I have always used the metaphor that a school year is like going on a long boat ride on a sometimes raging river. There are rapids ahead, and we all need to be a part of navigating the waters together.
Triumphantly. Sadly. I have just stepped out of the boat and am waving and shouting words of encouragement as you float away on the river. I definitely will miss being with you all. Though I won’t be with you on the journey this year, here are a few of my words of wisdom that I have gathered in my 40-year classroom career that I would like to say to each of you as you navigate the unknown waters ahead.
1. Love your kids. The core of the art of teaching is and will always be your students. On some level you have to find joy in working with them and helping them grow into something more than they were when they first walked into your classroom. Of course you won’t always love them, but at least try to like them for who they are. It still blows me away and makes me sad how many teachers at their core do not like kids and certainly don’t respect them on any level.
2. Teaching is an art. Great teaching is so much more than creating the perfect powerpoint or knowing the most about your subject. The great teachers I have known are larger-than-life personas who impart so much more to their students than just the curriculum. They build deep relationships and teach from their lives.
3. Teaching is messy. Give grace freely. Things at a school are never going to be perfect. Your students are never going to be perfect. You are never going to be perfect. So give your students grace. Give your administration grace. Give your parents grace. Give your colleagues grace. Most of all give yourself grace.
4. Solve the puzzle. Be flexible. Be willing to figure out what works with the group you are teaching at this specific time. Last year’s stuff may work this go ‘round, but be on the look out for something new to try. Something different. Something better.
5. The foundation of great teaching comes from building relationships. As I reflect back on my career, I think I was the very best teacher when I knew I had built strong relationships with my students. I have always loved the challenge of finding out what they loved, what they felt passionate about, what challenges they faced, and who they were as individuals. From that process I always developed a respect for each individual that I would never have had had I not worked to know them.
6. Every school is its own microcosm. Understand that each school has its own set of challenges and needs that need to be figured out. Don’t expect Del Campo to be Casa Roble or Bella Vista. Figure out what the core needs are and make Del Campo the best Del Campo it can be. This is the problem with listening too closely to many of the gurus of education. They are providing solutions that may not work at your school. Or at least adjustments may need to be made.
7. Find and cherish colleagues who share your vision. Cling to them. Eat lunch with them. Go to happy hour with them. Enjoy their company and be thankful for them. My greatest times outside of the classroom were when I was sharing the love of teaching, curriculum, reading, writing with others on my staff. Every year I was blessed to have those people who inspired me to keep growing and be better at my craft.
8. Work hard at it. Never forget that great teaching is hard work. It just is. Your TAs can’t and shouldn’t do everything for you. Remember it’s not about you. It’s about your students.
9. Get involved with school activities outside of classroom teaching. Get on Site Council. Coach a sport. Run for the Leadership Team. Be the yearbook adviser. Don’t be the one who is in your car heading home two minutes after the final bell has rung.
10. Try new things. The last year of my teaching AP Composition I became a part of a Facebook community that shares curriculum and all kinds of ideas about writing an rhetoric instruction. I learned more new things than I had in the previous six years I had taught the class. There is still so much I want to try.
11. Stop complaining. Find a solution that works for you and makes you happy. Then shut up about it. If you can’t work yourself to a solution, maybe it’s time to think about something else that will make you happy.
12. Don’t let anyone rob you of your joy. This has been a tough one for me. Too often I let the self-centered nay sayers get the best of me. The ones who always seem to get away with every thing. The ones who think all they do is great for kids when it is really all for their own egos. I wanted things to be fair. And in thinking about them too much I let them rob me of my joy.
13. Be a teacher whom people respect. Be a teacher whom ever teacher can trust. We talk so much about working together to make each other better teachers. To make that work you have to be a teacher that can be respected. Then for true collaboration you must also build trust. Respect begets trust. Without both, meaningful collaboration will never happen. You can pretend it’s happening, but it really will never be.
14. Ask the kids what they think. Every one should figure out a way to get the opinions of students before class starts and after the class is over. The people who see you every day will give you the best feedback about how well you are doing with your teaching. They know. They understand. Listen. They will make you better.
15. It’s not the 90s anymore. Get over it. What ever were the glory days of your school they are most likely over. So make now the new glory days. Take over your school with respect, fun, hard work, kindness, true collaboration. If you can get a majority of your teachers on board, I guarantee things will get so much better than you ever thought they could be.
16.Get them writing. Keep them writing. Give them all the feedback you can. At my core I am a writing teacher and I think we all should be. But assigning writing isn’t enough. You must teach it and coach them to be better at it.
17. Don’t be an island. John Donne was right. Reach out to your colleagues. Whether or not you know it, they need you and you need them. We all have to be in the act of education together. Reach out. If it doesn’t work out the first time, keep trying.
18. Change what you have control over. Focus on changing what you have control over. Yes that means yourself. Don’t deflect yourself from the real issue. You. Start there.
19. Get over yourself. None of us are as important as we think we are. Be humble.
20. Love and respect your kids. Did I say that one already? It all starts here. If you can’t love them, at least find some common ground where you can begin to respect them for who they are. Connection starts with respect and it definitely works both ways.
Have a great journey in 2017-2018. I won’t be there on the boat with you, but I will definitely be on the dock cheering as you head down the river.
Jim Jordan just completed his classroom teaching career of 40 years. He did his student teaching and got his first paying teaching job at Mira Loma High School in the San Juan Unified School District. In 1980 he was involuntarily transferred to Del Campo High School where he taught English and yearbook journalism for the rest of his career. He took over as the adviser of the yearbook, the Decamhian, in 1982 and guided his staffs to 35 award-winning yearbooks. He hopes that you will find as much joy in being a career classroom teacher as he did. Photo by Mitchell Franz.