What’s best

She waits after class until everyone is gone, even rolling her eyes at a friend who normally stays pretty close. “I’ll be right there,” she says, languidly lifting her fingers to shoo the other girl away.

Now it’s quiet in the aftermath of the chaotic class period. She dips her head downward, avoiding eye contact. “What is it, Chrissy*?” I ask and then I wait while she finds her voice.

“Is it really ok with you if I sleep in class?” she whispers.

My heart breaks a little. She has been sleeping through large parts of English class for the past two weeks. Not every day, but many. Dark circles linger under her eyes. I know, more or less, what’s happening, and I know she needs the sleep. In my experience, very few students sleep in class when everything is going well, so I’ve already asked her if she wants me to wake her or let her sleep when she nods off. She chose sleep, mostly. But here she is.

I pause, wondering what she is really asking. Is she realizing that the lesson goes on while she sleeps? Is she starting to be aware of what the other students must think? My guess is that she’s all too familiar with those two things. Ah…maybe she’s asking if we’re still ok, if I can still care for this animal part of her.

“Listen,” I say, “I am here to help you be the very best Chrissy that you can be. Some days, that means you need sleep; some days, that means you need to be awake for class. We can work together to figure out when you need what.”

She looks relieved? doubtful? wary?

“You think my job is to teach English.” She nods. “I think my job is to teach you, the whole you. And sometimes you need to sleep.”

“Really?” she asks, wonderingly.

“The whole Chrissy,” I respond and she smiles.

Is this the right decision? I don’t know. She needs to grow into the strong woman she is meant to become. To do that, she needs to read and write and learn. She needs vocabulary to express herself and knowledge to help her make sense of the world. But there’s no growth without sleep and there’s no sleep where she’s staying right now.

“We’ve got this,” I tell her. She wiggles her fingers at me as she heads out the door to join her friend

* Not her real name
***************************************

I call four homes tonight. Four times I report that their student has lied, has broken the rules, has been rude. With each phone call, with each parent, I talk about wanting to support their child, wanting them to do well. With each phone call, the parents worry:
“My child’s grades have gone down and I don’t know why.”
“Do you think he is spending time with the wrong people?”
“He just doesn’t understand how hard it will be to go to university.”
“I am afraid he has forgotten all the work we did to make his life better.”

My heart breaks a little.

I try to allow each conversation its own space; I try to tell each parent something good about their child; nevertheless, I am calling because I am angry about the lies, angry about the behaviour. I tell the parents, tell myself, that I am calling because I want what is best for each child – I want them to learn more, to engage, to do better – but as I hang up after the last call, I wonder if I have made the right decision. I don’t know. They need to grow into the strong people they are meant to become. To do that, they need to learn. They need to listen to voices that are not their own and find ways to speak truth, not lies, to power. But there’s little growth in anger and they are angry right now.

In fact, one student emails, furious, before bed. They’re probably all mad, but he’s the only one who has written. Yet. My response is fact-based and terse. Yes, I do believe that he lied. Yes, his father did ask about his cell phone in class and no, he’s not managing it well. Or at all, really. I end with a stereotypical teacher phrase: “We will talk about this tomorrow.” I do not try to tell him that I want what is best for him. I’m not sure I know what that is.

Just add salsa

I was still grumpy from school nonsense when I got home. Since the time changed this weekend, I’ve been walking in the mornings, but my husband took one look at me and suggested I should maybe take an evening walk, too. I declined. He backed out of the kitchen, supposedly to go finish some work.

I stewed.
I scrolled.
I texted.
I muttered.

Finally, I had to admit that none of this was making me feel any better at all. And since I was filling the kitchen with my frustration, no one was making dinner, either. Even Mr. 11 – hungry, as ever, 20 minutes before dinner time – had abandoned the space when I glared and said he could not have a snack. Harumph.

At least if I was alone in the kitchen, I could play my own music. My finger hovered over my list – this was not the moment to let some app determine what I needed to hear – and I landed on Dream in Blue by Los Lobos. I heated water for the pasta and smiled at the thought of Patrick – his horror at my unformed musical taste; his insistence that I listen to, well, everything; his eclectic music the soundtrack to our relationship and the fun we had while it lasted and we listened. 

