Teaching: A Career with Seasons

As I’ve alluded to in prior posts, this academic year has been a difficult one for many different reasons. So as this academic year draws to a close, and I enter final grades and tie up loose ends, I find myself breathing a sigh of relief from the bottom of my gut that I am entering a season of lower intensity. Summer: a significant season in the cyclical patterns of a teacher’s life. A much needed seasonal rest.

Among the many things I love about my job, one of the things I value most is the seasonal “reset” button that summer vacation offers. I’ve written before about some of the difficulties inherent in a career marked by cyclical, seasonal resets, adjustments, and changes, but, after sleeping in until 9am this morning, I am choosing to savor some of the huge benefits of the seasonal nature of this career path.

I am a creature of habit. As much as the idea of being someone who likes change appeals to me, I, like most of us I suspect, enjoy familiarity and pattern. Without prompting, I tend to repeat my tried and true routes, particularly when they’ve served me well in the past. Mercifully, teaching does not tolerate this habit or tendency. Every few months, the teacher’s cyclical calendar requires some shift of me; sometimes it is a shift in work ethic, attitude, activity pattern, or area of research, but there is no room for redundancy or stagnancy in education, and the academic seasons support and prompt necessary evolutions of self and curriculum.

Fortunately for my own mental health at the moment, I am entering the season of teacher’s rest. While my summer is preemptively packed with classes, reading lists, curriculum design work, recommendation writing, and inevitable work emails, my life will still proceed at a slightly slower pace for a few months. My days will be warmer, greener, and quieter for a season. It is this quiet space that allows me to reset and recharge, preparing to enter a new academic year with a clean slate and an open mind.

I am grateful for the gentle prompting to engage new ideas, pastimes, and people at regular intervals. I love the changing seasons of my career, and I plan to do my best to be entirely present in each new season, experiencing the struggles and joys of each fully and wholeheartedly. Blessedly, for now, that means time to sleep, read, run, think, and be with family. For now.

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Reminders from Teaching While Grieving

This past year of my life has been marked by an unusually high degree of loss and death. My life is profoundly good, and I am thankful that even in this season I have been well cared for and safe, so I don’t mean to stress any excessive tragedy in my story. The reality is simply that, for me, this season has involved much more grief than other seasons in my recent life. This has resulted in a year of teaching that is very different from other years I have experienced thus far.

I love my job. Like, a lot. Being a teacher has never been a chore for me, and I have never struggled to feel a sense of excitement bubbling up in me as I enter my classroom in the morning. Until this year. This year, for reasons entirely outside of my control, the most common things to organically rise up in me each morning have been tears, anger, and pain. And one of my usual points of stability in my life, my teaching, has no longer been able to sustain me. I have been unable to sustain it. It’s not that my enthusiasm for my craft has waned; it’s that my sadness has sometimes been too large for my joy in teaching to coexist with it.

This has been and is frustrating and difficult for me. It has made it harder for me to orchestrate my time with my students in ways I have in the past and in ways that I envision being the most effective. But, as usually happens during times when things aren’t quite what we would hope, I’ve been remembering a mantra that has perhaps slipped from the forefront of my mind. It’s a mantra that seems to have a tendency to do just that: slip.

I am not the center of my classroom.

This mantra is in my teaching statement, at the center of my pedagogy, and imprinted on my heart, and yet it often falls out of focus as I instinctively move to exert control over my classroom. I am not the center of my classroom; my students are. This has meant many different things to me throughout the years, but, this year, I am learning that it means that, as a teacher, I have to trust that I am not the only ingredient contributing to my classroom and my students’ success. I am often not even the most important one.

I spent the first few months of this difficult year driving myself into the ground in an attempt to artificially maintain my classroom’s cheery, energetic ethos; I felt it was my duty to do so. This, predictably, was unsuccessful and did not bring wholeness or goodness to my teaching or to my students. As a result, I had to explore a new version of myself and my classroom. I had to, on occasion, step back in exhaustion or sadness, and, remarkably, that has been fine. It has even been good. Because I am not the center of my classroom.

If I am not at my best, most exuberant self, exactly as I envision that, it doesn’t mean that authentic, engaged, and dynamic learning becomes impossible. I can place real trust in my students, but also in the material we are working on, in my fellow teachers, and in a God that I believe quietly presides over my classwork. All these elements move in harmony to create explorative, meaningful learning, and it is well-meaning hubris on my end to despair at the idea that, because I am not performing or behaving or feeling exactly the way I’d like to, all in my classroom is lost.

