September 29, 2013

Exhausted & Exhilarated!

I have survived the first month in my new role as a grade 6/7 teacher!! 

This year I set up my classroom as a base camp to go with the book we are reading by Eric Walters, "Between Heaven and Earth", which is about a grandson's journey to climb Mount Kilimanjaro as a last wish in the will left by his grandfather. I created a signpost for the classroom with the qualities: Courage, Perseverance, Kindness, Imagination, and Teamwork as trail markers. These are the qualities I want to reinforce with my student throughout the year (and they are represented in the story we are reading together).

my classroom signpost

my mural of Mt. Kilimanjaro in progress
our base camp reading area

I had plans in my mind of how life in our "base camp" would unfold, but there has been a learning journey of my own that has been taking place in this new environment. The pace in a middle school seems to move 1000x faster than in did in elementary for me (and confirmed many times in conversation with other educators). Now I know why teachers get more "preps" in middle school. The fact is - you never really feel like you have more time, because you are just too busy to stop and notice it! Much of that time is spent in team meetings and discussions about student needs, or eating because you were helping out with a school sports activity during the lunch hour.

I am finding that teaching in a middle school is requiring a real shift in my thinking and I cannot just automatically apply all of the strategies and routines I have been accustomed to in my teaching at elementary over the past years. I have been trying to develop rapport with my students, set the classroom expectations, and build community with them; but something wasn't jiving early on like it has for me before. I was having a bit of trouble engaging the class as a whole and maintaining continuity throughout the day. For example, on some days I only see some of my students for 2 blocks (a block is approx. 50 mins long) and then they are off to other teachers. How can I follow through with students at the end of the day when I don't have any contact with them later on? I also have a variety of mixed groups: my core class of grade 6/7s, a group of grade 6 students combined together from 2 classes, and my "switch class" which is a group of grade 6/7s from a partner classroom. How do I allow those groups to form identity and community with each other? But none of these factors are really the problem. What needed to change was my thinking around the new schedule, system, and groups of students I was working with. 

Each group I work with is unique and therefore requires something specific and unique from me. So I started to try a few things which brought some order into the chaos (or as it seemed early on to me). I was trying to move directly into a lesson early in the morning with my core 6/7 group and I was facing some resistance in attitudes and a lack of focus in my students. I decided to switch up the start the day with a D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything and Read) time right as the students entered. The change has been quite noticeable and I think the students actually really like it. There is such a hustle-bustle in the halls in the morning with lockers and conversations, and having to rush off to school with a hundred reminders from home, that this morning time allows them to settle in quietly to the day...and then can actually hear a few announcements and reminders from me! This also gives me time to check in with specific students and see how they are doing, and I allow them to catch up on unfinished homework as well, which I think they appreciate:) 

I was also having trouble engaging my students in the last block of the day - French. The students have lunch and then "fun" subjects like Tech Ed, Home Ec, Art, Drama/Music; so they are kind of done with academic work at that point, or at least work that was being presented in a boring way! I had been trying to teach them vocabulary and review basics of French conversation etc... Well, it wasn't working. Truth is, I wasn't engaged in it, and silently I was hating it. So I shared this with a colleague, and he suggested trying some games, which after a few "lessons" has totally transformed this time from a nightmare to so much craziness and fun. I actually had the students generate ideas for games and now the vocabulary seems less like a chore or more dynamic:)

Reflecting on my days, I began to recognize that the small moments beyond and around the teaching are critically important to forming the relationships I want to with my students. I have always known this; but we are often challenged in the things that we think we are doing well at, aren't we? Rather than trying to get all their attention after they have entered the room, I have begun to greet my students every time as they enter (and leave) the room by simply finding something to connect with them on personally. I know this something we expect from teachers in general; but even more important I am finding at middle school. That brief moment of commenting on their wardrobe, or a helpful attitude they demonstrated, asking a question about something they did last night, making a joke, or just wishing them a good weekend, makes a real difference to them in their day. For some, it might be the only true interaction they get with an adult on some days! Proactive and interactive engagement is always more effective and efficient than reactive and corrective behaviour management! You can quote me on that if you want:)

I have really begun to settle into the rhythm and flow of my new middle school, I am working harder than ever it seems. One day in my weekend is often devoted to marking and planning for the week ahead. Having admitted to that, I must acknowledge that I feel invigorated again in my teaching, and I have no desire to "go back" to where I was. I was just getting way too bored and needed a change of routine. I guess I am getting exactly what I wanted and asked for in my new position. I see that there is no problem that cannot be overcome with a good dose of reflection and assistance from my new team of teachers, admin, and students. I am using the qualities of courage, perseverance, kindness, imagination and teamwork to help me continue on with success. Maybe I should say that I have not just survived, but that I am thriving and growing in my new environment! And as always, I am thankful.