In this column of “Confessions of an Educator,” Chris Margolin shares how to weather the weather, whether you feel like it or not.
Set your timer for 30 seconds and repeat the following phrase as fast as you can, over and over again, until each and every word is crystal clear:
Whether the weather be hot, or whether the weather be cold,
we’ll weather the weather whatever the weather
until we are weathered and old.
Now that the buzzer has sounded, you are ready to start the day. This has been part of my daily routine for more than a decade. I do it privately, somewhere between rinsing the toothbrush and taking my first sip of sparkling water when I get to my desk—I’m not a coffee drinker, and alcohol isn’t allowed inside the walls of public education (I’ve seen some day-drunk teachers in my years and it typically didn’t go well for them). It’s a mantra in order to remember that, whatever the day throws at me, I will weather whatever the weather may bring.
Every teacher has bad days. Every teacher will, at some point, close their eyes in frustration and try to remember why, if it wasn’t just for the summers, we took this job in the first place. Every teacher will at times lose hold of their students, and every teacher will have days where the clock never moves, where their email or phone never stops, where the meetings keep coming, the work keeps piling up, and it feels like … YOU. WILL. NEVER. GO. HOME. More than that, you feel like you can’t possibly go back the next day.
But, for the most part, with the exception of a few mental health days along the way, we weather whatever the weather may bring. We don’t, however, have to weather it with a smile. It isn’t necessary to always smile through the rough patches in the classroom. Our students and staff understand that life happens, and that at times we aren’t having a good day.
But what happens when a teacher is not able to weather the storm? What if the storm is so bad that it’s flooded the classroom and it feels like drowning is the only foreseeable option? Let it happen. Drown, and drown hard.
Every teacher in the history of teaching has had at least one day where they couldn’t find an air bubble, or a lifeguard, or a way to turn their lesson into something with some semblance of learning involved. It is okay for a professional educator to start over. It is even more okay to tell students that the lesson did not work, that it wasn’t what was planned, and that they will move onto something more engaging either immediately or the next day. It’s okay for a teacher to turn to a quick write, or a math set, or a reading period, in order to refocus, find a center, breathe, and pay attention to the needs of everyone—teacher included.
During my first year teaching freshman English, while reading Animal Farm, I decided that I would create my own animal farm in my classroom. I went as far as painting the sky onto the wall, building a barn out of several layers of probably expensive paper rolls, a fence out of cardboard, a tree out of sticks, and cut out animals to represent each character. This was going to be my marquee lesson plan, the one that would have the principal smiling and talking about me to all the other principals. This was going to go down as the greatest lesson ever taught.
Until, it didn’t.
I’d spent so much time thinking up this elaborate classroom setup, that I had missed the most important piece: the lesson itself.
I knew the book. I had a good understanding of where I wanted to lead my students, but I had created this massive activity without actually thinking about the activity. Students were in awe (or at least I’d like to pretend they were) of the beautiful work I’d done, and the commitment I’d made toward teaching this unit; however, when I went to explain the actual assignment that went along with my art, I stumbled. It was something about animals, and putting things and words and stuff on the farm wall, and following along, and blah blah blah. There were words coming out, but absolutely nothing that they could grasp—or that I could grasp. Each period, I thought it would get better, and each period they fought through my pseudo-instruction for the remainder of the class, but nothing ever stuck.
And so, the next day, the farm was gone. I repainted the wall, tore down the barn, the tree, the animals, the fence. I told my students that my plan had absolutely failed. I explained to them my thinking process and, instead of working through the book that day, we did some strategic planning as to what I could have done differently. They hadn’t even read more than a chapter of the book, but the simple fact that I was willing to be vulnerable with them and then ask them for their thoughts on the project allowed for us to build a trust that would remain throughout the year.
Every teacher struggles, but at the end of the day, you can either drown in it or put on your galoshes, grab a raincoat, or a raft or a bucket, and weather the weather one day at a time.