Teaching and Having Both Feet Planted in the Present

By Karla Hilliard

“You can never hold back spring” gravels Tom Waits from my car stereo every year when the sun begins again to shine.

If you’re a teacher of students of any age, you understand spring fever in ways that most adults have outgrown. You button the rain coats of Kinders clad in rain boots playground ready. You mind the middlers and the rising tide of hormones. Or, if you’re like me, you watch your high school seniors bloom in recognition of the lives that await them.

And while “the world is mud-lucious” and growing beautiful and green, school days and spring days come on with some level of frustration, too. It’s opening day of standardized testing season, spring sports, proms, concerts, the works. And it’s that time of year when summer and its available freedoms seem so close yet so far away. 

Almost every teacher I know seems to have one foot planted in the present and one in the future, handling the anxieties of today and thinking ahead to all there is still yet to accomplish.

It occured to me recently that living with one foot in the present and one in the future is all of teaching. Being an educator and being good at it means we are always and forever anticipating, planning, learning, collaborating, revising, and responding to what happens day by day, hour by hour, week after week in our classrooms.

Despite its job related anxieties, it’ll come as no surprise when I tell you that I believe teaching is rich and fulfilling work. Teaching is challenging, engaging, creative, and deeply meaningful. But many teachers, including myself, struggle with managing it all, having it all, enacting self care, and enjoying their lives beyond the never-ending stack of to-be-graded papers.  

As I think about where I plant my own two feet this spring and root myself in the present, here is what I’m learning.

Intentionality is key.

Last weekend, Jess and I traveled to University of North Carolina Asheville for the Appalachian Studies Association Conference where we presented on a panel for 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teacher Strike. We had an incredible weekend, full of food, fun, and important learning that propels us both forward in our lives as educators and advocates. We learned from and listened to authors we tremendously admire and made connections that will impact our work with students.

On our six and half car trip home on Sunday, I said to Jess, “Ya’ know, I’m going to be really tired this week, and we’re not going to get a break. It’s right back into teaching and parenting, but I’m just gonna try to be present and enjoy it.”

Come Monday morning at 5:30, I said this again to myself…just be present and enjoy it. And I did.

Monday at school wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t whizz bang. But I nurtured relationships with students, talked to every single student in every single group as they finished their SAT game project or 30 Line Richard III interpretive performance scripts. I was present for my students, and it made a difference in how I felt at the end of the day. I was less exhausted, less cranky, and thinking more intentionally about the ways I invest my time in myself and others.

The lesson doesn’t always have to go perfect.

Like I was saying, Monday didn’t go perfectly or as planned. I had planned on students beginning their SAT grammar rule game presentations. I had planned on reminding my AP Literature students about their next upcoming poetry blog. And I had planned on getting my next unit sketches printed, primed, and ready. But none of that happened Monday.

Instead, my Juniors had one more work day to touch base and finish the final details of their games, my AP Lit kids and I got caught up in rehearsal and choreography of their 30 Line performances and I forgot my announcement, and well, the next unit is still backburnered. And that’s OK! It’s OK.

What did happen on Monday was far more valuable than my perfect plan. We talked, we shared stories from our weekends, we enjoyed one another’s company and the work of the class, and we all went on about our Monday, free from the anxieties of being tethered too tightly to a calendar or plan.

It’s OK to let something go.

To stay grounded in the present with my students, sometimes I just have to let an idea go. I don’t like doing this. I’m not good at it.  

The longer I teach the more I realize that nothing will ever feel as complete as I want it to. No matter how tight and right my plans are or how thoughtful and dug in my students are, there will always, always be more than I/we can do. More and more, I have been trying to feel satisfied with the progress my students make. Growth doesn’t happen all at once. It happens little by little, day by day. Student growth deserves to be acknowledged not nitpicked.

My students need a teacher who reflects, praises, admires, and appreciates their growth, not one who is constantly fretting over the soil in which they’re planted.

So, sometimes I let something go. I let a few papers go ungraded, I allow a few homework deadlines to slip, and occasionally, I’ll throw out the whole dang lesson/text/activity/assignment if it isn’t working.

I’ve always been a teacher who has turned her worry into work, but I’m letting that go, too. I am becoming a teacher who is present and available to her students and everyone else she loves.  

So, how do you do it? As a teacher, how do you keep both feet planted in the present? 

We’d love to hear from you! Connect with WVCTE on Facebook or Twitter @WVCTE or find me on Twitter @karlahilliard.


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