The Teacher Box

I’m going to start with my absolute least favorite way that students start paragraphs or essays for me…with a question.

Do you have a teacher box?

Usually I push my students to start with a surprising detail, and interesting anecdote, a relevant quote, or something that makes the reader think.  I’m not a fan of starting with a question because once the reader answers it, they have their opinion made up already.  Anyways, I digress.

I ask if you have a teacher box because last week reminded me of how critically important they are to the well-being of a teacher, or anyone who deals with people on a daily basis.

I started my teacher box back in college when I was coaching club volleyball teams each spring.  At the end of my first season with this club, the team pitched in and gave me a gift card to a sporting goods store and a few handwritten notes.  On a personal level, I had suffered some hardships, and I was so incredibly encouraged by those notes.  I kept the box that my item from the sporting goods store was packaged in and saved those cards in that box.

As I received cards for my college graduation, I placed them in my box.  Other notes and cards from teams I coached and students I worked with were placed in my box, too.

But when I first began my box, I didn’t really understand the long-term importance of keeping these notes and cards.  They felt nice to receive at the time and were definitely an encouragement, but I didn’t think of them much after I stuffed them in my orange shoebox.

Last week was one of those weeks where I felt like I couldn’t win and every day was a Monday.  I know that coming back after Thanksgiving break is always a challenge, but it seemed like this particular week I gained an endorsement in professional cat herding.  Actually, it seemed like I failed my course on professional cat herding if I’m completely honest.  

When I began my second year of teaching in August, I was feeling pretty good about myself after surviving, and dare I say, conquering, my first year of teaching.  Without realizing I had done this, I just assumed that since I did it once, I could do it again.  However, I began to quickly discover how hard teaching is, not just how hard being a first year teacher is.  

Anyways, by this point, if this was one of my student’s essay, I would leave a comment asking how those italic parts are relevant to the main topic of the teacher box.  And as a reader, you are probably wondering the same thing.

So let me connect the dots.

By the Friday of my failed cat herding course, I wanted to go home, hide under a blanket with my cat, and hibernate until springtime.  Unfortunately it was only 10 o’clock in the morning, so that was out of the question.  But then, I remembered…

my teacher box.

I have a few notes that haven’t made their way home to my official orange shoebox yet, so during my lunch break I opened my desk drawer and slowly read through each note while tears filled my eyes as I read the messages.  Those notes gave me just enough momentum to get through the rest of the day.

The teacher box isn’t about feeding the ego or constantly reflecting on how great we are.

Because here’s the deal: teachers are great.  But sometimes, more than maybe we would like to admit, we forget that.  You get weighed down by grading and by student behavior and by lesson plans and by differentiation and by meetings and by dirty dishes and by unfolded laundry and by extra duties and by unread email and by all the other things that are running through your teacher brain that is still spinning its wheels at midnight…

And sometimes, it takes that small reminder from the ones who matter the most and who we are ultimately in it for–our students.  The end game of teaching is not about us.  Teaching isn’t about me or making myself feel good.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I’ve had an especially difficult week, I’ve found that my priorities are all backwards and my focus is skewed.  But my teacher box is my segue back into reality.  What we do as teachers matter.  It matters every day.  And that is the beauty and the difficulty of teaching.

But those little reminders of yes, you are doing a good job, yes you are making a difference, and yes, it is hard work and it’s okay for it to be hard, that’s the point of the teacher box.

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The Room without Rules

My classroom has no rules.  That’s right.  If you walked in my room, you wouldn’t see a list of do’s and don’ts and consequences.  But, students aren’t running wild, either.  (Unless we are performing our play for The Scarlet Letter).  Most will be on task and engaged with that day’s activities.  All without a list of rules.  Instead, I created Core Class Values–the expectations for the students in my room.

Core Class Values
pursue your excellence
take responsibility for yourself
control the controllables (attitude + effort)
improve every day

Before I began my first year, and as I look forward to my second year, one of my biggest concerns regarding teaching has been classroom management.  A lot of these high schoolers are taller than me and honestly look older than me and have louder voices than I do, so clearly I’m a bit intimidated at times.  I came to the ugly realization that my students are better at being students than I am being a teacher, so I needed to step up my game, and fast.

