One of my blogging buddies is hosting a party! It is about our teaching story and the lessons learned along the way. Read everyone's story and get inspired! Maybe you will even be inspired to tell your own story.
I have decided to share my story... even the parts that are still recent and let's face it, a little bit raw.
In a way my teaching story starts long before I became a teacher. When you get admitted to the Teacher Education portion of school you have to write about teachers that inspired you and what kind of teacher you hope to be. I had some good teachers, I did. But most of my memories are of the bad ones. The teachers who let me know that I was not the kind of student they desired to teach and in fact portrayed to me that their opinion of me as a person was less than positive. I remember one teacher who made faces when she had to hug me. I was not a stinky child! But my family was not from the "right side of the tracks." This teacher was my Dad's cousin and she was the teacher that I remember being the most openly hostile toward me, the message that I was not "okay" or "as good as" the rest of the kids was very clear in her class. Sometimes I wonder how much this shaped my path in life, and I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that it made me think that the dream I lived out in my room "teaching" my little sister for hours on end was impossible for someone like me to achieve. Along life's path as I have opened a daycare in my home, managed a convenience store, taken care of children in a child care facility, and waited tables more times than I can expound on, I have discovered what research tells us to be true. If someone tells me I can do something, I can. If someone tells me I am good at something, I AM good at it! I generally live up to the expectations placed on me!
As a single mother, at the age of 40, I decided to go back to school to become a teacher. I was working in the daycare center and many of my youngsters were leaving for the summer because their parents were teachers. I just decided to apply to college and go back to school. The decision really was that sudden. I had the idea and just did it. No one told me I couldn't.
I loved school and I loved online classes. I don't know how many people have told me that online classes are hard (harder than face to face classes), but a fellow FHSU grad who got her teaching degree through the online program just like I did, made a very good point. We don't know anything different, so it is not that hard. Well, I guess that is not entirely true. I went back to school to get my first BS degree when my daughter who is now turning 11 was just an infant and I did degree completion classes. I like online better. I loved being a Fort Hays student and I excelled at it. I did however forget a couple deadlines. I don't know how or why, maybe I was juggling one too many things. But in both my PE class and Music Appreciation I missed a couple assignments deadlines and brought my grade down to a B, bringing my GPA down to a 3.9. Yeah, 3.9!! Whoot! I was disappointed in myself for not keeping my 4.0, but ecstatic that the kid who had a 2.0 or something like that in High School, was graduating with high honors.
In student teaching, I wanted to make that transition as smooth as I could for students, to minimize the differences in teaching and teaching styles for part of the year. So I adopted much of my mentor teacher's habits and procedures. And because she was an amazing teacher, I have great teaching procedures burned into my brain now. My mentor nominated me for a student teaching award, and I feel a lot of pride for being nominated for a "potential for excellence in teaching" award. One of my friends received the award. But I felt honored for the nomination. My university supervisor, who was also my adviser and who just happened to be the chair of the education department, told me that I was a close second for this award. I don't say this to brag (well, you know, maybe a little), but to point out that I worked really hard to excel in college and that it showed, I did excel. Someone told me I was a good teacher and I worked very hard to make sure that was true. I think of this so often in regard to teaching my students.
My confidence was certainly lacking though. I have never been able to secure an interview in my own town. I am consistently saddened by this. But I did get interviews! However, in spite of all my practice, I did not interview well and though I went to three interviews in the time that teaching jobs were just beginning to be slashed with a vengeance and experienced teachers were in the market again, I had good enough references and a strong enough resume to be offered interviews. But I tended to go into those interviews not sure of what I really had to offer those schools. So after graduation, I ended up waiting tables and crying. I cried before work, I cried after work. I didn't usually cry during my shift. But it felt such a slap in the face to work so hard to get this degree and light this passion in my soul and then be back to waiting tables.
