The Best Twenty Minutes of Preparation
My first-year of teaching was in a title one, K-8 elementary and proved to be a colossal struggle. I was overwhelmed, disorganized, and although I approached my work with tremendous energy, I had no idea how to channel it efficiently.
Each night, I returned home feeling like a failure.
In addition to homeroom responsibilities and teaching seventh grade Language Arts, I was a fifth through eighth grade science specialist. Class sizes ranged from 28 - 33 and each day I felt bludgeoned by the four waves of students I was assigned to teach. Fistfights frequently broke out during hallways transitions, and I encountered constant behavioral problems during my lessons.
I entered my second year of teaching dreading the school year. Class sizes had increased over the summer and the thought of enduring a second year like the first left me feeling negatively towards my work and profession.
Determined to find a silver lining in the disastrous journey I was about to begin, I decided to keep a journal. Documenting horrific experiences – I thought – could serve as excellent subject matter for a book that examined the plight of urban education. I would begin writing it the following summer after I quit teaching altogether.
Every evening that school year, I returned to my apartment and wrote for 20 minutes. I’d type up fragmented notes chronicling my work from the second I arrived at school until the moment I left for the day. I’d mention preparation processes, things I saw and heard in the schoolyard, colleague conversations, and anything else that popped into my head.
Initially, I filled the journal with complaints about administrative decisions, student behavior, and parents who I felt were mistreating me. After a couple weeks, however, the project started taking on a much different form. I continued to use the journal as a sounding board, but I also started to recount hallway transitions, scrutinize my lessons, and brainstorm ideas for educational reform.
By the middle of the school year, I rarely found myself recording calamities. Students were no longer misusing learning materials and there were no fights to report. Students weren’t screaming in my face and parents seemed genuinely happy to have their children in my care. Instead of frustrations, I found myself writing about funny things students said as well as behavioral and academic progress.
The project had changed.
Reviewing each workday allowed me to study and analyze my practices with the clarity of a shrewd observer. Many times during the school day, I was too overwhelmed by job responsibilities to effectively address problems. But, sitting at home - physically and mentally removed from the hundreds of daily tasks that accompany teaching - I could watch my workday unfold in slower motion. Rewinding and playing back imaginary footage helped me determine when my routines and structures broke down.
The process of journaling helped me remember more and more minor events, which led me to improve my systems, work more efficiently, and better connect with my students.
The more I reflected, the more organized and effective I became.
Later in the year, I started making handwritten notes as I typed my journal entries, scribbling things such as:
· Ask Niki why she was sad coming out of Art class.
· Switch Jesse and Robert’s seats.
· Show Laura a sample of her writing from the beginning of the year so she can see how much she’s improved.
· Wish Ricky a happy birthday
I would then take the scrap of reminders to school with me the next morning.
This project which was initially intended to serve as a manifesto about the incivility of teaching in a title one school, turned into a document of hope and love that made me want to stay in the profession.
No university program can prepare their students to master teaching in their first year. Excelling in the profession requires individuals to build dozens of systems, create hundreds of lesson plans, and react swiftly and positively to thousands of unforeseen problems. Therefore, it is the rare first-year teacher that doesn’t feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and incompetent.
Already besieged by work, very few first-year teachers would consider tacking daily journal writing onto their already strenuous workload. If, during my first year of teaching, someone had suggested I do so, I surely would’ve scoffed at the idea. Too consumed with the immediacy of the next day and all the preparation it entailed, I would’ve never considered taking on extra work. There were too many lesson plans to write, materials to cleanup, and papers to grade. I normally stayed two-and-a-half hours after the school day ended, so when I got home I was way too tired to do anything more.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, I realize that 20 minutes of daily written reflection would’ve been better use of my preparatory time than anything else I planned. It also would’ve led to more joy, less work, and better results.