5 Ways to be a Happier Teacher This Year

Target already has their back to school stuff out in stores. Early back to school sales should be considered criminal for the trauma it gives teachers who feel like they just started summer. But as we near August, even I have to admit, we’re getting closer to the start of school. As my schedule starts to fill up with meetings and school prep, I want to also spend some time prepping for how I can support my own mental health this year.

This school year will be year nine of teaching for me. I find that super strange. It still feels like I’m only a couple years in, but turns out I’m knocking on the door of a decade. I definitely don’t have things all figured out yet (spoiler, I never will) and even if I thought I did, COVID taught educators everywhere that there is always more to learn. However, there are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way, imparted by teachers much wiser than I. So here are five things that I will be striving to do this year in order to be a happier teacher–hope they help you too!

  1. Build routines for you-time

I’ll be honest with this one, if I go to one more PD that makes reference to “mindfulness” or “take time from you” I might roll my eyes and stop listening. Because yes, that advice is great, but I for some reason cannot hear that advice from someone who is not actively teaching. I agree that making time for yourself is important, but I’ll go a step further and say you need to build a routine of time for yourself. This looks different for everyone so I can’t completely prescribe it, but whatever your thing is, make sure you schedule a time to do it every day. Things that have worked for me in the past include:

  1. Reading my Bible each morning. I was probably the most effective teacher I have ever been when I committed to reading a Psalm each morning while my coffee was brewing. Just one Psalm was all it took to recenter my mind on why I was dedicating so much energy into loving students. This is something I really got away from but want to reincorporate this year. I think a tool that I might use is an app called Lectio 365. Each day, they have two devotionals (one for the morning and one for the night) that include scripture reading and a guided prayer. The coolest part? You can just push play and it’ll read it to you with some background spa-like music. It’s super calming and very relaxing. Even if you just push play as you start your commute, starting each day in the Word is a great way to recenter yourself. If you aren’t really religious, maybe find a meditation app that works for you. Something about quieting your mind (aka not running through your daily to-dos and lesson plans) is a great way to get the morning going.
  2. Working out. I have gone through phases of doing this well and also phases of not doing this at all. But when I have a routine that involves some movement, I am a happier person. If you’ve got some coworkers who also like working out, why not play a youtube yoga workout in your classroom after school? A few of my friends and I did Insanity workouts in my classroom a couple days a week and it was amazing! A couple years ago, I actually joined a gym, and I found that if I took my workout clothes to school and changed into them at the end of the day, it almost forced me to stop at the gym on the way home. Otherwise, on the drive home, I would convince myself that I could just head home and take a nap. In What Happened to You by Oprah, I learned that for humans, rhythm is regulating. That’s why a workout makes us feel so much better. The repeated movements help us regulate after hard days. Highly recommend it.
  3. Reading for pleasure. This is one that I wish I had started in my first year of teaching. I was so swamped trying to preview and read books before teaching them, that I totally neglected my own reading. I learned from my dear friend Gloria (my ultimate teaching role model) that she read a little bit of a book each night. If she could, she would try to get a whole chapter in, but even when she couldn’t, she’d at least get a couple pages. I can’t count the number of teachers who wish they had a chance to read more for pleasure and not just for work. So make it a priority. Read just a little bit every night. Make it part of the routine.

Those are a few that worked for me. I’ve done well with them and also really fallen away from them at other times. But the more fun things for me that were built into my routine, the better I felt. So find the things that bring you joy and add a little bit of them to each day.

  1. Set Yourself Time Boundaries

This one is something all first year teachers need to hear. But this is also something that all teachers need a reminder of each and every year. There has to be a point during your day when you turn off school. I read a joke somewhere about how Teaching is one of those weird professions where you have to do work at night so that you have work to do during work. And then you do that work at work so that you can go home to finish the work. The thing is, there is always more that could get done. So as teachers, we have to figure out where to set our boundaries. During the first few years as a teacher, this is harder because you don’t have materials already made. But I learned when I was drowning those first years, that if I could get “enough” ready so that I had an idea of mostly what was on the lesson plan for the next day, then that was good enough. If I had things for students and could make it through the next 24 hours, then that would be fine. We need time to have families and friends and invest our time in them too. 

A related point on this one is about grading. I used to dread grading essays because they would take forever. I also used to get a ton of quizzes all at once and hated how long it took–until I learned some tricks. First, when it comes to essays, limit your feedback. A fantastic colleague of mine, challenged me to rethink the amount of feedback I gave to students. I used to take an essay and a pen and mark up grammar mistakes, unexplained details, poorly cited quotes–you name it. My coworker asked me to ask my class how many students actually read the feedback I left them, and how many students just flipped to the back for the grade and called it good. I had about two kids per class who sometimes glanced at my notes. So I changed my approach. I now dedicate more time to giving feedback in the writing process (we all know that feedback is important, but it is way more important during the process rather than just at the end). This is where conferencing with students works great. Or, if you use Google classroom and assign a blank google doc for students’ essays, you can make a copy for each kid which then allows you to see how far each student has gotten. Giving feedback during the process gives students an opportunity to correct mistakes before they even turn it in. When they do turn it in, you direct students to put a star at the top of theirs if they are looking for feedback. When grading, you just use your rubric and grade the essays, only leaving feedback on a couple essays and you save SO MUCH TIME.

When it comes to quizzes or grammar tests, use Google forms! It takes some practice to get used to them if you’ve never used them, but under settings, you can make it a quiz. This allows you to assign point values and give an answer key. The computer will grade the quiz for you (except for free response or extended response answers, but if you only have to hand grade a couple questions instead of all of them, you save so much time). This is an amazing tool. It even allows you to make it so students can’t have multiple tabs open–yay for stopping cheaters!

  1. Build Relationships with Your Coworkers

This one will get you through anything. Misery loves company, and when you are a teacher, you are guaranteed to have some miserable days. Hopefully not many! But a nasty parent email or a trouble maker you had high hopes for but ends up flopping, might get you down. Your coworkers get it. They’ve been there too. Become friends with the people you work with.  My coworkers have gotten me through my toughest days. Sometimes you just need to be able to send a vent text to the teacher group chat, and on a Friday after a long week, it is always nice to grab a beer with someone who totally understands. Build connections and relationships with your coworkers. Being friends with the people you work with will 100% make you a happier teacher.

  1. Know When to Avoid the Lunch Room

This one is important and totally depends on your school and also depends on the day. I’m also pretty sure that this idea gets brought up in most teacher prep courses. The lunch room can be a great place to build friendships and relax (see point three), but it can also be a spinning vortex of nasty, negative, not-niceness. Be aware of the dynamic in your lunch room and be selective about when or whether you go. You don’t need to be there every day (for some of us, that 20 minutes of alone time is recharging and wonderful) or even at all. Don’t feel pressured to be at lunch. Spend your lunch doing what is best for you. I know of many teachers (myself included) who might eat lunch in a classroom with just a friend or two. I know a couple teachers who open their classrooms to students during lunch because those moments of relationship building are fueling for them. And I also know of teachers who prefer to eat lunch on their own. It’s tricky to navigate and figure all that out, but sometimes, avoiding the lunch room can help you be a much happier teacher. 

  1. Leave Perfectionism Behind and Embrace Improvementism 

This was one of my favorite things that Dave Stuart Jr. published during COVID. I literally printed his statement and taped it to my wall (if you’re a teacher looking for some great practices and advice from an actual teacher, definitely look into his blog). As teachers we want our lessons to be perfect. So perfect that every single student completely understands, learns, and remembers our activities and assignments. During the beginning of COVID, when we were all still unsure of what the school year looked like, Dave Stuart Jr. told his blog followers to leave all that perfectionism behind and embrace improvementism (not a word, but a great concept). I loved it when it came to the last couple years, but I still love it now and wish that I had heard this my first few years of teaching. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just work toward improving a little each day.

So those are the five big tips I have for you. Again, I gained these from some stellar colleagues and teachers. And I don’t do these perfectly at all. But they are great goals for me and hopefully they can help you too!

**Sidenote, if you’d like to support my classroom and students. This is my Amazon wishlist for this year. Every year, a handful of my high-interest books, all of my fidget toys, and many of my decorations get lost or broken. The love and support of family and friends is the only way I could keep my classroom funded. Thanks in advance if you’re willing to help out 🙂 **

How to Write a Resume

…and/or how to teach Resume writing to high school students.

