4 Lessons Learned In My Third First Year of Teaching

back to schoolSeptember is here, which means the beginning of another school year. This last school year was particularly important to me because it marked my first year back in the classroom after a six-year hiatus. After two difficult years teaching in two different schools, I seriously questioned if this was the right field for me. While working in several other fields, I realized that many of my frustrations with teaching were not unique to the teaching profession. Instead, I was just learning how to navigate my way successfully in the professional world. It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching middle school or waiting tables, I now know that wherever I am, I need to find the balance of being a team player while advocating for myself, know how to have honest, difficult conversations with co-workers, and know how to be solution-oriented instead of whining about what makes me unhappy.

I couldn’t be more thrilled at my decision to take a third try at classroom teaching and I’m proud to announce that I survived this last school year (and even thrived at some points).

As a new school year begins, I’d like to share four lessons I learned in my third first year of teaching.

Lesson #1: Celebrate the little victories.

There are days when everything feels wrong. What seems like an interesting way to teach compound sentences falls flat on its face. Or maybe the kids just aren’t grasping the best ways to explain their evidence and I can’t think of a new way to present the material in the moment. Other days the clouds are making us want to put our heads down, I didn’t drink enough coffee (is there such a thing?), my desk is overrun with paperwork, grades are due, and I accidentally threw away everyone’s graphic organizers that we needed in order to complete the day’s writing activity.

Then, I look out at the class and see a reluctant writer writing non-stop for twenty minutes without even looking up. Or there’s the girl, who has struggled staying focused, working feverishly on her essay and can’t help but shout out, “I actually like your class!” Another day it’s the quiet kid who excitedly waves his hand in the air and demands to lead the class discussion on double negatives. There’s the kid who shrieks on the playground and almost falls over when he finds out he’s passing all of his classes. These are the little victories that make the challenging times worth it, and they deserve to be celebrated daily.

Lesson #2: Remember the why.

As someone who is often way too hard on herself, inevitably self-doubt creeps in especially in the cold dark months of January and February. Why am I doing this, I would ask myself. Why didn’t I just give up after two marginally successful years of teaching? What makes this time different? Maybe I should’ve just given up the teaching profession all together.

Proud teacher!
              Proud teacher!

Then, I remember my why. Why do I teach? I teach because I firmly believe in the power of education as what could be the great equalizer, but there’s still so much more work to do. I believe in the limitless potential of students and that they need unrelenting adults who work together to light the fires that are within them. I believe in the little victories that make teaching worth it.

Ultimately, I acknowledge the feelings of self-doubt, but then I move on and trust that I’m doing the right thing because it’s the decision I made for me.

Lesson #3: It’s not supposed to be easy. Nothing is.

I often think of the words Tom Hank’s character in A League of Their Own says when one of his top players, Geena Davis’s character, says she’s quitting the league. She says it just got too hard. He responds, “If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” I feel that way about the teaching profession. The hard is what makes teaching great. Are there days where I wish I could squeeze in a game of tennis after work followed by a long dinner? Of course. Do I gaze longingly at my non-teaching friends’ Instagram pictures of their afternoon meetings around the company keg and subsequent happy hour jaunts? Maybe a little. But, I wouldn’t trade the opportunity to be inside the classroom for anything else.

Lesson #4: Perspective is key.

When I worked at the restaurant, our manager would sometimes ask at the beginning of a shift if we thought our work would cause us to lose a limb or even worse, kill us. The answer was always no. He would then say something to the effect of say exactly, you won’t die while working tonight so relax. I think about this when I need a little perspective. As a classroom teacher, the stakes always feel high. After all, this is someone’s education we’re talking about. When things don’t go as planned, or if students don’t score as well on a test as I’d hoped, it can feel as serious as losing a limb. However, in those moments, it’s important to have some perspective and remember I’m doing the best that I can. I take the work seriously, but I can’t take myself too seriously because that’s when things go awry.

I am so delighted to be returning to my school for a fourth year of teaching and am looking forward to all of the nuggets of wisdom I will gain this year. To all you teachers out there, have a great school year!

Be Brilliant At It

“The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside us while we live.” -Norman Cousins

This is the book my friend loaned me years. I really should give it back!
This is the book my friend loaned me years. I really should give it back!

 Several years ago, a friend loaned me his copy of Words I Wish I Wrote, compiled by Robert Fulgham. As a young professional, not too far removed from my idealistic liberal arts college days, my mind was blown by the nuggets of wisdom contained within its pages. As a writer, I wished I’d written every single one of these words as the title suggested. The above quote from Norman Cousins completely resonated with me and I’ve thought about it a lot recently as I’ve returned to the teaching profession.

 I’ve been thinking a lot about what we let die inside ourselves in the past few months as I made the choice to get back into teaching and the career path from which I strayed so far. I was starting to feel like I’d let so many things inside me die as I struggled to figure out exactly what I wanted to do career-wise. When I left teaching five years ago, I never gave myself a timeline as to when I’d return, but deep down I always knew I’d find my way back in some capacity.

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset
-Charles Bukowski

However, in the last five or so months, I felt as though getting back into a career I felt passionate about was beyond my reach. Five years had flown by and my most recent stint as a full-time server made me feel as though I’d reached the point of no return.

Naturally, when you feel so far from your desired path, feelings of self-doubt creep in. How did I get here? How could I possibly have let all of the things that make me who I am just fly to the wayside? It was almost paralyzing to think about all of the potential I was wasting. Was it gone permanently? It had been so long since I’d worked in an academic setting I questioned my ability to secure a job in that field. Had I inadvertently closed the door to teaching forever?

IMG_0779_4To me, there are few things more tragic than wasted potential. I love the way John Updike beautifully paints this melancholy picture of wasted talent in his poem, “Ex-Basketball Player.” He tells the story of Flick Webb, the best basketball player in his town’s history who now pumps gas for “he had never learned a trade, he just sells gas/ Checks oil, and changes flats.” Remembered for his hands that “were like wild birds,” Flick spends his free days at the diner smoking cigars, playing pinball, and drinking “lemon phosphates.” Instead of playing in front of adoring fans, he faces only “applauding tiers/Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads” at the diner. There are several Flick Webbs from my hometown who haunt my memory with their athletic and artistic prowess that went unrealized.

Your potential, rekindled.
Your potential, rekindled.

On the bright side, there is always triumph to be found in tragedy. The good thing about potential is that it is only wasted if you allow yourself to waste it. It can be rekindled. Though I felt so far removed from where I’d begun, I applied for teaching jobs and eventually found my way back into the classroom. All of the things about myself I missed were still buried within me. It was just a matter of bringing those missing pieces to the surface.

On one of my last days of waiting tables, I explained to a group of guests that I was leaving to teach writing. An older gentleman at the table simply smiled and replied, “Be brilliant at it.” Not a congratulations, but a you have an obligation to yourself and to the world to be brilliant at whatever it is you decide to do. This gentleman’s simple words have inspired me far more than he probably ever imagined.

Be brilliant at it. 

I challenge all of you to focus on whatever it is that makes you alive and be brilliant at it. The world is depending on you.

Does It Really Matter What Books We Read?

books
One can never have enough books.

Last week, writer Ruth Graham published a piece in Slate Magazine slamming adults for wanting to read young adult novels saying they “should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.” She laments that adults who spend their time reading young adult novels are wasting their time because they’re missing out on the literary novels written for adults. Graham finds YA novels to be overly simplistic about the human experience, which is a problem because it asks adults “to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired.”

Understandably, this piece caused quite an uproar on the internet, prompting numerous rebuttals. One of my favorite pieces was from an author who happens to write YA novels herself. Her main message is enforced in the title of her piece, “Adults Can Read Whatever The Hell They Want.” I couldn’t agree more. 

Some of my favorite YA novels.
Some of my favorite YA novels.

I don’t think anyone should feel embarrassed by the books they read. I hold a torch for certain YA novels because many of them shaped my life as a young reader and a young adult. Judy Blume’s books and the Ramona Quimby series are two such series that come to mind. I would re-read any of those books in a heartbeat. It’s fun to return to those reading experiences and recreate those memorable moments. I’ve always been overly nostalgic and that’s part of the reason I love revisiting books from my youth. In fact, when I first started working at a school, the first thing I did was check out a copy of The Westing Game because I’d had such fond memories reading it in the sixth grade with my class. As an adult, I read it in a couple of hours. 

I also read the classics.
I also read the classics.

Does it really matter what books we read? I say no. To me, the reading experience is what matters most. In our current culture where Netflix, Facebook, DVR, iPads, and a whole slew of other electronics and social media apps are competing for our attention and brain power, I salute those who pick books above all else. Read whatever you want, just read!

I find Graham’s opinion to be a bit elitist. She overly generalized adults who read YA novels. Adults who read YA novels don’t read them exclusively. And what’s wrong with reading YA novels for the sake of nostalgia or escape? Isn’t that one of the main reasons we read any way?

