What I Wish I Could Tell “My Girls”

If it’s one emotion I continuously feel while teaching, it’s that I do not miss high school. Not. One. Bit.

Why would I ever want to return to a time when I was painfully self-conscious, quiet, dependent, and stressed about the future?  I look back at pictures and scoff at how atrocious my fashion sense was, how my naturally curly hair was just a total frizz ball, and how strained my smile tended to be. I had a lot going on in high school, and where school was ultimately the place where I discovered my true passion, uncovered my talents, and made irreplaceable friends, it was nevertheless a place where I wasn’t really comfortable to just be myself.

Lately, I’ve had a few conversations with students that remind me just how difficult point in life can be. Students stressed over completing schoolwork and holding down a part-time job mix in with girls who fear what boys will think of their eating habits during a recent “Mix-it-Up” day where they were told to sit with new people during lunch in an effort to increase diversity awareness.  It’s moments like these when I wish that I could sit all my girls down and have a heart-to-heart about the bright light on the horizon where it is so much easier to be yourself, but that lesson is one that will surely come with maturity and experience.  For now, I’ll have to try to integrate the following points into my everyday interactions with them.

1) There will be a day when you aren’t self-conscious (or at least THAT self-conscious) around guys.

You’ll let them see you without makeup and tell them your darkest secrets.  They will be your best friends, and they will break your heart, but eating in front of them, my dears, will no longer be a concern.

2) Do not define yourselves through the perceptions of others

People are cruel.  They may talk behind your back or forget to call you or text you and not even realize what that does to your bruised and broken heart. But those actions are in no way a reflection of you – they are merely a reflection of another.  Yes, they can be an indication of what you may want to work on in the future, but no one is defined by their flaws.  Work on them, but cultivate your strengths as well – those are your gifts and it is an injustice not to use them.

3) Pursue your passions

Parents put unbelievable amounts of pressure on their children.  I’m sure many of them feel it is for the child’s benefit, but when that comes at the expense of them not exploring their interests, it does a huge disservice to them and their personal growth.  Find a way to explore something new – if nothing else, you will learn more about yourself in the process.  You being  a woman does not mean you can’t enter a field that tends to be more male-dominated.  You may have to work harder to make your mark, but the important thing is that whatever you do with your life makes you happy.

4) Find a mentor or two…or twenty

The opportunity for mentors can be difficult to find when you are younger.  But the more you have, the more you will learn what to do and what not to do.  I have so many teaching mentors, mentors for student leadership, and mentors in my major, as well as for everything in between.  Each has given me an example to follow as I become who I want to be.

5) Everything works out in the end

Fact: Life is one giant unknown.  You’ll sit and watch the successes of your friends and wonder why that can’t happen the same way for you.  But everything, EVERYTHING, works out in the end.  What seems like a perfect fit may pass you over, and you settle for what you believe is second-rate, but as the days, months, and years pass by, it becomes ever clearer to see that you are right where you belong.

 

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Patience is a Virtue (and a virtue won’t hurt you)

Patience.  Lord knows I feel like I don’t have a whole lot of it lately.  I’m anxious for the next few months to go by so I can finally say I’ve survived my first-year of teaching (which, as my mentor likes to remind me, I only have to go through once).  I’m anxious to finish up my two grad classes so I can have a whole two months off, the longest break I will have had from academics in three years.  But what’s been on my mind most lately is how desperately impatient I am to become the teacher I’ve always wanted to be.  The kind of teacher who makes you realize that you have talents you have been too down-on-yourself to recognize. The kind of teacher who inspires you with her passion, who gives you experiences in the classroom that change what you want to do in the future. 

I want to be the kind of teacher who made ME want to be a teacher.

I’ve been so upset lately realizing that I don’t believe that any of my students share my same love for history. And it makes me feel like a failure. Now, granted, I don’t have any quantitative evidence those of us in education are so fond of analyzing, but it’s just a sense that I have.  Some seem to be interested, at least, but I feel like in failing to inspire them, I have failed all those teachers who have inspired me. Like the fifth grade teacher with a penchant for leopard print dresses who made me actually interested in science for a time, or the junior year history teacher who I always thought back to as I studied educational theories and instructional methods in college.  And then there was the high school band teacher who revealed the beauty of classical music and working as a team, and the thesis advisor who revealed the beauty of Shakespeare’s plays to me. 