I have been teaching teenagers to write resumes since my first year as a teacher (about to be a year-eight teacher). I have definitely-fine tuned my lessons and gotten better at explaining things since I started. In those first couple years, I even brought in people who worked in HR to work with my students. They taught students what they’re looking for in applications and actually loved the format I had been teaching (I teach that format even better now). In recent years, I’ve sat in on interviews for my school and have been shocked at some of the resumes we’ve gotten. Like, a two-page resume? Using the Google Docs Template??? What are people thinking?? 

I’m kidding, but also not really. Interview committees do judge and pick apart resumes. So you want yours to be professional, perfect, and stand out.

With all those experiences, I have certainly become a go-to person for friends when they need a resume or cover letter, and I actually love helping out. So this post is a written version of the lessons I use in class. I’ll link in Google docs for directions and examples so if you are ever in a position to teach these skills, feel free to use these documents with students.

If you are someone who learns better from videos, I’ve got some videos explaining how to write a resume. In the video, I use my Google Doc that I’m linking here. If you’d rather watch an explanation for how to write a resume, these should do the trick. Just keep in mind that it is targeted toward high school students, so you might have a little more work experience and a little less ‘extracurricular activities’. I made these during COVID for my juniors who didn’t get to do the end of the year assignments. A lot of students and parents said they wanted this information and were looking forward to the resume assignment–and then I made these videos and literally two of them maybe did it. Oh well lol. Go ahead and speed forward to 1:30 in the first video and you can skip over my explanation of the assignment not being a grade.

Part One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHptPxvE7IQ

Part Two: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNpi20r3BIs

A resume is a one page summary of your educational and career experiences that is submitted to potential future employers. Employers will potentially have a whole stack of resumes, so we want something professional that really highlights all of your experiences so you can stick out. We also want it to be as perfect as we can get it. Mistakes show your future employer that you don’t pay attention or take your time. We don’t want that, so take your time and make it perfect. This is what it will kind of look like:

There are many correct ways to write a resume, so there is a lot of flexibility in how to write them. But there are also some big, common mistakes in resume writing that we want to avoid. So, how to write a resume. Here is the document that I use with students, it includes directions, an example, a template, and a list of power verbs.

We start with a blank Google Doc. Doing it in Google Docs is my preferred approach because it automatically saves and is accessible from any computer. It also will stay with your email, so even if you get a new computer, you can keep accessing, editing, and using your document. We start with a Google Doc that is blank, we don’t use the resume template that Docs offers. That template is immediately recognizable to the interview committee (and if someone like me is on the committee, they’re already judging you), and also leaves too much white space making it hard to customize and format.

At the top of the document (in the header or just directly at the top of the document), you need your name and contact information. Here are a couple options of how you could do it. I do mine in the header and use the same header for my Cover Letter and References Page. I think that’s great for consistency and clarity. To get the name and contact information to move independently of one another, I inserted a table in the header that is two columns and one row. Then I can make the name in the left column huge and pretty. And then the font in the right column can be small and professional. To get rid of the lines, just right click in the table, go to table properties, and change the line color to white. Basically there are many options for formatting your name at the top.

The top image is what I use–all the information is in the header. The bottom image is just written at the top of the page and centered.

Your name should be bigger. Feel free to use a fun font with your name. I always like to find a script font, because I’m a little bougie and love cursive. I tell students to aim somewhere between 18 and 26 for the font-size of their name. Contact information should be Arial or Times New Roman, size 10, 11, or 12. Whatever font you choose for your contact information (at least phone number and email, but also address can be included) will be the font that you use throughout the entire resume. We want things to look professional and consistent.

You then need to decide on what headings you want to use. You’ll definitely want to include Education and Work Experience. Other options include Extracurricular Activities (if you’re in high school or college), Community Service, Community Involvement, Leadership, Memberships, Volunteer Work, Certifications, Skills, Interests. Only choose the headings that actually apply to you. Remember we’re trying to make the best impression we can on our future employers.

Quick note, often people will include an “Objective” as the first heading and include about 2-3 sentences identifying their goal in submitting this resume (e.g. obtain employment at an organization who benefits the community, blah, blah, blah). I think this could be great, IF you are very intentional about what you include. What you do not want is a generic “Objective” section where you say “to obtain a job in nursing”. Like, yes. Obviously. You submitted the resume, of course you want to get a job in that field. If you have an objective, you need to tailor those three sentences to the specific company you are applying to and identify specific reasons you want to work for that company. Personally, I prefer having a “Career Profile” section at the top where I can detail my skills in my field that make me an ideal candidate (see below). If you’re in high school or just graduating college, you can also just leave this section off. 

Under your headings, you are going to identify your experiences. Organize your experiences with the most recent ones and most applicable ones first. Include dates and keep all of your formatting consistent (see image below). Under each experience, you will include 2-4 bullet points that detail your responsibilities in that role. Start each bullet point with a past tense verb. Try to vary your verb choice (don’t always use ‘executed’, use some synonyms) and make sure you use strong verbs. In resume writing, we call those ‘power verbs’. You can find lists all over Google by googling ‘power verbs’, but I included a list on the last page of the document I shared above. 

Notice how all of the formatting and spacing is consistent. The headers are all bolded and capitalized. You don’t need to bold and capitalize your headers, but make them stick out and keep it consistent.

When you “finish” your resume, realize that you are never done with it. A resume is a constantly evolving and changing document–because you’re constantly earning more experiences and skills. Many people will recommend that you edit it every year, but honestly, I just edit mine anytime I want to apply for another side hustle. When you’re done though, you need to start editing. Look for consistent formatting, grammar or spelling errors, consistent spacing, consistent punctuation–you want to find any mistake and get this document looking perfect. It often helps to zoom out your view so you can see the whole page all at once–this will help you see if there are any spacing issues to address. 

It is also helpful to send your resume to a trusted, English or business-minded friend for a proof-read. Having someone else’s eyes on your document can help you identify other mistakes. I can’t count the number of friends and family members and past students who have sent me resumes or cover letters to proofread. You want your resume to be perfect so it’ll only benefit you to have someone else go through and edit for you.

Lately, there is a slightly different approach to resume formatting that uses columns, kind of like this image from a quick Google search.

I LOVE this approach. It uses space better and still looks very clean. This is what I use. My resume has my name and contact information in a header, then there is a horizontal line (insert>horizontal line), then my career profile, and beneath that, two columns of information. The left column is smaller and more of a sidebar which is where I include my education and volunteer work. On the right is a larger column that includes my work experience. If you want to try something like this, on Google Docs, it works really well to insert a table with two columns and one row. You can make the columns as wide or narrow as you want and write in them independently of one another. To get the lines to disappear, just right click and go to table properties. Then make the line color white. It’s like magic 🙂 

When you are ready to submit it with your application, download your doc as a pdf. Pdf ensures that no matter what kind of computer a person is using, none of your spacing or fonts will get messed up. Always use a pdf. (file>download>pdf). Before downloading, make sure that your file name is titled something along the lines of FirstName LastName Resume. Your document title will become your pdf file name when it downloads. Including your first and last name will help employers when they are receiving documents to keep your resume with your application. And also, just be sure there is nothing embarrassing in your document title–if I had a dollar for every “Dumb English Thing” that’s gotten turned in to me on Google Classroom, I’d probably be able to afford a very nice vacation.

And that’s it! Hopefully those resources help you write your resume, or help you teach teenagers how to write their own. If you have questions or need a proof read, please ask!

How to Help Students Learn to Write with the Power Paragraph

A couple years ago (before COVID smashed in and destroyed all our plans for our classrooms) I attended a conference on Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs if you’re familiar with the concept. It was a great conference about how to become better teachers, but one of the most important ideas that I took from this conference was about teaching and learning. As teachers, we can point to our curriculum maps, and lesson plans, and explain all of the wonderful standards-aligned things that we’ve taught throughout the year. That’s all well and good. But it doesn’t mean anything if our students haven’t learned what we taught them. We need to shift our focus away from what we are teaching to what students are learning.

Mind blowing difference right? And that’s where I think the power paragraph really helps us when we’re teaching our students to write. This is a concept that could literally be introduced in upper elementary classes, but also can be such a game changer for a student in high school. So I’ll explain what the power paragraph is, and then share some of the implementation/success stories. I’ll add links to documents that I use with students as well, feel free to use them!

A power paragraph is the name that I (and many other educators) give to a well-structured, organized paragraph. I tell students that I am looking for a paragraph that follows a 1-*2-3*2-3*1 structure. Each number represents a different type of sentence. A 1-sentence is a topic or summary sentence. A 2-sentence is a supporting detail. And a 3-sentence is an explanation sentence. The asterisks that I add into the structure? Transition words! Students are notorious for leaving out transitions and they are so important. I will also sometimes add in a 4-sentence, the 4 being a quote. In that case, I’ll ask students for a 1-*2-4-3-*2-3-*1 sentence (because a quote should be introduced in the supporting detail and then explained afterwards.

