Something about thousands of words, etc
It’s hard to know where to begin on a recap of the last year, so I decided to break down my first year of teaching — as part of the Teach First program — into a list of 19 emojis about things, ideas, metaphors, and habits that helped me survive. This is more of a reflection for me than advice for you (who am I to give anyone advice! I’m brand new to this) but I hope it’s interesting, and at the very least, insightful. For my fellow C19s, and other first-year teachers out there — congratulations. You’re awesome, you made it, and you deserve this chance to rest and recharge.
Whether it’s the family you’re born with — and mine are everything to me — or the family you find (my C19s and Kaihāpai, #SEA19 Google Innovators and Innovator Mentors) — I don’t think I’d have come this far without the amazing support networks I’ve had this year. I don’t really have much more I can say here, just the gratitude for having a network of people who have carried me through and kept me going. Mum and Dad, James and Tiff, Sarah, Gran, and everyone else — if you’re reading this — I love you, and this journey is absolutely a credit to you.
I wrote a thing earlier in the year about how I saw my time in the TFNZ program as a marathon, and there’s plenty of parallels and metaphors to go around that. But ultimately, running itself has kept me going. I have run 5 full races this year (2 full marathons, 2 half marathons, and the Run the Bays 8km) and training for them has kept me focused, kept me moving, and kept me healthy, in more ways than one.
Yeah, we’re all coming around to the awareness that physical exercise has a notable effect on serotonin production and uptake; most of us know from experience that cracking a sweat brings all the good body drugs (endorphins and dopamine, what’s goooood) — not to mention a nice delivery of fresh oxygen to the brain, a kick-start for the heart, and a surefire way to burn off whatever you picked up on the way home because you didn’t have time to eat since breakfast.
Running for races, however, helped me in some other surprising ways. Goal-oriented training kept me honest, kept a rhythm to my schedule. Taking time out to make a weekend trip to a race — Hawke’s Bay, Tauranga, Queenstown — broke up the run-on of the term’s stresses and workload and provided something for me to look forward to. Collecting medals along the way, and being part of the events themselves, provided a huge boost to my confidence. And, in the lead up to some of the bigger races, staying away from alcohol really saved my butt. When you are the kind of tired that teaching drags you into — emotionally, physically, spiritually wrecked — it’s a little too easy to reach for that habitual second glass of wine.
Even when I didn’t make it out on as many runs as I’d like, or I didn’t meet the pace I was aiming for, I was still training for marathons — which meant I was still getting out there and going way beyond staying on the couch at home. The hugeness of the target meant that the compromise between “enough” and “not enough” was still so much more than I’d otherwise be doing.
It’s funny that the immensity of the undertaking in Ako Mātātupu makes a full marathon shrink in comparison — I didn’t realise until I’d completed the Queenstown Marathon that I’d run two marathons in a year and wasn’t that cool? That’s a hard pivot from not thinking I was a “runner” for most of my life.
On a reflection with a colleague about the different challenges faced by Teach First teachers, as opposed to those who go through the traditional ITE (initial teacher education) route, I suggested that in some ways I think we have it easier. We know that a 9-week summer intensive can’t compare to a whole year of a PGDip and on-site practicum; we know that we have a workload more demanding than most people would willingly sign up for. Most importantly, we know that we are going to fail, and fail hard. We go into the classroom expecting to make mistakes — because all new teachers do, inevitably, make mistakes — and because we expect that, we recover from it quickly. We are quick to bounce.
This humble pie has been my bread and butter this year. It has helped me catch myself in my biases, it has helped me be vulnerable (in a safe, and courageous way) with my students. I’ve been able to own up to entire classes of teenagers and trust myself, and trust them, to say, “You know what? I messed up. I tried something, and I messed up, and I’m sorry. Here’s what I’m going to do to make it better.” It’s a different kind of humility to the self-flagellation I’ve leaned on before. It’s complete ownership of your bads, while being loving to yourself and sharing with students that they’re going to have bads and they can love themselves in those, too.
I think teaching walks a knife-edge between egoism and selflessness. We are participants in a false power structure, and it is easy to drink your own Kool Aid. Saviour complexes are everywhere. Remembering that — while self-care is imperative — we are here for our students and not our own measures of success has helped me from taking my mistakes to heart and being destroyed by them as a perceived fatal flaw. So, when I see proverbial humble pie cooling on a windowsill, I try to help myself to a slice where I can.
