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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

"A goal is a dream with a deadline." - Napoleon Hill

I'm a goal setter (and a teeny bit of a perfectionist). Although I don't always reach my goals, I know it's important to set them.

Visions of Perfection

When I was a new teacher, the goal to have the "perfect" classroom was top of my list. It started with making sure that my room was painstakingly organized, down to the last color-coded crayon holder. What is that, you ask? Well, it was a system I developed to house my students' crayons by placing them in milk cartons, which were cut, taped together, covered with construction paper to match the color of each crayon, and then covered once more with clear contact paper! Each little eight-box set was covered with the color of the crayon, so that students could place them back in the right little color-coded box after using. (What?)

And that's not all. This carried over to the ritual of covering all my white cardboard box storage containers (no plastic for me) with decorative contact paper. And to top it all off, designing perfectly coordinated bulletin boards with perfect themed borders, selected by season or lesson focus.

How in the world did I ever manage that? I'm shaking my head as I remember how. I spent way too much time in that room, long past the school day and into the night, seeking the goal of the perfect classroom long after others had already gone home. The custodians on my campus frequently had to usher me out the door at 10 PM!

With all that time spent on perfect classroom decor, the perfect lesson plans followed close behind, starting with the planning system. As a new teacher, I took great pains to find just the right lesson planner, markers to color-code my lessons, and stickers to give their appearance some pizzazz. The planning process took me days, and I'd spend most weekends on the living room floor of my apartment with curriculum tools spread all around me. I'd forget to eat at times, turning down social invites, until the perfect lessons were developed, all written out by hand. No fun, no life!

So there I am: new teacher in the perfect classroom with the perfect lesson plan, hoping to be that perfect teacher. Meanwhile, the demands on my time start to pour in, my school starts a new initiative, and my adorable, not-so-perfect kids are in my classroom, crying, acting out, running around, and needing me to be anything but perfect.

So when did I finally stop and take a breath? Thankfully, through difficult discovery in my second year teaching, I soon learned that seeking "perfection" from myself as teacher was not what it was about. (What was I thinking?) Rather, it was about the journey or progress that I made in my work as a new teacher, and about how I unpacked that learning, set goals for myself when I failed, and laughed out loud with my kids (sometimes till I cried) that made a difference!

Savoring and Learning from the Experience

It’s important for me to share this background, because I want you to know that I made it harder on myself than it needed to be. Teaching is far from perfect; rather it's "messy," and in that "mess" is where you will craft your teaching life and truly enjoy the journey.

Take a look at three tips with me today on how to chart -- and enjoy -- your early teaching progress:

1. Get Out and Have Fun

The process is simple. Take time for yourself, make play dates with friends, kick up your heels and have fun! This simple strategy shouldn't take much thought, but many new teachers neglect to do this in those early months or even years of teaching. If you take my advice and make time for fun, in the end you'll be glad that you did. You'll be a happier person and a happier teacher, not to mention a more inspired one. I make this important point because I think that when we forget to have fun, as I did in my early career, we lose a bit of ourselves, and then have to work hard to recapture it. I want you to learn from the beginning to have balance. It will truly enhance your level of satisfaction with your teaching career.

2. Capture It With a Camera

Get out your cell phone or digital camera and photographically chart the progress of your career. Snap pics of your room, colleagues, lessons, kids and events. I'm sorry I didn't take the time to do this. Early on, I was so busy seeking perfection that I forgot to capture it. Imagine that -- all those memories, lost! In my mind's eye, I can still see the crayon holders, contact paper boxes, bulletin boards and adorable kids in my classroom like it was yesterday, but I don't have any visuals to share. Don't let this happen to you. Slow down, snap a pic of the less-than-perfect (fill in the blank), sit back, enjoy it, and then share it. You will treasure these images for years to come.

3. Journal About the Journey

I know you think that you don't have time to do this, but believe me, you do. Once a day or week, 15 minutes is all it takes. And you don't have to put your thoughts in the form of a "traditional" journal. You can do it at the end of the day, in your lesson plan, on your cell phone or -- better yet -- in a blog. Charting and writing about the progress in your practice, whether you choose to do it publicly in a blog or privately to reflect on later, will be priceless. It's what will give you that lens into the who, what and when of your career, that story you'll never want to forget.

I wish that I had taken the time to capture my early career with photos or a scrapbook, or journaled my dreams and goals. There were many roller coaster rides over the years, and it would have been great to have details that I could share. It stings a bit not to have those, but for now, I'll have to be content with sharing written tidbits of my early teaching journey on my blog, in hopes of offering encouragement to those who are just beginning their journey.