This structure can be really expanded upon, just with some guidelines. The 1-*2-3*2-3*1 is what I call the basic structure that any paragraph needs. But you could write a 1-*2-4-3-3-*2-3-3*2-4-3-*1 paragraph. Honestly, the possibilities are endless. The basic structure is just a great starting point.

When I introduce this to students, I keep the form written out on the board behind me. I also have laminated transition word lists scattered throughout the room and available on Google Classroom. I’ll write an example paragraph with students on the board so they can see how it works. When it comes to the topic sentence, I emphasize how whatever we put in the topic sentence is all we are going to write about. If my topic sentence talks about my favorite color, nowhere in that paragraph are we going to see details about my favorite food. For supporting details, I point out how the supporting detail supports the statement in my topic sentence and then the explanation sentence explains my supporting detail. At the end of the paragraph, I make sure they know to include a summary sentence in which they restate their topic sentence. It all builds together very nicely.

So for example, I might have my seniors working on their career unit write a power paragraph response to “Why would you be a good fit for this job?”. I tell them that their topic sentence should be a complete sentence answer to the question. Their supporting details will give reasons to support their topic. And then they’ll explain more in depth. On the board, I might give the example:

(1)I would be a great fit as a plumber for a number of reasons. (2) To start, I am a very hard working person. (3) When I was in high school, I worked part-time at my uncle’s car repair shop while also attending tech and maintaining a 3.0 GPA. It took a lot of hard work, but I was determined to complete all of my work well. (2) I also am very reliable and punctual. (3) Throughout my entire high school career, I was only absent a couple times when I was sick, and I was never tardy. (1) These are a couple reasons that I would be a great fit as a plumber.

While doing this, I definitely underline the transition words. High school students need all the reminders they can get to include those transitions. Eventually we’ll talk about incorporating and imbedding our transitions into our sentences instead of always starting sentences with them, but this is a great start.

Yes ,that example was simplistic, but it’s a great starting place.The reason I love teaching with this structure is because I get so many students in their junior and senior years who say that they hate English class. They claim that they suck at writing and they’ll never need to use English class in the real world. I always respectfully agree that they won’t need to explain metaphors or the plot of The Great Gatsby in many jobs; but they will need to be able to communicate in organized and clear ways. The power paragraph is honestly the most real-world applicable thing I teach.

Think about it. Anytime you write an email, a report, or a cover letter, you need to be writing clear, organized paragraphs.

I find that by giving a clear structure to students who have struggled with writing in the past really helps. So often, we English teachers get so excited about our content that we ask our students to write about it! And we forget that they might not know how to write about it or where they should start. The numbered sentences also really help my students who think more logically and prefer math or science to English. They can follow the steps and check each sentence off, knowing when they’ve completed the task.

Using the power paragraph is a great way to differentiate or build in scaffolds for struggling students, those with IEPs, or those who just don’t like English. But I honestly use it with all of my students. I even think back to my essays that I wrote for my grad classes (often an hour or two before they were due) and I was actually just using an expanded version of the power paragraphs to keep my essays organized! This is good for students of all abilities.

Interestingly, when I was at my first school, my data team was made of middle and high school English and Social Studies teachers. The power paragraph was an ideal common assessment. It can be used to write narratively, informatively, analytically–any writing task we set before students. It’s versatile and beneficial. And it actually turns out that ALL content areas should be teaching writing. Obviously, us English teachers should be teaching it more in depth. But it’s important for us to have students using language in all of their courses. This could be a little tricky in math, but in Social Studies and Science and Foreign Language and Fine Arts and PE courses, using the power paragraph would be super easy. Getting students to be doing more of the talking and the writing during a class means that more students are actually doing the learning (this is especially SUPER important for our ELs). Everyone should be teaching writing, and this is a super easy way for anyone to explain it.

One of my favorite teacher wins during my first year teaching was when I was talking to students about the SAT essay they would need to write. One of my students raised her hand and asked, “Can we use power paragraphs to write the essay?” I could have punched the air in excitement. YES! These paragraphs should be the body paragraph in any essay you ever write! Starting by teaching the paragraph helps students who are often overwhelmed by the thought of writing an entire essay. If they can break it into an introduction paragraph, three body power paragraphs, and then a quick conclusion, it becomes more manageable.

Also, important note: this type of paragraph has a bunch of different names. I call it the Power Paragraph, someone else might call it the Basic Paragraph. There are plenty of names out there for the same thing. Can you imagine how much we could help students if we all used common language? Some of us say ‘topic sentence’, some of us say ‘introductory sentence’, some of us say ‘claim’–can you imagine how confusing that would be for kids? If teachers in your district could all get on the same page with the language you use when talking about writing, kids would really benefit. Call it the Power Paragraph, call it something else, but just get everyone to call it the same thing.

I’ve noticed throughout my years that the more structure I give students for their writing, the better the essays are that get turned in. Students then internalize those structures and use them in the following years/colleges/careers. 

The real positive of this is that kids do the learning. And when they turn in those essays, the essays are written much better, making them much easier to grade.

Hopefully this helps you in your classroom!

And if you missed them, here are the links to my Power Paragraph outline, my Transition Word Lists, and my Paragraph Guidelines. Make a copy and edit/adjust however you want.

10 Books that Teachers Should Read During the Summer of 2021

Or I guess this list could be a list of 10 books that anyone should read this summer. I just default to #teachersonbreak.

As a high school English teacher, no surprises, I love reading. I also love finding a new, fantastic book and recommending it to a friend. So here are the 10 that I think you should be reading this summer, with details and links. I’m going to be linking as many of these books as I can to my favorite Grand Rapids bookstore, but if I can’t, I’ll use Amazon. You can find these at your favorite book store or at your local library. I’ll also preface this list by saying I love a little bit of everything when it comes to genre.

10) The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab. Ok so, I wouldn’t rate this as last on my list of top ten, but I wanted to start with this one because I just finished it and it is oh so good. A bunch of the ladies in my family chose this as our summer book club read. So my younger college-aged cousins through my grandma and I are all going to hop on Zoom someday soon to discuss this one. I can’t wait. Addie Larue was born in France in the 1700s. But she ends up being cursed and stops aging. Sounds great and all, until the freedom she asked for also means that no one remembers her. This is such a fun story. It flashes back and forth from present day to various historical events. The plot is so surprising that it honestly kept me guessing until the end. This is one of those books you could definitely take to the beach, or read while you’re hanging by a pool or on a front porch. A very well-written, good read. I will note though, there are a couple steamier scenes. It doesn’t get too graphic but I’ll rate it PG-13. You’ve been warned.

9) In Five Years by Rebecca Serle. THIS is the ultimate beach read. Or maybe the book to go with a bubble bath. I definitely envisioned this as a chick flick while I was reading it. It is a quick read, but isn’t too predictable, which I liked. The main character, Dannie, has her perfect evening. Her job is amazing, her boyfriend takes her to a ritzy restaurant and proposes, and then she returns home to a fantastic apartment. But when she falls asleep, she wakes up five years in the future. She is in a different apartment with a different man. When she returns to her time, it’s a journey to see where things take her. Did she actually see the future? Or was it just a weird dream? Again, total chick flick. If you need a light beach read, this is THE ideal book.

8) Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans. Ok, this one is a deeper one. This is a nonfiction account of the author’s experience with church. As an intelligent, millennial, feminist, she struggled with her feelings over the importance and purpose of church. This book explores the struggles she had and then the purpose she found. What I loved so much about this book is how real it is. So many millennials ask such similar questions about the Church. I think this is a really relatable book. Millennials and Gen Z are leaving the church at alarming rates. If you’re at all in that boat–not sure about your faith or how important you should make church in your life, I’d recommend this one. This one is thought-provoking and real. Read this one on a rainy day when you’re hanging out inside. Or listen to it as you head off on a road trip

7) Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi. This one is nonfiction, and also YA (you know I’d have some YA titles on here, I’m a high school English teacher!). Throughout the past five to ten years, I have read a lot of books about racism and white fragility. I could recommend so many, but I think this one might be my favorite. It’s a YA book, so it reads much more quickly than a dense history textbook, but it is also so informative! Jason Reynolds adapted Kendi’s nonfiction book so that it would be more approachable for teenagers, so the text itself is not intimidating–the content, well that’s kind of a different story. This book details the history or racism, starting way back in the BC times, and then it traces racism all the way until today. This is honestly a great look at history for anyone who wants to better understand how our country is still plagued by racism–both blatant and systemic. This is a good one for when you have some time to process ideas. The way it is written makes it an easy read, but the content really slows you down. You want to have some time to grapple with the history it explores.

6) Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. This one is for all my Gatsby fans out there. This is by no means a light read, so while you could definitely take it to the beach, just be prepared to be engrossed in a story. Amor Towles writes so beautifully and weaves these deep characters through such intricate plot lines, the story will just sweep you away. As I read it, I was reminded of books like East of Eden that I just didn’t want to end. This story starts with an older couple in an art gallery where the woman sees a photograph of a boy she had known when she was younger. It then flashes back to her life in New York in the thirties. It follows her as she attends parties, goes out with men, meets new friends, and attempts to figure out her life. Again, it’s beautifully and masterfully written. So dive into this one when you’ve got a few hours of alone time to devote to a beautiful story.

5) A Promised Land by Barack Obama. I realize that depending on politics, you might either really love or really hate this book. But I still wanted it on my recommendations list. Politically, I’m very moderate, so I like learning about Democrats and Republicans–as long as they are someone I like as a person. I honestly never voted for Obama, but I like and respect him so I loved this story. I listened to this as an audiobook which I liked so much better than having read it myself. Obama read it, so I loved hearing all of his stories with his voice. I think it is fascinating to learn about how he got into politics and ran for president. This book tells the story of him getting elected and goes up through when the Navy Seals took down Osama Bin Laden. I liked hearing about all of the events that took place during the beginning of his presidency, because I was super busy in college at the time, and I wasn’t paying super close attention to things happening in our government. Even though I know not everyone likes his politics, I still recommend it. It’s cool to hear the human side of the man who was president of our country for eight years.

4) The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs. This is a book that I’d heard of a little bit and then saw when we were at Costco right at the beginning of summer break. I grabbed it right away. I was pretty happy with this one–though it is kind of predictable. It starts with a woman who has a great job. A tragedy happens which sends her home to take over her mother’s bookshop as well as care for her ailing grandfather. She ends up running into two handsome, wonderful men who both want her. So while trying to save the bookshop and take care of her grandfather, she is also trying to figure out if she is ready for a relationship and with whom. Again, the plot was kind of predictable, but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable. This would definitely be a beach read, or one of those books that you just read a chapter or two each night before bed.

3) Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake. Here is another YA recommendation. My friend gave me this book for my birthday because she knew the author was great. I loved it. The premise of the story is that there is a teenage set of twins Mara and Owen and they go to a party at the beginning of the school year. Owen is dating one of Mara’s best friends. After the party though, Mara’s best friend accuses Owen of rape and suddenly Mara is caught between the two and not sure what actually happened or whose side she should take. When I started the book, I was worried that it would fall flat–like, it was trying to be too relevant or something. Mara is also bisexual and so I was worried that it would feel too token-y. But it actually ended up being written really well. The plot progresses in a semi-predictable way, but there are enough twists and turns to keep you engaged. This is a quicker read but about some bigger topics. This would be a great beach/pool/rainy day read. You’ll be able to get through it pretty quickly.

2) Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah. I just freaking love Kristin Hannah. She writes some great stories. Probably her most famous novel is The Nightingale, so if you haven’t read that yet, you should. But I loved Firefly Lane and if you read it this summer, you can then binge season one on Netflix (they changed some major things about the plot. You’ve been warned). This story follows two teenagers growing up in the 70s. One is totally gorgeous and the other is a bit of a nerd. But the unlikely two become the best of friends. This story follows them through high school, college, and into their careers. One becomes married to her career, while the other gets married and has children. I’m not sure that guys would like this book much, but for women, as you read it, there will be so many things that remind you of interactions between you and your best friends. I read this one cuddled up on the couch. It’s definitely one you’ll want to be settled in and comfy for. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll relate to the main characters. There is a sequel to this novel that I also love, but again, Kristin Hannah always hits the nail on the head.

1) What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma Resilience and Healing by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce D. Perry. This is a nonfiction book that absolutely blew my mind and opened my eyes to some of the intricacies of human behavior. I recently started a Master’s in Trauma and Resiliency (I’m taking it super slow. I’ve got one under my belt so far and I’m honestly not sure when I’ll take the next class) because I was interested in the way that trauma impacts the brains of students. That was the reason I thought I’d give this one a go, but I was so pleasantly surprised. I found I was applying what I was learning to my students, my husband, my friends, and myself. I listened to this one as an audiobook using my library’s Libby access (your library probably has access with this app too, look into it!) and I would really recommend listening to it. I missed out on a few charts that are in the book by listening to it, but the way it is read, it sounds just like a podcast/interview–I mean, it’s Oprah. This book did a great job of balancing anecdotal examples with scientific studies. Highly recommended listening for when you’re driving in the car, painting that bathroom, or cleaning your kitchen.

Hopefully a couple of those sound intriguing! They’re my current top ten recommendations. Have a wonderful summer, happy reading!

Why I Stayed and Then Why I Left

We’re back! I’m hoping my last two posts (here and here) were an eye opener into some of the craziness that young teachers experience, especially in poorly funded districts. This last post will hopefully be a good representation of the challenges of underfunded districts and the students who have to pay the price.

My second year as a teacher was the BEST year at that first school. I knew more of what I was doing, I already had curriculums written, and I even already had assignments created. My work load went down significantly, although I was still getting to school at 6:45, leaving around 4:15, and working a couple hours each night to prep for the next day. My roommates and I also moved into a much bigger house. We finally each had our own room, so I felt like I was really living that young professional life.

I already knew my students and it was awesome that as the only English teacher, I was able to continue watching my students grow in their writing ability. I made some curriculum edits and taught AP Language instead of AP Literature, but for the most part I was teaching what I had already taught. So this was the year that I started getting more invested in what students needed outside of English class. 

My classroom also moved. Now the entire secondary school, 6-12 was in one hallway. This meant that I got to spend more time with my friends on the middle school team. This also meant that we kicked off a form of “data teams” and “PLCs”. 

I’ve seen schools where data teams and PLCs (professional learning communities) are run really well–my school was not one of those. My data team was made up of middle and high school English and Social Studies teachers. A big part of data teams is using common assessments so teachers can come together and figure out which teaching strategies are working best for student learning. It is a great concept that really benefits students–but that’s when your data team is a group of all of your English 9 teachers. We were all “singletons’ so the whole figuring out “common assessments” thing was kind of tricky/impossible. As for PLCs, those were just secondary staff meetings that we called PLCs. The full PLC model was a lot closer aligned to what we were attempting in data teams. 

Beyond all the meetings (2-3 every week), I was able to really work with students. My second year I:

  • Ran NHS
  • Worked with the counselor to plan homecoming, a Valentine’s dance, and prom
  • Planned a retreat for all of secondary students in which juniors and seniors spent the night at camp
  • Ran a couple volleyball open gyms
  • Began inviting colleges to come talk to my students
  • Took my juniors and the 8th grade class to the Holocaust museum
  • Ran graduation
  • Designed t shirts with students for spirit weeks
  • Organized spirit weeks
  • Ran school-wide pep assemblies
  • Started an SAT club
  • Ran fundraisers
  • Got pied in the face at a number of those fundraisers
  • Had my iphone 6 stolen
  • Taught homebound students (including holding one of my student’s newborns while trying to explain algebra. That was an unexpected teaching moment)
  • Became a YoungLife leader for camp and took kids to YL camp
  • Helped my coworker who planned a camping trip for a group of our junior and senior boys

Honestly, I think there were more things I did, but I just can’t remember it all. There was just so much to do to try to give students a great high school experience. It kind of came down to if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen. I hated to think that these amazing students whom I had come to really care for would miss out on opportunities. So I just worked harder to try to make those things possible for my kids. Oh, and they became my kids too. I became a fierce advocate for my students. They began to trust me and many of their experiences–the good, the bad, and the ugly–came out in their writing. When I learned about problems my students were facing, I did my best to try to support them. For one thing, as I realized that a number of my students did not speak much English or were at least bilingual, I also started to pursue a Master’s in TESOL. I figured I needed better strategies to teach my students, so in all of my free time (haha), I started taking Master’s classes.

