Sinking In.

I’m letting it sink in that tomorrow will be my final day of school in my fifth year teaching. It’s my last ending to a school year where I will be a teacher, at least for a little while.

One of my students from last year gave me a letter that moved me to tears within the first paragraph. She told me I was her school mom, that I was there for her when she needed someone, that she was grateful for all my advice this year about academics and boys, that she was sad I was leaving but happy I was going to be able to advance my career. Reading her words and letters from other students in the last week shook my heart and watered my eyes.

I flash between wondering if this graduate school path is the right one when I receive these messages from students. Students who tell me they used to dislike science but now love it; who say I helped them through their tough decisions this year; who remember our projects and remind me about why I love this job so much.

As I step back and look into the deepest part of my being, I know I’m making the right decision right now. I recognize the calling to pursue this degree, to learn more about the interworkings of education policy, to incur change at a larger scale than just my classroom for the betterment of thousands of students at a time. Despite this, it doesn’t make closing this chapter any easier.

Tomorrow, I will drink in all the moments: the chaos of a mildly disorganized yet productive classroom, the calm of the hallways right before students are released for dismissal. I will make the most of every opportunity with students, as their teacher, facilitator, advocate, pseudo-mom, and everything in between.

I’m preparing myself as the feels continue to sink deeply into my heart, my brain, my entire being. Honestly, I don’t know if I could have ever prepared for this day in full, but here goes nothing everything.

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Appreciating Transition.

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week; a much awaited week by teachers everywhere, full of free food and “thank yous” from many. It is during this week, this very day, that I find it appropriate to write this.

I am finishing my fifth year as an educator this year. I have worked in three schools and districts, in magnets and in neighborhood schools, devoting these last five years of my life to teaching children in Title I schools around the Triangle. There have been times it has been thankless, times it has been overwhelming, and times when it has been inexplicably rewarding.

One day, I really do think I’d like to write a book about all of these moments, but I’m sure if you read my blog you’ll get the gist. 🙂

It is with a heavy, excited, terrified, and overjoyed heart that I share with you that come fall 2017, I will not attend Open House or spend countless hours reorganizing a classroom to house children.

I have formally accepted my admission to Vanderbilt University, and in August, I begin my graduate studies in the field of Education Policy.

I honestly don’t think I can tell you how many tears I shed over this decision — happy tears, sad tears, anxious tears. So happy that I have the opportunity to study something about which I am so passionate at a place that has the strongest program in the nation. So sad that I am leaving a place that I love so deeply; a place full of friends and family and sweet memories. Anxious that I don’t have logistics fully realized yet, like where I will live and when I will move.

It is very accurate (and mildly clichĂ©d) for me to say that I would not be in this current position without the educators in my life. Without Sanchez Johnson telling me that leadership isn’t about titles but about the way you life. Without Alex Drake assigning a crap-ton (technical term) of Brinkley APUSH readings regularly, which probably ultimately prepares me for my moment in graduate school (hindsight is always 20/20). Without Gary Mace pushing me to become a better writer. Without Joan Gale giving me a chance to be a peer mediator/helper, equipping me with skills to listen and communicate effectively in the midst of crisis (for whatever it’s worth, middle schoolers go through a LOT of crises regularly — both silly and serious). Without Lana Siefring sketching pictures in class and reading stories, cultivating creativity and showing me what an outstanding teacher looks like and inspiring me to be one, too. Without educators in my schools having high expectations for me, there’s no way I would have accomplished half of what I have today, and for that I am humbled and grateful.

I found it appropriate to share the news of my graduate studies pursuit on Teacher Appreciation Day, for it is precisely my deep love and respect of this job that is pushing me outside of Lab 209. I love what I do too much to continue to sit idly and watch students not receive appropriate services because of poor legislation and to see my colleagues work long hours at school only to drive to a second job after the bell rings.

To my former teachers: thank you. To my current colleagues, friends, and family in the world of education: thank you. To my students and their families: thank you. I am beyond grateful for your love, your support, your time, and your dedication to bettering the lives of others. May we continue this service for many years to come, in any capacity we can.

Dear New Teacher,

You’re doing great.

Did you realize you’re almost halfway through the first quarter of your year teaching?! Time certainly flies, and it only gets faster!

You might be sending home progress reports around this time and realizing that the honeymoon stage with the kiddos is over — yes, you will have to discipline them, regardless of how cute they are, and yes, you will have to be consistent. It isn’t always fun giving kids consistency like that, but I promise you that it’s always worth it in the end.

How are you feeling with your plans? Stressed? Overwhelmed? Drowning!? Here’s what you need to do: ASK FOR HELP. You are not stupid, you are not being ridiculous, just ask for help. People will help you. Did you get that? People will help you. They want to help you, so why won’t you let them? Don’t get in so deep and over your head that you can’t see the light anymore. That will do you no good and it will do your students much worse.