Although I only found out about it from my sister-in-law in January (during our second ‘practicum’ for Teach First, Vaka) — Rubber Duck Debugging has become a massive part of my teaching identity. The Duck Adoption Programme is possibly one of the things I am most proud of this year — creating a vessel through which to express loving kindness, and help students discover and develop their own language to explore challenges and strengths. It definitely hasn’t reached its full potential, and there are of course parts of the programme I conceptualised but never had the opportunity to fully test (yet). The thing is, the Ducks weren’t a thing for me before this year, and if any of my students read this, I hope they don’t feel cheated by that — sucked into the hype — I hope they feel like pioneers, because they were and are.
The Ducks gave me a conduit through which to express myself fearlessly in my classroom and find my own voice. One that spoke with feeling, and humour, and turn up as someone who doesn’t take themselves too seriously — except when it comes to the very serious responsibility we have as educators to build authentic, safe, loving learning relationships with our students. The Ducks are part of who I am, and it goes to show that we really do make everything up as we go along — but that doesn’t mean that what we do invent is any less loaded with meaning and fullness because of that.
Makes me think of that excellent Albus Dumbledore quote — “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
If you want to know more about the Duck Method, I am writing a small bookling about it that will be out in Februaryish.
The biggest curveball in this journey has been my work with Google for Education, which I hadn’t heard of prior to January this year. I first met Google Classroom when I started my new job, and my curiosity was instantly piqued. In the absence of any training or support from my colleagues, I found the Google Training Centre and the rest was history — Level 1 in April, Level 2 in June, and I somehow was lucky enough to be picked for the Google Innovator Program, attending the #SEA19 Academy in Singapore in September.
Google for Education has been more than just badges for me. It started as wanting to learn more about leveraging the resources we already had at our school to maximise the benefit for our students — and minimise the barriers that stopped me from being the best teacher to them that I could possibly be. I didn’t go into my training seeking anything more than learning and problem-solving, and it still feels quite surreal that it moved beyond that. And when I say beyond, I mean beyond beyond. My SEA19 colleagues and the GoogleEI program opened my world as an educator and plugged me into this vast network of educators who, yes, are innovators — who are not afraid to move fast and break things at scale. It’s exciting, and it’s invigorating, and it has pulled me through the times when the day-to-day can make any kind of lasting change feel impossible. There are other wonderful tech-sponsored teacher development programs out there (while of course, I am grateful to Google) — Apple and Microsoft have their own, and many EduTech companies also run their own certification programs. Goal-oriented tasks can be easier to slot into your schedule and have on the regular agenda, and I found that even if I wasn’t learning new features all the time, I was still discovering new ways to apply them in my classroom.
It can absolutely get a little gimmicky, and again with the Kool Aid, but I was and am always after all the help I can get and this really worked for me.
I had no idea you could use a social media network as a source of professional development! I reactivated my Twitter account while I was studying Law, because I found Legal Twitter so interesting — and hilarious. It helped me to see perspectives and insights and nuances that I’d otherwise have missed because I was lacking in the experience of attending law school for undergrad. With my entry to TFNZ, I started following educators and soon my timeline became more EduTwitter than Legal Twitter (although Legal Twitter still keeps me up to date with legal and political matters of the day — which is important with regards to education, as well). I also try to follow as many people and educators from culturally diverse backgrounds, particularly Māori, Pacific, Indigenous, and First Nations as I can. I think that has been such a huge part of my education this year. Listening and having access to voices that my intrinsic biases and eurocentricity might otherwise cut me off from — instead, I get a regular dose of them and learn how to anticipate and prevent my own mistakes from harming the young people in my classroom through my own ignorance — it’s a digital daily dose of humble pie for Pākehā (see #3).
I also use Twitter as a micro-blog of my day-to-day, which fills in the gaps when I don’t quite have the energy or the time to properly write a Day One entry at the end of the day. Sharing the triumphs and the (small) tragedies with other like-minded people has been a huge boost, and I’ve met some really awesome people through this platform. EduTwitter has been a huge source of ideas and inspiration from truly amazing people working in education all over the world. It’s wild that we can use social media like this, and I’m grateful.
I subscribe to “The Universe Talks”, and received an email a few months ago with this simple wisdom — “Hearts do not actually break, in this life, but sometimes they grow so fast that they feel like they do”. This is really the only way to explain the excruciating joy of loving as a teacher loves. Your world of people who you would not hesitate to lay down your life for expands with frightening ease and acceleration, and the force of it blew me away, frequently.