My third year is when things started to really go downhill. The summer before that last year I worked there, the school counselor had been hired as the principal of a different charter school. It was a great opportunity for him, but as soon as I heard the news, my heart dropped to my stomach. Everything that I had been doing–all of the spirit weeks, the retreats, the homecomings and proms–everything had been done with the support and the help of him. Without him, it would be up to me to get other teachers behind my ideas and plans. I knew it was going to be way more work on me. 

That year, my students called me their teacher, their school mom, their counselor, their principal, their RTA, a sister, a friend, and a mentor. My third year, I did everything I had done my second year, I just also:

  • Planned a rising senior retreat
  • Planned another (different) fall retreat
  • Arrived to school earlier than ever before (6:15ish) so I could squeeze in some work before leaving school and driving to pick up two students from their home to drive them to school each morning. On mornings when I couldn’t be there, I organized other teachers to be their ride (we had no bussing system and couldn’t offer free bus passes unless a student was homeless. That did not solve many of our students’ transportation issues. And what else would we say? If it was snowing and a student didn’t want to walk the hour to school, she would just miss weeks of school? So we did what we had to do).
  • Donated, found, and delivered mattresses and furniture to students who were in need
  • Organized and planned curriculum for our new advisory course
  • Connected with Jostens for all things graduation
  • Took photos of school events
  • Created the yearbook for the entire K-12 school, submitted our order, and picked up our books
  • Registered students to retake the SAT and drove them to the test
  • Took over the school’s social media presence
  • Coached Varsity and Middle School Boys soccer. I was the head coach with one of my coworker friends as the assistant coach (it was just a title, we did the same amount of work and were compensated equally), but I also knew no soccer rules, only ‘no manos’.
  • Was undefeated in both Varsity and Middle School Boys soccer–the only year that happened up until then and since. I still claimed it was all due to my coaching skills. And then my students laughed.
  • Planned YL events and took almost 20 students to a YL retreat weekend.
  • Provided apples, bananas, and granola bars each week for my students to grab when they were hungry.
  • Taught parents and students during an after school evening program
  • Oversaw E2020 credit recovery courses while teaching my other classes or during my prep (mostly just opening up tests for students)
  • Was the RTC whenever our RTA’s took a sick or personal day. What I mean by that is I was actually teaching an English class while answering phone calls from other teachers, and then having misbehaving students come sit in my class as punishment–while my class was still happening.
  • Was the keeper of bathroom keys on days we didn’t have an RTA (it was a school policy that all our doors had to be locked. So whenever a student needed the restroom, the teacher had to call to see if the key was available. Again, I would be teaching English classes and answering phones for bathroom use).
  • Ran PLC meetings
  • Ran Data team meetings
  • Continued my Master’s classes
  • Organized a college and career fair at our school, inviting community partners in and organizing tables and incentives for students
  • Took all students 9-12 to Ferris State University for a tour; took (drove) students to Kendall College for a our, took students to GRCC for a tour, took students to GVSU for a tour
  • Planned staff versus student soccer and basketball games

Again, I am pretty confident there were more things I was trying to pack into my day, I just can’t remember everything. These weren’t things that my principal asked me to do–well, not all of them. Some of these things people definitely asked me to do because they knew that I would. But these were mostly just things that would not have happened otherwise. And without these things, I felt that my students were missing out on valuable experiences, and that is just unfair.

This is the problem in our underfunded, smaller schools. There are too few people trying to wear too many hats. And it’s just not sustainable. I cried so many times that year, mostly because I was so upset about how unfair the world was for my students. I thought it was unfair that they only had the limited resources our school could offer. Learning about the bullying, rape, abuse, racism, hatred, and neglect that my students experienced broke my heart.

I also knew I was burning out. I knew that a year or two more at the school would burn me out on teaching completely. I knew that if I stayed, I wouldn’t be able to stay in education. But I also knew that I couldn’t leave my kids.

This is when I turned to prayer. For the start of Lent (I was giving up coffee that year), I also decided to try the Daniel Fast for the first 21 days. I had never tried it, but people at my church had mentioned it often. I looked it up and decided to give it a go.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Daniel Fast comes from a passage in the book of Daniel, and is essentially being vegan while also giving up bread/pasta/sugar/salt. It’s super limiting, mostly just a lot of fruits and vegetables–quinoa and beans–that kind of thing. The great thing about this fast is that it required me to be so intentional with how I was grocery shopping and cooking. Any time I thought about food, I was reminded of why I was fasting, which reminded me to pray. I was looking for God’s guidance. Do I try another year at the school I was working at? Or should I try to see what other jobs were out there?

It was a challenging fast, both physically and spiritually. When I began the fast, I was hoping that God would speak clearly to me and tell me exactly what I should do next. But He didn’t. At the end of the fast, I didn’t have an answer, but I did have a sense of peace about my decision. 

If you’re facing a difficult decision in your own life right now and you don’t know what to do, of course I’d recommend turning to prayer. But if it’s a really big decision like mine was, look into fasting. It really helped me focus on God and His will. Ultimately I realized that there wasn’t a wrong decision that I could make. God was going to work through me no matter where I was. So I updated my resume and started looking for jobs again.

It wasn’t a panicked search. It also wasn’t a very wide search. If I was going to leave my school and my kids, I was only going to do so if it was for a school in West Michigan. I felt at peace. I knew that if there wasn’t a job out there that wanted me, I had a great job at my old school. And if there was a job that wanted me (and I intended to be picky), then that was good too.

Shortly after my search began, I was offered a job in a larger public school. Reading through the agreement, I was shocked at the guarantees that teachers in that district had. Their time was protected and their extra efforts were compensated. The requirements they had were so few compared with what I was used to. I also took a significant raise, even though my new district was starting me on step one rather than honoring my three years of teaching experience. I read through the entire contract word for word because I was so shocked at the luxuries guaranteed to traditional public school teachers. 

Again, this is where I see an issue. Students who need the greatest support from their schools because they might not find it at home, are far too often in schools that are more underfunded, with teachers who are stretched too thinly. It isn’t equitable. And I fear, especially with the recent pandemic, that our achievement gaps are going to only continue widening.

So back to my story. After telling my principal, the first people I told were my juniors. These were the kids who had been the rambunctious freshmen my first year who destroyed my classroom 6th hour every day. They also were the kids I had seen the most growth in, and the ones I wouldn’t be able to walk through their senior year with. These were much more mature students; the ones who laughed and owned it when I started to find gray hairs and told them their freshman year was the thing to blame. The conversation with them was the hardest to have. I couldn’t explain to them how everything I was doing at school was burning me out. It just wasn’t something they could understand, nor did I want to try to explain. I focused on telling them how much I loved them all and how proud I was of how much they’d grown.

It was a very difficult decision. But it was the healthiest decision for me as a teacher. Since joining my current district, I’ve been given opportunities to really focus on teaching without scrambling to run every extra curricular that I could. I’ve also been able to learn how to find a balance between work and my life at home. I’ve told J a couple times that if we’d met while I worked at that first school, I never would have been able to invest in dating and getting to know him. 

Another great thing I have found is that working in my first school has made me a very efficient worker. I got so used to having not enough time to get everything done, so now that I have more time, I’m just in the habit of speeding through work efficiently.

I started this string of posts by pointing out that I would never change the experiences I had in my first district. But I also want to repeat that I am so glad I never have to repeat those years. They formed me into the teacher I am today, but there is a reason that 44% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching. The job is grueling, and many districts have poor systems in place that can lead to villainizing and overworking teachers.

If that’s the boat you’re in, and you’re reading this, know that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Prioritize your students, but be self-aware enough to know when to look for another job. Your mental health needs to be taken care of and protected before you can support students with their own mental health.

Education is a challenging and incredible career. God bless those who choose to become teachers. The struggle is real, but the reward is great.

Starting to Thrive During my First Year of Teaching

Welcome back to the insanity that is the story of my first three years as a teacher. In case you missed it, here is how my career began.

And now, on we go! During that first week of teaching, I met my students and realized that they hated me. Ok, a better way to describe it was that they did not trust me yet. Later, they would tell me that they took one look at me in my pencil skirt and decided I wasn’t going to make it at that school. They thought I’d be gone within a couple months. As I came to understand their stories throughout the next couple years, it makes perfect sense that they wouldn’t trust a new person like me. 

I also realized how much the previous teacher (and/or teachers as many of our students came from various other schools) had failed them academically. When I started to ask my juniors and seniors to write a paragraph for me, the response was immediate and nearly violent. I thought they just didn’t want to write, but I came to learn that they just didn’t know how to write a paragraph. And since I did not expect to need to teach them those basics, I hadn’t built in the appropriate support. So I butted heads right off the bat with a number of students because I seemed too demanding–in reality, I was just clueless. I started to learn that there would be strange gaps in knowledge that I would need to find and address. 

