Reflections on Year 10

Like many teachers, I have a hard time celebrating myself. It seems a lot easier to find the missed opportunities and shortcomings that amass over the course of a school year. This year was no exception. In fact, this year was in many ways my most challenging and frustrating since my first year. Surprisingly, this taught me to celebrate accomplishments of years past, and to appreciate what I was able to do this year.

My classroom teaching experience was very different this year. For the first time I ever I wasn't a generalist - teaching reading, writing, math, social studies, and science to one class - I was  responsible for teaching math to both fifth grade classes. The work of building relationships with two groups of kids turned out to be more difficult than I expected.

My "home room" class who I started each day with was more or less similar to previous years, but the second classroom was incredibly hard. For the first time since my first year of teaching, I had students who were unapologetically defiant day after day. I tried different ways to address this: switching up the schedule, trying stations, adding incentives, incorporating more games, but overall the classroom culture remained very toxic. It was not a space that felt conducive to learning, let alone where learning and achievement could be celebrated.

Looking back now though, I know that there were accomplishments worth celebrating. While my numerous "reset" conversations never fully yielded a reset, they did send important messages to my students: "I care about your learning," and "I care about what you say." During these different conversations I took care to listen to my students, even when they had feedback or suggestions that felt unreasonable. I think most if not all of the kids know that I cared about them, in spite of many disagreements.

As far as achievement, the year wasn't as catastrophic as it felt day in day out. Eight of the 17 kids in the class (I know, a tiny class, but still so challenging!) made more than a year's growth of progress and four showed two or more years of progress. It's hard not to fixate on the possibility of what could have happened in a more functional classroom. But those results tell me I am a capable math teacher.

While the visceral memory of my time in that classroom is one of frustration and embarrassment, looking back now I can see much to celebrate.

I am proud that throughout it all, I didn't let myself give up. The trap of blaming my administrators, students, or structural factors was very alluring. But I couldn't let myself off the hook. I can't control everything that matters in the classroom, but I do have a tremendous amount of control.

This year I really tried project based learning in math on a consistent basis. It was sloppy, but it taught me a lot that I can use in the future. The levels of engagement I saw from students during the sneaker unit I designed affirmed by belief in teaching that responds to students' interests, and allows them to apply their learning to real world situations.

Midway through the year, when it became clear that whole class instruction was untenable for one of my classes, I switched to a station teaching model. I split the class into groups of four or five, and worked with one group at a time on a skill tailored to their strengths and needs while the other kids worked independently. While the independent work was unsurprisingly a challenge, the small group instruction was successful, because it was super targeted to the kids I worked with.

It wasn't easy to give up on my previous model of inquiry and whole class discussion, but reaching my tenth year of teaching has finally given me the confidence to break the rules (usually my own) and do whatever I think will serve kids best.

There are so many other things that made this year difficult and a year of learning. I struggled with things happening outside of school and with a deep sense of disillusion about whether I belong in an under-resourced school, teaching kids of color. Many of these challenges and questions aren't fully resolved.

Many narratives of teaching suggest that things plateau after year five. Many non-teachers assume that we just recycle our lesson plans year after year once we get the hang of things. I know these to be falsehoods, but I still never could have anticipated the way this year challenged me and taught me new things about teaching and learning. I survived my tenth year of teaching, and on top of the small victories, I'll definitely celebrate that!


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