So I decided to take the risk to ditch the rules and instead create a classroom culture of excellence in Room 107 (which is now 105 and a long story coming soon…..).  To do this, I spent the entire first week going over the Core Class Values, policies, expectations, and the standards of Excellence I had in place for them.

However, I didn’t just stop there.  By the end of the first week, students turned in an Excellence Essay explaining their ownership of their behaviors in my class.  I spent the weekend grading and leaving feedback to what they shared with me.  Here’s the prompt I used….

This response essay serves a two-fold purpose.  1) For me, your teacher, to get to know you as a person and learn how to help you best as my student this year.  2) For you, the student, to put into words what pursuing excellence means to you and to identify areas of strength and growth.  This is an important assignment for both of us!  Please show excellence by submitting this on Google Classroom on time and answering each section of the prompt.

The length of this essay is determined by your definition of excellence in your work.  That being said, there is not a minimum or maximum word count.  Instead, write as much as you believe it takes to answer the prompt to the best of your ability.

If you haven’t noticed yet, the theme for this classroom is Excellence.  As we have discussed, perfection in life is impossible to achieve, but excellence is obtained through honestly giving your best effort every day.  What will excellence look like for you in this classroom?  From the Core Class Values, which will be the easiest for you?  Which will be the hardest?  As your teacher, how can I best help you be excellent this year?

But again, I didn’t just hand them back and call it good.  The next two weeks while students were working independently or in small groups, I called them one at a time to conference with me about their Excellence Essays.  I walked them through my feedback, asked a question or two, and ended my portion with a sincere compliment.  Then, the student had the opportunity to share.  Most didn’t have a whole lot to say…maybe they were nervous, it was a new experience, didn’t want to talk……but my goal was for my students to know that I was genuine in my feedback and that I cared about them and what they had to say.

Our final steps were our signatures.  Both the student and I signed the essay after we conferred, and then, the student would go sign the board where our Core Class Values were posted.  I explained that I took their signature seriously.  This was their contract with me to adhere to the expectations we set for Room 107.

We revisited the Core Class Values during Quarter 2, and after Christmas break we spent 3 days again on the Excellence Essays.  During the second round, students evaluated their performance of semester one, set goals for semester two, and (my personal favorite part) created Core Personal Values.  They wrote an Excellence Essay part 2 based on their brainstorming and then created a graphic using Canva.  Finally, at the end of the year, students filled out a Google Form evaluating themselves and me on the Core Class Values.

Like most things my first year of teaching, in theory it sounded great to have no rules and instead be a classroom driven by values, empathy, and care.  I mean, who really likes rules, anyways?  I don’t!  Now that we’ve examined what I replaced rules with, let me evaluate for you what worked and what didn’t.

Structure
I learned quickly that whether students admit it or not, they crave structure.  When expectations are clear and upheld, class just runs more smoothly.  Personally, I struggle with structure and live a little more free-spirited (just look at my lesson plan book by the end of the year).  Before I established routines and structures, class was a little messy and disheveled.  So, I learned to become structured.  However, this doesn’t mean I eliminated the element of surprise or spontaneity,  Instead, I was in control of the surprise and spontaneity and let the students experience them while I was ‘secretly in control’.  We did our own Mannequin Challenge during The Scarlet Letter and played Scattergories, but also had specific things on our desks every day knew silent reading and silent writing really was silent.

Build Relationships…..and Fast!
Before I did anything else in class, I wanted to get to know my students as the young adults they are.  Being an English teacher, journals are a great way to do this.  I tried using blogs for them at first, but it took wayyyyyy too long to get everything loaded, so I reverted back to paper/pencil.  I try to greet every student by name as they walk in my room. I frequently tell my students that I care about them as a person first and a student next.

However, the other big piece that goes into building positive relationships to encourage student growth is letting the students get to know you–the teacher.  Now there are plenty of things I don’t share with my students, but I do talk about my cat Suze probably once a week.  I’ll show a picture of my family if I go see them for a weekend.  I crack goofy jokes that aren’t actually that funny but I ‘force’ my students to laugh anyways.  And we do.  We laugh a lot together.  Which brings me to the best advice I have been given….