Within weeks, you realise how deeply you care for every one of your students, and how everything they do pulls at you in a small — but deeply profound — way. When you see them building friendships in your class, when you see them finally get that pesky semi-colon in their code, the first time they wave to you when you’re out on duty, the first time you ask “Are you sure you’re okay?” a third time and they finally open up to you because they trust you. I couldn’t name one student that I wouldn’t happily make sacrifices for, to help. Some make it easier to want to do that than others, but none have yet hurt me to the point of closing my heart off from them. It’s precarious, allowing yourself to love fearlessly in that kind of magnitude, but I think it has made me a better teacher and, far beyond that, a better human.
After a lifetime of disruption, of moving and shifting and never staying in one place long enough to set a rhythm I could really dance to, I started this year with a commitment to change all of that. I knew routines would be the daily miracles that got me through this year, and I was right about that. From the smallest routines — such as making my bed every single day before I leave the house (there’s a great TED talk about this) — to setting regular meetings, habits, and treats to guide me through the wilderness, routines have been breadcrumbs along the pathway out of the thick of it.
On Tuesday evenings, I run with my cousin and then we catch up over protein shakes in the spa. Wednesdays, I would ride into the city to meet with my friend in Law School to drink whisky and share woes. Friday afternoons were for hanging out with my 95-year-old Grandmother — straight after my last class finished, I would leave via the admin block (waving ‘bye’ to our awesome administrator, Jules, who is quite possibly the loveliest human being you will ever have the joy to meet) and drive to her house. She sits in a large Lay-Z-Boy in her lounge, and there is another adjacent to it. Every Friday it’s the same — I’ll kiss her hello, ask how she is, and then comes the question, “What are we drinking today?” Sometimes it’s wine, with sliced cheese on rice crackers, as Gran regales me about Parliament TV and the Golf. Sometimes it’s tea, and the homemade biscuits she still fills her cookie tin with, and chat over the changing waves of our education system. No matter what, it’s always the food for the soul I need at the end of the week.
Keeping these routines has kept me sane, kept me grounded, and kept reminding me of how reliable and secure the love is in my life, allowing me to venture forth from a courageous space when I am faced with the unpredictability of the school day and our jobs.
I was worried that the stresses and overwhelm of the job would wear me down and desensitise me to the issues our students are facing. On the contrary, building strong relationships with my students motivated me to be even MORE fired up about these issues, because I was seeing the effects of them in person, every single day.
Something that did surprise me was the kind of things I’d find myself advocating for — or finding the time to advocate for them at all. First year teachers have enough to contend with, and I did not go into this year expecting more, simply because I wanted to be realistic and pace myself instead of burning out (spoiler: you will burn out anyway, because that’s just the job). From joining the e-lead team to vehemently campaign against the introduction of a BYOD (Bring-Your-Own-Device) scheme, to putting my neck on the guillotine over an unmoderated marking schedule, to discussing protocol with the head of student services over in-school messaging around domestic violence… I have found myself an accidental activist (though no less enthusiastic for it) in plenty of arenas this year and (perhaps even more surprising) had some hard-won victories in those arenas, for the benefit of our students and our school. I believe in what I do and I hope, in some way, that has shown through in how I do it.
I used to think I couldn’t ‘do’ distance learning. I’m happy to self-direct, but at my own pace — the idea of having to learn the discipline to keep on top of distance studies in the Master’s course, while being a full-time teacher, made me quite nervous. Not only have I submitted all of my assignments, but I maintained an A+ GPA, which is more than I can say for my first year of on-campus university study. (And by on-campus, I mean I was distance learning from my bed during those 8am lectures)
While the Master’s component of the Teach First program has varying importance depending on who you’re asking — some of us are just doing it because it’s required, some of us have plans for using it for further study or training once we’re done — the ‘forced’ professional development and academic growth is undeniably an opportunity for us to push ourselves, and be pushed, to be better educators. Even if that ‘better’ is just in managing our time better.
For me, being a life-long learner and showing up in that by studying alongside teaching has brought another layer of authenticity to my practice. I share my studies and my deadline-woes with my students. I discuss my research with them, openly, whether they are helping me by providing data and insight for it or not. I celebrate my grades — the good AND the bad — with them, and show them feedback I have received in both teaching and academic assessments. I am not shy about being honest with them about the stresses of both the job and the coursework component. That I’ve already had two students tell me that they’re interested in becoming teachers, despite that brutal honesty, I feel speaks volumes to how much more we should credit young people with their ability to comprehend the good with the bad and make a calculated decision based on what is right, not what is easy.
It took me 10 years to finish my undergraduate degree because, for a long time, I didn’t believe I was smart enough to do that kind of thinking or work. Living into my identity as a teacher and as a post-graduate scholar has allowed me to think beyond those prior self-assigned limitations and, likewise, try to help my students transcend theirs.
