Building Character, Not Just Academics

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On my very first day of teaching EVER, I invited my students into the classroom and instructed them to write on the board in response to three prompts:

  1. What are your expectations of me as your teacher?
  2. What are your expectations of each other as classmates?
  3. What are your expectations of yourself this year in my class?

After about five minutes I had everyone sit down, and we reviewed their responses as a class. These would become our social contract for the year.

In each of my six class periods, I was largely pleased with their responses. Some students wrote a teacher expectation of “no homework” and the like, but for the most part, I saw phrases like “be patient with us” and “be kind, not mean”. Against such things there is no law.

However, in second period when I asked, “Is there anything else anyone wants to add that they may not have written up on the board?”, a large, dark-haired boy in the front row raised his hand.

“Yes…” I checked my seating chart, “…Art?”

His brows drew together angrily. “One of my expectations of you as our teacher is that you get kids out of here who don’t deserve to be in this class.”

The previously silent classroom seemed to get even quieter. Perhaps I had heard wrong. “Excuse me, what?”

He repeated himself. “Like those two.” He pointed down the row at two smaller boys, Ernie and Kevin. “They’re not smart enough to be in Pre-AP, but their parents put them in here anyway. You should kick them out of your advanced math class or they’ll hold back the whole class.”

Stunned, it was purely by the grace of God that I managed a reasonable response. “Well, Art, that leads us nicely into our next topic, which is ‘Expectations of Each Other as Classmates’. You’ll see all over this board words like ‘kind’ and ‘respectful’.” I looked pointedly at him. “So we’re not going to have any more comments like that in my classroom. Is that understood?”

Art stayed behind after class. He told me again his concerns. Totally flabbergasted at his blatant arrogance and prejudice, I suggested, “You know, Art, I’m happy to have you come alongside me as the teacher and help tutor some of these other students if they need to be brought up to speed. Instead of tearing down our classmates, let’s work together to build them up, okay?”

Art laughed – a hardened, angry laugh. “They’re beyond help.” And he walked out of my room.

Yesterday I gave my first test of the year, and I marveled as I graded the papers from second period. The high-and-mighty Art only got 20% right. And little Ernie got an 80%.

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. -Proverbs 16:18

Authentically Aurora

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First Day of School

86acaaff3d8bc7a4ebcfbf6e78ae9bfd--first-day-of-school-tot-schoolToday – my first day of teaching – started out great. I woke up a couple of hours early, brewed myself some coffee, and read through a few chapters of Hebrews while listening to “Wonder” by Bethel on repeat. It was a slow, peaceful morning of getting in the right headspace to start my teaching career.

I prayed for my day, gathered up my bags, and walked to the backdoor where I was greeted by a cockroach on its back with its legs still twitching. I just got creeped-out chills even typing about it. It’s still alive and just got flipped over. Gross. After a quick kiss, that will be Seth’s first order of business when he comes to visit later.

Remembering that I should do a “first day of school” picture, I decided to go out my front door to take a selfie in front of the door. I’m not a big fan of selfies, but I didn’t have anyone to take my photo, so I stepped outside to do it myself… and was greeted by a black cat walking right across my sidewalk.

First, a roach; next, a black cat; then around 2pm, the sky went dark! …Okay, so the solar eclipse didn’t actually have anything to do with my first day of teaching, but it made for a good third ominous omen. In actuality, the third creepy thing about today was coming home to an unlocked door. I thought for a second that maybe Seth had let himself in with my spare key, but then I realized that between the roach and the first day photo out front – for the first time in years – I forgot to lock the door behind me! Fortunately nothing was taken, but it was still strange walking in to my unlocked apartment.

School was good. Most of my classes are good. I’m exhausted. There’s so much I could write, but my legs hurt from standing, and my throat is sore from talking, and I really just want to go drink a cup of hot tea with honey, curl up on the couch and read or watch Netflix.