Be Myself.  Kids are smart.  They’ll see through anything else.
In all honesty, I am pretty weird.  It doesn’t translate well through the written blog (or maybe it does), but I am.  I drink way too much coffee, do a weird three-finger point while I’m teaching, have a “tell-me-more” gesture when a student says something insightful, and play techno music during work time.  If I tried to be stern and strict the entire class period, students would wonder what was up with me.  As much as I respect teachers who do that each day, it’s just not me.  I operate best within a level of relaxed comfort where I can literally kick my feet back on an empty desk while we talk about poetry.

However, these things only work because students know my standards of excellence in my room.  It took lots of reminders and redirections and reflections on their behaviors in class and mine.  I cannot just assume that the student is the only one at fault if he or she misbehaves.  I have to ask myself what role I could have played in their misbehavior.. if I came mentally prepared, if prepped my lesson well enough, if I greeted that student at the door, and the list goes on.  Especially as a young educator, I take a lot of responsibility for the way my students act.  This does not mean I excuse their behavior, I do hold them to high standards,  but I also have to check myself and hold myself accountable as well.

Anyways, this may have turned into a long-winded reflection of how I set up my classroom management with Values and expectations and essays and a glimpse into my true weirdness…..  I could give you many anecdotes of real situations that occurred throughout my first year showing the positives and negatives of flying my class under the “no rules” flag and instead establishing Class Values.  Maybe those would be more helpful to read?  I know before I began teaching, everything was theory.  Well cool. This sounds like it will work…but does it?  Hopefully my experiences in the room can help take out some of the guesswork and give you my readers a realistic look into Room 107 (now 105….)

Stay Joyful–

Miss J

 

I’ve Been Diagnosed

It’s a good day for a good day

What I am about to tell you is an absolute truth.  I am harnessing my inner Nick Carraway and becoming the most truthful person I know (which in all reality sounds pretty suspicious, but we’ll just go with it.)

For several years I’ve had some major stressors in my life.  Once something settles down, it seems like a new one bubbles up.  Not all have been bad–in fact, the majority of them have been pretty fantastic.

My parents, on the other hand, have had some fairly serious health issues the past few years requiring hospital visits, surgeries, overnight stays, and lots of medications.  This in part has created a sense of hypochondria in me.  I tend to assume that every headache, stomachache, aching joint, or unusual body activity is a sign of a serious underlying condition.  I have self-diagnosed a lot of ailments throughout the years–all of which of course were completely false.

However, this spring, I was just convinced that something was off.  I had been feeling weirdly lethargic but still struggling to sleep, anxious, and dizzy.  These symptoms matched with what my mom was going through at the time, so I made an appointment with the local doctor.

Now in the back of my mind, I always suspected my body was still recovering and adjusting to my first year of teaching, but I’d been feeling this way for so long my hypochondria convinced me I finally had something serious.

I sagged on to the crinkle-papered medical table and swung my feet anxiously.  Checking my reflection in the mirror, the dark circles under my eyes reassured me I did the right thing by making this appointment.  The doctor walked in, made small talk, and began asking me questions.  I explained how I felt and for how long, and she determined I needed some blood work done.  They drew their three vials and sent me on my way, promising a call within the week.

I prayed these results came quickly because I had already exhausted WebMD and YahooAnswers, basically all the sites I would have deemed ‘unreliable’ to my students if they were doing research.  But, desperate times call for desperate measures.

The next afternoon I received the call.  I have been diagnosed with

First Year Teacher Syndrome.

Yep.  That’s right.  Just a plain ol’ case of being a new teacher.  I was legit told nothing was wrong–just maybe I should get some more sun.

Needless to say, I was pretty embarrassed that a doctor had to tell me that I was simply exhausted from teaching and everything that comes with it.  They gave me a prescription for Vitamin D, saying they’d check up on me in a few weeks, and sent me on my way.

So, here I am a month out and I’m bummed to say that I have taken exactly one Vitamin D pill.  Yep. Winning.

