Thursday, May 24, 2012

The "Be-attitudes"

Tomorrow is officially my last day as a first year teacher.  With the exception of a few minor mental breakdowns and several days that required either chocolate or ice cream (or both) in order to improve the day, this year surpassed all my expectations.  In all seriousness, I do feel like I did far more than survive this year, which is what most teachers and college of ed professors will tell you is the thing first year teachers should hope to do.  I thrived this year, both professionally and personally.  I feel like I built a foundation and gained a clearer understanding of where I want to go and what I want to do in my career and in my life, and on top of that I got to spend five days a week with some pretty awesome kids.  I learned about their hopes and fears, saw their silliness and seriousness, loved their intelligence and their childlike excitement.  Middle school is perfect to me because there is a sense of both childhood and adulthood in the same place.  They want so badly to grow up, but when you "hook them" on a topic or a lesson, the child inside them comes bubbling back to the surface and you can see the curiosity and excitement in their eyes.  It's my favorite sliver of time--the light bulb moment that makes me love being a teacher.

When I finished student teaching a year and a half ago, I capped off my time at that middle school with a "Top Ten of 2010" list.  I wanted to do something similar with this post.  Every year at my middle school, we have a theme.  This year our theme was "Just Be It."  We encouraged the students all year to be their best each day, be respectful, be readers, be hard workers.  So, in honor  of our theme, I present to you:

The Top 5 Things I Learned to BE:

  • Be respectful.  This was the #1 rule in my classroom this year.  In my last post, I wrote about the Letters to Self that my 7th graders wrote for their final project.  Part of the letter was to write about the most important thing they learned in English this year.  One student wrote that he learned that respect is the most important thing you can have.  He said, "Ms. Herring shows us respect, so we show her respect.  If we don't do our part, it's hard for her to do hers."  I tried not only to respect my peers and coworkers, but to also respect my students everyday.  By nurturing an atmosphere of respect in my classroom, my students were able to grow in maturity and interact more effectively.
  • Be flexible. When all else fails, monitor and adjust.  As a first year teacher, I had no idea about the yearly activities and traditions and schedule changes that come with teaching.  There is literally no way that whatever calendar you draw up in August will stay set in stone until May. In fact, I threw away the calendar I mapped out for this school year in October of last year.  Things don't always go the way we plan, but if we're flexible, they'll go the way they're supposed to go.  It's all about attitude.
  • Be honest. I love every single one of my students from this school year.  They were all special and unique in their own way, and each one of them taught me their own lesson.  However, I had a couple students who taught me one of the most important lessons I learned this year, and it's a lesson I will carry with me throughout my career in the classroom.  Be honest. Be yourself. Be genuine. I realized with great sadness this year that for some students, a teacher may be the only adult that is honest and caring and genuine.  When home is like hell, school can either be an extension of that environment, or it can provide a haven.  I want to be able to provide a safe place, an honest place, for my students to know that they can be honest with me, and I will be honest right back.
  • Be positive. Early this year, I had a conversation this someone who previously worked in our district, but moved on to pursue a university career.  During that conversation, he told me, "Keep smiling. You have the power to set a tone where you are.  Use it."  What he meant was, Be positive in all things.  When you're positive with the students, they follow your lead.  When you're positive with your peers and coworkers, it creates an atmosphere of cooperation.  It is so easy to fall prey to negative talk and grumbling, but in the long run, I have so much to be thankful for that I end up feeling guilty for my grumbling.  So I try each day to be positive, to smile at everyone I pass in the hall, to ask how someone's day is going.  The littlest things make the biggest impact on the people around you.
  • Be healthy. While I love my job, I had to learn this year to leave my work at work.  I picked up running, which I previously loathed, and ran two half marathons this year.  Running became a time for thinking or mind-clearing, depending on whatever I needed it to be each day.  I started eating a healthier (kind of) diet.  I mean, a girl still needs her sugar and the occasional Diet Coke....And I started getting more sleep this year.  I love my job, but it's much more difficult to enjoy each day and feel like I'm doing a good job when I'm not taking care of myself.  Being healthy is a personal goal that I try to be better at everyday, but it bleeds over into work and makes me better at it.  It also makes me pretty happy.
These are the  things I want to remember to BE each day and each school year as I continue my time as a teacher, my "BE-attitudes" so to speak.  It's been a great school year, and I'm looking forward to many more.  In the meantime, get excited for summer school blog posts in the next few weeks :)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Letter to Self

In my last post, I promised to make the most of the next 22 days of school, and we'll just say that is the reason that I haven't posted in a couple weeks.  In all honesty, I have made the most of the past two weeks, and they have absolutely flown by.  I can't believe I have less than two full school weeks left in my first year.  Two weekends ago, I took a mental break from school and road-tripped to Memphis with the boyfriend to listen to awesome music for three days at Memphis in May.  Last weekend, I went out of town to one of the most gorgeous weddings I have ever attended when one of my friends from high school got married.  I have to admit that I love my job, but these little mini-vacations have really helped to keep me out of a slump during this last month of school.  If I've learned one thing this year, it's that I am the best teacher I can be whenever I am living a balanced life.  That means having a personal/social life so that I can take a break from work.

With only two weeks left, one of which will consist of us playing outside during English class because I don't have to give a final, I gave my seventh grade students one final English assignment to complete for the year.  It's a Letter to Self.  Another teacher at my school does this assignment, and I think it's such a neat idea.  The students will write a letter to themselves, turn it in, and I will return it to them at the end of their 9th grade year.  Just think about how much growing happens in those two years.  They may all be mad at me for giving them one last big assignment now, but they'll be glad they have it to look back on later.  In a way, this blog is kind of my "letter to self."  Sometimes I go back to look at posts from my student teaching. or the time before I found this job, or even earlier in this school year, and I'm amazed at the growth I've made as a teacher and as a person.  The imperceptible baby steps we make each day seem so much more monumental when we look back on them from a distance.

In honor of my students' last assignment, I decided that I, too, would participate in the assignment and write a letter to myself.

Dear future Ms. Herring, 
Here are just a few words of advice from the "new teacher" version of you, learning new things everyday:

  • Go to bed early.  You are not only nicer, but you are better at your job when you get a solid 7-8 hours of sleep.
  • Smile always.  A smile is the ultimate "fake it 'til you make it" cover up.  You can have absolutely no clue what's happening or be heavily opposed to what's happening, and a smile can help you survive until you can fix it or change it later.
  • Mistakes help you grow.  It's great to be a perfectionist, but you found a lot of perfection within your mistakes and monitored adjustments this year.  Bumps in the road keep things interesting.
  • Be a leader, a mentor, and a friend.  Above all, your job is not to teach infinitives and prepositional phrases.  Your job is to be a positive role model, a confidante, a secret-keeper, an encourager, a cheerleader.  During this year, the reality that teachers may be the only positive adult figures in a child's life has become terribly and sadly obvious.  Be the person your students may lack and supplement the positive people  that they do have.
  • You get out what you put in.  Enough said.
Everyone has a "thing," something that they're great at doing and inspired to be better at. However, not everyone gets to make that thing their job.  You do.  Appreciate that, enjoy it, embrace it.  Be thankful that each day brings new amusements and challenges.  This is your "thing." Be thankful for it always and never be a settler.