Teaching · Thoughts about Life and Faith

Playing the Long Game

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

My Thursday this week was a great snapshot of the highs and lows of being a teacher.

On the one hand, half of my classes went great: the kids were participating with positive attitudes, we had minimal moments of needing to redirect behavior, and I saw some magical moments where the kids were starting to get it.

On the other hand, the remaining half of my classes were a struggle: rather than being able to focus primarily on the academic learning goals, we had to pause several times to practice how to use calm voices and good words to communicate our needs and feelings.

While that type of teaching is emotionally draining, learning emotional and social skills is a critical part of growing up into decent, autonomous human beings, and the classroom is a great place to practice those skills.

My job looks different this year – very different – than in years past because rather than being a homeroom/core subjects teacher, I’m now teaching Spanish as an elementary school specials class.

Instead of teaching a majority of English language learners, I now have a majority of Spanish language learners.

Instead of being “on” the entire school day and being with the same group of kids all day, I cycle through a new group of kids every 30-40 minutes.

Sidenote: Yes, I’m teaching Spanish now! This is the first time I’ve really talked much about my new teaching job. However, I want to assure you that, as of now, the focus of this blog won’t change. It will still be focused on reading and teaching. But my teaching examples will sound a bit different since I’m now teaching literacy in a different language.

At the start of the year, I was feeling the grief of changing jobs so drastically. I heard all the chatter of voices and the teachers getting to know their classes and explaining expectations, and I was so very alone in my classroom.

I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to create a classroom culture and environment that felt close-knit, safe (in the kids’ eyes), and still allowed me to connect with kids and draw them close when their behavior calls for correction.

Although I’m only about 9 weeks in, it looks like I needn’t have worried.

I’m still me and the way I manage my classroom is still the way I manage my classroom.

Because of that, I have had ample opportunity to care for kids in very similar ways to how I did when I had my own homeroom.

Overall, I’m loving the challenge of learning to teach something new (totally new!) by using skills that I learned in Ecuador. It floors me and brings a smile to my face to see how well God prepared me for this new season of life in my old one.

I’m also enjoying learning how to differentiate for so many grade levels, and I’m so thankful for my coworkers, both old and new, who have provided me with feedback and support as I do so.

From our Spanish curriculum Sonrisas

But back to Thursday and the half good, half challenge day I had.

Those types of classes – both kinds – tangibly remind me of truths I need to remember.

First, for both types of classes, being a teacher means playing the long game.

Most days, the kids aren’t really getting the Spanish as fast as I might want them to. I mean how difficult is it to remember the word for square and the numbers 1-10?

But then I stop and remember that research shows it takes about seven years to learn a language – and that’s, you know, when you’re immersed in it all the time at school.

So when they’re not remembering the phrase I use when it’s time to clean up, I have to be patient, go over it again, and give them another chance to practice.

As my kindergarten student A said yesterday, “it takes so looooong” to learn a language!

Sometimes, though, as a teacher, you get some magical moments like I did in a couple of my classes this week, when I see that the kids are getting it.

Like when the kids finish early and know they can grab a (Spanish) book to read while the others finish, and I hear a student re-reading a book we read a few weeks ago – and remembering what the book says (“Salta, ranita, salta!”).

Or when another child comes up to me at the beginning of class and tells me, in Spanish, that two students are absent. Sure, it wasn’t grammatically perfect, but she communicated to me in Spanish and I understood. That’s the biggest part of the language-learning battle right there!

Those classes where the light bulbs flash on and the kids can follow directions in another language, and they’re being quick and quiet in transitions and enjoying the learning…those encourage me that the seeds I’m sowing and watering are indeed germinating underground, even if I only see the tiniest of shoots in a couple of places.

After all, I don’t only have these kids for one year. I get them for multiple years. So the groundwork I’m laying this year – all the ploughing, if you will – is preparing them to learn even more in future years.

What about the classes where it feels like we’re not getting anywhere because one or two (or five) kids need extra love and extra direction and multiple opportunities to redo speaking to a classmate in a respectful, calm way?

Those, too, remind me of an important truth:

Just as I give these kiddos opportunities to practice and show that I’m with them for the long haul, so does God with me.

Sure, I can get annoyed with them, exhausted from maintaining the boundaries, and wish that they would just get with the program already.

But then I stop and think about how many times I choose to do things not God’s way and all the do-overs and fresh starts He gives me. Aka: every single morning that I draw breath on this earth. And even more than that when I need it (which is often).

Some of my coworkers were remarking at lunch yesterday that they don’t understand why their words are not sinking in to the kids. When they redirect them over and over and teach over and over, why don’t the kids act the way they’re supposed to?

I totally understand the frustration. I’ve been there so many times. And that, too, gives me a glimpse of what God might be thinking. Looking at us as a teacher or parent would and thinking, “Well, we clearly need to go over this again, because she’s still not getting it,” with a slight head shake thrown in. Or maybe He doesn’t get frustrated with us as much? He is slower to anger than we are, that is for certain.

Why don’t they seem to get it? It could be a myriad of reasons.

I’m not even going to do more than mention “covid” as a catch-all for several of those reasons.

But beyond abnormal school years, one reason that hasn’t changed is that learning how to respect others and act within the boundaries provided by authority figures takes an entire childhood – and, even, dare I say, an entire life?

But even with the frustration, doing what we teachers do is worth it.

I’m thankful because now that I’ve been teaching for several years, I have some solid examples of when I played the long game with students and saw growth.

Did I see the growth the next week?

Nope.

The next month?

Not even then.

And often, the improvement I saw wasn’t them doing things perfectly; it was them doing things better than they had.

In the day to day grind, I know it’s tough to see the bigger picture.

I had to have a coworker remind me this week that it’s okay that it feels like we’re going sooo sloowwllyy on teaching academic objectives right now.

But when I do step back, look at the long-term game plan, and exhale in a big whoosh, I mainly feel humbled and privileged that I get help these kids learn and practice and grow.

Because watching kids grow…that’s where the magic is. Even though the “magic” is actually comprised of countless times of reteaching and practicing with them when we couldn’t know for sure if anything was actually happening in those little noggins of theirs.

After one tough day I had last year, I kinda shrugged it off saying, “Well, with teaching, some days you win, and some days you lose.”

My brother replied, “Seems like there are a lot more days that you lose than win.”

I laughed and couldn’t refute that.

But I also exchanged a look with my mom, who is also a teacher, and we couldn’t find the words to explain this: somehow, the wins, even though they may be fewer and farther between, they more than make up for the frustration.

Perhaps it’s like training for and running a half marathon: the time you spend training far outweighs the moment of crossing the finish line. But that accomplishment somehow makes the training worth it.

To all you teachers out there: remember that we’re playing the long game. We may see visible progress in a few months; we also might not.

It’s a practice of faith.

We don’t always see the results we’re working toward, but we believe that they’re worth working toward anyway.

Cheers to planting and watering seeds – not knowing how it will turn out, but continuing to anyway and entrusting our work to the One who does know the future harvest.

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