Rough Waters

By Daniel Summers

My desk is a mess. I share my room with the Chinese Teacher and her students left my window open last weekend. Papers blew all over the place. Rain soaked my jacket. My favorite book of quotes looks like I fell asleep with it in the bathtub. That was six days ago. I haven’t reorganized anything. My desk is just sitting there like several layers of tectonic plates. Eventually there will be a shift, and then a quake, and then the inevitable tumble of nine weeks worth of “I’ll get to it later.”

I don’t know about you all, but I’m a little overwhelmed at the moment. I hate to complain, but I’m treading in some fairly rough waters right now. I was speaking with my colleague the other day about how organization and preparation only get you so far in our profession. Short of eliminating all personal time, getting behind is an inevitable truth of our occupation. By the second-nine-weeks being tired is a teacher’s aphorism. It probably goes something like this: “If you ain’t tired, you ain’t teachin.” Someone make a t-shirt. Anyway, my colleague made a good point. There does seem to be that magical breed of teacher who arrives just before the first bell, leaves empty handed each day–and yet, they still seem to be getting their stuff done. I told my colleague that these teachers were either part unicorn, or they were kidding themselves. She said, “Or, maybe they have a boat and we are just swimming.”

Boom. She turned my rough waters (metaphor? Analogy?) figurative language against me. Maybe my desk–and hers–look like burn piles waiting for matches because we only know how to tread water. We don’t have a boat.

All of this is to say: what needs to happen for a teacher to sail through a storm rather than get tossed around? To draw from William Ernest Henley, how do we become Captains of our soul?

I made a list. Please be aware that I barely practice what I am preaching here. Also, none of these things are working for me. Also, I am no expert. Still–I am capable of recognizing my own wisdom without feeling too egotistical. So, here is my wisdom.

  1. The Hull (Your co-workers)

Teaching is one of the few spaces where it is cool to have your primary friend base be your co-workers. We need each other. The thing that is most likely to keep us afloat is another person. When I feel overwhelmed, I need someone to talk to. Sometimes I can barely face the day. In those moments I need the reliability of my hallmates to give me advice, cover a few minutes of fourth-period, listen to my stress, or just be their consistent selves so that normalcy creeps into an otherwise abnormal day. The key, when building your ship is to keep it leak free. Surround yourself with positive people. The ones who are in love with the idea of teaching. Maybe it is okay to be overwhelmed–if you’re not alone.

2) The Mast (Your room)

At the center of everything we do is the space where we do it. Our room, or rooms, is the place where we manage all the directions learning goes. It is the hub around which it all turns. Make it a second home. Even a splintered mast can weather a storm if you are a good enough sailor. My best advice with the classroom: Fake it until you make it. Eventually I will clean up my desk, I will straighten the chairs and tables, I will hang the poster that fell yesterday, and I will update the objective on the board. When I do, my room with exude organization. It will be the envy of the hall. Teachers and students alike will flock into my chamber and be in awe at the pristine nature of my decor. Until then, I will remember that the room has character. It doesn’t have to be a symptom of how hard this job is. A slightly messy room can be a symptom of love for what we do.

3) The Sails (Your students)

It’s simple. Students catch the wind. They pull us through the day. They are why we are here. Who cares how hard it all is? If you are anything like me, when you are teaching you can feel each crest of every aha moment. Every hyperactive student who is testing their boundaries is one more relationship to forge. It’s like dancing. It’s like sailing. It is wondrous. It is energizing. My problems at the end of each day are rarely because of the students. It is the paperwork, the bureaucracy, and the politics of it all. When students try my patience, I just need to talk to someone and then I’m good. If you take care of your students they will carry you through almost any sort of day.

4) The Deck (Your School)

Take pride in your school folks. It’s a hall of learning. We spend a lot of our life walking amongst our school colors. Look out from the deck and enjoy the view. Sip some coffee and watch the madness play out. It’s okay.

5) The Rudder (You)

You steer this ship. It’s your show. Remember when I was talking about the mythical teacher who arrives and goes home on time? Great. That is their thing. You do your thing. Listen, maybe you need the two hours of grading every night. Maybe you actually like looking up ideas on pinterest on the weekends. It’s fine. You control the speed and the direction of your curriculum. SOmetimes leaders, students, and even coworkers will try to take the helm. But they can’t, you’re the rudder baby. You budge when you say so. Being overwhelmed is a state of mind. When in rough waters, slow down, turn into the storm and keep the ship afloat. That’s your job, and you are darned good at it. I know you are. I can see you out there, staying afloat in the storm. The truth is, we are allowed to be in rough waters. That’s what education is. And if you see a new, or seasoned, teacher out there treading water, throw them a life preserver, or a raft. We are in this together.

WVCTE is wondering, how do you stay afloat when you feel like it’s all too much? What supports do you use to stay calm and organized? Reach out to us on Facebook or on twitter @wvcte.

