“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of the Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of august is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.”
It’s the beginning August which means that teachers everywhere have gotten up and looked at their calendars with some weird combination of dread, joy, foreboding, excitement, reluctance, and determination. As Babbitt so eloquently put it, the first week of August is both an end and a beginning. And I love and hate that feeling. The bittersweet last days of summer. The delicious anticipation of a new school year and new beginnings.
But letting go of summer is hard, and I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that part of me feels this way this time of year:
I’ll admit, I LOVE summer. I spend most summer days catching up on reading that I couldn’t find time for during the school year, growing tomatoes, and playing barefoot in my backyard with my kids. I love that feeling of “oh-my-gosh-I actually-got-enough-sleep.” I love drinking coffee while it’s still hot. I love being able to sit down and have head space to do my own writing. Everything slows down to be savored. And when I'm sitting in the shade of my back porch with a great book in my hand, or hiking up a hill where the trees look like this:
I can't help but to sometimes think things like, "Man, what would a whole life of summer be like?"
Which is why the first week of August for me is just as Babbit describes. I often feel frozen between two times and two versions of myself. I'm at the end of one thing and the beginning of another.
Because I also really LOVE going back to school. When I walk through that school supply aisle at the end of July/beginning of August, I get the same butterflies of excitement and expectation that I got as a kid. I think about all that promise--all those kids who see this new school year as a fresh start, as a chance to be the best versions of themselves—and I can’t wait to meet them. And summer for me isn't all hammocks and lemonade. I spend more than a few summer days planning, training, and preparing to greet those kids with the best I have to offer. I attend conferences and professional developments. I meet with colleagues, share best practices, and think about what worked and what didn’t, rewriting units and plans to meet my students’ 21st Century needs.
So I spend my first week of August feeling a bit conflicted--.like one of those old Looney Toons characters with an angel and devil on each shoulder, one whispering "suuuummmmmmerrrrrrrrrrrrr" while the other whispering "schhhhooooooooooooooollll." I teeter at the top of Babbit's Ferris wheel trying to decide to when to move forward.
So how do I get ready to meet the year? How do I make sure that when the yellow school buses pull up, I'm less like Billy Madison and more like this:
In this Monday’s “Back to School Blog” post, I’m going to share a few ways I prepare and motivate myself to charge back into my classroom like Jordan in the 1995 Chicago Bulls warm-up.
1. Get Inspired!
Watch this TED Talk by Educational Superstar, Rita Pierson:
Pierson was an educational dynamo who passed away in 2013. In this, one of her last major public appearances, Pierson talks about the key to success for all students. Now, I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, but get ready to laugh, cry, and be inspired. It’s just under 8 minutes long, and Pearson reminds us of the incredible impact a real teacher/student connection can be. If you have seen it, watch it again. It’s worth it. I watch it at least once a year, and it’s a wonderful reminder of how important teachers are.
2. Pump up the Morning
Those early mornings can be tough after a summer of restful, normal, human sleep. And I’ll be honest here…before 7:00 AM I am not the best version of myself. My senior year of college, a veteran teacher named Cathy Chitester came in to talk to my education class, and she gave this advice: “Mornings are hard. Some mornings, you won’t want to go at all. Make a mix-tape of songs you love. Songs that make you want to dance and sing. Songs that make you happy, and use that time in the car to get in a mood that will make you want to see your students.”
Now, these days we call them “play-lists” not “mix-tapes,” but the advice is still sound. A great jam on the radio in the morning can turn the whole morning around for me.
Below in no particular order is my ultimate drive to school playlist:
Starships, Nikki Minaj
Seven Nation Army, White Stripes
Applause, Lady Gaga
Three Little Birds, Bob Marley
Nothing But a “G” Thang, Snoop Dogg featuring Dr. Dre
I will Survive, Gloria Gaynor
Ho Hey, Lumineers
Respect, Aretha Franklin
Don’t Stop Believing, Journey
3. Make it Look Good
We all know that the amount of time given to work in our rooms before the students come is woefully limited. Often our teacher work days before students’ first day are consumed with meetings, training, and in-services. And to top it off, most of us have had to pack our rooms up before summer, and now we need to reassemble our classrooms into the magical learning centers we know and love. Trying to make our classrooms look like our Pinterest boards in the 20 minutes between meetings leaves most of frazzled, stressed, and overwhelmed.