In the middle of the drought and the great heat wave of 2012, I got an email from a principal in the Oklahoma panhandle. She had just secured the principal job and now had to replace herself as a Kindergarten teacher. Kindergarten was the grade that I had student taught in, and I knew that Kindergarten was my passion. The kids and I decided to go to the interview. And we made that four and a half hour trip in about six hours that day, waiting on construction for as long as 30 minutes in 100+ temperatures in an old car that did not cool when sitting still. This principal and I had been communicating for about 3 weeks by the time we finally made it down there for the interview. So I felt at ease and I was extremely honest about my strengths and weaknesses and just exactly what my expectations would be of her as a principal. I was offered that job. It meant packing up moving away from everything and everyone to a desolate place where housing is scarce (and therefore outrageously high) and we knew NO ONE. I put my principal as my emergency contact on my kids' enrollment forms. That was the best and most difficult year of my life all rolled together into one. My kids were originally my biggest cheer leaders and encouraged me to take the job. They said, "Mom, you have done so much for us, we think you should do this for you." What I didn't realize that at 8 and 16, they didn't have the ability to really adhere to this train of thought. I know, in retrospect, it makes sense, but at the time, I was like.... "oh, okay, everything is going to be paradise!" The things that were paradise-like were my principal, the autonomy I had in my classroom, and my teaching partner and colleagues. There were some less than ideal things as well. A student who would start screaming at the top of her lungs if she didn't like something or if she had a bad behavior (like hitting another student) and the fact that nearly half of my class didn't speak or understand English, and another quarter of my class understood English but were not proficient at speaking or writing it. There was the fact that as a first year teacher, I spent exorbitant hours at school, to the neglect of my girls. And the fact that my children had grown up in a largely white community and thought they would love to live somewhere more diverse but were devastated to actually be submerged in a culture where there was racial tension and they were a minority. This was ultimately the deal breaker. The more I know about poverty, the more I think that allowing my kids to influence me to move back to Kansas was probably the wrong move, but I could not stand the thought of my girl completing her senior year of high school without me. Which is what she told me she planned to do.... complete high school in Kansas, even if it meant moving in with her dad. So back to Kansas we moved. Back to the home we love, which probably played a part in our sorrow moving away and influenced our move back as well. And back to family and familiarity, but not to a job. I interviewed at least three places before we moved. No job. I finally accepted a certified non-teaching position. This was a position working under the reading specialist teaching guided reading groups and Title one intervention groups, getting paid an hourly rate for only the time when I was at school. Not ideal for a single mother. So.... yet again I interviewed and applied for jobs until I was blue in the face. I even applied and interviewed for pre-K positions that my license did not cover. Year number three of interviews. Boo. I practiced, I coached myself, I said affirmations. I analyzed.... What kind of teacher am I really? What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? What do I need to work on? Of course, I am great at taking myself apart and finding myself to not be good enough. So the "what do I need to work on" column was always long. But then I got to, "what is my passion?" and "what kind of team member do I hope to be?"
In June, I got a call from a small, project-based learning school in a district outside of my town and county. I was late to the interview because I didn't plan for the bridge to be out. But the interview itself went well, and lasted an hour and a half! I've never had that long of an interview before! And I have been on a lot of interviews, remember. I saw the beautiful classrooms in a school building that I would call new, a building of less than 20 years, built in 1997! I was in awe. And everyone who is anyone knows that project-based learning is the wave of the future. Right? The position they were hiring for was for grades K-4. Yes, really. Five grade levels. This was not a deterrent for me. I was inspired and felt like it was the right move for me. And let's face it, I was also without a job. So when the principal called, I didn't need 24 hours to consider the job, I knew it was "the one" for me.