The Dark Before the Dawn

“Remember,” they say, “that the darkest hour of all is the hour before day.”- Samuel Lover

The actual dark before dawn.
The actual dark before dawn.

It’s been far too long since I wrote my last blog post. I could give you a laundry list of excuses as to why this is the case, but I don’t believe in excuses. It looks like I’ve allowed myself to fall victim to the “busy trap” once again.

My last blog post was about letting loose and de-stressing, which is ironic, because at the time I wrote it, my stress levels were at an all time high. New York City was wearing me down and instead of attacking back with a can-do attitude, I let it run me over.

In my two-and-a-half years of living in New York City, I’ve found that city life is a constant give and take. Some days I feel the city takes more from me than it gives. Yes, it’s extremely expensive (I’m looking at you, income taxes). Yes, it feels overcrowded at times, bordering on extremely claustrophobic. Yes, people can be rude, not to mention pushy. At the same time, I love everything the city has to offer. Botanical gardens, surfing lessons, Broadway shows, art museums, French films, awkward poetry readings, garage band performances. You name it, New York City has it.

Just another day of reaping what New York is sowing.
Just another day of reaping what New York is sowing.

There’s so much to do in New York that it can be distracting. I still have to make money and even save it, too. It’s hard to save money when I’d rather be out reaping all that New York is sowing. I feel a constant struggle between making money and doing what I love. Part of the issue is that I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do professionally. Being unsure of what you want to do in a place like New York City where you have to be cutthroat to get what you want doesn’t work out so well. For too long, I’ve put what I love to do professionally on the back burner.

Until recently.

A few months ago, I made the decision to return to teaching. Teaching is where I’ve always belonged, I just didn’t realize that until I took a six-year hiatus. Last week, a few days before my 31st birthday, I accepted a classroom teaching position. I couldn’t be more thrilled. I’ve finally turned a professional corner, or at least returned to the right road.

I’m excited to start a new chapter in New York, which is working in a field I so strongly believe in, in a position I’m passionate about. It will be challenging, stressful, and a whole slew of other adjectives, but I’m looking forward to being a position where I can give back to the community of which I’ve grown very fond.

Letting Loose

One of my favorite ways to unwind.
One of my favorite ways to unwind.

Did you know that it’s National Stress Awareness Month? Sometimes I feel like every month is National Stress Awareness Month as I am totally aware of the stress I’ve been feeling lately. Nothing out of the ordinary, just the usual stressors like paying taxes, thinking about what steps to take in my career, lack of sleep, and over-analyzing all of my life choices. No big deal!

There are countless books, blogs, talk shows, periodicals, and know-it-alls out there that provide a lifetime of information on the best ways to deal with stress. I’m sure your friendly health care professional has some great tips, too. However, when it comes to unwinding, I’m a huge proponent for doing whatever works for you. There’s no one cure-all way to de-stress! 

One of my favorite ways to unwind and alleviate stress is by partaking in water sports. I recently returned to the swimming pool after a long hiatus and it’s been life-changing. I spent 14 years as a competitive swimmer and I’ve missed that kind of intense exercise. You know how I feel about endorphins. I’ve also gotten into aquacycling and it’s quickly become another favorite way to really get those endorphins going. I’m addicted to the unique and intense workout, not to mention being in the water!

Central Park Boat Pond on a recent night. Doesn't even feel like the city!
Central Park Boat Pond on a recent night. Doesn’t even feel like the city!

Strolling through Central Park is another way I love to unwind. It’s so easy to get to and once I’m in the park, I don’t feel like I’m on a crowded island with 8.4 million other people. Instead, I feel like I’m on a solitary hike through the north woods of Wisconsin.

Of course, who can turn down a good giggle with friends? It’s free and it’s a great way to unwind. Laughter is the best medicine, after all. You get me on a good laughing roll and I can skip my abs workout for the day. 

A good dance party is also another one of my favorite ways to unwind. Especially since a dance party can happen anywhere, at any time. Just the other day I had an impromptu dance party while scrubbing my kitchen floors. Never felt better! All you need is music and the moves. 

Then again, what better way to unwind than by taking a vacation? I’ve never felt more relaxed than I did this last summer up north in Wisconsin. I love the vacation life. For my next trip, I’m thinking Europe. Or Vegas. Vegas, baby! I’d love to spend a weekend in my swimsuit laying poolside with a frozen drink at the Venetian working on my tan, then hitting the slots at night and maybe a party at the top of the Palms. You only live once, right? I’ve never been to Vegas and it’s a place everyone should experience at least once. Am I right?!

