Now that we have crossed the halfway mark of the summer, I thought it’d be a good idea to sit down and think about the year ahead by reflecting on the year that just passed. It wasn’t too long ago that I said goodbye to a group of students, as we each headed off into our summers. Now, I’m closer to saying hello to a new group of young minds than I am to those goodbyes.
My first year as a contract teacher was full of challenges and rewards. It’s hard to separate the two cleanly. Often, the reward I received was the learning that came out of facing, working through, and overcoming (or neglecting) the challenge that I faced. Then, too, there were few challenges that I met alone; I leaned on my colleagues to help me through many situations.
Before continuing, I’m going to remind myself of what my father told me when I graduated from the Faculty of Education: “Do your job honestly.” That was the single best piece of advice that he has given me with regard to my career. Of course, he has given me much more advice on this and many other aspects of my life, but, when it comes to being a teacher, this one stands out most to me. Why? Because it’s simple and clear. It’s direct and attainable: I can’t fail if I do my job honestly.
With that, I have a question for myself: did I do my job well last year? Not always. And, this wasn’t always because I could have done a better job but more because I didn’t always know what the best way to do my job was. I had to try and I had to fail and I had to learn. Did I try my best? Yes, most of the time. Was it always good enough? No. Did I try to correct the mistakes I made? When I could.
It would be easy to say that I’m a new teacher so there should be some grace bestowed upon me. This is only partially true. Last year was my first year at a new school, teaching grade six, teaching a gifted program, with my own classroom, and as a contract teacher. While I have taught before, there were a lot of meaningful firsts last year. What I want to avoid leaning on is the notion that I’m a “new teacher.” I went into last year with teaching experience, but I was new to the environment, program, students, and parents. What I wasn’t new to was my job or career as a teacher.
So, should grace have been bestowed upon me? Sure, if only because I’m a good person with honest intentions. But, I digress.
If the question about how well I did my job is asked slightly differently, the answer changes drastically: did I do my job honestly? Always. I worked as hard as I could for as long as I could, sought out what resources I could take advantage of, leaned on my colleagues and teaching community, attended workshops and conferences, gave my students opportunities to speak with me and listened to them, and I made myself as available as I could to the learning community I am a member of.
What isn’t reflected in this is the reception that my work and effort received. Coming to terms with different definitions of success and trying to accommodate them all was difficult for me. I want all of my students to walk away from my classes feeling as though they learned something and that their time wasn’t wasted. I didn’t always achieve this. Sometimes, I felt as if I wasn’t doing enough for my students; that I was trying to get them to adapt to my teaching style more than I was making an effort to accommodate their learning style.
I don’t have much of a temper but I sometimes lost my patience with my students. Upon reflection, I have come to believe that the people who test our patience most are also the ones who need it most. Of course, this isn’t always true, but it is always possible. I’m not trying to be idealistic and claim that I have the ability to get along with everyone all of the time or even most of the time. What am I trying to claim is that there are opportunities for growth in these trying interactions. I will also allow for people to have bad days occasionally.
I am not against apologizing to my students if I have done something wrong. My rule for apologies is: I don’t need an apology, what I need is for the problem to be fixed. This only stands when it’s something that can be fixed. If you’ve stepped on someone’s foot accidentally, an apology is necessary.
As I look forward to next year, one thing that I want to work on is improving the community in my classroom. What I want to have is a community of supportive learners working together toward the same and different goals but always supported in their learning and their pursuits. While this is a nice ideal, it will take a lot of work to make happen. Before I became a teacher, I would have to attend team-building workshops with my coworkers. I loathed them. I thought they were useless, poorly run, and inorganic. It felt as though I was being forced to make friends with people I only needed to have a working relationship with. Now, I’m tasked with finding ways to bring students together so that they can not only support each other in their learning but also share in their successes. And, I have to do it in a way that is entertaining, educational, and effective. No easy task.
In terms of my professional practice, one of my main priorities is improving my assessment and evaluation practices. In order for my students to meet with more success, they need descriptive and timely feedback. Too often, I found myself overwhelmed and so did my students. Assignments were piling up and the marking followed. My commitment to effective evaluation would be set aside for more immediate priorities, such as planning, issues with students, or parent engagement. I’d hit a tipping point and be forced to spend my time neglecting other duties in order to get my marking done. Over the course of a week, my students would be bombarded with returned assignments each morning.
Improving my assessment and evaluation practices is part of a larger goal to be more structured and disciplined. One thing I do value in myself as a teacher is my flexibility. This trait, I find, can be a double-edged sword. There are certainly times when commitment to a direction is important and valuable. It can set a tone and establish expectations. Being inflexible can also deter you from seeing other options and avenues. Too much yoga can be a bad thing, as can too much strength training. There is a healthy balance and it is different for everyone. Understanding what my limits are will help me work toward my optimal flexibility.
Another one of my goals for the upcoming school year is more personal: I want to improve my work-life balance. My personal life has seen a number of changes in the last six months and I want to be able to manage my professional and personal priorities more effectively so that neither suffers in the compromise. In this respect, I want to set working hours for myself, similar to what I had when I used to work in an office downtown. I appreciate that the 40-hour workweek doesn’t really exist anymore but I won’t be able to keep working the hours that I was last year.
As the summer begins to wind down, I think it’s important to keep some of these learnings in mind. It’s good practice to take stock of my values and what drives me as a teacher. I need to determine, for myself and my students, what is the most important learning that needs to take place in the classroom on any given day or during any period of the day. What’s guaranteed is that I won’t be able to predict or plan for every eventuality, there are simply too many factors at play. With a clear focus – a lighthouse – for my pedagogy, I can make decisions that align or run parallel to the direction I want to go in, keeping a careful eye out to avoid any rocks under the surface of the sea.