Nobody tells you about the tears.
I sent a text to one of my C19 friends, about half-way through Term 2:
It’s hard to imagine that, as a human, you are 70% water — until you become a teacher. Shortly thereafter, you realise you’re about 60% water after all the crying.
Is it the tiredness? Is it the emotionally overwhelming nature of the job? Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s just the existential crisis of participating in an inherently traumatic post-colonial institution? Either way — for both the good and the bad, I have found new and surprising ways to cry, this year.
I’m not, typically, a crier. But as a teacher, I’ve cried over things going bad, things going good, things not going at all. I’ve sobbed about being the person who had to call attention to one of my young scholars being hurt at home. I’ve wept with happiness when a student e-mailed me kind words after a particularly tough class. I’ve had my heart in my throat while sharing mutual pride with a parent over their childs’ kindness and conscientiousness. I’ve had awful, gasping crying-panic attacks after P5 classes when I’ve felt powerless to do this job and the anxiety over knowing that, if inadequate, the students wear my failure — and I’ve had quiet moments of despair in my office, those hopeless, feeling-sorry-for-myself cries where your nose runs like a tap. I have just straight-out bawled, terrified for one of my students while I wait on a phone call to let me know they are safe. I fought tears so hard that my hands shook while I tried to read out the Principal’s address to my form class, the first day back after the terrorist attacks in Ōtautahi. I have, in fact, cried in front of my students, and tried to wear that vulnerability with as much strength and grace and dignity as I could, hoping they could see that their tears are also safe in our spaces.
Of all of the places I’ve cried, I think the most hilarious would be how frequently I’ve found myself blubbering behind the steering wheel of my Suzuki Swift (“Floyd”) on the intersection between Campbell and Great South, right by the Subaru Dealership. I wonder if they look out every now and then and say, “There she goes again…”
I have been religious about my sleep this year, which is hard to do when you have both being a teacher and a Master’s degree to contend with. Time management is key, but sometimes those tasks do pile up, and that’s when the late night habits creep in. Given prior bad habits, I am quite proud that I prioritised my sleep this year. I am more inclined to rest before I’m past my best, and do the work in the early morning at my desk. I have monitored my sleep, and made sure to catch up if I’ve gone a few days under 4h. I have even cut down on caffeine after lunchtime, which I used to think was madness — “coffee is an always food!” (See #18).
Melatonin tablets have really helped for times when the real insomnia hits — yes, they aren’t funded in NZ, so I would recommend you have a friend in the US ship them over. In NZ, Melatonin can be prescribed for $70 per bottle, but you can pick it up at Walgreens for $4 (and at higher doses). Because you have to have a good routine for taking melatonin to be effective, it means I’m forced to be in bed and phone off by 9pm (to sleep by 10pm) — it also means I can’t drink alcohol on nights I’m taking it. I am also a nerd for data, so I do monitor my sleep quality and keep an eye on unhealthy trends. I used to say “Sleep is for the dead!”, but I now realise that you’re pretty dead to the world if you’re not getting enough sleep.
I never really understood people who said “I forgot to eat” until I became a teacher. I learned early on to have a packet of salted pretzels at my desk, at the very least, with other assorted snacks to stop the 1pm tummy rumbles from attacking mid-class. Having treats and snacks around is also handy for when students indicate they haven’t had anything for lunch, which is an unfortunate but frequent reality for some of my students.
Just like sleep, good nutrition is such a core part of surviving and thriving in the rigours of this job, and making sure you don’t pass out from low blood sugar is a good place to start. I’ve also nailed the breakfast protein smoothie, getting that 30g in first thing so I don’t end up being hangry by interval.
As a kid, all I ever wanted for Christmas was a Filofax. Yeah, I was that kid.
And that’s the cool thing about being an adult, right? You can revisit those things. You can buy that PSone on eBay for £15 and finally play Spyro: Gateway to Glimmer without going over to your best mate’s house. You can buy Froot Loops and have them for breakfast as many days of the week as you so choose (and then realise, ruefully, why your parents never let you do this).
And yes, you can absolutely go and buy an Original Patent-Leather Filofax (Royal Purple). Because that is precisely what I did at the beginning of this year.
