It was the dead of winter, and I was tired. I could see it on my face, and I could feel it on every inch of my body. I trudged through the halls, and made my way towards my principal’s office. I had a meeting scheduled about something–something I can’t remember–but all I remember was the meeting starting with me saying this:
I wasn’t the teacher I wanted to be today.
I don’t even remember what happened. I think I lost my patience or raised my voice or something. It was one of those situations that left me feeling like absolute crap, one that I knew I would later have to own and make amends for with my students.
My principal looked at me, and replied, “Well, were you the teacher they needed you to be today?”
It was a powerful response–a response that allowed me to be a bit kinder to myself and embrace some of the nuances of the situation. It was true that my kiddos needed a bit of tough love that day, but it was also true that I could have executed it a bit differently. It was true that they needed their teacher to be stern that day and let them know the gravity of their behaviors, but it was also true that it was a growing experience for me.
I’m not sure when things changed, but I’m a much different teacher than I was when I started my career. That’s probably a good thing, in many respects. I’m more inclusive now, I’m more mindful now, and I’m all-around better at managing my time and my workload. But I also have less energy now. I’m more serious now than I used to be. Overall, I don’t feel as fun and cool as I used to feel.
When I started teaching, I would do handstands and jump on countertops. I would sing songs and play loud music. I decorated the classroom with hay bales, fun lighting, and brightly colored bulletin board paper. But now, I’m a bit more subdued. I can’t remember the last time I did a handstand in the classroom (which is probably a good thing actually). I now get worried to play music too loudly.
Why is that?
I’m sure it’s partially the general burn out of teaching. It’s hard to keep up that energy for a long period of time, and perhaps it was only a matter of time before it died down. It’s also probably true that the novelty has worn off. It feels less exciting to do some of those things now because I know the return on investment is so shallow and ephemeral. Plus, it only sets you up to have to continuously raise the bar on just how entertaining and “cool” you have to be to keep your kids’ attention.
The biggest reason, though, is that I think I’m just more secure in myself and my practice now. I care less about being the cool, young teacher, and more about being the teacher who takes care of himself well enough to show up for my students every day. I care more about the relationships I build with them than I do about the shock-and-awe that comes with me standing on desks or throwing things. And I know now that the most fruitful investments in my classroom are not the more subtle ones that take time to develop–the relationships, mutual trust, and mutual respect that it takes to really make a classroom successful.
I think when we start teaching, most of us want to shake up our schools. We want to bring the life that comes with being a young teacher into our schools. We also need to find a way to prove ourselves, so we do it through over-the-top engagement strategies or over-decorated classrooms that make veteran teachers roll their eyes.
It’s a bittersweet feeling, to no longer feel like the cool teacher. On one hand, I feel proud of myself for growing into a more secure adult. But on the other hand, the youth in me still craves the validation that comes from shaking things up and being a little over-the-top. But then I remember that my job isn’t necessarily to be the teacher I am sometimes tempted to be–that slightly immature teacher who throws caution to the wind. My job, instead, is to be the teacher I know my students need.
This sometimes mean being more serious than I am carefree. This sometimes means having them practice routines multiple times to make sure they get it right. This sometimes means making them walk in straight lines down the hallway–because it’s best for the school when there is order out there. It sometimes means holding them accountable to a logical consequence because I know it’s the best way to help them understand the impact of their actions. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always fun to be the teacher I know my students need.