Starting Again (Already) After First Month Fails

Dust yourself offWe teachers spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year setting our expectations. And setting them very high. Not just for our new students, but for ourselves. Every year, I think, “This is is. This is the year I get it right. This is the year my students learn all the things. This is the year that I am super teacher.”

Then, I do some reading and planning.

Moving Writers has just spent a month giving you fresh ideas for the very first things you might teach your students about writing. If you’ve been spending time on Twitter and in the blogosphere like I have, you, too, have been flooded with beginning of the year mantras and activities. Brilliant ones! Ones that will surely chart the course for a year of wonderment!

I fill up my notebook. I plan my lessons and gleefully re-plan when a better idea strikes, covering my planner in layers of Post-It note revisions.

And then school starts.

***

My first three weeks have been filled with disasters. Would you like to hear about them?

  • I spent an entire class period trying to walk students through setting up a Google turn-in folder for their English work. 50 minutes! They didn’t listen. Neither the slick screenshots Allison sent me nor my step-by-step demo could keep them on track.  At the end of class, a handful of students still weren’t correctly connected. As they left, one sweet little one asked, “Do we ever have to do that again?”
  • I spent parts of four class periods working on a communal definition of “essay” with my seniors in preparation for our study of Annie Dillard. There were readings and jigsaws and charts with visualizations. Do you know what they ultimately came up with? “Essay is definition-less.”
  • I set up group conferences with my 9th graders during our activity period to get to know them better, to chat about summer reading, to hear about past reading & writing experiences, and to open up the lines of communication. ⅓ of the groups didn’t show.
  • I started my students on a piece of writing that about ⅕ of the students completely misinterpreted. I let it go too far, realized the mistake too late,  and then felt too embarrassed and too guilty to tell them … so I am letting them continue writing papers that aren’t really the right thing.

To be honest, I am longing for a re-do. My beautiful plans have come out more flawed, more human, more real than I wanted them to. And while I hope that you don’t have quite so many instructional gaffs in your first few days, I’m willing to bet that some of your brilliantly-laid plans will not pan out exactly as planned.

So, what then?

We dust ourselves off and recapture the dream. We return to our picture of The Perfect School Year and try again.

We can’t go back. And we can’t undo the lessons that haven’t added up. But we can take a deep breath, shake it off, and remember a few things:

  • No students have been irreparably harmed through these failures. In fact, they haven’t noticed.

My heart actually starts beating faster when I plan a perfectly balanced lesson. I love it when all of the pieces slide into place, and I feel like there is no way my students won’t make the connections necessary for deep learning to happen. So far, I don’t think these connections have happened this year.

But, that’s okay. While I am disappointed, my students have not been permanently damaged by my foibles. I haven’t ruined their reading and writing lives nor have I undone past learning. My perfectly crafted lessons are not what they are thinking about. They are thinking about their hair, the cute new kid in 4th period, problems at home, and what to wear on picture day! While I feel the need to press the reset button, my students are in their own (far more interesting) universe of teen-dom.

So, it’s okay if I spend a day or two next week back-peddling — picking up those things that I’ve dropped the ball on, clarifying expectations, and moving on to new lessons that will be more successful. They won’t be thrown off or traumatized. In the big picture, these are not real problems.

  • It’s healthy (and never too late!) to recalibrate

Maybe your plans haven’t gone as hoped. Maybe your plans didn’t go awry because they didn’t even get off the ground to begin with! Here’s the good news — it’s never too late to start or to start again.

A good teacher recognizes when a lesson isn’t successful; a great teacher recognizes it and transparently changes course. It’s okay to say to your students, “Guys, I didn’t quite get this right the first time. Let me try again.” When we do this, we are teaching our students far more than content — we’re giving them a template for messing up and trying again. We’re giving them permission — this year and for the rest of their lives — to say, “I made a mistake. I need a do-over.” Kids need to see grownups modeling this revisionist behavior that they will need to be honest, healthy adults someday.

Whether it’s the fourth week or the fourth month of school, we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge our instructional shortcomings, find a solution, and then teach (and reteach) our students.

***

Tuesday, I’m starting over. I’m going to figure these kids out. I’m going to learn how to teach them.

I turn the page in my planner,  face a new week, and to try to be the best teacher I can be  … again.
Tell me about your successes and failures in the first month of school! Leave a comment below, find us on Facebook, or chat with me on Twitter @rebeakhodell1. 

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14 thoughts on “Starting Again (Already) After First Month Fails

  1. Thank you so much for this honest post. We all love our students and the craft of teaching so much that we set ultra high standards…and it can be so disappointing, even devastating in our super teacher universe to get to the end of a class period and feel like a failure in spite of the best laid plans. Thank you for your inspiring book as well, and for the reminder that rather than being ruined by our foibles, our students might actually learn a valuable lesson or two about making a mistake and growing from it.

  2. This is just what I needed to hear. First of all, to know that you have had failures, somehow makes me feel better (sorry). I guess because we tend to think that bloggers and book writers are infallible, it’s kind of nice to know you’re not! 😉 Second, I have definitely had some failures, and I’ve been trying to think about how to recover. Third, I feel a blog post coming on. I think it might be helpful for me to lay my failures out there, figure out what I need to fix, and move on. Thank you SO much for this timely post! Good luck on your recalibrating!

  3. This was so honest and exactly what I needed. Too many times I feel like I’ve discovered a mistake too late and I feel embarrassed to admit it and I feel bad that the kids have put it so much time and effort and… I don’t make them redo it. Thank you for having the courage to write this… it’s exactly what I needed.

  4. I sure needed to read this post. I’m always “beginning again”, especially as a school librarian trying to balance all the demands of my position. I’m never satisfied with my lessons, always discovering that I’ve forgotten to take something into consideration—-but it’s always a new day! Thanks so much for your words of wisdom!

  5. Thanks for sharing such an honest post. Tomorrow IS my 1st day of school! I’m packing along your wise advice and I work on my 1st day plans today. Thanks for modeling the best practice of reflecting – I promise to do that often so I can constantly check in on what is working and what is not. Let’s both have good days tomorrow!!

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