But I have to remind myself that just because these educators made such an impact in my life doesn’t mean that they had the same effect on all the others who sat in those classes with me. Or that they were able to accomplish it all in their first year of teaching.  It takes time and practice. And patience. Lots of patience. Because with each failure comes a little lesson of what to do better next time. 

I remember how impatient I was to start teaching. My first day of observations in the fall of 2010 was filled with nerves as I got up at what is an ungodly hour for college students. I wore a dress and heels and practiced how I would introduce myself to a teacher I had only emailed a handful of times.  Several weeks in, I delivered my first lesson to a room full of painfully quiet high school freshman, a review on different religions that they had been studying. As much as my voice quaked and my hands shook, I loved it. I drank in every moment, reassured with a rush of giddy excitement that I was actually pursuing the right career for me, and lamented the fact that there would be no education classes for me take the following semester, thereby putting these experiences on hold.  

So what I was once impatient to begin I am now impatient to end, at least for a time.  So I must remember my inspiration, remember my passion, and remember my purpose, and remain patient that slowly but surely I will become the teacher I want to be.

Remembering Inspiration

I’m terrified.

There, I admitted it.  The day is finally here when I stop talking about wanting to be a teacher and actually become one. And it has me shaking in my boots.

And I’ve kind of been a mess the past few weeks.  I’ve had unexpected moments where I’ve asked myself if I can really do this.  Even after an amazing practicum experience, the nerves had settled in and reached the places I didn’t think they could.

So when I found myself down the road from the cemetary where he is buried a few weeks ago, I knew I had to pay my respects and remind myself of the man who still inspires me to do this.  The last time I visited, it was a cold and crisp winter’s day, light snowflakes floating from the sky.  I took the drive out there after having just met what was to become one of my first classes for student teaching, one of the first groups I was to be responsible for, and I knew I needed to visit to remind myself of why I ever wanted to do this in the first place.

Let me explain…

Dennis Wrenn. Teacher. Musician. Life-changer.  For four years I sat as one of  hundreds to walk through the doors of his band room.  I am far from a gifted musician, but music has breathed inspiration and love into my life, and Mr. Wrenn was a part of that.  Beyond instilling within all of his students a love of music, he also showed what it means to be a teacher.  He never stopped believing in his students, and took the time to get to know them, even when during any given class period there could be over one hundred students in front of him, all with varying levels of interest.  Some were there because they hoped to pursue careers in music one day, others because they were cultivating a hobby, and the last group because their parents wanted them to be in band.  But regardless of why they were there, I don’t think a single student could have left a year of rehearsals with Mr. Wrenn and not feel cared for.

When I was a junior in a high school, I took a pretty big risk for me and volunteered to play second piccolo for one song.  While flute, which I had been playing for six years at that point, and piccolo have the same fingerings, it’s a challenge.  You have to focus the air flow a certain way and it’s hard to create a pure sound. But someone needed to do it, and no one else volunteered, so I figured I would.  In hindsight, it really wasn’t all that terrifying, but to the timid 17-year-old who was full of self-doubt who I was at the time, it was a surprise that I would ever take such a risk. By the time the concert rolled around, I was so nervous.  I didn’t want to mess up (it’s hard to not hear a piccolo after all), and I was afraid I would fall off the stage when I changed seats from the second row of flutes to the first row.  But at each rehearsal, Mr. Wrenn never lost faith in me.  He encouraged me and rejoiced at every improvement, never betraying any sense of doubt or regret that he had let me fill the role.  That faith continued until the night of the concert, and when it was all over, he congratulated me on a job well-done.  I confessed how nervous I had been, but Mr. Wrenn just brushed it off, giving me the impression that he had known I could do it all along and that he had never doubted me.