One day for example, I was working with my AP class–students who had been hand selected by the school counselor to take a challenging course. We all had packets of Hamlet that I had copied and stapled together one morning at 7:00am since my books hadn’t arrived yet. We were reading through the “To be or not to be” soliloquy and I asked my class if anyone could see a metaphor in it. The class stared at me blankly. I tried to kind of lead them toward an example by directing them to a specific group of lines in the text, but still, nothing. After a couple of minutes, one of the bolder students asked, “Miss, what’s a metaphor?” When the rest of the class looked at me expectantly, ready to take notes, I realized that previous English teachers hadn’t taught them some very basic literary devices.

These were the brightest and best students, who really were brilliant, they’d just never been taught what a metaphor was. I realized I needed to throw out my plans for the week and change directions. I needed to lay a stronger foundation in literary terms before I asked them to analyze literature–while simultaneously trying to plan daily lessons for four other classes and write down a curriculum map that I thought my principal was demanding I have done (turns out very few other teachers even had solid curriculum maps. So I really didn’t need to have prioritized those, but in the end, I guess it was good that I knocked those out early).

The behaviors were another thing altogether. We had an RTC at the school, a responsible thinking center, where we could send students who were being too disruptive or disrespectful. Unfortunately, I had the mistaken understanding that sending a student to RTC was admitting defeat. I wanted to be able to be that teacher who could reach each and every kid and manage each and every behavior. Now that I understand the effects of trauma on the brain more, I understand how wrong I was. Sometimes students just need a break from the classroom. They need to take a walk to calm down. They need to focus their attention elsewhere and step away from stressors. At the time though, I didn’t want to send students out of my classroom because it felt punitive and as though I was admitting I couldn’t teach them. Therefore, I kept some wild kids in my class as they were misbehaving. There was disrespect, yelling, bullying, swearing, throwing stuff across the room–there was no end to the misbehavior.

I specifically and vividly remember my freshmen class that year. I have no idea whose idea it was to give 31 energetic freshmen an English class as their last hour of the day, but I would love to explain to them just how wrong they were. These kids were literally bouncing off the walls. Besides the chatter, the cell phones, the yelling, the graffiti, and the pushing and shoving; this class also broke my sink and opened up a fire extinguisher. I once shooed a crowd of them away from lining up at my door at the end of the day, and one little 14 year old boy tried to tell me I couldn’t tell them what to do because three of them “got records”–luckily by that point I wasn’t intimidated and didn’t care. But these kids were wild, and my class room management was basically non-existent. 

Oddly enough, the things that finally won those freshmen students over to my side was Romeo and Juliet and the power paragraph. More on the power paragraph later, but I was shocked at how much they loved Shakespeare. Something about how he starts Romeo and Juliet off with a bunch of innuendos about male genitalia, and inappropriate jokes managed to finally convince my freshmen to pay attention to English. This was also during our second semester, so by then I think they trusted that I was at least going to stick around for a while longer.

Those first couple months though, were miserable. I would get to work between 6:30 and 6:45 each morning. And I would leave work sometime after 4:30 each day. I’d get home and take a break to make myself some dinner (honestly some nights dinner was a bowl of cereal), and then I would work on my computer making assignments and writing tests and quizzes until around 8:00 or so. Everything I was using I was making from scratch. I checked out TeachersPayTeachers, but honestly, I couldn’t afford to pay for assignments that I wasn’t 100% sure I was going to use. I was so grateful to the random teacher blogs who had full lessons and assignments that I could download and modify. But a lot of what I used I made. If I could head to bed with a plan for what I was doing for just the next day in each of my classes, I would be good. I was drowning.

There was one day in particular that I remember. It must have been early October. I legitimately did not think I could keep going. I didn’t really know how to quit, but I was wondering if I should maybe figure it out. I had met with my principal that day for an observation or something, and I had tried to explain the strain I was under. He’d been pretty unhelpful, something along the lines of “you can’t burn out if you’ve never been on fire”. I’m not sure what constituted being “on fire”, but I was pretty sure I had passed that point long ago. Taking deep breaths, I had to concentrate so hard to make sure I wouldn’t start crying (it was only my plan period and there was no way I was heading back to teach kids with a blotchy face from crying. I was convinced I couldn’t show weakness). I powered through the day, feeling a little like I had nowhere to turn for help.

I had also scheduled a dinner that evening with a friend who was in the area from out of town. This was the first time I had scheduled anything for a school night and I was already feeling overwhelmed and guilty that I was taking time away from my evening prep time. Before heading to dinner, I was venting to one of my roommates explaining that I didn’t think I could do it. I don’t remember her exact words, but it was something along the lines of a kinder way of saying, “Suck it up. You can figure this out.” I found myself again blinking back tears, but I am super grateful for those words.

At dinner, my friend asked me how I was doing. She encouraged me, knowing that I was capable of doing the work, but also suggesting that I consider looking for a different position. Overall, she made it clear that I had her love and support. After dinner, I got home a little late and was feeling guilty and overwhelmed, and like I finally had to give up. I remember sitting on our staircase and calling my mom. I don’t remember all of the conversation but I remember telling her how hard everything was. She told me that it was up to me what I did, but that if I needed to, I could come home and figure it out. She reminded me that I always had a place to live with them and that my parents always had my back. This was the first (and only) time I cried during my first year of teaching.

It was that day that I realized the admin at my school really had no clue what I was doing in high school English. I realized that professionally, I was on my own. But I also realized that I had roommates who were there to remind me that I could take on anything. I realized I had friends who maybe didn’t live around me, but who loved me and were only a phone call away. And maybe most importantly, I realized that I had parents who would do whatever they could to support me. Later on, I found out that my mom was actually so worried after that phone call that she had her Bible study friends start praying for me. I’m super grateful because I’m pretty sure those prayers kept me going.

That was my turning point. Moving forward, I kept the same ridiculous workload. But in my mind something shifted. Quitting was no longer an option. I was going to at least finish out the year. So I dove in and got super invested. 

I started by helping chaperone homecoming. Then, I learned that we had literally no extra curriculars to offer kids for their resumes and college applications, so I applied for an NHS charter and held our first inductions. Students began to trust me and their behaviors changed–well, a little bit. My lessons got better; I started building more appropriate scaffolds for my lessons. I even took a group of kids to a leadership conference. Let me tell you, when you are only 23 years old and suddenly the sole chaperon responsible for taking 15 teenagers on a bus 20 minutes away from school for a conference, you are absolutely terrified! I was looking around for the adult in charge and realized I was the adult. I was the only adult in charge of my group, some of them not even five years younger than me. I just put on my game face and pretended I wasn’t constantly counting my kids making sure I didn’t lose anyone–I didn’t, we returned safe and sound. Later on that year, I was able to even organize a field trip for the entire junior class to Detroit to visit the Holocaust museum.

By the end of the year, I loved my kids. I was definitely still overworking, but I realized how much need there was in my school and I wanted to meet those needs. I had also learned so much about my students, about teaching, and about myself. I ended up helping plan and chaperone prom, and then since the counselor had a vacation with his family planned, I was asked to plan graduation–that’s a lot of trust placed on a first year teacher to not mess anything up. I was honored, a little intimidated, and super determined to make it happen.

It was actually while I was picking up flowers, cake, and lemonade for graduation for the Class of 2015 that I received a phone call from my alma mater. The local high school in Hillsdale was looking for an English teacher, and I would be interested in the position? Eight months earlier, I would have jumped at the chance. But at that moment, when I was about to celebrate a group of my students with their families and friends looking on, I could confidently tell my previous Dean that, “thanks anyways, but I loved my students and I was invested in my school.”

Years two and three were much better for me. And leaving that school is probably still one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. More on that in my next post because this one has already gotten a little long. 

Until next time!

My First Teaching Job

As schools are wrapping up and summer vacation is starting, I know of many districts who are out interviewing new candidates for a number of positions. COVID definitely took its toll on the teaching profession, and I think there are more vacancies now than most districts counted on. As recent graduates look to step into a teaching position, I am reminded of my first job as a teacher. And honestly, it’s a story. 

When I tell my teaching friends at my current district stories about my first three years as a teacher, I get some shocked/confused looks. Those years were grueling, they were beautiful, they were draining, they were unsustainable, they were life-changing. Overall, I wouldn’t change those first three years for anything. But holy wow, am I glad I don’t have to do that all over again. It was definitely a unique experience that I hope most first year teachers do not ever have to face.

