Confessions of a Teacher

The Grieving Year: A Major Professional Error

I spent the first year of my new gig mourning. Click To Tweet
I mourned the lack of a faculty retreat (a fun and meaningful tradition at my previous school). I mourned the loss of students with whom I’d built deep relationships. I even mourned mealtime: My last school fed us well (and free!) every day, with lunches akin to most gourmet restaurants. Lunch period had also been my chance to bond with students. Eating with them gave me insights into their lives beyond the classroom and helped me reach them better. There would be none of that here. A sterile, overpopulated cafeteria with bland fare was the best that my new school had to offer. And I could forget eating with students; they were lucky to get their lunch acquired and consumed before the bell rang.
Compounding these problems was the complexity of my new students. They were a different kind of exceptional. While I’d spent the last six years teaching students with dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, Asperger’s Autism, and similar diagnoses, my new students’ intellectual giftedness was overwhelming. In fact, some of them were too smart for their own good. It annoyed me when they were one step ahead of my lesson plan, even though I should have been proud of them. When they came to class with extensive prior knowledge of something I wanted to be new, it deflated my pedagogical hopes. What’s more, I hadn’t developed a single strategy to address situations like these. Time for more mourning.
Head in hands, I had an anxiety overload. Click To Tweet
Did I mention the bureaucracy? At my prior school, I did largely what I wanted with students when I wanted, within reason. All their forms had been filled out before the school year started: field trip waivers, financial documents, transportation paperwork, and the whole array of necessary red-tape had been completed before they ever came into my classroom. If I wanted us to go somewhere, we went. If I wanted us to watch and discuss a controversial film, there were no problems with that. Almost any book was okay to teach, no “approved list” needed. Teachers, once their mettle was proven, were trusted to do what was in the child’s best interest. The autonomy was beautiful, and the results were like something out of a teacher movie.
At my new school, there were forms to complete for even the most menial reasons. Larger events like field trips or fundraisers were nightmares of countless papers to complete and collect, so much so that I was discouraged from even mentioning them. I knew there would come a tsunami of signature-gathering and legalistic procedures. No thanks. We’ll just stay right here and scrape for resources, I foolishly decided.
Before my first year was even two-thirds over, I was seeking other opportunities elsewhere. This was just going to be too much, I decided. I had little parent support, and my administrator was understandably perplexed. Where was this super-teacher my last school had described to him? Why wasn’t I innovating? Inspiring? Buried in my own professional grief, miserable in a situation of my own making, I reverted to a survival-mode teacher. Worksheets and videos became the norm rather than a backup plan, and I planned to just wait out the year until summer.
But something happened in the meantime. A few key students with whom I’d connected came to me, asking for more assignments like we’d had early on in the year (when I was still inspired-though-egotistical). They wanted to write, really write, and they knew I had something to offer. Their concern and authenticity stirred my creative juices. We began doing work that was meaningful and engaging, and even though I’d alienated some students with my toxic attitude, many more got on board and began to produce really worthwhile pieces. It was late in the game, but maybe there was hope for a final-inning comeback.
I’d like to tell you this story ends with some victorious Stand And Deliver-type moment, but that wouldn’t be accurate. I did build some relationships with both students and parents, and we did manage to put together a decent literary magazine (although it wasn’t produced by year’s end, thanks to a lousy publisher). But the lesson I learned from my grieving year is one I hope to pass on to educators everywhere. You don’t have time to mourn. Cherish those memories you produced at your last great place (if it was great), and move on. Sure, this is easier said than done, and maybe it’s not fair. Loss is hard.
But for the sake of your new students and your new school, your best self is required. Click To Tweet
And that version of you — the super-teacher — can only make an impact if your head and heart are clear.

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