This is a true story. It is not exaggerated. This really happened to me.
I began teaching third grade at the age of 23 years old. It was my first “real” job and, despite my teacher preparation coursework, I found myself in the middle of October unsure if I could make it all the way to the end of the year. I found myself counting the days until Thanksgiving break. I found myself counting the hours until my next prep period.
The students were rebelling. Simple tasks that came so easily in the first weeks, like lining up quietly for recess, became laborious chores requiring my raised voice spouting empty threats of missed recess minutes. Getting through a Writer’s Workshop lesson on crafting the perfect hook for your personal narrative? Forget about it. The more I doubled down, becoming stricter and stricter, the more the students pushed back. Things were not going well.
And this was the moment when I received a note from my principal informing me that it was time to schedule my first evaluation - a thirty minute observation followed by a fifteen minute debriefing meeting.
On the morning of my principal’s visit, I gathered my students around my rocking chair and, in a final act of desperation, I attempted to reason with them.
I leaned in and, with a whisper, asked, “How do you kids feel about a little extra recess?”
Okay. It wasn’t so much reasoning with them as it was full-on, blatantly bribing them. We made a deal. If they could make it through the Writer’s Workshop lesson without a commotion, they would get double the recess in the afternoon.
My principal showed up. I began teaching. When I looked down at my students, lo and behold, I saw a class sitting up straight, raising their hands, carefully crafting stories in their notebooks.
And that was the moment when I noticed Blake. Blake was not carefully crafting stories in his notebook. He was deviously smiling at me and staring deep, deep into my soul.
I understood what was happening, but felt powerless to do anything about it. I began to communicate with Blake silently, through my eyes and subtle facial expressions. “Hold it together buddy. Think about the recess, man! The whole class depends on you.”
And then something happened that I will never forget. At that moment, Blake stood up from his little green square on the rainbow carpet. Like a performer, he looked to his left and then to his right, sizing up his audience. And then, he proudly proclaimed, “I am a Pterodactyl,” and began to flap his arms and screech loudly like a prehistoric flying dinosaur. Please note: the writing activity was based on a true story from our lives. True stories tend not to feature prehistoric flying dinosaurs.
You can imagine what happened next. The class erupted in laughter. Writer’s Workshop lesson lost. I am speechless, frozen, knowing that my principal is watching my every move. Students are clutching their tummies. Rolling on the carpet. Gasping for breath. They are succumbing to the most pure form of live comedy any of them have witnessed in their young lives.
I am mortified. I end the lesson early. I tell all the kids to take out their books and to read quietly. I tell them that we will try the lesson again tomrorow. I look up to see my principal close his evaluation binder and leave my classroom without saying a word.
The ensuing hours were painful. In short, I was pretty certain that my career as an educator was coming to an abrupt and early end. When I walked into the principal’s office for our debriefing meeting, he surprisingly had a smile on his face. He led with a simple question - “How do you think that went?”
I blushed, still mortified. “It could have went better.”
He told me that the best decision that I made was ending that lesson when I did. He then asked me if I had seen the teacher that he had hired - the 23 year old dude with a smile on his face. The person he had just observed was a stern drill instructor who was trying to dominate and control the classroom. We sat for a half hour and went through what wasn’t working and what I could try to make a change.
In the end, years later, I learned that when the classroom is not a joyful place, education becomes an uphill struggle for everyone involved. It is so, so easy to become bogged down in education, to have the focus become the evaluations, the standardized tests, the new curriculum sets, the benchmarks. It’s not that these things are bad. They aren’t. But when they become the focus, the thing that occupies the majority of the teacher’s attention and effort, no one wins. Too often we fight this terrible uphill battle, trying to exert control over our students instead of bringing their voices, their personalities, and their humanity into our lesson and classroom design.
There are people who are reading this right now who are counting the number of school days before the next break. Wondering if they can make it to the end of this school year. Wondering if they have chosen the right career. They have unexpected pterodactyls interrupting their carefully planned lessons. If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone. The more teachers I talk to, the more I realize it pretty much happens to all of us.
Think for a moment about why you first entered this noble profession of teaching. When you began, you knew it was going to be challenging, but that didn’t deter you. You chose to teach in the face of those challenges. Maybe it was for love of the students, maybe it was for a love of subject matter you would one day teach.
Starting today, begin to look for the small joys in your work and begin to focus on them. Pterodactyls will inevitably find their way into your classroom. No one prepared you for their arrival and yet, the challenges they bring are natural and inherent to our work as educators.
The journey to a joyful classroom begins now.
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