No Longer About Wall Space

20170210_131014Like many of my fellow educators, I’m a control freak. Therefore, I hate the time between Christmas and February vacations, since winter weather frequently denies me control over day-to-day life, especially in my classroom. Even in this (relatively) mild winter, a new presidential administration with a particularly concerning pick to lead the Department of Education has made it feel like the ground is moving a little too quickly underfoot. By the time we get to March, the longer days make it possible to see the light at the end of June, but despite the fact that every resource on teaching will tell you that disillusionment is supposed to hit sometime around Halloween, for me it’s always hit right about now.

 

This feeling of disillusionment peaked for me during my second year of teaching, in the winter of 2015. You might remember that winter as the one that broke Boston’s snowfall record. Constant anxiety about whether or not school would be cancelled, paired with the daily fight to keep my students engaged despite interruptions to the schedule meant that I was frustrated regardless of whether or not school was in session, and it took a real toll on me mentally.

 

One morning, feeling particularly adrift after a two-hour delay forced me to scrap another day’s worth of lesson plans, I felt like I had to take control of something. Looking around my classroom, it occurred to me that part of the problem was that I wasn’t excited to spend time there, and if I didn’t feel excited here, how could I expect students to feel any differently?

 

I hadn’t felt this way my first year, so what was different? The answer was written on the walls–or would have been, if anything had been on the walls. When did my room become such a cold, sterile, boring place? Even as a student teacher, I had always used my wallspace as a resource, but this was the first year of my school’s 1:1 initiative, and I had, like any good second-year teacher, adopted every new strategy, app, or gimmick that I’d come across. Why make a reference poster when I could make a slide or an infographic? Why make an anchor chart, when I can just share the graphic organizer on Google Classroom? In my effort to keep my district happy, I had inadvertently given other people control over the day-to-day choices in my classroom, and I’d consequently lost the bright, colorful and engaging classroom space that I had loved. By the end of the day I had used my Amazon Prime account to buy a giant roll of butcher paper (800 feet for about $40…I’m still using the same roll two years later) and replenish my marker supply, and I haven’t looked back since.

 

Using wall space as a learning space isn’t exactly cutting-edge, but as the anchor charts slowly started to return to my walls, my class dynamic changed for the better. I’ve always struggled to feel comfortable giving verbal praise in class, but displaying a student’s work sends a clear message that I’m proud of them. When a student insists that we’ve never discussed themes in The Odyssey, I can point at the list we’ve been building every day over the course of the last six weeks. Most importantly, the classroom itself becomes an artifact of the progress that students have made over the course of the year, and seeing our progress empowers me and my students to keep working toward tomorrow.

 

We work in a profession where between winter weather, flu season, district initiatives, national politics and a host of other factors, it’s easy to feel powerless. For those of us with the majority of our careers ahead of us, that feeling of powerless can be magnified, especially if we’re still working toward professional teacher status. However, when that feeling of powerlessness sets it (and it will set in), it’s also important to remember that, in the words of fellow NMC member Gene Reiber, you are the most important thing in your classroom. You have control over how you make students feel, the values you choose to emphasize in your class, and the outlook you bring to school every day, and no administrator, district initiative or Secretary of Education can take those things away from you. Once I figured out how I expressed those three constants, I felt a little more comfortable drawing a line in the sand and reclaiming who I was as a teacher, and hopefully you will too.

 

If not, keep at it! Summer is coming…

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Post written by Emma Hensler, a MTA New Member Committee Member.

Follow MTA New Members on Twitter: @MTANewMembers and find us on Facebook!

Women’s March for America

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I remember occasions in my childhood, more than I can count, of being awoken in the early morning hours of a Philadelphia Saturday, an hour or two before sunrise, riding to a bus in the back seat of my parents’ car as the sky lightened, and then riding down to Washington, DC, with a group of people brought together in support of a cause. At this point I really can’t recall any specific reason for the protests; surely each one regarded pushing for economic and social justice for all in the USA. What stands out in my memory decades later (holy cow, I’m old enough for my memory to have a “decades later”!) is the importance that I felt of being included in what I took to be significant moments in our nation’s history. I revere this collage of memory.

