I am a terrible teacher.
No really, I am. If you were to walk into my classroom at any given moment, I cannot promise that you won’t see students up walking around, talking to their neighbors, making jokes, laughing, and sometimes yelling (hey, passion is loud). The floor is probably messy, there are papers hanging out of desks, books are scattered all over the carpet, and there are half-finished posters hanging on the wall. If you were to pass by us in the hallways, you may see students smiling at each other, laughing, and, I promise, we are not standing in a straight line facing in one direction. There are probably shirts untucked, belts missing, and a couple of my students may be wearing a jacket with a logo on it.
It drives people crazy. I know it does.
I see the looks of disapproval in the hallway. I see the stress on their faces when they walk into my room. I see that uncomfortable look on their faces and for a second, my stomach drops. I get nervous that I am not doing something correctly. I quickly think about the student who’s crawling across the floor looking for the pencil and I snap at them to get to their seat immediately.
“We have to look presentable when others walk in.”
It’s what I immediately think. I apologize to whoever walks in and tell them they walked in during a transition and that it doesn’t always look this crazy, but deep down, I know the truth.
My students know the truth too. The visitors probably know the truth too and I am naively assuming they think I “have it all together.”
I don’t have it all together. But my students and I, we’ve got it all, together.
That’s cheesy. I realize that. But I wholeheartedly mean that.
I came back to school on Friday of last week after being out for a conference. In my mailbox, there was a stack of letters from my students that they had written for me for Teacher Appreciation week. They said things like:
“I like my teacher because she’s fun.”
“My favorite thing about my teacher is she is always herself.”
“My teacher’s superpower would be creativity.”
“My favorite thing about my teacher is she always makes boring stuff to halfway decent stuff.”
“She gives you chances.”
‘My favorite thing about my teacher is that she’s funny.”
“My teacher’s superpower would be nerd power.”
“My favorite thing about my teacher is she lets us get on the Chromebook almost every day.”
“One thing I want my teacher to know is that I love her.”
I know some of you reading this are thinking: What is wrong with her? They never do any work. They spend all day having fun, playing on the computer, and folding paper planes.
Actually, no. Not really. We do work. We do a lot of work. We do a lot of hard work. But my students don’t think of that when they’re asked to reflect on their relationship with their teacher. They don’t think of their relationship with me tied to work or learning. Why is that? Is it that they haven’t learned anything all year? Is it because they aren’t working daily on improving who they are as readers, writers, mathematicians, and critical thinkers?
No… it’s because while they’re working on all of those “school” things, they are also working on becoming better friends, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters. They are working on becoming kind, compassionate, creative, strong-willed, independent, self-reliant, and loving human beings.
They won’t remember that six-page reading assignment aligned to the Common Core standards that took them an hour to do in 10, 20, or 30 years. But when they look back on their time with me, they will remember…
- times during recess that they busted out laughing with their friends;
- the puzzles and projects they worked on together;
- the jokes that their teacher made to lighten the mood and wake them up in the morning; and
- the fact that their teacher loved them.
I’m going off on a tangent here, so let me get back to my point. My point is that I am a terrible teacher. Let be super clear with you here: I am a terrible teacher in the sense that I can’t always get my students to stand in a straight line and I haven’t figured out the best way to remind them to put their names on their papers. I don’t always remember where I laid down the papers I was about to hand out five seconds ago. I trip over my words, I make mistakes when teaching math, I sometimes let my students work on busy work while I sit at my desk for a few minutes and take a breather. But those moments are rare because I hate pushing students to be compliant for the sake of being compliant. So, to outsiders, it might look like my class is out of control and all over the place. In fact, in talking to a parent the other day, my principal referred to my classroom management style as laissez-faire and I took it as a compliment (and I think that’s the way he meant it) until I looked up the actual definition.
LAISSEZ FAIRE: a policy or attitude of letting things take their own course, without interfering
In truth, if my classroom was run in a true laissez-faire manner, it would look the scene from Lord of the Flies where there is a pig’s head on a stake and blood all over the place. The real truth is that my classroom environment is not the result of accidental neglect, but rather months and months of intentionality.
You see, every year, while I’m building classroom routines and expectations, signing classroom constitutions, and trying to review with my students how to subtract with regrouping, I’m also working on several little things that I didn’t even realize were a part of my classroom management plan until, well, this week, when I felt like someone brought them into question. These things, I’ve realized recently, are what keep my classroom functioning through the chaos. Even though we have a classroom set of rules designed by students that focus on responsibility, respect, and safety, I have two additional unspoken rules for myself that guide me through the year.
Love them first and always.
Make things fun.
My first unspoken rule is to love them first and always. On the first day of school, as my students are leaving the classroom, I tell them, individually: “I love you and I’ll see you tomorrow!” Most of them are taken aback at first because they’ve never heard a teacher say I love you to their face. And, truth be told, it feels a little forced on that first day for me too. But it sets the tone. It tells them that I love them, unconditionally, JUST BECAUSE they are in my class. I love them, even though I don’t really know them, and that they don’t have to earn my love, they already have it.
Then, I say it every day after that and I show them that I love them through my actions by caring about their problems, working with them to find solutions, treating them with respect, and listening to them. It sounds woo-woo, but it works. When students realize that you love them, even when they act unpleasant, even when they forget their homework, even when they make a mistake, a strange and wonderful thing happens: they develop a love for you too. A lot of teachers will say that their classroom runs on respect, but I caution you to consider that respect will only get you so far. You may respect your boss, but you’re not going over a bridge with them. People will literally do anything for someone they love. (Disclaimer: I AM NOT ASKING MY STUDENTS GO OVER A BRIDGE WITH ME.) Those tough kids, they need your love most of all, and once they understand that you’re not going to take it away because you’re not “feeling it” today, they will work for you. I promise. I’ve seen it over and over and over again.
My second unspoken rule is to make things fun. I literally cannot stand even the most mundane tasks (must be the Aries in me), but it is so much harder watching someone else do mundane tasks just for the sake of doing them. Every day, I try to add a little something-something to the classroom to make it more fun. Sometimes, it’s playing a game as part of a lesson or working with partners or sitting wherever they want for a half hour. Sometimes, it’s cracking a joke in the middle of class or busting out a dance break. Sometimes, it’s a fully-designed flipped lesson on the Chromebooks, which they love and takes most of the work off of me. Whatever it is, I try to make sure that there is something joyful in every day so that they can remember that fun thing they did today with Mrs. Woods, even if it has nothing to do with the actual work they did.
I am a terrible teacher, in that my room is always a little messy and I may not return graded papers in a timely manner. But, I am also a good teacher. I love my students and we have fun together, all while working and learning and growing and being better versions of ourselves. My classroom isn’t run in a laissez-faire manner, it’s run on LOVE and JOY and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Reader, as you’re reflecting on your own classroom management style and your interactions with your students, I challenge you to think about unspoken rules that you have in your classroom. Are there underlying themes that help your classroom run? What would they be? Please share them in the comments below – I look forward to reading all about them!