I’ve come a long way in the past 2.5 years as a teacher and a person- I realize you can’t really be a great teacher unless you’re practicing things in your personal life that align with your beliefs as a teacher. You also can’t be a great teacher if you let things slide. I’ve worked a lot this year and last on holding myself up to my word, being trusting and capable of success, and in making sure I take care of myself WHILE also taking care of students.
I couldn’t be a good teacher unless I knew what I was going through first. It’s kind of like what my financial coach has told me about getting financial affairs in order- first, you have to get your money management in order; then your emergency funds and making sure you have them in place in the case you run into trouble; then deal with your debt; then retirement to make sure you’re set; and then building your own wealth up. You gotta keep building yourself up and up, dealing with issues you face and creating that cushion for yourself for when you will inevitably face obstacles and fall, before you can really begin to make transformative change, to be able to not just survive but thrive.
In terms of my teaching, I have built myself up- figuring out those pitfalls about myself that hinder me from doing my very best as a teacher (asking for help, getting enough sleep, knowing my content knowledge, skills, curriculum; being able to present content well; freezing yet overworking at the first sign of pressure; organization). Once I knew these things and addressed them, I could build forward and actually start being proactive about my students- having those working structures in place to run my room, having paraprofessionals anticipate problem areas and working together to solve problems, having behavior plans and whole-group plans ready for my students, group rotation structures, etc. And my class has been running pretty smoothly, and I’ve been able to focus on academic content and making sure they’re learning. We’ve made a lot of progress as a class, and I realized I was beating myself down for everything I didn’t know. It’s okay, as I’m teaching a primary cluster program with students with autism and other low-incidence disabilities, and I’m not going to do everything perfectly this first year. I’m definitely not doing everything perfectly, but we’ve made a lot of progress thus far.
I think the last thing I needed to do was stop caring so much about myself and just care more about my students. I think some part of me had internalized the constant paperwork as my job as a special education teacher rather than focusing on the students. As Chicago Public Schools tries so hard to convince itself of (then denies through budget cuts and their overall strategy to fund its system as little as possible), students do come first. And this past week I’ve been focused on remembering that MY KIDS ARE KIDS, that things will happen, and that I need to be proactive and ready for those things happening. No more being frustrated every time I lose an aide to some school thing, no more being frustrated by testing, by IEP meetings, by surprise pop-up meetings, by after-school committees, by the fact that we have no school-wide reading, math, or social studies curriculum, by everything that comes up. THINGS COME UP. WE’RE TEACHERS. I have to remember that I’m there for the kids, not to react reactively to every situation that comes up. It was a mindset flip that could really only happen once I realized that s*** will always come up. I can’t really do much about that. What I can do is just prepare for things to happen. As a teacher in my ESL cohort said, we just have to go with the flow sometimes.
And this week has been pretty great, and I’ve been just more relaxed. I wasn’t really mad this week at all, I got my work done, my kids were more joyful, I was more joyful, I didn’t let the small things irritate me, and I listened more. I let my kids do more, take more charge of the classroom, but also made sure they did all their work, held them accountable, and made sure they did their best. I have been better about incorporating their own needs in the classroom and making sure the supports I’ve put into place happen every time, that I call no bull, that I’m not going to raise my voice (unless there’s violence or something serious involved, most situations don’t require that). Yes, I’ve been doing all of these things throughout my time in the classroom, but kind of sporadically. I’m holding myself to account- I need to be more prepared for my students, I need to just do my job for my students, and I need to provide the expectations and supports that will have them all succeed. They all can. I just need to be actively making sure that’s happening every single day and not letting everything about being a special education teacher get me away from that mission- my students come first.
Of course, I still have to take care of me, too. =)