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Back to School Thoughts from an Old Teacher

By Celeste Weaver

My stomach churns with “butterflies” around this same time every year. But something is different about this year – the “back to school butterflies” have all flown away. It took me 30 years to get to this point but I think I have figured out why they are gone. In fact, I would have been a better teacher AND I would not have had butterflies all those years if I had known then what I know now.

I have not missed a fall going back to school since 1968, and every single year the anxiety and self doubt have made me feel overwhelmed to the point of tears, especially early on. Aside from the tremendous amount of physical labor involved in preparing for the new school year, there was a tremendous amount of mental anguish involved. I was consumed with doubts: Will I be good enough for this job? Can I teach this new reading series? Will I pass my principal evaluation? Will I spell all the words correctly on the board? Will the class like me? Will I like them? Will I have a difficult parent or student? Will I be able to maintain control of my classroom? Will my kids be able to learn the curriculum for this grade and do well on standardized testing? Can I do this PLP form? Will I get to school on time every day? When do I have to be there for early duty or after school duty? Do I have my calendar dates marked? Are my lesson plans finished? Are they good enough? Will I be on time for lunch or PE with this new schedule? Will I be able to collect all the proper forms signed by parents? Are my supplies organized? Are my bulletin boards done and do they look ok? Will I use proper grammar when I speak? Do I have enough textbooks? Is my room arranged efficiently? Are my name tags done? Is my room clean enough? Will I be able to get my room prepared in time for open house? Will I be able to communicate well with parents? These questions and a million others filled my head with “urgent minutia” and made me an emotional wreck more than once in my career.

What I didn’t know all that time is that I should have been asking myself ONLY ONE question: “Will I be able to love my kids?” LOVE. It is a word that is over used to the point that it loses its meaning. You don’t hear it connected to the classroom very often, but if we want to have a thriving classroom, it is the one, unseen component that is vital. It is really true that people (and especially students) don’t care what you know until they know how much you care. Love paves the way for instruction and opens little minds to new concepts, ideas, and knowledge. Love even makes it easier for children to receive correction.

Don’t get me wrong. Love doesn’t mean you have to become “Miss Peach” and allow the kids to run around doing whatever they want, whenever they get ready, while the teacher looks on through Pollyanna glasses. Quite the contrary, love demands respect. Sometimes teaching respect to students requires downright misery as a forerunner. But when your students love and respect you, discipline/correction becomes much more effective and meaningful. Once respect is learned, the need for discipline is less and less frequent.

Parents are entrusting us to nurture, admonish, and love their children. When these elements are present in the classroom, we have created a fertile learning environment. Seeds of knowledge will germinate spontaneously and effortlessly. Correction/Discipline becomes more effective, and even less needed. The teacher then becomes more influential in the lives of her students, and then it hits you – what a daunting responsibility it is to be a teacher!! This realization motivates you to be the best you can be for those kids. Those little bodies in those desks in front of you are someone’s baby, someone’s whole world. Those parents love these little souls like we love our own kids, and when we remember from that perspective, it becomes easy to act on their behalf in love.

If I could go back to the beginning of my career, I would tell myself that I don’t have to stress over every question that comes along, because if I approach a solution with love and the best interests of my kids in my heart, I will always have the right answer. Some things matter. Some things don’t, and it is liberating to finally know the difference. Nervous anxiety, fear, doubts, and butterflies are replaced by balance, freedom, and joy. I am so glad I have arrived at this place. If only I could have known then what I know now, life would have been much easier.

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Successful teaching is not measured by how many tasks you completed or whether or not you checked items off a list, or made deadlines in time. Successful teaching is measured in the heart of a child. The building, the desks, the books, the paperwork- the school will pass away but the memories in the heart of a child remain forever. The Bible says that even when this world is completely dissolved the only thing remaining will be Love.

It is interesting when I talk to former students who are now grown adults with families of their own. I have observed that what they tell me they remember most is not the worksheets, tests, or pencil pushing. What they remember is how I made them feel. They remember the things I loved and shared with them that might not have been in the lesson plans for that day. They remember me sharing part of my personal life with them and feeling more bonded to me as a result. They remember incidental learning completely outside the “curriculum”. They remember DOING things and feeling happy, successful, or accepted. They don’t remember the stuff, the things, the books, the paperwork. They remember me. They remember how they felt. They remember if I cared about them or not.

All this time, I did not have to worry if I was good enough. I did not have to stress about the world falling apart if I did not complete something in time or accomplish some menial task. The only thing I should have spent time worrying about is one question: “Can I love these kids?” That is why all the butterflies flew away – because I know I’ve got this. I CAN love these kids and that is all that matters. I know how to do the best I can. I know how to treat those students as I would want to be treated. I know how to be who I am and share myself with my kids. All the rest of the urgent minutia will fall in place if I keep my eye on what is really important- those sweet little souls sitting in those desks before me. And if I should come up short in some other area, “love covers a multitude of sins” and forgiveness comes quickly to those who truly love.

I am so thankful I finally acquired a filter that helps me sift through all the unimportant things and focus on what is really important in my life. It took 30 years to gain this new perspective, but at my age I love new things. It is so nice to start the year without all the drama and bellyaches. I admit I still have one or two butterflies left, but I am looking forward to the coming school year with more peace and balance than ever before! I know there is but one question to ask myself to gage the success of my year. At the end of the day, all that really matters is “How well did you LOVE?”

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