Sweeping Up The Mess

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. But perhaps this will explain why: a week ago I moved into a new apartment. Not the best timing, moving at the beginning of the school year, but it is what it is.

We went back the day after we moved to clean the old apartment. As I was sweeping up the dust bunnies and clumps of cat hair I felt that sense of satisfied contentment that comes from seeing the results of your labor come to fruition. Without all of the furniture and such filling the space it’s much easier to see the change from dirty to clean, since everything is out in the open.

The act of sweeping up reminded me of my very first teaching job. I had finished up my student teaching and then stayed on for an extra week subbing for a colleague as a favor. Then I worked for the rest of the school year at a different high school covering for a woman who was on maternity leave. I was there for three of the longest, hardest months of my life.

One of the things that was really difficult for me was how much of a mess my students had created by the end of the school day. I believed that this was a reflection on my inability to control their behavior. Classroom management was certainly not my strongest suit at that time. But—of course—I was harder on myself than I needed to be.

The thing that saved my sanity in those months was that there was a broom in my classroom. At the end of a particularly rough day I would sweep up the wadded up paper balls and broken pencils and other detritus from the school day. The janitor would occasionally catch me in the act and chastise me. “You don’t need to do that! You have other things to do. I’ll take care of it.” And he would. The janitorial staff at the school was awesome. But I would continue to sweep up the mess. I didn’t do it because I felt like I had to. I did it because the act of sweeping was meditative for me. Seeing the dirty floor become clean, because of something that I had done made me feel calmer. It was the one thing I felt I had complete control over. It was the one activity that I did all day long that allowed me to see the results of my work.

Teaching, especially in the first few years, is such a difficult task to do day in and day out because the results of what you do aren’t clear and obvious. You have the same issues with Jimmy three months into school that you did three weeks in. Katy still gets upset whenever she makes a mistake. You realize after you collect a quiz that half of your students still have no idea how to add fractions even after you went over it with them for weeks.

The tricks that you pick up along the way, over the years, help you to gain the perspective to see and notice the changes that are occurring in your classroom. But in that first year you can’t see it. At least not on a short scale timeline. I remember looking back and reflecting at the end of my first (full) year of teaching and realizing that I had changed a lot, and my students had changed a lot. Had I been able to look ahead to that moment in my first few months of teaching that would have been really helpful. Because in that moment, every day, every week seemed the same as the one before. Only after the weeks turned into months was I able to recognize the results of my work.

There is a construction site near my old apartment which sat seemingly untouched for most of the time we lived there. Part of that was probably due to the economy, but a lot of it had to do with the way a structure is built. The ground gets leveled, the cement slab poured. And then the site just sits there for a long time while the cement dries and cures and the architects assess and make adjustments. This particular site had been lying dormant for months. I walked past it pretty much every day last spring and it always looked the same. But then, we came back from our summer trip and a building had sprouted up out of the ground. A really big building.

The foundation takes time to build and to make solid. Once that has happened the rest springs up quickly. But you can’t build a solid structure without a good foundation. It takes time and effort to make that foundation, and then the walls and the roof and everything else build off of the work that you’ve already done. It’s still hard work, but you can see the changes you’re making each day.

Becoming a teacher is a little like putting up a building. It takes a while to create your foundation. And it’s really difficult work. But once you have that in place, the rest becomes easier (I promise!). And then you can see the progress that you and your students are making much more clearly.

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