One of the silver linings of the dark and stormy flu clouds that hung over our household this holiday season was time to organize. Being stuck in the house for days on end gave me some free time to work on little projects, one of which was organizing a bookshelf. As I straightened some photo albums, a piece of paper caught my eye. I took a closer look and found it was a letter of recommendation my former high school teacher wrote for me when I was applying for a Toyota Community Scholarship back in 1997. I did not win that scholarship, but 23 years later, rereading this letter filled my soul.
After a professional blow of not getting a position I applied for, I've been feeling a bit lost until I recently decided to focus more on PURPOSE (my #onelittleword) than position. Rereading this letter of recommendation affirmed my truest self- the traits and skills my teacher saw in me at 17 years old are the ones I still hold most dear. He wrote, "She is the best leader for both getting things done and motivating students that I have seen in my thirty years as an educator." What an amazing sentence.
This teacher, who stands out in my mind always as one of my most memorable influences, said I was intelligent, articulate and committed. He said I had remarkable personal attributes, such as being self-motivated, a "doer", and that I care about people and want to help others improve themselves. He said I am a learner who craves knowledge. What he saw in me at 17 connects so much to what I've aligned my purpose to be and how I try to show up in the world.
I often feel so inept. Like a failure in so many ways. I can't bake well or cook well, I haven't been able to consistently keep weight off, I am an awful parker. I'm having trouble feeling like I fit in with the other parents at my kids' school. I'm not great at crafting or making my house look especially pretty. I don't know how to make mixed drinks. I struggle with neatness and organization. There are people younger than me who are far more successful, wealthier, accomplished.
But reading this letter, this long letter my teacher took the time to write, it has reminded me of who I am. Those traits he saw are still there. I am a learner. I am do-er. I am self-motivated. I do care about others. Those are the foundation of which I built my life. My teacher really saw me. He saw my potential and understood what I could offer the world. His example makes me realize how my words can have meaning for my students too- that one day a student might be feeling like she's a failure and inept, but might remember how much I believed in her. How much potential and good I saw. And she might take a deep breath, like I did, and resolve to think of herself more as the person in the letter than the one she has told herself she is.
"And so this is Christmas and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun,"
Last year, the flu hit my children in early January and it didn't let go for two weeks. My daughter missed ten days of school and had such high fevers that I vowed I would always get them the flu shot that I skipped last year. This year, we got the flu shot- mine in October and the kids in November. My daughter did not take it well. There was screaming and holding her down and tears and anger that took a while to subside (hers at me- for the outrage of a flu shot).
And still- the flu has found us. My son swabbed positive on Saturday morning. The doctor said, "Assume your daughter will get it." We've been taking temperatures, alternating Advil and Tylenol, applying cool compresses for days.
Tonight is the Christmas Eve celebration with my side of the family, tomorrow Christmas Day with my husband's side of the family. All plans hang in the balance now.
My mother starts preparing for Christmas Eve as early as September, thinking of what to buy the kids. She plans for months. Shops, wraps, lovingly prepared everything. Cooks a feast. She carries on the tradition her parents started and puts her whole heart into making a beautiful night for the family.
I am so sad at the possibility of missing it.
Yes, there is so much to be grateful for and yes things could be worse. But, still, the flu at Christmas time is just incredibly stinky.
Dear Student Teacher,
I can’t believe our time together is coming to an end. Soon you will be moving onto your next placement and then you will be a full-fledged certified teacher.
I had high hopes for modeling excellence for you. I wanted you to see perfect plans, neatly written in my plan book, expertly delivered. Instead, you experienced reality- plans in my head, often not written down. Lessons interrupted by the intercom, squabbles between children and missing pencils. While I wanted tp be the model, you actually helped me create systems for organization. You taught me features of Smart Notebook I didn’t know about and other new technologies. The teaching and learning went round and round as we taught each other and learned from each other simultaneously.
While I feel short of all I hoped to teach you, here’s what I most hope you learned from your time in room 215:
I’ve been teaching for 18 years and there is still so much I don’t know. I don’t know how to make this job more do-able. I don’t know how to balance all the responsibilities with a full personal life. I don’t know how to stay on pace with the curriculum map. I don’t know how to keep my desk organized.
Here’s what I do know to be true: Our job is very important. Children will think of you for years to come. Your words and actions send messages at all times. Your students need you. They need your patience, your vision, your laughter, your kindness. They need you to set high expectations and believe in them. They need you to create bridges from where they are to where you need them to go. They need you to make school a happy place to be, a place where they can grow into who they are meant to be.