But here’s the thing: your room is important. It’s where you’re going to be spending most of your time for the next 10 months, it’s going to be the first thing your students see, and it will be the first impression your students have of you. If you are trying to teach in an unorganized, messy, sterile space, whether you realize it or not, it will affect your mood and your teaching which will directly impact your students.
You’ll be less stressed and more prepared to deal with new beginning of the year policies, procedures, and information if you’re not worried about when you’re going to get time to tape your favorite motivational posters to the wall.
So here’s what I do: I go into school and set up my room before I’m supposed to be “back,” usually a day or two before teachers' first day. Now, some of my colleagues will view this as working for nothing or “giving up” my free time, and maybe they’re right. But for me, the juice is worth the squeeze. When my first official day to return to school arrives, I feel “ready” knowing I’m going to walk into a finished room.
4. Set a Goal for Yourself and Keep Learning
Every school year, I try to do something new in my teaching and for myself. This will make you a better teacher. By trying new things in your curriculum you're keeping your content fresh and your classroom current. By learning new things you are reminded of the feeling our students have in our rooms everyday.
Last year I taught a unit on sentence patterns. I had never done this before, but I felt that it would give my AP Lang students stronger analysis skills. I had to work hard to familiarize myself with the content and the lessons since it was all relatively new to me and as a result, it was one of the best units of the year. The students got so much out of it, and I got to step out of my comfort zone which made me more aware of every aspect of the lessons.
I also signed up to play the violin in a "Teacher Orchestra." I also have ZERO experience with playing a string instrument. I had to learn everything: how to hold it, how to read music, how to not sound like a dying cat. It was hard and wonderful. And it gave me a powerful lesson on perspective. I looked at my struggling English students differently knowing how powerless I felt with my new violin in my hand.
These experiences made me a better teacher and person.
5. Remember Why They Need You
Over the years, I’ve kept all the notes, thank cards, drawings, and funny little gifts my students have given me. When back-to-school blues hit, I sometimes pull out some of the more special ones and give them another read. And when I read those notes and cards, I remember why this job is so important. This year, there’s going to be a kid that is waiting for YOU. There’s a kid out there that wants to be inspired, that wants you to connect with her. There’s a kid out there waiting for you to share that one special book with him. There’s a kid out there, maybe this year that will write that one special paper for only you. There’s a kid out there that will read the comment you write on his journal and cry because nobody has ever praised his work. There’s a girl out there who has never seen herself in literature until you assign that novel. Remember why they need you. YOU are a change maker.
As we return to our classrooms this week and next, I wish you all a happy, productive, and inspired school year!
(And in case you need one more bit of inspiration for getting back into your classroom, here is the 1995 Chicago Bulls warm-up. You are the Micheal Jordan of your classroom. Go change some lives!)
Happy school year everybody!
WVCTE is wondering… What strategies do you use to prepare to head back to school and leave summer behind? How do you beat back-to-school blues? What do you use as inspiration to return to your classroom for a new year? Leave us a comment, find us on Facebook, or tweet us @WVCTE.
Jessica Salfia teaches AP English, English 11, Mythology, and Creative Writing at Spring Mills High School in Berkeley County, WV. Jessica has been teaching in Berkeley County, WV for 12 years, and also serves as an adjunct professor at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV. Before she became a teacher, she was mediocre white-water rafting guide on the Cheat River, and feels that these exploits best prepared her for the adventure of being a classroom teacher. Her most recent venture has been to work with her best pal, Karla Hilliard, to rebuild the West Virginia affiliate of NCTE, WVCTE. Jessica is an accomplished writer of both fiction and poetry, and has been a finalist in the WV Fiction Competition in 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2013. Her work has appeared in the Anthology of Appalachian Writers Volumes III, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII. When she’s not writing or teaching, you can find Jessica in her garden or chasing her three lovely children or sitting at a ball field watching her husband coach the Spring Mills Cardinals baseball team. You can check out what Jessica is doing in her classroom by visiting www.salfiaenglishclass.weebly.com, or by following her on Twitter, @jessica_salfia.