Author’s Note: I originally wrote this essay as a love letter of sorts to a cohort of pre-service teachers I worked with in 2003-04. I recently reread it and was struck by how my “non-negotiables” still ring true. This was the first time in my life that I ever wrote anything I cared about — and the key for me was knowing my audience. I think the same can be true for our student writers which is why I’m crazed about helping teachers plan backwards and design assignments — projects and products — that have purpose and audience outside of the classroom walls. As you take time to breathe and re-boot this summer I hope you’ll take some time to think about the things your students can MAKE next year — pieces that have an authentic audience and fulfill a true need in the world. As Paolo Freire writes, we need more CREATORS on the planet, not just more CONSUMERS. Have a terrific June, and enjoy.
Debbie Miller says, “There are many effective ways to teach children and live our lives. No one has a patent on the truth. Find yours.”
When I was teaching middle schoolers, I had my truth. It was love. I loved, loved, loved my students. They made me laugh. They fascinated me. They frustrated me. They amazed me. Back then, if they loved me, I was sure they were learning. Now that I know more about how people learn, I’m not really sure the “pure knowledge” synapses in their brains developed any new connections, but I am sure that 14 years later, there are sparkles in their eyes when they think of 7th grade (and I do not consider a fond memory of middle school a small feat!)
About seven years into my teaching career, I had my own children, and all my love poured into three little monkeys while I took part-time gigs working with adults. I would have to describe my early work with adults as…hmmm…pretty close to complete failure. But, low and behold, after teaching adults for seven years now, I have come back, full-circle, to my truth: love, love, love.
The great thing about love, is that it can look a lot of different ways. My definition of love right this minute (although we all know that my thinking will change with the next chapter I read, the next conversation I have , or the next movie I see), I think I can explain in three parts:
- Pay careful attention
- Be interesting
- If Mama ain’t happy…
As with everything in life that is important, these things are completely interwoven but I will try to illuminate my thinking a bit, hopefully, to make you laugh, to remember the fun of our crazy ten months together, and to help you show your love when a student makes you cry next year.
PAY CAREFUL ATTENTION
In Tell Me More: Listening to Learners Explain (2001),Eleanor Duckworth says,
“I learned to talk with children in a way that kept them interested in the discussion and invited them to say what they thought about the topic. And I learned the importance and the challenge of listening well enough to understand what they were saying….My ways of trying to follow their thoughts turned out to be excellent ways to excite their learning.”
I kind of feel like pulling a Naomi here and saying, Yes! See?! End of section. But, as I would say to Naomi…tell me more….
Over and over again this year, my students have pushed me to listen more. And by listening closely, I have fallen in love, which has helped me ask good questions, make good instructional decisions, learn from my failures and helped my students make sense of the world of school.
We’ve talked a lot about “teaching skin” during our time together, and it was one of my goals this year that you not put on the “teacher mask” when you step into your classroom next fall. Teaching is hard enough without worrying if your mask is on straight, or cracking, or peeling (although, I hope you remember that having cool shoes is VERY important). Now, I am going to expand on that metaphor…
New Year’s Eve is an important night for me, but not to do anything out of the ordinary. It is basically an expanded tea time: invite some interesting people over and sit at the dining room table, eat great food and drink great wine until someone falls off of their chair (passing out is preferable to falling asleep). I balk if someone suggests we leave the table to sit in the living room to get more comfortable. Never leave fun to have fun. It never works. If someone is worried about their behind, the conversation isn’t interesting enough. Anyway, back to my metaphor….
You owe it to your colleagues to be a fascinating dinner guest. Be a hallway, teacher’s lounge, playground duty magnet. Talk about your students, their amazing work, and the things you are wondering about. Share the latest book you are reading. Put copies of cool articles in peoples’ boxes. Ask someone for help with a teaching dilemma. I want you to be your amazing, hilarious, interesting, fascinating selves, and remember, the school is your oyster! You are a big fish. Flaunt it, Baby. Mix those metaphors to get your point across. Whatever works. Share yourself.
IF MAMA AIN’T HAPPY…
Of course to do that, you have to feed yourself. What gives you the energy to teach? Debbie Miller says, “Read. Reflect…Read some more. Collaborate with colleagues…Try new things.”
Beautifully put. Simply brilliant. But I would like to add, some things I’ve learned from my students this year:
Ski in knee-deep powder, wear really tight shirts (orange or pink, preferably), be a yes-yes, make a pie with too many pieces, watch Sex and the City, live Sex and the City, hula-hoop, eat whoopee pies, slide down a banister, sleep outside, gobble sushi, seduce bookstore employees, throw a Frisbee, swim with whales, leave goldfish in odd places, tell your best story, eat really good sausage, play with babies, drink espresso martinis, share a private journal, have a snowball fight at recess, swap gear, go ahead and read the book, dance on stage, cuss a lot (ok, maybe you learned that from me), & don’t forget to go for the stripper pole.
It is fun to articulate the “whys” behind the mantra…especially a year later. I knew it was important the first time I read it, but now I know why. It can be about whatever your truth is. For me it is all about loving: Love your students. Give them time. Love your colleagues. Give them time. Love yourself. Give yourself time.
Debbie said it in a paragraph; I needed a few pages, but please remember it. Especially when your students are eating you for lunch. And if all else fails… throw the love card.