With baby #2 coming next week, I feel a need to process my past teaching life and bid a formal farewell to it. A release of sorts.
Before Luke was born, I spent 13 years as a classical elementary teacher. I don’t think there’s anything terribly remarkable about teaching for 13 years (plenty of teachers spend decades longer in the classroom and have a more significant impact), but those years were very special to me and incredibly formative. They will always be close to my heart.
When Matt switched careers and we moved around the country for him to attend medical school, rotations, and residency, it kind of became my “Classical School Tour of the United States” as I taught at:
- the largest charter classical school in Colorado
- a smaller, university-model, classical school in Missouri (students came to me 3 days a week and I wrote homeschool lesson plans for moms to follow on the other 2 days)
- a mid-sized, school-planting, classical school in Florida
- and a small, family-like, Charlotte Mason (not classical) school in inner-city Detroit
These places were similar (in language, mission, curricula, etc.) and wildly different from each other. Different schools were in different phases of their own philosophical journey, some physical locations posed unique challenges, some were trying to grow bigger, others grew maybe too big too fast while trying to stay true to their values. But I got to work with passionate people at each place and come alongside precious students at each place. I feel so privileged to have gotten to work at these places.
I am confident God led me to each location, and He showed Himself afresh every time.
From time to time, I find myself reflecting on various sweet teaching moments or of mistakes I made. Nothing plaguing, just passing thoughts I have in the quiet hours. What challenges did God see me through? What would I have done differently? Where is this or that student now? Lately, I’ve been seeing engagement announcements from past 1st graders I taught. How is that possible?
Staying home with Luke is a dream come true, and I feel a deep deep contentment in my role as “mom”. There’s no desire to be back in the classroom, but I’m still processing letting that part of myself go. It feels odd to have poured myself into something so completely for so long and then for it to just be…done. I know my primary identity is not teacher or mom. It’s daughter of The King. And I’m aware of some unhealthy pride I have wrapped up in that former identity that I’m processing through. But I also know that many stay-at-home moms coming out of meaningful careers feel this too, right? Like you kind of cut off your arm.
Teaching wasn’t just a job to me. It taught me more about being human. My philosophy of education and parenting was shaped and reshaped. It was a high privilege to be entrusted with other people’s children everyday. I understand the enormity of that now that I have my own child, and I think I would have been a different teacher had I also been a mom at the time. A better teacher in some ways.
When Luke was born, for the first time since I was 5, I wasn’t on a school schedule. I could go do things in the middle of the day. I joined a women’s Bible study that met on Wednesday mornings, and I almost felt like I was breaking a rule by not being at school.
August always meant preparing my classroom for another school year. But now in August, I’m simply a mom at my house. In a t-shirt and ponytail. It’s glorious and peaceful and sweet. But, admittedly, a little strange at first.
I no longer receive my class list in the summer. I don’t mail any “Welcome to my class!”postcards anymore. I don’t write any desk name tags or prepare any lessons or put together student folders and binders. I don’t send a first day of school email to parents telling them what we did and assuring them that things went well and sharing ways they can help their child adjust. That was my rhythm for so long.
I miss setting up my classroom just so, the exact way I like it, to create a peaceful and organized learning environment. The labeling of books, the display of nature specimens, the desk arrangements, the organizing of supplies… It was a time of beginning-of-the-school-year anticipation and possibility and hope, preparing for the next fresh batch of little faces.
I miss the special curriculum day events where we embodied the past. (Insert reminiscent sigh.) No more Ancient Egypt Day. No more Colonial Day, or Immigration Day, or Viking Day. No more Nomad Day or archaeological digs or mummified chickens. No more Monastery Day or Knighting Tournament. Ah, I loved those days!
Matt used to tell me not to run errands after school in my prairie school marm costume or people might think I’m in a cult.
One year, when I had moved to a new school, I was digging up some land on the school grounds one Saturday to set up my class’s archaeological dig. I had done the dig for 8 straight years at my other school and was careful to obtain permission beforehand to dig at this new school too. However, this new school met in a church building, and I guess the pastor of the church was not informed. That was an awkward moment when he approached me while I was digging up his church yard. Shovel in hand, digging a big pit by myself behind the school over the weekend – it must have looked like I was burying a body (I think I made a joke about that that didn’t go over well). He looked so confused and concerned when he saw me.
