Life On The Other Side

I love the first day of school. I love it as a teacher, anyway. As a kid, I dreaded it because I wasn’t the best student. Especially the year I had to take home economics. I always questioned the name of the class-Home Economics. What does that mean?  We never discussed budgets and money. Sewing and cake decorating for a spatially inept person is torturous. Anyway, the first day of this school year made me feel as if someone forgot to send me my home room students. Are they wandering the halls? Why am I alone in my room? Where is everyone? Am I on isolation island?

I’m a specialist now. I have car duty. I have to be at work early. I smile at people before eight every morning. I touch car handles riddled with unknown microorganisms.

People ask me, “What do you do now?”

“I teach advanced 5th grade math. I teach 1st grade gifted students. I am the half-time literacy coach.”

There are too many sports references in my new job. Literacy Coach-do I wear a helmet shaped like a letter? Do I run by classrooms cheering for people and saying things like:

“You can do it! Keep teaching phonics!”

“NO!!!! What are you thinking? Get back to the kidney table and move the letter tiles to the left!”

“Ok teams, let’s huddle. Each group go READ!!!!! HIYAH!!!”

Before school started, I collaborated with my friend who was also sent to her isolation island from 5th grade. She teaches 4th and 5th grade gifted students. She told me I was panicking. She said she wasn’t used to me being unsure of myself. She left me wondering if I’m having breakdowns noticeable to everyone but me.  I do admit, I questioned if I could even teach anymore. For the first time in ten years, I had absolutely no starting point. I have many weak areas. My dear friends remind me of them all of the time. But, the thing I rely on, the thing I can do in my sleep, or to get to the million dollar level on a game show-is plan lessons and differentiated projects. If stranded on an island, I could create a rubric for survival out of sticks, shells, and fish bones. I had nothing. I was in an emotional frenzy and residing in the desert of instruction. I didn’t know where to start. Literacy schedule? Gifted unit? Math activities?  I decided to organize files and color code things. Even the label maker and laminator didn’t lift my spirits. I was in the middle some odd self-reflective moment, while the moose stared from afar.

I decided to work on my literacy schedule.  I have read numerous books and researched how this job should look. I’m taking teacher leadership classes and extra reading classes. I have done this type of thing in another district, but I discount that experience. I even sent my administration a tentative calendar of what I would be doing. I pulled up Excel to begin the schedule. I began with each teacher’s name, grade level, lunch times, and specials times. The cursor on the spreadsheet blinked and blinked. It was waiting impatiently-oh the pressure. I clicked out of Excel to think “gifted”.

Gifted 1st graders. Gifted 1st graders. I’m teaching gifted 1st graders.

I finally got some perspective. I watched The Illusionist with my nine-year old. I was humbled when she explained the “message” of the movie.

“You see mommy, the magician isn’t doing well. But, the girl thinks he is magic. Isn’t it sad when he said that magicians weren’t real at the end? I feel badly for the girl.”

I felt like the Illusionist.  I lost my footing, and  I thought that  what I was doing wasn’t important anymore. My audience was gone. My students disappeared.

I had to realize that the issue wasn’t the job, but my perception of what my new job is. For me, teaching fifth grade was like being in the midst of the stock exchange. The ringing of the bell, and the madness of the events fueled my work obsession. Of course, falling in love with my students was a huge part of what kept me so determined to make their experiences memorable.

Then I thought again about the movie. Don’t educators feel that when the next best strategy comes our way, we are left alone, on a stage with no one in the audience? I have spoken to teachers who have taught for thirty years, or more. The one thing they all say is, “Everything is comes back around, so I just wait.”  Then my mind flashes to the Illusionist, where there are two people in the audience, politely clapping as the magician does the same old routine. Of course, this scene could be viewed as a teacher only reaching a small population of the classroom. I can see it both ways. I guess, life on the other side has given me some perspective.