Mr. Wrenn passed away very unexpectedly while on tour with the high school jazz band in Greece when I was in my freshman year of college.  I will never forget the shock and sense of loss I felt when I heard the news from a friend who called me. I had been walking down a path with a friend and practically collapsed on the ground in horror, unsure of how to react.  Mr. Wrenn wasn’t just a teacher to those who knew him, he was a mentor, a friend, and a father-figure, so his loss was the worst emotional pain I had felt at that point in my life.  A facebook group was created where over two thousand mourners came together to share over two decades worth of stories of a teacher who made a difference in their lives.  Countless people shared stories of how this man had seemed to remember every detail about them that they had ever shared with Mr. Wrenn, even though, as the size of the group proved, he had thousands of acquaintances.  All expressed extreme grief over the loss of a man who in one way or another had changed their lives, inspiring them to take a risk and pursue their dreams.

So when I gazed at his grave a few weeks ago, focusing on my insecruties about teaching, it dawned on me: Mr. Wrenn wouldn’t have let me doubt myself for one instant.  I can almost hear the way he would have brushed off any remnant of self-doubt and how he would have encouraged me to the very end.  And if he would have believed in me, then I have to, too.  And with that realization I experienced a renewed purpose of why I do want to teach.  I want to touch the lives of students like this man did for so many others.  I want to give them the courage to take risks and try something new.  I want to share a passion with those with whom I work, fellow teachers and students alike.  So in the days when I don’t think I can do it anymore, I will remind myself of these goals and do all that I can make Mr. Wrenn proud.

Two of my high school friends and I with Mr. Wrenn at our Senior Year POPS Night, June 2008.

Lessons from an Old Man to a Young Friend

The romantic inside of me grew about 10 sizes today. She’s been looking a little lean lately, since there hasn’t been much to feed her. Stories of bruised and broken hearts tend to wear away at her, diminishing her smile and sucking the rosiness from her cheeks. But today, she grew.

This is my second summer as an intern at a private museum, its contents owned by an elderly but still prominent local businessman with a true passion for American history that rivals my own. He seems to have done everything and met everyone, including starting his own nation-wide business, speaking to the United States Senate, building a hospital in Vietnam, opening a branch of his business in China, and orchestrating a million dollar fundraiser for a local food pantry. He is a bit demanding and it can be a challenge to fully follow his ideas, but over time he has come to call me his “lovely young friend,” even telling me once last summer that he regards me like a granddaughter. I thoroughly enjoy the one-on-one conversations that take place as he combs through the museum with me in tow, in search of a new project.  These encounters are rare, but I have come to crave the entertaining anecdotes and the irreplaceable wisdom that accompany them.  Today, as we came across an over-sized porfolio documenting his accomplishments with the hospital in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he asked me, “Would you say that I’ve had an interesting life?”

“Absolutely!!” I exclaimed. By my age, this man had served in the Korean War and was on the path to starting his own business. “I feel like I learn something new and interesting about you every day!”

We began to walk back toward his office. “Well,” he said pensively, putting his hand on my shoulder. At this point, I expected to hear the secrets to great success and prepared myself to take copious mental notes. “I couldn’t have done it without a wonderful wife.”

“From everything I’ve heard, she sounds like a wonderful woman,” I said with a smile as my heart began to melt.

“It’s all her…without her, none of this would have been possible.”

We walked in silence and then he addressed his secretary, customarily signaling the end to our conversation. I returned to my desk, tears forming in my eyes over such a beautiful testimony of true, everlasting adoration for one’s spouse. From all accounts that I’ve heard, she has never failed to stand by him, through genuine trials and his grand successes, and he clearly gushes over her when she comes up in conversation.

Throughout this internship, I’ve learned so much about American history. It’s a history major’s dream after all, to be paid to conduct historical research and write about it on a daily basis. Watching my boss’s business, I’ve learned the importance of networking and utilizing one’s connections. But today I came to realize that I’ve learned a lot more from watching the man behind it all, removed from the business and the museum. For you are never too successful, too old, too powerful, or too well-connected to not owe your success to those who support you. You are never above showing your gratitude for them. You must pursue your passions in every way possible, no matter how lofty such a goal may be. And you must always, always give back to the community who produced you and molded you into the person you are today. While the little romantic within me grew today, so did the woman she hides behind in really appreciating these lessons.

