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The Struggle Can Be Wonderful

Rewind the film with me. Rewind the film back to 1992 when Bill Clinton took office, and Princess Diana divorced, and The Jerry Springer show was “a thing.” Rewind it all back and lay eyes on me as an optimistic pre-service teacher riding a train forty minutes then walking thirty minutes to his high school placement. Staying late each day, I planned lessons with full access to many gracious teachers.

On one afternoon, after walking to the gym to watch a bit of a basketball practice, my mentor said, “You should have been here last year. I finally felt like I had my first great teaching year in a long, long time.”

Bernie had over thirty years in the classroom. In his lifetime, he volunteered for the Peace Corps. He was an active writer. He gave me books (Butterfield 8 by John O’Hara was his favorite). He volunteered at the James Michener Museum. He had lived in Brazil. With students, he was direct, yet compassionate; traditional, yet receptive. His organizational habits, spartan. My humble mentor was as well-travelled, well-read, classroom-tested, and culturally-aware as anyone I had met. I was a twentysomething and Bernie phoned my parents to tell them nice things about me. Who does that?

And here Bernie leaned forward against a railing, watching wrestlers jog and basketball players shuffle, and admitted that I am not seeing him at his best.

“Last year, I struggled every day. It was wonderful.”

He didn’t look at me. He just watched the kids. Rubber soles squeaked and screeched. Basketballs drummed like a heavy downpour. All I wanted was to return to the classroom to continue doggy-paddling and gasping through lesson-planning Romeo & Juliet. Now, I had a new distraction. I had no idea what Bernie meant. Deep within, I was paralyzed by the possibility of struggling in front of 9th and 11th-grade students. On the surface, I thought I was doing everything I observed good teachers do. I imitated them. And this made me relieved to a certain degree. Yet, Bernie’s words would gnaw on me for such a long time. I didn’t know why. It is only in retrospect that I now realize that I was missing something critical. I hadn’t yet learned how to see beyond the surface of the act of teaching. My lesson planning was all about what I am going to do, so that I might encourage the students to do–the things we can see and measure and store in filing cabinets like acorns for another year.

Fast forward to today, 2017. Twenty-four years later, Princess Diana would be a grandmother had she lived, Hillary Clinton was almost our President, and Jerry Springer is, incredibly, still a thing. And I am just beginning to understand the underground gift of struggle.

I think in order to grow, we need honesty. And maybe honesty has been (and continues to be) among the hardest elements for me–to be able to speak my fears, not be paralyzed or manipulated by them. I make a conscious effort to write honestly…even revealing things I maybe should not.

I get the temptation in the efficiency of defining ourselves by external evaluations–especially if that data is in our favor. But I wonder how much teachers really grow if we focus all of our energy only on data generated in an instant.

It is just so much easier to see ourselves as the metrics define us especially when we are sidetracked by countless distractions that pop up like sudden, blustery storms across the Chesapeake. Who has time for reflection and conversation let alone the long, slow sail through struggle?

Yet, I’ll say, yes, look at the data. Reflect. Even better, try to have a conversation about it…and then move forward. Do not let any external evaluation distract us from the beauty of the struggle. 

To teach. To learn. To struggle. The struggle is the good stuff. The struggle is who we are.

For example, a colleague and I continue to share a struggle with academic vocabulary. Recently, we culled a long list of academic vocabulary together from a Marzano resource. My colleague made long, laminated strips for display in each of our classrooms. We agreed to use a new academic vocabulary word each day–activities to provide students practice with academic vocabulary in non-evaluative, authentic situations. Well, easier said than done. What exactly are those non-evaluative, authentic activities? Can we do any that do not burn time? How do we blend these academic words into the authentic acts of each day? We were back to square one. Hence, our struggle. But at least we were talking and thinking together. It was wonderful.

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-10-53-29-amThat week, separately, I was building a Hyperdoc (still revised each day) around The Diary of Anne Frank. It took a few days to make a connection, but I discovered space for the light of academic vocabulary to appear in our classrooms via the Hyperdoc. Specifically, instead of a very generic subtitled Day 1: Relevance to Today I changed the subtitle to Day 1: Generalize and Grapple. A small change. screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-10-52-54-amA subtle change. But the real, immeasurable value is in the struggle.

Students read an article about a child, Bana, surviving in Aleppo using Twitter to chronicle life under siege. The journalist compared Bana to Anne Frank. One of the writing tasks used the identified academic vocabulary: “generalize between Anne Frank in Holland and Bana in Aleppo.”

I don’t know if I am having a good teaching year yet, or if I ever had one…irrespective of the ratings that come back from the state. I do know, however, that the gift of struggle is easily lost in the process.  Attending to everything simmering around us distracts our eyes only to the surface of our work. We need to stay immersed in struggle beneath the surface.

When we struggle, we reflect on our practice. Struggle and reflection are simpatico. 

Here is our truth. Students need our help. We need help. We need one another–everyone in the classroom and everyone in our buildings–because growth happens; growth is not manufactured. So, we need the humility to accept that our best teaching may never be realized or recorded because of the hundreds and thousands of unreported moments that matter to the young people we mentor. Spending too much time with isolated, externalized evaluations boils our internalized value to such a degree that attention to struggle evaporates. Struggle doesn’t feel so wonderful sometimes. Yet, the truth is, making professional and personal peace with struggle makes us better teachers. And it makes our kids better learners.

I understand now, Bernie. The struggle can be wonderful…if we can hold onto it, my friend.

I am wondering if others connect with Bernie’s affirmation, “Last year, I struggled every day. It was wonderful.”

Please feel free to comment!

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Trish DiFilippo #

    Thank you – I agree with with your insight about the struggle. I’ve always believed in the maxim that it’s the struggles that produce the best fruit (“struggling vines make better wines”). In life and the classroom, it’s the trials and maybe the failures that produce the best teaching. Struggles keep us out of that “perfect environment” that may not make us stretch and grow. Struggles are like the eustress – the kind that should be “interpreted as beneficial by the experiencer.” Hopefully the cumulative effect of struggles for the teacher is that roots develop that go deep and anchor us. The reflection you refer to is like pruning – painful at times, requiring humility, but the sharpening makes us more compelling. Then the ones who see and benefit from our best teaching are the ones that matter – the students.


    January 22, 2017

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