By now I was reheating the chili and cutting the bread. When the song ended, I didn’t hesitate: very sharp knife in hand, I found Carlos Vives and cranked the volume on Pa Mayte. Ah… My feet started moving, then my hips, and despite the fact that I was in the kitchen making dinner for my family, despite the fact that I will turn 50 in two short weeks, I was back in Chief Ike’s Mambo Room with Linda, sweaty and happy as we danced with whichever partner was nearby, danced after-hours until we were so tired that only their hands and the music held us up. I was at the Gipsy Kings concert dancing on the lawn and I was in Belize, with Amy and Janny and no, I don’t remember how we ended up at the club, but oh, we danced until our feet hurt and we took our shoes off and danced barefoot and then…

Well, then the pasta was done and the chili was warm. Andre came in and turned down the volume because he needed to tell me something. The kids tumbled in and we sat for dinner. And it was good, life was good, life is good.

(especially if you can fit in a little salsa)

The privilege of support

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about kids and classroom behaviour. The same week that I wrote it, the same week that I laughingly remembered some of the things my friends and I got up to in 8th grade, the same week that I blithely assumed that my long-ago teachers “didn’t write Michelle off or worry that she would turn out to be a bad one” – implying, of course, that they didn’t write off any of us – that very same week, Matthew Morris wrote something very different in his post What My Teachers Were Saying About Me

Matthew, a Black male educator in an elementary school in Toronto, wonders what his teachers were saying about him and his friends back when they were in school, in part because he hears what other teachers are saying *right now* about the students in front of them. And the conversations he overhears – “(that boy) is gonna’ end up in jail. Kid just doesn’t know how to get out of his own way” or “(that girl)  is going to end up pregnant by 16, watch” – are not the ones that I was imagining in my post.

As I read his post, my heart sank: no matter how many times I encounter it, I am always shocked when I find another way I experience privilege. I never – never – wondered if my teachers said bad things about me. I mean, maybe they got annoyed with me or kids like me, but I don’t think a single one of my teachers ever sat in a staff room and  predicted a negative life outcome for me. Nor did they think that any of my friends – no matter how outrageous – were going to end up pregnant at 16 or in jail. Now, I should be clear that there were no Black students in our magnet program in suburban South Carolina. We were smart wealthy white kids. We were going places. 

Never mind the fact – the FACT – that a boy in the class above me, a nice smart rich white boy, actually *did* end up in jail while we were still in high school. Never mind the fact that I know of at least two girls who *did* end up pregnant while we were still in high school – and I’d bet there were more.

What does it mean to live in a world where you have every reason to suspect that the people who educate you, who are supposed to be helping you create pathways to your future, also think that you are likely to go nowhere? What does it mean to live, instead, in a world where even your bad behaviour is written off as youthful indiscretions? What does it mean that the colour of a child’s skin might be -no, is –  the difference between these two things?

A few years ago I attended a conference that brought together teachers, support workers, and school resource officers – a community of support. One of the keynote speakers that year was a police chief from the States who had transformed the way her department dealt with kids whose parents were involved with drugs, many of whom were Black children. She told a “before story about an officer at a drug bust handing a baby over to a social worker and saying, “Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you in about 16 years.” The social worker nodded in resignation. A baby. A BABY. The very people who were supposed to be protecting this child had already decided their life’s outcome. And statistically, they weren’t wrong.

I cried after her talk, but the future chief didn’t bother with crying. She got to work and changed the way the community handled these children. She made sure that children’s futures were not about their skin colour or their parents’ faults. She created a community of support, looked at the systemic problems and made changes.

I’ve been thinking about Matthew’s post for a week now, and I’ve been thinking about that police officer. I’ve been thinking about what my teachers said about me and what Matthew’s teachers said about him. I’ve been thinking an awful lot about what I hear other teachers saying as well as what I say or believe about the children in my classroom and in all the classrooms in the school.

I think it’s time for me to be 100% sure that my students know how much I believe in them. In twenty years when they look back at their schooling, I hope their memories are like mine – full of the certainty that the adults in the school buoyed them up, even behind closed doors – and not like Matthew’s. Every child should be lifted by the adults around them. That should not be a privilege but a given.

