The Student Becomes a Teacher
"The Other Side of the Desk" Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2010
The first time I set foot in a classroom as a pre-service teacher, my eyes were opened to what I now call “The Other Side of the Desk.” As a student, I had found it so easy to find fault with teachers who seemed scattered and unprepared for class. I wondered why it took so long for them to grade and return my assignments–and why tests didn’t always match what we had been learning in class. I wondered why I could see the bullying, the slackers, and the cheaters, but they couldn’t. I wondered why some teachers could handle the “bad kids” while others seemed to egg them on and make things worse. Now I was the one with my Objective and Procedure-filled lesson plans and I watched as my idealized version of the classroom dissolved. Like every good teacher eventually discovers, I had to become flexible, to think on my feet, to listen to my students, and to design opportunities for learning and discovery rather than leaning on worksheets and questions at the end of the textbook selection. I learned that even a multiple choice test can take hours to grade when there are six classes worth of tests. I learned how to share responsibility for managing the classroom rather than ruling with threats and detention slips.
The Teacher Leader Becomes an Administrator
Now that camp has started, I’m also learning about life on the other side of the office door. I catch my reflection in the windows of the Administration Building as I move from place to place on campus, tending to campers’ needs and solving problems. I have that harried look I’ve seen on my administrators faces at times. I feel such an obligation to demonstrate every ounce of leadership and educational philosophy I possess, from modeling professionalism with my self-imposed dress code to the finer points of redirection, positive discipline, and inquiry learning.
I used to wonder why my administrators couldn’t stop by my classroom very often–until I spent half a day in the camp office making phone calls to parents who had forgotten to call in their absent camper. Those phone calls took place in between the times I was doling out band-aids (using Universal Precautions, of course), attending to “he-started-it” discipline issues, and answering the myriad questions from my staff that I hadn’t anticipated and, therefore, we hadn’t covered, in training. It used to frustrate me when an administrator would snap at me for what I perceived as a misunderstanding or an unjust characterization of my actions, until I was in the middle of a serious discipline issue and my curt response to a staffer left him feeling undervalued. (I found him later and apologized, adding yet another hard-knock lesson learned to my list.)
Campers expect that I know their names and will be fair, just, and let them have fun. Parents expect that I know each child and will care for them as if they were my own children–personally ensuring Jeffrey (not an actual camper) brings his towel home, Maribel (not an actual camper) uses her inhaler before swimming, and knowing from memory which days Adam, Harold, Julie, Tina, and Beth (not actual campers) will ride the bus and which days a parent will pick them up. Junior Counselors expect that I will empower them to make decisions and enforce the code of conduct and not undermine their authority. Senior Staffers expect that I will provide the materials they need to do their work and that I will be available to help them solve problems or address concerns as they arise. The board of directors expect me to uphold the camp’s mission and to maintain the founders’ vision while guarding against liabilities and keeping an eye on the budget.
Is it any wonder my walkie-talkie handle is “Momma Bear”?
Life on the Other Side of the Office Door
"First Steps on the Path" Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2011
It has been sobering and at times overwhelming to be the last stop on the way to making a decision or addressing a problem. I feel the weight of that responsibility and my overwhelming desire to ensure the safety and well-being of every person at camp–from the youngest camper to the most veteran volunteer. It’s a different feeling than the one I had for my students and my classroom, and I’m not ashamed to admit that the responsibility for all those young lives can sometimes fill me with terror that something I do (or fail to do) will cause inadvertent harm. Constant vigilance is both physically and mentally exhausting.
As the days go by, I’m learning to balance my expectations for myself with the reality that this is a lot of on-the-job training and that I can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. I’m learning that the other side of the office door, like the other side of the desk, is its own universe and that there’s nothing like “living the adventure” to understand what it’s like. Camp hasn’t been filled with stressful challenges either. There have been great moments where I know I’ve made a positive difference for a camper or staff member–and it feels so good to know my leadership can make that difference. After this summer, I’ll have to consider my options carefully and decide how an administrative role may play a part of my future.