Saturday, March 05, 2016

Mistakes, Reciprocity, and the Evolution of a Career

The fourth quarter of my twentieth year teaching kindergarten begins on Monday, and this year has been a doozy.

My first year of teaching was full of excitement, stress, challenges, surprises, and always the best of intentions, if not the flawless execution of my job.  I had enough "oopsies" to my credit by May to substantiate the assertion that first year teachers MAKE MISTAKES.  I felt off-balance for eight long months, but I gave teaching and my students my ALL, even when neighborhood parents (none of my students', thankfully) semi-jokingly told me they'd slash my tires if I tried to strike with the veteran union teachers, who had put it on the table as an option during negotiations.  Yay, parental threats.  Yay, collegial pressure. 

My second year of teaching was marked by treading professional water without drowning, which was no small feat, considering I couldn't swim.  Teach, yes.  Backstroke or doggie paddle?  Not so much.  It was my survival instinct, not experience, that guided me through to the calm conclusion of a parent conference in which a mother pulled a gun from her purse, because she was "nervous" her husband might show up at school to hurt her.  That year, my colleagues became my floaties, my professional life preservers and my breathing coaches, long before Dory and her "just keep swimming" mantra had been imagined by Disney.

Third year not-quite-so-rookie mistakes included not sticking up for myself when I was verbally attacked by an administrator for something I didn't do. Though innocent, I didn't defend myself against the yelling, the beratement, and the threats.  I couldn't think logically because I was in such shock of having been accused of something I never would have dreamed of doing.  All I could do was cry.  And hyperventilate.  And cry some more.  Even after my principal discovered who was really at fault, he never apologized to me.  I never asked him to.  I didn't have tenure, so I didn't stick up for myself out of fear of losing my job.  Walking on egg shells isn't conducive to being comfortable in one's own embroidered teaching jumper and plastic Hallmark jewelry.  That year I learned it was sometimes administrators versus teachers.

Big surprise, fourth year teachers make mistakes too!  They forget to give credit where credit is due, and some of them even leave their sub plans in their truck accidentally when taking a personal day, forcing their colleagues to scramble to assemble lessons and activities for twenty-six kindergartners and a sub.  Recognizing the value of an apology and sincere appreciation, I understood that in addition to offering both, I'd have to make a conscious effort to show my colleagues how committed I was to doing a good job.  I wanted to be trusted to pull my own weight, and I wanted to be a help to others when it was needed.  I added to my list of professional goals, and was determined to reach them.

I discovered my teaching groove in Year Five.  Its soundtrack might have included a lot of Phil Collins, Journey, and Windham Hill instrumentals, but oh my, it was a good year, full of more affirmations and laughter than mistakes.  I welcomed my first education practicum student into my classroom, and though I was able to teach her quite a bit, we ended up learning so much more together.  The experience built from the stress, surprises and challenges from my first four years of teaching enabled me to solve problems quickly, anticipate issues, head them off at the pass, and innovate.  I felt like I was finally contributing to the profession.  I also lived in the same neighborhood where I taught.  My Super Star families became my extended family, as did my colleagues.  We shopped at the same grocery stores, bought morning lattes at the corner barista, and attended school concerts for our children.  I belonged.

I spent five more years in the same school in Alaska, teaching siblings, cousins, and neighbors of my first class of kindergartners.  I saw my very first Super Stars off to junior high and then to high school before Uncle Sam moved our family to New Mexico.  In the desert I taught soldiers' children, and had actual rocket scientists with whom I formed partnerships and conferenced as we set goals for their five and six year olds.  Moving several more times, my family and I ended up here in Kansas, "Oz," where I have continued to work with military and civilian families for the past nine years.  Having experienced the mandatory nomadic lifestyle required of military service members and their families, I have often felt connected to my students and their parents because of our shared culture.  Despite being a veteran teacher however, I continued to make unique mistakes borne from different perspectives and schema.  Blogging and social media usage, though on my time and away from the classroom, crossed some lines a few year ago with colleagues who were fearful I was going to "tell everyone our secrets," and administrators concerned I was going to damage our "brand" with honest critiques or by sharing too much.  

I'd like to tell you that there was a magic moment after I had accumulated enough teaching experiences, when I stopped making mistakes. Unfortunately, even after twenty years, there's one I still continue to make, even though I've experienced its sting enough times to know better: I misinterpret the smiles, volunteerism, small gifts and tokens, and lack of interference from my students' families as indicators that they ALL understand and trust my intentions.  Most parents are in fact, wonderful partners in education, advocating not only for their children, but for classmates, teachers, and schools.  But there are always parents who operate behind a facade of pleasantry that I misread as sincerity and trust until some situation arises (usually a disciplinary concern regarding their perpetually innocent child, or some misinterpretation that is taken to an administrator before clarification is ever sought out with me) resulting in the popping of my Pollyanna bubble.  And it pops every time.

This mistake troubled me to no end my first year teaching.  It gnawed at me my third year teaching.  It made me wince my sixth year.  I'm certain I cried over it during my seventh, ninth, and twelfth years.  It made me bitterly angry my fifteenth and nineteenth years.  And now in my twentieth, I've tried to examine it in context with the evolution of my teaching career,  in order to come to some conclusion that might help me to put my mind and heart at ease, something I feel is necessary the longer I teach.  Here's what bothers me: as I believe in the possibilities that await each and every student, I somehow spread that sparkly optimism and goodness I feel for them over to their parents.  I want to see the magic in everyone.  I want to see what makes them special, and I assume that everyone will rise to the occasion if given the opportunity, or want to share if they feel welcome and safe, and will trust me the way I choose to trust them.  I believe their seeming acceptance is more than mere tolerance.

It's this unrealized hope of reciprocity and respect that bites me in the rear, year after year.

No comments:

Post a Comment

As always, thank you for your comments, tips, suggestions and questions!