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Unforeseen Reality

James King Education, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development

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An obvious epiphany occurred early in my first year of teaching: I am not going to be the teacher I thought I was going to be.

 

The teacher I envisioned myself becoming never materialized. Over years, I had described, in countless conversations, this aspirational figure that I thought would break the teachers’  mold. Indeed, like Amy Poehler’s character in Mean Girls, I was going to be a “cool [teacher]”, not a “regular [teacher].”

 

I wanted to be friends with the kids; I wanted them to like my classroom.

 

“Kids, I like the Diamondbacks…I like Dutch Bros….I went to the football game on Friday….I watched the MTV Movie Awards last night….Facebook is for old people, Snapchat is where it’s at….I know what Fortnite is! I’m so cool, and I am just like you!”

 

“Wow,” they’d say, “Mr. King is the coolest!”

 

Now that I have their trust as a pseudo-peer, we can conquer issues of racism, sexism, and classism in To Kill A Mockingbird. They can digest this material better because we’re buddies, right?

 

I cannot point to an exact moment of my epiphany. Maybe, instead, it was gradual, but it did occur fairly early into the school year. I tightened the reins, enforced rules, held students accountable, and, in general,  let go of the notion that I am “cool.” Rather, I focused on what my students needed. They required a competent subject matter expert. Students needed a cheerleader and, sometimes, a counselor. Teenagers want someone to quiet the chaos. Teaching students to respect the classroom, each other, and themselves became my new priority. If my strictness, rigor, and high expectations made me less “cool,” so be it.

 

At the end of the year, I was proud of my students’ scores on district tests and happy with how students performed in my class in general. I knew that I had prepared the majority of my students for their next year of English Language Arts. I may not have been the teacher I wanted to be, but I was the teacher my students needed.

 

I thought my own lesson ended there, but I am pleased to report there was more for me to learn.

 

The beginning of my second year brought a new wave down on me I really was not expecting. Student council was putting on a breakfast for teachers, and when I walked in a student from last year ran to me to give me a hug and inquired about what books I had read over the summer and told me what she read. In the first week back, I lost count of former students who came to my room to say hi to me. Two other teachers on campus messaged me to let me know multiple students wrote about me in preliminary writing assignments, discussing how helpful they found me. When I chaperoned the first dance, I was overwhelmed by how many students greeted me with smiles and high fives. The enthusiasm for seeing me was so sweet, and it warmed my heart. After 3 weeks, I continue to run into students from last year who are seemingly excited to say hello to me, and students yell, with emphatic waves and grins, across breezeways at me.

 

Teenagers seem to appreciate adults that care. They respect earnest guidance. Maybe that’s what makes me a “cool” teacher after all.

 

If you are a classroom teacher, how are you different now than before you entered the classroom? What things did you learn in your first years that took you by surprise?

 

 
  • Leah Clark

    I love the idea of the vision vs the reality of our profession! I, too, wanted to be the “cool” teacher. But I slowly learned I needed to be a content expert (or at least try really hard) who provided structure, continuity, rigor, and a safe space for students to learn and grow. This meant ditching the cool teacher vibe for someone who demanded and expected more. I believe you are correct when you mention that students need quiet among the noise. We must become that quiet mentorship role for them. I would much rather be the teacher that “made them work” rather than the teacher where the kids “didn’t do anything in that class.” Great post!

    • http://www.storiesfromschoolaz.org James King

      I also believe that it is crucial to have like-minded peers who we can look up to, and see, for example that although they are naturally fun, hilarious, and youthful… They have been able to create a rigorous class where students respect their professionalism. Thanks Ms. Clark!

  • Jen Pinson

    I spent my first FULL year teaching in a Self Contained ED classroom. My heart wanted to make a difference. To be present for kids who straddle that dangerous line of nature versus nurture in a very real way. I cried more that year than the sum of my 27 years. I can try, and fail, to be the cool teacher. At the end of the day, my only concern is that my students move forward at their pace and with the knowledge that I care about who they are as a WHOLE. They are the sum of a million parts. Each amazing and tragic, and I love to bear witness for the time I have them.

    • http://www.storiesfromschoolaz.org James King

      I really think that meeting the kids, and beginning to empathize with them is what altered my perspective. They are each unique, they each need a leader who cares about their development…. If, by chance, we can be fun or cool, or “their friend,” GREAT. But, I can tell we see that the important thing is to give them what they need to flourish, and that is what is most important!

  • Amy Casaldi

    Oh yes, my reality and what I thought I would be my first year were two very different things. While I can’t say I ever wanted to be the cool teacher like Amy Poehler, I was more into the idea of being Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society. I quickly learned also, as you said it so well, “to be who my students needed to be.” This meant that I would have far less monumental moments, or at least what I defined as monumental, and have more quiet, reflective conversations with my students. I had to redefine what I thought would be cool, inspiring, or powerful.

  • Donnie Lee

    I remember my first year in the classroom. I so wanted to be the “cool” teacher. I had planned my room and I was going to be “Mr. D” and students were going to spend the year Hanging with Mr. D. I quickly learned that the students did not need Mr. D in their lives. They had enough people already to fill that need. They needed everything you listed. I had to lay Mr. D down and come back as Mr. Dicus.

  • http://storiesfromschoolaz.org Amethyst Hinton Sainz

    I love the simple yet profound message here: Students recognize when we really care and do our best to give them not just what they want in the moment, but what they truly need. Great job, teach!