So for now, I’ll simply say: 1st & 3rd period are AWESOME! I have some fellow Harry Potter fans in there, and they think I’m a pretty cool teacher because above my door on the way out, I have this sign:

Mischief Managed

In 2nd period, I had to get ISS involved. On the first day of school. That’s a story for another day. And 7th period is super chatty! I will definitely have to draw up a strict seating chart for them. 4th is my conference period (long lunch – whoop!), and 5th and 6th are not really notable at this point. More to come. Stay tuned.

Authentically Exhausted Aurora

The Teaching Rollercoaster

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Only 1 week into teaching, I can already attest to the fact that the rumors are true: Teaching is an emotional rollercoaster.

I haven’t even met any kids yet, and I’ve already climbed into the rail car and taken a few dips and turns! Just in-service was enough to get me pumped up and then anxious; excited and then stressed out at the mountain of things I have to do before next week. My To Do list is currently five pages single-spaced, and every day I am finding out about more things I have to do that I didn’t even know to ask about (like a Word Wall. Apparently every teacher – even math teachers like me – are required to have a “Word Wall” in their classrooms. I only know this because I overheard a conversation – who was going to tell me?!).

But at the end of the day – even the Alexander Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Days – I am still glad I am here at not in corporate.

I am still sure this was the right decision. It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be good. In corporate, all of the vision casting was elaborate and verbose, but it never came to fruition; it was just rhetoric and word fluff from the top down that took no input from the lower ranks. They had no heart; no pure intent behind the syrupy words.

But here in my school district, it’s evident that the Superintendent at least – and also my direct Principal – genuinely believe in the shared vision. They legitimately took input and feedback from all stakeholders – parents, students, teacher and the community – to determine and develop our shared mission, values and purpose. They are passionate and authentic and bought in.

It’s not a perfect district (people are, after all, messy), but I can tell that they truly believe in empowering teachers and students (even if they’re not very good at equipping new teachers like myself). They encourage thoughtful challenge of the status quo.

I really think this is where I belong. I really think I finally found a fit. It won’t be perfect, but I think God has a purpose for me here, and I am excited to walk forward into this first school year as a teacher.

Authentically Aurora

Back to School – Part 3

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I just got an email from my principal.

Finally.

It was addressed to me and one other teacher. I expected it to be welcoming me to the school and giving me some good information for what to expect next week. Instead, it says simply:

“Since you guys have big rooms,  we are going to use your rooms for rotations the first week back to school.  We will need a functioning projector. “

That was all.

The good news: Apparently I have a big classroom.

The bad news: I don’t yet know which classroom is mine, what rotations she’s talking about, or whether or not my room has a projector, much less how how to use it.

I’d forgotten how much it stinks to be the new person.

Authentically Aurora

Back to School – Part 2

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Thanks to my perseverance, I finally got issued my district email address a few weeks early. I’ve hungrily dug into all of the shared files, desperately trying to find out if there are already lesson plans in place or if I need to be spending my last weeks of summer developing a syllabus, worksheets, homework, quizzes and tests for the year. I don’t want my first six weeks to be a mess of chaotic franticness.

All summer long, I’ve been checking the district website hoping they’d update the calendar for the 2017-2018 school year. They finally did a couple weeks ago, so I found out my first day of teacher inservice would be Thursday, August 10th. I’ve had it in my calendar ever since.

To make the most of my last week of summer, Seth and I planned a romantic day trip for Monday, August 7th, and I have a specialist doctor’s appointment scheduled for Tuesday the 8th. I had to schedule the appointment two months in advance, so I was relieved they were able to get me in before school started.

Then yesterday, I checked my district email account.

The email account I only have because I’ve been bothering IT all summer long.

The email account I’m not supposed to have yet and that no one has advised me to be checking yet this summer.

I had an email “reminding” me of MANDATORY TRAINING for new teachers on August 7-8.

Note that this email was not sent to my personal email from my resume. I did not receive a call from my principal or administration. I never heard anything about this mandatory training from the HR department. The only reason I found out about it was because I had a district email address that I AM NOT SUPPOSED TO HAVE YET AND ONLY HAVE BECAUSE OF MY PROACTIVITY!!!

Seth and I cancelled our romantic day trip. He’s out $50 for tickets we already bought.

