Sunday, August 21, 2016

If You Love a Teacher...

If you love a teacher, this post is for you. Not because it makes you special, but because it makes you a target. This post is not a celebration. No, my friends, this is a survival guide.

Tomorrow is a big day. It's big because it's the first day, and first days are frantic and messy and long. No matter how many first days your teacher has had, it never seems to get easier. We just become better at faking it.

And, dear Baby Jesus, if your teacher-love is having their very first of the first days, you are probably already in the thick of it. There's not much you can do at this moment except hold on.

Before we delve into tomorrow, though, let's get a few things straight so that your innocent "jokes" don't become long nights on the couch or a butter knife in the back of your hand.

1. They have not been "on vacation" all summer. Most have done training and conferences and summer school. Or they have families, dear God. And even if they have been on the most magical vacation of all time, shut the heck up. They've earned it. Take me with you next time.

2. They have been back "at work" for a week or two now, but being at work with adults is a great deal easier than being back at work with 900 children. Even the worst, most annoying adults can be moved away from; children never stop following you. Shut up.

3. Stop looking at the receipts. Just stop. Setting up a classroom is like buying a new home every year. It's not just bulletin border and smelly markers they're buying. An easel pad of poster paper (50 sheets) costs $27.95. That's 10% of our yearly tax deduction we get to claim, and it's paper. Yes, it's paper that will showcase the steps to finding the area of a triangle or how to punctuate a complex sentence, but let's be real -- it's PAPER. And if you're buying the easel pad with the sticky side? Your spouse must be rich. Adopt me. I need giant sticky notes.

And if your teacher love wants to drop $11 on a pack of felt tip pens? You don't say a word.

Some girls want a bouquet of flowers. I, myself, prefer a bouquet of new felt-tipped pens.
I'm serious. This is the teacher equivalent of buying a ridiculously expensive bottle of whiskey. Yes, they could just use other pens. But you could also just knock back a crisp, refreshing Purell on the rocks. Shut up.

4. They will come home with no voice. A non-teacher friend once came to my school to speak to classes all day. All she did was talk. She went home and laid a frozen washcloth on her face and refused to look at her husband.

Your teacher-love's face will ache from smiling. The first day, we are a crowd of deranged Miss America contestants.

You smile to welcome students. You smile to alleviate parental panic. You smile to defuse parental discontent. You smile because, inevitably, s**t will fall apart. Crying child, lunch schedule mix-ups, parents who don't understand the pick-up line, or technology that worked fine today will have reverted back to 1952 tomorrow.

Tomorrow night, do not expect them to whisper sweet nothings to you. Do not expect them to ask about your day. Do not try to Face Time them. You will not want to see their face on the other end. Tomorrow is not the day to get your feelings hurt because they "seem distant". Tomorrow is a day to shut up. Maybe they'll talk again on Tuesday.

5. Don't expect them to keep up with their responsibilities at home to the usual standard. If you came to my house right now, I'd only let you in if you brought laundry detergent and a casserole. Even then, I might eye you warily through the peephole and text you instructions to leave it on the porch and walk away. They've gone from picking up after a few people (or for only themselves) to herding a school full of Pig Pens who leave a trail of pencil shavings and Axe body spray wherever they go. Think about how rage-y you get when the people in your house can't remember where dirty socks go. Now multiply that feeling times 125.

6. If your teacher-love is not in your home, consider yourself lucky. We are not a pleasant people. For the first 2 weeks, we are like zombies who have somehow retained the ability to drive. But not like the fast World War Z zombies. This is more us:

So do yourself a favor tomorrow. Give your teacher a big hug before they leave. Give them a little space when they get home. And just wait it out for a couple of days. They'll be human again someday soon.

And if not... at least you have a leg up on them.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Panic of Perfection

As the first day of school draws near, I am sensing a definite theme with my teacher friends as I scroll through social media: Panic.

Not about curriculum. Not about students. Not about school policies. Full-blown Panic about the state of not-nearly-readiness of our classrooms. I sense their panic because I know this Panic. We are, in fact, old, old friends, he and I. Today was our 17th anniversary.

Hello, lover.

At my school, almost everyone is in a new place, and all week, I've seen people walking in and out of each others' rooms, calculating time lost in meetings, eyeing decor, silently taking measurements, calling dibs on unwanted furniture. Today was NJH Craigslist day: if you want something post about it or if you're looking, post about it. Teachers cruise hallways like seasoned garage-salers. Word about hard-to-find objects like bookshelves or free Expo markers spreads like we're Bodie and the Corner Boys.

Teacher 1: "Yo. You didn't hear this from me, but I saw a sweet, sweet rolling chair just sittin' outside room 208. You want me to go pick it up for you?"

Teacher 2: (twitches and whispers) "I don't know, man. Doesn't that belong to Drury? Why's he puttin' it out there like that? You sure it's safe? I don't want any trouble."

Teacher 1: "Don't worry about Drury. If it's in the hallway, it's fair game. Thems the rules, you know? All I need is a 24 count box of mechanical pencils, and we're square."

