We’ve all been there. Sitting in a staff meeting or a professional development session, hoping for something we can use next time. Monday. Tomorrow. Next period.
It’s happened to me, although I’m insatiably curious and really passionate about how teachers learn and grow. I think a lot about the teaching life (because let’s be real, it’s not a job). But even so, I’ve sat in pd sessions when I knew I didn’t have lesson plans for the next day and I knew I had stacks of papers to grade, and thought “that’s all well and good, and I would love to talk more about it later, but I need something for next time.”
At its most frustrating, teaching can feel like an endless string of “next times” with never enough time to prepare or research or grade or think (let alone rest!) in between. And yet somehow we do it. When external inspiration isn’t there, we dig deep and find some ourselves. And a lot of teacher growth comes from those next times and the trial and error they allow. The countless stickies scribbled to our future selves with notes like “next time, put them in pairs first to brainstorm” “next time, start with big question” “next time, make connection between activity and assignment more explicit.” And somehow, between the notes and the constant internal dialogues, the next time is a bit better.
But I’ve been teaching for 19 years and I’m still saying “next time.” It might sound cliche to say “teaching is hard,” but sometimes I feel like it needs to be said. And I’ve taken to saying “this is harder than it looks” to my class sometimes when I’m trying to do the mental gymnastics of balancing the day’s objective with the current needs of the students and the time remaining–all in a split second to not upset the pace, of course. And teaching will always be hard, but I strongly believe good professional development should work to decrease those next times. Because if someone else has found a better way of getting kids reading, writing and thinking, I want to know about it. Now. Before I write a few dozen more lesson plans.
There’s also this poem I love by William Stafford titled “Next Time” (scroll down for full text) that probably isn’t about teaching, but speaks to me about what we do, or try to do, every day. The scene is pretty simple: the speaker pauses before entering a house and vows to be more mindful, to be present to the wind and the air next time. Then the middle stanza continues the idea of mindfulness, but moves from vowing to be aware of nature to vowing to be present for people. And these lines about being mindful of people are what to me really captures the challenges of teaching so well:
When anyone talked to me, whether
blame or praise or just passing time,
I’d watch the face, how the mouth
has to work, and see any strain, any
sign of what lifted the voice.
Because sometimes being present for students is more important than the lesson plan. Listening past the somewhat jumbled words and the often accusatory tone to the sincere curiosity, the humanity, underneath. And again, how difficult it is. Especially when it’s not one voice at a time, but 28 or even more, and you’re trying to be present for every single one.
The last few lines of “Next Time” talk about finding “for every person/ the body glowing inside the clothes/ like a light.” Which, to me, is the goal of teaching as well. Not entertaining for an hour, or filling a pail by the end of the semester, or getting the commas in the right place. But respecting that the students who are entrusted to us have lives, too. They come to us already full of ideas and they leave with much more to learn, but they are always whole people behind the assignments.
And maybe this project is as idealistic as vowing to wholly listen every time anyone talks to you. But I want to use this blog to share tips and activities that are so practical, teachers really can use them next time. Of course, the internet is full of teaching tips and printables. But I’d like to save you the time of weeding through the articles, books, and research and point you to ideas that are most worth your time. And hopefully the insights that have taken me years, even decades, to acquire will decrease the number of next times needed. So that next time you can stay focused on the glowing lights instead.