To start off, I graduated from college in 2013 and was not convinced that teaching was what I wanted to do. My college was getting rid of the education program so all of my courses were very small, and let’s just say my teacher education was lacking. I had also recently taken a big dive into my faith and was a little unsure about working in a public school where I couldn’t bring up God. I was a bit lost, so I moved to Grand Rapids where all my friends were, and started looking for a job outside of teaching.

I ended up landing a job as a parapro/online class monitor in a charter school. I worked with three different history teachers as a support staff (history was my minor and I also passed a test so I have a teaching certification in both English and history). It took a few months, but as I sat in their classes and worked more closely with students who had IEPs or were learning the English language, I realized I did want to be a teacher. When a student I worked with, who barely spoke English, scored an 80% on a quiz and asked me how to say in English that he was proud of himself–I literally couldn’t even. I finally fully knew that education was the field I was meant for.

That summer I began to scour the internet for teaching jobs. I applied literally anywhere and everywhere. A friend sent me her resume format that she was convinced got her her teaching job. I emulated it and edited the crap out of it, sending it to anyone who had a secondary position in English or History. I cast a wide net, but I honestly felt that God was calling me to come back to Grand Rapids. I had just gotten invested in my church and I was just starting to put down roots. I wanted to be back in the city, but I wasn’t sure where or if I could actually find a job.

Finally, at the end of July, I interviewed for a position at a small pre-k-12 public charter school in the heart of Grand Rapids. It was a group interview and I was so nervous because the other woman they were interviewing seemed much more experienced than I was. I did my best and was so hopeful on my way out. All I knew about the job was that it was a high school English position in Grand Rapids, which sounded perfect for me. As I was driving back to my summer job, I got the phone call that they’d like to hire me. I was ecstatic!

This school had two weeks of Professional Development before the school year started Unfortunately, during that time, I did not yet have a home to rent in GR–though I did have roommates I planned to live with. For those two weeks of PD, I couch surfed at the home of a group of my guy friends. Living out of a suitcase and trying to dress semi-professional, I thought two weeks of PD was normal. Turns out most schools with unions have only a couple of days for summer PD, maybe a whole week of meetings if they’re super intense. I thought two weeks must be normal, which now feels a little naive.

It was about the second or third day of PD that I was finally shown my classroom. I was so excited to decorate (always my priority) and I asked the counselor which English classes I would be teaching. It was then that he shared my schedule. I found out I was the only high school English teacher in the school. I must have missed it in the interview, or maybe they hadn’t even thought to clarify; but I found out I would be teaching 9th, 10th, 11th, AND 12th grade English. I tried my best to keep the shock and dread from showing on my face. I was then told that this year, they were going to try out AP classes. On top of those four classes, I would also need to teach AP Literature and Composition.

So I took a deep breath, trying to play it cool (I’m a big advocate of fake it until you make it) and I asked where the curriculum guides could be found. I could see piles of a few class sets of novels (like maybe four or five different novels) and I was very confused about where the rest of the class sets were if I was going to need to teach four different grade levels–maybe the books were stored in a book room somewhere? Turns out the only books to be had were already in my classroom. The counselor took a look at me, then glanced at the open door, and said, “Don’t tell anyone I said this,” (since neither of us work at this school any longer, I think it’s ok to share now) “but the teacher before you was great with kids, and terrible at teaching. You might find some curriculum on the drive, but you need to throw it out and start over.”

Again, I was playing it cool. But my heart had literally dropped to my stomach and I wanted to throw up. I had spent a little less than one semester as a student teacher in 9th and 10th grade English and suddenly I had been hired for a job in which I needed to write common-core-standards-aligned-curriculums for FOUR different classes? While also figuring out a course audit for an AP class (which admin at this school did not even know was a requirement)? And I had less than two weeks to do it? By myself? When I didn’t even know where I was going to be living???

I don’t think this is a realistic task for any teacher, let alone someone in their first year of education. Looking back, this is literally insane. But I also had no clue that it was such an unrealistic expectation so I just sucked it up and acted like I could do it. The way I looked at it, this must just be what teachers did (spoiler: this is not what teachers do). I guess that the real benefit of this insanity was that I could choose units and texts that I really enjoyed teaching. I had a lot of freedom. Admin had told me they would order whichever class texts I wanted. But I had so little guidance and so little help, it was all up to my own standards. Luckily I have pretty high standards, and the common core website became my best friend. It was super overwhelming though. There’s an old analogy that teachers use that has only made sense within the context of my first year of teaching. I was literally trying to build an airplane while already in flight.

I started this craziness by deciding which two novels/dramas I would do each semester for each course. I laid out an idea that I thought would work and figured I could tweak it as I went. I then tried to think through what type of test or essay I would do for each and tried to align standards to each unit. It was overwhelming because I also knew that I would need to fill in each unit with activities and projects. I tried to ignore that for the time being though. I then reached out to my old high school teachers to ask if I could beg, borrow, and steal their AP course audits. They graciously emailed me copies and added some encouragement. It was so kind of them. The real negative of all this was that I was trying to write curriculums for students whom I had never met. 

In retrospect, that whole start I had is a terrible way to approach curriculum maps. I had no idea what my students’ gaps in knowledge might be, what their interests were, or which books they had already been exposed to. When it was all said and done though, the curriculum maps that I created (by the end of the year of course. No surprises it was slow-going when I was also trying to prep a classroom and teach students) were really not too bad. My assumption was that I had done a terrible job since I’d done them on my own with so little experience. And while yes, any curriculum benefits from multiple perspectives, the curriculums I came up with were fairly rigorous and did actually hit most of the standards (I couldn’t hit any of the standards that required technology–we had very limited access to technology at my school).

As you might imagine, I sat through PD from 9-3 each day and not much of that time was given to teachers to work in their rooms. So I’d arrive around 8 each morning to get a head start. Then I would hang around until 4/4:30 each afternoon before heading back to my guy friends’ house for dinner, rental home hunting, and more school prep work throughout the evening. I had literally no life outside of work (which, to be honest, was a theme for me throughout my years at this school).

A saving grace during this time was meeting a few coworkers who are still close friends today. My favorite moment was about a week before school started when we had a chance to be in our classrooms. The Principal brought the middle school English teacher down to my room to meet me. She is an amazing woman who had literally come out of retirement to teach the students at this school. But at the time, all I saw was a veteran teacher who I was worried might be a little old-school in her approach to teaching. Boy, was I wrong. I found out later that she was also wary of me, because she was worried I’d be like the previous teacher who had hardly taught–specifically refusing to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. She came down with the principal to persuade me to actually do some teaching; but as soon as she asked about the texts I was thinking of teaching, I enthusiastically jumped in with how excited I was to teach novels, including To Kill a Mockingbird. We hit it off right away talking about which texts would be great in 8th grade versus 9th grade. 

The principal, whose experience was in elementary education, quickly made his exit when he realized we got along and he had nothing to contribute to our conversation. It was pretty well known throughout the school that this middle school English teacher was a force to be reckoned with. She is one of the greatest advocates for students I have ever met, loving them while also holding them accountable. And she sure wouldn’t beat around the bush to put someone in their place who wasn’t working for the students’ best interests. We became fast friends. I learned so much from the way she approached education, and I attribute much of who I am as a teacher to her. She really is my educational role model. Meeting her during my scramble to figure out what and how to teach may have been the silver lining of the whole experience.

I also met the high school social studies teacher and became good friends with him. He was also new that year, and the two of us teamed up to really get our high school students writing. Every day, I’d arrive at 6:45 (school started at 8:00) and his car and the middle school English teacher’s car would already be there. 

As the year got started, I also got to know the middle school social studies teacher. We hardly ever worked with each other until our second and third years (our classrooms were on opposite sides of the building), but every night when I walked out of the building at 4:30 or so, I’d walk past his classroom and he’d still be there. We were usually the last two cars in the parking lot. We’d wave at one another–both in misery. 

They say misery loves company. And I would definitely add that misery breeds friendship. I’ve been friends with those three teachers since 2014. One of their daughters was even the flower girl in my wedding. Those three got me through three very challenging years, and I am so grateful to them for that.

Anyways, the two weeks of training trickled by, and it was about time to get the year started. I learned that 100% of our students received free breakfast and lunch. I learned that we offered an alternative school to the schools of GRPS, supporting students who were failing at GRPS schools. I learned that 75%+ of my students were ELLs and a number would not speak any English at all. I learned that we had had a lot of behavioral problems and some gang issues in the past. 

