The Character Movement

Questions to Ask Yourself as the School Year Winds Down

By Justin Minkel 

Think of a school year as a human life. It has a birth, messy and hopeful and new. It has a death, too. That last day will soon come when the individual personalities who make up our class will never be together as a class again. In between, a lot happens: new abilities acquired in fits and starts, a midlife crisis or two when it all feels hard and hopeless, and some peace near the end with all that was accomplished and all that wasn’t.

When the school year is suddenly counted in days rather than months, we begin to take stock of our triumphs and failures. These precious few weeks, close enough to the end to feel a sense of urgency and introspection, but with enough time to act on any epiphanies that come, are a perfect time for reflection.

Teaching is so intense that it can be hard to carve out that reflection time.
When it’s a challenge to find time to run down the hall to the bathroom, we can’t exactly sit down and journal for a few hours. When we gobble down our food, still scalding from the microwave, during a half-hour lunch period that ends up being more like 12 minutes, how exactly are we supposed to find time to reflect?

Shanna Peeples, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, recommends that everyone in our profession find 10 minutes a night to jot down a few thoughts on these questions: What do I do well in my classroom? What do I need to work on? What do I want to do next?

We have to make time for that kind of reflection. Most of us have paperwork to complete for our state evaluation system, full of numbers, letters and the familiar abstract language: “student engagement,” “creating a culture of learning,” “using assessment to inform instruction,” and so on.

There’s nothing wrong with all those numbered domains and rubrics in eight-point font. But for me, the real reflection on what kind of teacher I have been this year is deeply personal and very specific. It has to do with my own test of conscience about how closely my actions have aligned with my beliefs about children and teaching. Evidence of the gap between philosophy and reality in my classroom tends to come “from the mouths of babes” — from what my students tell and show me every day.

It isn’t always easy to witness that evidence.

Last week, a little guy named JoJo broke my heart. JoJo is a wild child who would rather be playing in the jungle than stuck inside the rectangular box of a classroom. We were talking about character motivation in Charlotte’s Web, and one of my students said that Wilbur’s motivation is simply not to die.

“I want to die,” said JoJo.

I asked him later whether he was joking or serious. He said in his piping, oddly cheerful voice, “Serious. I hate my life.” When I asked him why, he told me, “Because I always get in trouble in school.”

It hit me hard. This creative, active child, whose untamed spirit delights me even on the days it also infuriates me, probably doesn’t even realize that I like him. Most of our interactions this year have involved me telling him to stop doing whatever he’s doing at that moment—talking when he’s supposed to be quiet, moving around when he’s supposed to be still.

Moments like these do more to capture our flaws, strengths and next steps as a teacher than any formal evaluation process can. I passed on his comments to our principal and counselor, of course, but I also took a hard look at the way I speak to JoJo and all the other “wild boys” in my class this year.

JoJo’s classroom world has gotten a lot better in the past couple of days because he and I have figured out better ways to co-exist in that world. I make an effort not to reprimand him in front of the class, instead giving him a private signal by making eye contact and tapping my head to show he should think about what he’s doing in that moment. In return, he tries his best not to do anything so wild and crazy I have to address it in front of the class.

Five Questions to Ask Yourself Near the Year’s End

The month of May sometimes feels like a stumbling stagger toward the finish line. It can also be a time to reflect. Before the rush of the school year recedes into a hazy memory, give yourself 15 minutes to ponder these five questions. Grab your computer, or scrounge up a pen and notebook, and jot down your responses. Talk about them with a friend, family member or colleague you trust. Or take a long walk, some evening when you’re not too worn out, and give yourself a little time to ponder.

1. What have you taught? This means a lot more than the bulleted content outlined in the standards. What have you taught the children in your care this year, by your words or example, about how to be a human being in the world?

2. What have you learned? What do you know now that you didn’t in August about children, teaching and yourself?

3. What have you done well? Teachers tend to be hard on ourselves. Don’t gloss over your strengths and successes, large or small.

4. What do you need to work on? Not a single teacher in the entire world has had a flawless school year, so don’t beat yourself up for the ways you may have fallen short. But think about what you can change or learn to better meet your students’ many needs. Seek out resources on teaching English-language learners. Resolve to speak more kindly to the children in your class, even when you’re frustrated. We still have a little time left to make those changes.

5. What impact did you have beyond your own classroom? Teacher leadership doesn’t have to happen on a grand scale to be significant. If you led a professional development session at your school, gave your grade-level team an idea for a project, or gave a new teacher a little reassurance and wisdom right when she needed it most, your influence extended beyond your own students.

Living in a Line and a Circle

We live our lives in a straight line. The years accumulate one by one; each new school year begins and ends. Time keeps flowing in its single direction, carrying us onward. But for those of us who teach, time is also circular. We end the ritual of another school year, reach the summer and rest our spirits, then begin the cycle again.

Whether we stagnate or become better every year has everything to do with taking the time to reflect, then finding the courage and tenacity to change. The mercy of the annual cycle built into teaching is that we get another chance each year to do right by our students, with the benefit of an additional year’s expertise and wisdom under our belts.

In the poem “The Caterpillar” by Miller Williams, the poet describes a caterpillar he and his daughter find circling the rim of a birdbath in the backyard. Later that night, they discover the caterpillar has died. The poem ends with these lines:

In bed again
re-covered and re-kissed
she locked her arms and mumbling love to mine
until yawning she slipped
into the deep bone-bottomed dish of sleep
Stumbling drunk around the rim
I hold
the words she said to me across the dark
I think he thought he was
going in a straight line.

For me, those final words capture the circle that shapes a life devoted to this exhausting, renewing profession.

This article originally appeared in Education Week Teacher on May 9, 2017. Reprinted with permission from the author. Justin Minkel teaches second and third grades at Jones Elementary in Springdale, Ark., a high-performing, high-poverty school where 85 percent of the students are English-language learners. A former Teach For America corps member, Minkel was the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year. In his instruction, he is focused on bringing advanced learning opportunities to immigrant and at-risk students. Follow him at @JustinMinkel.

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