If you’re familiar with Classical Education, you’ve heard of the Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric stages. We Grammar Stage classical teachers talked a lot about “languaging” young children – immersing them in language: stories, recitations, narrations, sound offs, copy work, memory work, etc. Students at this stage absorb facts fairly easily and feel accomplished when they memorize phonics rules or poems or names of things (often put to song). They love to share facts they remember from their lessons, facts they will build upon and analyze in later stages. Students at this stage also enjoy listening to a variety of stories and gain so much by telling back and discussing these stories. When they hear and narrate books at a higher level than they can read independently, their vocabulary grows, and they gain needed exposure to more complex sentence structures. We let them dip their toes into the Great Conversation through classic literature. We read, among other works, fairy tales to the very young, not just to nurture their imaginations but to help provide a foundation for Christian thought – to show them that good can indeed triumph over evil, that hope exists, and ultimately to point them in the direction of the Gospel. As they grow, they read other works that serve similar purposes.
I miss the group book discussions on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader or The Secret Garden or Little House on the Prairie… Even fourth graders can appreciate the good vs. evil in Beowulf. They sure hate that Grendel. I miss the poetry recitations. The plays and reenactments. The writer’s journals and book reports. I loved reading their book reports! The characters they most related to, their ideas for a better ending… It was all so entertaining.
No more Field Day and voting on our class’s team name. “Letourneau’s Lobsters” was a cute one. And I loved “Jackson’s Jelly Beans”.
No more organizing field trips to the symphony or the ranch or the science museum or the nature preserve or Medieval Times. No more cathedral tours to study architecture or visits to one-room-school houses. No more diving deeply into the Reformation with 9 year olds. So rich!!! I liked learning about it all just as much as they did, my own heart being molded alongside theirs.
We are not over the child as the source of all knowledge but beside the child, also learning.
No more phonogram flashcards and writing words in our spelling notebooks each morning.
(By the way, did you know there are 29 rules to the English language? I loved geeking out to that stuff.)
No more sentence diagramming. No more pledge of allegiance each day. No more Nature Study. No more geography or history projects or science experiments.
I miss Grandparents Day. They love seeing what their grandchildren are learning, but they have none of the anxiety that can sometimes come with being the parent of a student.
I miss the sweet, heartfelt, and sometimes hilarious notes from children.
Aside from the classroom, I miss the enlightening book talks, thoughtful discussions, and joint quest with my fellow coworkers – people with a shared passion for educating children to love what is true, good, and beautiful – competent people who inspired me, some of them being published authors, national conference speakers, leaders in the classical education world, some with doctorate degrees, and also people with no such fancy titles or advanced degrees but who I think are too good for this world – people who gave from their own paychecks to finance tuition for underprivileged students to get a lovely education, who drove some of these kids to and from school each day because those children had no other way of coming, who made lunches for some of the kids…I was so humbled to work alongside all kinds of wonderful people.
I miss sitting in faculty meetings with these people I respect and love. We were in the trenches together, with the same daily challenges and schedules and classroom hopes. I miss that camaraderie of other teachers, the knowing looks of solidarity in the hallway or on the playground. The encouraging words we spoke to one another. The funny stories we swapped. Oh, the stories!
2007 was a pivotal and eye-opening year. It was only my fourth year of teaching, so I was still pretty green. I spent part of that Summer and Fall in Fredericksburg, Texas at the flagship Charlotte Mason school at their teacher training institute and discovered a quietness of heart that is so often absent in teaching. And I gained a renewed focus on affirming the personhood of a child.
We were a small group of teachers from around the country, gathered together to become students each day across several subjects. We observed nature, read and narrated timeless books, water colored, etc. It was lovely. Then, each day, several times a day, we took off our “student” hats and put our “teacher” hats back on to discuss the process we had just experienced and observed: how much teacher talk was (or WASN’T) involved, the nature of the questions asked, the amount of silent thinking time allowed, the gentle pace of the lesson, etc. We read and discussed Charlotte’s works and talked a lot about her foundational idea that the ‘child is a person’ (both image-bearers AND fallen creation) and how that one idea affects how we approach everything we do.
We discussed at length proper conditions for learning, masterly inactivity (or the teacher’s refusal to get between the child and the source), habit formation, the thought environment, how to create an educational atmosphere that exercises the mind and nurtures the heart, etc. It was stimulating and refreshing and CONVICTING to talk through these things. It was such a privilege to learn under contributing authors of When Children Love to Learn: A Practical Application of Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy for Today. I highly recommend this book if you are at all interested in learning about Charlotte Mason.
One great education mistake is the aim of ‘success’.
So often in modern education, the emphasis is only on speed and the correct answer and factual information (cram, cram, cram, forget, forget, forget) with little value given to the process and the ideas and the people around you. A wise and wonderful woman who was the dean at one of my schools once wrote how we’re to move towards the weak, not away from them. If all I ever taught my students was to be the best, the fastest, and always right with little regard for the strugglers in the class, then shame on me. This is why I stopped calling on the first hand raised and allowed plenty more silent wait time for the children to gather and express their thoughts.
Our ministry is not of despair, but of hope.
