My Ninth First Day

All the anxiety melted away as I greeted my new seventh grade classes today. After hiring on last week and getting the whirlwind introduction to my new school, it was a relief to stand in front of a class again–a place where I feel at home. It was everything I hoped for from a first day and I want to build on the excitement and energy of my new students.

This is the ninth school year when I’ve kicked off an opening day and each time it gets more and more comfortable. I’m keeping a list of To Do/Don’t Do Again in my desk drawer to remind me for next year. So far, the To Dos are running away with themselves. If I can do all this with barely a week to learn all the protocols and even the closest faculty neighbor names, what can’t I do this year?

Of course, I’m flying high right now. I’m in love: new classes, new school, new faces, new opportunities. There will be bumps and uglies coming very soon, as they always do–because human beings are messy. Still, I’m going to enjoy the extra burst of energy and enthusiasm and plan for a great year learning with my students.

Today I thought back to my very first day in the classroom. I also taught seventh grade–and I was also hired on with barely a week to prepare. I’m such a different teacher now and I keep learning more about what it means to be a good teacher. In a way, it reminds me of Sandra Cisneros’s short story “Eleven.” In the story, the main character Rachel describes the way she feels about age–that all the years grow one inside the other like tree rings or nesting dolls. Perhaps that’s true for teachers, too, as we face each year both with experience and with fresh beginnings.

At any rate, I’m looking forward to what the year has to bring and all the ways my students are going to grow.

Happy New School Year to you all!

The Camp Director Files: Lessons in Administration

"The calm before the campers." Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2011.

The majority of my experience and background in education has been in English or Language Arts classrooms, teaching middle and high school students. As I’ve developed more confidence, I’ve taken advantage of opportunities to grow in other directions and take on leadership roles on school committees or as a coach or teacher leader. As a theater director, I learned how to manage a budget and balance schedules in order to bring my shared vision to life on the stage with my students. I created new structures and developed a team to build some institutional memory for the program that wouldn’t be forgotten when I had to move away. All these experiences allowed me to work side by side with students or colleagues and act as a sounding board to help them reach their goals. In all my experiences, I’ve been a team member or my leadership centered on an area of my expertise. This summer, I am facing a new challenge in uncharted territory: administration. Not only am I taking on a new role, I’m also helping to reshape and reimagine an existing program to help leave it stronger and more organized with a fresh vision for the future.

I’m learning how to handle the pressure of too much to do and too few hands to do the work; how to delegate and how to show my staff I trust them to do what’s best for kids; how to follow policy set for me from an ideal standpoint that doesn’t match the messy and unpredictable nature of reality on site; how to train my staff and work with my Assistant Director to mentor the junior counselors and CITs as they struggle to become leaders; how to manage tears, illness, homesickness, conflicts, misbehavior, and concerns for our campers’ safety and welfare at home; how to manage misunderstandings and personality conflicts among my leadership team; how to adhere to all the state regulations and requirements–even when that means letting kids go hungry at lunch because the food didn’t arrive at a safe-to-serve temperature–and explaining that to the kids so that they understand. In short, I’m getting a crash course in administration and a six-week internship as a mini-principal.

It has been daunting, uplifting, challenging, and fulfilling–and that was just for the first week of training before the campers showed up.

I plan to reflect on my experiences and list the links to those reflections from this starting point in order to document my journey. Comments and your wisdom are most welcome.

Let the journey begin:

1. The Other Side of the Office Door

2. Air Traffic Control or the Lighthouse

Artfully Scientific

Open notebook

During a professional development meeting about seven years ago, I started doodling in a black and white composition notebook. I don’t remember what the presenter said that made my mind race, but a torrent of ideas spilled themselves all across that notebook page. I created a list, a drawing, a diagram, a mess of tangled lines and arrows and bullet points.

The list was my attempt to define my role. That meeting took place at a point so early in my career, I was having trouble orienting myself in the classroom as the teacher. I felt unsure of my role and what felt like the many hats I was having to pull on and off in the course of my day. The longer I have been a teacher, the more roles I acquire.

I am a coach     mentor     doctor     lawyer

therapist     mother hen     model citizen     manager

police officer     judge     architect     artist     expert

musician     counselor     defender     designer

scientist     statistician     researcher     technology guru

peacemaker     writer     poet     cheerleader     librarian

…the list goes on.

I may embody each role for only a fraction of a moment as I interact with students, my colleagues, or parents. In the community I am a spokeswoman, an archetype, a strawman, a figure carved in marble, a selfish ineffective drain, or an earthly saint. Each of these roles, too defies easy borders and the labels stick firmly.

I eventually put my list away, but every so often I open my old notebook, trace the inked lines and ask the one question that won’t leave me alone: Is teaching an art or a science?

This blog, a brand new venture for me, is my attempt to grapple with this question at a time when education reform depends on it. The calls for merit pay and value-added assessment won’t mean a thing if they’re suited for a job description that doesn’t match what I do. In my heart, I believe teaching is both an art and a science and if we ignore or devalue one of those aspects, we weaken and devalue what it means to be a teacher.

For anyone who may read my ideas, please understand that I’m bringing my personal philosophical struggles into the public sphere and I may, at times, say things that appear contradictory or uninformed. All I can do is ask you to share your insights with patience and quote American poet Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”