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Teach Like the School Is On Fire

10/10/2015 09:58 EDT | Updated 10/10/2016 05:12 EDT
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Kindergarten teacher reading with kids in a wood kindergarten

It's break time.

We, two colleagues, are standing there chatting while I hold half a banana in one hand, a piece of sweet bread in the other. I pour a glass of water for myself. As I eat, she casually mentions that she has not yet made it to the gym this school year, her membership standing by idle. I laugh and mention the late night hours I have been keeping at the school, preventing me from winding down at the end of the day: 10:00 p.m. one night this week, 11:30 p.m. another night (still finding myself working at the school), 11:00 p.m. still another night. Same situation each time: too much to do, not enough time to do it in. When I left school a recent evening (side-note: is almost midnight still considered evening?), the principal's lights were still on in his office, the glow of his computer screen viewed from the road.

I ask you: what is wrong with these scenarios?

She and I look anxiously at the four binders, two bulging resources, three or four curriculum documents, folders and who knows what else that we have brought along with us to this meeting- all papers and supplements to complement our classroom teaching materials: things that we are expected to follow for a mere two of four or five components within our busy, varied day inside primary classrooms. My friend looks on the verge of a panic attack. "I'm not complaining," she says, "But this is no way to live. Is this what it is going to be, what it's come to?"

I try to balance everything I have in my possession (the small mountain I am holding with two hands), using my core muscles to offset the weight. I glance from her to the two specialists leading our session. One of whom has been here since 6:45 a.m. And I am left wondering along with them if this is really what the new reality is going to be. Burnout and exhaustion are on the tip of our tongues.

But then I am hit with a thought. My mind goes back to the four fire drills we have practiced over the course of the last five weeks, carried out at a small rural school in the country. I think about the fact that in the moments prior to the drill, all that seems to be important is the lesson I am teaching, the book I am reading, the writing I am directing or the craft I am explaining. What seems so important is what I am doing in those moments before the bell sounds for us to shift gears.

But when that alarm rings and the expectation is that we drop everything and vacate the building, that's exactly what we do. We leave. We drop everything and exit. There is not one thought given to, "Well, I'll just finish up this lesson first...", nor momentary consideration given to "But first, I need to finish this book."

What in the world? Of course not. No. We drop everything. Because all that matters is the children.

Sometimes as teachers I feel we forget that we have priorities. There are some things more important than others. Curriculum is necessary, but if the house is on fire, that document is not coming with me. Outcomes are necessary but if the room is under threat, I will not give them a moment's notice. Lesson plans are useful, but if a child's life is at risk, that carefully laid-out plan for my day would be the last thing on my mind.

They are useful, necessary and beneficial. But they are not my number one concern.

The children are.

Can we ever remember this useful thought: if the school was on fire (the house was on fire, the building was on fire), what would really matter? I mean, what would we take with us? Perhaps those things which we could prioritize as most important are what we really need to remember are the most necessary for our attention and awareness.

It's about the kids, not the documents.

It's about the kids, not the lesson plan.

It's about the kids, not the curriculum.

It's about the kids.

Thankfully, the school has not ever been on fire in my time. I would hope and pray it never would be. But sometimes, it is prudent to think: if there ever was an emergency, what would really matter? And on those things of which I have prioritized, I must set my sites and attention.

There is much to be said for good teaching. Many people might think it has to do with how much you know, how much you do. But I choose a different path, follow other voices. And those voices tell me this:

"You don't teach by knowing, you teach by loving."-- Glennon Melton

And might I add...you don't teach best by sending yourself into panic attacks because you feel you must read every document that applies to your classroom situation. You don't teach best by burning yourself out. You don't teach best by denying yourself pleasure. You don't teach best by staying at the schoolhouse until past 11:00 p.m. on a regular basis.

We teach best by loving: loving ourselves, loving our families, loving our students, loving people and in loving and taking pleasure in our faith, work and living. We can know a lot of things, but if we are not loving and teaching as if our world depended on that one pillar, LOVE, then all the knowledge in the world will never really matter.

Let's teach as if the school was on fire, placing our sites and aspirations on the people whom we love and care for. For they are what really matters most to us when all is said and done.

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