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Confessions of a Real Teacher

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are members of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). Today's final post is from Sarah Brown Wessling, a high school English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa. She also serves as the Teacher Laureate for The Teaching Channel and is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year.

It began inauspiciously. I was at a conference, working with teacher-leaders from all over the country. Due to the design of the conference, though, I had the unique experience of extended conversation time with the same 10 teachers each day. Purposefully, we were an eclectic mix, combining teachers from urban LA to rural Kentucky to an elite school in Boston to my public high school in Johnston, Iowa. At one point, I politely left the group to go and conduct a plenary session for all the conference-goers. The next day I returned to my table of colleagues, ready for some more energizing talk when one of my table-mates said, "After your session yesterday, I Googled you. I didn't realize who you were. You just seem so real."

My immediate thought was: you have no idea how real I am. My second thought was, "Why wouldn't I seem real?" And that's when I decided it was time to share what being a real teacher is all about. So here are my top 10 real teacher confessions.

10. Those magic moments are elusive, not regular. Even though I get to talk and write about those great moments of epiphany or breakthrough of my students, they don't happen every day. In fact, they are sporadic and unpredictable. What I can count on each day is the tough work of trying to make something obscure relevant, of trying to motivate, of forging ahead without certainty that any of it will work.

9. I sometimes like to work alone. For as much as I crave being able to collaborate with other teachers, sometimes I just like to figure it out on my own. My invention process is uniquely mine and it doesn't always fit into the hour of late start on Wednesday mornings that's been designed to help teachers collaborate. What I always need though, are those trusted colleagues who will listen and question as I work to make sense of the murkiest moments.

8. I'm always behind. Always. Even though I haul student papers everywhere I go -- to family gatherings, football games, the doctor's office, the airplane ⎯ I am only caught up on the first and last day of the year. It's the hardest work I do. Responding to papers (which isn't the same as grading them) takes an intense energy that is really tough to maintain.

7. Underneath the protein bars and oatmeal is a whole lot of chocolate! There's a lot of expended energy in teaching: the cognitive kind, the emotional kind, the physical kind. And while I know that there are lots of ways to keep that in a steady supply (exercise, time for myself, etc...) it never hurts to have a stash of confectionary delights in close reach.

6. I forget to take attendance... too often. Every week I tell myself that this will be the week I take attendance every class period within the first 5 minutes of class. And I will...for awhile. But then I just get so excited to see the kids and as soon as they walk in the door, I'm ready to get started. Stopping for the first few minutes always seems to damper the momentum, so I prefer to sneak away during the middle of class instead, even though I think this makes me a "rule breaker."

5. I can rationalize almost anything as "classroom research." Whether it's an evening streaming episodes of 30 for 30 or Gossip Girl, going to a basketball game or getting lost in my current book, I can always find a way to connect it back to the classroom. Which makes it all time well spent, right? There's actually some truth to this. I have three sophomore boys who love 30 for 30 and four senior girls who want to connect everything back to Gossip Girl. I have music lovers who are educating me on the merits of Tool and Dubstep. Frankly, if it keeps me in touch with my students, it's worth learning!

4. Sometimes I wish parents would take a deep breath and be patient. Of course I welcome and appreciate all the ways that parents work to support their children at home. As a parent myself, I also understand when you need to advocate for your kids and when you need to have tough conversations at school. But I also see the impact of grade-centeredness, unrealistic expectations and helicopter parenting. What I wish parents could see is what happens to their children at school when these priorities become burdens. I wish they could see the long faces, the heavy shoulders, the fear of making a mistake that paralyzes them from even trying. I wish we could try harder to not pass on our own anxieties to them.

3. I have horrible lessons too. Of course I do. The ones that are carefully constructed and bomb. The ones that get derailed by the student story when class starts. The ones that are too complicated or not complicated enough. I have them all. Every variety of failure and misstep: I've done it. But I'm not afraid of mistakes and I'm not ashamed of them. I learn and tweak and grow and get better, not because I was ever perfect to begin with, but because I am compelled to get it right...eventually.

2. I wake up thinking about my students. I'm not much of a sleeper anyway, but these young people are part of my life. I worry about them, I celebrate them, I remember them, I get frustrated with them, I am inspired by them. I care about them. And, eventually, they learn to care about themselves too.

1. I am profoundly human. I'm horrible with directions. I have an embarrassing memory for numbers. I can barely draw a stick figure and my own kids tell me to stop singing when we're in the car. I'm a recovering perfectionist and I get so passionate about things that it's hard for me to say "no." Since baby #3 I'm late to everything and I don't mind leaving wet towels in the washing machine overnight. And it all makes me pretty real. More than that, I don't try to hide it from myself, from my students or from my colleagues. Parker Palmer says that we "teach who we are" and I suppose that means I teach my passionate, geeked out, vulnerable, imperfect, tenacious self who can't wait to see 95 versions of those qualities in the faces I meet each day.

--Sarah Brown Wessling

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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