PS – You should follow Matthew. His voice is powerful. https://www.matthewrmorris.com/

Forswunk

I felt fine when I woke up on Sunday morning. Well, maybe not 100%, but pretty good. We had a fun morning ahead, so I took something for my headache and got on with the day. By lunchtime, I knew the headache wasn’t going away. And I was starting to realize that my digestive system was also unhappy. Plus, I was exhausted despite a good night’s sleep. I was sick.

Before I could ease my aching body into a warm tub, I checked our public health site: none of my symptoms warranted a COVID test in a vaccinated adult. Phew. I’d gotten the flu shot the day before, and my symptoms *did* match reactions to that.

The day wore on. I didn’t get any better, and I didn’t get any work done. Sometime Sunday evening, through the haze of the headache and nausea, I recognized my dilemma: should I call in sick?

This was a more complicated decision than usual. This year, secondary teachers teach two two-and-a-half-hour classes every day for one week. The next week, we “only” teach one of those blocks, though to different students. On paper, this looks reasonable, but in reality, it’s exhausting. Planning lessons that are effective, engaging, and well-paced – and also accessible to students who can’t attend in person if they are sick or quarantining – and that work within the arc of a week (because 9 days later, few students remember exactly what we were doing), well, it’s a lot. Being in the classroom, on my feet, engaging students, making changes on the fly, making sure everyone is learning, for five hours: also a lot. Add in a few meetings – at least two per week – outside of class time and then, of course, the marking. That’s really a lot. 

Taken altogether, this means that every weekend I need to work for at least five or six hours just to keep up. Is this a strain on my family? Yes. Is this a strain on me? Yes. Should I be doing something different, more efficient, more effective, more… I don’t know… better? Probably, but this is what I’ve got right now and, frankly, I’m too tired to choose anything else.

And now I was sick, so I’d lost most of my weekend planning and marking time. Pre-Covid, I could have waited to see how I felt Monday morning; there was a good chance I would feel fine and I hate missing classes. Plus, my grade 9 class does best with consistency, already hard to maintain with nine days between classes. Pre-Covid, I wouldn’t have worried that calling in sick first thing in the morning would mean that one of my colleagues would have to cover my class. They still would have covered my class, of course, but they wouldn’t have been so incredibly tired; their prep time wouldn’t have been so incredibly necessary. If I declared my absence Sunday night, the school could hire a supply teacher instead of further swamping someone who was already up to their eyeballs in muck. And then there’s the truth that pre-Covid, I wouldn’t have been facing down a week so busy that I already felt smothered; I would have been better able to spread out my work; I would have had more flexibility because I wouldn’t have been planning for huge swaths of time and not everything had to be pre-created and available online. 

I was forswunk*, exhausted before I even began. Even the decision to take a sick day was overwhelming.

In the end, I took the day. I forced my muddled brain to re-write the lessons I had so that they would be accessible to a supply teacher, emailed all the right people, and fell, exhausted, into my bed.  I did, indeed, feel a good bit better on Monday, though I needed a lot of extra sleep. And what did I do on my sick day? I worked.

Forswunk. Overworked. No idea why that word is obsolete.

*https://www.wordsense.eu/forswunk/

Post-pandemic classroom chaos

Somewhere in the middle of Week One, I had to confiscate the thumbtacks and hide the Sharpies because some of my grade 9 students were using them “inappropriately”. Yup, they were poking each other and drawing, well, everywhere. During Week Three, someone repurposed a pin as a tiny rapier and surreptitiously attacked their classmates. Someone else found spitballs in their hair. I have had to keep both a basketball and a model rocket (“it really works”) at my desk.

Since then, I’ve reminded people to sit down – and reminded and reminded and reminded – not to swear in class (at least not at other people), not to talk while others are talking, not to throw spitballs (seriously, who does that anymore?) or erasers or anything, really, and finally – and somehow most shockingly – not to tie pencils into their hair and then swing their head around to see what will happen. Sometimes I feel like an ogre, but I promise that I am not: I’m just helping students remember how to interact with a group of people outside of their family, a group of people with a purpose beyond amusement. 

To make school better for them, I’ve surveyed students about their interests, offered them choice in reading and choice of writing topics. I’ve tried to create activities that allow students to move (we’ve only recently been allowed to let students work in small groups – I think – it’s hard to keep up with the rules) and to work with peers (or not, if they prefer). I’ve tried to identify learning barriers in my classroom and begun to work towards influencing the ones I can. I let students leave their backpacks in my room at lunchtime (no lockers), and I chat with them whenever they pop by. I’ve played innumerable games of tic-tac-toe with one student who doesn’t yet believe me that, played properly, it will always be a tie.