I began the gifted unit after my indecision and flurry of color coding projects. I pulled up my backward design template. I was sinking. There need to be fairy tales. I have boys in the class, so I added monsters and mythical creatures. Oh, and we have to have Greek gods and goddesses. We will create a puppet show as a culminating activity. I know! They will pick a fairy tale character, give it a power from one of the gods, then some kid-created villain will turn all the characters into monsters. Somehow, they have to use their powers to escape!  We will have plenty of time for this unit.  After all, I have them for an entire school day. Or do I?  After lunch, recess, specials, and other odd testing, assessments, and school-related activities, they are only with me for less than three full hours.

The day that changed it all for me, was last Friday when I taught my first gifted class. I decided to pick them up in a fairy costume to launch our unit on fairy tales, gods, and monsters. Not one small person questioned the outfit. First grade is a new world. They are small-I mean tiny. Their voices made me think of the little people scene in The Wizard of Oz. They don’t sit still-not even for three seconds. Plus, they fidget, stare, and tell odd and random stories. Eddie Murphy used to do a bit about a kid telling a story. I had fourteen trying to tell me, about the time that….

They were all obsessed with their bags of supplies. I knew I couldn’t get anywhere without organizing their stuff. So, I asked them to unpack the supplies, and put this and that in the caddies.

They were lost on my caddy reference. You know, the plastic things on the tables where we put supplies?

“Ok, let’s put our supplies in the caddies.”

Nothing. Crickets.

“Ok, go ahead and put your supplies in the caddies.”

Brave small person, “I will do that, but first, what are caddies, and where are they?

Note to self-explain all new vocabulary.

The unpacking of their supplies took an inordinate time. Then, they were asking that they label the caddies, since they now had their stuff in them. Ok. Twenty minutes later.

Oh, the pencils weren’t sharp enough. Ten minutes more.

After all of that, I fell into some odd teaching vortex. There were improvisation games, deductive reasoning activities, and collaborative book votes. Huh? The day is over?

All I can say is that I was first-year-teacher annoying. No one wanted me around.

Yesterday, we made magic goo potion, and we created transportation for Cinderella out of random craft materials.  Next week, we will build an anemometer to show the least windy path the coach should take in order to get Cinderella back in time.

Flashes of the goo experience keep popping into my mind. Think glue, Borax, food coloring, water, stirring, and small children. At one point, all thirteen kids were asking me if their goo “was done”. They huddled around me-all of them. Small elf-like hands, waving magic goo, precariously close to my face; obscured my vision for a good twenty minutes. But, the gasps of amazement and delight as the liquid turned to a solid, made the goo storm worth it.

I was even inspired to play “High Hopes” as they worked. Before long, they were all singing about moving the rubber tree plant.

Back to literacy coaching. This has been the part of the job that has made me  flop and flail, like the fish out of water. Someone, please-throw me back in the lake!

But, as I have spent time in many classrooms; I have grown to appreciate this profession in a way that I never had before. I understand the my-classroom microcosm angle. But now, I see teachers planning, teaching, asking questions, improving their craft, being open and inviting to me and my new position. It made me think of Christmas decorations. I have always had this theory that the Christmas lights just magically appear on everyone’s houses. I never see anyone actually putting them up. (Unless they keep them up all year-and I won’t go there). This is not unlike the first day of school, where all the classrooms are magically set up, with everything in place. The teacher, is seemingly rested, waiting for the new year. Her hair is in place, and she is reading inspirational teacher books.

This year, I saw the Christmas lights being put up. All over the school, I saw teachers in the halls, butcher paper being cut, glue guns heating up, copy machines working overtime-and suddenly as if in a blink; everyone was ready.

I realized that part of my problem was that I was fearful that teachers would see me coming, turn out the lights, and tell the kids to be quiet and get into tornado position. But instead, they have welcomed me and my new coach position. GO TEAM! I have seen powerful teaching and dedicated teachers. I have had collegiate discussions about instruction with brilliant people.

But, when the kids believe we are magic, it just boils down to the relationships we foster with them. Like the Illusionist, when we lose faith in our ability to teach, the entire system fails. It isn’t the curriculum, the activities, the bells and whistles of instruction-it is the educator truly believing in him or herself. It also helps when others believe in us as well.


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