Be Yourself (No, Seriously.)
I haven't written a blog post in awhile because well... if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. My transition to high school has been hard. I'm not going to be negative here (at least no more than is necessary for the story and lesson!) but I've basically felt like I've been on an uphill treadmill. I'm working very hard but not really getting anywhere. When it comes to content, I'm a first-year teacher. I'm building the plane as we're flying. In fact, I'm building two planes since I've got two brand-new courses. Luckily, my Government curriculum so far hasn't been very different from my 8th grade US curriculum. Econ though is 100% new.
New doesn't mean bad, and it doesn't even have to mean hard. The problem is that not only do I have new content but I have a new grade level. My seniors, whether because they are seniors or because of 18 months of COVID lockdowns, are extremely passive. They don't cause problems (minus a couple kids), don't talk back and turn in way more work than my middle schoolers ever did. However, they are really hard to excite. I've worked using all the tips and tricks I've picked up (and shared in my book!) to make my class visual, interactive and engaging. I still mostly get crickets when I try to do anything requiring interaction or discussion.
It is hard not to take it personally. I know I shouldn't since when we have a couple minutes at the end of class and I encourage them to talk to others, they still don't. They pull out their phones and sink into their own world. I'm battling against that daily.
Understand that I am super strict about cell phones and earbuds in my classroom. It is so important to me that the topic makes up a significant portion of one of the chapters in the book. I don't see many earbuds at Disneyland and I work at least as hard as the Imagineers, so why do I see them in my classroom? I take it personally. The student is saying, "What you care about isn't important to me." I was so frustrated after two weeks of battling that I was ready to give up. If other teachers at the school allow it, why should I be the one to fight it?
Two more weeks of it and I was done.
So, this week, we did a full expectations reset. I started the week with a picture of teens at Disneyland. They were joyous. They were interacting. They had no phones in hands or earbuds in heads. I showed my book to my students. I told them why my class felt different than their other ones. Then I told them how their phones made me feel. I also introduced them to the WILD CELLPHONE CAGE that now sits on my desk. It is a simple 3-drawer thingy I picked up at Walmart for $7. It's clear so students can watch their wild cellphone even if they have to be separated from it. I told them if I saw one after the bell, it was going in the cage. I wasn't going to call mommy. I wasn't going to send it to the office. This wasn't about punishment. It was about me being real with myself and them about what I needed to not be miserable every day.
I told them that in return for their attention I'd continue to give them my all. I'd continue to provide unique, engaging experiences - not every day but as much as possible. I reminded them that we hadn't used the textbook yet and I'd do my best to keep it that way. I reminded them of some of the highlight labs we've already been able to do. I also explained that if they needed to use their phone for academic reasons or even if they were expecting an important text they could just tell me and I'd let them do so. I want to treat them like adults.
And then I waited.
Three school days later I've only had 2 phones go into the cage, and one was from a student who was absent the day of the reset. I've given a few reminders to kids who had them out before the bell but, unlike in previous weeks where they'd ignore those warnings, they get them put away very quickly. Earbuds have also been better, although they may need a cage as well ultimately. As one student said today, "I didn't even realize they were in, it's a bad habit." I believe him. I've also seen far fewer tardies (as I also explained I wouldn't be accepting those any longer either, even if they've been getting away with it for a month in all their classes.)
So, some improvement, good!
Mostly importantly, I feel much better going to work. I get to be me. I shouldn't dread going into work because I'm worried about having to compromise my beliefs and feelings, but I have. I now feel more in control, which is important to me, and that I can more freely do the type of teaching I know I do best.
Why in the world didn't I listen to myself sooner?!
I wrote an entire chapter based on Marty Sklar's Imagineering Commandment 8: Avoid Contradiction, Maintain Identity where I explained that my advice to every new teacher is very simple: Be yourself, always. For Disney this means being Disney. They aren't Six Flags. They shouldn't try to create the wildest, tallest, fastest thrill ride. They should do what they do best - create incredible immersive themed attractions. I don't want to ride another story-less roller coaster. I want to ride Radiator Springs Racers! If Disney compromised I suspect guests would not ultimately be happy. Neither would the designers. They'd second-guess themselves. Doubt would creep in. Dread would follow close behind. That's what was happening to me.
I don't expect things are going to be great from here on out or anything. I'm still running up that treadmill after all. But at least now I'm not dreading the work out! This week was already a significant improvement and, for the first time since the first day of school, I'm looking forward to what is coming. I'm being authentic. I'm avoiding contradictions. I'm being me.
Be yourself, always.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go read another chapter of my book and see what other my own advice I've forgotten to follow this year...