One of the benefits of teaching is the opportunity for reinvention. Each school year has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that cyclical pace, that rhythm, is incredibly freeing. It means that each year, I get to start over again. I get to rethink what and how I will teach. I get to relive the challenge of learning each student's name on the first day, of finding the delicate balance of humor and clarity, of familiarity and guidance, and of comfort and risk that each class embodies so differently.
As I prepared to begin my 16th year in the classroom, I found myself at the surreal and, to be completely honest, unnerving crossroads of my career. Behind me, I have my years of experience that don't allow me to convince myself that I am still young. Ahead of me, I still have the excitement of more first days. I am lucky to work in an environment that allows me to try new texts in the English classroom, to join new committees, and to take on new roles, but I don't always look inward as much as I should to ask myself, "Do I need to change how I begin?" Have I become so used to the gift of newness each September that I miss the chance to look at that gift differently? How do I really want to start?
All of these swirling thoughts collided into a "lightbulb" moment while I listened to Lila Lohr speak during our opening meetings. As she read our school's Statement of Respect out loud, with conviction, I heard the strength and the beauty of those words, the impressive force of each clause more intentional than the next. It made me think about a conversation I had had with Andrea Vespoint, Lower and Preschool Spanish teacher, about the necessity of explicit and intentional teaching of respect and tolerance, and her opinion that we should treat these concepts as content. I imagined some of our students reading that statement and not knowing how to internalize fully the language because of its sophistication. I thought about my own two children, both students in the Preschool, who might not understand this statement, but who must learn to embody the meaning and treat others with kindness nonetheless. And it was then that the fog of contemplation cleared, and I could envision what my first day in the classroom should be.
I took inspiration from Lila, Andrea, and Bryna Stoute, Preschool teacher. (Anyone who has ever been in Bryna's classroom cannot help but be inspired by her ability to adapt complex developmental concepts into visual masterpieces.) I decided to leave the course content and overview for another day, and instead, I spent the entire first lesson of each class on the Statement of Respect: what the words mean individually, what they mean collectively, and how they would form the foundation for our interactions in the classroom and beyond. I had the students then translate their own understanding into a visual that represented what it meant to them. The results were impressively diverse and encouragingly clear. They not only learned what the words mean on a literal level, but they showed me, and their classmates, just what those words mean to each student personally. We have a collective understanding.
I have found a new way to begin, and I have re envisioned how the students and I will work together to establish the culture and the feel of learning together. At the same time, their work is an homage to the respect I have for my colleagues' work. It signifies the essence of what the statement hopes to be, and a new cycle has begun to spin into rhythm.
Meredith Klein is originally from Baltimore teaches English and ESL in the GFS Middle School. Ms. Klein loves reading, exploring the world, cooking, and spending time with friends and family.