We take long breaks outdoors during each 2.5 hour class. We get social breaks during class time and… it’s exhausting. Teachers everywhere – not just in my school or my city or even my province – teachers I know from all over North America are talking about how different the kids are this year, how they are wild or immature or out of practice. We tell each other that they have forgotten how to school. And they have. Some of the stories are wild – a purposely broken finger, destroyed bathrooms, public displays of what should be very private acts. And all around us, non-teachers share their opinions: articles, podcasts, tweets and posts tell us that this chaos is good – let’s get rid of compliance and control! – or bad – learning loss is awful and they will never catch up! – but we’re still left with 26 fourteen year olds in a small space for hours every day.

I want to complain – heck, I do complain – but sometime last week I remembered a story about my friend Michelle. Michelle who teaches elementary school, who’s married to a pastor and has raised two lovely children. Michelle who collects picture books signed by the author and is incredibly thoughtful. Michelle who is one of the kindest people you could ever meet. But that’s not the story. Instead, I remembered that when we were in 8th grade she kicked Ken in the groin – hard. I don’t remember why. I do remember that we girls only vaguely understood that this was profoundly painful. I do remember that a teacher pulled her aside and explained exactly why this was particularly wrong – and that later she told us, astonished, about how much damage this could do. She was terribly chagrined – there were tears – and apologized quite sincerely. Ken recovered and 8th grade continued apace, this action soon overshadowed by someone else’s particularly stupid decision.

Until this year, until last week, in fact, I had never thought about what our 8th grade teachers must have said in the teachers’ lounge afterwards. I suspect that they shook their heads ruefully and maybe chuckled a little at the drama of the situation. I imagine that they took some deep breaths and made comments about 8th graders and immaturity. I’m pretty sure they didn’t write Michelle off or worry that she would turn out to be a bad one. I don’t think they decided that we as a group were a particularly mean or immature. I bet they took it all in stride. I bet that they don’t remember the incident at all. Or maybe – maybe – if someone mentioned it now they would have some recollection of it. Heck, I hadn’t thought about this for 30+ years; I’m not sure if Michelle even really remembers this. I mean, we’ve all done some really stupid things.

Now, as I look at my pandemic kiddos who are causing chaos in our classrooms, I have to shake my head. I’m not saying that this year isn’t a wild one – it is wild. I may not bring the thumbtacks back out before Christmas, and I’m not sure I’ll ever trust this group with Sharpies. And yet, when I’m not in the middle of it, when I’ve blinked back the tears of exhaustion and the vice principal has, again, reassured me that this is happening in all of the classes – after all of that, I realize that I had to bite my lip to stop myself from laughing about the pencils tied into the braids. And the kids aren’t the only ones who’ve slipped up on the cursing once or twice; I mean, I’ve been stuck at home during a pandemic, too. I’m pretty sure that the spitballs will dry up over time, and I have a feeling that some of the kids who can’t stay seated for more than about 30 seconds may turn out to be school leaders in a few years. Heck, maybe they’ll even be teachers someday – Michelle is and so am I. After all, pandemic or no pandemic, adolescence is always a little chaotic, right? Deep breaths, a little laughter, and a long-range view are going to help.

Many thanks to http://www.twowritingteachers.org for hosting this space.

Where’s the joy?

I can’t remember when I noticed that one of my blogging buddies, Jess, has an interesting little paradox between her blog url https://wheresthejoy.wordpress.com/ (“Where’s the joy”) and her blog name “Where There’s Joy”. I think about it at the oddest moments, and I’ve thought about it a lot this week.

On Thursday, Sept 30, Canada recognized its first National Truth and Reconciliation Day. I spent the week sharing various videos and articles about Indigeneity, trying to give my classes enough to make them think but not so much that they ignored me completely. On the day itself, our school board shared video opening and closing remarks by Monique Manatch, Knowledge Keeper Algonquin of Barriere Lake. Her remarks, along with the remarks of our Director, Camille Williams-Taylor, highlighted the ideas of belonging and of school as a place of joy and love. 

