Keia Makahiki! This Year!


The school year is wrapping up and I'm feeling reflective. Now that it's done, I think I can admit out loud that this was really my first year teaching. Before this, I subbed, I taught mediation and science and music workshops and preschool and summer camps and tutored-- I taught families and I taught ESL and remedial reading—I made web-courses and designed curricula—I even taught an online teacher certification for Hawaiian charter schools that some of my coworkers have taken. So I've been teaching for years, on my own terms.... But this was really my first year, all year, in a classroom, with my students, with a boss, at a school. 

My last day of classes was on Friday. I pestered all of my students with lists of their missing work on yellow sticky notes, and let them lie on the floor and finish their portfolios and check off their homework and log into the class blog (over here!) They were free-range teenagers all day-- we ignored the usual bell schedule. My teacher-roommate took one look at them and said, "I don't want you, I'm done with you. Love you, go way." 

We've shared a classroom all year-- she's Math and I'm English. It was our first year at the school. We're both non-Hawaiians, non-Hawaiian speakers, we're born in May, and we have the same first and middle names. It's like a twisted sitcom premise. 

We spent 8 months of the school teaching simultaneously from opposite sides of one whiteboard, both jostling and erasing at the same time, feet visible underneath the board, saying, "Oop, sorry," to each other when the board wobbled and trying to explain or diagram or explicate to kids over our shoulders, on either side of the class. 

That was in the tattered canvas tent with the squashy swampy carpet that held two-inch-deep puddles when the rain was heavy--and this is Kauai-- and the rain is always heavy. When it dried up enough for the larvae to hatch into buzzing winged vampires, every step or chair-shuffle sent up a lazy cloud of mosquitos. I found muddy cat footprints all over my desk and my books were ravaged by termites-- the shelves were gritty with piles of termite sand and neat tunnels laced through The Wind in the Door and The Hunt for Red October.

About a month ago we moved into brand new buildings-- donated by the Office of Naval Research and a San Francisco firm called "Project Frog." These new buildings cost big bucks. They are cool and stylish: broad, bright windows, futuristic ceiling fans, automatically programmed windows and solar panels and exhaust lines and turning vents and handles and pedals.... And we are still teaching over each other, like Beverly Hillbillies-- same old wrecked mouldy books, in a nice shiny new room, with a divider down the middle, kids moving through it and chucking garbage at their buddies on the other side.

I'm not complaining though. It feels so human-- so humane-- to be cool inside, dry, comfortable. We even have a water dispenser. It's the Ritz. (If you ignore the porta-potty outside the window)

I went into this year hoping to be better than myself-- to be the teacher that all of my "Classroom Management” books say will be successful. Calm. Steady. Prepared. Consistent. Transparent. Simple. Organized. Zen-like. God-like.

I was determined to slow down, speak clearly, stand still, move deliberately. Levitate slightly above the ground, if possible.

About three weeks in, I gave up in despair as I realized that I am a hyperactive psycho with a mind that blasts full-speed-ahead in whatever direction I'm pointing it with a blinding super-focus.  That frustrated me: I don't want to be "that crazy teacher." I want to be respectable! Even-keeled! COMPETENT!

But once I accepted that this suite of less-than-ideal traits really is me, things got better. The kids learn my weaknesses and exploit them, and I mock the kids for doing it, and everyone is happy. I explain why I think that their exploiting my weaknesses is an effective rhetorical strategy, and shows that they have considered their interlocutor. I point out that they can modulate their mocking to build or destroy relationships by identifying Gottman's four horsemen for relationships. I’ve tried to be transparent about my reasons for doing things.

This year I've bashed my way into a new language. Everyday we began with chanting and praying in Hawaiian. I started with understanding just a handful of words-- things I'd picked up from place names and family names and songs. I'd sit in the almost-daily staff meetings and squint my language-brain and try and distinguish where the words were beginning and ending, try and write down phrases that I heard over and over. Now I can bare-knuckle my way through a conversation, and understand nearly everything in staff meetings. The kids make fun of me, and sometimes it sticks in my craw "He kahakai hea? Ke kai kokoke i Kinipopo-- o Kapukai ma Kapaa?" comes out as "He... kkkkkkkkk splutter !@#$!!"

Staying at home with my kids for 5 years was wonderful-- I could do things exactly how I wanted to-- orchestrate my day at whatever pace I wanted. There was no supervision, no suspense and stress of evaluation. There was plenty of critical self-examination and gentle forays into self-improvement (hum-di-hum, low carb diet, la-di-da take up running, ho-de-ho take a course on early human evolution) but not the high-speed, deeply-cutting self-immolation that has needed to happen this year. Staying home also made me a little bit crazy. Okay, a lot crazy. With no outside stimuli or accountability, my brain began to cannibalize itself. I loved it-- I LOVED it-- my kids, all mine, all day-- and I also felt trapped in the yellow wallpaper-- creeping, creeping, creeping, around and around. 

This year I've been criticized, examined, critiqued. Misjudged, gossiped about, doubted. Thwarted, mistrusted, and dismissed. After 5 years in a fluffy at-home cocoon, surrounded only with people who chose me or whom I chose, it was a shock to deal with all of that humanity-- the crush and push of people wanting, needing, expecting things. The feeling of not being liked, and having to move on. 

I haven't been especially targeted or anything like that-- but I haven't had the reassuring stream of positive feedback that you get either as a parent or a student or child. I might be an entitled 80s child-- never weaned from the IV drip of self-esteem boosting noise-- but I've treasured every gem of encouragement or thanks from my students or their parents or my coworkers or bosses.

This year has been -- well. High velocity. I feel like a craggy boulder that's been bouncing down a mountainside for the past 9 months. I'm battered and bashed, but ungainly growths and unnecessary protrusions have been slammed off. It's the most I've had to change and adjust and adapt in years. It's been sometimes crushingly painful, but good.

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