Okay, this blog may turn out to be several random thoughts all jumbled together but I’ve been holding all this in my head since school got out so I need to write it somewhere… Hang in there; I think it might end up being worth it in the end. (And it's a blog, so even though I teach English - no judgements on my spelling and grammar. I am OFF duty people! :)
In the past year, I have discovered that I am in a unique profession. I have days and weeks where I go to work simply because that’s what I have to do. I never actually dread it, but it’s not always easy. Teachers don’t usually get “thank you’s” from students, we don’t win many awards, and recognition, for the most part, is pretty limited. I have learned that despite all these things, we do get tiny victories. Little moments, so small and fleeting that if you blink you’d miss them, that make this job worth doing. In a round about sort of way, I’m going to write about my tiny victory.
Middle school students are a unique group of kids, they aren’t quite full-blown teens yet but they aren’t children anymore. They can be moody, difficult, rude, annoying, and mean. As we wound down the last day before spring break, I had a lot of “behavior issues” to deal with, they were squirrelly and anxious to get out for a week. Then, Mother Nature decided to help the situation by snowing on us in the end of March. Middle schoolers and snow… just not a good combination, especially when it isn’t expected. By the end of the day I just wanted to go home, have a drink, and put my feet up. During 7th period, however, something happened that changed my outlook (at least for today).
In college, I can remember my Ed Law professor saying, “During your first few years, just try to get through. Don’t do anything big, don’t join a bunch of committees, and don’t make waves. Just get to a tenured position and then you can have all the fun you want.” I tried to take that message to heart. I work in a district that I love, I have the position that I hoped for all through college, and I certainly would never want to do anything to jeopardize that. In spite of that, as the year crept on, I found myself wanting to do something really special and memorable with my kids.
I became a middle school teacher because I wanted to make a difference during some of the most difficult years (in my opinion) that anyone has to go through. I hated middle school vehemently (as did my parents, I’m sure) and I never felt like there was an adult who really “got me” or understood what I was going though. Part of my desire to make a difference is wanting my students to see that they are capable of doing things that matter, even at 14 years old. Middle schoolers are an odd bunch, in that they will (usually) only live up to your expectations, and rarely strive to exceed them. We have such a negative perspective about this age group and we expect them to act out, lie, steal, have sex, do drugs, and be generally defiant. I’m learning (slowly, and it’s difficult) that if you expect more of them, and make it obvious that you do, they will act mature in ways I personally hadn’t dreamed of. (There is a point to all this, I promise.)
So, as a first year teacher, I broke the standard and decided to do something bold. Something that my co-workers openly expressed that they would probably never try. Something that stands a large chance of blowing up in my face if it doesn’t go well. I assigned a research project to my 8th grade English students. They were to choose a non-profit organization, research it, and present their findings to the class. The students voted, and they decided that they wanted to have a fundraiser for the Central Washington Humane Society. We brainstormed a number of different ideas: car washes, BBQ’s, bake sales, dog shows, etc. After the vote, it was unanimous – we were hosting a “lock-in” activity evening. This means that myself and 70 - 8th graders are planning on hosting what is turning out to be a dance, video game competition, 3 on 3 basketball tournament, and BBQ at the school during the first week in May. We are sending letters out to request donations (and I mean STACKS of letters), we are trying to get a DJ to volunteer… the list goes on and on. I have lost so many nights of sleep wondering if and how we’d ever pull this thing off.
Then today, I had to tell all my students that after a discussion with the principal, some things had to change (length of the event and we can’t use the gym). At first they resisted, tried to negotiate, and got upset. I had to stop and remind them that this event wasn’t just for them, but its purpose was to raise money for a charity. Here is where I ended up with a tiny victory… Some of my kids whined, wanted to quit, and did what I would generally expect middle school student to do. After a minute or two (and some words from me) I actually watched a disappointed student who desperately wanted to complain, swallow his words, take a deep breath, and say, “Okay, how can we still make this work?” to one of his neighbors. That was huge! These kids have a really (REALLY) hard time thinking about anyone other than themselves and to see that process happen meant a lot to me. We moved forward, made some changes, and I feel like we are still on tract to meet our goal of presenting our final plan to the principal after spring break.
The other aspect of this project that my coworkers were doubting was my plan to have the Humane Society come to the school and give a presentation on what they are all about today (the day before spring break, in the last 30 minutes of school. Gulp.) The director had called me a few weeks ago after received several letters from my students and offered to come down and answer some of their questions personally. We set it up and I have to admit, I kind of winged it, but it came of perfectly. This was my second tiny victory today (and I usually don’t get one a day, let alone TWO!). The kids were SO good, quiet, attentive, and respectful during the presentation that the other staff members expressed their surprise to me several times after the presentation. The presenters were totally impressed with the kids’ behavior and said they’d never had a middle school group act so mature before. The presentation was wonderful and informative and I think it really opened up some of the kids to volunteer opportunities, job possibilities, not to mention the incredible need for a service such as the Humane Society.
We still have a ridiculously long way to go, I’ll still lose sleep over the details, but I feel like I pulled off one thing today that a lot of people didn’t think I could do well. I also feel like I can get these kids to understand that they can work together on a project that really means something to an organization in their community, and maybe do something that they’ll look back on long after middle school as a favorite project or event. As their teacher, that’s really all I want… I have teachers that I remember, classes that I loved, and those are the things that drive the way I teach.
Humane Society Assembly 3/28/08
Cute Doggy and me in the background... I can pass as a student :p