A Six-Box Year

The principal at the middle school where I spent yesterday morning brought donuts for his 35 teachers to mark the approaching end to the school year.

The size of the donut array took me by surprise. Apparently, the teacher standing beside me was surprised, too.

“It’s a six-box day!” she exclaimed.

A celebration!

For teachers, the end of the year brings celebration, but it brings emotional overload, too.

There are the usual worries over final exams, the routine but nonetheless draining dismantling of classrooms, the extra stress of tying up myriad loose ends, and lots of anxiety about the first year of the new evaluation system we’ve all been through.

There’s the excitement of culminating projects—the videos, the newscasts, the high-spirited presentations in front of the class–and celebrations, like the ice cream sundae fest that I just witnessed in the school library for the kids who read 20 books in a semester.  Awards ceremonies,  talent shows,  and field days, even—in one school I visit—a field trip after school is over!

There’s saying goodbye to students whom teachers have come to love—or even just learned to tolerate—and that brings another emotional reality.  In a way, teachers are preparing for the grief they’ll feel when school is over, even if they’ve never thought of the inevitable letdown as being a kind of loss.

Many of them pause in this busy time, though, to ask me how this year has gone, whether I have enjoyed my work as an instructional coach, whether I miss the kids.

Did I feel productive? Of course.

Was the work satisfying? Yes.

Did I miss the kids? Certainly.

Especially in the beginning and particularly when I was at “my own” high school and would see the kids I’d had in class just the year before.

In August and September, a lot of shrieking and embracing went on when we’d run into each other in the halls. For them, it was like I’d come back from the dead. They hadn’t expected to see me again, so when they did, the remembrance of all we’d shared would take them by surprise. I’d fly high on those days–but I would bring myself down to earth pretty quickly by remembering that were I at the front of the classroom still, all those displays of affection would not be happening.

And increasingly, as the days went by, my delights rested on the victories of the teachers whose professional lives I touched even lightly as well as those I coached intensely.

A first year industrial tech teacher who felt awkward at the beginning of the year is moving with confidence in her classroom today. The other day she even videotaped the class while they tested the strength and durability of bridges made with cardboard, styrofoam, tongue depressors, and fiberglass. The students were in teams, eager, excited and energized by the competition.

A social studies teacher who’s been struggling all year to marry a set of academic standards that honor recall of a thousand facts with the Common Core emphasis on big ideas and essential concepts has found a path forward.

A special education teacher whose students wrote whole sentences, not fragments; pages, not paragraphs beamed ear-to-ear with them as she returned their papers and complimented them on what they’ve done well.

A world language teacher whose dialogue journals are proof positive that students have increased their vocabulary and their ability to write in Spanish directed her students to look back at their entries from the beginning of the year. What they saw is what they hadn’t realized: their skills had crept up on them.

An English teacher with whom I co-taught a strategy for reading poetry reported that when her students encountered the poem on the standardized state test, they used the new blocking ruler to read the poem line-by-line and reported it was easy!

A science teacher discovered a penchant for etymology–for telling stories about word origins—to help his students learn vocabulary. He plans to spend the summer preparing more lessons about word origins to help his students learn the roots and prefixes that are the building blocks of scientific terminology.

A 7th grade math teacher, after my work in her school on vocabulary acquisition now directs her kids to look at words in a whole new way—quartiles, she told me, for example, made sense to her kids when they made the connection with quarts and quarters and quarterly.

A chemistry teacher developed a modification of the Frayer model—a strategy for teaching vocabulary—and told me her students’ vocabulary scores went up!

Collaborative successes—like the World Food Prize endeavor—have brought utter exhilaration, and I’ve drawn satisfaction from departments that have begun work on curriculum articulation, K-12. Vertical teams have formed in middle schools and horizontal ones in high school disciplines. I’ve had a hand in those endeavors and that’s been cool, too.

How do I measure success at the end of the year? Is it in the number of professional development presentations I made to whole faculties? Is it in the number of team meetings I facilitated? Or the number of individual conferences and observations I conducted? Is it in professional development conferences I attended and learned from myself or the quantity of professional books I read? Is it in the curriculum documents that teams of teachers produced? The web site I created?

The numbers don’t lie; the documents that have been produced, the charts and calendars I’ve kept, the book reviews I’ve written, the photographs I’ve taken are all concrete evidence of productivity. They’re pleasing to look at—but it’s the cumulative impact of teachers’ victories, whether large or small, that makes me smile, that brings me satisfaction and delight.

Tomorrow is the last day of school in my district. I’ll be at “my” high school tomorrow, and I’ll be giving a lot of high-fives, I know. But it’s their current teachers the students will be hugging hard.

I’ll miss that.

I’ll be proud of the kids, for sure, but it’s their teachers’ joy I’ll feel tomorrow.

Anybody asks me now how I’ve liked my job as an instructional coach and I’ll have to say, “It’s been a six-box year!”

3 thoughts on “A Six-Box Year

  1. A priceless piece that is a testimony to your evolution into this year’s new identity without ever losing sight of the the teachers and students whose daily lives in the classroom you so deeply appreciate.


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