One would think that if you spend over 20 years in the teaching profession that you would pretty much see everything. But, that’s the hidden blessing–among the many–about the profession. If you allow it, each year is different; not only are the faces in front of you different, but lessons, discussions, our environment, and, most importantly, relationships are different.
Outsiders will often ask how we are able to teach the same thing year after year. Even those of us in the profession will look at teachers who have taught the same grade level for over two decades and wonder how they do it.
The answer is easy.
The good ones reinvent every single year. Teaching is not a program where the same lessons from the year before work again or are even relevant. Teachers see new things, develop new methods, develop different connections with kids each year because they reinvent themselves every year. That’s why teachers will never see everything. There is always something new if you create an environment where new is valued.
With the 22nd year of my career about to kick off in less than a month, I am in a unique point in my career. I am finally comfortable with who I am in the classroom. My way may not be like most, but I believe in it and every intention is so that kids not only get something out of the class to take into their lives and the world, but that they actually want to come to class.
So, I am definitely comfortable. This year, however, will be a couple of “firsts” for me. For one, I will be teaching seniors for the first time ever. I’ve always had the mentality that I am a middle school teacher, a level that I taught for the first five years of my life. Even when I came to the high school level, I have mostly taught ninth and tenth grade. While I’ve always stayed connected with the seniors through school activities or just having my door open all of the time, having an actual class is a first. And, the course itself is brand new to the school, thus a brand new course for me to teach.
The final and most significant “first” for the upcoming year is that the group of seniors will be exactly the same group I taught two years ago. They were a special group, a group that I will always remember. This special group has chosen to take part two of the course we went through two years ago, rather than go a typical and perhaps easier path their senior year. And, I kept my promise that I would be the one to teach them. Over my years, I have taught students in multiple grade levels, but I have never entered a year with the same exact class coming back.
And, I am definitely excited for this year. It’s not only because I get to once again share a classroom with this special group, but it is the challenge of teaching a course, AP Research, that is a bit out of my comfort zone. Both present a great opportunity to reinvent myself in the classroom. But, my third class, a ninth grade regents English course, a course I have taught for most of my career also presents the same great opportunity. Each year should begin with us, the teachers, asking ourselves what we can do differently in order to better engage our kids, create a better classroom environment, and, just as importantly, continue to keep us fresh.
Reinventing yourself can come in different ways. Some teachers may choose to emphasize different parts of the curriculum. Others may develop new learning experiences for kids each year, rather than simply going into the file cabinet and pull out last year’s project. Others may focus on their classroom environment.
It could be the high school English Teacher who decides to change up how she starts class. Rather than a content “do now”, she’ll focus on a personal “be now”, which is focusing on a how a student is feeling when they enter class. It could be the kindergarten teacher deciding that all of the bulletin boards in the room will be filled in by the students, rather than having the neatest or perfect boards because “it’s their classroom and learning, not mine.”
Sure, reinventing can be scary. Change is always difficult. And, if you are pretty successful, it is easy to default back to “what worked in the past”. But, fighting through that fear is well worth it because “what worked in the past” is false logic. What worked for one group of kids isn’t guaranteed to work for another. That perfect project or perfect lesson may not be relevant to your new group or even to a group that you once had. It’s also worth fighting through that fear because it helps us, the teacher, stay excited. I truly believe that the only real reason teachers burnout is for the simple reason that they choose to do the same thing every single year. They lose their emotion and get frustrated as the lesson falls flatter and flatter each passing year.
At the end of every school year, I give my students a course evaluation, asking them what worked and what didn’t. I’ll spend some time over the summer reading through them. Once August hits, I turn my attention to what I want to do for the new year.
What is something I wish I did last year that I will do this year?
What can I do differently to make things even more relevant to their lives?
What’s something I did well, but need to change a bit to improve it even more?
What personal, non-curricular, goal do I have for my classes?
What can I do to have kids just as excited to come to class on day 175?
What can I do better to create a culture of learning rather than trying to achieve a number?
What can I do better so that kids realize that they can impact their community and the world right now?
What can I do better so that kids realize that they are truly amazing?
What can I improve in my pedagogy to make me a better teacher of writing?
What can I do to give my students more of a voice in their learning?
A Few Of My Answers
There are so many more questions and each one is of equal importance. And, truthfully, none of them come with perfect answers. But, it is our responsibility to answer them as best as we can in order to not only give students a valuable education, but to allow them to see that they are leaders right now and capable of so much. It is our responsibility to the profession to continue to evolve, to grow, and improve ourselves every year.
For this year, I want to put a greater emphasis on students impacting their community. I will continue to teach them that writers can, indeed, change the world. But, they also need to see that they can do so much and that kids of any age can make an impact. So, one goal is for my seniors to work with a group of kindergartners on a project that will impact our community.
Another goal is to focus on the classroom setup. As a high school teacher, the classroom aesthetics are often ignored. I want to create a classroom that is unique and one that kids want to be in because it is comfortable, gives opportunity to be flexible in setup and layout, and one that inspires real conversations.
While I definitely focus on giving students a voice, I want to take it one step more this year. I want every product produced, every piece of reading material, and every discussion based on student choice. While there will certainly be topics and readings I select, even those will be based on their interests, rather than what worked for me last year.
I want to make more of an effort to learn how to better integrate maker space into my writing instruction. I tried it last year and saw such great benefits. I want to better educate myself and improve my teaching of writing through having students make their writing.
Additionally, I am going to use digital portfolios in order to have us all better reflect on the process of writing.
As the days get closer to the new school year, I will have more answers. And, truthfully, I’ll have even more questions.
Reinventing isn’t about scraping everything. It is about reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work. It is about staying relevant to the group of kids in front of you rather than saying “these kids” aren’t the same as they once were. Side note: that’s actually true, they aren’t the same. Kids today are better and even more amazing.
It is about challenging ourselves to improve. It is about keeping ourselves relevant and our passion for what we do alive. Most importantly, it’s about doing what’s best for kids.
So, how will you reinvent yourself for your group of kids?