Going Back to School Thoughts

I’m not ready. I’ve never been all-the-way ready.

The first day is always exciting, year, after year, after year. Imagine a career full of fresh starts annually. That’s teaching.

Spending a few prep days with adult colleagues feels comforting.

Yet nothing compares to the arrival of children in all shapes and sizes. Big sisters, little brothers, eager dads and well informed moms – all these people pouring into the building, filling it with life, giving the school a purpose.

We teachers and staff members hold our collective breath in anticipation and then celebrate an enormous exhale as the first hour breezes by, then lunchtime, then recess and already the first day is history and we can hardly believe our luck at the incredible people we will get to spend the year with.

So many smiles and excited conversations, so much catching up to do, so many friendships to renew. The hallways are loud with laughter and questions.

New students have a special look of awe about them. Taking it all in, finding the familiar faces they met the day before – such a relief to be recognized and waved to, encouraged that yes, this school might actually be OK after all.

While I think about routines and first impressions, setting the right tone and helping students feel at home, all it takes is one encounter – unanticipated, spontaneous- I’m helping a misdirected middle schooler find his health class or stop to chat with a new parent who is waiting around (in case of emergency) or meet a former student who stops to give me the most generous hug ever en route to her brand new classroom in 4th grade, not 3rd – one encounter and suddenly I am back. I am immersed in the flow of what we will call a new school year.

There is no agenda for these moments that make up the heartbeat of a school and I am grateful. For all the structures that schools embody and uphold, part of what keeps calling me back is the way young humans consistently resist, refashion and reclaim school structures to create space for their unique ways of being.

Every year I am witness to this 180 day ritual and I cannot imagine a better, more rewarding use of my time.

I’m ready. Let’s do this.



Pay Dirt in Advance


I don’t know how you start off your school year but I’m just realizing that my colleague and I manage a small miracle with our first few classes. Let me explain.

I teach in an international school where elementary students enjoy the benefit of several specialists. In our schedule Physical Education is taught opposite German language and English as an Additional Language (EAL) classes. Strings classes also enter the scheduling mix for all 2nd graders and some 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students. We see most of our students 4 days out of a six day cycle (which is to say frequently) and on some days with strings classes, my colleague and I will collapse two sections into one.

The schedule is complex and confusing, has lots of moving parts and amazingly it works pretty well for kids.

At the start of the year, as a team of specialists, the EAL and German teachers only have partial information about new students so that they need a couple of days in the first week to screen and place students into the correct levels. What this means is that in the 2-3 days of the school year, my colleague and I welcome a whole grade levelĀ  (45-60+ students) into the gym for 60 minutes while our three German-speaking colleagues work with small groups in a nearby room. This is a process we adopted some years ago and it has a some real advantages.

Right now I want to focus on that miracle I mentioned: 45-60 kids in a gym with 2 teachers for 1 hour on the first and/or second day of school. We introduce ourselves as the PE teachers, clarify a few essential cues they will need to participate successfully (start, stop & ‘come in’ signals; toilet locations) and slowly we get started. We practice finding a space, checking it at different levels, moving safely without bumping. We play stop and go with the music signal and have them try different locomotor movements. We do a round of whole group stretching and then practice making groups of different sizes. In a nutshell my colleague and I run an introductory class almost as if we were on our own with a group of 12-18 students (normal ratio).

The miracle is that this is possible. Not once, not twice, but every time, with every grade level. On their first day in the gym.

It’s possible because…

  • the majority of the students are returning and entirely familiar with our protocols.
  • new students take their cues from veterans and see among their peers that PE is something to look forward to and celebrate.
  • new students find a culture of inclusion where they find partners and groups who are welcoming and kind.
  • there is consistency from teacher to teacher. Whether returning students had me or my colleague the year before, the general expectations are the same so kids can feel confident in their anticipation of how things will work.
  • My colleague and I are comfortable sharing the planning, the “mic”, the follow-up work.
  • My colleague and I share an appreciation for what kids need during the lesson (i.e. time to talk and have fun with their friends and make new ones; more action and less talk).
  • We’ve built this program over several years and while my current colleague and I are only on our 2nd year of direct collaboration, the pattern of team teaching and shared planning has been in place for almost a decade.
  • My colleague and I like our jobs, enjoy kids, understand fun and build on each others’ strengths.

