There is change, lots ofchange, practically occurring all the time. With change constantly happening,why do humans still have such a hard time anticipating, predicting, andadjusting to change? There are planned changes such as the birth of a child, ormoving into a new house, or, school building. And there are unplanned eventsthat lead to changes, such as a stubbed toe or a leaky roof. There are also chaoticchanges, orderly changes, and even time changes. The classification of change couldlast a lifetime. And yet, it is puzzling when the sudden, or even chaotic, changesare often easiest to adjust to, more so than the anticipated or predictedchanges. Of course this is not always the case. Change, and one’s response tochange, even changes.
We could look darkly intothese differences, take a page out of Camus or Nietzsche and proceed Existentially.But I prefer not to. Instead, I’ll proceed with the thoughts from one of thefew historical figures who was most responsible for taking the modern world outof its paralyzed Existential state: Winston Churchill, once said, “To improveis to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Ironically, Churchill wasprobably an Existentialist – as his quote portends - he was just crazy enoughto be.
Or perhaps, with thistheme of change it is better to remember a line from my favorite novel in highschool, The Power of One, by BryceCourtenay: “Sometimes the slightest things change the directions of our lives,the merest breath of a circumstance, a random moment that connects like ameteorite striking the earth. Lives have swiveled and changed direction on thestrength of a chance remark.” When I noticed this quote from The Power of One, I was taking my firstpsychology class as a senior in high school and the reason I liked theCourtenay quote so much is that it reminds me of what William James, one of theAmerican grandfathers of the study of psychology, once said, “Act as if what you do makes adifference. It does.”
And now, when I rememberthese thoughts, as a parent and educator, when I think about change, well,somehow it is easier to look inward in the face of unusual change.
You know how it is. The first day of school has ended and you feel like you’ve expended more energy than you did for all of June and July and the first half of August combined. You’re spent from all that jabbering at the front of the room, from all those attempts to quickly memorize 80 names.You’re spent from trying to distinguish this girl with the ponytail from that girl with the ponytail. Jenny? Isabel? Caroline? You’re spent from all that smiling, from all those jammed lockers, from all the official checking of the shorts to see if they are above the legal limit, from… just fill in the blank.
So, when I get home that night after the first day of school, all I crave is the tossing on of some sweats, the curling up on the leather couch, the dozing off for a few minutes next to my mutt.
I don’t want to do homework.
“Uhh, Mom, the teachers said that you’ve gotta write something about me,” Max announces, as he tosses a handout at me, a crumpled handout, a bottom-of-the-backpack casualty.
The assignment is to write a million words or fewer about your kid.
I know this one. In fact, once upon a time, I used to give it out to eighth grade parents, until a few complained, and I moved on, focusing too much, as always, on the vociferous naysayers.
I sigh. "When is it due?" I ask my seventh grader.
That answer is a favorite of mine. Glorious.
I’ve heard tales about life with a seventh grader. Here we go.
I want to ask if he has written the due date in his planner. But, no. Don’t talk about the planner, Debra. Not today. Don’t blabber on about how all successful people use a planner. Resist. Resist. Wait until tomorrow, at least until tomorrow.
"You don’t know when it’s due? Really?"
"No. They didn’t say."
Okay. I’ll just do it now then.
So, I flip open my computer, annoyed, tired, ignoring the laundry that needs to be folded, the raw lasagna that is still tucked in the box, rather than gloriously cooking away.
How do I capture Max Solomon Baker, in a way that will be meaningful to his teachers?
What do they really want to know? What will be most helpful? How long should I make it?
Will they actually read what I write?
I just begin.
An hour later, I am still writing, still lost in the world that is my son, pecking at the keyboard, adding and deleting, then adding some more.
I write about how my baby is a chess champion.
I write about how he plays baseball with kids in wheelchairs, kids with autism, kids with Down’s Syndrome, kids who would not fit in Little League, kids who need him. Yes, I want his teachers to know that he marches onto that baseball field at Tilles Park every Saturday morning, even when it’s 800 degrees outside.
I write about how he’s got this buddy, Lee Staebler,who is plagued with Parkinson’s disease. I write about how Max heads to Delmar Gardens to compete against this former business school professor who is lonely and opponent-less, and who steadies his hands just long enough to maneuver the pieces.
I want his teachers to know about this friendship.
I write about his passion for baseball, about how he loves being at Busch Stadium and how he holds out hope to the end, even when his beloved Cardinals are down by 14 runs.
