We all knew that it was going to happen eventually. Try as we might, we cannot deny that yes, today and during the next several weeks, many teachers and students are going back to school- myself and my own children included.
I had such grand plans for so many accomplishments these last couple of months and yet, I completely squandered my summer. While friends’ feeds were boasting ripe homegrown tomatoes and other lush heirloom plant and vegetable varietals thriving in well-tended gardens and patios, I grew weeds. Quite well, I will say- just ask our neighbors.
This was to be the great summer purge of 2018, shuffling our kids into newly renovated rooms and creating a den. I’ve always wanted a den and… I still do.
We were going to rebuild that deck at our cabin. Well, it’s not a cabin, more like a shack really (I am a teacher after all), but we love it and try to spend lots of time there each summer. Deck? Nope.
Hardly used the pool. My husband called that one.
Never made it camping. The closest we got to a campfire was the few occasions I would grill or smoke something and those days were surprisingly few and far between. Cheese and potato chips served as many a dinner for us.
Where all of the above is concerned, yes, I completely squandered my summer. But was it wasted? Hardly. I believe that teachers and students place an incredible amount of pressure on themselves to do and accomplish so much during the summer months that we forget why we have summer break. It is just that- a break; a much-needed rest and reset so that we can get back to it this fall.
So why are my children scrambling to finish summer reading and assignments? Why have I barely cracked that pile of art education books I was going to tackle this summer? We were caught up in having fun.
While my kids were busy at various training camps or spending time with friends, I was at the studio. My daughter travelled by plane to National Development Camp alone for the first time. My son spent time on the Appalachian Trail (in the rain) on his first outward-bound trip. We travelled to Massachusetts, celebrated a couple of great weddings, saw family and friends we hadn’t in a while, watched some really bad reality TV and took the dog for long walks in the park. My husband and I enjoyed as many happy hours together as we could and even went dancing for no good reason.
So we didn’t get our to-do’s done; but, looking back on what I’ve written here, it seems our summer was pretty full. And I’ll be honest with you, my squandered summer has me ready to go back. I think we all are.
But if you are not ready, here are some suggestions for surviving the transition back to teaching this school year:
Above all, relax! Summer will be back before we know it. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to squander it again next time…
Have a great start of the school year everyone!
Like many schools across the country these past couple of weeks, ours practiced emergency procedures for barricade. We practiced shelter in place. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the terminology, a shelter in place is emergency protocol for a severe weather or chemical-related threat, while a lockdown barricades against an active shooter and sometimes a bomb threat.
The tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida has been unshakeable for many of us as parents, teachers, and administrators. It has farther divided our country as we attempt to process and provide solutions for what seems to have grown to be an epidemic of, what could be at times preventable, mass shooting deaths.
I am certainly not stating that I have the solution. I wish I did. I wish someone did, because people are dying and kids are scared.
Our drill was scheduled on the heels of a threat to our own campus security, and while I won’t go into the details, suffice it to say the Parkland tragedy has resonated deeply with our staff members. Administration emailed staff to inform us of possible times for the drill and the protocol to ensue.
My Art room has two large windows and a glass push door that leads outside. I have a band of three large windows that line the hallway. The door that leads into the room from the hallway has a narrow window. I set about covering the windows to the hallway with paper and measured a small paper to cover my door window, hanging it with masking tape by the entryway. I pulled my blinds closed. My push door was covered. My co teachers did an excellent job of prepping our class for the drill. (We learned that the drill would be during my Art class with our autistic support students after lunch). I discussed with my co teachers how we would proceed with class during the drill. I was ready, but that was of course with hours of advance notice…
My students went through the drill flawlessly, and I credit my coworkers for preparing them so well. However, you could sense their tension and our concern. I have done lockdown and shelter in place drills with students before, and during this drill you could feel the solemnity in the air. A lockdown drill means lights out and hide (essentially) and during a shelter in place, students can continue to work. As we worked through the drill we talked quietly. Students wanted to know what would happen during a lockdown. We discussed what a lockdown would look like in the Art room. I told them specifically what we would do and where we would go in the room and why. I told them that I would protect them by any means necessary. I told them that I would keep them safe.
I told my students those things, because that is what any teacher would tell their students. That is what any teacher would do.
