Finding Balance

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I read this quote earlier this week and laughed out loud – what an accurate representation of what it means to be a teacher! Day after day I walk into my classroom, believing that I am working to make a difference. My students are constantly in my thoughts, my heart, my prayers, my worries. Each day I strive to be a better teacher for my students, and work to, as Van Gogh so aptly states ‘put my heart and soul’ into my everyday work. I believe that in order to be a good teacher, devoting yourself to your job is almost a necessity. While the first half of the quote is relatable and positive, I feel as though I’ve reached the point in the year where the latter half of the quote – losing my mind – has come into play.

At my elementary school, we are in the midst of the craziness that comes with fall – report card conferences, after school meetings, parent concerns, student activities, and PTO fundraisers. The individual list of roles and responsibilities varies from teacher to teacher and from school to school, but I would venture to guess that if you work in a school, you know exactly what I mean. This past week seemed to crawl by – teachers looked tired, students were tired, and the general energy of our school seemed lower than usual (with the exception of Halloween on Friday, where the energy level oscillated to a sugar-fueled high).

This is my third year of teaching in an elementary school, and while I certainly don’t have everything figured out, there are some things I’ve learned along the way. I mentioned in one of my previous blog posts the importance of taking time for yourself to recharge and refuel – that the pile of grading will still be there when you come back the next morning. I have told other teachers to rest, I have told students to rest, I have told friends to rest – but when it comes down to it, I have a hard time listening to my own advice. As such, I’m using my blog post this week to make a public list of a few things I plan to do differently this week to help myself find a better sense of balance, in hopes that posting it will give me a sense of responsibility to actually do these things.

  • Read for fun – I love to read, I always have. When the school year is in full swing however, reading for fun falls by the wayside. I find myself only reading for grad school or for content instruction, letting my books collect dust on the shelf. My goal is to read for fun this week and give myself some time to enjoy reading that is non-related to school.
  • Run – When I was training for my first half marathon, running was a regimented part of my schedule. I worked to fit it in, made time to go to the gym, and made time to get out on the trails when I could. Recently, I have found myself more stationary than active – time to change that.
  • Cook dinner – I’ll be honest here, the past week I have had cereal for dinner two out of the five weeknights. I feel better when I’m taking better care of myself and eating right is a large part of that. I’m not making plans to cook five star meals here, but I know that planning ahead can help.

Though I often discuss specific teaching-related topics on this blog, I think taking a minute to slow down and reflect on how to take care of yourself can be beneficial as well. For those friends reading – what are some things that YOU do to take time for yourself? How do you find balance in the midst of everyday craziness? Tell me I’m not the only one feeling the strain and drain that comes with this time of year! : )

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What Teaching Has Taught Me

Recently, I was asked by my undergraduate School of Education to be the ‘featured’ speaker at the Teacher Induction ceremony, an event officially welcoming the teacher candidates into the School of Education. I thought for awhile about what I would speak about, and decided to, as one of my former professors (and now dear friend) suggested, “speak from the heart.” I have posted my speech to the incoming teacher candidates below. Enjoy!

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Teacher: a person or thing that teaches something; a person whose job is to teach students about certain subjects.

Now, I don’t know if Webster himself was a teacher, but if experience has taught me anything, it’s this: to be a teacher is to do far more than simply, as Webster says, “teach something.” For me, being a teacher isn’t one big thing; it’s a million little things. Since graduating from college, the past few years have been challenging and rewarding, exhilarating and exhausting – but I wouldn’t trade them for anything. To be a teacher is to have the ability to make a difference everyday – in the life of a child, in the life of a teenager, in the life of a parent.

Having come through this School of Education and now being in the classroom, I can assure you that you – every last one of you – that you are in good hands. Your cohort, your professors, and your advisors – they are going above and beyond to prepare you for the next step. When you’re part of such a strong program, it’s hard to imagine that any other one exists. The classes you’ve taken, the books you’ve had to read, the presentations you’ve had to make – they are NOT in vain. This program will not let you down; you will leave here more prepared than you ever thought you could be.

Student teaching is such an exciting chapter in your life – it will be difficult, certainly, but it will also be more rewarding than you ever could imagine. Some things will change – in your schedule, in your social life, in your sleeping habits – but I challenge you, I ask you, I implore you to make the most of this time. Soak up everything there is to know in your classroom. Ask your cooperating teacher questions, take time to talk to your assistants, get to know your kids inside and out – because the kids in that room – your cooperating teacher’s kids – are now YOUR kids too. Work hard for them, do your best for them, give them everything you’ve got… because, when all is said and done, they deserve nothing less.

As a teacher, I have learned countless lessons from experience, from my students, and from my colleagues and realized, along the way, that in teaching, learning never stops. The day I wake up and think “I’ve got it all figured out now” is the day that I will walk out of the classroom. To be a teacher is to be a lifelong learner, to be constantly in pursuit of a better way to teach, a new practice to try, or the best way to do something. Though I have much more to learn, there are some things that I can say, with confidence, that teaching has taught me.