Let’s Talk

By Daniel Summers

I’ve been asking myself a lot lately: Why are we so afraid to talk with our students? We are fine talking to our students. Lectures are our forte. I, for one, can talk for hours about why the wallpaper was yellow and why waking up as a cockroach isn’t as bad as discovering your father never loved you deeply. We are equally fine letting students talk. Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned ‘small group discussion’ or an impassioned class debate? I’d argue, most teachers are very comfortable with using ‘talk’ as a learning tool in their classroom. So why are we so hesitant to talk with our students. I’m referencing genuine talk, the sort of conversation that is free to go in wild directions, to be influenced by the entire environment and mood of the speakers.

Let me pause for a second. I get on tangents in class. I get off topic…often. I’m not defending it, I’m just being honest. I realize that losing yourself in the whims of a young child or gulp a teenager can derail a learning objective quickly and disastrously. That is not what I am advocating in this blog.

Instead, I’m advocating for weaving actual time into your lessons for genuine discussion–free discussion about various topics.

There is a wonderful book by Thomas McCann, Transforming Talk into Text. In it, he gives dozens of strategies and examples for building confidence and skill in writing through the conversations of students. After reading the book I became determined to hold more discussion in class. It would be an experiment. Could I improve my student’s writing with entire lessons built around discussion? The trouble was, the discussions always derailed. We would begin having a multi-perspective conversation about self-driving cars, or industrialization in developing countries when suddenly we would be talking about a student’s favorite cereal. We lost entire instructional days because I had no idea how to keep the focus on the topic. Human nature just doesn’t allow most people to focus so intently on one idea over an extended conversation. Few things are more terrible and awkward than a forced conversation.

I was close to abandoning my experiment when I thought: Wait? Why do we need to stay on topic? Sure, I wanted them to use their verbal ideas as evidence in their arguments, but those usually played out quickly. It was in the exploration of the little ideas the less tangible thoughts that would blurt out randomly that my class found enjoyment. Why did I fight so hard against the organic nature of conversing? Was I worried that open and unstructured discourse wasn’t meeting a content standard or a learning objective? Well, yes. But, risk is what creates luck, and so when I sat down to write my lesson plans for the following Wednesday I wrote Discussion (Free). I normally place a topic in the parentheses.

Here is what I learned:

  1. Human relationships are the foundation of reading and writing. We tell our students to consider the audience when composing a story or argument. In doing so we treat the word “audience” like a vocabulary term rather than a connotatively familiar concept. The audience is who you are speaking with, that is all. If a student uses terms, allusions, references, or jargon that I am unfamiliar with I have an opportunity to ask for clarification. I make note of the moment. I use it to teach the audience later. Being able to reference actual conversations as examples of what students do well or can improve on has never put a single student into a bored stupor.

  2. Rapport matters. I mean it really does. A student simply doesn’t learn if they don’t feel trust and kindness in a classroom. They just don’t. We aren’t just in the room to teach content. Actually having free conversations for twenty to thirty minutes once a week gave me insight into the lives, hobbies, and dreams of my students. I lost all my excuses. I could reach every student by talking to them. So I knew every student was reachable. No more: “I can’t get Johnny to pay attention.” That was an excuse. The truth was, I didn’t know Johnny.

  3. We are always learning. Having sustained and meaningful conversations is a skill. Sadly, it is a skill which we rarely teach in k-16 education. An open and elaborate discussion is a part of the language arts toolkit. It is our most common form of meaningful conversation. Why not teach it? Why not practice it?

  4. It’s good for the mental health of students. Most students simply don’t have enough minutes in their day where they are capable of having a free conversation. In my experience, the free conversations that occur in my classroom are contemporary and relevant. I think we have a fear that, given an opportunity, students will devolve into purely juvenile topics. Given the freedom to just talk a little, most students will start asking me questions about current events or happenings in the school. Rarely do we end up discussing Pokemon or Vine videos. But if we do it is okay, because…

  5. The students are already critical analyzers of culture. They have all the skills we want them to have. They can critically read almost any aspect of popular culture and political happenings. They can formulate logical and coherent arguments. They just don’t know how to focus them and make them more succinct. What they need most is guidance on how to structure their thoughts and ideas when writing.

I plan for a discussion every Wednesday and Friday in my classes. They last about twenty minutes. I don’t label it as anything for the students. (I don’t say” “It’s discussion Wednesday”, or “Freetalk Friday!) I let them think that it is organic. Although, eventually they catch on. We just talk. I start out by asking how their day is going and then I just never get into content. It works. They want to talk. The entire time I am being honest with them about how lost I am or how impressed I am with the discussion. I consciously model a more structured and academic speaking style. Most importantly, I let myself enjoy just speaking to other humans.

It gets noisy sometimes, it gets derailed often. Sometimes the conversation fades. That is okay with me. I move on. I’m a teacher, plan B is ready to go. But I leave every week with a collection of my student’s strengths, weaknesses, interests, and soft skills. I use this data to influence future plans and assignments.

I don’t know how we expect our students to give presentations and write complex essays when they rarely sustain basic conversations for seven hours a day one-hundred and eighty days out of the year. Many of my students get in pockets where they only speak and listen to people who appreciate the same things they do. I’d like to argue that isn’t okay. We strive to give them diverse texts and diverse writing genres, but we rarely take advantage of the diversity in our own room.


“WVCTE is wondering…” How long do you take to get to know your students? Do you teach discourse in your class? What methods do you use?  “Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!”