And that's just the physical layout of the room. We haven't even started out-Pinteresting each other yet. Elementary school teachers start planning their class themes for the upcoming school year even before the previous year is done. I'm convinced they go on retreats to the desert, do a bunch of peyote, and then their spirit animal drops their bulletin board plan into the sand. It is absolutely the only explanation.

Junior high teachers don't usually dig quite as deep, but don't be fooled. We care. We worry about having the coolest decorations and the hottest memes to use as our classroom procedures. We're all about the best lighting and the comfiest chairs. We want to be seen but we don't want to seem too eager about it because we just want you to like us.

As I've said many times before: it takes junior high to teach junior high.

I've been especially stressed this year because in the grand game of musical classrooms, I've been lucky the past 3 years and avoided a move. But this year, I've taken the sidewalk less-traveled and moved to the portable buildings outside. And not just those outside but across the street. On the football field.

These buildings appeared through some form of wizardry one day last year, only two years after they were ordered. They sat empty until June when my PLC and I began shoving our hastily packed boxes into them.

"BLANK CANVASES!" the optimists shouted.

"NO HALLWAY DRAMA!" the hermits cheered.

"YOUR OWN THERMOSTAT!" everyone exclaimed.


Me, today, after 3 Diet Cokes and forgetting my key card into the building.

It has not been a pretty move. Not only did my lovely students schlep all of my 17 years worth of teaching materials, boxes of mementos, and 743 novels, but they did so in the rain. For the cost of Chik Fil-A. And it all sat, unopened and unthought of until last Friday when I could no longer ignore my ever-growing anxiety. That's when I walked into my BLANK CANVAS that was AWAY FROM HALLWAY DRAMA with my very OWN (unreliable) THERMOSTAT. And I saw that absolutely nothing had changed in two months. My own ragged boxes still there, taunting me but there was nothing else. No teacher desk, no furniture, no technology, no internet -- in any of my PLC's rooms. And all my worst trust issues burst out of me in such a way that I may never make it into Heaven.

I will admit it. S**t got real, and it got real fast. I fumed. I cried. I cussed. I guilted. I played every last card I knew how to play. I had gotten my feelings hurt, and then I got mad. I ranted and raved and reminded until, little by little, things began to appear. I was actually kind of proud of myself for fighting the fight and fighting it so well.

Then last night, at our Preseason Picnic, 40 students and their parents and siblings walked those 527 steps to my unkempt, uncovered, shameful door. Not a single one asked why my bulletin boards were unfinished. Not a single one noticed I had no computer on my desk. Not a single one cast the side eye at my tables covered by piles of construction paper and Jenga towers of novels. Or the missing ceiling tile that I predict will be the gateway to a raccoon home invasion someday soon.

For teachers, their classroom is a second home. We spend 50+ hours per week there. We sometimes eat breakfast, lunch, AND dinner there. I had a friend once who took longer to pick out her office chair than I took to pick out my last mattress. It is the place we learn and cry and celebrate and, sometimes, nap. So when we open them up to others -- especially to those first time guests -- we want them to be clean and comfortable and inviting.

So how did no one mention what they saw? Did they politely ignore? Did they silently judge and then talk about me on some "disappointing classrooms of 2016" message board? Or did it really not matter? These are the questions I thought about and woke myself up with at 4:00 AM when I finally realized something and made some peace within my mind. Peace that I knew in my heart but I could not quite hammer into my head.

1. There are entire school buildings in my district that remain in process of construction/renovation. Those teachers have not even been allowed in their own homes yet.

2. There are entire communities underwater in my neighboring state where children dream about going back to school as they sleep curled up on the roofs of their actual, submerged homes.

3. There are teachers in my district (but finally, FINALLY not in my school) who do not have their own rooms, and they must depend on the kindness and care of fellow teachers to let them in.

4. When I started at my school 17 years ago, we didn't have our own computers or telephones or wifi signals. We calculated grades on calculators and hand-wrote our grade sheets on triplicate forms and actually walked to someone else's classroom to ask a question. And I survived! And I was loved! And my children learned!

5. There are still schools in our very own God-Bless-the-USA nation that cannot afford copy paper of textbooks or faculty pay checks. Schools with mold and broken windows and fear, and yet children learn.

6. And that there are people in this world willing to sit under a bridge, in the dirt, to learn from a man with only a battered chalkboard and the desire to teach.

7. That never -- not once -- have I ever been denied what I need at my school. Things have arrived late. They may have arrived inconveniently. But they arrived, and I am blessed by their arrival. Even the NJH Craigslist furniture ads typically get fulfilled within 24 hours by someone.

So, I know I'm preaching what I must practice myself these next 3 days, but this is what finally gave me peace this morning, and in moments of panic, I want you to say it with me:

It doesn't matter.

It will all be okay.

My home doesn't have to be Pinterest perfect to be clean, welcoming, and inviting. It just needs me.

I am enough.

My students don't need things; they need me.

All a classroom needs is students, chairs, and someone who cares.

And to be honest, when necessary, even the chairs are negotiable.