Back when I was a runner and a coach, we used to talk about The Leap. It was an incredible improvement that made a good runner into a great runner. Often, The Leap happened unexpectedly, with better performances and faster times seemingly coming out of nowhere. The careful observer, however, saw The Leap as the product of countless hours of training. The Leap didn’t happen because of luck. It happened because a runner worked his/her butt off.
I think the 2017-18 school year is when I make The Leap as a teacher. I have five years of teaching under my belt – three years at the high-school level and two years at the middle-school level. Teaching for three years at a private school made me seem like a better teacher than I actually was. Sure, I had a lot of success, built strong relationships with my students, pushed every student to work near his potential, and prepared my students for future math classes. But I felt like I had so much to improve. I didn’t feel like I’d done anything especially innovative or otherwise amazing. Even on my best days, I rarely felt great, and no amount of compliments from students, colleagues, or administrators could change this. Ultimately, I suppose, that’s why I left. Maybe I could have made The Leap there, but I just wasn’t sure. I needed something different, something more challenging, something that would make me work harder than I’d ever worked before.
Years 1-3: Private, all boys, high school. Years 4-5: Public, coed, middle school. That’s what we in the education sector refer to as a “big-time change.” And gosh, did it ever feel like a change! Year 4 was my toughest year as a teacher and probably one of the most challenging years of my entire life. I questioned my decision to change schools so many times that year. I worried about all of the students I let down. I doubted whether I could ever truly be successful. I wondered whether I was even cut out for teaching. As I look back on that year, however, I realize that I did a lot of good work. I sure as heck wasn’t perfect, but things were never as bad as I made them seem. Students came back and told me how much they’d learned from me and how much they missed me. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad year after all. Could I have been better? Sure, but that doesn’t mean I did a bad job. It just means that I need to keep improving.
Without a doubt, my fifth year teaching was my best year teaching. My classroom ran much smoother than it ever had before – even if it still wasn’t perfect – and I built so many awesome relationships with my students. Did every student work to his/her potential? No, but I saw more engagement and more learning from this group of students than I had with any previous group. In large part, I trace this success to a renewed spirit, a relentlessly positive attitude, and a total commitment to making the year awesome. Much of what I did in the classroom had improved (the Five Minute routines, for example, made a big difference), but I was just better. Even on my worst days, I did a pretty good job. By the end of the year, I felt like I had made a major step toward being the teacher I want to be.
As I enter my sixth year of teaching, I have so much knowledge and experience to draw on. Two years at my current school has given me a solid understanding of what my students bring to my class and the challenges that they may present. And all of the professional development I’ve done – reading books and blogs, attending Twitter Math Camp, and just spending hours upon hours trying to make myself better – has given me so many insights into how I can best support student learning. My focus will be on refining old ideas, incorporating new ideas, and continually pushing myself to reflect on what works for my students. It’s no longer a matter of “How do I teach this?” Now, it’s all about “How do I teach this better?” I cannot say strongly enough how excited I am for the 2017-18 school year. It’s going to be my best year of teaching yet!