Saturday, August 21, 2010

Reflections from the First Day of School

This week I began my thirteenth year of teaching. Wow, just that statement makes me stop and pause. I know it’s cliché, but it seems like only yesterday I was walking into my first classroom.

This past Thursday was the first day of school for our students. Over the last few weeks, as I prepared for a new school year, I assumed on the first day of school I would be standing at my classroom door greeting each student. Unfortunately the state of Arkansas had other ideas--I was called for jury duty. Due to the nature of the case no one was being excused. I diligently sat in court Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday hoping against hope that I would finally be excused. Wednesday, as I was leaving court, the reality began to sink in. For the first time in my career I would not be at my door on that first day to meet my students. I began to cry.

Those of you who teach, know how important it is to start the year off on the right foot. I knew that first day was a day with my students I could never get back. After moping for a little while, it was time to stop mourning about something I couldn’t change. I had a new goal. How could I make sure my students had the best possible day even if I wasn’t with them?

How do you even go about leaving substitute lesson plans for the first day of school? I began to brainstorm about the possible activities I could have the students do with a substitute. I even asked my friends on Plurk for help.

Our school is in an unique position this year. Due to consolidation, we have students from three different schools coming together for the first time. I, like many of our students, am also new to our building. Because of all this change I’d come to the conclusion that it was important to help the students build relationships with each other, and I wanted to get to know each of them. But how could I accomplish any of those goals with a substitute?

Have you ever had one of those “Ah-Ha” moments? I did on Wednesday. If I couldn’t be there to talk to them, I was at least going to give them the opportunity to talk to me. I asked the substitute to have each student write me a letter. In that letter they could share anything they thought I needed to know about them.

Thursday evening I returned to school after finally being released from jury duty. The students had already gone home from their first day of school, but sitting on my desk, waiting for me, was a pile of hand written letters. I sat down and began to read. Over the next hour or so I made my way through 80 plus letters. As I read I became stunned by the insights I was already gaining about students I had yet to meet. I wondered to myself, “Why have I never given this assignment before?” and quickly realized it would be a new annual assignment for the years to come. There were many letters that chronicled the events of their summer, but there were just as many letters that told me bits and pieces of who they were and how they think.

There was the 6th grader who had the guts to tell his English teacher, “Sorry, I really don’t like writing.” Another student made me giggle when he said, “The nicer you are to me, the nicer I will be to you.

Other letters broke my heart. A 5th grader wrote, “I am not that smart.” And a 6th grade boy, after telling me his aspirations to be a professional skateboarder and how he had repaired a broken laptop without any help, ended his letter by saying, “I’m not real interesting.” I began to wonder how I’m going to inspire these young men. How am I going to help them see themselves for who they really are?

A girl from my 6th grade class said, “I’m sure you are amazing. This is kinda scary since the other school is here. I know it will be an interesting adventure. We always have to be prepared in life and ready for change. As you can see I am a free spirited person.” Another young lady told me, “Literature is my favorite subject. I would love to be an author. I write and draw all the time. I am articulate and smart.”

Then there was the 6th grader who in one breath said, “I am a little smart” and in next said, “I can be creative in lots of ways.” As she expressed her thoughts through the rest of her letter, I could see that she was more than a “little smart,” she was very bright. I knew I had to take on the mission of helping her realize how very gifted she is.

Many students shared excitement about the start of a new school year and their love a learning like one 5th grader who said, “I’m excited to be in your class. I think I will have a good time.”

As I read the last letter a thought began to form in my mind. The vast majority of the letters were written by students excited to be at school, who voiced a love of learning. I began to wonder, what is it that we do as educators that extinguish that passion? How do we keep from quenching their excitement? How can we, instead, encourage them to continue to grow? What can I do to help them learn to love learning?

This summer I was inspired to try some bold and innovative new ideas in my classroom. Although inspired I have also had some trepidation about actually implementing those ideas. Mostly I have been plagued by the fear of failing miserably. After reading my students letters, however, I choose to set aside my fears. They deserve a teacher who is determined to do whatever it takes to foster their love of learning, and I want to be the kind of teacher they deserve.

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