This question could take on literal and metaphorical implications, so I’ll address them both.
Literally, why am I here? I originally started blogging at Blogspot but my blog was sort of a mess. I intended it as a dual-focus blog, dealing with aspects of my professional and personal life, and it kind of didn’t make sense. I found myself wanting to begin a post but then feeling overwhelmed with the sheer volume of things swimming about in my brain that I wanted to pour out in writing. So I’d procrastinate and procrastinate, and eventually do what most procrastinators do with things they habitually put off — I just gave up on it. In the meantime, I decided that I wanted to write about other things, too. So I started up my personal blog, Barefoot Panda, here at WordPress. Turned out that I really enjoyed writing about my life, my people, yoga, food, travelling, and dancing, so a few dozen posts later, I found a pretty decent level of comfort with the site. So in a nutshell, I’m here, blogging at WordPress, because it’s easier to keep my two blogs on the same platform.
Figuratively speaking, why I’m here is a bit trickier. As I mentioned, I basically gave up on my teaching blog last Spring. I wanted to keep doing it, but always found reasons not to do it. I guess it’s how people deal with stuff they don’t really want to deal with. I came back in the late Spring to post about a pretty lame situation: I’d been displaced in the staffing shuffle. I was coming to expect it, simply because there was a lot of movement among English Language Arts teachers this past year and I knew that my job was pretty cushy. As a teacher without her continuous contract, my job is always in danger. So I packed up all my things and, with a stroke of luck, found myself in a full time position at a junior high for the new school year.
Moving to junior high was, for lack of a better word, a complete culture shock. I knew, basically, what to expect from the kids. I didn’t know what to expect now that I was no longer an English teacher, but rather a Social Studies teacher for the most part. I have no experience with Social Studies. I’m an English person at heart and the ELA classroom is what makes my heart go pitter-pat (Does anyone’s healthy heart actually go pitter-pat?). And I’ll admit, I do have a class of ELA 7, but along with that and the four Social Studies classes I teach, I also have Science 7 and Health 7. This isn’t the worst “bowl of M&Ms” schedule I’ve ever seen or had, but it’s given me pause.
Within the first two weeks, I felt paralyzed. It was like an out-of-body experience as I watched my hands passing out worksheets, I heard my voice delivering history lectures and reminding students to “write this down,” and I felt my face frown disapprovingly a half dozen times per day. None of these things were part of what I believed is my teaching approach. And yet, whenever I’d try something even a little bit freeform or open-ended, my grade sevens would invariably implode. They can’t handle it. It’s almost like worksheets are how they function because they need strict parameters in place to be productive. Some of my kids hand in their work on lined paper that is backwards and upside down. Some of my kids can’t speak English. At all. Some of my kids don’t know that sentences begin with capital letters. So I kind of found myself going back to square one.
I made worksheets. I made the heck out of those worksheets. They’re beautiful. And I feel ashamed for making them. I’m not saying that worksheets are without merit, but I certainly don’t think they do anything worthwhile for anyone except give kids something to work on while their teacher sits around. That’s not what I want, nor is it what I like. But I felt stuck. Everyone else is doing it in my school. The kids respond well to it. I couldn’t think of anything else.
Why couldn’t I think of anything else?
At the high school from whence I came (“From whence I came?” Ha. That’s such a stupid phrase, but it is also deliciously nerdy), I taught English. Just English. It was basically my dream job, save for all the marking… even then, I guess you could say the marking was a nightmare. I spent two years really focusing on providing opportunities for my students to branch out and choose their own paths of interest. I tried to give them choice in everything they did, I tried to emphasize collaboration, I introduced new ways of doing or thinking about things. I wanted their education to be dynamic, so I tried to be dynamic. And for the last month that I’ve been doing junior high, somehow I lost track of that. It’s not like it disappeared from my teaching philosophy. It’s just that suddenly, I was a Social teacher and I didn’t know what to do with the skills I’d cultivated in the English classroom. You’d think it would be easy to make the switch, but it really wasn’t.
I routinely felt anxiety over my work. I fretted that I wasn’t a good teacher. I have one class that drives me insane some days and I found myself yelling at them one day, and actively thinking, “My God, is that my voice? When did I ever become a yeller? What have I become?” I’d go through presentation slides and patiently wait for my young charges to scrawl the points down in their notes. And yeah, I consider myself to be a pretty skilled and engaging lecturer, but who wants to lecture all the time?! It’s like saying you’re good at making potato salad. Sure, maybe your potato salad is the best potato salad ever. But at its best, it’s still just a nice side dish. Sometimes it’s the perfect thing to have. But it’s not ever the main course, and no one wants to eat potato salad every meal, every day. Lecturing, for me, is like potato salad. In my classroom, student learning is the main course. Lecturing is just something that gets plopped in there sometimes to make the facilitation of learning a little better rounded/balanced/structured. But really, if I had my way, the main course should be primarily student-driven. I don’t want my voice to be the main component of any lesson. I want to hear my students talk. I want to hear their questions, their answers, their comments, their opinions, and their stories.
And yet, there I was, talking up a storm for forty-seven-minute blocks.
You can see how the problems began for me and why I ended every single day feeling drained and unsettled. This wasn’t me. Was I doomed to squish myself into the worksheet-happy, lecture-addicted teacher mold that I rejected so early into my career? Was I going to lose my skills from teaching high school? Would this experience be a setback rather than a growing opportunity? Would I allow the limitations of my students to hinder my progress as a teacher? I just didn’t know what to think anymore. Wrestling with these questions is what brought me here. I felt that having somewhere to work through these ideas, having a place to document my thoughts and triumphs and failures would keep me humble and serve as a sort of record of my journey as I renegotiate my teaching identity.
I’ve had a few breakthroughs and have arrived at a couple important conclusions. They are conclusions that I basically already knew on an intellectual level, but I think I’m now coming to understand more fully what the deep-rooted implications are.
1) That last question I posed two paragraphs ago — “Would I allow the limitations of my students to hinder my progress as a teacher?” — was stupid. For the first few weeks, I was so busy thinking, “My kids can’t do this, my kids can’t do that. My kids are limited, so I can’t do as much for them,” that I almost tricked myself into believing that I was the disadvantaged one. The truth that I’ve known deep in my heart this whole time is that it’s not my students who are limited — it’s me. My students are exactly as they should be. They’re twelve-year-olds, for Pete’s sake. They are obnoxiously loud, they are painfully quiet, they are earnest and apathetic, combative and resigned. They span the gamut. Some are reading To Kill a Mockingbird for fun while others can hardly read books meant for seven-year-olds. It’s not their job to be strong for me. It’s my job to be strong for them. My progress as a teacher is hindered only by my own limitations, not theirs. I’ve embraced this with intense sincerity especially in the last week and am trying to remember that they aren’t the only ones with a lot of learning and growing to do this year.
2) The second thing I’ve concluded is that I only stand to lose my “high school skills” if I don’t use them, which is ultimately my choice. And on that note, “high school skills” is basically a misnomer. It has nothing to do with high school. The methods I used in high school were the same methods used in kindergarten. Give students room to explore on their own. Set up centers. Let them puzzle over things. Let them create. Talk to them about their lives. Treat lecture as a side dish rather than a main course.
I’m afraid that I do tend to be long-winded and although I will honestly try to keep my posts briefer in the future, I guess for now, you know why I’m here.
I’m here to write about teaching, to worry about teaching, to celebrate, to mourn, to be honest, to reflect, and hopefully, to be a better teacher because of it.