The To-Do List

It’s that season when the newness of the school year has worn off and the workload has become almost unbearable. Possibly because, as usual, I’ve committed to absolutely everything. On top of teaching full time, I’ve joined the districtwide Labor Management Collaboration Committee and, after our October meeting, I volunteered to organize a happy hour for 300+ English Language teachers. This is on top of my monthly Building Rep duties as a member of the teachers’ union. 

This is an election year, teachers are working without a contract, and we’ve filed an Unfair Labor Practice against the school district for refusing to come to the bargaining table. The union needs to share our proposals before the Board of Education votes on next year’s budget. My role is to communicate to the teachers at my school what is happening with issues that directly impact them, and to rally their support when needed. Like wearing Red for Ed(ucation), marching to the Board offices, and handing out Apple Ballots at the Early Voting Centers. 🍎

That’s the easy part. I’m a natural activist.

I’ve co-authored a section of a White Paper for the Community WELL group, and now need to review the document before they send it to the Maryland State Board of Education. What if I’m wrong about EOY? What if that factoid that the ACLU guy popped out comes back to haunt me? Can I own it? Speaking up for students has already earned me a reprimand from my supervisor this month. Part of me thinks what have I got to lose? I’m close to retirement and part of me dreads signing my name to such a high-stakes document.

Teachers are often so afraid to speak up that I feel compelled to do it for them. 

Call me crazy, but I’ve signed up for National Board Certification – all four components in one year! People have told me it’s like being in grad school. I’m taking a support class for Component Three, “Teaching Practice and Learning Environment.” I have to videotape different lessons and write a four-page paper reflecting my knowledge of students, my knowledge of English Language Acquisition, and Instructional Practice. I’m the oldest teacher in the room. I’d love to say I’m putting myself through this torture to become a better practitioner. Honestly, I’m doing it for the money. I get a significant salary boost that figures into my retirement income. 

I’d be a fool to walk away from this opportunity. 

Because I am a teacher of English Language Learners, I’ve got to complete the mandated paperwork: Photocopy Parent Notification Letters and English Learner Accommodations forms – pink ones for the students to keep in their binders so that they can advocate for themselves in their content classes – and white ones to send home. Go over the signature lines with a highlighter and staple the two docs together so that students won’t forget one at home.  I might as well send home the video release forms for National Boards at the same time. I’ve got to monitor who’s returned the forms and motivate them to get them in ASAP. Then I have to file them in a manila folder in the office filling cabinet.

Teachers of English Learners have extra outdated, onerous duties that other teachers do not have to worry about.

The last weekend of October is a No Homework weekend so that seniors can work on their college applications – the ones that are due November 1st. The University of Maryland admits 94% of its freshman class from those early applications so it’s crunch time. My immigrant students didn’t get the message that counselors need a month’s notice to write a recommendation and send out transcripts. I’m encouraging them to send the application in anyway. And to pick a few other schools, including Montgomery College, an excellent community college, as a safety school.

Helping newcomer English Learners with college applications is intrinsically rewarding. 

Melani asked me on Friday after the bell rang if I could write her a recommendation – due  Monday. Of course! I said. She was briefly in my class in 9th grade, again in 10th grade, and now she’s in my co-taught Honors English 12 class. I love that girl! In spite of family problems, she comes to school ready to learn, she works hard, and she is the most positive and optimistic student I know. Last year – the only year she was not my student, she used to stop by and greet me with a twinkle in her eye (we were masked all year) and ask how my day was going. She seemed genuinely concerned about my response. Melani would make a great nurse or social worker. She’s that kind of caring. She probably already has a million certificates, but I think I’ll nominate her for Student of the Month again. 

Students like Melani deserve every bit of after-school support that I can spare. 

Stacks of ungraded Triple Entry Logs sit on the dining room table. I have to check the reading notes and compare what they wrote to my clipboard checks indicating what they said before entering their grades for the Literature Circle discussion. Then I have to post next week’s assignment online because I’ll be out all day Tuesday for Professional Development. I can’t forget to enter their Common Writing Task scores into the Performance Matters system so that district bureaucrats can track our Evidence of Learning, which is a state measure for student success. I can’t remember when the deadline is.

I knew this would happen. 