My students were incredulous – to the point of nervous laughter. “Joy? In school?” “That is not how I would describe school.” When Ms Williams-Taylor said, ““Let’s use this land for sites where… all students’ learning spirits are set free to develop and soar,” someone snorted. After a brief discussion, I let it go, knowing we would return to this later.

This week, thanks to our less-than-stellar Covid scheduling, I have an entirely different group of kids – in a class called “Understanding Contemporary First Nation, Metis and Inuit Voices” (aka grade 11 English) which I am teaching for the first time. As they trickled into the classroom on Monday afternoon, I scrambled to remember all of their names – after all, we’d been apart for more days than we had been together. When I asked, they let me know that they hadn’t done “anything much” the previous week in honour of Truth and Reconciliation Day and, as they slowly settled in to read their books, I realized that I didn’t even need to ask them if they found joy in school: I could tell that the answer was no, at least not in this class.

In her opening, Monique Manatch told us, “The Indigenous paradigm is based on relationships. Our whole reality is based on relationships…and with relationships comes reciprocity.” Can I be in relationship with people whose names I can barely remember?* Can I use this course to build relationship? What about joy? I honestly don’t know.

Honestly, I feel wildly underprepared for this course. Oh, I’ve read a lot of books by various First Nations, Metis and Inuit authors – quite a few, frankly. I’ve participated in a virtual book club with Indigenous speakers and attended trainings with our board’s Indigenous coaches. I went to the various PD sessions, and I have done a reasonable amount of research, watching, listening, learning. In fact, I think I’ve done just the wrong amount: I know enough to know exactly how little I know. Now, I’m trying to teach English skills and Indigenous voices, and I’m pretty sure I’m failing at both. It’s humbling.

More than humbling, it’s horrifying. I don’t want to get this wrong; I can’t get this wrong. I don’t want these students to leave the course with only a surface knowledge of these important voices. I don’t want their eyes to glaze over during the Land Acknowledgement, their phones to come out when we speak of treaties and teachings. I feel caught between what I know (English skills, the curriculum documents, the trappings of our white society) and what I don’t (enough about anything outside of my own narrow culture, really). 

I want this class to be joyful – though, like Ursula LeGuin, I am stuck with the question, How is one to tell about joy? What does joy look like in the classroom? What would it mean for these students to experience joy in this classroom on this day? How do I show them that they can do hard things, learn new things, work in new ways and experience joy? How do I convince them that the joy matters as much as the grades?

I don’t know. I just don’t know. But I keep thinking about the question/answer that I find in Jess’s blog.

“Where’s the joy?” 
“Where there’s joy.” 

Wish me luck and learning and maybe love and joy as I muddle my way through this course for the first time. May I do justice to the Algonquin people on whose lands I teach and to all others whose lands were stolen in the name of nation building.

Many thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org/ who host bloggers each week.

* As someone who regularly forgets names, I would argue that I can, to some extent: I chat regularly with neighbours and coworkers whose names I have forgotten. Often I know quite a bit about them. Usually my partner or a kind colleague can enlighten me once I work up the courage to ask.

100 words

He has written 100 words.

“100!” He  puts down his pencil. “Done.”

“Not done,” I say. 

He glares. He wrote 100 words. Mostly about a dog bite. Some about a broken arm. He added the broken arm because he didn’t have 100 words about the bite.

I talk about telling a story, about narrative arc, about sensory detail and dialogue. 

Done done done. “You said 100 words.” He plays tic-tac-toe with his friend.

But… what about that dog, that bite. Was he big? Did it hurt?

He waits. I wait. Two days. Then he picks up his pencil and writes.

(Today’s exit ticket was “one thing you learned”. His response: “I’m not a bad writer even though I thought I was.”)

Well, I asked…

By the last few minutes of class on the Thursday of the first full week of school, I was losing my voice and, occasionally, my patience – and I was trying to disguise both. My brand new grade 9 students were, ahem, perhaps not as prepared for high school as students in other years – and I’m not talking about academics.

I expected this, of course. They’ve been in pandemic schooling, such as it was, for a year and a half. They haven’t been in a physical school building since April. During that same time, I watched my own child, only one year younger than the motley group in front of me, try to “multitask” by playing video games during particularly dull social studies lessons and attempt to learn while sprawling & squirming in a beanbag. I know that on-line school and in person are different beasts. But it’s September and we’re back in person and the pandemic continues, so we’ve put a bunch of 14-year-olds into classes that last two and a half hours each. Even if their teachers give them a 15 minute break during the class before mine, they still don’t get much motion. They are not prepared for this.