I am important, and I need to be diligent, reflective, collaborative, and creative in my work and scholarship, but it is OK if I am in a season in which my soul is sad, quiet, or tired. It is OK if my year doesn’t look exactly like prior ones. It is OK if my vision for my interactions with students doesn’t play out exactly as I’d like. I can trust the other elements of the classroom. I can inhabit my role as a vitally important component of the living organism that is my classroom, resting in the assurance that my carefully contrived vision for that classroom is not necessarily the best or only one. The classroom organism can and will move freely, achieving things beyond what I plan or expect. I must work hard and with honesty, but I am not the center.

Honoring Students: Challenge Level Extreme

When I started teaching, I compiled a few central resolutions that I wanted to base my pedagogy on. While my ideas have evolved over time, one of the primary guiding tenets has always been honoring students. Respect them, be gentle with them, and honor them where they are. It’s a big component of my teaching manifesto, which I carefully reflect on at the start of each new school year. Always honor students.

Nothing used to get under my skin more than when I’d be in the teacher’s lounge or walking to my car, and a colleague would vent about how lazy, incompetent, incapable, or unteachable they feel their students were. I wholeheartedly understand and indulge in the need to process frustrations and problem solve with fellow teachers, but I think, as educators, we all know the difference between doing that in a way that honors students versus doing it in ways that do not honor students. My personal philosophy generally (with exceptions of course) is, if I wouldn’t say it TO a student, I shouldn’t say it ABOUT a student. And I’m usually pretty faithful about this personal resolution.

Or am I?

This year is my third year of consecutive full-time teaching in the same institution. I have taught the same curriculum with somewhat similar groups of students three times over now. Recently I’ve noticed that I’m starting to have these out-of-body experiences where I observe myself doing the things I used to vehemently judge my veteran colleagues for.

  • Blaming students for not understanding a lesson.
  • Leaning away from giving students the benefit of the doubt.
  • Experiencing frustration when I have to explain things multiple times in multiple ways.
  • Allowing the identities I construct for my students to shape the way I interact with them instead of helping them construct their own identities.

Grad school theory and research imbued me with a dewy, organic, and effortless patience for students of all walks of life and ability levels. Now, three years in, when student performance and behavior very practically impacts my quality of daily life, that new graduate sheen is dulling. And I am not proud of it.

This, clearly, is unacceptable. This is not how students learn, so it cannot be how I teach, and I love my job too much to let this unhealthiness seep into it. But what’s the game plan here? How does one combat this sort of thing? I observe the tendency almost universally in even the best of the long-term educators I know, so I don’t think this phenomenon is unique to me, but that doesn’t really change the reality of the need to kill it dead.

As a preliminary measure, I’ve been taking some practical steps to combat this in my own life, but I consider this blog post an initial venture into tracking and observing my process. For now, here are a few of my personal goals to aim for.

  1. Rest. Frustration with students often starts for me with feeling overworked and tired. Cancel assignments if I have to. If I’m overwhelmed with comments and feedback, they’re probably overwhelmed with responding to those same things. Take time in class and out of class to do things that decompress both myself and students.
  2. Make classwork something I personally engage in with enthusiasm. I LOVE my curriculum, but this is my third straight without major changes. It’s becoming rote, which means that I’m experiencing the work very differently than my students, who are wrestling with these texts for the first time. I’m getting bored, and it shows.
  3. Spend time praying for students. Invest emotionally in wanting the best for each individual student, and dedicate time to thinking about what that means for them.
  4. Create better boundaries. My classroom is always open. I allow infinite revisions. I accept things late. Students love this, and it builds relationships, but this means that my workload is constant and chaotic, and it means that my room is never quiet for me to work in. This creates a slow build of frustration and resentment that flares up unexpectedly. It is not inappropriate or unkind to tell students to leave, to be quiet, or to face the consequences of not finishing their draft early enough for a round of comments. It is my job to tell them when they are being too demanding.
  5. Listen. If they are overwhelmed, confused, or frustrated, that may not be my fault, but it is my responsibility. What worked with one class will not automatically work with another, and I will only be aware of the disconnect if I am listening carefully to them.

I don’t know if or how these changes will work. I don’t know how difficult it will be for me to implement them. But nothing is gained when nothing is ventured, and nothing is learned when students aren’t being honored. So I will report back as I re-prioritize my ideas about what the actual needs of the students in my classroom are.

Reflections on Podcasting as a Writing Teacher

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Logo by Amy Chaney.

This year, my colleagues in the English department at Lexington Christian Academy and I have been clumsily, curiously, and excitedly putting out a weekly podcast: Prose and Context. This is a first foray into podcasting for all of us, and we’re definitely learning as we go. Our episodes explore a wide variety of topics all falling under the general category of pedagogy. We began with an introduction episode featuring our whole department, and, since then, we’ve taken turns hosting individual episodes. We’re currently on our 12th episode, and I’ve got number 13 locked and loaded for next week’s release date!

