4 Tips from Veteran Teachers on Finishing Well

Marathon Finish Line

The hallway was misty dark. A lone security light shone. I walked into the front office of my school to clock in. It was quiet, too quiet.

It’s odd how empty a school can feel without the familiar, raucous noise of children. On this teacher workday, though, what needed cleaning more than the walls of my room were the walls of my heart.

The staff meeting was the usual fare: differentiation strategies, technology initiatives, and house cleaning issues such as how to avoid students writing profanities in the bathroom.

Neither the information from the meeting nor the delightful lunch cooked by one of our Burmese assistants could a certain gnawing in my soul, though, one that had been growing all week. The teachers dispersed to work in their rooms. I, on the other hand, needed something more, so I stepped into Ms. Beth’s room.

“So, experienced teachers, . . .” the words kind of hung in my mouth as I groped for words. “I . . . think I . . . need a pep talk. I’m discouraged.”

I started last week fresh, compassionate, and focused, but as the week wore on, so did my resolve. Grades due next week loomed over me. Times I’d yelled at kids echoed in my ears. A shadow of inadequacy loomed over the approaching week, as it seems no amount of work can be enough. The hardest part is knowing my class will not get better any time soon. The hatred they continually show each other far outweighs the pain of the disrespect they show school staff. Let me say first 5th grade is a punishing grade to teach regardless of the class, and this year, even more so.

“Be specific for me. Think for a minute,” Ms. Beth said to me as she left the room. After a minute, she returned with a sheet of laminated vocabulary words and anchor charts about 50,000 feet long.

“I . . . just really want to finish well,” I said as I picked up a 2-inch long pair of scissors. “I already know I’m not coming back next year, but I want to end this year strong.”

We started to cut out the sheets, and the conversation that followed over the next hour with her and Mr. Drew helped shed some light for me and give some much-needed perspective.

  • Forget about the standards. Find something they are interested in, and get them engaged. “The idea that you can define what the average kid should know by a certain age goes against every developmental study on children,” Mr. Drew said. All children are on different levels and learn differently, so try to meet them where they are.
  • Focus on your strengths. Whatever you do well, gear your lessons toward that.
  • Focus on the few children you can make a difference in. By this point in the year, you know who those children are. For me, it’s a certain boy in my class from a broken home who has some behavioral issues. For whatever reason, though, he really has gravitated toward me, and for the first time in his life, he doesn’t want to miss school. I’m thinking of ways of supporting his extracurricular interests and giving him positive dreams for the future.
    For the rest of the kids, you won’t know the difference you made until 5 years in the future. Then you may get a random email from that child telling what a difference you made, as Mr. Drew has noted.
  • Know God has a plan and will put you where he wants you. “Teaching at the other school was hell on earth,” Ms. Beth remembered of her former employment. She told about how she had to finish that year strong, and while doing that, she got a call from our school asking her to come for an interview. They hired her almost immediately—with no references needed! “Who even does that?” she said of the process, concluding it could have only been a God thing. Having been to 35 countries, she is no stranger to divine appointments, either, and she encouraged me that the Lord will make a way for me after I leave.

By the time the last strip of laminating plastic fell to the floor, I felt a great deal better. Looking at the pile on the floor, with the little blue scissors still in my hand, I could tell talking things out had allowed these two teachers to cut some negative attitudes from me and give me some vision for the last stretch of school.

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