Teaching the Class You Have, Not The Class You Want: A Letter to the Struggling Teacher

Dear Teacher:

If you are reading this post, chances are you aren’t having one of those “I change the world, I’m a teacher” days.  The days can turn into weeks, months and soon enough you are struggling to face another day at school.  You are having a rough school year.

I have been there.  I had one of “those” years.. where I felt like no matter how hard I tried, what I was doing still didn’t feel like enough.  I felt like I was standing in the middle of my own circus, shouting… and nobody wanted to listen.  I felt the outside pressures of admin not understanding my methods to try and reign in my class.  Needless to say, I felt discouraged and defeated.  Can you relate?

I loved my students as individuals.  How could I not?  Toothless smiles, bouquets of dandelions, hugs, and an excitement for school that was so rewarding for me as their teacher.

So why did I feel like I was failing them?

From the outside looking in, my class was “that” class.  The one that never won an attitude award for great behavior during specials.  The class that constantly had to be redirected in the hallway by anyone walking by.  The class that had difficulty playing nice at recess.  The class that couldn’t be at a level zero for more than 5 minutes at a time.

It would probably be worth mentioning that classroom management has been a strength of mine in previous years.  My evaluators would tell me how impressed they were with my management.  They even asked teachers who needed a few tips to come spend some time in my room and observe my students, our routines, and my management.  This chaotic circus wasn’t exactly the norm for me, needless to say.

But guess what… these kids loved to read.  They were SO excited about it, they had to talk about it with their friends.  They wanted to share the funny things happening in their books.

They also were curious and creative… so naturally they had so many questions.  They wanted explanations about the world around them.

My kiddos also were so loud during our phonics lessons, not because they were goofing around (okay, maybe a few of them were) but because they were so excited to shout the letters and sounds at me.

They had so much energy that they didn’t like to sit still.  They loved moving around the room to learn and interact with their peers.

They had imaginations that told me wonderful stories… and they sometimes had a hard time translating their creativity onto paper.  But the ideas were there.  The inspiration and the light in their eyes… it was all there.

From the outside looking in though, we were a circus.  I started to worry more about what other adults in my building thought instead of focusing on doing what was best for the 23 little people looking up to me every day.

What were the other teachers saying about my class?  About me?  Will my principal walk by at the wrong moment and think I have lost control?  What are the kids telling their parents about their class?  About me?

I had to fix it.  I had to make sure that everyone knew that I was still a great teacher.

I put on my “teacher face.”   I made sure that those kids saw it every time they were talking out of turn or doing the wrong thing.  And I also made sure that everyone else saw it too… the other teacher at the bathroom with their class, admin as we walked past the office, the specials teachers, even the lunch monitors.  They all saw my “teacher face.”  They had to see it, or so I thought, so that they knew I was not letting these kids walk all over me.

You know that sinking feeling you get when admin or another authority at your school wants to “talk” to you about your class?  I had that sinking feeling a few times, and had some tough conversations that ended in tears.

After putting my heart and soul into my work… after exhausting all of my energy on making every day as great as I could and barely having anything left for my family at night… I felt like these conversations were a direct attack on my effort and my effectiveness as an educator.

The result of these conversations were a bunch of “Well.. have you tried ___?”  And 9 times out of 10, my answer was, “Yes, I’ve tried that.”

I’m sure I don’t have to remind anyone reading this how hard it is to take classroom management advice from anyone who hasn’t spent more than 20 minutes in your classroom all year long.  That’s another post for another day.

Finally in April after another tough conversation that made me question my worth as a teacher, it was suggested that I try to implement a character and social skills curriculum in my classroom that the social worker and psychologist used for their small groups.

Great… thank you for finally giving me something that I could work with.  Thank you for supplying me with the tools I need.  But how in the world do you think I will have time for that?  It really was just another added “thing” to my jam packed day.  But, I did as I was told because I am a rule follower…

Surprise, surprise… it didn’t work.  This curriculum, while I am sure has its merits for small groups, just was not what my students needed.  It wasn’t ‘real’ enough.  They couldn’t relate.  It was cheesy, even for first grade.  I knew I was wasting my time, and even more important… I was wasting authentic learning time for my students.

Enough is enough.

I was done trying to prove to all of the adults in my building that I was still a good teacher.  I was done trying to reign in a class of personalities that was impossible to reign in.

I finally made the decision to just do what was best for my kids.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Teach the class you have, not the class you want.” ?  I needed to figure out how to reach my wild and rowdy bunch… and trying to constantly tame them every single day was not the way to do it.  I stopped being the rule follower and I stopped caring if we were gawked at as we skipped, twirled, and giggled through the hall.  We had learning to do.

  • I gave my students some extra “recess” time in our classroom.  These kids needed more time to just ‘be.’  Instead of fighting with them for their attention, I gave them time to talk to their friends.
  • I read to them more.  The only time of the day when they were 100% truly engaged was while I was reading a story to them.  Sure, I could have spent more time doing other things… but wow did these kids love books.
  • I found videos online that taught lessons to support my curriculum.  I didn’t care about that taboo about letting videos teach for me.  It was something different, and something exciting.  They were engaged and learning.
  • Our morning work went from frustrating to exciting. To an onlooker, it looked like “play time,” but to my kids, it was exploring math manipultives, working and reading together, developing social skills, learning to share… not to mention getting some of their wiggles and conversations out of the way before we started Reader’s Workshop.

These things, among others, were what they needed.  Many questioned my methods.. I could feel the judgment.  But I knew that as an educated professional… I was making the most informed and responsible educational decisions for my students.

I learned a lot of lessons that year but the most important was this:

Its always about what’s best for the kids.

I didn’t care if anyone was staring at my circus coming down the hall.  I taught my students what they needed to know.  I loved them as people.  I nurtured them and showed them the best example I could of being a positive, kind, and respectful person.

You know that little word that the admin love to throw around? DATA?  At the end of the year, my data showed everyone else what I already knew – my students learned what they needed to learn.  Shutting the door and doing what I knew was best for my kids worked.

They were wild.  They didn’t like to be quiet.  They were silly.  But they were MY wild, loud, silly and most of all SMART kids and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you are finding yourself in the midst of a tough school year, remember that you are not alone.  Also remember the reason you are a teacher – those kids.  Do what is best for the kids above anything else.

Don’t care what the teacher next door is thinking as you walk through the hall.  Don’t worry that your admin thinks you don’t have the passion anymore – you know the truth, and so do your students – they can feel it and see it in you every single day.

Ask yourself what those students sitting in front of you right now need… and do your best to give it to them.  You’ve got this.

With love and respect (and maaaybe a glass of wine!),

A Teacher Who Has Been There, Too

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