I had the epiphany before school started that I might only be here for one year, that the district was actively searching for ways to close the school. And I was overwhelmed. I had limited experience with grades outside of Kindergarten and especially with 3rd and 4th grade. I started off the year certain that I would somehow marry the vast differences in learning at so many grade levels and put that together effectively with PBL. Slowly, I realized that I might have to accept that fact that it would definitely be a year of adjustment and survival might be a key ingredient to success this year. It was also a year of loneliness. A BIG plus, however, was that even though my class size was quite manageable, I had a full time aide, allowing me freedom to work with small groups all day as she helped independent learners or grade level groups. She and I developed a great working relationship and non-verbal communication, such as.....well, mostly she read my mind. This was a life saver in so many ways. As it was a small school with only two classes (K-4, and 5-8), I was limited on colleagues and comrades. I soon discovered that even though the teacher across the hall said in the interview that she knew how to agree to disagree this was not the experience. I found out that if you were not in agreement with her, then you were against her and considered the enemy. I found this out the hard way when I stated that I felt like we were taking venting about a situation to the level of gossip and tearing a person down and that I didn't want to be a part of the conversation anymore. This happened early in the year and was the turning point in our working relationship. This was the start of the silent treatment, closed doors, and whispers in the mornings which developed into full blown hostility sometimes passive/aggressive and sometimes just aggressive and even openly posted disparaging remarks on social media. This developed into a long year of not really learning as much about project-based learning as I'd hoped and long hours researching grade level standards, checking papers, planning lessons alone and trying to make sure that my students were progressing toward the next grade level. This outcast status was in addition to a general and open hostility within the district toward the PBL school and general lack of community at professional development training and staff inservice days. I'm a fighter though and I have loved teaching from the moment I started back to school, so I went to school with a love of teaching and learning and a desire to see my students succeed. My students were progressing. Many came to me behind the grade level expectancy, which is one reason parents looked at alternative learning opportunities. I didn't get all of them to their next grade level expectation, but all students made significant progress and some of them made remarkable gains. One student came in as a first grader missing most of his Kindergarten readiness skills and is now on target for his next grade level and reading at a beginning second grade level. So I hold this near and dear to my heart.
As the governor of the great state of Kansas continues to steal funding from education, our district found itself in a crisis situation. And the project-based learning school that they had intended to give five years to grow and reach other students, suddenly (or maybe not suddenly, but it felt sudden to me) came to be on the chopping block. And in March of this year, they voted to close the school. There is some process involved with this choice and they had to give a public hearing and have a final vote, which turned out to be a lot of red tape that changed nothing. The vote was the same, 4-3 in favor of closing the school. So once again, this left me looking for a job.
I learned so much this past year, but it has been shrouded in a cloud of self-doubt, and being stretched too thin, and a general all over feeling of being overwhelmed constantly. So again I was going to interviews not really knowing what I feel like my strengths are and where I wanted to go in the future. But the truth is, I know this: I am a Kindergarten teacher. I like to do projects, but I am not sure I am an authentic project-based teacher, and I love teaching kids to read. I am excited that it has become okay to teach kids to do math in whatever way they might best learn it and not just one set way. This is also scary this old soul, but it is good. Kids shouldn't fear math like I did. As I grieved for the closing of the school and very special group of kids with individual learning needs that I was having hard time letting go of and trusting that someone might meet those needs with them, and as I search for a job, a parent said to me, "yeah, but you can look at it as a new start, your chance to do whatever you want to...." and somehow that was a turning point. I DO know what I am good at and where my heart is. I am a good Kindergarten teacher! I am passionate about hugging Kindergarten kids, and making sure they eat, and teaching them phonics and letting them know they are safe in my class and they can learn as much as their little brains will let them because I will love them and accept them when they excel and when they struggle. Whatever flipped in my heart showed through in my next interview. And I was offered a Kindergarten position in a bigger district that is a shorter commute than last year. I am SO happy and excited and my confidence is soaring these days. I feel good about not being placed in such a tenuous position as last year and I hope that my feet have found their landing place and that I will be teaching here for many years to come. Today I know that the hardships in my three years as a licensed teacher have taught me so much. I have learned more about how to treat students, how to treat human beings, and how to be a good friend than I thought possible. I have learned a lot about just how tenacious I am when the going gets tough. If I ever doubted it, I know beyond any doubt now that I am not a quitter. Now, don't get me wrong, if something is not working in the classroom (or at home or in my personal relationships for that matter) I can change what I am doing, I don't have to pursue something to death's door. But I won't give up on my student, on relationships that are worth pursuing, or on myself.