July, and August are the months I am to dedicate to answering my soul searching questions? I’m nearing the end of my summer vacation and ready for round two- so in some sense I’ve answered part of the question.

There is a steep learning curve that occurs that first year. And while I have a lot to learn yet, I feel much more seasoned as I prepare for the next school year having a year under my belt. For those new teachers out there I can share some of my experiences- but ultimately you are initiated by fire. I don’t believe any amount of college courses, student teaching, or substitute teaching can really prepare someone for having their “own” classroom. Most lessons need to be learned on the job, sometimes at the expense of tears, pride, and hopefully some laughs.

No one told me, for example, that lost tooth necklaces are not meant to be worn around one’s neck. T lost her tooth and placed it in said necklace, which she proudly collected from the Nurse’s office. T wore her toothless grin and necklace for 3 minutes before her lost tooth was lost again. This time on the carpet- she thought. Twenty little bodies promptly dropped to the ground in search of the missing tooth and quickly retrieved the tooth (and many other particles from the carpet). You would think that I’d learned my lesson. Nope. I directed T to secure the tooth again in her necklace before switching rooms for math. At the end of math class she lost her lost tooth again, this time amidst the shuffle of 140 first grade students between their math classes in the hallway. This time it was lost for real. I suggested to T that she write a letter explaining the situation to the Tooth Fairy and told her she’d probably still get a treat in exchange. From then on lost teeth and tooth necklaces were secured in Ziploc bags and immediately deposited into backpacks only to be brought out at home.

No one told me that my first paycheck would be spent purchasing classroom materials at Target, Michael’s, Barnes and Noble, and Lakeshore Learning. No one told me that my rent checks would have been better spent on a blow up mattress and sleeping bag to be kept at school.

No one told me that all of my time would be spent preparing students to perform on exams. That there wouldn’t be enough time to teach my favorite unit on Cinderella stories from around the globe. That autumn might come and go without a moment to transform Q-tips into skeletons.

No one told me that our class pet (a four-foot tall stuffed animal giraffe) was not immune to head lice.

No one told me that I’d never be able to part with another paper towel or toilet paper tube. No one told me that glue sticks have innumerable applications. No one told me that I’d never be able to pass a garage sale again without wondering what school supplies they might possess.

No one told me what an honor I would have in introducing students to the worlds of Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, and Eric Carle. No one told me how important writing letters and words are for young hands- and the power in sharing one’s own story.

No one told me that first graders have their own written language, or that it would take me a month before I would catch onto it. No one told me that not even parents can decode this written language and I would be serving as translator at parent-teacher conferences.

No one told me that I’d be expected to remember who owns what pet at home and what their names are and what their favorite food is. No one told me how excited students are when you recall this information, especially in front of their classmates.

No one told me that I would never look at a granola bar wrapper the same way again- scouring the package for traces of peanuts or gluten or eggs or dairy.

No one told me how magical it is for first graders to transform ice, strawberries, yogurt, and juice into fruit smoothies.

No one told me that it was possible to listen to “Down by the Bay” over 300 times in one school year. No one told me that I would hardly ever listen to music in my car or my home because I wouldn’t want to ruin the silence.

No one told me how fun it would be to grow our own plants from seeds- that students would rush into the room first thing in the morning to chart the growth of sunflowers and grass. No one told me that if I looked carefully enough I might just see the first graders growing before my eyes too- an inch here, a wrinkle there, a lost tooth or two or three there. No one told me that I would see them learning before my eyes- like light bulbs new connections being made inside their minds.

No one told me that June, July, and August would pass faster than the other 9 months of the school year. No one told me that my time for reflection would be spent wondering if B had enough food in his belly now that he wasn’t receiving meals at school, if K made new friends easily when he moved to his dad’s place for the summer, if S was finding someone to practice her addition facts with, and if Y was able to make a trip to the public library every week to get his hands on some good books.

No one told me that at the end of the year I would cry and wonder how on earth I was ever going to be able to open my heart to 21 kids again when I knew in a year they’d leave me.

Perhaps “Summer Vacation” should be called “Summer Vocation”- time dedicated for teachers to catch their breath and remember again why we look forward to the first day of school.

“The main reason I became a teacher is that I like being the first one to introduce kids to words and music and books and people and numbers and concepts and ideas that they have never heard about or thought about before.

Just think about what you know today. You read. You write. You work with numbers. You solve problems. We take all these things for granted. But of course you haven’t always read. You haven’t always known how to write. You weren’t born knowing how to subtract 199 from 600. Someone showed you. There was a moment when you moved from not knowing to knowing. There was a moment when you moved from not understanding to understanding.

That’s why I became a teacher.”
Phillip Done