If I have any Year Eleven wisdom to share so far, it’s the oldie-but-goodie, be yourself.
As a child of the 80s, this is probably the most common recurring theme of the television, movies, music, and games that shaped my youth, but it has taken awhile to sink in.
Like most <s>teachers</s> people I know, I have a list of Things I’ll Do Someday. I’ll build my Pinterest classroom, and start each day with a poem, and have anchor charts for every protocol and strategy with a dedicated color scheme that my students all know and internalize…someday.
I tell myself every year that this is the year I’ll make literature circles or writing partners really work. Or that I’m finally going to structure some kind of intense folder system when I have ____, or incorporate elements of Restorative Justice into my first five minutes if I ____. Someday remains elusive, as it always will, because it’s not really that I’m waiting for a day to arrive when I’ll have everything I need and I can begin. I know better than that. I say “someday,” but I know that I’m keeping myself from bringing things into my practice.
Some things, I don’t implement because I know I lack the resources. But often I shy away from things I want to bring into my classroom because of my own fear or discomfort. I have been afraid to be silly or passionate, especially early in the year, because I have worried that students will not take our class (me) seriously enough. Later, I’ve told myself, we’ll set up this routine. And of course, later never arrives, so I’m safe from having to be vulnerable.
Six years ago was the last year I incorporated yoga and breathing into my classrooms. I was cheerfully corny as I maintained that the first few minutes of our class would be for checking in and centering, and it was not long before even the kids who at first giggled or rolled their eyes were setting up for breathing without reminders from me. Breathing in 1…2…3. Breathing out 3…2…1. I encouraged my students to make noises on the breaths out – silly noises, stress-relieving noises – and they began taking turns setting and demonstrating the sounds of their choice. Some days we roared like dinosaurs, some days we sighed a cascading scale; we meowed and belly-laughed, oohed and ahhed. More than a few students told me the breathing and small moments of meditation were helping them in other classes and throughout their days, but even among those that never talked about any benefits, there were students who seemed steadier, lighter, more at ease.
I only made these activities a priority for 2 or 3 years, and I stopped bringing them to students when demands were put on my classroom to be more focused, controlled, and guided. The independent and choice-driven elements of my practice were discouraged, my teaching labeled “not rigorous enough,” the routines of my classroom considered too loose. I believed that the goal of routine-building was to work towards a point where students knew what to do and could move through the routines without needing my guidance. I believed, and still believe, in student ownership of routines and systems. But the administration didn’t believe in me. And quite suddenly, I found I couldn’t bring myself to take the risk of being silly. I couldn’t risk not being taken seriously, not imparting the importance and weight of my class onto my students and admin. I couldn’t ask them to close their eyes and breathe, or stand up and shake out their shimmies, because the unimpressed gaze of my trying-to-be-cool teenagers would fill me with dread and uncertainty. I couldn’t hear myself whispering this back then, but I can hear it now, when I think back on it: You’ll get in trouble.
It’s not at all surprising that not feeling secure enough to take small risks led me to take fewer “big” risks, too. My practice suffered, everything from classroom management to realizing my ideas and plans feeling wobbly and off, and self-doubt pushed me steadily toward the door that led Out of Teaching. I drew the lines around me tighter and tighter, afraid to step outside of the space I saw as allotted to me. Anytime I tried to remember my values and step back into what I believed, someone’s side-eye or negative comment would derail me completely. How could I be silly, or genuine, or put any trust in my abilities and knowledge? Even the little corner I had painted myself into wasn’t entirely safe. Writing from our lives, culturally and currently relevant teaching, choice-driven writing, outside-the-box projects…so much of what had made my classrooms exciting and engaging for the students on the edges now lay beyond my reach. Someday, I kept telling myself. Later.
But, of course, it was no day, never.
This year, despite all of the anxiety and overwhelm that comes with a new year, a new school, new systems and people and protocols, I decided I am not waiting for someday. Because, today is someday. So why not today?
My biggest, most promising (to drive us up the wall) class and I began our 2nd week together with Brain Breathing, a name I give small mindful breathing practices. My students giggled, and stared at me like I had asked them to stand on their heads, and one or two sucked their teeth. Breathing in 1…2…3. I coached them, leaning towards them as I walked by and gesturing to my ears like, “I can’t heeeeeear youuuuuu.” Breathing out 3…2…1. The student who has already seized the mantle of Yes I’ll Go There exhaled with a loud, bearlike grunt. “Yes!” I cheered, as the class tittered. “Everyone do that this time, big noise when you breathe out. Ok, ready? Breathing in!”
When we breathed out, I pressed my lips together and let them ripple with my exhalation as I gave a high-pitched squeak, trilling like some kind of parakeet. 25 students looked at me with delighted eyes, ready to try it with me the next time.