On Thursday, I stood in front of them as they popped out of their seats, asked to use the restroom, snuck out their phones, played tic-tac-toe during writing time and talked during instruction. Behind my mask, I bit my lower lip to hide a smile, but I knew that the chaos needed to be tamed – at least a little – before we could learn. So I asked what they needed.

“More time outside!”
“More free time!”
“Time to use our phones!
“Time to talk to our friends!”

Time time time – of course they wanted the thing I felt the least inclined to give. Time in class is too precious to waste. I harumphed. I definitely said, “Well, I’ll think about it” in the annoying way that adults say they’ll think about something when they mean “I’ll say no tomorrow.”

And then a strange thing happened: I thought about it. Thursday evening, I kept picturing S waving his hand in the air or K up and out of his seat again. I saw M sliding her phone out of the desk, eyeing me to see if I was watching. I thought about Matthew Kay’s book Not Light, But Fire and his suggestion that teachers “burn five minutes” at the beginning of class for chatting and getting to know students and their concerns. I thought of Cornelius Minor’s We Got This, which I’m rereading, and his insistence that listening is teachers’ superpower. I know that true listening means both hearing what the students are saying and responding to it by making changes in the classroom.

As I sat in front of the computer, revising Friday’s lesson plan to include the myriad things that we had not gotten to on Thursday, the students’ communication – spoken and unspoken – ran through my head. They were going to take the time they needed whether I “gave” it to them or not. They had trusted me enough to share what they thought would help them learn. My job was to listen.

I looked at the lesson plan again and added the word “apologize” to the top.

Friday, I started by telling them that I was sorry I hadn’t listened carefully the day before. I told them that it took me a while, but I had heard them, and I showed them where I had built in outdoor time, chat time & phone time. I wish I could tell you that they magically settled into their desks and learned, but they didn’t. I still ended up confiscating pushpins (no, you cannot use them to poke your friends) and telling one student that he simply had to find a way to stop wandering the room. Nevertheless, they know I heard them. I suspect that things will get better… maybe next week.

The day before the day before

It’s almost five o’clock on Tuesday evening. I am sitting at a student desk in the front of my classroom because, as it turns out, that’s where the plug is. While I know this means I will probably need to rearrange my classroom tomorrow, that’s ok. I like this view: I can see all of my bookshelves, full and mostly organized – the result of hours and hours of work. Truly, it’s not nearly enough books, but I’ve collected them by hook and by crook – a few dollars here, a used book there, an occasional email plea – so I’m please with how many I have. To walk into this room is to know we read here.

The small classroom window to my right is open and, because the door to my left is ajar, I can feel a gentle air current that’s slightly at odds with the rhythmic sound of basketballs on the court outside. A community court, I think, it has been busy all day but now the grunts and laughter seem louder because the school is quieter. I know that this quiet is telling me to go home, and I will. I will. I will.

I look up again. The bulletin boards are still largely bare and the black space stares at me, reminding me of things to come. I haven’t yet put up my posters – that’s for tomorrow. I don’t have too many and they’re not too big, but I like the pop of colour they bring and I value the welcoming words on each one. I know, too, that I must leave these boards empty for now so that my students can make this space their own. Soon they will be here and their work will fill our spaces. Soon, the room will not be mine, but ours. I wonder what it will look like? I wonder who will be in this space? I look up again, taking it in, trying to be in the moment and failing.

I am not in this moment – the moment of the books and the breeze and the basketball and the blank bulletin boards. My poor system is still settling from the three fire alarms today – all accidental, all forcing us outside, forcing us to be in the now when we are desperately trying to prepare for the future, for Thursday when the students arrive.

I am back there, under the tree during a fire alarm, having an impromptu department meeting to discuss class assignments. I am in the hallways, trying to learn everyone’s names, realizing again and again the importance of faces that I cannot see. And I am already in the bookroom again, tomorrow, shelving one final box of books. I am already imagining where I will place the posters that are now on the desk in front of me. If it’s here, can they read it? Where will they sit? Who will take comfort in or find courage from these words? Who will they be, these students? Who are they now, in their homes, at their jobs, maybe on the basketball court, bouncing, bouncing and loving these last hours of summer?