I teach two courses to graduate and undergraduate students in the Education and Design department at the University of the Arts, and during a class students were presenting activities to inspire critical thinking in the classroom. For one activity, we selected words from a bag and were instructed to draw the word on a paper we were given. The paper had a line or shape that we were to include in this drawing. We had just minutes to complete the drawing. When finished, we held up our drawings so the rest of the class could guess our prompt. One drawing had a series of stick figures running with arms stretched upwards. There were stick figure bodies with x’s for eyes piled on the ground. Guns were pointed at the stick figures and dashes streamed from the little guns. “War zone,” “hell,” and “war” were our guesses, but we were wrong. The student drew the word “school.”
This horrific scene has been replayed in the media more than most of us can count and that little drawing my UArts student made holds steadfast on my mind. I can only hope that this gruesome stick figure rendering is as close as I ever come to such a tragedy.
So why did my school choose to practice a drill that barricaded against weather and not shooters? Perhaps as to not interfere with instructional time, or maybe to scaffold learning protective barricade drills for our special populations of students. Or maybe, our administrators knew that we are scared and we are angry and we are raw. Perhaps, they wanted to literally keep us out of the dark.
I do believe in the second amendment. For years I maintained that so long as our government has guns, we should too. However, it’s time to be realistic, folks. That argument doesn’t really hold so well. We don’t have the right to bear what the government bears and never will. It’s time to be honest, an AR15 is not a “sporting” rifle, it is a people killer; and some of us still maintain that guns like these are perfectly ok to modify and that high-capacity magazines are a necessity. Really? Ok, sport, and am I now to be told that arming me with a gun will protect my students?
If you are reading this post, then I probably don’t need to list all of the things you could better #armmewith. Chances are, you already know the answer. It’s time to take a good, hard look at our legislature, our data, our funding. We are educators, not guns for hire. We care about our students. When we say, “We love our students,” we really mean it. So, please, help us keep them safe.
A teacher asked me yesterday if the paper over my hallway windows was for a cool new project. I sadly, explained that no, I just hadn’t taken it down from the drill the day before. I may leave it there, just in case. Perhaps I’ll replace the paper with fabric. Maybe my students can help print it. They’d like that…
Thank you, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart, for seeing the need for and being agents of change.
By next week, I will officially have two children in high school. As I was speaking to my youngest child about our excitement, it occurred to me that the advice one gives a high school student parallels the advice one would give a teacher before the start of the school year. It goes something like this:
I am so excited for you!
You have a fresh start. This means you get to reinvent yourself. Ask yourself, “Who do I really want to be?” and be that person. Rely on your unique strengths and talent and be authentic. Begin your year the way you want it to go. Dress the part.
Start with a smile. Be positive and open to those around you. A confident smile sets the tone.
You deserve to be here. All of your hard work has got you where you are today and you should be proud of that.
You are going to learn so much. Be open to the opportunities to learn- you may be surprised by who can teach you.
It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be hard sometimes, but hang in there. All that work will make you stronger. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and accept it when it is offered.
People will be mean. For reasons that, more often than not, have nothing to do with you, people will be unkind. Don’t take it personally and stand up for those who need your help. Remember that you have a network of support.
Make good choices. You are trusted and people are counting on you to do the right thing.
It’s okay to make mistakes. … as long as you accept and learn from them.
Be flexible. Things don’t always go the way you think they will. Have a backup plan.
Stay organized. The stuff you need should be neat, tidy, and readily accessible.
Keep focused. You have a job to do. Be efficient, use your time wisely and you will be able to get it done.
Get a good night’s sleep. It is so important to take care of your body. Put good things in it and give it the rest it deserves. Fall asleep visualizing all of the great things that you and the people around you will do.
You are important. You are making a difference and what you do matters.
Leave time for you. Your workload may seem insurmountable, but it is really important to make time to do the things you love. Be sure to maintain your relationships with family and peers and honor ‘me time’ for sports and hobbies.
You’ve got this! Don’t let anyone, especially yourself, tell you otherwise.
Good luck, students and teachers! It's going to be a great school year...
It’s a humid 96 degrees outside, but the basement of Fleisher Art Memorial is cool and quiet. A handful of people are busily working in the hushed ceramics studio. No one asks where my husband is. I wedge about twenty pounds of clay, and set down five neat balls on the wheel in front of me. Two hours pass and there are five wet piles drying on plaster moulds, because I seem to not be able to center them. (Centering involves pushing, pulling, and pressing clay into the center of the potter’s wheel so that it can be thrown into something more than a mushy pile). I am frustrated and I am angry. My neck and shoulders are sore. I am tired. When I go back that evening to visit my husband, he asks how I made out…
The night before, the unthinkable happened. While driving our son home from hockey practice, my husband had a stroke.
