Part 1 – The Big Picture
My first year as a teacher, I sang a little song as I rolled my teacher box to my classroom every morning, “I get to teach today, I get to teach today, I get to teach today…” I did wonder how long it would last. I sang it after exhausting days and sleepless nights. I sang it after being overwhelmed and crying from hopelessness. I sang it after two students mocked me in front of the class and after a parent complained to the principal. Every morning was new, fresh, and wonderful because I would teach.
That song lasted two years. After eleven years, I still sing it occasionally and still feel silly doing it. But I can’t stop myself. Every time I see those wide eyes smiling at me first thing in the morning, I’m ready to go again. It’s a new day, a fresh start, and I have amazing plans. We’re going to have a great day.
It’s a good thing I have that song and the resilience it represents. Because that first year, and many more times since, I have been shocked by how hard teaching is. Despite my Master’s degree, multiple credentials, student teaching, and volunteer hours, I was unprepared that first year. I still get caught off guard. If you’re reading this book, you suspect you are just as unprepared, or you know someone who is.
You have studied both the ideology and practice of curriculum organization and instruction, can write outrageously deep lesson plans, have both observed and practiced in other teachers’ classrooms, and may or may not have a job lined up. Yet you still don’t feel ready. Why not?
Because teaching is much more than a good lesson plan, and you know it. You have spent uncounted hours learning content, or what you will teach. You have also invested your heart imagining what your classroom will look like, and how you will run your lessons. This is context. You are worried about content because everyone imagines that this is what teachers do. It is what the powers that be define in lengthy charts, lists, or tomes. It is the common core curriculum and district guidelines. However, it is how you handle the context that will define how you feel about your success.
Surfing the Tidal Wave is about context. It is about how you act and react in a classroom. The ability to think quickly can make or break your day. It is about setting up the structures that encourage the behavior you want. The less trouble in your classroom, the more learning. It is about knowing who you are so you can stay true to yourself while still demanding the best from your students. The more confident you are, the harder children will work for you. It is about real teaching of real students in the real world.
Lest you think I am some sort of people genius, possessing skills you can never dream of, I assure you that I am not. A brain injury makes it difficult for me to recall names, and also left me with no sense of smell. More importantly, I am seriously introverted. I abhor parties. The noise and pressure to socialize gives me migraines. I do not exaggerate – real, blinding, I-need-to-throw-up-and-possibly-die migraines. I have never reacted well to surprises and still kick myself for poor reactions that I had twenty years ago. I cope by trying to imagine anything that could happen and what my response might be. I plan, plan, plan. I rehearse in my head and sometimes out loud. I go back and fix things a day later. I also play for time, telling students to wait while I decide what to do.
Nor have my classrooms been sparkling and squeaky clean ready for my divine inspiration. My first classroom had leaky windows, no curtains, and became known as the roach room. My record was 84 in one year, several of which were in my desk. I counted because the phrase “a lot of cockroaches” was not getting the district’s attention. The running total did. In my current classroom, I repeatedly battle mice. My first year teaching middle school, I had to travel between two different rooms. My first elementary classroom had a miniscule whiteboard and holes in the floor large enough to twist an ankle. Now I teach in a trailer that struggles to hold 22 desks even though I’ve had 36 students, leaving me fighting to physically reach every desk and giving us a tiny space for floor work. We often hear what is going on in the other classroom, and the entire room smells bad, or so I’m told. When we travel to or from the main building for lunch, specials, or assemblies, we walk through heat, hail, rain, snow, thunder, and wind with nothing but our sense of adventure and some broken-down umbrellas to protect us.
None of this makes me special, but it does explain this book. What I imagined about teaching and what actually happened were worlds apart. I still love teaching, absolutely love it. But I could have been better prepared. Here are the most important lessons I have learned in the past thirteen years. These are stories from real teachers in real classrooms. The names and details have been changed, but they really happened, so that you can imagine your own response, practice in your mind and out loud, have a steadier first year, and keep singing your happy teacher song for a long, long time.