Your PLN gives you more people to disappoint

August 2nd, 2011 | Filed under: teaching

It’s a strange thing being a part of a digital network of teachers from all over the world, especially when you’re still a new teacher, feeling your way through this complex profession (when do you stop feeling new?). Even weirder when you’ve moved to a new country and are helping to open a school from the ground up. A terrifying, exciting, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Did I mention terrifying?

As the time ticks down to the end of August when I will meet my students for the first time – students that will likely be from all over the world, with experiences my younger self could only dream of having, with passport stamps to lands I’ve only seen in movies – sweat is beginning to bead upon my brow. My breathing has increased in pace and seems unlikely to slow until I get into a groove this fall and find some confidence and systems and routines. Sleep is unfulfilling and interrupted with bursts of 3:30 a.m. panic or inspiration or both.

See, I haven’t taught for the last year. I moved to The Netherlands in the summer of 2010 and spent months securing residency and trying to settle into my new home. I have had my head in the education world thanks to some other work and planning this new school, but as for teaching, I’ve not been in a room with students since June 2010. And really, I hadn’t spent too much time working with students before that. Still a “new” teacher, remember?

I am a new teacher. In a new school. In a new country. Doing so many new things, I feel like I’m learning with every turn. Nothing feels like something I’ve done before. This is a powerful and exhausting experience and I constantly find myself asking “is this right?” I try to see my newness as a positive and not as a disadvantage, but there are those days where you can’t help but feel like you will never measure up to the pros.

Thankfully I have that digital network of teachers behind me. It can feel, at times, like a sounding board in the form of a well-worn safety blanket – something to run to when you just don’t know where else to go. This metaphor could be perceived any number of ways – is it a way to feel “connected” in a profession prone to loneliness? Or a false sense of security in a job where, in the end, you really do it on your own every day?

But a strange thing has happened. As I feel the pressure of not disappointing my colleagues, parents, my new students, myself…I feel an even bigger pressure not to disappoint this network. See, when you surround yourself with people you consider experts – people you admire and learn from every day, sharing wowing ideas and experiences in education – you also have an even bigger cadre of people you can disappoint. This pushes me to try harder and do my best, but I know there will be mistakes. There will be days when I think “man, should I even BE a teacher?” I’m wondering if I’ll be confident enough to share those moments with these same teachers, or if I will bury them away in my notebook and keep the shame to myself. I find myself wondering if the “mistakes” shared by the educators I connect with online are akin to the “weaknesses” job applicants share in interviews – perceived downsides that really just beef up your strengths in the end. Do we really share the teaching skeletons in our closets? The moments we were so happy no one was observing that day? The strategies we used and think back on with the sort of stomach turning that only an embarrassing, high school moment can induce? And if we don’t share them, acknowledge them, and think about them, do we really learn from them?

I will be teaching Language A & B English and Technology in all years of the MYP* in addition to some other hats this year as our new school opens later this month. A new school necessitates many hats being worn by only a few teachers. I bounce between moments of feeling brave and proud of myself for tackling such a project, but as the days tick closer those wins are punctuated with “are you crazy? What makes you think you can do this? Leave this stuff up to the pros – you’re not there yet.'” My consolation is knowing that my colleagues are in this with me. We are heading into unfamiliar seas and it is scary, but we are together.

I know the path toward becoming a great teacher means walking that path as a teacher. I know at some point you have to leave behind consuming and reading and learning from your network – the theory – to do the thing you believe you were meant to do – teach. After a year of floating around, I may not feel completely ready to do that, but I am hoping when I do I can turn back to that same group of teachers and say “you were right. It wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was amazing. And damn, it feels good to be here again.”

*This equates to 6th through 10th grade in the U.S. As a small school, we will have some grouping of grades, which is yet another new and exciting experience for me.

Tags: , , , , , 4 Comments »

The experience of the long-term substitute

March 4th, 2010 | Filed under: teaching

As someone that completed a licensure program mid-year and came out on the other side to a job market like this, the prospect of finding a contract position was slim. I was lucky enough to have great recommendations and found a challenging and interesting long-term sub position with a gifted program in the city of Norfolk. I’ve been teaching 37 sixth graders in reading, writing, and early American history. I have always loved history, but was thrilled at the opportunity to teach it. And I think therein lies the biggest challenge and greatest reward of being a substitute.

You’re thrown into a classroom where the students know one another and you know none of them. A classroom where another teacher has been running things the way he/she finds best, but which may not mesh with your own ideas. A classroom where the students may have been bouncing around from sub to sub, rarely feeling structure, and most often feeling lost. A vacuum, really, where you are tasked with quickly plugging up the hole before all management and structure are sucked out into oblivion.

It’s hard and lonely at times. You get a crash course, if you’re lucky, from the permanent teacher who, hopefully, had time to prepare some plans for you. More often than not you are left with a pacing guide and a classroom far behind where they should be on that district-mandated time line. I was lucky enough to have the teacher I was subbing for available by phone, text and email whenever I needed her. Not everyone is so lucky.

You’re spending so much time planning that the pile of grades continues to mount, yet you, in your new teacher fervor, have helped students create numerous artifacts and homework assignments, all of which you (surprise!) have to grade. At some point. Soon.

But your biggest resource and shoulder to lean on when you’re feeling out of sorts, I’ve found, is the kids. I have a number of “helpers” that are quick to tell me how Mrs. X did things and where they are in a certain class.

I have a license in secondary English education, so I can teach grades six through 12, but I’ve always felt my talents would be best utilized in a high school. I never expected to teach sixth grade, but I am grateful I had the opportunity to do so. It confirmed my feelings that high school, particularly ninth grade, is where I would like to be, but I will probably change this as the years go on and my experience as a teacher grows.

So for those of you feeling lost or frustrated with the job market and bouncing around as a substitute, enjoy it. You have the chance to be placed in another teacher’s room and learn your way around it, finding his/her personality and philosophies in everything you see and touch. It’s like having an ethereal cooperating teacher there, but not there.

I was supposed to be in this long-term sub position for six weeks, but I’m cutting it short thanks to being hired with Virginia Beach City Public Schools to teach ninth and eleventh grade English. My sixth graders are sad and my heart aches a little at not seeing their unmatched enthusiasm and energy every morning, but they were so happy for me. They understood that my role was as a temporary teacher, helping them learn until Mrs. X returned. I’m hoping to carry some of that energy with me to the eleventh and ninth grade classrooms I’ll be entering in March, an experience that will bring a whole new set of challenges with it, of which I’m nervous and thrilled to be facing.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , 1 Comment »