Monday, June 18, 2018

Five Firsts in my Fifth Year

I've never been someone that's had a five-year plan. That just... doesn't give you the chance to be flexible. 
-Eric Bana

It's the first Monday of my summer vacation and I just returned from my first morning run. In a few hours, I'll be seeing my first (of many, thanks to MoviePass) movie of the summer - Incredibles II. Due to my school district moving to a pre-Labor day start for the 2018-2019 school year, this summer is rather short. This year marked my fifth year as a fourth grade teacher. While five years seems like a really long time and doesn't leave much room for "new," I realized that there were five major "firsts" this year. Since I hate blogs that are just personal reflections, I'll also be sharing how these can impact your classroom.

It was my first year in yet another new classroom

First day selfie on top...
Final day on the bottom
For those of you playing the home game, this year marked my third classroom in five years. My first move was due to relocating in Virginia, and this one was so I could be closer to home. I have to say, a ten-minute commute (compared to my previous 45-90 minutes) is a beautiful thing. 

A new classroom means a new set up, different expectations, and more. I can definitely say that this school was the best fit for me. My students and team were great (I'll expand on these both more later) and my administration was incredible.

How this can impact your classroom

Don't be afraid to try for a new position. Whatever your reason, be it closer to home, a desired change in vision, or anything else, this shift could be a wonderful thing for you. That being said, I do not necessarily recommend moving classrooms every year, though lugging around so many boxes is a great workout. 

It was my first year without 1:1 Chromebooks

The only real "downside" to my new classroom was that I was not permitted to use my DonorsChoose class set of Chromebooks, due to district policies. While I totally get the rationale (devices not owned/managed by districts can become a nightmare), it definitely was a big shift in my instructional practice. I had to share a cart of Windows laptops with another teacher. 

However, around the holidays, I realized this ended up being a good thing. It forced me to switch up some lessons, explicitly teach how to effectively collaborate with partners while using devices, and refine my whole group/small group skills.  

How this can impact your classroom

Technology is the tool, not the lone savior. Do not become too reliant on computers, since you never know when they might go away. Focus on the teaching and use technology to augment the lessons, but never make it the only way you instruct.

It was my first year of having nicknames for every student

Nicknames have been a hallmark of my teaching since I began way back in 2013. It's always fun to say, "Youngblood, your reading teacher is here" and watch the shocked look on her face. However, I've never had a year where all my students have had nicknames. In the past, some students just straight up didn't want them, and in some cases, I couldn't find a organic fit. Nothing is worse than forcing a nickname.

This year, all 25 of my students had nicknames, from the reasonable "Tiny" for the smallest student in the room to the ironic "Trouble Family: Trouble, Double Trouble, Triple Trouble, and Quad Trouble" (the four quietest girls in the room) to the completely random "Jim Boy" for a student whose name was not Jim nor even James. This is a small thing, but helped create a sense of community and belonging in the classroom. Even my "Nemesis" loved her nickname and was in tears at the end of the year when it was all over. 

How this can impact your classroom

It doesn't have to be nicknames, but do something that make your students feel special. There are a billion viral videos of personal handshakes for each students, or create something that is you. No matter what - students need to feel welcome and embraced in your classroom. It doesn't have to be a major endeavor, but it has to be noticed by the students. You can't teach someone who doesn't want to learn from you.

It was my first year that I got along personally and professionally with ALL members of my team

Super teachers!
This isn't to say I actively disliked past teams. I still keep in touch with many old colleagues, but this is the first year that I felt like all members of my team let me do things "The Justin Way", without pushing their ideas onto me. (The Justin Way is hard to accurately describe, and I have been trying for three years on this blog to define it, to no avail.) We shared ideas and helped each other grow, but in a way in which everyone's ideas were respected and no one was criticized.

How this can impact your classroom

If you're on a team like this, be grateful. If you're not, see what you can do to change the culture. Team dynamics are hard to balance, but pays off in great dividends when they work. Put the time in to ensure it works and be open with your communication.

It was the first year I felt I had good work/life balance

Teachers suck at work/life balance. Not a controversial take, and I was among them in the beginning of my career. This year, I made a commitment to take care of me more and to enjoy my life outside of work. While teaching is a career that requires it to be a true labor of love, it's also important to realize that it is a job, and you work to live. There's no purpose in working yourself to the grindstone if you have nothing outside of work to look forward to.  

How this can impact your classroom

Find a hobby that has nothing to do with education. For me, it's writing about testicular cancer and men's health, but that's probably not your thing. (Though if it is, hit me up!) It's important to be a person first and a teacher second. After all, you cannot give them your 100% if you're not at your own personal best.

Set limits on yourself. The ones who should be working hardest are the students - not you, furiously lesson planning and grading papers at 1 am. 

A bonus point as I look to my sixth year in education  


It was my last year as a fourth grade teacher

One last selfie in the classroom
It's been a great five years as a fourth grade teacher, and I would say that this year was my best, between the above five points, the end of year academic gains my students made (including the highest pass rate on end-of-year assessments I've ever had), and more that didn't make it in this blog. That being said, this past Friday was my last day in the realm of fourth grade education. 

Starting on August 1, I will be transitioning roles to an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher (also called a tech coach, technology integrator, TOSA, or other titles depending on where you live). While I will still be within my same school district, I will be at a different school, meaning this is the fourth change for me (and fourth workout thanks to carrying around boxes). 

I have wanted to pursue this position for a few years, but kept putting it off. I had opportunities the past two years to make the change, but turned it down on both occasions (apparently you cannot get a mortgage if you don't have a signed work contract - who knew). I almost decided not to apply this year since I was having such a great year, but it felt like a good time to make the switch. I am beyond excited to start this new role, but I will miss working directly with my own class. 

How this can impact your classroom

Like I said in the first point, if there's a change in assignment you've been eyeing up... go for it. There's no time like the present. The great thing about teaching is that there are so many different things you can do and still be within the realm of education. If you want to try something new, give it a whirl and know you can always go back if it's not what you thought. 

And while you're changing roles, purge things that won't be directly related to your new job. Hand it off to colleagues or the teacher taking over your room. 

They (and your back) will thank you. 

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