Tell me, what are your favorite ways to unwind?

Why The Internet Is Still Awesome

“They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes.”Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens, 2006.

“The Internet has its charms and its dangers.” – Peter the Librarian, to incoming freshman at Washington University, 2001.

“During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” – Senator Al Gore, 1999.

De de dee da do do do do do…

Since it first graced me with its presence in my home in 1996, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the Internet. In the beginning, I instantly fell in love with the dancing hamsters and the ability to find anything my heart desired on Netscape. Soon, I discovered that my crush was accessible 24/7 thanks to a little something called AOL Instant Messenger. My friends were also accessible over AIM and I’d spend many nights sneaking into the computer room to chat, waiting for that magical hum from the modem signaling to me that I was connected me to the internet/my dreams. Sometimes I’d throw a towel over the computer, hoping it would mute out that terribly loud sound and not wake up my parents.

Not only did the Internet connect me with my friends, but it allowed me to listen to all sorts of music I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Thanks to Napster and later Kazaa, I could listen to the greatest hits of the ’80s, ’90s, and today without having to spend all of my allowance on CDs. All that money I saved really came in handy in college when I had to pay for things like laundry and Ramen noodles.

Remember when it was “the” Facebook?

Toward the end of college, a little social network called Facebook arrived to the scene. It allowed you to connect with other kids on campus and see what they were up to. At first, it sort of felt like signing someone’s yearbook. You’d leave a little note on someone’s graffiti wall and go about your daily business. Soon, we were able to be friends with people on other campuses. Then, eventually the whole world was invited to join along with everything that has ever been invented. Ever. You could suddenly post pictures, tag people in statuses, check in with people. Lots of information available about everyone including your old boyfriend, his mother, your best friend from middle school.

Fun at first! A great way to keep in touch with friends old and new! But funny things started to pop up. Judy had a party last week? All my friends were there? I wonder why I wasn’t invited. Do they not like me? Staci is backstage at the Justin Timberlake concert again?! She really leads a more exciting life than I do. I need to get out more. Why won’t anyone like my status? Am I not funny? Or interesting?

My boyfriend, according to Buzzfeed.

Thanks Facebook, not only have you exacerbated my fear of missing out, you’ve turned me into a cyberstalker and you’ve wasted ALL of my time. What’s worse is that Buzzfeed has joined the party to take up even more of my time. As if Facebook hasn’t wasted enough time, now there’s an array of easy-to-read (read: mostly pictures), hilarious posts about everything under the sun from news stories to why going to the mall as a child is different from going as an adult. If that wasn’t enough, they now have quizzes. So even though I didn’t go grocery shopping as I’d planned, I do know which writer from history I should have a romantic fling with (Anton Chekov) and which U.S. President I most resemble (Barack Obama). Equally as important, I’d say.

Aside from wasting my time, how about the fact that the Internet has dumbed down our society as a whole?! The Internet is rewiring our brains! Nobody even reads anymore. In fact, if you’ve reached this far in my post, I commend you! Hashtag thank you. Hashtag see what I mean about the dumbing down of our society. Hashtag I hate people who talk in hashtags. Hashtag sorry not sorry.

Some days, I am so disgusted by how much the Internet has taken over my life. As I write this post, I’m staring at my iPad while my iPhone sits next to me. You know, in case someone likes my photo on Instagram, I can instantly respond and return the favor by liking one of their photos.

Just last month, when I hit the peak of my frustration with the Internet and thought about unplugging forever, I was kindly reminded why the Internet is still awesome. One day, upon arriving home from work, I received a small package in the mail. I wasn’t expecting anything so I didn’t have a clue as to what might be in the box.

The mug and the letter.
The mug and the letter.

After opening the box and sifting through the hundreds of styrofoam peanut-looking things, I found a commemorative royal wedding mug and a letter that was typed on a typewriter. It was from a Twitter friend, whom I’ve never met, but who knows how much I loved the royal wedding and everything Will and Kate-related. His mother, who lives in Minnesota, got the mug as a commemorative gift from People Magazine and was going to throw the mug away. Not wanting a good mug to go to waste, my Twitter pal thought of the only person he knew who might want such a thing–me.

The mug was accompanied by a letter, another one of my favorite things. There’s nothing better than receiving a letter in the mail. The thoughtful gift was an added bonus. This encounter happened because of our friendship over Twitter and it reminded me why the Internet is still awesome. It connects people.

Isn’t that why we go online in the first place?