How to Survive Those First 9 Weeks

Here I am on my bed, still in my work clothes from the day, with my hair in a messy ponytail, having just finished inputting and verifying all my grades for the first 9 weeks of the school year. And even my worn down state of sickness brought on in part by playing a little too much the role of the Little Engine that Could, I feel a huge sense of accomplishment. Today while I was teaching I paused and talked to my students about two things. I talked to them first about how many more of them need to start caring, and caring deeply, abou their education. I said that many of them would feel deeply dissatisfied by their grade when report cards came out, but to remember that it was not a reflection of what they were capable of, but what they had given me over the grading period. I told them that many of their behavior was getting in the way of the success they could have, and I think many of them are seeing that more and more each day. But I also paused from the lesson today to let my students know that so many of them had come an incredibly long way from who they were when they first entered my classroom back in August. I have had students go from suspension kings and queens to diligent students, coming after school for help and turning in homework on time. Nothing is better than getting to make those calls home that your child that you worried about if they would make it in high school or not because of past issues is now earning As in both of my classes. There’s a lot that can happen in nine weeks. There’s a lot that has happened. And it makes me grateful for the consistency I stuck with at the beginning, because if the students know what to expect from you, it makes a great deal of difference in the majority of their attitudes.

So, then, how does one survive those first nine weeks? I survive it by drawing from that same essence of Mary Oliver that has carried me through so many different situations throughout my life. I remind my students that when they mess up, their teacher still believes in them, will still be there to teach them, and I remind myself the same when planning goes terribly wrong. My students are starting to see just what they are capable of and how very possible it is for them to craft their own niche in this world. We share in all the learning together:

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

~ Mary Oliver ~


“The Art of Making Possible”

Earth could be fair. And you and I must be free
Not to save the world in a glorious crusade
Not to kill ourselves with a nameless gnawing pain
But to practice with all the skill of our being
The art of making possible.

-Nancy Scheibner

October has a reputation for being the bottom of the rollercoaster month. It’s the month where personal days from the job are taken and people begin to question when they might see the changes in their students they had somewhere along the line convinced themself that they would see so very soon. For many, it is their “entrance into the world of so-called ‘social problems.'” For me, I entered, formally, last year. This year has made me even more grateful for my year abroad in Ghana. In the type of job that tries you to the very core of your convictions and perseverance at times, it is good to remind myself that I have made it before and I will make it again. One of the hardest parts of this job for me, however, is navigating the complexities of what it is I am truly doing in the classroom with my students.

My amazing friend Elizabeth introduced me to a poem entitled “The Art of Making Possible,” which was read by Hillary Clinton at the end of her college graduation speech. At the beginning of the poem it states, “My entrance into the world of so-called “social problems” must be with quiet laughter, or not at all.” The poet, Nancy Scheibner, goes on to talk about how the bitterness and anger and degradation must be left behind. Anger is sometimes a point that I start from, but I have found from my experiences that anger doesn’t change anything. There’s a lot of anger in the world, and a lot of anger in many of my students too. It’s useless unless channeled into something great, transformed from bitterness to meaningful manifestations in life. When I feel those bubbles of anger rising up, formed by the fact that my students should not have come this far through the system reading so far behind grade level, I remind myself that I can only control so much. But the thing that I can control is the now, and what they will learn and produce during my time with them in the classroom. Scheibner writes, “It is well at every given moment to seek the limits in our lives. And once those limits are understood to understand that limitations no longer exist.” There is never too much, too hard, too crazy–just the need and means of making it possible.

That’s what it all boils down to in the classroom: possibilities. I often tell my kids when they get in their teenage moods that I don’t mind if they  care nothing for me, as long as I can close my door at the end of the day and think to myself that I taught them what they needed to know and well that day. Moreover, that they leave feeling that they are capable of doing things that they previously thought was impossible.  One of my students in my last block wrote, “Ms. Younge’s class also can be beautiful…A class is not about gifts, presents and give, give, give. It’s about learning.”

I hear it whispered in corners and spoken about in a rush of emotions by people scattered about this country working in this very field. They begin to doubt the possibilities and instead begin to ask themselves why they do what they do because their kids will not be ready for college in time or their kids just don’t seem to care. There’s no need to debate the merit or truth to any of that because it would do nothing but consume the mind and leave little room for positive actions. Purposeful actions in the mindset of positivity and growth have been my saving grace. Because I will be the first to tell you that I have gone head to head and toe to toe with many of my students on multiple days. My kids are tough, but they are learning that my will is stronger…and my motives good.

But that’s when I get to practice my “teacher amnesia,” as one of the disciplinary deans at my school calls it. I have had students do crazy things that I will not even go into details here about and come back to my room and be placed right back into my classroom. At first my reaction was anger and indignation, but once that settled my mind began to open up to the possibilities. No one said the art of making possible was easy. And Scheibner did say I would have to practice it with ALL of my being. So if these students can overcome what has happened and learn that there must be no personal barriers to their education, then the possibilities of their future will begin to widen. I might be the instructor of the craft, but my students are the master crafters in this art.

If October has taught me anything lasting thus far, it is that the hardest days are eased by laughter and glimpses of hope. My kids might be a bit tough and rough on the edges, but they are also very funny and at times, to me, they are even inspiring. Their laughter reminds me that I must approach my mass amount of work with joy, because that is what is produced by the successes of it at the end of the day.

Because when Monica learns to fight for her education and not fight others, when Donisha answers questions with confidence she would not raise her hand to answer before, or parents call to thank me for the hours that I spend explaining things to their child, I remember that what I am doing and must continue doing in the classroom is channel the words of Scheibner. I must practice with all the skill of my being ‘the art of making possible.’