My husband hasn’t always been a worrier, but as we moved farther into adulthood, there became more to worry about, and the daunting role became his. Balancing the demanding sports schedules of two teenagers, managing a business, maintaining an old home, career changes, getting kids into high schools, and now looking ahead toward colleges are all concerns that plague his pragmatist mind. He has taken on the burden of worrying about the future, and that stress and anxiety seriously compromised his health.
In our efforts to thwart chaos, as teachers, we tend to address the ‘here and now’s, prioritizing according to what needs to be, and can be, handled first. If a student arrives at my door agitated or sad, I have made a plan and have acted within seconds to best support her needs and the needs of my students. It is said that teachers make more split second decisions than ER doctors, and if you are in disagreement, well I invite you to come visit my special needs classroom sometime. This mindset carries into my life outside the classroom. While my husband wrestles with ‘big picture’ problems, I focus on what needs to be handled first and then prioritize accordingly.
Now this situation (my husband’s stroke) was all together different, with no quick fix and here I was for once holding an empty fire extinguisher. I found myself asking “what if” instead of “what now?” My world was spinning, and I couldn’t center a darn ball of clay…
I was pretty sure that I had asked all of the important questions: “What happened?” “What caused this to happen?” “What can be done right now to make this better?” “What can be done in the future to make this not happen again?” We ask ourselves questions like these often when reflecting on days spent in our classrooms, but I forgot to ask one essential question: “How does this make me feel?” I had completely ignored how shocked, sad and terrified I felt. I had literally become uncentered. My husband was undergoing a barrage of tests and we still didn’t have all of the answers.
Yet, the cliché does ring true and life went on. The next day I was shuttling my son to hockey camp and doing my best to try and answer my kids’ questions about their dad. Not much more information waited at the hospital and my husband shooed me off to go smoosh up more clay, which I did quite literally. I told myself that it didn’t matter what, if anything, I made in the studio. It felt good to wedge the clay. As I rhythmically pushed and turned it, my hands felt strong and I enjoyed the sensation of control. Sitting at the potter’s wheel, however, was much of the same as the day before. I noticed that I was doing things I didn’t normally do when I worked on a wheel, such as slouch, clench my teeth, and hold my breath. The difference was this- I knew this day why I was doing these things, but perhaps that my body hadn’t caught up with my mind. I sat and let the wheel turn, simply resting my hands on this wet lump of clay, and that was ok. I was ok.
My husband was unceremoniously discharged late that evening, insisting on walking himself home. He is as fine as I suppose one who is ‘too young’ to have a stroke can be. We still have much that is unanswered and he has a new collection of specialists whose titles I can barely spell.
Things happen in our lives that leave us uncentered. As teachers, one of our common fears is loss of control. I would never be able to center clay until I gave myself permission to not be able to manipulate all aspects of my and my husband’s current situation. I did not like that things were just simply beyond my control, but had to recognize that was the case and needed to allow for things to just plain happen. Clinging desperately to those I love and maintaining faith and trust in what I love to do got me through this experience.
The next day I wedge clay that weighs about half of what I tried to throw the previous days. It comes as no surprise that everything that goes on that wheel centers without fail…
Special thanks to my incredibly strong and selfless husband, who imprudently chooses to worry about things, so we don’t have to…
As I was writing our agenda for the week yesterday, my dry erase marker mysteriously stopped working. I was puzzled. It was brand new, just out of the package, wrote for five minutes and gave up…
These mysteries are quite common and it doesn’t take a super sleuth to solve them. We teachers go through supplies at an alarming rate, and believe it or not, we are actually quite miserly with them. There must be a form of therapeutic catharsis in a student’s speedy crumple of a perceived failure that, despite my tale of the loss of my paper tree growing in the supply closet and “please draw on the back,”-it continues.
We buy classroom supplies before we buy groceries. We have systems put into place to extend the life of our supplies, yet we are in constant need of more.
It isn’t uncommon for teachers to begin the school year with no budget and no supplies. I was speaking with an elementary art teacher from Georgia last year, who in the fall was given a small box of glue sticks and 24 pencils to teach art for the entire school year.