I realized that I would have A LOT to learn.

The weekend before school started, I was thankfully able to move into a home with three of my friends. This was a great relief, but also meant that I would miss out on some work time as I juggled trying to move all of my belongings into a new home–which included assembling bunk beds in my shared bedroom.

Yes. I was a professional starting my first real career, and I had bunk beds in my room. My three roommates were seriously amazing and such a great support during this time, but the bunk bed thing is still hilarious to me. We saved a lot of money that year in rent, but that house was a pretty tight fit.

School started and I stepped into my classroom. I wore a pencil skirt and a button up with (fake) pearls on my first day of school–a nod to my sorority years in college. My curriculums were maybe a third of the way drafted, and I basically had plans for just the first day of school. I arrived early to school and for the first time in my life, I stepped into a room as the teacher.

And thus began three years in which I constantly felt like I was not doing enough. Imposter syndrome hit hard and I kept waiting for the principal to realize I wasn’t the right hire or enough of a teacher for this position.

I have so much more to share, but this is already too long. So “to be continued” on my actual classroom experiences (find it here!), but that was how I kicked off my first year–absolutely, and unrealistically overwhelmed. I was trying to figure out lessons for five different classes each day, with five hardly formed curriculums, while getting to know students who were immediately suspicious of an overly optimistic, smiley, white girl. 

If you are currently in that position, overwhelmed with what your first year of education will be like, take a deep breath. You have people who love and support you. I hope that you will find amazing coworkers like the ones I found. Our coworkers are our best resource. Rely on others and you will get through this. I promise.

As for me, I was definitely fumbling through that first year and faking it hard–and you know what, that was really ok. Because I was giving it my all and trying to help out my students. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.

Teaching During a Global Pandemic

I’m writing this on the eve of my last day of school. I assume I’ll publish it later after some editing, but right now I just need to word vomit about this year.

This year has sucked.

But I also think only other teachers can grasp my meaning here. There has to be a more powerful and descriptive word than that it merely ‘sucked’, but I’ve decided I won’t let swear words slip on here, so just know you have to add more emotion and power to the word ‘sucked’ to understand where I’m coming from.

This year has sucked.

[Disclaimer–I realize this statement is true for most of us. COVID-19 flipped our worlds upside down. We’ve all gone through a crazy storm. We’ve all had it really rough. I just want to share my point of view as a teacher during a global pandemic.]

This past year was my seventh year in education, my fourth year in my current district. I am lucky to be in a well-funded district, and I am blessed with a principal who is so good at her job and cares so much about her staff–other teachers had it much worse than me, trust me. But even so, I have never considered leaving education more than I have this year (and that includes my traumatic first three years–that’s a story for a different blog post).

A little extra context, my school was committed to being fully in person for as long as we could be. Of course, the planning for that decision took place over the course of the summer, so although we seemed to have a longer break than usual after schools closed mid-March 2020, it felt as though we spent the entire summer working. When we made it to the professional development days before the start of the school year, many of us had been in meetings for months, multiple times a week, to try to figure out how to manage things this year. It was overwhelming. Here are a couple of new things that we did this year:

  • We took our tests, curriculum, and assignments and converted everything into a digital format. We were as paperless as possible to avoid spreading germs.
  • We learned how to use Zoom. And Google Classroom. And padlet, peardeck, nearpod, kahoot, naviance, etc. etc. I honestly don’t even remember all the google add ons we were told about. We sorted through everything that was out there and tried to figure out what fancy new program would work for us.
  • After learning about new tech tools, those of us 35ish and younger taught our veteran teachers how to use those tech tools.
  • Then we all taught our students how to use those tech tools. Gen Z is phenomenal at cutting a TikTok video with Hollywood level videography, but oh boy do they struggle turning in a Google Doc in MLA format.
  • We reimagined our classes without time for group work.
  • We reorganized our classes so desks could be spaced out. I had 34 students in one hour so we didn’t even come close to the modified 3 feet of separation the CDC recommended for schools.
  • We got rid of the opportunities for students to make up work before and after school.
  • We learned the processes for how to sanitize everything in between each class.
  • We figured out how to explain the rules to our students–how to handle lunch times, and sporting events, and passing times.
  • We then spent an entire flipping year asking students to please cover their noses and just follow the very basic rule of wearing a mask.
  • We tried to build relationships with kids whose faces we couldn’t see.
  • We contact-traced until we were blue in the face because the health department required us to. And then the parents got mad at us and we had to console our students while keeping them caught up on schoolwork while they were home for two weeks.
  • We cancelled homecoming and planned an outdoor prom.
  • We couldn’t bring in home made goodies for our students–if you’ve ever been a student in my class, you KNOW I use my famous chocolate chip cookies to bribe students to behave. This year’s students still haven’t tried my amazing recipe.
  • We modified and exempted assignments for students who were out of school three or four different times for full, two-week quarantines.
  • We cancelled exams because we couldn’t make as much progress in the curriculum as we had in previous years.
  • We then prepared and consoled students to take standardized tests like the SAT. Hold on, read that again. During a global PANDEMIC–a PANORAMA–a PATRICIA–we had our juniors sit for 5+ hours taking a standardized test upon which their goals and aspirations for college would ride. And no, that was not a decision that any educators had a say in. So many things were modified or altered in the world this year. But the departments of education throughout our nation couldn’t take a minute to rethink the necessity of a grueling standardized test?
  • We then watched as the CDC removed the national mask mandate for vaccinated individuals when there were only three weeks left in the school year. Oh yeah, we enjoyed having to navigate those waters with students (we kept the masks for the rest of the year, we just had to fight that battle daily)

It was awful. This list is not all inclusive. There were many, many other changes, frustrations, and unrealistic expectations. I just need to stop dwelling on the struggles so I can move on to my positive-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel ending of this post. Almost there, I promise.

Nothing we did this year could please all of our parents. Every decision we made upset somebody. We taught a few weeks through zoom (which was essentially talking to black squares with names on them). Some of our students stuck around and paid attention, but we also had a number of students who logged in for attendance and then did anything else. Differentiating between students who needed extra grace and support and the students who took advantage of the situation was literally impossible. So we gave grace to everyone and felt like we were holding no one accountable.

I constantly felt like I was spinning my wheels. I was overworking. I was exhausted. And I was making no progress.

Teaching in a pandemic was a miserable experience. I reflect back on the time a little over a year ago, when suddenly parents and companies realized how much teachers do. For a couple of weeks, we were heroes. But when back to school time came around, we were seen as lazy babysitters who were trying to get out of doing our jobs. The tides turned so quickly and so violently. At the beginning of this school year, before we knew that COVID wouldn’t spread too quickly in schools, I’ll admit I was terrified. I was terrified to spend two hours straight in a classroom with 35 other people, many of whom thought masks should sit below the nose so they would be more comfortable. I figured I would probably be ok if I caught COVID, but I would be devastated to have passed it on to my husband or any of my family or friends. I was scared at the beginning of the year. In retrospect, everything turned out fine. But in my moment of fear, to see the things parents were posting on the internet about how teachers needed to suck it up and do their jobs–it was just a lot.

Sure, parent support may have been there this year, but I don’t think I really felt it much. It was a struggle. And although I never seriously considered a different career path, I did often think, “Why am I even doing this?”

I like to brag that I only cried once during my first year of teaching–the year that is generally the most difficult and emotionally challenging. But I can not count the number of times I cried this past year–though J could probably tell you. I am so glad that this school year is over.

I’m now ready to end this post with some gratitude.

I am SO grateful to my friends and coworkers. I am really close with a number of people I work with, and I could not have stayed in education if it wasn’t for them. I also had teacher friends in other districts who would text me, grab coffee or a drink with me, and we would commiserate. That understanding was just encouraging. I mentioned before, but I am also so grateful to my principal. She gave her all this year, literally working 80+ hours during most weeks. She supported us teachers so well, I always knew she had my back. I’m grateful to friends and family members who donated weird items to my classroom–bins for sanitizing, clorox wipes, ten foot extension cords, extra ipad chargers, and handmade masks (thanks mom!). This year kind of reminds me of the whole ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ phrase. It took a village to get me through this year. I’m thankful for my village.

And I am looking forward to next year. I’m ready to start over. There is light at the end of this tunnel and I am ready to teach again come September.

Until then, if you know a teacher just coming off of a roller coaster of a year, buy them wine. Tell them they are a superhero for educating kids during a pandemic. And then don’t expect them to answer any emails for the next couple months. I think we’re all ready to log off.