The Healing Power of Teacher Success
Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking
All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.
One could read the opening two stanzas of “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander through the lens of teaching life in 2022 and perhaps sadly put their head down on their desk with a heavy sigh. The noise of this school year has been quite deafening and its effects are widespread: Omicron surges, mask policies, quarantining, debates over Critical Race Theory in classrooms, teacher shortages, and burnout. As I was listening to NPR on my way to work last week, I heard that approximately 45% of teachers surveyed will now leave the profession earlier than planned. Words like “exhaustion,” “fear,” “uncertainty,” and “survival” populate my teacher Twitter feed every day.
To open class last week, my juniors and I read Alexander’s poem, and I asked my students to select a line that resonated with them and free-write about why. As I journaled with them, I chose the line “walking past each other” and immediately visualized the school environment of 2022. I began thinking about the regularity of colleagues and friends walking past each other in the hallways in the easily forgivable act of self-isolating and mechanically going through the motions of their day.
As I meditated on Alexander’s line, it reminded me of a recent tweet by Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult of Pedagogy in which she asked followers for examples of why their school is not a mess right now, saying, “Something has to be going well somewhere.” When I read her Tweet, I guiltily thought, “Well, yes, some things are going well this year…” but no one has really asked that in so long I felt weird thinking about the positives. As I synthesized both the line of the poem and Gonzalez’s question, I began to think about the relationship between the climate of a school year and teacher success – as a teacher, is claiming something as “right” somehow an antidote to all of the things I fear I am doing “wrong” this year? Or to all the ways in which this year feels a little “wrong” or slightly off? How powerful and self-determining are the adjectives we use when describing a school year and teaching during this pandemic?
I didn’t want to write about teacher success at this moment for many reasons, the most significant being the gap I feel so deep in my heart between myself as an independent school teacher and public school teachers across the country. I taught many years in public school and know the difference between the wrap-around response and flexibility of my school versus one that answers to public funding; it is considerable. Class size, school supplies, classroom management…I am teaching from the privileged position of not worrying about these basic elements of the teaching day. Add a pandemic and disrupted learning to the mix, and I prefer to step aside and hand the mic to my public school colleagues. The other reason I didn’t want to write about teacher success was I didn’t know if anyone would be in the mood to talk about the positives in a month that psychologist Lisa Damour jokingly called “the armpit of the school year,” or a cold and long pandemic January when the negatives need so much of our attention. I am pretty certain my journal began with something like, “No one wants to hear about what is going well right now, so stop while you're ahead. Or think you are ahead.” Also looming was the specter of toxic positivity, or blindly ignoring and refusing to name what is hard for the sake of getting through hard times–the “Pollyanna” effect.
However, inspired by Gonzalez’s question, I decided to let these worries go for a moment and complete the exercise of actually putting down on paper what is going well this year. As I wrote, once again, more questions surfaced than answers:
Teaching well is not a passive exercise. Teachers are doing great things in their classrooms, and that requires active effort in a time when we are also managing elevated stress…shouldn’t that be recognized?
We used to talk about “what unnecessary items we will be leaving behind” in our curriculum after the pandemic forced last year’s condensed calendars and e-learning; did feeling free enough to reinvent the wheel spark my creativity in my teaching? I am more willing to take risks this year; I am more myself in the classroom than ever before. Is this shift related to turning 40, or the pandemic?
Bottom line: Rather than my experience, I prefer to hear the experience of others. I need to ask my colleagues to share their success stories from this year; could doing so be a way to give our collective a spirit-boost this winter?
After journaling, I was energized by thinking about what is working well this year, especially by the idea of reaching out to colleagues to recognize and document their voices from their classrooms and admin offices. I wanted to ask them about the competencies of my well-being rubric (empathy, growth mindset, resilience, voice, and identity) and hear their stories about something that has gone well for them this year in these areas, just to see what everyone would say. After I nervously sent the form (still a bit anxious I would appear out of line or too Pollyanna for this moment), I felt like a giddy child opening Christmas presents as I checked my responses every day, which made me realize that I was craving good news and beautiful stories of teacher success. I couldn’t wait to share some of these samples:
As I have grown older, my identity – how I perceive my place in the world – has radically changed. In high school I was the honors/band/artsy/intellectual. In college, my whole universe revolved around architecture studio and how I was going to change the world with my designs. Today, as a forty something/mother/educator/leader, I find myself looking inward again for “who I want to be when I grow up.” I see this pattern in my students, too. They define themselves by their sports, friends, extracurriculars, and subjects. I often hear in my physics class, “I am just not a math or science person,” and they use this as an excuse for not feeling successful. Parents reinforce this thinking – “I was never good at this in school either” – and allow their children to put themselves into little boxes of ability. Identity is a crazy thing. It is both liberating and confining. While we fundamentally NEED to feel grounded in who we are, labels limit the choices we make. We say no to opportunities that do not fit with our identity, and consequently stop learning and growing. I hope that my students will find joy on their own path of self-discovery, and will never stop questioning who they are and what they might be capable of accomplishing. - Rachel C., Freshman Grade Dean and Science Teacher