I postponed my specialist doctor’s appointment for another two months. Now I’ll have to use a precious vacation day to go to my appointment.

And I will responsibly show up for this mandatory training I only know about because I am proactive, responsible and on top of things when the rest of the school system is not.

I’m so glad I left Corporate America to escape bureaucracy.

Authentically Aurora

Back to School – Part 1

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I knew there was going to be a steep learning curve entering the world of education as a first-year teacher.

Half the people I told about my new job – rather than congratulating me – offered their condolences. That made me just all the more determined to love teaching and the world of education. But so far, I am staring to see their point (much as I am loathe to admit it).

I got hired back in April. Since then, I’ve been asking my principal, the HR department, my math specialist co-teacher and the IT department what I need to be doing to prepare for the school year. I’ve had three months to do professional development, lesson planning and all manner of things to get ready for my first year as a teacher. Here’s the feedback I’ve gotten.

From my principal: “You’re way ahead of the game. Just relax. We don’t do most of our hiring until July.”

From HR: “Ask your principal.”

From my co-teacher: “Here are a bunch of links. But you won’t be able to access any of them until you have a district email address.”

From IT: “Sorry, we don’t issue new teacher email addresses until the week before school starts.”

I feel like I’m back in the world of Corporate.

Authentically Aurora

Diego Turned Angel

On Child's Level.pngI’ve never considered myself to be certifiably insane, but – deciding to be a long-term sub for the last month of the school year? – maybe I should reconsider the state of my mental health.

After I resigned from my cushy (and soul-numbing) corporate job in April, I took a three-week long term substitute teaching assignment at a nearby elementary school. I figured it would be a good opportunity to learn some key teaching skills before I started my full-time teaching job in August. And I was right.

What I hadn’t taken into consideration were the facts that:

  • These 5th graders in my class had already finished their state testing and so felt like there was no more learning to be done.
  • They believed that they ruled the world (as the oldest grade in their school).
  • Summer (and graduation from elementary school) was less than one month away.
  • It was a Title I school.
  • I had basically zero experience with classroom management.

Suffice it to say, I nearly died those first few days. I had kids threaten to have their parents sue me when I said the wrong thing, had kids tell me they hated me and I was the worst teacher ever, had parents calling in wanting a parent-teacher conference because they believed their child was being bullied, had to get a counselor involved because a fifth grade boy was following girls into the bathroom and touching them inappropriately… It. Was. Madness.

But I survived. And I am better for it. And, looking back, it was actually a lot of fun. Because – for the first time in nearly eight years – I actually had purpose. I actually felt challenged. And I finally made an impact.

Diego was one of the kids I nearly sent to ISS the first day I subbed. He talked incessantly and, as soon as I got the class calmed down and on task, he (as a natural leader and the class clown) had the power to get them all off task again. I felt like I was constantly battling him for the class’s attention.

And Victor. He was the most simultaneously hateful, cynical, apathetic person I have ever met in my entire life. He loved to argue with me in front of the class just for argument’s sake. He knew I couldn’t physically touch him, so he openly defied me on a daily basis when I asked to speak with him privately outside. He refused to go in the hallway, and I couldn’t physically force him, so for a long time, I lost the daily battles of power struggle with Victor – the most arrogant, abrasive student I can imagine I will ever have in decades of teaching.

But as the weeks went on and I learned students’ names and personalities and values and insecurities, I slowly learned how to individualize not only my teaching but also my motivation and discipline of each one.

On my last week of subbing, the students were supposed to be engaging in silent reading time. Diego repeatedly got off task, reading out loud in an intentionally loud voice and distracting other students. When I asked him to read silently, he claimed not to be able to read without saying the words out loud (this was a lie). He – like Victor – refused to go into the hall with me, so I knelt down on his level and whispered to him quietly.

“Diego,” I sighed. “I know you think I don’t like you, but I do. I think you’re adorable. You’re smart, funny and a natural leader. You have so much potential!”

I shrugged my shoulders and continued as I knelt beside his desk on his eye level. “You are not a bad kid. But right now you are making bad choices. I can see the kind of man you could be, and I really want to see you reach your full potential. You are natural leader with a lot of power to do a lot of good in the world. But in order to do that, you need to start making better choices.”