What My Students Taught Me

So when I started this blog back in January, I thought to myself, “I can’t wait to share all the things I learn about myself during student teaching!” Well, big surprise, student teaching turned out to be so time-consuming, that I hardly had the time to talk

My amazing and inspiring supervising practitioner – I couldn’t have done this without her!

to friends about the day-to-day lessons, never mind write about them here.  But in order to wrap it all up, I’m going to compile the whole 12-weeks of planning, grading, laughter, tears, hours of driving, chipping ice off of my car, professional wardrobe issues, and self-discovery into a top 10 list.

1) You can never plan every little detail…

Throughout my education, I hated the idea of giving a presentation without having my material planned out word for word.  Whenever I tried to rely on simple bullet points, I inevitably left out key details and felt like I gave a confusing and jumbled presentation.  Boy, was I in for a shock! There is simply  no way a teacher can anticipate everything that he or she will say in the course of the day.  From discussions about my brother’s dating life during my first official observation by my education professor, to questions about whether or not grinding occurs at college dances, there were many moments where I had to give answers to tough questions.  As the semester progressed and I had my complete load of three classes, it became even more difficult to feel like I had thoroughly planned the day.  But I dealt with it, and came to realize that I really WAS capable of delivering content without a word-for-word presentation.

2) It’s ok to say “I don’t know”

Anyone who knows me well would definitely describe me as a history nerd.  I embrace the title – if there was a crown or a sash to go along with it, I would wear it (though I think I would prefer a sceptre…it’s very historically royal).  But as any historian would tell you, it is simply impossible to know everything about history.  High schoolers can be very curious, and sometimes they ask very tough and specific questions, like when a certain canon was invented or what the population of Alaska is. (I legitimately heard these questions asked, no lie).  But it’s ok to say I don’t know.  But with that, a teacher must encourage that curiosity – it’s healthy to the development of a student.

3) It can always get worse

Day 12. I have an awesome lesson planned about the Tiananmen Square Massacre for my honors-level juniors, complete with a stellar powerpoint that has maps, images, and thought-provoking quotes from my friend’s parents who are Chinese immigrants and left China just a few years before the Massacre.  I was stoked.  But when I put my flashdrive in that morning to open it, the powerpoint is not there.  The corresponding note sheet is not there.  “Maybe the drive just isn’t working” I think, blaming it on the used, school-loaned computer.  I hand it over to my cooperating teacher, panic setting in.  Nope, not there – the computer isn’t even registering that there is a flashdrive plugged into it.  Anyone can imagine the thoughts – and expletives – running through my head.  But I had to teach.  There was no time to cry, no time to freak out.  I had to pull something together within an hour and a half before 3rd period waltzed in.

And that’s when the tiny voice said, “It could be worse.”

It could have been.  I could have lost everything.  I could have forgotten all of the material, or deleted the email with those quotes that served as a great discussion starter. I luckily had an older version of the powerpoint saved on my personal laptop back at Assumption, and my life-saver of a roommate was able to send it to me.  The lesson I delivered that day wasn’t as good as it would  have been.  But it was good.  It had depth.  Sure, the images weren’t as great, but I did my job and kept it together for the sake of my students.

4)   Don’t forget someone else’s perspective

History teachers are always aware of perspective.  We must teach the victory in the Pacific theater of World War II very differently from the U.S. perspective in a U.S. history class from when we must show the horrors of the atomic bomb when we teach the Japanese perspective.  But students have perspective too.  Even though being a teenager feels like a lifetime ago sometimes, I realized that I can’t forget what it’s like and how complex life can be.  I had some students dealing with tough stuff – health problems, friend drama, family dynamics.  They are very multi-faceted individuals outside of my history classroom.  So sometimes you have to work with that.  And you must take the time to check in, to wish them well on that health test.  At weekend mass, I prayed for my students.  Sometimes life can really suck, and as a teacher who sees her students on a daily basis, I must act as a support and a comfort, not an antagonist who could care less about a student’s life like some teachers can be faulted for doing.