But actually, I am.  This whole hypochondriac ordeal helped put teaching into perspective for me.  If I take better care of myself, I’m better equipped to serve my students.  This doesn’t mean that I neglect my duties as a teacher to selfishly do what I want, but if I’m constantly worn out, I have nothing left to give to my students.

So, I’m changing my prescription.  Instead just a Vitamin D pill, I’m going to medicate with games of disc golf, with a cup of good coffee, with a book I’ve been craving, with morning jogs, with a Sunday drive, with afternoons at the lake, and with a calm and unrushed perspective on life.

Here’s to the last few weeks of having First Year Teacher Syndrome.  I can only imagine what the Second Year Teacher Condition is going to be like.

 

Stay joyful,

Miss J

 

Home Away From Home

It only took me about two months into my first year of teaching before life began to blur together and my classroom and apartment became one.  I was lost in a swirl of teaching, planning, coaching, grading, and sleeping. I refer to this time in my first year of teaching as to when I was “happily drowning”.

So, are you “happily drowning”, too?  Take this quick test to find out.

 Are you a first year teacher?
YES          or              NO

If you answered “YES”, congratulations!  There is a 95% chance you are feeling this exact way, too.  You too spend countless hours at school battling the stacks of papers, messy whiteboards, ungraded assignments, and printer problems.  You also have reminder notes written all over your room…that you still may or may not remember.

Perhaps you have even had students come to you in a half truly concerned but mostly sarcastic manner asking, “Miss, it’s 3rd quarter now, you can’t say ‘Sorry, first year teacher probs’ and expect it to work anymore.” To which you calmly reply,  YES I CAN. I WILL UNTIL THE LAST DAY OF THIS SCHOOL YEAR. “You’re right.  I know you are mostly giving me hard time, but I appreciate the motivation.”  Oh. That’s just me? Okay.

*Disclaimer: If you are within the 5% who are grabbing this first year of teaching by the horns and dominating, you can go now.  Or you’re in denial.  Or you just manage your time way better than me.  Okay, it’s probably that latter.*

Now by no means am I an expert, but being in my 4th quarter of my 1st year teaching has given me a smidge of perspective on how to set up my classroom so I don’t lose all my sanity.

  1.  Set up a memo board or a certain place for reminders.  I call this whiteboard “Miss Joekel’s Board of Sanity Reminders”.  I make notes of meetings, which kids are coming in and when, general reminders, and student ideas.  This has worked great when students have a suggestion for class or a question or needing make up work.  I can just tell them “Put it on the board”!  Just don’t forget to check it each day!
  2. A coffee pot.  Enough said.
  3. A Weebly site.  Over Christmas break, I created a website that houses notes, handouts, assignments, essays…all the good stuff that I want my students to have access to.  Check it out 
  4. A specific place for the day’s handouts.  Now I know I talked about the class website I created, but I still feel there is a value to writing by hand.  So, after I make my copies, I have a certain spot I set them each time.  This helps me to find them quickly and not waste class time.  (I’m still trying to figure out the best place to stash my extra copies, though–any thoughts?)
  5. Lamps.  My room has no windows to the outside world, so I like to bring the sun into my classroom with my five lamps and strand of Christmas lights.
  6. Something I personally enjoy looking at.  For me, its the Class Values, Husker Volleyball poster, and coffee pot.

Incorporating these six things into my classroom this semester has been like catching a life preserver.  Now, I’m floating and enjoying the sun.  Sure, every now and then a giant wave crashes over me, but I’m able to recover thanks to these practices.

Because I figure if I lose about 1/50th of my sanity per year, by the time I retire I will have just enough left to travel the world and have a royally sassy time doing it.

But until then, I will spend my time in my home away from home doing what I love to do: Drinking coffee and teaching high schoolers.