Before becoming an employee at my children’s school, I was an active volunteer, so I had a window into the many needs that classroom teachers had throughout the school year. However, that back to school supply list was always staggering. Who goes through four boxes of tissues and 30 ballpoint pens in a school year? Well, we do… Things get broken, lost, absorbed, swept up, and stolen for starters. Not all of us teach in affluent neighborhoods with parent involvement and for every three students that purchase classroom supplies, there could be one who either can’t afford to do so, or just plain doesn’t. I became fully aware of this when I became the art teacher at a Title I renaissance public charter school in West Philadelphia. While my administrators seemed pleased to have me, when I brought up the subject, they were very evasive about the supply situation. I was not in a position to ask this underserved population of students to provide art supplies, so I did what most of us do every year- I bought the supplies that my students needed. And when it came around, I am embarrassed by my reaction to my own children’s school supply lists that year. I was extremely jealous. Here I was buying dozens of Expo markers, packs of crayons and colored pencils, reams of paper, when I possessed just one blue marker in my assortment of markers with which to teach art.
Needless to say, I bought the supplies, every last one. I knew that this was a small way of playing a part in the success of my children through the support of their teachers. And when they needed more paper and pencils, we bought them.
As the year went by I learned how to solicit donations, write wish lists, and promote my arts program at the school. Suddenly, I had an art budget. We had watercolors, printing foam, and new pastels. Then, at the end of the school year, a humbling thing happened… That June, my son came home with a backpack and tattered plastic shopping bag stuffed with supplies. Markers, crayons, colored pencils, glue sticks… “Why do you have all of this stuff?” I asked. “My teacher thought you could use them in the art room,” he answered.
I am now teaching at a certified private school, and while I realize I don’t have an endless budget for supplies, I feel that I lack for nothing. I am very, very lucky. I am filled with gratitude to be able to submit a supply list and have an order waiting for me in the office just a couple of weeks later. I must admit that I still giggle at the list of my children’s school supplies. Last week we made our annual back to school shopping trip. We checked off the list as we went. Highlighters, lined paper, graph paper, sharpened pencils, Post its, hand sanitizer, etcetera…”Wow,” I said, “sixteen dry erase markers!” Even though my son told me, “Mom don’t buy all that-we never, ever use them,” “Your teacher might,” I said, and bought them anyway…
When a friend, making light conversation, asked me yesterday if I was ready to go back to school; for the first time in a long time I was able to reply with a wholehearted "yes!" Yes- I'm ok with the flood of emails listing art and back to school sales. I'm ok with thinking about lesson plans, getting up in the dark, long commutes, balancing my family's hectic sports and social schedules, and yes, accepting that its ok to, well, not be perfect... Here are a few very simple things that I did to ensure that I would embrace returning to the art room refreshed and ready for the school year:
First, I said "no." You can't always do it, but whenever possible, I recommend it. So when asked to work our extended school year program this summer, I did it. I said "no." Saying "no" wasn't easy for me. This was my first year with my new school, and while I wanted my school director to know that I was thrilled to be our school's new art teacher, I knew that I needed my summer. I simply explained just that, and you know what? Everyone was perfectly alright with it. By saying "no," I was able to attend professional development workshops, work intensely in the studio, read, research, build my professional media sites, and do the really important stuff like camp, swim, cookout, play hockey, reconnect with old friends and family, catch pokemon, and laugh with my husband and the children I live with.
Second, I stayed aware of how I made choices. Having finished Dr. William Glassner's book Choice Theory in the Classroom at summer's start, I was determined to choose to make the most of my summer and embrace all the experiences that it would bring. So when my month old car was hit by a bus, I decided that I was not going to let this event and any other non-preferred occurrences (like our other functioning cars breaking down and my daughter injuring her foot just before an expensive hockey tournament showcase) sway me to 'depress' through the summer. Because you know what? Everything worked out just fine.
Third, I reflected. It's possible to relax and recharge while also reflecting on one's practice. So, while I lazed by the pool I read and I wrote, setting positive, attainable goals for the upcoming school year, taking into consideration, also, ways to better balance the needs and schedules of my family.
Fourth, and maybe most importantly, I was realistic. Sure, I would have liked to have had my kitchen renovated, the roof fixed, resurrected a thriving organic garden, and completed a massive third floor purge- however none of that happened, and that's alright. This summer, I made plans, that while small, were achievable and brought me joy, and that's why I'm ok with back to school.