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The day ‘I finally, finally figured it all out’ as a teacher

Educator and author Roxanna Elden and her debut novel, “Adequate Yearly Progress.” (Canva)
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This is the last of a five-part series on Answer Sheet this week about the stories we tell about teaching. All of them are being written by Roxanna Elden, who combines 11 years of experience as a public school teacher with a decade of speaking about education-related topics.

Her first book, the nonfiction “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers,” is widely used for teacher training. Her debut novel, “Adequate Yearly Progress,” about a diverse group of educators in an urban high school, is on store shelves in wide distribution beginning this week.

By Roxanna Elden

One day, at some point during my first year as a teacher, it happened: The clouds parted, the sun burst through and shone upon me, and I finally, finally figured it all out.

What did I figure out? It doesn’t matter. It was mostly wrong anyway. It also wasn’t the last time I thought I’d finally figured everything out.

For my first few years in the classroom, this was the pattern I followed:

Step 1: Go to a professional-development session that promises to make failure not an option, or read a book that offers [Insert Number] Ways to Guarantee Your Students Will [Insert Lofty Educational Goal]!

Step 2: Get all pumped up. Aha! I would think. So, this is why my fourth-graders aren’t understanding long division! This is how I can get my high school students to stop texting under their desks! All I have to do is …

Step 3: Front-load many, many hours into overhauling a system, or designing and printing a new classroom currency, or making 29 copies of every page of my new timed-reading-prompt workbook, or teaching students a new procedure for group work.

Step 4: Spread the word! Now that I’d made the Amazing Discovery that Changed Everything, it seemed selfish to keep it to myself. After all, just think about the impact it could have on other classrooms, other schools — the world!

Step 5: Watch my plans fall apart. Sometimes this would happen right away: I’d explain the directions for the new classroom currency and the kids would just stare at me, blank-faced. Or there would be technology glitches. Or students would have so many questions I couldn’t answer that I’d finally say, “Never mind. NEVER MIND! Just do things the way we did them before.” More often, however, things just degraded over time — the new folder system took too much willpower to keep up with, or the 15-minute beginning-of-class exercise kept dragging on until it gradually ballooned to 43 minutes, every day … and then one day we just stopped doing it.

Step 6: Realize everything I thought I’d figured out was mostly wrong.

This pattern regularly left me disappointed and frustrated, not to mention mad that I’d wasted so much time. After all, step four was supposed to be the last step! That aha! moment was meant to be the turning point that would lead to a happy ending. Instead, here I was, still stuck in the middle of the story.

What I learned over the course of my teaching career is that there’s both good and bad news about those aha moments: Every time you feel like you’ve figured everything out, you’re mostly wrong. But mostly wrong isn’t the same thing as completely wrong.

Most of your big, frantic aha-moment-driven overhauls will still leave you with something you can use after they fade away. Maybe you can turn part of that new system into a classroom job that one of the kids can do. Or maybe you can dig out your favorite piece of that convoluted writing exercise and graft it onto one of your existing lesson plans.

Each time you go through the process above, you get one real, permanent step better. Each time you read a book that claims to give you 12 foolproof strategies but really only has three usable tips … you get three usable tips.

My recent novel, which follows several teachers at an urban high school, is titled “Adequate Yearly Progress.” The title is meant to poke fun at the upbeat, almost-meaningless jargon that so often accompanies efforts to overhaul our education system. But it also applies to the personal lives of some of the characters.

I wanted the teachers in the book to feel like recognizable humans — and in the real world, we all spend most of our lives in the middle of the story. Even as we strive toward the Big Turning Point that Will Change Everything, our paths are often a long line of small steps forward, with all of their accompanying stumbles. Which means “adequate yearly progress” might not be such a bad goal after all.

The time you spend trying to become a better teacher — or a better person — may not always pay off as quickly as you want it to. But it is never wasted.


Here are the first four installments of this series:

How the media image of the ‘great’ teacher hurts the real-life good teacher

Why movies about rookie super-teachers hurt new teachers most of all

Why you’ve never seen a show like ‘Parks and Rec’ — or ‘Silicon Valley’ or ‘Scrubs’ or ‘The Office’ — about teaching

The worst moments as a teacher aren’t always the most dramatic. The best moments aren’t, either.