It has, as I said, been a huge learning experience for us all in different ways, and I won’t necessarily say that this podcast will be winning any awards, but I wanted to dedicate this post in particular to outlining some of the ways that I personally, as a teacher of writing, have found this to be a meaningful experience that has significant value for my classroom.

  1. Podcasting is writing. Teachers of writing should write themselves frequently and for real, personal purposes. We should be able to talk to our students about what we’re working on while they press on in their work so that they can experience learning and loving to write as a collaborative process that we are undertaking together. They should see that learning to write is not a destination; it continues throughout life. Podcasting is a new, fun way for me to demonstrate and share my identity as a writer with my students.
  2. Podcasting is writing in an unfamiliar mode for an unfamiliar genre. We ask our students to navigate unfamiliar writing situations all the time. It’s important to remember what it is like to be unsure of a genre or mode, to wrestle with the basics of a new kind of composition, and to inhabit the frustration and success of personal growth in our writing. When my students grapple with their work, my time spent on this podcast helps me relate. We should never forget the sensation of feeling lost in our first attempts to write in unfamiliar territory.
  3. Podcasting is public. Prose and Context is accessible via iTunes, our website, and our school’s online app. Students, parents, and basically anyone can find it anytime they want. It’s a very vulnerable feeling! But this is what writing SHOULD be! And it’s what our students should see it being. Our department does our best to create something professional and interesting and useful, and then we share it with our intended audience. The nervousness we feel when releasing episodes isn’t any more than the pressure a student feels turning in a paper, sharing a blog post, or contributing to a discussion. We need to remember and experience that vulnerability because it’s an inherent part of writing for any audience.
  4. This podcast in particular is collaborative. Group work. Does anyone love it? My students hate it. I myself was once a student who hated group work. I’ve come around to it now, though, and I currently have a profound appreciation and love for the ways in which real collaboration can produce something more complex, beautiful, and effective than any one team member could have ever accomplished alone. But it took me a long time to feel that way about collaboration, and I am still learning how to best incorporate that concept into my classroom. Navigating the creation of a podcast with 5 other adults of differing personalities, expertise, experience level, and rhetorical goals is a real challenge, but it’s also what gives our podcast depth, interest, and flexibility. For me to even begin to convince my students that collaboration matters or that there is a way to do it well, I have to live that truth, and working on this podcast has given me a wealth of experience and credibility to draw from.
  5. Podcasting creates opportunities to honor and engage student voices. One of the central goals of our podcast is to share ideas, theories, and experiences around what makes for strong, effective, and excellent pedagogy; we aim to share this with our primary intended audience: other teachers. Our department faculty has been extremely proactive about incorporating student voices into our podcast. That means inviting them to share their experiences, talk about their work, and offer recommendations. I think nothing mentors young, developing writers more than inviting them to write with you and compose something alongside you, and this podcast has allowed me to do that publicly with some of my students.

I could go on, but these are the major positives that I have taken away from my experience with the production of this podcast. While podcasting may not be the mode or genre for every writing teacher, my strong encouragement to composition teachers everywhere would be to consistently push yourself to write for real purposes, publicly, and in ways your students can access and perhaps even participate in. Try to write outside your comfort zone in a category or mode that is new for you. Teachers of writing, if we’re going to talk the talk, we’d better walk the walk.

And check out Prose and Context on iTunes if you want to see some teachers of reading and writing giving that whole “walk the walk” thing a go!

When you lose a colleague

When you lose a colleague (and not just any colleague) when you lose a colleague that helped make you the educator you are and who inspired you to be better and who encouraged you when you weren’t your best and who noticed when you overcame even small challenges, when you lose a colleague that loved students more than herself and justice more than comfort, when you lose a colleague who was a friend and a guide, but also a fighter and a force, that’s when you realize how lucky you were all along to have worked beside the kind of teacher who turned everything she touched into goodness. That’s when you realize that the emptiness her absence leaves will last many lifetimes, but the goodness, wisdom, passion, and kindness that exists because she fiercely and carefully fostered it will persist in the people that she loved. And there is no lifespan to that.

Proud to have been a colleague and friend of Lori VanderKlay Johnson.

Teachers Returning from Deep Dives

Today in our final faculty meeting of the year, one of my colleagues, Chris Greco, tossed an analogy out for us all as we prepared to leave the harried school year and enter summer vacation. He reflected that, as a teacher, entering summer break is a lot like a scuba diver surfacing from a deep dive. Both involve transitions from extreme, high-pressure environments to sunny, usually notably lower-pressure situations. But, as Chris succinctly pointed out, if a scuba diver ascends too quickly, “their head explodes.” Here is where his analogy hits practicality for me as an educator entering my summer months.

I love summer. I need summer. I need the rest and flexibility that it brings. But I do remember last summer being less than the idyllic dreamscape I imagined. I felt stressed, fidgety, and aimless. So often I hear my peers and myself saying things like, “I don’t do well in the summer. I get anxious. I miss the structure.” Summer is, for many educators, a time of nervous ennui or of daunting confrontation with our own selves.

