On Teaching and Learning
Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and get a “do-over” for my first year of teaching.
I was so excited about engaging kids with literature that I didn’t fully engage with the kids themselves. I thought I did, but it was a superficial exercise. I didn’t really know those kids. I didn’t know how to be vulnerable with students, how to invite their vulnerability in building a safe classroom.
I thought that rigor = zero tolerance for slip-ups. No work by the deadline? Zero in the gradebook, no extensions, no excuses. Tardies? Detention. I didn’t understand that rigor means high standards combined with the guidance to reach them and the compassion to make adjustments as necessary. I hadn’t yet learned that my students were as human as me. I also hadn’t yet learned to give myself the same breaks and empathy that I would learn to give them.
This year, I believe I taught complex texts and skills and held students accountable. My rigor focused on challenges that asked students to be creative and analyze issues and language.
My favorite and most important lessons had less to do with the Common Core and more to do with developing reflective, critical thinkers. When they read about and discussed issues of gender, race, equity, the individual vs. the community, I saw them grow as human beings.
That is what I love about my job: facilitating these opportunities for personal growth. One of the highest compliments I have ever received came today: a freshman told me that I was “the most understanding teacher I have ever had. I mean, you understand us.” That is my mission. To understand my students, to make them see that they matter, that their voices can and should be heard.
As a result, my students open up about their anxieties and concerns. Not just stressed because: Procrastination, Lack of Sleep, Homework Load, Getting Homework Load done in time not already taken by sports, music, theater, volunteering, church, and family–the usual suspects. But also stressed because: Can I keep grades up enough and get enough service hours and excel enough at my activities to get into college? What if I don’t get in to college? How will I afford college? How will I know what my dreams even are, with how my parents are pushing me to go in this direction?
I gave them space to talk and read and ponder these hard questions. And yesterday I gave them this letter:
My dear students,
Many times this year you have talked about your stressors: grades, the time commitments of extra activities, getting into college, paying for college, figuring out a career, balancing school and other schedules with a personal life.
I know these stressors. I was one of you once, stressed to the point of sleeplessness and physical illness. All of you will forge your own path, find your own strategies that work, and have your own defining experiences that will teach you better than any words can. Still, if it helps, here are some things I have learned over time to help manage stress and anxiety so they don’t manage me.
Manage your expectations. Another way to say this is, “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” Much negativity comes out of expectations not matching up with what actually happens. Examine your expectations and assumptions regularly, and look honestly at reality.
Trust. Mick Jagger sang it well: “You can’t always get what you want, but[…]you get what you need.” Things may not happen the way you planned, but I truly believe that the Universe gives us what we need to grow into our best selves.
Be mindful about your mindset. Adversity is inevitable; misery is optional. Breathe into the present moment. Let go. Reframe your thinking about what’s stressing you out. Practice gratitude. You are the narrator of your own story.
You are never truly stuck. Part of living and growing is learning from your experiences, even the undesired ones. If you make a mistake, most of the time you can fix it or make a different choice next time. If you are flexible with your options, you won’t feel trapped by things beyond your control. Because there are always things beyond your control.
The truest truth I have learned is that we can control one thing in life: our choices. One thing. Just one. We wish we could control other people’s choices, our deadlines, the weather, but really we just have our choices. Lousy, huh? Unfair. But true.
Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” The older we get, the more at peace we can be with uncertainty. Here’s another great quote about that, this one by Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet:
“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Vulnerability, very much associated with stress, is hard to accept. But what makes us uncomfortable, anxious, and exposed to hurt also allows us to take risks, engage, grow, and have a fully-lived life. Learning not to fight vulnerability is one of the greatest skills you can have.
Know, beyond all this, that strength and courage already reside in you. I believe in you.