Like 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…
Post written by Emma Hensler, a MTA New Member Committee Member.
Follow MTA New Members on Twitter: @MTANewMembers and find us on Facebook!