2004. Sitting on my apartment floor with a baby on my lap. Slowly snipping through the mountains of clear, melted plastic.
This was me my first three years of teaching. My time and energy were often wrapped up in mundane tasks that took hours to get ready, were used by my students in a matter of minutes, and then forgotten about within seconds. My focus was always on what I was doing, showing, and making as a teacher. Matching bulletin boards were a must. I had to color code and label everything. Above all else, I wanted to look like I had it together. Eventually, I learned that I was focusing on the wrong things, but it took me a while to get there.
One of the clearest representations of my misplaced focus was the painstaking lamination process. I would get these elaborate ideas in my head about how to excite my students into learning. I would then design, cut out, laminate, and recut each part of this best idea ever – fully intending but never believing that the pieces would be reused.
Was the time on these tasks well spent? Did my students learn more with their shiny, coated materials? Did this make me a successful teacher?
In the first five years of my education career, I taught at four different schools and moved classrooms five times.
And it wasn’t because I was so awesome that everyone wanted me.
I got my first job when I was eight months pregnant with my first child. I met my principal at a job fair and she took one look at me and must have known that I would be hard to place, so before my bottom ever hit the chair, she offered me a position. That first school was rough, but it had some amazing teachers working hard to help students succeed.
Unfortunately, I was not one of them.
It was not for lack of trying. I spent hours on every lesson. I would be the last to leave each evening. I brought tasks home. I was putting every ounce of energy I had into being a “good teacher.”
After year one, I decided that this wasn’t the school for me because it didn’t magically show how awesome I was. No matter how many hours I put into making my lesson have the perfect hook, my students were not successful. I was so sure that I would never return to that first school, that I flipped my rear-view mirror up as I left and refused to look back.
I just knew that I would never walk those halls again.
Year two brought much of the same, just at a new school. I wish I could say that I rose to the occasion and overcame my obstacles. But teaching was and IS hard.
It was the kind of hard that I was not prepared for. The sense of complete failure was new to me and I didn’t like it at all. At this point, I was exhausted. I had spent as many hours as I could before and after school and brought hours of work home. I never stopped thinking about my classroom. Year two is the year that my well-meaning administrator sat me down and told me that perhaps this wasn’t the profession for me and that I should think about other avenues of employment.
I don’t blame her. As much as I thought I was teaching, no one was learning anything in my room.
I had all the excuses and took none of the blame.
At the end of year two, I retired.
Teaching wasn’t my destiny. At the time, I believed that if I was supposed to be a teacher, then it should have come easily. And with all the work I was putting into every single lesson, the job was anything but easy.
I sent out 42 resumes that summer and received two responses back.
One, “No” and one, “You are overqualified. Why would you want the position?”
I just wanted a job that I was good at. I wanted to be successful. I was tired of the constant feeling of failure no matter how many hours I put in to making my lessons pretty.
In years three and four I taught at a small, private school and then sat out for six months with my second child.
At some point during those six months, my husband and I decided that when raising children, food is important, and if we wanted to continue to provide our children with food, then I would have to go back to work.
So I went back to teaching.
I called the principal who had given me my first position, in hopes of getting a letter of recommendation from her. The call went like this, “Hi, I taught for you a few years ago, and I am thinking about coming back into teaching. Could you possibly write a letter of recommendation for me?” She replied, “Turns out someone just left Friday. Can you come in tomorrow?”
I didn’t have much time to prepare to go back, but I did have a moment of clarity that night.
I knew that I could and would not return to be unsuccessful. I couldn’t return as the same miserable person. I had always felt there wasn’t enough time to do all the things that needed to be done. Instead, now I began to look at time as my most precious commodity, and I would no longer waste it on frivolous activities that had little return. I would focus my time and energy on the things that created the most change and progress for my students.
It is scary to admit, but in those first four years, my students and their learning were not my focus. I was worried more about what I was doing and how my classroom was perceived than the actual student learning taking place. I had to move past my fears of being judged and move past my self-centered attitude. No amount of laminated card cutouts could fix my problems.
I opened my door, asked for help, showed my weaknesses. It was in this that I grew. I took more risks. I stopped thinking about teaching as something I did to my students and started thinking about my classroom as a place where I helped to facilitate learning.
I learned that students learn just as well from a quickly cut out activity that I printed on the back of recycled paper as they did from my color-coded bonanza from previous years. I was more willing to stray from my carefully choreographed lesson plan without fear of not making it to the next activity.
More than anything I learned that a classroom that looks good doesn’t always equate to a classroom where student learning is at the center. I learned that I could make lessons fun and interesting with little more than a book and a discussion question, and it was a truly powerful discovery.
It took me another five years to fully change my habits. In the process of letting things go, I gained so much. I became confident in my teaching abilities and began to open my door to other teachers. I became a teacher leader and then a Louisiana Teacher Leader Advisor. I spoke up to advocate for students and was honored to be selected as a finalist for Louisiana Teacher of the Year.
I’ve come a long way. Thirteen years in, I still color code things more than I should, and I am still a stickler for matching bulletin board borders, but this is no longer the center of my classroom focus. I now know that to be a successful teacher I need to pause the chaotic rush of classroom life to put student learning above all else.
Our learning may be unlaminated. It is also unrestrained.
(c) Connie Hebert
Connie Hebert has thirteen years’ experience as an elementary teacher. Connie also served the state of Louisiana as a Teacher Leader Advisor, served on several state committees, including the Louisiana Standards Review Committee, and was honored to be selected a finalist for Louisiana State Teacher of the Year in 2014.