Friends and Countrymen, it’s back to school time in these United States, and you know what that means…. Yes, the irrepressible posting of memes by teachers on social media decrying the typical welcome back events, including – but not limited to – professional development, classroom setup, meeting new colleagues, and reviewing class lists.
I’ve taken issue with some of the statements made, because I come from (perhaps) a unique perspective of actually really, truly enjoying the majority of professional development opportunities and being energized and recharged by the return to the building of my friends and coworkers. Being one of those teachers – and there are many of us – who work throughout the summer, I’m kinda bored and lonely in the building during the quieter summer weeks, so having my people back is pretty awesome. Over the past week or so I’ve been thinking about exactly what it is that I find interesting, crazy, and useful about the way the first week back is managed, that delicate time where teachers are getting prepared to welcome back students. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts. Enjoy, try not to take things too seriously, and feel free to comment!
Preparing the Classroom: It’s so great to have an entire day right at the start to pull everything out and put it back where it belongs after the summer storage spree. I don’t have to spend the entire week thinking about how much work I need to do in my classroom and wondering where I left that darn tape dispenser and mentally moving my tables into the most efficient arrangement possible. Even nicer is that I typically have lunch and some other free time, plus the hours after the regular work day ends, to get in there and keep going after that first big push. The one bad thing I’ve found with having that setup day right up front is there can be a lot of lost time in the morning while people are filtering through the building greeting one another and looking for misplaced items.
Basic Housekeeping: Everyone and their best friend’s pet alien from outer space wants to “say a few words of welcome” at every gathering. This means that the district-wide welcome back events and the first faculty meeting can feel more like a rousing game of BINGO wherein the words on the card are the names of different people who may feel compelled – or BE compelled – to get up on stage with the microphone. The best part? The non-stop Exorcist-style projectile vomit of super important words and phrases, so exuberant and visceral they almost knock you out of your seat. The worst part? See the previous sentence! But it’s all really important, because we need to know who folks are and what is in store for us, and it’s super nice to hear that we are all in this mess called education together, ready to mold some young minds into citizens of the world.
P to the D: Professional Development. One of the most revered and hated terms in all of education-dom. (Yeah, I made that word up. But it’s a cool word. Say it out loud. It’s cool, isn’t it!) There’s this really interesting cognitive dissonance between the PD need and the PD reality at the start of the school year, wherein towards the end of LAST school year we were all, “wow, this is great, wish they had done it at the START of the year,” and now that it’s the start of the year we’re all, “wow has it only been five minutes, when is break, I have so much to do in my classroom, I just met that new teacher in my department this morning and already can’t remember his name, and is the principal really going to enforce the dress code for staff this year because I just went on a loo-loo-la-rue shopping spree and I bought ALL THE LEGGINGS.” (Yes, I know that’s not the name of the company, but I really have a tough time remembering the actual name, and you knew what I meant anyway, didn’t you? I don’t mind leggings, I’m just not that kinda girl.)
We have truly important stuff that we need to know at the start of the year, such as what the schedule will look like (which probably sounds ridiculous if you aren’t a pre-k-12 teacher but trust me it changes yearly, or so it seems) and how to request field trips (not that we take those anymore but it was a handy reference). Everyone wants to give out info, from the principal to the secretary to the custodian to the tech coordinator to the librarian (wait, what?), and then you still have the counselor, educational diagnostician, nurse, and discipline deans to contend with. And the info is important! It really is!
….But it isn’t what we’re there for. It just isn’t. All of that stuff can literally – and I do mean literally – be distributed via email, referenced briefly in the first meeting, and then set aside with the expectation that the professionals we are will be well-versed in the specifics and know what to do. Novice educators, such as those new to the profession, the district, or the school, might benefit from a special meeting with the above-reference individuals for a deeper dive (don’t you just love that phrase?) into the info, but seriously, let’s think about the best possible use of our time. Newsflash: It isn’t sitting in a room listening to people essentially read their job description. And I say that with all due respect, as I dearly, truly love my colleagues and the amazing work they do.
For my money, the time is better spent doing a couple of really key things. First, team building. Don’t care that you’ve been teaching in the same classroom in the same building with the same books and the same everything for a hundred million years. Not all of us have, and you need us just like we need you to form a team to make the school work. So break out the index cards and build towers. Give us a balloon to inflate and a string to tie it to our ankles and make us run around and stomp each other’s balloons (no, don’t really do that, because I’ll likely have a heart attack HA). Have us come into the room with a prompt on the projector that gives us a unique way to get seated, like number the chairs and the person whose birthday is earliest in the calendar year sits at one, with the next person at two, and so on. Do Four Corners and post pictures of common breakfast foods, and have us stand near the item we last consumed and then talk. Play a song while we walk around and find a partner, and then give us something to talk about, like our favorite vacation spot or the best way to engage an emotionally-closed-off 7th grader. Have a few sets of chairs set up in circles and “randomly” assign staff to work together in a morning meeting, check-in/check-out, or peace circle.
With the rest of the time, rotate through some quick, meaningful trainings, even better if done by valued and respected members of the staff. We all have to be there, so why not take advantage of our assets and let us train each other? Here’s a workshop on how to use ESchool for the newbs. There’s a workshop on scaffolding instruction for students for whom English is not a primary language. That teacher is holding a workshop on how she manages data tracking during class time using an app we can all access. Those teachers are running a training on how to incorporate kinesthetic learning into the general classroom. The special education team is offering a session designed specially for elective/expressive teachers on how to effectively manage implementation of IEP-mandated accommodations without a push-in or support person in a general education classroom. The best part is it’s all useful and it’s all free.
So yes, I want to know how supportive the district office personnel is going to be this year, and I do need the union president’s phone number (coughMikeMatthewscough), and I do want to understand how the first day(s) are going to play out at the building level.
More importantly, though, I want to know who the person down the hall is, and how she can support me while I support her by being part of a team working towards the same goals. I want to know that I’m cared about by the people I choose to surround myself with every day. I want to know that we are on the same page when it comes to how we will engage and monitor and manage student learning. We’re in this together, and I’m looking forward to making this year the best year for all of us.