Whoever they are, I hope they know that these moments right before the classroom fills, these moments are full of trembling anticipation for me, their teacher, too. Today I am in the past and in the future. Thursday – Thursday! – I will be in the moment and we will begin a new school year and the mysterious alchemy of learning and loving learning will start to work and then… magic.

One more deep breath. Now to close the windows, stop the breeze and go home.

Nervous Excitement

I’m teaching at a new school this year. Now, there are a few things you should know about this before I continue:

  1. I was at my previous school for eight years and I loved it.
  2. This was my choice. I mean, I interviewed for this position, said yes & everything. On purpose.
  3. I have moved schools before – a lot. In my twenty some years of teaching, I’ve taught at seven schools (counting overseas; not counting my practice teaching). 
  4. I am nervous every. single. time. 

Number four begs the question of why I keep moving. Well… sometimes I had a one-year contract (overseas); once I got married and moved to a different continent; twice I was ‘surplused’ (had a contract, but no placement in that school). Only once before have I intentionally decided to move. Both that time and this one I was ready for a new challenge and sought out the right opportunity: I’m going to be head of a department that the Principal is calling “Global Citizenship and Literacy” – English, Languages, History & Social Sciences – how cool is that? Does it sound like I’m trying to convince myself that this was a good decision? Yup, here I am, nervous.

So far I’ve mostly been able to pour my nerves into cleaning. First, I threw away a bunch of nasty old books that no student should have to receive as a class book along with a few frankly racist books that we really didn’t need to keep as a class set. For the first time in 13 years I have my own room, so I’ve been cleaning (paper alone took one full day – the teacher in there before me retired & pretty much left everything behind). Today I started unpacking and organizing. My mother is visiting me and a 13-year-old friend of mine is an organizing genius, so I recruited them to help me out. We worked through the morning until our eyes were red with dust and we were sneezing into our masks. We worked until we’d drunk all the water we brought and really needed lunch. We worked until we were tired enough that we were spending a lot of time talking about the books we liked and less time putting them on the shelves. There’s more to go – I have a LOT of books – but things are starting to take shape.

Wait a minute. Truth: while they threw away the dried-up pens and White-out that seemed to lurk in every drawer and cubby, or decided whether to place a book in “realistic fiction” or “Canadian”, I was in and out of the room, starting to meet my new colleagues, chatting about summer, classroom assignments, course assignments, books and pedagogy. We’re all feeling each other out, looking for commonalities, checking to see how we’ll fit together. 

“Do you think that we should all teach one book in each grade so that students have a shared experience?” No, I don’t. 

Gatsby is one of my favourite books.”
Oh, how I love Gatsby, though I no longer teach it as a class novel.

“Don’t you think that Of Mice and Men will make a “comeback” some day?”
Nope, though I’ve taught it before and I loved it for a long time. 

“I know that the students probably need to build up their literacy skills after a year and a half of Covid. What will you prioritize in your classes this year?”
That one’s easy: joy. 

“Joy?”
Yes, and laughter.

Nervous nervous nervous. Will my colleagues like me? Will my pedagogy be too “out there”? What if I can’t teach these students? (Honestly, I have worried about this at every school. You’d think I would have learned by now.) What if this doesn’t work? What if… what if… what if…

A few years ago, when students’ final project in English was to deliver a TED Talk, I used to play Kelly McGonigal’s talk, How to Make Stress Your Friend. To be honest, sometimes if students are stressy enough, I still do. Over and over, I have listened to her tell us that stress can be energizing, preparing us to meet a challenge, that it can feel like joy and challenge. Joy. This is the message I keep with me. It’s okay for me to be nervous, stressed or even – gasp – scared. This is normal. This is good. This is why I decided it was time for a change. I need to be challenged; I am ready for something new. My task now is to remember that these nerves have an upside. My journey is to find the challenge and meet it with excitement.

When I came home from cleaning, after buying lunch for my amazing helpers (Thanks, Mom), my own children were hanging around, savouring the last days of summer. “How are you feeling, Mom?” they wanted to know. “Nervous,” I said, “Nervous and excited.” 

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