Yes, being a digital technologies teacher means that I am probably more expected to be tech-savvy and app-reliant when it comes to my time management, but I find that there is something meditative about the use of a physical planner and if you’re on the fence about it, I’d recommend you give it a go. As well as generally keeping track of events (always have it handy during staff briefings on Monday and Friday mornings), I use my Filofax as a daily to-do list. During term-time, when I’d get to my desk at 7am, I’d sit down with it open to the page of the day, make a fresh cup of coffee, open my e-mails, and start listing down all the large — and little — tasks I needed to do to keep on top of my work load. Everything from “Lesson Plan for 11CSC1” or “Slides for 12DGT2” down to “E-mail such-and-such about x”, to “Book Floyd in for service”, to “BUY MORE COFFEE”. Physically writing those things down organised them in my brain, and returning to the Filofax at regular intervals meant I was kept on-task when unexpected events arose (inevitably). The act of pre-writing tasks the night before also helps you sleep better — I’ll link the relevant article on this later.
I love my Filofax (particularly the fact that all I need to do is order $10 of refill for 2020) and carry it everywhere with me, replacing my usual conglomeration of random notebooks, of which I usually have about 3 or 4 on the go at any one time. Yes, Filofax are pricey — still Made in the UK — but they are wonderful, and they are reliable when school wifi is playing up. They also fit the 6-ring refill packs you can buy at Kikki.K (shh).
This one is thanks to a friend of mine, whose experiences as a lawyer and PhD student were invaluable to helping me navigate both the time demands of the Teach First program as well as the emotional demands of that stress. Over coffee, he explained that in his first few years of practicing law, he had a “F*ck Yeah Folder”, filled with positive feedback and thank-yous from clients. Over the year, I’ve collected my own “F*ck Yeah Folder” — drawings and notes from students, gifts, e-mails — and I keep them close by. One of my students gave me a pair of earrings that I have worn every school day since. The act of putting them on in the morning reminds me that there are cool young humans who seem to think I’m doing okay, and that’s everything.
So, you’ve decided you want to play music in your classroom? Or your students have requested it? And then you find yourself in the unenviable position of playing DJ. Wait for it — the endless requests. Weren’t you supposed to be teaching?
Then you try to set a playlist going, but they’re not vibing on Arcade Fire playlist, and they don’t believe you when you tell them you listen to 90s R’n’B (and for the love of all things A$AP Rocky, don’t play them that playlist you made with “A Tribe Called Quest”, because they’ll think you’re trying too hard and that’s SO much worse).
For my ‘seniorest class’, Year 12, I made a collaborative playlist on Spotify for them and posted the link in our Google Classroom — once our classroom routines and expectations were well established. Sometimes I’d play this same playlist in my Year 11 class. Either way, you’re going to have some students turn their nose up at your taste. I’ve found that “Chilled Hits” is a winner, and starting a Song Radio from any Stan Walker or Six60 track can land quite well in the background of any class. And every now and then, I let a student drive and be DJ for a hot second (and then later that evening, ‘liked’ all the songs they played so I could find them again).
The stories are true — music can completely change the rhythm and feel of a classroom, and Spotify was a win for me this year. But I should add — I have premium, thank goodness, because you never want your students to be hearing the kinds of ads they direct at you, oh female-of-childbearing-age… (cringe)
Being on the lowest rungs of the teaching pay scale, it’s hard to justify any expenditure that doesn’t automatically fall under “bare necessities”. The idea of going to get your nails done, have a massage, or just doing something — ANYTHING — to make yourself feel a little bit better is a red flag for financial stress. Thank heck for group-buying. On GrabOne, you can usually get a 60min massage for $39–49 (although of course, results may vary), mani/pedi for $29, or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can try Salt Cave Halotherapy for $45–50.
Once a term, during the holidays, I would make a point of going and doing something like this that just made me feel heaps better about myself. The act of taking the time and investing the money (even if it isn’t actually the full amount) in my own self maintenance — even just the superficial, physical part — did wonders for my health and justifying why I am worth that time and money (even if the government doesn’t think so). This small, infrequent routine really helped string together the weeks leading into each holiday, and made the holidays not seem so depressing. Yeah, so I didn’t have the budget to go overseas like I used to, but I could at least stay home and feel good about it.
Yeah, I don’t need to explain this one.
Underlining everything above is that profound sense of gratitude, and how that has kept me resilient to the tougher parts of this year, and how grateful I am for that. My Day One journal entries are mainly gratitude lists (at least three), most important on the days when it’s hard to really feel into the gratitude for the larger things. There were always the tiny miracles in even the biggest train-wrecks of days or weeks. There were interactions with my students, gestures of love and support from my family, a moment of humour on Twitter, a text from a Kaihāpai or C19. Teaching is not the easiest job in the world, and Teach First is quite possibly the most difficult thing I have ever done, but I am so grateful for all of it. And with that, I’m ushering in another year of this wild ride, and looking forward to learning which emojis get me through it.