  • Embrace the mess. This is a concept that is easier for some than others. As a self-proclaimed ‘organizer,’ (let’s be honest, I color code my sticky notes) there are times when I struggle with the concept of embracing the mess. In education, you’ll come to find there are lots of messes; they just come with the territory. There are going to be times when students make a mess – a pencil box drops, a water bottle spills, papers fly everywhere. There are going to be times when you make a mess – you forget about a meeting, you miss a conference, you drop paperclips everywhere. And trust me, there are going to be times when your classroom is a mess – the floor littered with forgotten papers and abandoned pencils. In these times, as hard as it may be, embrace the mess. Laugh when your paperclips spill everywhere, smile and reassure the student who dropped his binder yet another time during class. Show your students that mistakes are part of life, that it’s okay to mess up, that it happens, that there’s a chance to try again. As difficult as it may be, mess is a given in education. There is no such thing as a perfect teacher, a perfect student, a perfect classroom – accept that. Embrace that.
  • Keep calm and pretend it’s on the lesson plan. Sounds silly, but oh is this one true. During my first year of teaching, I was engrossed in explaining phases of the moon to my fourth grade class. I was feeling confident about how the lesson was going – the students seemed engaged, the activity was flowing smoothly, things were great. One of my students raised his hand to ask a question. Feeling somewhat invincible, I called on him. “Ms. McKee,” he said “if the moon reflects the light from the sun, how long would it take a single ray of sun to bounce off the moon and reach the Earth?” Now, I don’t know if that’s exactly the way he phrased it, but whatever that question was, I knew then and there that I didn’t have the answer. I remember the split second moment of ‘ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh what do I do?’ before I took a deep breath and simply said “that’s a great question and, honestly, I don’t know.” I realized in that moment that though my lesson plan had effectively derailed, it was okay to simply say “I don’t know.” In that moment, I like to think that my students saw it was okay to not know the answer, to ask for help, to admit that there’s still more to learn. That moment shaped one of the most common phrases I still say to my students: “It’s okay to not know, it’s never okay to not try.”
  • The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways. Over the past few years of teaching, I have met my fair share of ‘tough kids.’ This is one of the hardest lessons I have had to learn as an educator. The students today are up against odds we never were, are facing challenges and obstacles that many of us have never encountered. Students today can carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, burdened by a slew of problems – bad home life, low self-esteem, lack of stability… Every student that walks through your door – every last one – needs AND deserves your attention, your encouragement, your patience, and your understanding. It’s human nature to get wrapped up in our own problems, our own stress, and our own lives – and certainly, it’s important to look out for you. But when you encounter that student that blatantly disrespects you, or is always late, or sleeps in class, remember, teaching is more than just teaching academics, it’s teaching patience and kindness, too.
  • Remember to take care of yourself. My first year of teaching, I would be in the parking lot when school would be unlocked and stay until the night custodians left. I found myself constantly drained and stressed, worrying about lesson plans, grading, and the growing pile of papers on my desk. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that if I left the pile of grading on my desk one afternoon, it would still be there the next day. Now, I’m not saying that your lesson plans or learning targets aren’t important. I’m not saying that you should let all deadlines fall by the wayside. No, what I’m saying is that you should strive for balance – remember to take time for you! Spend time with friends, go on a run, read a book, just relax – unwind and take a break from the fervor of everyday life. In the words of Robert Fulghum, “Learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.”

To be a teacher is to celebrate the victories great and small: an improved test score, a winning soccer game, a loose tooth at lunch – and to console the defeats – misplaced homework, family problems, the worry of where the next meal may come from. I’ll be honest with you – teaching can be a tumultuous roller coaster of emotion; you will experience the highest highs and the lowest lows – and sometimes in the span of a school day. “So, why teach?” some people ask. I can speak from experience that I’m not in it for the glamour, the fame, or the money. Teaching is not rich in any of those respects – those are not the reasons I do what I do. The students that pour into my classroom class after class, day after day, year after year – THESE are the reasons I do what I do. I teach to help people, I teach to see the light bulb moments, I teach to inspire the next group of today’s learners and tomorrow’s leaders. I teach to give students structure, to provide opportunities, to promote self-reliance. I teach to empower students with the knowledge that every one of them – EVERY SINGLE ONE can make a difference. You see, when I’m teaching, I know in my heart of hearts that I’m making a difference – and there’s nothing in this world that I’d rather do.

Not enough time in a day…

One of the members of my grad school cohort hit the nail on the head.
(I feel like I’m spinning a lot of plates these days myself…!)

The One with the First Grade Teacher

So today I had an all-day district workshop during which I was helping put together Word Study kits for all of the teachers at four of our district’s schools. While, there, I had a wonderful opportunity to talk with some teachers from other schools, all of whom have had more time in the field than me. I always find it really interesting to talk to teachers who have been in the field for 10, 15, 20, or even 30 years to see their perspective on how things have changed, what has stayed the same or cycled back from the past.