Please don’t stay at school too late. I spent my first two weeks teaching last year staying for about twelve hours every day and I called my dad every night crying. It was miserable. Don’t be like me. Get home, get relaxed, do something for yourself.

“But Allison! I can’t do that! I have lessons to write and papers to grade and progress reports to finish and…”

Stop.

If you can’t breathe, you can’t teach. If you can’t focus, how can you expect your kids to focus?! Prioritize. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Papers need to be graded? Papers can be graded anytime, anywhere. It’s okay. Go treat yourself to a nice pumpkin spice latte made with 2% milk with a little whipped cream and do your work at Starbucks for a bit. It’s okay to get out of your room, you know. Sometimes we need a change of scenery to get the productive juices flowing. Fresh air works wonders for the mind and body!

Can you do me another favor? I hope I’m not asking too much of you with this letter, but don’t beat yourself up over things. Crying is acceptable. It’s happened to everyone.

Did you hear me? EVERYONE. If you don’t believe me, go find a seasoned teacher in your school and ask him/her if he/she has ever cried over this job, I dare you — just be prepared to hear stories that might sound incredibly similar to the life you’re experiencing right now.

This profession chose you for a reason. Knowing this will lead to a revelation of sorts. Maybe a lightbulb goes off in your head as to how to work with that one child who is constantly defiant. Maybe you come up with this really engaging activity to teach your kids something they used to think was boring. Maybe you finally connect with that parent who wants to get her child help but doesn’t know how.

You know how.

You know what you’re doing. There will be people who might not think you do (yourself included sometimes), but be confident in yourself. Of course you need to learn new things — there are plenty of things that you weren’t trained for in your education program, and that’s okay. Teaching is best learned through experience, and you’ll be better for those experiences. Don’t doubt yourself so much. You went to college, got a degree, and are a teacher.

You. Are. A. Teacher.

Look at your badge. Look at your keys. Look at your classroom. Look at your students.

[You might also want to look at your living space. I have scissors and glue sticks on my coffee table with construction paper all over the living room — not to mention I smell like Ticonderoga pencils almost every day and almost always have marker on my hands.]

You are a teacher.

Be proud of that!

You probably spend more time with the kids in your classes than their parents and families get to spend with them. I mean, you are with these kids for seven hours from Monday to Friday. Love those kids. Respect those kids. Teach those kids not just how to read or how to find the slope of a line; teach those kids how to be good people, responsible citizens, and caring human beings. You have that power, so why not use it to better the world?

Your job is important. It doesn’t always feel that way (especially after Christmas break when there isn’t another break in sight for months until spring break — that stretch from MLK Day in January to the end of March/beginning of April is a SERIOUS struggle for us all) and your kids probably won’t tell you enough, but you rock. Keep doing you, New Teacher!

You might be like me and really want your kids to like you. I never wanted my kids going home and telling their families, “Oh my gosh, I HATE Miss Stewart’s class, it’s SO BORING.” That’s basically my worst nightmare and personal hell. Having students like you shouldn’t be the goal — you want them to respect you. With that respect comes so much love, my new teacher friends! If you show them that you respect them and can listen to them, their love for you will compound so quickly. Strict doesn’t mean boring — it just means you get the work done before you let loose. You can have fun teaching, and your students can have fun learning. Facilitate accordingly.

When you reach this blissful state of respect and love (which, this isn’t always an easy path since you need to crack down on your rules for quite a while before they really understand that you’re doing this because you love them), they will start making you things. Maybe they’ve already started because you’re a cute new teacher who is young and excited and kind of looks like their babysitter (I say this not to offend you, but to be honest — apparently I still look 16 to some of my kids). Keep those things. I guess you don’t have to keep every single thing because I don’t want to turn on the television and see you on an episode of Hoarders, but keep the things that remind you that what you do is of great importance. I have a folder that I pull out from time to time to remind me — it’s full of letters and pictures and cards. Keep those things, because you will need them on bad days and I can assure you that they will mend your weary soul around Thanksgiving.

I write this to you to encourage you. You’re only halfway done with quarter one and I know you’ve been working so hard to make things perfect for your class. Know that imperfection is acceptable and you have to let yourself make mistakes before you can learn.

Yes, you will implement lessons that will TANK. Completely. I have done that more than once to say the least. But guess what? I learned from that and now I know better than to assume third graders know what rounding is. We live and we learn.

Don’t lose your fervor. You’re in the right place. Teaching is the most challenging thing you’ll do, but it sure is the most rewarding.

Love, Miss Stewart