Revising my Practice

One of the things that all the reformers forget is how incredibly hard it is for a teacher to change their teaching practices.

I found a journal entry from five or six years ago from September, when I was still journaling on paper, in which I was recounting the advice I offered to a new teacher that year.  Here I was, in my wisdom of eight years of teaching, offering advice to a newbie, and it was pretty good advice — worth writing down at the time…

“Your class went badly today.  That’s OK.  You learned some things that you will put into practice tomorrow, or next week, or next month.  You’re learning to get along with and work with adult colleagues and supervisors, and you’re learning to direct kids who don’t want to be directed all the time.  These are troubled waters you’re swimming in, and a lot of the time it’s going to feel like you’re drowning.  But try to reflect and learn from the experience.  Sometime in March, or April, or June, you’ll find that you are actually ready to face every day of teaching, and that if your class goes badly — it won’t be because you’re unprepared for the day’s lessons, but because your students will be off guard and not expecting the change in your mindset and your preparedness.  And after that, your teaching and their learning will gradually get better.  Of course the first year is always the hardest…”

And so on.  How platitudinous!

And how true.  Here it is, approaching the middle of March, and part of me has been adrift for weeks, trying to adjust to being a new teacher in a school with a very different set of mindsets, purposes and programs than my old school.  I’m also adjusting to being in a new town, and living a new lifestyle.  In my old school, things like food and drink and a roof over my head were part-and-parcel of my employment.  I lived where my boss said I was to live, and I went where I was told to go, and supervised the kids at the times the schedules directed, and taught the classes I was directed to teach.  Sometimes I did these things well, sometimes I did them poorly, and my first year was hellish.  Years of relative freedom replaced in an instant by a 24-hour-a-day schedule.

I loved it, and I stayed in that routine for five years.  Then I took a break o finish my master’s degree, and went back in for another eight years. Thirteen years in all I taught at the same school, getting better and better as a teacher. Who knew such a thing was possible?

So I thought.

Now it’s approaching the Ides of March, and I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned in the first two-thirds of my school year.  First, my new school does virtually nothing the same way that my old school did.  Oh, sure… we have the same subjects and the same basic ideas about education, and the place of arts and writing in the curriculum, and the importance of music education and yadda yadda jing jing jing.

But tonight I’m considering how thoroughly I was programmed by my old school to do things a particular way, and how thoroughly I’m having to revise my practice.  My old school was filled with students who didn’t test well.  Behold, I scrapped tests and quizzes.  They were difficult to grade, and they revealed little (to me) about what my students were thinking.  My new school expects tests and quizzes occasionally… make that often.  Now what?  I’m out of the habit of giving them, and I have to figure out how to build an effective quiz regime into my process.

In my old school, students didn’t have access to supplies for building projects like dioramas and science projects, and posterboards.  They hardly ever left campus, and most didn’t have private stashes of art supplies.  Behold, no projects.  My new school doesn’t merely allow projects, there’s a culture of expectation around them… and kids do great jobs on them, and clearly learn so much from them.  How do I build these things in?

My old school loved getting kids off campus for visits to museums and houses, but the school sports schedule made it deeply difficult to do this. Even though we had the vehicles for the trips, it was hard to find time for these activities.  I gradually gave up on field trips that were required for classes.  My new school loves field trips too, and creates opportunities for teachers to get off campus… but doesn’t have the vehicle support.  It means interfacing with parents to find enough rides for all the kids.  And the kids are usually deeply intertwined in one another’s lives for this to be possible.

All of this requires a different mindset.  I’ve had to spend most of the first year wrapping my head around the culture of my new school, and I’m discovering that it’s not at all the place I thought it was.  What school is?

I still love it, though.  Because it’s challenging me and my teaching abilities in ways that they’ve not been challenged in years.  My old school was great, but the structure of its program left me with blind spots and weaknesses as a teacher that I was barely aware of… until a new school and its new culture made them glaringly obvious.

I thought that this year would be my fourteenth year of teaching.

No dice.  It’s my first year of teaching.  And you know what they say. The first year is always the hardest.  It takes you until April or May to figure out what you’re doing…

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