January 21st, 2017, matches those memories, and in some ways eclipses them.

It could be that now, as an adult, I am aware enough of the world to fully understand the importance of engagement and collective action of citizens. I have spent several years working together with education colleagues from throughout the state toward the goal of great public schools for all children in Massachusetts. It gratified me to share the Women’s March for America with many of these friends in person in Boston, and via Facebook in Washington, DC.

It could be that, since I am now several years into my teaching career, I see how my students are impacted by decisions made by adults in their individual and collective worlds. I have experienced nearly a decade of political and policy decisions that have directly influenced my students and my ability to successfully serve them, educate them, and love them. I realize how important it is for me to use my voice to advocate for what my students need, through my union, by writing letters to elected officials and appointed decision makers, and by gathering with thousands of other Americans in protest when the moment demands.

I am certain that my developing memory of January 21st is so significant largely because of the moment.

Inklings of it began in the days leading up as email updates from march organizers increased expected attendance counts by tens of thousands on a daily basis. Empowerment developed after an early arrival, walking past an already-developing crowd across Boston Common an hour and a half ahead of start time, and passing throngs of sign-carriers and hat-wearers headed in that direction through the Public Garden. Emotions welled as I snaked my way through the thick crowd, across the Common and then back in another direction until finally I found the Massachusetts Teachers Association contingent. Some of this positivity was challenged as it took over an hour to move off the Common and into the march itself because the crowd was so large, but this was tempered by collective spirit and good humor.

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It seems safe to assume that all of us who educate in public schools in Massachusetts, indeed throughout the country, have experienced feelings of fear, apprehension, even foreboding following November 8th. I tried my best to hope that predictions expressed by others that the rhetoric of the campaign would not carry through the transition and into the new administration would hold true. However it seemed that nearly every day that hope was dampened by a new Tweet, cabinet appointment, or other transition decision; swift actions taken by a new Congress further added to my sense of pessimism.

And yet, January 21st renewed my hope, multiplied it, perhaps even cubed it; the action of the Women’s March for America reinvigorated, encouraged, energized so many of us who wish to see the United States continue to move forward toward progress for us all regardless of color, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual identity, class, or immigration status. But that march is not simply the exclamation point at the end of a sentence; it is an emphatic opening paragraph to begin a chapter of activism that must be carried through the next two years to the 2018 mid-term elections and then on for two more years to 2020 and the next presidential election, and even beyond that.

For those reading this who have never considered themselves political or activists, it can seem a daunting challenge to move out of one’s personal bubble and into the world of public activism. But there are numerous ways to make one’s entry into this realm, many different options for different styles of involvement. Check out the list below to find ideas for how to get involved and find what works best for you; I simply ask that you do something – contribute your voice to the positive prospects of the future, for it is that future into which we will send the students we educate.

 

 

  • Use the Massachusetts State Legislature’s page to find contact information for your Senator and Representative, both in the town where you live and where you work: https://malegislature.gov/

 

 

  • Take a look at the NEA Legislative Action Center to find current campaigns to contact your legislators on national issues: http://edadvocacy.nea.org/

 

 

 

  • Go back to Google and research organizations that would interest you by searching issues and topics you find important

 

  • Engage with people in your own communities – eye contact and in-person conversation can go a long way toward a collective sense of purpose and progress

 

  • Get active in your local union

 

 

  • Keep an eye out for the next rally or march, bring along some friends, and join in!

 

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Post written by Laura Vago, New Member Committee Chair and 7th grade Science teacher in Malden, MA.

Follow Laura on Twitter: @LRVago

Follow MTA New Members on Twitter: @MTANewMembers and find us on Facebook!