I learned that my role isn’t to be entertainer but is simpler and twofold:
- to train in good habits
- to present worthy ideas
Worthy ideas are those that are present in the best books (living books, as Charlotte called them). Ideas like mercy and patience, loyalty, bravery, honor… But also ideas like the beauty and order in the numbers in math and the evidence of intelligent design when we look at pictures of the solar system.
And students can better arrive at realizing these big ideas when given time to first narrate and then to quietly ponder what is read or seen. The right kinds of questions at just the right pausing points is also helpful.
Full disclosure: My love of Classical education and my love of Charlotte Mason sometimes seemed to be in conflict with each other. (Contrary to popular belief, CM was not a classical educator and had some issue with it). I had to come to terms with that and learn to let some things go on either side. I could feel her disapproving eyes on me from beyond the grave when we would chant or sing large pieces of memory work, or when I was teaching a grammar lesson in (gasp) first grade (much too early in her opinion), or if we ever had a review game involving competitive teams (she did not believe competition had any place in education). Sometimes, I wish I could have coffee with her and ask if I’m misunderstanding some of her writings. Regardless, the Holy Spirit is the best guide of all, and I do believe much of CM’s philosophy can coexist with classical education beautifully. In fact, many classical schools these days seem to adopt parts of her philosophy and ignore other parts (perhaps unknowingly). I don’t judge, because I chose to do that too – meld the two together in a way that best suited my students. I gave myself more freedom in later years to disagree with her here and there, as my experience confirmed with each passing year that I very much believe in the organized Classical model (even if she didn’t) and its systematic approach to train the mind.
A little truth with children listening is better than huge amounts that they tune out.
That said, one year I was given full reign to implement CM’s philosophy in the purist form I could at my classical school – it was simultaneously challenging and peaceful. It was one of my favorite years. Besides changing the physical look of my classroom (less circus-threw-up, and more homelike and natural), I got rid of the sticker charts, treasure box, and contrived behavior system (I cringe now thinking that I used those things). Nature study, Composer study, and Picture study became part of our weekly rhythm. Gone were dry multiple choice tests on facts and dates and instead students were allowed to narrate what they could recall. (The detail they recalled was often amazing and much more telling than any multiple choice test could ever show). Narration is the best way to train in the habit of attention. Attention is the chief of all the habits, Charlotte would say. Also, we restructured the school’s report card to be more narrative and qualitative in nature, describing in detail a student’s relationship with himself, his peers, authority, and each subject. It was a lot of work, but a tiny part of me misses writing those report cards. I rather enjoyed having to think deeply about my students. I felt like I knew them better at the end of that process, and I liked providing parents with more than just a letter grade. People get so stuck on grades these days.
Change is as good as rest.
Charlotte wrote that change is as good as rest, so I became more mindful to alternate what she called disciplinary subjects (Spelling, Writing, Math…) and inspirational subjects (History, Bible, Science, Composer/Picture/or Nature Study…). Lessons were kept short and more focused and were presented slow enough to be absorbed, possessed, and not forgotten.
There is more to say, but this is getting long. So I will now stop talking about Charlotte Mason.
I miss the last day of school that feels like a mix of sentiment and welcomed relief and accomplishment and the promise of summer rest and rejuvenation.
There are parts I don’t miss. Like staying up late grading. And recess duty in dreary, cold weather. Fire drills in the middle of my lessons. Paperwork! And carrying more heavy bags and binders to and from school than my shoulders were designed to carry.
Last year, I taught preschool out of my home to a few 3 year olds – children of some sweet friends up here. Preschool is definitely not in my wheelhouse, as I’m most comfortable with 1st-4th (I once vowed I would never teach kindergarten or younger), but the opportunity fell in my lap. And it really was so much fun and forced me to organize my mess of a basement into a workable learning/play space for Luke.
Going from a classroom setting with elementary-aged children to a homeschool setting with 3 year olds and an active toddler was a definite shift for me. I have a whole newfound respect for homeschooling mamas with babies and toddlers underfoot. Hats off to you, moms! In one sense, it was much simpler (quick(er) preparation, little paperwork, fewer students, etc.), but I was sweating (and laughing) the first day from the physicality of juggling my baby who wanted to be held (or eat the crayons and the glue) to getting supplies out and helping with bathroom breaks… It was just a different ballgame, and I quickly realized my ignorance to the challenges of homeschooling. Fortunately, I acquired the BEST assistant – “Miss Anne” – a fellow Southern transplant to Michigan and residency wife with a little boy around Luke’s age. She was such a blessing to me. When she heard I was teaching preschool out of my house, she just up and volunteered to be my assistant. God knew I needed an assistant, even though I was clueless to this need.
These little ones were so sweet to work with. It was the perfect little cherry on top to a satisfying and humbling teaching career.
As I process saying goodbye to teaching, I wish all your children well this school year! These years go by too fast! Treasure them!