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Jason Green's picture
Jason Green
1st grade teacher, NY

This is my first year teaching, in a small school in NY. I often forget that it is okay to not be the perfect teacher. At the beginning of this year, I too spent far to long in my classroom making sure everything was perfect. Luckily, as the year progressed I became aware of my "issue". As I started to relax, I saw the benefit through my students. I was happier, because I was more rested, and so were my students. I found that not every lesson will be perfect. Like you said its all about the journey. I would change how I started the year because it led me to a new way of teaching. I really enjoyed reading your post, and I am going to start chronicling my experiences.

Deborah Owen's picture
Deborah Owen
High school librarian in Massachusetts

You are so right! The first couple of years of teaching can be utterly exhausting. I didn't have an elementary classroom like yours, but I understand the desire to feel like you are in control of something, because so often you feel a bit...well...out of control!

The end of the school year is a great time to reflect on how we can stay energized and focused on what is most important: building the kind of relationships with our students that will lead to them being excited, motivated learners. In fact, I just wrote a blogpost about this topic myself: http://convergenceinthecommons.com/2013/06/06/how-teachers-refresh-durin..., so I think it is something that we all take seriously, especially at this time of year.

Thanks for sharing your story and suggestions!

Pleas Smith Jr.'s picture

I agree as a future teacher that I going to make mistakes but I just need to enjoy the journey and have fun. I have teachers told me if you don't do different things besides teaching it can lead to burn out in the first year of teaching. The photos is a great idea because it gives you new ideas in the future and it gives you life memories that lasts a lifetime. The journal is a good idea to write your thoughts on a weekly basis and then look back to see if changes are needed in your classroom in the future. Great article!

Robert Jones's picture

Graduate Student
As a graduate student, reading your post has given me a lot of relief. I don't even have a teaching position yet and I have already begun visualizing how I am going to set everything up and what kind of activities I am going to do. My mom was a teacher for about 20 years. She use to do her lesson plans for the upcoming week on Sundays. I use to help her with all the decorations for her room and even help her with after school tutoring once I was old enough. Your post still opened my eyes to somethings that I had not realized yet. Like how she would come home, cook dinner, then continue working on things for her students. She was dedicated. Even to this day some of the students from the very first class she taught still call to talk to her. That's the kind of teacher I want to be. Now I understand how I can be a great teacher and have a personal life. Thank you for your post.

Whitney W's picture
Whitney W
Secondary Health Teacher

I really enjoyed the blog; it was insightful and pleasant to read. When I started my first semester of teaching it felt like I didn't have any time to do anything because I was too busy making lesson plans. But as the school year started to wrap up at the end of May I looked back at how much fun I essentially had with my students. It makes me want to capture those priceless memories for the next school year to come and truly enjoy my year instead of stressing over lesson plans every day.

dante''s picture

I just recently started subbing in Houston this past May and discovered many significant aspects regarding teaching. I like the blog that was posted and once I get a long term position I will make sure I utilize her analyses on first year teachers. I find that interesting the point she made about being the perfect teacher with the perfect lesson plan and how she had no life. I could see how as a first year teacher could fall into that. Of course, we all want to be the best possible teachers, but in the process you cannot forget about yourself.

warnerboyd's picture
I am here to learn and share experiences with my peers.

First of all let me say thanks for sharing your experience. I am a college student who will be heading to the class room in the not too distant future. I believe that this is extremely useful information for people like me who have not yet started.

A friend of mine told me some years ago "learn from the mistakes of others, because you will not live long enough to make them all yourself." So for me, all the little pointers; stop to take photos, relax and have a laugh with the kids, maintain a social life etc. are mistakes that I certainly don't want to repeat.

Its really about "balance" not perfection. Thanks again for sharing!!!!

DJUAN BARNES's picture

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. I recently had my first year experience and it's refreshing to know that it isn't uncommon to have perfect aspirations for the first year and fall short. Textbooks and lectures could only prepare me partly for the GRAND experience of my first year, but the experience has done wonders. I think this should be a required conversation for all new teachers. Who doesn't want to be the absolute best teacher?? Similar to you, my first year errors have definitely served as stepping stones for my upcoming second year and I look forward to continued progress. Your three points are worthwhile.
Thank you for the transparency!!

Brian I. Chapman's picture

I would like to thank you for this encouraging and enlightening blog. I am working on my teacher's certification and I was already planning how to schedule my time and structure in my classroom would be utilize. Needless to say, it was mentally setup in some similarities as yours. Now that I realize how exhausting you became, I am glad to have insight before I lose out on the small details.

Charles Hegemeyer's picture

You speak from experience! Most first year teachers want to make a difference and become that teacher that everyone likes and is impressed with. All teachers must understand that they will not always be able to maintain this perfect image. The best advice you gave is too let loose and have some fun! If you spend so much time working on trying to be perfect, you will drive yourself crazy. If you take no time out for yourself, you probably won't be in a good mood much of the time. If you are not happy, your attitude can sometimes reflect on your students.

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