Friday, August 1, 2014

Planning for imaginary or real kids?

Early August is the time of year that most teachers start planning. We may still be dipping our feet in the pool but our minds are racing with "this year I am going to..." thoughts. 
This is great, it gets us excited and motivated to go back. We search Pinterest, plan our amazingly organized classrooms, plot the cute signs we'll make and reflect on what didn't work in the past and what we want to do better. 

One summer I started my lesson planning crazy early. I had the first six weeks planned out, all in line with Responsive Classroom philosophy. I snuck into school early and spent a week setting up my perfect classroom. I analyzed everything that went wrong the year before and made plans to fix it. This year, I was sure, would be perfect. I would be an amazing teacher. My kids would be respectful and love each other. They would dive into literacy and would make huge gains in math. We would be silent in the halls. During independent reading you would be able to hear nothing but their hushed reading whispers- the glory of an entire classroom immersed in their books.

And then the year started. The first day I taught them to raise their hands and one called out, "That's funny! My kindergarten teacher always said that too. I never raised my hand for her either!"

Another child started yelling, "Sonic, get down from there, don't let the teacher see you!" to her imaginary friend (who later would need to be banned from our classroom because he was such a distraction). A boy entered the room making farting noises with his mouth and when I asked him to stop he did it even more. Apparently it was what he did when he got nervous. And he was nervous a lot. Constant spitting noises from his mouth. Stress (caused by the teacher getting mad that he was spitting) only made it worse. With ten minutes of our first carpet time a boy slammed his hand into his face and yelled, "Why won't anybody shut up? I hate this place." Turns out he had no internal monologue. For the rest of the year we were blessed with his constant thoughts "OH MY GOD why is this teacher looking at me?" He had no idea we could hear him. That included when he used our classroom bathroom and provided a play by play of what was happening inside.

Needless to say, our year didn't start off as planned. All my careful planning, meticulous organizing, and determination to have the perfect classroom fell flat. And instead of rolling with it I got mad. I was mad that my kids weren't perfect, mad that my lessons weren't going as planned, mad that my plans to be so quiet in the hallway were useless. I was frustrated and grumpy. I didn't change for my class, I just wished they were different. I spent two weeks in tears from watching my ideal classroom fall apart. 

After a long two weeks I realized the problem wasn't them- it was me. I wasn't teaching the children in front of me, I was teaching an imaginary, perfect classroom and getting angry that the real students were getting in my way.

And so I stepped back and looked at my students, not my plans. I didn't change my long term expectations about what I wanted to achieve- we were still going to learn to read- but if we were going to achieve those high expectations I needed to change the game plan that was going to get us there. 

Instead of doing what had worked in the past I looked at the kids in my room. I took data on when their behaviors occurred. I took more time to build a classroom community. I re taught rules and routines in a way that engaged them. I rearranged my perfect classroom set up. I looked at their missing skills and taught those skills before I moved forward. 

It wasn't an easy year. It was tough and I fought hard for those kids to learn every single day. I started this blog that year to help me reflect on my craft. As hard as it was it would have been a hundred times more challenging if I had kept trying to teach my perfect class. By recognizing who my students were and changing my plans accordingly I made it so we made the progress we needed to make. 

So often we start the year with our perfect class in mind. There is nothing wrong with this as long as we are ready to quickly change our ideal plans to meet reality. Because once we do reality will often turn out to be better than those imaginary kids ever could be.

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