Friday, June 10, 2016

Jumping Off

I'm about to close out on my 13th year of teaching. It does not seem possible it has been that long because in so many ways I feel like I am still a recent college graduate, excited to start on my adventures in teaching but with so much to learn.

Yet a lot has happened in those 13 years and I've been able to see many different facets in the field of education. I've taught in three different schools. I've had my own general education classroom, and my own special education classroom. I've supported children in inclusion classrooms in every grade but second. I've been the local screening chair, which is a fancy title for dealing with the paperwork side of the special education eligibility process within my school. I worked at a brand new school and experienced what it is like to open a new building.

Somewhere in there something changed. I can't put my finger on what it was, or when it happened. But something - maybe me, maybe the profession - is very different than in was when I entered the field 13 years ago.

So after some nail-biting months, long talks about the future, what I want out of life, and how to get there, I decided that after this school year I will be taking a leave of absence from teaching. I'm not finished with teaching or education, at least, I don't think so.

Like many teachers out there I have a love/hate relationship with teaching. The field has changed considerably in the last 13 years and is very different than when I entered the profession. There is a different feel in the day to day life of a school. The thing is (and I realize this makes me different than many of the teachers out there who write public "I'm quitting" letters) I'm not sure the change is all that bad. We should be asking the tough questions about why children are not learning, and we should be making sure every single child is working on grade level, or at least has a plan to get them there. I have seen many positive changes at my current school that involve practices that did not exist in the field ten years ago. My struggle is that I'm not sure where my role in these changes should be or if I fit here at all.

I continue to love working with children. I LOVE teaching children to read and I love working with children with unique needs. I love teaching children social skills and emotional regulation. I love creating behavior plans, helping teachers manage behaviors in their classroom, and building positive communities within classrooms. I don't intend to use the word 'love' lightly here either. I mean it. I love these aspects of my day. I did not go to law school because I knew I loved these things. I knew I wanted to wake up everyday and go to a job I loved instead of a job that could provide financial security and a respectful social status. But now I'm not sure I can say I love coming to work every day.

My head has been swimming with questions. Is it me or the profession? Has being a mom changed my daily passion toward my job? Is teaching a job I will only enjoy if I can put in 12 hour days? Did the profession change in a way I no longer am comfortable with my introverted habits? Has what I wanted out of life changed? Why am I no longer fulfilled by what I am doing? What's missing? Am I asking too much from a job? Should I be happy with a job that provides a steady income and allows me to help others? Is it fair to ask for more?

I know I want to go back and get my PhD, but I am not sure exactly in what area of education or which school. I've tried to figure that out while working and taking care of my girls but I haven't been overly successful with that search. I need time.

What else is out there?

I have different projects in the works. I am working with some amazing people and we hope to have some social skills groups and music/literacy programs up and running this summer and next fall. (If you live in the Northern Virginia area and are interested in these please let me know!) I am continuing to provide sensory storytimes at a local library and have started a newsletter to give parents additional ways to engage their children in learning.

Next year will be my gap year where I can follow different projects to see what I enjoy and what doesn't quite do it for me. Perhaps in a year I will be back at my school, appreciating the structure and routine of employment (not to mention the secure paycheck), loving the kids and the teamwork a school provides. Or perhaps I will enroll in a PhD program, or find another alternative I can't even dream up right now.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

End of Year Teacher Thoughts

Out of the corner of my eye I see the fifth grader look up from his work and study me for a moment. "Mrs. Lipstick, what are you thinking about?" he asks sincerely.
"Nothing," I mutter. "Finish your test." I can't tell him the truth.

What am I thinking about? 

I'm thinking about the fact that I've worked with these children for the last three years. That's three years of them interrupting my thoughts, keeping me up at night as they've found way into my consciousness while I watch TV, drive to work, or am play with my own children. Three years of carefully selecting reading books for them, studying their decoding skills, listening to them re-tell stories, and constantly contemplating how to move them to the next level. Push on, push on, push on.

I'm thinking that it's over now. End of year assessments are wrapping up and my chances to bring them up to grade level or help them pass their state testing are almost gone. We'll send them to middle school next year, trusting another set of educators to pick up where we've left off, loving them them and fighting for them like we have.

I'm thinking about how lost I feel. How deflated. How I wish I'd done more. Put more time into those guided reading lessons, chosen better books, or done more to increase their vocabulary. Written better IEP goals. Advocated more. Pushed harder. Been a better teacher.

I'm thinking that even though my school is set up so that no teacher should ever feel completely responsible for one student I still feel crushed. The grade level and all the teachers that support that grade level own the test scores. We come together every 6-8 weeks to analyze student progress and refigure groups to meet student needs. These students are not just my responsibility, yet not only do I feel responsible for them, I also feel as though I've let the team down. I'm not sure that any student I worked with this year will pass the state testing. Forget about the fact that I worked with them because they were already below grade level. 

I'm thinking about merit pay and school sanctions and how ridiculous all of those carrot/sticks are in education. No additional incentive would have made me work harder for these children. I only wanted to give them the gift of reading on grade level so they could go of to middle school confident in their abilities. No sanction or poor performance review would have made me feel worse than I already do about the students' results. In fact, if I was given a poor review perhaps I could be angry at the system instead of at myself. 

I am thinking that I am not the only educator that feels this way. We got into this field to teach. You don't need to reward or threaten us to teach our students. We want them to succeed. Other teachers across the country are feeling the same way I am. What more could we have done?

I am thinking that I'll need a few days before I can focus on the successes we had, the small improvements, the increase in reading ability even if it will not be represented in the end of year scores. The fact that one of my students begs me for extra books and reads them practically overnight. Or that they want to stop while reading a book to analyze the characters and discuss the plot. Give me time and I'll appreciate those small victories.

I am thinking about next year and praying that these students will be OK. That the skills we worked on will carry with them to middle school and they will continue to grow in their abilities until they are working on grade level (or even above?) That their learning disabilities will not get in their way of doing whatever they want to accomplish in life.

I am thinking about the love I have for teaching and the frustrations I feel on a daily basis. I am wondering how to balance the two, and whether or not that balance is even possible. I am thinking about my role in these children's education, and the education field as a whole. 

I am thinking it is June, and hot, and that perhaps things will look better on the other side of summer vacation.