As much as I love talking to these teachers and hanging on many of their ideas to implement in my own classroom, there is one honest truth that many say that is difficult to swallow. It never becomes less work. Teaching is still overwhelming. I feel like I work too…

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All Aboard the “Fireboat”

Last week, as a third grade team, we decided to teach the topic of September 11th through the use of the text “Fireboat: The Heroic Adventure of the John J. Harvey,” a picture book by author Maira Kalman. The book, for those unfamiliar with children’s books, chronicles the history of a particular fireboat, the John J. Harvey. The book is based on true events, and explains how the city of New York called on the Harvey for help in putting out the fires after the attacks on September 11th.

Before we began reading, I wanted to gauge my students’ knowledge and interest in the events of September 11th. I had planned for both scenarios – lots of knowledge or little knowledge – assuming that they would have some concept of the significance. We gathered on the carpet for a discussion of Patriot’s Day, why September 11th was important, etc. Interestingly enough, almost none of my sweet students had any concept of what September 11th was – one brave soul ventured “…because it’s next Thursday?” when I asked “Does anyone know why September 11th is important?”

As I sat in front of them, I realized that I was faced with the delicate task of introducing this event in our nation’s history to my little flock. Twenty-three expectant faces looked up, waiting for me to explain why we were gathered on the carpet discussing a day next week. I had prepared for little background knowledge, but had not expected almost an entire lack thereof. In moments like that one, it’s just like they say: “keep calm and pretend it’s on the lesson plan.”

To help develop some background information, I showed the BrainPop video of September 11th, pausing the video prior to the discussion of the religious significance, etc. I wanted my students to digest the information a little at a time, and wanted to be sensitive to their reactions.

After the video, I took a deep breath and began to explain why September 11th was important to our country’s history. I told them my experience about September 11th – being a 6th grader, watching the events unfold on TV at school, and being scared of what was going to happen. They listened with rapt attention as I explained that we would be looking at the events of September 11th through a different perspective, exploring the history of New York and how the Harvey was involved in the aftermath.

As we read through the text, my class was captivated with the illustrations and fun details throughout. As a teacher, one of my favorite things about “Fireboat” is the way in which it ‘frames’ New York and the events of September 11th. The text explores the history of New York (beginning around 1931) and has fantastic illustrations that showcase the history of the city.

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The text also does a wonderful job of explaining the events of September 11th in a kid-friendly way, helping them realize that it was a somber and tragic event without overexposing them to the potentially graphic photographs.

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 After we finished the book, I found that many of my students wanted to learn more about September 11th. We created ‘quilt squares’ in our class to show how the events of September 11th made us feel, and made newspapers with headlines and articles that highlighted what we had learned from the book. I noticed that many of my students later checked out books about September 11th from our school library and heard many conversations between students about how interesting and important they thought it was. When the actual day of September 11th rolled around, I found that my class was particularly reverent, sincerely wishing me a ‘happy Patriot’s Day’ and discussing it throughout the day.

It’s books like “Fireboat” that make me particularly thankful to have texts that address sensitive subject material in a positive and appropriate manner. I was so pleased with how interested and engaged my students became and would highly suggest it to any teacher or parent looking to use it in the future. Do you have books that have framed sensitive material in a positive manner? Feel free to comment and share!

College Contradiction?

First post on a new blog, huh?

It’s always somewhat intimidating to take on a new project – I’ve blogged in the past for various college classes and while I studied abroad, but have never kept an education blog of sorts. As I mentioned in my “About” page, some of these posts will be exclusively for one of my grad school classes, but some, like this one, will be my own musings on education, etc.

For a little bit of context, I officially made the move to Durham, NC this weekend. My apartment has mountains of boxes everywhere and, while I feel I’m making progress, I still don’t have internet access. In an effort to escape the chaos that has taken over my living space, I made the short trek to Panera to use the free wi-fi and enjoy a pumpkin spice latte (judge away, my friends, judge away).

As I sat down to lesson plan and prepare for the week, the conversations from the two adjacent tables soon piqued my interest. It took a short time for me to realize that BOTH tables were made up of college advisors, meeting with fresh-faced 17 year olds over an afternoon coffee to map out the application process laid before them. The advisors must have stacked their schedules – as soon as one appointment ended, another student would appear, nervously clutching a drink and smiling bravely.

Now, let me be the first to say that I personally believe that college is extremely important – I am not discounting preparing for it, nor am I discounting how strenuous the process can be. Yet, conversation after conversation, the students would list their ‘top choices’ for school, and the academic advisor would essentially tell each student that he/she was not ‘unique’ enough. Are you involved in clubs? Your essay is too long… Why haven’t you picked one interest and pursued it?

As I listened to the onslaught of critiques and questions, I began to think about how education is presented – we, as teachers, claim that we desperately want students to learn for the sake of learning, to truly ‘grasp’ the knowledge presented. We encourage students to ‘never stop learning,’ and look for ways to make learning (particularly from my experience in elementary school) engaging and fun.

I was left wondering if the emphasis on college contradicts what we are teaching in schools, regardless of grade level. Personally, I believe learning “for the sake of learning” should never become “did I do enough learning?” Teachers, college advisors, parents, and community members should work to uphold and support each child on his/her academic journey – whether it ultimately leads to college or not.

Have thoughts on the ‘college contradiction’? Feel free to leave a comment!