Originally published by Tiffani Norman, an Advanced Academics Resource Teacher at Eakin Elementary, on October 17, 2017.
As I was sitting on the beach in Panama City during Fall Break, I began to reflect on the 16 years I’ve been in education. My first classroom was filled with hormonal seventh graders where I had the daunting task of teaching all the aspects of English Language Arts. Unlike most first-year teachers, I went into that school year with confidence and peace that was reared from the fact that I had student-taught in that same school the year before. The faculty and staff were familiar, as were the students, which made my shift from being a novice to a professional educator a smooth transition. Although the beginning of that year seemed to be a piece a cake, that year will forever be etched in my mind as the most memorable out of all my 16 years: my niece was born, 911 happened, and unfortunately I lost my only sister, who was only 27 years old. It was in that moment that I learned how to balance life.
The first lesson I learned in that season was not to stress over the little things. Deadlines and mandates will always come, but if you are not your best self, you’re not going to be a benefit to anyone.
The second lesson I learned was to leave your work at work and make the most of your time with family and friends. Life is short and the last thing you want are regrets that you didn’t spend time with the ones you love.
Thirdly, live your best life. Anyone who knows me knows that I live spontaneously, which would explain why I’m on the beach right now. I literally made plans two days ago. I experience joy by doing things that I enjoy the most like traveling, journaling, and spending time with the most adorable puppy – Bella.
When I find myself in a rut, I know I have to turn back to those principles. I remember this time last year, I was so frustrated with what was going on in our school system. Being a team leader, it was often difficult for me to remain positive in such a challenging environment. So, if that meant I had to go into my pocket and buy everybody on my grade level (9 teammates) ‘Nothin’ Bundt Cakes’ or have a team-mate organize a team outing to Sushi Train, that’s what I did to help us all stay afloat. When my attitude and even my actions begin to negatively affect my class as a whole, I knew that something needed to be done.
An opportunity came about via MNPS’s efforts to find teachers who were interested in becoming Advanced Academic Resource Teachers (AARTs). These individuals would work with students who have been identified as either gifted or talented. The Advanced Academic Department was going through a transformation to bring more equity to its program and to ensure that every school had an AART. Just as in my first year of teaching, I went in with boldness and confidence that I would be able to take on this position based upon the differentiation that I implemented within my general classroom setting. But, at the same time, I was very nervous since the setting was going to be quite different than what I had experience within the last 16 years. Two factors that have made this transition go smoothly is a supportive administrative team and mentors who have done this for quite some time.
Being teachable has been one of the characteristics that has been heightened in this season of change. It’s not so much as choosing an easier or less stressful position as much as it’s about exploring new territory and seeing things from a different end of the spectrum. I’ve gone from an average class size of about 23 students to 89 students; from 1 general education class to 8 classes spanning over grades K-4. I love this new adventure that I’m on. Particularly, educating myself in the world of giftedness.
So often, we place so much emphasis on children who have great deficits. But it’s just as important to ask how can we differentiate lessons to accommodate high achievers? How can we creatively make an impact to show a year’s worth of growth from them? As teachers, it’s our innate ability to touch every student, no matter what their level; to see them soar like the seagulls I observed on the beach during Fall Break. To see them dive deep into the discovery of their personal interest, like the dolphins I watched on Panama City’s beaches. This will require us to go beyond standards, scope and sequence, and antiquated ways of teaching. It’s a new day with new methodologies and changes.
A motto that I’ve created for myself this year is, “Teach as though you’re teaching you!” If your younger self was in your current classroom, would it change the way you teach, the way you think, the approaches you use? I ponder these questions daily before I step foot into my learning space. Knowing that I have the ability to impact a life that can impact our world is too important for me to become lax with the job I have been hired to do. As a matter of fact, I no longer see it as a job, it’s my passion, my superpower, it’s what I know I was created to do. So as the school year progresses, don’t lose heart. Don’t let your passions get tangled up in day to day frustrations. Find your balance; your happy place. Proudly put on your cape and rise above it all.