Listening to Chris today, I began to wonder if at least part of what we were experiencing was our metaphorical heads exploding. Perhaps we had come up from our school year deep dives too quickly, without giving our heads and our hearts time to adjust to the gradual changes in pressure and environment. Perhaps there had been no adjustment period.

And so, as I enter this summer, I am preparing differently than I have in the past. I am coming up for air slowly and carefully, paying attention to myself and my surroundings as I do so. Instead of hurling myself headlong into a series of long afternoon naps (which I absolutely still plan to indulge in), I’m going to plan out my afternoons. I’m making my lists of tasks and goals and hopes for the summer, and I’m carefully arranging them in ways that leave wide sunny summer afternoons open for grass naps with dogs, but that also structure my time to maintain a new kind of productivity that is both gentle and ambitious. I am doing my best to swim slowly to the surface, adjusting and patting the waiting pups along the way.

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On Visiting the MFA and Reflecting on How Tricky/Important/Magnificent Reading Can Be

Today my husband and I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for the first time in years. They offer free admission on Wednesday nights after 4pm, and I had been let out of school early for snow, so our timing was perfect. For two people who LOVE critiquing and debating the nuances and implications of films, books, plays, music, and articles, we have a borderline embarrassing lack of cool when it comes to 3-D art in physical spaces like museums or exhibit halls. It’s not our comfort zone, and we have essentially no experience with it. But, as a teacher of reading and writing who believes in her core in the value of multimodal composition and who teaches visual rhetoric, this seemed like an untenable position, so off to the MFA we went.

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As we ambled awkwardly into a nearby gallery room (we started with American art from the 1800s which was a questionable choice) and faced the first floor-to-ceiling oil painting looming in its gilded frame, I had a very odd, but also faintly familiar experience. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. As I squinted at the complicated brush strokes and imposing oil-painting figures, I was at a bit of a loss. What does one do with paintings? Was I supposed to say how it made me feel? Was it supposed to mean something? How could I even tell if I LIKED it or not?

Immediately, and with a faint smile, I recognized the questions running through my mind. They’re the same questions my students ask when I show them something new. They’re the same questions I hear from and see in them when we tackle an unusual composition, an unfamiliar genre, or a whole new mode. When I ask students to rhetorically analyze sound compositions, their faces look like I felt as the larger-than-life oil painting version of George Washington stared down at me imposingly. I had to laugh.

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I had forgotten how disorienting and daunting it can be to attempt to read a composition in a mode outside our comfort zone. As my husband and I slowly moved from impressionist paintings to cubist paintings to sculptures and so on, I recalled how squaring off with an unfamiliar genre or mode can feel a little like getting pushed into the deep end of a swimming pool unexpectedly. But I also inhabited the importance of having flexible, complex reading skills that apply to any mode in any scenario.

And so, under oil painting George Washington’s watchful eye, I went back to what I know, because I DO know how to read. I read the paintings. I read each painting multiple times, like I would a poem. Once to understand, again to notice, again to analyze, and then again to reflect. I paid attention to my own responses, both emotional and intellectual. I carefully read accompanying plaques to construct small rhetorical analyses with which to understand authorial goals and contextual influences. I noticed features: colors, lines, framing, repetition, symbols etc. I compared them to other works they reminded me of. I considered different theoretical lenses. I asked myself questions, and then I discussed my answers with my husband, who was doing the same thing in his own mind. We READ the paintings.

And, guys, reading is TRULY magnificent! Paintings and sculptures that initially intimidated me or struck me as dull became rich, emotional works when I really read them and shared those readings with another person. I poked around in my own heart and mind with depth and dimension, feeling emotional responses and thoughtfully noticing them. As we wandered the museum, reading carefully, we were deeply and profoundly human. We sifted through the truths of existence that hang just below the surface of our conscious days. We felt and observed our differences as individuals, and we soaked ourselves in beauty and creation.

Ultimately, my husband and I spent upwards of 3 hours engrossed in the different galleries, floors, and exhibits. But we wouldn’t have been able to have that experience as individuals or together if we hadn’t leaned into the discomfort of reading in new genres and drawn from our tried and true strategies for reading texts. As an educator, this experience was an important reminder for me. I walked away renewed in my conviction that:

  • For reading to be real, living, and impactful in my students’ lives, it has to be multimodal, flexible, and diverse.
  • Reading, REALLY reading, new things is vulnerable, intimidating, and uncomfortable. But it’s the stuff truth and life are made of, and my students need to have the tools to do it bravely and well.

So, if you find yourself at the MFA on a Wednesday night, look around. There’s a good chance we’ll be there too.