5)  Be silly

I definitely tend to be nervous when I want to do my best.  And I have always wanted to be a great teacher.  As tense as I were those first few weeks, I learned that I had to loosen up in order to create the kind of classroom I wanted to.  One moment that stands out to me is one of my first history jokes.  We were studying reform movements and key figures.  As students listed key figures from the reforms, they mentioned Horace Mann, whom many regard as the father of public education in America.  I love him.  He’s a Massachusetts guy and teachers today owe a lot to him.  As I wrote his name on the board, I giggled, “Horace Mann – he’s the MAN” and laughed at myself.  One girl, who was not the strongest in the class, laughed loudly and proclaimed, “Ms. Murphy, that was REALLY funny.”  It made my day.

In Central Park with a statue of Alexander Hamilton (I said I was a history nerd…)

6) SMILE

This should go without saying, but when you’re nervous, stressed, overtired, and trying to prepare yourself for the next class while you’re in the middle of teaching another one, it’s hard to remember that.  By the second week, I realized I had to take the advice of classroom management guru, Dr. Diane Myers, at Assumption and stand outside the class, every day, and welcome the students.  I noticed a difference immediately.  It was simple – smile, say hi, ask how each is doing, compliment a cute Vera bag or a team spirit outfit.  People will respect you all the more for it.

7) Be yourself

When you feel like your students are a little to close to your age for comfort, you want to be as professional as possible. But you have to be yourself too.  Some of my girls in one of my freshmen classes loved when I had different nail polish on (one of my favorite quotes: “OhMyGod, CRACKLE!!!).  Others asked about college.  You still have to be professional, but you have to show them that you’re a real person too.

8) It’s all about community
I had the awesome privilege of completing my student teaching at the same high school I graduated from 4 years ago.  I owe so much to the education I received there, and I still do a double take whenever I see a high school-age person wearing maroon and gold, thinking it could be someone from my high school.  Throughout college, I’ve really committed to giving back to the community, and going back to “the Reg” to teach was an extension of that.  Take the time to go back to those people and places that made you who you are and do something for them.

My education roommates with some of the wonderful faculty of Assumption’s Education Department who prepared us to do this!

9) Even though it’s the 21st Century, it can still be tough to be a woman

He never stopped challenging me, especially when the principal was observing me teach.  My supervising practitioner told me she thought it was a female teacher thing, since she had the same struggles with this student. But it still sucked.  It was hard to keep calm.  And it was frustrating knowing that somewhere along the line, this young male had had it ingrained in him that it was ok to be disrespectful to women.  But it could have been worse – he just challenged me about the content and sometimes my methods, nothing else.  I think you all know what I’m alluding to here.  And maybe I will deal with that in the classroom.  But I will do everything I can to create a culture of respect in my classroom, regardless of any personal qualifier.

10) Mentors are THE BEST

The AP US history teacher who is the one most responsible for me becoming the kind of teacher I want to be.  The supervising practitioner whose love for history and dedication to teaching others how to teach made a lasting impact on me as I grew as a teacher.  The college supervisor whose constant advice and support and lessons in teaching history were invaluable to my success.  The content advisor who showed true pride when he observed me teach, sharing with me the life-long goal that he had helped me prepare for since he became my academic advisor freshman year. The thesis advisor who took the time to ask about teaching and offer wisdom applicable to educators at all levels.  The roommates who supported me through the challenges and laughed with me at the faux pas.  The girlfriends back home who’ve known me since elementary school, who shared my joy in doing what I’ve always wanted to. The friends who calmed me down the night before my first lesson, checked in regularly, and supported me and loved me even when the extreme stress made me not always act like myself.  No matter how old, how experienced, or how overwhelmed, mentors are the best resource anyone can ever have.

I have a job. I have a Massachusetts Educator License.  In August, I will begin my teaching career and finally living out my passion. Thank you to everyone who supported me, everyone who cared, and everyone who helped me to get here.  I will always try to make you proud!