Like so many novice teachers, I recall spending hours before and after school in my second grade classroom while communing with Liz and Denise, who were also new to teaching. The three of us were self-taught workshop teachers. We attended professional development offered by education publishers, pored over teaching books, and constantly talked our way to understanding and out of our fears that our instruction would falter. Each morning, we stood in our doorways, happily greeting students, and exchanged tips and ideas we’d soaked in from articles and internet searches. Trading off mentor texts was common place. We found deep inspiration in the thinking and words of Katie Wood Ray, Maryanne Sacco, and Frank Serafini. Getting good at workshop didn’t happen over night, yet the transformation of our young students into engaged, self-directed and passionate readers and writers was proof enough for us to know we were doing right by students. As these early years passed, our professional learning continued as did a shared thirst to hone our craft. Life happened too—teachers married, parents passed away, babies were born, and friends took new positions.
When my first child was born, everything changed. Like many moms, I felt torn between my vocation and caring for my new baby daughter. My mother, having recently retired from teaching, offered to watch her. I jumped at the chance. If I couldn’t watch Tess, then who better than my own mother. This meant making the hard decision to move a state away from the school where Liz, Denise, and I had laid roots as professionals. I wondered if I’d ever find a collaborative team like the one I had in my midst. No matter. Life demanded that I take a leap and so I did. I moved to my home state, bought a house three miles from my mother, and took a new job as a first grade teacher. This felt, all at once, both exciting and daunting. New baby, first home, new job, so much possibility.
I set up my classroom, sans air conditioning, in the heat of August. I knelt in the middle of the reading corner rug and joyfully hung new labels on baskets of books I had lovingly amassed over these first six years of teaching. Promise hung from every corner of the room. I met the other two first grade teachers with whom I would work. They had kind smiles and lots of energy and were eager to set up a planning meeting. This is good, I thought. We met, planned, and time evaporated each Tuesday afternoon.
When it came to plan writing instruction, the lead grade-level teacher generously opened bins of writing work she had developed and used in her classroom. “Here’s what’s next in writing. Help yourself, ladies,” she invited. These bins were often neatly labeled by month, theme, and holiday. “What about workshop?” I remember asking. Crickets.
And so began my quiet resistance. I sat in those Tuesday meetings and gratefully mapped out instruction around big books and science and math. When offered materials for writing, I respectfully declined and described what genre of writing students would be studying and creating in my first grade room. The year unfolded, and I felt myself becoming more and more an island. I started closing my door during writing workshop so as to maintain laser focus on my writers without fear of questions at my door—why are students writing while on the floor, where is the letter to a jack-o-lantern, how come so many things are misspelled? I mourned the partnership and nerdy love of learning that had been my mainstay, but in its place was a joy, energy, and sense of making that my new young writers expressed with fervor. Their accomplishment and pride sustained me. They wrote pattern books, fantasy, how to and all about books. They wrote and wrote and wrote some more. At the suggestion of a former colleague, we even created an iMovie to share the ins and outs of workshop. By the end of that learning year, students had become authors, directors, actors, and illustrators.
Not long after that time, I was fortunate enough to return to a district and a community of teachers who were in pursuit of like practices and responsive instruction.
These memories aren’t often in the front of my mind, but recently, my work has brought me to the realization that not all teachers have such luck in finding teaching soulmates as I did with Denise and Liz all those years ago. I smile to think of the long shared hours fueled by girl gang laughter, caffeine, and an almost magical tenacity to teach as our best selves. Sure, some teachers, like I had, are ignited by some force or happenstance and realize that there is more to offer their students than what is currently in place. I imagine far more teachers are forever islands, perhaps out of necessity tied to a school culture that runs on auto-pilot. These teachers, year in and year out, make the most of their circumstance and, perhaps, close their door as I once had. Some of these teachers even dare leave their doors open and make themselves a mark so they have the chance to leave one on their students. To these teachers I say, teach on. Read on, write on, search on—continue to fill yourselves up.
The world is now wider and richer than it once was in the way of social media and community, and I encourage you to find your way to a network that will nourish you. Sign up to receive a daily blog, follow teachers and writers you admire on Twitter, enroll in a free webinar, or join a professional organization or publication with a teacher membership. Reach out and build your own circle of teacher soulmates. I know I’m always on the look-out for educators with whom I can connect, learn, share and grow. You won’t be disappointed, and you just never know who you’ll next encounter. You may at times still feel alone, but remember that you are in fact surrounded by like-minded colleagues and friends. They just happen to be a bit farther than the classroom next door.