Come Back Better
By Rebecca Mieliwocki
Part of my teacher development work in Burbank includes coordinating secondary induction for brand new teachers working to clear their credentials. Last week, I scheduled several check-ins with my newbies to make sure they were on track to complete their early service induction portfolios.
I expected to need to do a fair bit of encouraging in these tough final few days of the year. Between exams, grading, writing letters of recommendation, coordinating all of the end-of-year celebrations, performances, & award ceremonies, we all know what an absolute crush the end of the school year can be. Fully prepared to prop them up for the final laps, I couldn't have been more surprised by what I saw when I dropped by.
"I'm so excited," said Amy as she worked to remove what had moments ago been a gorgeous Book Quote Graffiti bulletin board filled with favorite lines from books her seventh graders had read. As we visited, she continued to waltz around the room, boxing up supplies, sorting books, stashing teaching materials for the long summer sleep. She was filled with a kind of preternatural energy rarely seen in teachers during the last week of school.
"I wish next year started tomorrow," she continued. "I know all the things I'm never going to do again, the things I tried that were just duds, and all the things I'm excited to do differently. I just wish I didn't have to wait two months to try everything out!"
Sensing Amy's enthusiasm might be a fluke, I wandered over to Carlos's Spanish classroom. I found him looking pensively out the window.
"Hey friend, how's it going?" I asked. With a look of absolute serenity on his 24-year-old face, he turned and said, "Oh, Senora Mieliwocki, it has been a wonderful year. I have had to learn so many lessons, and so many the hard way, but I am so much better today. I know so much than I did ten months ago."
He continued, "I did my very best for my students, and some days it wasn't good enough. They ate me alive. Other days, things I thought wouldn't work at all worked beautifully. What a surprise this job is, so full of mistakes and miracles. It's a beautiful journey. I cannot wait to come back better."
While it may be the seniors who don cap and gown, and move their tassels right to left, Carlos's near poetic reverie and Amy's musings about their first year in their classrooms remind me that the end of each school year is the beginning of the next fresh start for all of us. It is our chance to begin anew, to re-write the playbook, and to get it more right next time. In this way, commencement is for teachers too.
Leave it to some first year teachers to perfectly sum up our work--work that is full of mistakes, miracles, and all the wonderful little ironies that fill our lives as teachers.
They are learning that when you're a teacher:
- You will wring yourself out entirely by teaching. You will give everything you have, but you won't feel empty. By the end, you will find yourself emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually filled to overflowing.
- You will work harder than ever before, and yet the results of that labor will be a classroom that run so well, it looks almost effortless.
- You will do everything in your power to reach kids. You will read, research, talk to colleagues--even videotape yourself! And yet, sometimes, your students just won't get where you needed them to go academically.
- You will be far harder on yourself for your mistakes than your students will ever be on you.
- An idea you had five minutes before class will be such a hit that your kids learn like crazy and talk about it for months afterward.
- Even though you will create a classroom community knit together with love, kindness, tolerance, and safety, one day one of those children you adore, one of those children who reveres and respects you, will still do something to break your heart.
- Though you will be an excellent teacher, you will simultaneously feel as if somehow you're a fraud.
- The longer you teach, the collection of "Things I Know for Sure" will get smaller and smaller. Instead, you will learn how to live, even thrive, in a state of continuous learning, openness, perpetual growing as professionals. This state, says Aristotle, is where excellence is born. It is uncomfortable, but necessary.
The beautiful dichotomy of our work means that while we are always striving for professional perfection, the complexities of the work and the children we spend our time with make it far too difficult to ever master completely the craft of teaching.
Our great joy is that every fall, a new school year will begin again. The next group of young people we have the honor and the joy of making "ours" will present themselves, and we'll have that second, seventh, or twenty-third chance to do it all over again. As excited as we all may be for that next first day of school, I offer all educators the same advice I'm giving to Carlos, Amy, and every teacher in the trenches with me:
Wherever the next several summer weeks take you, make sure you take time to stop and rest. Let the lessons of the year sink in. Savor the successes and learn from your stumbles. Be kind to yourself; after all, you're a learner too. Immerse yourself in all the things you love to do that make you the kind of interesting person your students love to learn from. And when you come up for air, pick one thing about your teaching you'll improve for the year ahead.
Then, come back better.
Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). A 20-year veteran English teacher, Mieliwocki is currently on special assignment for her Burbank, California, district.