Today I finished my second day at a new school- I’ve promised all 100 or so 4th- and 5th-grade students that I co-teach that I’ll know their names by the end of the week. And generally speaking I have it- much to my students’ delight and chagrin.
I was quite busy this summer- I finished The Wire, finally, I went to New York City to visit family, I went to my share of protests around education cuts, spoke out on how these cuts would affect schools, I worked with different people as a co-chair of the Chicago Teachers Union’s Special Education Committee to fight drastic special education cuts in Chicago, and I met a lot of people, some of whom have had some victories getting back special education staff for their schools. I went to Dyett and listened to hunger strikers on Day 9; now they’re in their 24th day.
I also went on numerous job interviews. After a long process, I accepted a position as a 3rd-4th grade inclusion special education teacher at a school in the neighborhood of and close to the school I’d worked at the past two years. This new school has veteran administration, a good mix of new and “seasoned” teachers, as my administration puts it, and I now get to work with elementary-aged kids in reading and math classrooms rather than lead-teaching in one classroom all day. I’ve been at a number of schools now in Chicago, and I feel I’ve picked the right fit for me right now- with more supports, physically, mentally, and socioemotionally than I’ve had before. This feels right.
The first few days of school are always revitalizing- the students are excited to be back with their friends and to meet their new teachers, and we teachers are excited to be back into a routine. I know, at least, I don’t function very well without set structures. And while it’s been a great two days so far- and not without its scheduling and logistical chaos- I feel like I’ve been back at work a week.
At this moment, on the eve of my third day of work, I am on a slight high. A high that comes from meeting a new staff, new students, and a new school culture. Every school has their own chemistry, and so far I’ve liked the flow here at my new school. Everyone seems friendly and open to sharing. But more so than that, everyone seems “crazy flexible,” as a special ed teacher in my school put it- not because teachers want to be, but because they have to be in this age of teaching.
It’s amazing how far four years can take you, and how much four years can teach you about yourself.
I realized I teach everyday because I grow as a person everyday doing this crazy thing called teaching. I grow with the adults around me who constantly philosophize around “the public good” and what that means for the students in front of us. We constantly prioritize, with, not for our students, what is important to learn and study.
Students’ honesty throws me off- and constantly forces me to reevaluate where I am and what I’m doing. It was a student who told me I scrunched my hands through my hair when I was stressed, even when I didn’t know I was stressed, another student who told me I was tired all the time (and needed to sleep earlier), and yet another student who knew I had no idea what I was talking about one lesson my first year teaching. Kids are honest where adults just aren’t. That’s a blessing. And that forces me to confront my own reality and change where change needs to be made.
I learn to be a master juggler of everything. Don’t get me started on that to-do list I have in my social justice plan book. Over time, I learned I could deal with many things- S not getting sleep last night and preparing that bean bag chair for a quick morning nap, J only eating Cheerios at breakfast and making sure we have some on hand for him so he’s not exhausted through the day, K needing her shoes tied, again, M needing a walking break at some point during the day. We juggle what our students need constantly while also doing that very thing we’re tasked to do- teach.
And once we know what students need, we build with them. Students don’t respond to robots– they respond to human beings who sit in front of them, listen, and build, together. Once we know students’ needs, we build from there. We make clear that we want to know them and all their quirks, flaws, interests. We make known that who they are is important to teaching them. I teach that relationships are a two-way street- both of us are moving where we need to move, and if we’re stopped for some reason, we have to clear the traffic somehow, maybe together. I talk, you listen; you talk, I listen. And they learn we are human, too.
I learn alongside my students. And while I’m on this slight high from what feels like weeks of teaching, I want to write that I am no savior to my students, just someone who wants to grow just as much as I want my students to grow. I teach because I want my students to think critically on what’s important, why, and have the skills to get through this tough life. And I teach because I want the same for me. This is a very tough life, and I am amazed at how much I seem to take the beatings and keep moving forward. The students teach me everyday. And for that I sound cheesy but am truly thankful.
Burnout is a matter of fact in teaching, and to end I’ll give a small plug- that I was asked to and wrote an article this summer about my first year teaching in “Diversity in Ed” magazine, which comes out shortly. (Thank you to Julian Vazquez Heilig for publishing my work on my experience as a first-year TFA corps member and for turning me onto the opportunity.) I’ve been thinking about how I survive in this profession, but nowadays I think about thriving. I think about how I will support myself and, by doing so, carry my students, too. I am determined this year, and for the rest of my years teaching, not to burn out. I am dedicated to preserving and building my well-being while also doing so for the people around me. And I am going to grow every day.
To a great school year, folks.