 

Stay joyful (and 49/50ths sane),

Miss J

 

 

 

 

 

Take 2 ||

Possible title options I filtered through for this particular post:

  • Oops
  • Here we go again
  • Better try next time
  • Oh dear
  • Ohhhh My, Miss….. (if I had a dollar for every time I heard this throughout the day..)
  • Let’s get physical (poor, poor choice)
  • You can do it!
  • The un-resolutions

This semester stretched me in ways that I didn’t know were possible.  It was about mid-October when I think in some meta-spiritual cleansing act, I took everything I thought I knew from my undergrad about teaching and threw it out a window.  Okay, so I don’t have any outside-facing windows in my classroom, so this literally didn’t happen because who wants to make a mess in the hall to clean up later, BUT, I had a lot of misconceptions about teaching that I’m pretty sure I was warned about, but charged through with bull-headed excitement anyways.

Warning:  Your first year will be tiring.
If by “tiring” you mean mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting, then yep! This is totally on track.  Few times in my life have I experienced this totally encapsulating exhaustion so regularly.  Now part of it was definitely my fault.  Managing coaching, teaching, and planning revealed to me that my time management skills are subpar.  The other part is just the fact that teaching is hard.
Goal #1: Work efficiently.

Warning: Leave some time for yourself.
YEP.  I did not do this until I dropped from sheer exhaustion when I hit a free weekend.  This was definitely not healthy, but honestly, I felt like I was being selfish if I didn’t give 200% to my students each week and like 50% to myself.  Now, I’m no math or science teacher, but I’m going to guess it’s physically impossible to work at 300% efficiency. This break has showed me its okay, and actually beneficial, to take time for myself each day.  I ask that my students bring their best each day, so I must practice what I preach.
Goal #2: Protect my introverted-ness and make my time with Jesus utmost priority each day.

Warning: You just haven’t hardened yet.
Nope, I haven’t.  You’re right.  And I don’t plan on it.  Part of what makes me ME is my deeply caring heart.  There have been times that I wished I didn’t feel so deeply, but this semester I have come to realize that God has blessed me with the ability to care deeply.  I’m learning more each day how to utilize this challenge gift to the best of my abilities.
Goal #3:  Don’t spread myself so thin.  Intentionally pour into the areas God has called me to. 

But if I learned anything this semester, it’s that I love what I’m doing.  It’s hard and overwhelming and scary and exhausting at times.  But the reward is much greater than the sacrifice.  The laughter and stories and growth and mindset, along with all the challenges, that we walked out of Room 107 with on December 19th are what will spur me on to walk into Room 107 on January 4th with a renewed sense of joy for the upcoming semester.

Stay joyful—-

Miss Joekel

I don’t know much…

Hi friends!

Here I am, done with my first quarter of my first year of teaching, which in the long run is only a small portion of my teaching career, but right now it is a pretty exciting milestone.

It’s said in the teaching profession (I’m sure other professions share this as well) that nothing can really prepare you for teaching in your own classroom.  College courses and observations and student teaching all do the best they can, but until that room and those kiddos are completely yours, there are just some things that you can never fully prepare for. 

I teach in a highly diversified school system and the life experiences some of my students have gone through at their age are unfathomable to me.  My empathetic heart hurts for them every day they act out or are uncharacteristly quiet.  I’m reminded continually that some days the school, and hopefully my classroom too, very well may be the safest or most comfortable place they’ll be.  

I’ve also been made very aware that as prepared as I felt to begin my first year of teaching, I really don’t know that much.  I joke that I’ve learned more from the students this first quarter than perhaps I have taught them. 

I don’t know too much yet, but I do know English content is English content. The fundamentals of reading, writing, and speaking will always hold true, even as sometimes I’m only a day ahead of my students, happily drowning through planning my lesson calendars.

I don’t know too much yet, but I have found that a fundamental need each student has is the desire to be cared for and about.

 I don’t know too much yet, so when that student sits and stares at his test for over half the class period, or is constantly talking in class, or comes after school every day to double check on the homework assignment, or asks the same question for the one hundredth time and I don’t know what else to do, I do know that I can care about that student, and that’s always a good place to start.

I don’t know too much yet, but I am learning that caring about students looks different depending on the day and the situation and the individual. Sometimes it’s a small tap on their desk to wake them up after a late night shift at work without drawing the class’s attention. Other times it’s a zero and a hard conversation about turning in homework on time.  Then there are thetimes it takes the audible words “I care” for a student to even begin grasping that.