To my surprise, Diego’s eyes started to water. He was tearing up, and I realized he probably had never been told by anyone that he had potential; that he had value and worth and power to do good in the world. So I went on, “It’s really up to you. I only have a few days left here, so it won’t affect me either way. But every day, you make choices that have consequences, and those can be good or bad consequences. I hope for your sake – and the world’s – you choose good.”

Diego just hung his head and wouldn’t make eye contact with me after that, so I left him alone, but he was surprisingly quiet the rest of the day.

The next morning, the class was working individually on a math worksheet, and – to my surprise – Diego raised his hand and asked for help understanding how to add fractions. He’d never expressed interest in learning before. Encouraged, I knelt by his desk and gently explained to him how to find common denominators so he could add (or subtract) fractions easily. I watched the lightbulb flash in his eyes as he “got” it, and he worked a few problems on his own to show me that he understood the concept.

Later that afternoon, some girls got in trouble for selling homemade “slime” (that ended up clogging the school toilets), and a lot of the kids – exposed to this entrepreneurial spirit for perhaps the first time – were trying to figure out how they could make some side money selling something at school. Diego came up to me and asked simply, “Will you give me five dollars?”

“Why would I give you five dollars?” I asked, not unkindly.

Diego looked thoughtful. “What if I gave you something?”

“Like what?” I asked, forcing him to think through what he was asking.

“Hmm… like a cake?” he suggested.

“That sounds nice,” I told him. “What kind of cake?”

He furrowed his brow, thinking hard. “Maybe chocolate or strawberry?”

I smiled. “Diego, if you bring me a chocolate cake tomorrow, I will give you five dollars.”

I had little to no expectation that the little man who’d given me so much trouble would actually follow through in baking a cake, but the next morning, Diego bounded into my room, beaming with delight he tried to hide a bit as he dashed up to me holding a little 9″x9″ foil pan.

“I brought it!” he exclaimed, and I peeled back the foil to see chocolate icing covering what looked like a homemade box cake.

I smiled at him and pulled a $5 from my wallet. “Here you go,” I told him. “You earned it!” His delight as he accepted the money made me smile all the more.

In retrospect, I probably couldn’t have done that exchange with Diego if I was a full-time teacher or if I hadn’t been about to leave that school campus, but I’m thankful for the way it worked out because not only did I finally make a meaningful, positive connection with a formerly disruptive student, but Diego also learned some important lessons about entrepreneurship, determination, and the power of our choices. He finally had someone show him tough love and believe in him for becoming more than he was.

The next day was my last day, and I had essentially no hope for a reconciliation with Victor, but even he surprised me. Early in the day, I kept Victor outside of the computer lab to talk with him before he went in. I gave him a similar speech to the one I’d given Diego, and like the other boy, Victor started to tear up. I don’t think either one had ever experienced a loving “I believe you for better” heart-to-heart. And at the end of that school day, Victor – the thorn in my side and bane of my existence – was the first to volunteer to stack chairs on the desks before recess. He picked up loose papers and helped me tidy up the classroom without being asked, and my heart was warmed by his transformation.

After a tough few weeks, God gave me two amazing reminders of why I’m going into teaching. It’s going to be hard but good. It’s going to be challenging but worth it. There are days I will want to cry in frustration, but I believe there will be great purpose and impact on individual lives. And that’s what I want to be about in this next year and in this next season of life.

A few weeks later, Seth and I were at dinner with some friends – old and new – and one of the new girls asked what I did for a living. After a few moments, we made the connection that she had formerly been a teacher at the elementary school where I’d subbed. “Oh my gosh! You’re THAT sub! I heard you did an amazing job, and all the teachers there want to have you back as the sub for their classrooms!”

I smiled and thanked her, storing up those words in my heart. As we drove away in his truck hours later, Seth turned to me and said with a squeeze of my hand, “Your reputation precedes you. I’m proud to have you by my side.”

I’m glad to be there. It’s nice to be appreciated.

Authentically Aurora