Remembering Why We Got Into This

November. It’s the month when things get very real. The glow of a new school year is almost assuredly faded or completely out. The challenges of being a teacher are front and center. Even those of us who are off to great starts now realize the challenge of continuing the momentum is great. Many of us are lost in a pile of grading. Others are struggling to reach kids as we see them slipping further and further away from our goals. We are at the crossroads of the end being nowhere near in sight, but the disbelief that two months have already flown by.

Not only is November a month when students can lose their way, but it is a month where we, the teachers, can get lost. It’s a month where we start to measure time by the number of weeks until the next vacation or break. It is the month where the year, a class, a child can be lost.

It is so easy to get lost. There are daily struggles. There are days when things don’t go smoothly. There are the days when your interactions with students are nowhere near the ones you envisioned this past summer when your idealism and positivity were running high. There are days when you fail at a lesson. There are days when you fail the entire day. And, there are days when you seemingly conflict with every colleague around you.

It is so easy to get lost in all of that.

It is also just as easy to get lost in the successes. The lessons captured seemingly everyone. The days where everything you said and every gut instinct you had was the right one. Those days when you sat with a colleague and planned out a magical plan.

It is so easy to get lost in all of that, too.

Both are equally dangerous. Both can lead us to forget why we got into the profession. I’ll admit that it’s happened to me on both sides. There have been several times when failure, negativity, and conflict almost drove me away. There have been times when things have gone so extraordinarily well that I forgot some individuals who weren’t quite following along. It’s hard to say, but I have, at times, gotten lost in just how “good” I thought I was doing.

Both cases may be rare for us, but they do happen. I would imagine that they happen in other professions too. We see athletes who are on the top of their game forget what got them there or, perhaps, lose a bit of their work ethic and suddenly slip. People in business can sometimes make sloppy, arrogant investments after winning for so long. And, of course, there are those who don’t rise above the difficult times and get stuck in the realm of mediocrity.

The problem is that none of those professions deal with kids. None of the impact on a kid’s present and their future. We must safeguard against forgetting why we got into this profession. As I said, I must do a better job of always keeping my “why” in the center of everything I do.

I’ll be honest; this year, in the classroom, has not been magical. Ok, let me know rephrase that: this year, in the classroom, has not been magical yet. As I rolled through September, I realized that I needed to do more and do better with my seniors. My freshman class hasn’t started as smoothly as I would like either. In mid-October, I started to feel some real doubt that I could turn it around. I haven’t had that feeling in a while. I went home defeated a bunch of days. But, it’s too important not to keep moving forward, trying to find the magical approach.

Slowly, but surely, I am finding my way with my groups.

I’ve learned that my freshmen want to be in a more social, group setting. Our PBL (Project Based Learning) experience just began and I have seen more enthusiasm in that past two days than I have in the first two months combined. This past Friday, their groups just began forming their own companies. The creativity in their work is inspiring to me. I think I finally found my way in. My seniors are wading their way through a complicated research project after I took a step back and did some lessons outside of my comfort zone. Things are getting better; there is hope.

And, it’s important to have hope, especially now. November begins that critical time for kids. If they are off to a poor start or, as our elementary colleagues face, way off their targets, something needs to be done immediately. As teachers, we must always hold onto that hope. For me, I’ve held on because I am often reminded why I got into this gig in the first place.

So, why did we get into this profession?

Obviously, we believed that we could help kids. We feel that we can inspire, we can further their knowledge, we can help them find a lifelong passion. We know our curriculum, we can translate and disseminate mandates and standards to make them digestible and even interesting to kids.

That sometimes gets short-changed in education writing.

We have an obligation to teach kids and that shouldn’t ever get lost, even if our focus is on other, more important areas. We are teachers. We must teach. We must arm them with important skills, we must make the boring stuff exciting, and we must make the complicated stuff accessible. That’s incredibly hard.

And, that’s most likely why many of us hit November and begin to get that lost feeling. We can downplay what we do all we want, but the fact is the job of teaching content and skills is damn hard. Not many can do what we do. Even fewer can do it under the circumstances in which we do it. Then, add on the fact that we care about our kids, their well-being, developing their passions, and just about every single aspect of their lives. That’s why this teacher thing isn’t just a job; it is most definitely a calling.

It’s the reason why we must always hold onto why we got into this profession, especially now.

We cannot get lost in the frustration of November. We cannot get lost in the doubt of never getting through to a kid who looks so far off the target. And, we can’t even get lost in our victories. We must anchor ourselves to our personal mission.

So, for me, in order to put the focus back on my “why”, I brought it back to my students, in particular my ninth graders. It always comes back to the students. It took a random glimpse at a former student’s words to bring me back.

Over the summer, our local Staples had some sort of display to pay tribute to teachers. Full disclosure–I didn’t see it. But, a few people sent me pictures of a message that a student wrote about me. It always means a lot when a teenager will take the time to write something about you, especially in public. So, last week, I was scrolling through my phone for a picture and I stumbled upon it again. It hit me. I had lost focus on my reason for getting into this profession. While I am always pro-kid, my reason for being here is to help them become the best people they can be, to help them see that they are valued, they matter, and they can make a difference. They can do something very real, very impactful right now.

The next day, I gave each of my froshes an index card. I asked them to write down five things they do really well and then two things they would like to improve upon. When they asked why I told them that we are starting fresh. We are starting a new experience (the PBL) in our room and I want to refocus us on who we are right now and what we want to be. They found it easier to come up with the negative, but I pushed through with the positives. They had to find their strengths.

“Armida, why are you doing this?”

“Because each one of you is so damn talented. And, if you are going to change all of the things we talk about here, then you have to own those strengths. I see them. Now, you need to see them.”

They wrote them. I collected them and read them all. They were amazing to read. I found out that some kids are artists. Some of them really like creating videos. Others love to write. We have our athletes, musicians, and people who like to spend their time helping others.

The next day, they got another index card.

This one was to kick off our PBL activity. They had to write down what they could bring to a team (or company as we are calling it). This time, there were no names. Just qualities. Some kids wrote down leaders. Some wrote that they could design, others to speak. I asked them who wrote leader on their card. Four kids raised their hands. They were now the President of their companies. We laid the rest of the cards out on the desk. I told the four to read each card and try to assemble a team that had balance, that had different talents. They would be picking their groups without knowing the names of who they picked.

“Why, Armida?”

“Now, you’ll have a group where everyone is valued, every talent is respected. You’ll work as a team to accomplish your goal.”

So, the leaders picked cards. As they read each card, the student who wrote it, stood up. They met their new teammates. Everyone has value.

Like I said before, the past couple of days have been nothing short of amazing. The kids who were a bit disengaged for the first part of the year are now producing some amazing ideas. Each one of them has their role because it was the strength they said they had, not based on who they are friends with. Everyone has talent. Everyone has value.

It took me seeing that picture of the Staples note to refocus me. My reason is that I want kids to see that their own talents, their own passions are valuable. I want them to know they are good people. I want them to know that anything and everything is possible.

Since I refocused and put more attention on who they are, things have gotten better. I have that aforementioned hope. I don’t even think November can hurt that. And, who knows? Maybe some magic will happen.

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