Can I really do this for 30 years? Why isn’t loving them enough? It always worked at camp. My lessons are awesome, so why don’t they care? Don’t cry. Never let them see you cry. They said it was a tough class. I am tough, too. I was made for this. Why can’t they just want to learn? This is not like the teacher movies.
These were thoughts I had during the first few weeks of my first year of teaching. One student had just thrown a chair, prompting another student try to pin him down on the ground in anger. Chaos.
That same day the mom of another student visited from the county jail to say goodbye to her son. She had been sentenced to 10 years in a Kansas prison.
Welcome to Teaching
I could try to describe to you what teaching is really like, but you’ve seen the memes.
They hilariously scrape the surface and expose a larger problem that is a broken education system.
I spent the first four years teaching third grade in a socioeconomically disadvantaged traditional public school. I now have spent the last few years at a departmentalized socioeconomically disadvantaged public charter school teaching second-grade literacy.
The trenches can be beautiful but rough these days. It got me thinking about how I have persevered thus far. Among many attributes, it came down to these two: wisdom and grit.
I remember a mentor explaining the difference between knowledge and wisdom: “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
I went through a lot of training to become a teacher. Even with a master’s degree in elementary education, head knowledge does not equal expertise application.
Even with all my teaching internships, nothing can fully prepare you for picking your first class of students up from the gym that first day of school. I distinctly remember thinking, “This is my class. This is my class?!!”
I remember having these grand expectations and plans for how my classroom was going to run. Within the first month, that plan was blown to smithereens. Yet I kept showing up. Trying again. Failing one day. Soaring the next. Learning from my mistakes. Gaining fuel from the mountaintop-moments.
And Today I Still Love Teaching
Wisdom has also taught me it is less about control and more about building relationships. Trying to “control” my class has only left me frustrated and bitter. Seeking relationships with these less experienced humans have built a safety net of trust between me and the student. This is the magical space where learning can take place.
Just last week one of my students had gone to town with a blue crayon to the inside of his desk and then attempted to draw the middle finger on his work that looked nothing like a middle finger—everything was hilariously phallic. At the top of his paper he had written, “foke you!” Bless, you spelled the sight word “you” correctly! We have been working hard on that, after all.
This boy and I had a conversation about the situation, named an appropriate consequence, and we moved back to learning. I knew me shaming him into “never doing it again” would never work, but the community that we have built in the classroom allowed safe space for this conversation to happen.
Not every situation goes this smoothly and I do not always handle every situation with calm grace. But I’m still a student, too. In the middle of handling a student who just ripped up her test, reminding another student to stop chewing on his desk drawer, and attempting to introduce today’s read aloud, wisdom reminds me grace is for me, too, and that I can do this.
Wisdom has taught me to embrace failure. Failure alone is not a bad thing—it’s the choice we make after the failure happens that determines the trajectory of our success.
So many times, I’ve failed. My first big taste of failure was when I failed statistics in college, not because I never went to class, but because I actually did not understand the material and did not take the necessary steps to get the extra help. With only two tests and a final, I was sunk. I thought my life was over. Cue the tears. Cue the shame.
I remember bawling in my dorm room closet to my mother, sobbing, “I will never recover from this!” I retook the class the following fall and ended up with a solid A and I understood the material! My life did not end and my GPA was eventually repaired. Even though it took me a little while to work through that shame, I persevered.
Wisdom has taught me that everybody fails. This is comforting and helps me to know that even in failure I am not alone and there are cheerleaders all around.
In my school, we have a mindset of what we call a “culture of error.” We help students embrace the idea, to make mistakes is a pathway to learn something new. Failure is OK because this is how we grow. We want them to make mistakes because it opens the door for healthy dialogue and exchange of ideas. We want students to not be afraid to share their thoughts and answers. I tell my students, “What doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you.” Wisdom has taught me to dust yourself off and use those mistakes as fuel for trying again.
Whenever my dad asks how many days of school I have left before a break he always says, “Aw, girl, you can do that standing on your head!” This may not be the definition of grit, but I think it’s the same idea. “You’ve come this far, you got this,” is what grit means to me.
It boils down to this:
- Grit is more than just enduring those final days before a break, it’s showing up and being present. Every. Day.
- Grit is getting out of bed the next morning when the day before your patience never showed up to school.
- Grit is choosing to altruistically love your students no matter what baggage they try to sling your way.
- Grit is choosing the lane of confidence and worthiness, even when you may be feeling a little bit lonely and less than others.
Developing grit is a constant work in progress and takes a lot of self-care. I am grateful for the friends and family who regularly call, Facetime, bonfire, etc., with me to make sure I’m staying healthy. A friend called last week and I told him the stories from the day and he just laughed. It was a great reminder of how fleeting these moments are and to embrace the hilarity of it all.
I’m also thankful for my paper, podcast and emotional mentors who offer wisdom and mindfulness practices that help clear my soul. Developing grit has allowed me to have the capacity for greater compassion in the classroom. It has allowed me to see beyond myself and see the greater good being done around and through me.
I’m still very young in the world of teaching and still learning a ton about wisdom and grit. I love that teaching is never the same from day to day. This can be both a little terrifying and yet completely exhilarating.
And the little minds that come to me each day are the best gift. They are bright and full. Full of their own bits of wisdom and grit that teach me, too.