And I write about how he sank and sank in sixth grade, how he felt both overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the middle school transition year, and how there were mornings where we almost couldn’t get him out the door at all.
And, finally, I write, thank you, to his teachers. Thank you so much for asking about my boy. Thank you for letting me share his passions and his struggles. Thank you for caring enough to ask.
I loved writing this piece.
* * *
Last year, nobody asked us anything. So, regretfully, I did not offer much. But, looking back, I suspect that sharing my perspective on my son as a learner, and as a human being, talking about his struggles and about his beauty, that this might, somehow, have made a positive impact in what became his most challenging school year so far.
So, as Open House approaches, I hope all of us remember to ask. Maybe it’s in a survey. Maybe it’s in a conversation. Maybe it’s in a Million Words Assignment. It doesn’t really matter, but just don’t wait until the rush, rush, rush of parent-teacher conferences.
Ask early. Ask often.
Most will be grateful that you invited them in.
And you will be too.
“Goodnight, Mr. Wilmsmeyer.”
A simple phrase. Heard it a thousand times, give or take. Should have been like most pleasantries: said, heard,forgotten.
A few years ago, the teachers of Wydown Middle Schoolrededicated ourselves to an advisory program. Advisory, for those of you that do no know, is a class thatfocuses on building strong relationships with children in the building, makingsure every child has a teacher they can call on for whatever the reason can be.
My advisory class last year, 8th grade students,has moved on to the high school realm, giving me a new advisory this year…6thgraders. Having taught 8thgrade for my entire career, I was terrified of 6th graders. It will be a long three years together,I thought.
Only two students showed up on time. One showed up 10 minutes late. All we did was put funnels on our headsand learn each other’s names. We didn’tget through any of the lesson I was hoping to cover.
It was the best 30 minutes of advisory I have ever had. I am sure it was just another scaryminutes in the scary first day of a 6th grade student, but I feltlike I just hit my first home run. At least, that is what I thought until 3:15.
On her way out the door, I passed one of my advisees on herway out the door and she said “Goodnight, Mr. Wilmsmeyer. See you tomorrow.” She remembered me. She remembered we would have advisoryclass tomorrow. She must haveenjoyed advisory today too.
“Goodnight,” I said.
“I’m gonna cry when you leave me in three years,” I thought.
I just opened my email to these kind words from Doug Wehner: "You know what I still remember? That beautiful article that you wrote about the beginning of school that was published in the Post Dispatch many years ago (maybe 1998). Do you still have that essay? It was incredible."
"Those Who Can, Teach: Advice to New Teachers."
I am a runner. I began three years ago after my older brother, Andrew, a marathon runner, convinced me, despite my whining, that there was no lingering lung damage from the pneumonia I had contracted at two weeks of age. “You’re just lazy,” he quipped. But, life was about to change. I had decided that, after twenty seven years, I was tired of wheezing my way through life...I wanted to be in shape. “Start with five minutes and build up slowly. Anybody, even a grandmother, can run for five minutes,” he insisted. I had my doubts. But, for weeks, I pulled on my Sauconys, stretched for twenty minutes, chose music for my Walkman for fifteen, and then ran for five. Slowly, amazingly, I began to build up stamina. I ran for seven minutes, then 10 minutes, then 12. Now, 40. Amazing.
What does any of this have to do with teaching? Some would call teaching, like running, a form of torture. But, I see things differently. And although I am not an expert (is anyone?), much of the advice I would give new teachers connects to this fine sport of running.
Don’t Forget to Breathe. Some of you are probably feeling quite out of breath right now, wondering if perhaps you’ve fooled everyone, (including your principal and superintendent), into thinking you were really the best person for this crazy job. Or maybe you’re out of breath because there are only 188 more hours to prepare your lesson plans and you’ve got thirty more books on teaching that you wanted to peruse this summer. Relax. Breathe. You will be ready. There has been no error in the selection process.
An Uphill is Always Followed by a Downhill, and Vice Versa. Why else would people be crazy enough to run, or, similarly, to teach? You will have days when you will wonder why you did not go to law school, like the rest of your college roommates did. You will have days when you will dream about a job that lets you escape behind a computer screen for three hours. And, you will have days when you will fantasize about being one of those people who gets to actually go out for a long lunch every day, rather than wolfing down a peanut butter sandwich and some potato chips. But, then, something amazing will happen. You will drag yourself into your classroom one morning and little Julie will be waiting by the door, with an editorial from yesterday’s newspaper in her hand. “I thought you’d agree with this,” she will say, “so I cut it out for you.” Then you will know you will make it, at least through the week.
