Sunday, January 8, 2017

Teaching = Messy

Not long ago, I was in a first grade classroom completing a teacher’s formal observation.  The teacher was talking with the class about the important components of opinion writing.  After documenting their thinking, she transitioned students to the circle area for a reading of the book I Wanna Iguana by Karen Kaufman Orloff. 

 “I love this book,” the teacher told her class, opening to the first page.  “It is one of my very favorites!”

Clearly.  The book, a paperback, was, well…  ragged.  Its pages were faded, with edges folded and frilled; creases were evident everywhere.  The book had obviously been read many, many times. 
She began reading. In the story, Alex wants an iguana. Badly. In letters to his mother, he leverages all of his arguments about why he needs one.  Alex has strong negotiation skills; so does his mom.  She responds to each argument with a reasonable rebuttal; Alex comes back with reasonable counter-arguments. 

I found myself listening with a crinkled brow, eager to hear if Alex.  Gets.  His.  Iguana.  Does he?  Does he?  Will his mother finally relent? 

And then, just as the suspense couldn’t build any longer, the book fell to the floor in a fluttering, flying mess of paper.

The room was still for a moment.  We all stared.

“Well.”  The teacher said.  “That’s the end of the iguana book.”

Twenty-five little faces fell. 

“It’s okay,” she reassured them.  “Really, it is.  We can put this book back together and tape it up, good as new.”  The students helped her gather the pages.   She flipped and shuffled it all back to order—“Here’s page 23.  No, wait.  That goes here.  Where’s page 24?  Ooops!  Upside down!”  It took a few minutes for to get back on track and finish the story.

I felt bummed for her.  Here she was, sharing one of her most favorite books—during her annual evaluation, no less—and it had fallen to pieces right at the climax.  She’d lost all the momentum she’d built in reading the story.  She’d get it back, of course—teachers always do—but… Well,  it was just a bummer, that’s all. 

It’s a vulnerable feeling, being a teacher.  Their work is scrutinized and judged, for better or worse, either formally or formatively, by their principal, colleagues, parents, and even their students.  It’s exhausting. That’s why so many teachers angst when things go “wrong.”  They say, “I wish I had done that differently.”  Or, “If only I had planned for that!”   Or, “I’m sorry you saw that moment of chaos…”

Teachers want everything to be perfect.

Which of course, it isn’t.  Ever.  It can’t be.  Teaching is messier than that.

As the class finished the story, I closed the browser window where I’d been documenting her lesson.  And right then and there, I logged onto Amazon to order next-day delivery for a new—hardback—copy of the book.

After school that day, she came to my office.  “I’m so sorry the book fell apart,” she said.  “I certainly didn’t plan that!  And it kind of made the lesson awkward and clunky for a while.”

“I think you handled it beautifully,” I reassured her. 

“Yes, but…”  She sighed.  “It would have been perfect if…”

I stopped her.  “That’s teaching, though. Right? Just because your principal is in the room evaluating your work doesn’t mean things will magically work out as you’ve planned.  Just like any other day, the unpredictable will happen.  Students will behave poorly; resources will fall apart; the pace or sequence will be all off.  When those things happen, you have to adjust plans on the fly.  That’s normal.  And real.”

She said she appreciated my reassurance, but it wasn’t until the next afternoon when I went to her room, armed with a brand new copy of I Wanna Iguana, that I got to solidify my point.  I gathered her students’ attention and said, “I have something for you all.”  There were smiles all around as they realized their teacher’s favorite book had a brand new life ahead of it. 

“Here’s to adjusting on the fly,” I said, handing over the book. 

A student asked, “What does that mean?”  The teacher began to explain, and as I slipped out of the room, she flashed me a grin and a wink. 

It wasn’t the actual book that made her happy.  It was the token of reassurance that I understood how things work.  That no lesson ever goes by without a hitch.  All the planning in the world will never eliminate unexpected challenges.  But strong teaching means going with the flow, being flexible, and finding a way to make a learning opportunity out of every challenge.

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