What We Learned

14 years, in the books.

As the years go on, the last day of school is always a bit anti-climactic. It is melancholy, for sure. But that’s true everywhere. You might have seen this one floating around a few years ago from up in The Mitten:

Gonna miss my kids, and those moments of awesomeness when a lesson all comes together or they discover something cool and get excited about math. I’m not gonna miss setting my alarm and programming the coffeemaker for the next 10 weeks or so. But the “woohoo” of turning in my keys and walking out the door is gone. Compared to the first few years, it is less an “event” and more a “point in time”.

Either way, it is a moment ripe with opportunities for reflection. Especially now that I’ve just finished my first year at a new school.


 

After school, waiting for my ride, I bumped into my department chair, who is leaving the classroom to go into administration. We had an opportunity for small talk, and he hit the bullseye with the first question:

“So, how did it go here during Year One?”

My stock answer to every who has asked that question since August is: Smooth.

But Nick is a good guy, and deserves more than a stock answer.

“It was good. Pretty much what I expected. Getting used to everything new. Building out a course in Canvas ate up a lot of time, but that will pay off next year and beyond”.

Then: “the department is a powerhouse, man”.

He said: “Yeah, we push each other pretty hard.”

And I said: “Yeah, I felt that. In a good way.”

I ate lunch every day with a group of four other math teachers. I heard them collaborate and troubleshoot on the fly between bites of brown-bag sandwiches. I heard a 25-year veteran asking for help from her subject area teaching partner. I saw a young teacher ask to come in and observe his colleagues in the department. I heard teachers gently push a colleague who could do better.

Everybody’s got everybody’s back. But nobody lets anybody else slack off, either.


So, Mr. Reflective Teacher, what did you learn this year?

  1. City or suburbs, kids are pretty much kids.
  2. They got kids that hate math in the green leafy suburbs too.
  3. If math class is just about math, those kids will hate it intensely.
  4. So, children must play.
  5. Living where you teach and seeing your kids outside of school is cool.
  6. Changing the culture is not a one-day process.
  7. The kids that don’t want to change will fight you for 180 days if they have to.
  8. I’m still more stubborn than they are.
  9. There’s only 30 hours in a day.
  10. Perfection is an unattainable goal.
  11. Having a planning partner is a gift.
  12. Having an hour a week to plan with your team is like finding a little gold nugget.
  13. Having a Lunch Bunch to ask questions/bounce ideas off/talk elections with is imperative to mental health.
  14. Having a copier that staples automatically saved me probably 24 full hours of my life over the course of the year.
  15. Having six classes in four classrooms on two floors, never the same room for back-to-back classes meant I got my steps in for sure every day.
  16. I got fat anyway.
  17. We’re going 1:1 next year.
  18. I’m thinking of a million ways my kids can use Web tools to knock down walls, or at least to look at and think about math in a different way.
  19. Like this guy.
  20. I’m also trying to find a way to use MyMathLab to support my students who need extra practice.
  21. I know that makes their laptop a $300 worksheet, at least for that night. Sue me.
  22. Give kids a chance to do incredible things and they will. Or at least they’ll try.
  23. Give kids a chance to jump thru the right hoops and put the right squiggles on a piece of paper for a letter that will keeps their parents off their back or get them in the right school, and they’ll do that too.
  24. I can retire in 10 years.
  25. I don’t want to.
  26. I won’t be able to, anyway.
  27. Teachers report back to school in 63 days.
  28. I’ll be ready.
  29. But first, sunsets.
  30. This is really, really, really true:
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Image via takepart.com.

Probably.

Understand What You Do

It’s graduation season. Throughout May and June, men and women, selected as speakers for their accomplishments and wisdom, will stand before a sea of faces, dropping knowledge and providing encouragement.

Most of their words will be forgotten within a few hours. I know my speaker said something about doing good at all possible opportunities, and beating Purdue in every possible sport. The rest of it?

Image via giphy

But just about all of them will riff on how “commencement” means “beginning”, even though it feels like we are celebrating an ending.


The world doesn’t need another blog post about how teaching isn’t just another job. It’s been done to death.

But the job does require a certain level of commitment. To the point where, if you’re not all in, go sell insurance.

I saw two guys commit to a life of service Saturday. Meaning, like, for decades. Til death do us part, “I-will-humble-myself-by-laying-face-down-on-the-floor”-level of commitment.

Prostration
Fr. Nate and Fr. Greg prostrate themselves during the Litany of the Saints at their Ordination Mass, May 20, 2017 at the Holy Angels Cathedral in Gary. Photo via Diocese of Gary.

The priesthood. It’s probably the last job or institution left on earth that, from Day One, you know you are in for life. Even a good portion of married folks stand at the altar on their wedding day thinking, “If this guy’s a dud, I’m out.” “She gets fat, it’s over.”

These guys had spent seven years in preparation for this day. If they haven’t backed out by now, they’re not gonna. And their commencement speaker? A bishop of the Catholic Church.

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Donald Hying, Bishop of the Diocese of Gary, IN. Photo via Deena Pidrak.

I think they will remember his words forever. Because I’m still thinking about them. When they received their marching orders, I couldn’t help but ponder how these ancient lines in the Rite of Ordination might frame what I do:

“Understand what you do. Imitate what you celebrate. And conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”

(And I get it if you’re not down with the theological aspects here. In Catholic teaching, the priest is “alter Christus” – another Christ. Called to give their lives, if not literally then figuratively for their flock). At this moment of the Mass they are handed the paten and the chalice which will hold the Body and Blood of Christ. These tools are central to what they will do every day of the rest of their lives.

It is a life of service. What they do, what they celebrate, is for the eternal good of their flock. They are shepherds. And counselors. And teachers. It is the work of a lifetime: long hours, loneliness, doubts about effectiveness, everything that gives a career weight.

Now, I’m not out there saving souls, but we can draw a rough parallel to what we do as teachers. Especially those of us who believe we are helping our students form the skills they will need to navigate the world of the mid-21st century.

Dad Timeline
My dad, receiving his 25-Year watch at Inland Steel. He was 44 years old then. Our world, and our kids’ world, is a little bit different.

As one school year comes to an end, I immediately (informally, if not on paper) begin planning for August and beyond. Thinking about what worked, and what didn’t. How I lifted up my students, and how I crushed their spirit. The #lessonfails, and the moments that made me want to retire on the spot because it was never going to get any better than right then. And how to fix those ratios next year.

I’ll never forget my first-ever class, Algebra 1A, looking out at 41 faces (in a class with 39 desks), Cimarron-Memorial High School, Las Vegas, NV. This is a great time to remind myself what I signed up for.

“Understand what you do…”