In the first months of the school year, I quickly realized that the plans I made for the pacing and scope of my Algebra II course did not align with the math foundation of my students. The pandemic had created too many impediments to learning and effectively retaining Algebra concepts that were crucial to the typical progression of an Algebra II course. Disappointed and somewhat reluctant to make changes to my “well thought-out” plan, I resigned to entirely reworking the course to build the foundation that was so lacking. Although the initial months of slowing down, going back to the “basic of basics” and constantly questioning whether we were making progress felt grueling to me, I am now seeing the beauty of the situation (or perhaps the thorn that turned out to be a rose). By meeting my students at the place in THEIR math journey (rather than trying to drag them to a destination deemed “on track”), I have seen them emerge as more capable, foundationally-strong and confident in their ability to take on more advanced Algebra topics. -Kristi Z., Math Teacher
A very simple thing that has worked for me this year in a pandemic situation is using the target language. I take more time to greet each student as they arrive to class. By greeting, I ask how was the weekend, how do you feel etc. Students at first were answering with automatic answers such as good, thank you, etc. However, over time, they started describing their feelings more authentically and reacting to each other (for example, telling each other they will be fine, I'm here for you...etc.). I can really feel their empathy for each other. Another thing is celebrating birthdays, good grades, seniors getting into colleges, etc. Celebrating each other always brings joy in the classroom. I call this our "all together time.” It's not a huge change, just some more minutes dedicated to feel that we are together in this! -Camelia B., Arabic and French Teacher
Toward the end of last semester, I made it my goal to work on tapping into my creativity more. I wanted to help drive my passion for myself which I believed would then help me cultivate that passion in my students. I've also been working on empathy – last semester was particularly difficult for me -- the hardest semester I can think of in my 8.5 years of teaching. I wanted to start fresh with my classes this semester with a calm, even demeanor. If a student said they couldn’t come work on the artwork they missed because they had to make up a math test (something that would typically irritate me), I would respond with, "Ok, let me know when you can come make this up." -Sarah K., Visual Arts Teacher
I am no longer bound by syllabi, calendars, clocks and rigid structure that does not allow for the organic, meaningful interaction that is required for true learning and growth. With this freedom, I have been able to engage with my students on a healthier and happier level. I am encouraging, more than I ever have, personal investment in every assignment by intentionally embedding choice and conveying to them that I trust and know they are capable of deciding what they want to focus on, write about, research or discuss; I want them to experience intrinsic motivation for their learning and remove their "need" for me by supporting them and recognizing their strengths, so they have the confidence to rely on their own thoughts and voice. This approach with my students has required me to be vulnerable and honest, but I have never felt more "in the groove" in my career. Don't get me wrong, there are days that are rough but I don't try and bandage them by blaming Covid or finding a silver lining; I confront reality, acknowledge the feelings, extract the lesson, message or sign and expand my empathy. -Jessica B., Sophomore Grade Dean and English Teacher
This year I wanted my students to have a positive experience and truly understand how government could work for them. I put together a project where they needed to identify a local issue and then figure out how to solve the issue using local government. I was very nervous about how this would go and thought the girls might just go through the motions to earn a grade. I was so pleased by the outcome. Many of my students did follow through on their project ideas and actually got their issue solved. I loved how the girls admitted to being nervous about the project and then experienced a sense of accomplishment when they got their issue solved. So, my growth mindset helped the girls develop theirs as well! -Dorothy C., Social Studies Teacher
My freshmen are enjoying reading The Odyssey, and they notice Odysseus' resilience in many difficult situations that sometimes move him to cry and even to contemplate suicide, but he never gives up. This moral of persevering when life gets difficult resonates with them and provides hope in their own lives. Life is full of challenges that must be faced, hopefully with good outcomes; however, characters' lives illustrate that there are no guarantees that life will go smoothly. The students' days of reading fairy tales with perfect endings are replaced with narratives filled with imperfect characters whom they can learn from and identify with. -Monica C., English Teacher
With the support of my students and the creative spirit they bring each and every day to our classroom, we are beginning to find our place and adapt to our environment, new firing processes, new glazes, new kilns, and new challenges. -Leah S., Visual Arts Teacher
I have taught for almost twenty years, and for pretty much my entire life (teaching and otherwise), I have been a planner. Or, to be honest, I have been someone who believes that being a planner is an idealized and venerated trait to which I should aspire. To be otherwise, in my mind, was to be lazy, disorganized, and unmotivated. So, as a teacher, I have spent a whole lot of time creating detailed syllabi that would inevitably need adjustments a week into the school year (and then more adjustments a few weeks after that, etc.), followed by a year of fretting about how I had failed to know in July what my students would need in November. Now, post-March 2020, necessity has indeed been the mother of invention. Sure, I have a plan for the year. And sure, my students generally know when their assessments will be. But, if I need to modify a daily plan, a reading, an assignment, or even an entire unit, then I embrace it, making the change freely and with pleasure. I departed for spring break in March 2020 thinking that I would see my students again within a week or two. I didn’t see them for months. And for some of them, I never saw their entire faces again. So, what is going well? My realization that regularly adjusting daily plans is the most positive, productive, and student-centered move I can make—and doing so doesn’t mean I am a bad teacher. -Megan G., English Teacher
If you keep reading Alexander’s poem, she asks us in the end to consider:
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.
Her words remind me of the sage advice that the only way forward is through. I am eternally grateful for my teaching colleagues and my students who encourage me to contemplate something as fresh as a new idea, project, or creative vision while walking through so much uncertainty. It’s incredible to see proof that life is not black and white; wonderful things can be happening even in great struggle. Or even, perhaps, because of it. Maybe celebrating each other’s success and hearing stories about what is working can somehow heal us; We need each other more than we ever realized and, as Alexander suggests, perhaps the “mightiest word is love.”
Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.