Our job is very hard but it is a privilege to do this work. We truly impact lives, each moment a ripple into the future that we often don’t get to see. We don’t know what students will remember so we try to make moments count.
I wish you a full and happy teaching career. I wish you classes of children eager to learn and the patience and kindness to help the more resistant. I wish you resilience for the hard times and hope for the sad times. I pray our time together has helped you to be excited about teaching and feel more ready to teach your own class.
I believe in you and I look forward to all you will do. Thank you for being such a special part of our class this year and for all your hard work. We will miss you so much.
Every year, since 2016, I have selected a One Little Word (#OLW) to guide my year. My past OLWs have been:
This past year, I've felt a kind of restlessness. A feeling that, as I turned 40 years old, I should be further along in my career. I applied for an instructional coaching position, energized about the possibilities of a new position where my skills and experience could be utilized in a different way. I spent a large part of my summer preparing for the interview and dreaming of what the job would be like. For the first time in 18 years, I would be something other than a classroom teacher. When I was told I was not the successful candidate, I was heartbroken, ashamed, confused and frustrated. I've been going round and round in my mind, wondering what my next step should be as an educator looking to grow and evolve.
My One Little Word came to me as I listened to a podcast by Trent Shelton. It was Episode 2- How to Find Your Purpose. Trent spoke about purpose being "who you are" and not necessarily tied to any particular job, relationship, position. Your purpose stays with you no matter where you go or what you do. He specifically spoke about your position not determining your purpose and that "God will place you where your life will be used most effectively." Trent tied purpose to using your life "for the betterment of the world" and that your passions are directly connected to your purpose.
This was an "aha moment" for me. Instead of focusing on my job title or my role, I should think more about what I really want to contribute as an educator and a person. What am I passionate about? What are the parts of teaching and learning that make me the happiest?
For me, literacy is at the heart of all I love about teaching. I love reading aloud to students and helping them see how books can be friends, can change your perspective, can stay with you and shape your character. I love helping students find and develop their voices as writers, working on meaningful projects that matter to them. I love sharing words and poems and authors and ideas.
I've also been forever interested in character development and specifically kindness. I want to help students develop a positive mindset, learn flexibility, resilience, and most of all, empathy.
Another passion of mine is working with other teachers. Through my role as co-director of the Long Island Writing Project, I've had the opportunity to facilitate Summer Invitational Institutes and other workshops. I've loved collaborating with teachers, sharing what I know and learning from their expertise, too. I enjoy talking about teaching- the challenges, the solutions, the stories that only teachers in the classroom can share with each other. I love when a teacher tells me that something I shared has been helpful and will make a difference in her practice.
Focusing on what my purpose is and how I can fulfill that energizes me and makes me feel less stressed and anxious about my position or title. Here is what I have decided my purpose is:
My purpose can be lived through my work as a 3rd grade teacher, as a Daisy troop co-leader, as a parent. My purpose can be lived through my committee work with PARP (Pick a Reading Partner), my contributions as co-director of the Long Island Writing Project, my blogging at Two Writing Teachers. Through my friendships and relationships, I can always look to lift others up. Through my love of literacy and sharing with children and teachers, I can live my purpose and feel good about my contributions. Focusing on the work that fills my soul and aligns with my deep, long-standing beliefs about literacy feels right to me.
This year, I will let PURPOSE guide my words and actions. What word have you chosen to inspire your new year?
You should be more than a teacher by now.
You've been a teacher for 18 years.
You should get your Administration Certificate or your doctorate.
You should become a Curriculum Director.
You should be the instructional coach.
You should have an office somewhere instead of doing bus duty in the rain.
More, more, more.
Not enough, not enough, not enough.
You were born to be a teacher and you are living your purpose.
No other position allows you the most direct opportunity to inspire students.
You can continue growing while staying in the classroom.
There is still so much more to learn about teaching.
It's not about your title, it's about your actions.
You are making a difference for the children you teach.
You are enough.
You are enough.
You are always enough.
Gathered around the wooden reindeer, which was filled with plastic yellow poinsettias, stood my mom, my son and my daughter. On my mother's hand was an oven mitt, in the mitt she held salad tongs. Our two "elves on the shelf", Smiling Max and Olivia Jingles, were precariously dangling off the reindeer's antlers. We don't know how or why this happened. My daughter was in hysterics that the elves be put back into normal sitting position, my son insisting we not touch them lest they lose their Christmas magic.
The compromise: Oven mitts and salad tongs.
The elves were situated properly on the reindeer and it was decided that the elves should never again choose that spot to hide as it led to quite a lot of controversy and angst.
How many more days until Christmas?
Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski