When Start of School Is Like Pandora’s Box

A MiddleWeb Blog

I’m writing this a month after our school start in New Jersey. You may be reading it a few weeks later. But I think you’ll find much of it – and especially the parts about performance pressure from above – timeless.

There hasn’t been much time to sit down and write, but the whirlwind of the first few weeks of school is starting to slow down. As I sit down to write, my thoughts of the past few weeks lead me to last June. Last June, I was organizing the contents of a hope chest for the coming year. Today, I find myself sitting down to catch my breath.

Sitting here on the couch, page still pretty empty, it occurs to me that the hope chest I packed in June has started to transform into more of a Pandora’s box. I can’t let this happen. I need to rethink my storage system.

Revisiting autumn demands

The stressors and deadlines have arrived, as they do each September. Some of them are district imposed. Some are self-imposed, the ones I put on myself when I think nobody is watching.

We have a lot of changes going on in our district. For the first year, our report card system has moved from a more traditional one to a standards-based progress assessment. We had two days of additional training prior to the beginning of the year, and I do feel more informed about the resources available to me and district-wide goals.

Presentations by four of our academic department leaders were made, and time was given to discuss this new system of reporting student progress more specifically, in four academic areas.

During training, each supervisor acknowledged the challenges we all face in education. They know we all have a lot on our plates. They do too. And their expectations involve how much time needs to be spent each week focusing on their specific discipline. I am still curious as to how to report the social and emotional components of our learners. My thinking on that is still a work in progress.

But school doesn’t work on neat, tidy schedules. The number of minutes spent each week in pursuit of academic achievement and personal development is something difficult to measure using the minutes set forth on a schedule.

Time spent during blocked math and ELA time blends beautifully with quite a few of our district’s Social Studies and Science goals for the year, and vice versa. This can’t truly be measured. Teaching across disciplines happens throughout our days in Room 4T, not just between the hours of 10:10 a.m. and 10:55 a.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and 10:45 and 11:25 on Fridays.

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The pressures inside

While there are plenty of outside pressures at school, many of the pressures still come from inside. Like many of my students, I think I should already know things. Should is a dangerous word. That being said, I really should de-clutter my hope chest. I need to get the pressures out of my chest. I need more boxes, somewhere to store them…just for a little while. They need to be locked up, away from polite society.

Most of us are meeting a brand-new group of students. When you’re outnumbered twenty-five to one, getting to know students on an individual basis doesn’t happen overnight. How could it?

Last weekend, I brought home my initial narrative reading assessments. One story. Four questions. Each question designed to help me diagnose the reading and writing capabilities of my new crew. I also administered math, spelling, and geography assessments during the first few weeks of school, as we focused on learning class routines and familiarizing ourselves with each other.

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The pile of pre-assessments is growing. Files are being filled with academic artifacts to analyze for our first standards-based report cards. These files need their own home. While there is much hope in them, there’s not enough room in my literacy hope chest. They need their own box.

Our new reporting system is broken into trimesters, so I have time to gather intel and get to know this new crew. Already I can see that I have some class members who struggle with academic achievement. Still, there are many who I am just beginning to get to know. That’s why I have to pack away the time clock too, and focus on what’s in front of me. The kids.

The pressures from inside belong in a box, placed high on a shelf in the back of the closet, next to the lock-box full of outside pressures and expectations. And these boxes need to stay closed right now, somewhere safe and out of reach. I need to focus on the hope chest. It contains the resources I need to expand my teaching and grow as an educator. And it’s the means by which I will get to know my learners.

New kids, new challenges

These days, the emotional and social aspects of my students’ development is taking a good deal of time away from our academic endeavors. We’re learning, but there are a few glitches we need to get figured out.

I’m spending a lot of time reminding this year’s class to save the chatter for chatter time. We have a lot of lively discussions in 4T, but too much of anything can get us out of whack.

I asked my parents for help with the chatter at Back to School Night. I let them know that their kids were enthusiastic learners, but that many of them never stop talking (unless I use my teacher voice). No joke. I turn the lights off, they keep chatting. I clap and see if they can hear me once. I clap twice. I got up to six claps the other day. While I’m happy that there is already a buzz in our classroom, I must admit, this year’s group is a little over the top.

“Please grab your math journals and meet me on the rug,” should not take this long to accomplish. (I realize I used the word should, but I am requesting a dispensation.) We’re old enough to transition to and from the rug, give or take a lost math journal or two, without poking our friends or pushing in line.

I need help.

A lot goes on behind the doors of the teachers’ room, and in classrooms all over. Conversations are whispered in quiet huddles. Speech and OT scheduling, pull-out and push-in support are negotiated, Child Study Team members are sought out, and tech specialists are consulted as we try to figure out the needs of each individual child – or why the pen on our Smart Board seems possessed by demons.

Behind the door of the teachers’ room is a world that educators know well, but that most of the public is unaware of. This is often where we gain insight into our students’ individual strengths and challenges, whether academic, physiological, or environmental…and okay, to vent a little about the pressures of unrealistic expectations.

Setting personal goals is important. Curiosity is a good thing. But when you think about it, Pandora did start a pretty big mess. For now, I need to keep Hope tucked safely away, along with some realistic goals for 4T this year. It’s going to be another good one. I can feel it in my chest.

Feature image source

Mary Tarashuk

Mary Tarashuk teaches 4th grade at Wilson Elementary School in Westfield, New Jersey. Mary has been an educator for over 20 years. She has served as content writer and creative consultant for the national, award-winning initiative The Walking Classroom since its inception in 2005. Mary’s work has been published in Education Digest and was honored with the SmartBrief Education 2016 Editors’ Choice Content Award. Trying to balance her old-school teaching style with New Age methods that integrate ever-changing technology keeps her on her toes. She believes that fresh air and exercise enhance learning and engage students of all ages. Follow her on Twitter @maryrightangle and check out her Kids on the Cusp page at Facebook.

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