Brag About Accomplishments, your own and those of your students. Find someone who will at least pretend to listen to your boasts. I know that Desmond, my dog, does not really care that I ran an extra 1/8 of a mile more than I usually do, or that the ever-disruptive Mark said that he’s been thinking he’d maybe like to have a friend like George from Of Mice and Men. But, at 4:30, when I collapse on the sofa, Desmond pretends to care. He bounces around and licks my face. We tend, as educators, to focus too much of our attention on our failures. That, as we know, is a societal problem. My advice to you this year is to brag. Tell your principal or your mentor when an activity in your class went especially well. Write yourself a love letter in your journal. Buy yourself flowers for your desk to congratulate yourself on a week well-done. Send positive letters home to parents. Fight the tendency to be negative. It will make a huge difference in your life. A former professor of mine once said, “Pessimism leaves a bad taste in your mouth without any mouthwash.” Vow to be an optimist.
Remember to Enjoy the Journey. I confess to sometimes resorting to minute counting as I run. Usually, though, I prefer to admire the trees. But, having said that, I do remember sitting at home in January as a new teacher, biting my nails, and counting how many more times I would have to teach my dreaded fifth hour class. I actually dreamed about catching mononucleosis or some other non-life-threatening communicable disease. Try to avoid such detrimental habits. Part of why I love teaching now is because I am convinced that I laugh a whole lot more throughout the day than all of my friends who make more money than I do. Try to make this the year that you learn to laugh at your students’ crazy antics, laugh at your own foolish mistakes, relish in the small achievements. Go to Friday happy hours with your colleagues, even if you feel like doing nothing else but dragging home for a 48-hour nap. This camaraderie will make the journey a whole lot more pleasant.
Take a Day Off Every Now and Then. Don’t Ignore Your Aches and Pains. I only run every other day, sometimes every third. Our minds, like our bodies, need time to rest. The demands in this district are intense. Leave those ungraded essays at school occasionally. Rent Singin’ in the Rain on a Monday night. Read a novel with adult-only themes. Go to an early evening movie. Get a massage. Just because we enlisted to become teachers does not mean that we have agreed to forego any semblance of a healthy life. Similarly, don’t be afraid to take a day off for mental health. Having that extra time to regroup and to rest can make a major difference...it can also prevent physical illness. Take care of yourself.
Stay Cool. You will encounter strangers who will ask, in an accusatory tone, why students are not as smart as they used to be, why teachers today are not teaching the basics, like grammar and multiplication tables. You will meet parents who genuinely think that they are experts on teaching, just because they were once students. Finally, you will find students who will question every single thing you say, including “good morning.” Be prepared for this. Stand on your convictions, speak clearly, plow forward, and try your best not to get defensive, irrational, or overheated. As I said earlier, don’t forget to breathe.
If You Get Lost, Ask for Directions. It is easy to feel humbled, and overwhelmed by the incredible caliber of teachers working beside you in this district. But, I would advise you to use this wealth of resources to help better your own practices. Seek out conversations about books. Ask for suggestions on classroom management. Before making a difficult phone call to a parent, elicit suggestions from the thirty-year veteran next door. Teaching can be an incredibly isolating experience, but it does not need to be.
Remember That There Are Many Ways to Reach Home. While it’s great to ask for and to listen to advice, know that there are a dozen powerful ways to teach a sonnet, to teach about the Holocaust, or even to arrange a classroom. Trust yourself. Trust your abilities. Trust that the path you are on is a fruitful one. There is, after all, no manual to follow.
We are blessed with this unique chance to help kids find their own path to learning, their own paths to happiness and to virtue. What else in life could be more important or more meaningful?
I wish you luck. I wish you many, many productive and happy miles. I hope to see you on the road.
So, of course, the Walkman is now an I-pod, and, yes, the dog, Desmond, has been sprinkled under the trees at Oak Knoll Park. And during moments like today, when I am feeling panicked, desperately mourning the loss of summer, I do still miss his bouncy way and the kisses that he planted so aimlessly across my face. But, with three more days left before the craziness begins, I am trying to relax, trying to breathe, trying to remind myself that there can, indeed, be balance and that, though I am still no expert, I do know a thing or two about how to teach.