I don’t know much, but I do know that when I don’t know what else to do, I can show that I care, and sometimes that’s all a student needs. 

So, welcome to Miss Joekel’s class. 

Room 107. Where the Jokes of the Day are funny, and if they’re not, you laugh anyways.

Stay joyful,

Miss Joekel 

Survival Guide to Student Teaching

As I was going through my blog to begin writing about my first year of teaching, I found some unfinished draft posts hiding out!  Here is one from my last week of student teaching—-enjoy!


 

Hello all,

As I begin my last week of student teaching, I have done a lot of reflecting on what might make this semester successful.

Student teaching is a whirlwind.  Planning lessons, creating activities, teaching in class, grading, after-school activities, discussion boards… all while hoping that your students are gaining some semblance of content knowledge.

To save your sanity (disclaimer: some, not all), here’s my top eight list of things student teachers need for the semester:

  1. A cat.  Or a friend.  Or just some time to yourself.  On the introvert/extrovert scale, I fall slightly on the introverted side.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t like being around people–I absolutely do!–but I just need time by myself to regroup and recharge.  A few hours to destress and recharge and I’m ready to rock and roll again.
  2. Coffee.  In my case, I drink Spark, but it’s for the same effect.  There are days where you are crawling out of bed, peeling your eyelids off your eyeballs, and floating into school.  As hard as it might be, students deserve your full presence every day.  So wake up, get your blood pumping, and bring energy into the room.
    Truly, the teacher creates the atmosphere in the classroom.  I have found class goes much smoother if I smile and joke a little bit at the beginning once students are settled.
  3. Supplies (sticky notes, a good pen, notebooks, extra paper…)  I live by sticky notes this year.  I stick them on my computer, on students’ computers, in my planner, on my finger, in my textbook, on my desk…literally everywhere.  Buy the bright ones, they are eye-catching and a nice contrast to the blank white paper.
    Also, different colored pens make grading much more fun.  BUT, don’t share your favorite pens.  I don’t mean that in a selfish way..it’s just unlikely you’ll get them back.
  4. A few good jokes up your sleeve  Make yourself seem like a real person, not a robot that blurts out information.  I have a cat, and I talk about her every week.  I show pictures to my students, and work her into lessons.  Is it silly?  Absolutely!  Students enjoy it though and I seem more approachable.  Of course, this isn’t appropriate for every single day or every class.  I’m still a figure of authority and need to be seen that way in the classroom, but it’s okay if your students aren’t scared of you.
  5. Netflix subscription  Let’s be real here.  Even though as a student teacher you don’t have the full responsibilities of a teacher, it is still an exhausting semester.  Take some time to yourself every now and then.  Watch a full season of Grey’s Anatomy in a weekend if you must.  Then get back into the groove of planning and grading.
  6. A planner  Organization is the key to success for a teacher.  Find an organizational strategy that works for you as fast as you can.  For me, it starts with a good planner.  Mine is broken into months and weeks.  I jot down the basic lesson on each day of the month, and then in the week section, I go into more detail.  I have my daily to-do lists as well in my planner.  This allows me to “see into the future”.  I also love the expandable folder pockets.  I had one for each class and labeled my sections “To Grade”, “Graded”, “Hand Back”, and “Hand-outs”. KEEP EVERYTHING FROM STUDENT TEACHING.  Even if you don’t teach the same things next year, it’s amazing what is transferrable.
  7. An open mind  As my cooperating teacher continually tells me, “Try whatever you want”.  Student teaching is the safest place you’ll be to teach, so try the crazy activity you’ve been reading about, it just might work!  Your cooperating teacher is there and will help out if things go south.  I’ve had both of those experiences this semester, and both have helped me grow as an educator.  Be flexible in class, as well.
  8. Patience  This is a challenging, but such a rewarding semester.  Don’t put too much pressure on yourself at the beginning, but don’t settle.  Give yourself time to build relationships with the students, to feel comfortable with classroom.

Enjoy your semester, best of luck, and stay joyful,

–Miss Joekel