The results are actually amazing and worth highlighting. They are not accidental; rather they provide clear evidence that sustained teacher collaboration and team consistency are fruitful endeavors that benefit students and teachers.

In another day we will separate big groups into class sections and assign ourselves as teachers. Students will know who their teacher is and the school year will proceed as planned (more or less). They will also be happy and able to combine into big groups again from time to time. We’ll stride ahead knowing that they and we can handle both kinds of classes.

Beginning the year with this generous show of student trust, enthusiasm and relative clarity about what we are about in PE bolsters my confidence and stokes my desire to deliver on the promise we’ve already laid out. Pay Dirt in advance – may not happen often in our teaching lives but when it does, it is glorious.


image via Pixabay CC0

Moment to Moment

That moment …

…when I realize that the kids I meet lined up on the stairs are actually glad to see me.

… when I watch their attention gradually shift to me, my words, my message and for a hot minute, they’re okay with that.

… when my 5th graders see themselves on video, talk about it and then go solve their team building challenge in a heartbeat.

… when I see that my kindergartners are all over the place, not following directions and having the time of their lives, and I stop them, but do so with a loving sort of roar and they get it.

… when I realize that what I have to say to them simply isn’t as important as what I will show them with my actions.

… when I realize that if I find the right words (like magic, secret, or game), Pre-K will listen a little more closely.

… when I turn my back and my kids are just fine doing their work.

… when I look at my plan on the board and toss it out the window because my students need something entirely different.

… when my 4 year old friend comes to give me a hug because he wanted to give me a hug.

… when I tell a first grader that my Tinkerbell tattoo is watching him and we reach a new understanding as a result.

… when I realize that my colleague and I have the same plan written up in separate locations without having discussed it beforehand; we are intuitively “on the same page.”

… when I realize that after 20 years of teaching, the statement “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t” is truer and more resonant than ever, especially in relation to my students.

… when I recognize that a day full of skipping, galloping, bear walks and cartwheels is more exhausting at 50 than it seemed to be at 35 and 40.

That moment is now. Good night.

Changing Act

I’m back!
After a one year leave from school to follow my bliss, I have officially returned to my post, nearly ready to welcome students in just a few short days. The questions I’ve been fielding most often are “How does it feel?” and “Are you glad to be back?” To which my most honest responses have been, “so far, so good…a little awkward.” And “yes, I am glad. I really missed the kids and being around people most of the day.”

Here’s what I’m noticing and may well be contributing to the awkwardness I mentioned: While I was gone, the school did not stand still. Not only was someone else in my position doing a great job, new ideas were adopted, the curriculum has been reformatted and spectacularly annotated, our smaller, less attractive teaching station has been revamped to become prime learning real estate. All this happened in my absence.

My reception has been extremely warm and affectionate. Colleagues across all divisions have hugged me and shared their happiness that I have come back. This has been so very heartening and affirming. I was missed and several people have let me know that.

Still, this awkwardness nags me. What ego tricks is my mind playing on me? The situation has made me think more deeply about change. It’s easy to say we want change. But I suspect we often leave out a critical caveat: I want change as long as I can control it. Changes may entail some elements which are within our control, yet often harbor other aspects which are not at all under our control or influence.

And now some irony: as I write this now, I am using both eyes although one is nearly swollen shut. Through a freak accident while clearing mats, I whacked myself in the nose and eye with a plastic pole, slapstick style. Thankfully there was no blood and at the hospital an x-ray confirmed: nothing broken, no concussion. What a dramatic change I am facing! (pun fully and unapologetically intended.) I am back and currently look as if I entered a boxing match and lost quickly.


Yes, I like change when I can shape it, pace it, contain it, and turn it off when I’m ready. But change doesn’t work like that and neither do we. And thank goodness. “Eyes wide shut” strikes me as a particularly amusing phrase in this moment.

As I work a bit to find my way in “the new order” I will try to remember that already, with my return I am creating a newer and different order. I am also reminded that I am not alone in this order. We are in fact many: colleagues, students, parents. My return belongs to other people’s change. There’s probably a lot of awkwardness going around these days.

We are all change, whether we like it or not.