The Work by Abby Cooper
I have a confession to make: I’m an ELA teacher, and I am BEHIND.
I know it’s only November, and this is probably pretty normal. I vaguely remember it from when I used to teach (first grade and K-8 library) before I became a full-time author. It’s good to be back in the classroom. I missed it. And yet . . . (insert all the foreboding I’m-freaking-out music here.)
Every time I enter my classroom, I can’t help thinking about all the things I haven’t done yet. The texts we haven’t read or discussed or analyzed. The research papers we haven’t written . . . or, you know, started. The grammar we haven’t practiced. Grammar! I love grammar. Grammar is very important! How do I constantly run out of time for it? This is not okay! What am I even doing all day? I’m clearly not doing the work I need to be doing!
Okay. Deep breath, self. (If you also need one, reader, this is a good time to take it.)
In my book STICKS & STONES, the main character, Elyse, is relentlessly hard on herself. It’s possible that I occasionally have that same tendency. Okay, fine. I do. But I don’t think I’m alone in it. Educators, in particular, become educators because we want everything for kids, right? We want them to grow academically, socially, and emotionally. We want them to fall in love with learning. We want them to become the best versions of themselves they can be. But how will that happen if we don’t teach all of the things?
I decided to issue myself a challenge. I would go to school and not think about my perceived shortcomings. Instead, I would focus on what was going well. Honestly, I didn’t expect to find much.
And sure enough, when I took a step back and truly observed my students, I found that they had not become grammar masters overnight. Nor had they decided to independently read and analyze a book. No research papers (or any papers) had magically been written.
Students who wouldn’t go near my classroom library the first week of school were completely engaged in books.
They were asking for more time to read.
Students who, at the beginning of the year, couldn’t care less about new books (or any books) excitedly asked about that Tuesday’s book birthdays.
They wanted to celebrate the new novels.
Students who were formerly too old and too cool to be read to begged for a First Chapter Friday or a picture book read aloud.
When the story was over, they asked for another.
Once I started paying attention to what was going right in my classroom, I saw magic everywhere. Students were asking for more time to write their novels (my students are writing novels!) and coming in during lunch because they wanted to tell me about the books they were reading. Parents were e-mailing me things like, “I can’t thank you enough for telling my daughter about the upcoming author event. She literally had tears in her eyes when we told her she could go.”
These are things not measured by assessments, standards, or anything in between. But these are accomplishments. And they are not small.
I just finished listening to the audiobook of my new middle grade novel, FRIEND OR FICTION, and as I reflected on the positive things I noticed at school, it occurred to me – my main character, Jade, loves to write. Plain and simple. It’s her love of writing that gets her through lonely lunch periods and helps her cope with her dad’s cancer. And while she’s always enjoyed writing, she truly values it because of her English teacher, Mrs. Yang, who not only encourages her individually, but who promotes – maybe even creates—a culture of reading and writing.
I’ve been so worried about being behind in this and in that. About making sure I’m doing the work, doing all the things I feel like I should be doing. But creating a culture of literacy and nurturing a love of reading and writing – that’s it, ultimately, isn’t it? That’s the work. It’s what makes every other subject more manageable. It’s what will help students find success and happiness in this life. It’s what creates thoughtful, curious, empathetic humans.
So if you find yourself being like me and panicking over all the undone things on your to-do list, I encourage you to notice the things that often don’t even make the list but are actually the most important. Are students reading? Are they writing? Are they generally enjoying themselves as they do it?
Then you’re not behind, my friend. In fact, you just might be miles ahead.
Abby Cooper lives in Minneapolis with her husband, her poodle, and a whole bunch of books. She teaches ELA part-time at a local high school, and is the author of three novels for middle grade readers: STICKS & STONES, BUBBLES, and FRIEND OR FICTION. Visit Abby online at AbbyCooperAuthor.com, and find her on Twitter and Instagram @_ACoops_.