My to-do list has gotten impossibly long. How will I ever find enough time to complete all the work?! I keep reminding myself: This is the career I chose. These are tasks that I love. I’ve gotten exactly the courses that I requested. I love my school. But it is already overwhelming. And it’s not even the end of Marking Period 1 yet.

There’s never so much to do that I can’t write my way out of doing it. 😁

Back to normal?

For the first time in seven years, I’ve got my own classroom. I’m teaching all the classes I requested. I don’t have a homeroom. Like a miracle, I have both my planning periods in my own classroom! When my crazy colleague starts the unhinged fuming, I don’t have to sit in the cramped department office and listen – I can just walk away and close my door! This must be how it feels to win the lottery!

My students seem engaged and polite. The new cell phone policy (no cell phones out during class) shows that administrators listened to teachers and support us. During the union-negotiated early-release day, our leadership team hosted a staff barbecue out by the football stadium — while other schools forced teachers to sit through three tedious hours of professional development. A focus on mental health seems to be more than a box to check.

We opened a brand-new Wellness Room next to the counseling office, staffed by a full-time social worker. The district hired two therapists to meet with students during the school day. My school is focusing on trauma-informed practices and approaches to teaching holistically. Laughter fills the halls, kids are pumped for the Friday night football games, and student clubs are thriving. I want so desperately to say that we’re back to normal, but the new normal is not as rosy as some would like to believe.

Last week I received the worst possible news that a teacher could receive. One of my students died. I don’t have any details about their death, but my gut tells me it was a direct result of the isolation and angst caused by two years of pandemic. Even though I only knew this child for four weeks, I’d already claimed them as my own. This death affected me profoundly. I had to deliver the news to my second period Honors English 12 and then go on with the lesson. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my teaching career.

Finding our rhythm again

There’s a rhythm to rowing. It takes months, years, even decades to develop. Rowers strive for a consistent beat, whether they measure 28 strokes per minute, or if the coxswain is yelling for another Power 10 at full pressure. Finding a rhythm requires focus, practice, and experience.

Just like teaching. 

Unlike kayaking or paddleboarding, a complete amateur cannot jump into a narrow rowing shell with any hope of remaining upright. Despite popular opinion, not everyone can walk into a classroom and teach. Both rowing and teaching are open to almost anyone at almost any age. Both activities look easy from a distance. But in order to be successful, you need a few basics.

RowingWhat you need for successTeaching
 Access to a boat, a waterway, and oars, slingsThe right equipmentDesks, a classroom, computers, online resources, books, pencils, paper, a board or screen to project lessons
To keep from flipping into the water, a rower needs good balanceGood balanceTeachers need a healthy work-life balance; work cannot dominate every waking hour, especially after two years of the pandemic
Rowing is a highly technical sport; someone has to teach you how to row; a good team  with a good coach can motivate you to wake up at 5:00 amA good coach, a team, a group First year teachers need a mentor; experienced teachers need colleagues to share ideas, cover class while you run to the bathroom, or gripe about the latest district busywork requirement
Port, starboard, gunwale, feather, coxswain, rigger, catch, slideTechnical vocabularyTeachers need to know the latest jargon: SEL, ELs, CCSS, objectives vs. outcomes 
Row upstream on the starboard side, use the second arch heading downstream, help novices on the dock; don’t help experienced rowers unless they askKnowledge of the rulesArrive at school well before the duty-day starts; don’t complain except to fellow teachers; deal with parents in a timely manner; don’t post photos of your students on social media; don’t ask questions in an all-staff meeting
Row every morning, or every evening; row when it’s 90 degrees outside; row on your rowing machine all winter; subscribe to rowing websitesPractice, practice, practiceThe first year sucks, but it gets better; the rewards come much later, when your students come back to see you or you learn that you were their favorite teacher
It’s almost counterintuitive, but once you find your rhythm, you can completely relax; it takes intense concentration to row,  Find your rhythmEstablish routines during the first weeks of school – this will save your sanity by November; we all need to set a new rhythm this year

Rowing has taught me discipline. Rowing has helped me get through the most difficult year of my entire life. Rowing is my lifelong passion – partly because I can find a rhythm outdoors, open to the healing powers of nature. 

As we head back into the classroom after two years of pandemic teaching, it is more important than ever before to find our rhythm.