First Semester: Preconception and Reflection

“Does anyone know what this word means?” I ask, as I scrawl “preconception” across the Promethean Board at the front of my classroom, reflecting on how much better my digital handwriting has gotten over the course of the last year. I am not sure how this lesson will go. It is 8:15 on a Monday morning. I made the last-minute decision to revamp my lesson plans last night as I fell asleep, when, from the safety of my comfortable, warm bed, the idea of trying something brand new first thing on a Monday morning seemed less foolhardy.

Now, standing in front of 11 masked teenagers staring blankly back at me, I question last night’s half-awake judgment. It seemed like such a good idea just nine hours ago.

“Well,” I say, “let’s break it down a little then.” I underline one part of the word: concept. “What’s a concept? Anybody know?”

“Like, an idea?” someone offers.

“A thought,” someone else says.

“Yes!” I say, drawing an arrow from my underlined “concept” down to where I add the words “idea” and “thought.” “And what does the prefix ‘pre’ mean?”

“Before,” a student says.

“Right! So, see? You did know what ‘preconception’ means.” I draw an arrow reaching from “pre” down to where I write “before” beside “thought” and “idea.” “A preconception is an idea or a thought you have about something before you have actually done it or experienced it. It’s like an expectation. So, let’s think back to the beginning of the semester–the night before the first day of school. What were some of your preconceptions?”

I write the students’ ideas on the Promethean Board: It’s going to be boring; I’m going to be tired; I don’t want to get up early for school; I’m excited to see my friends; it’s going to be hard; I’m going to have too much homework.

Once we have a substantial list, I point out to them that most of their preconceptions (all but one) about the current semester were negative. I think back to my own preconceptions going into this school year in particular–the pandemic forcing all kinds of unfamiliar precautions, processes, and protocols upon us. I had been terrified. My stress levels were through the roof. I wished desperately that I had reached retirement age. I fully expected this year to be at least as stressful as my first year teaching, when I regularly found myself contemplating driving my car into a tree or guardrail instead of to school. I didn’t have a death wish. I wasn’t suicidal. (I was, however, miserable.) It was just that back then, going to the hospital simply sounded more appealing than going to work.

I fully expected this year to be at least as stressful as my first year teaching, when I regularly found myself contemplating driving my car into a tree or guardrail instead of to school.

“Now,” I say, “next week we start second semester. What are your preconceptions when you think about your new classes, your new teachers, your new schedule?”

Again, most of them are negative–it’s going to be stressful, their classes are going to be more difficult, their teachers might be mean. I ask them how they are feeling now that we are looking ahead to next week.

Stressed.

Worried.

Overwhelmed.

Curious.

Excited.

I can relate. I feel all those emotions, too. Will I click with my new students the way I have clicked with my current group? Will my new bunch of students be as motivated, fun, thoughtful, well-behaved, and enjoyable as the ones looking back at me now have been? Will I remember all the little things I need to do to open a new semester, essentially preparing for a brand new school year? Will my virtual classes go okay? How am I going to juggle my virtual honors class with my hybrid honors class, a mix of both virtual and in-person students? The uncertainty is unsettling.

“Now, think about this current semester. Raise your hand if this semester was as stressful, boring, annoying, or bad as your preconceptions said it would be.”

No hands go up.

“Raise your hand if the semester went better than you expected.”

Most of the students raise their hands. I raise my hand, too. I have, for the most part, genuinely enjoyed this semester–the content, the students, the schedule, the flexibility, the increased concern for my and my colleagues’ well-being. Sure, there have been moments I wanted to cry (and moments I did). There have been moments I questioned if I could really get everything done well–or at all. Moments I had to ask for help. But, despite the pandemic and the challenges, I have to admit–this semester has been more fulfilling and rewarding and successful–and somehow, less burdensome–than any of my pessimistic preconceptions imagined. None of my fears came to fruition. Not. One.

“You see,” I say, remembering what Alexandria Peary said during the mindful writing webinar I attended over the weekend. “That’s what preconceptions usually do: burden the moment. Right now, in this moment, you could be having a perfectly pleasant time in English class, but now you’re dreading next semester’s algebra class instead. You’re not present in this moment; you’re worrying about next week. Now–what are your preconceptions when I tell you: We are going to write a poem?”

Groans arise around the classroom. We have learned nothing–so we make a list of our preconceptions about writing a poem:

No no no no

This is going to be annoying

I am not good at this

My poem is going to suck

I’m excited

I like poetry

I don’t like poetry

Ugh

Poetry is shady (meaning, I think, it’s too ambiguous and includes too many hidden meanings).

Then, we proceed to write a poem, using a step-by-step process I stole from the weekend’s Nation Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) webinar.

“Imagine,” I tell my students, “you are in a room. Describe the room.” I give them about a minute to write before saying, “There is an object in the center of the room. What is it? Describe it.” I give them another minute. “The object has a shadow, but it’s not of the object. What is the shadow of?” A minute to write. “In the shadow sits an object from your childhood. What is it?” A minute. “The room has one window. What do you see out the window? What is your view?” A minute. “Imagine that in your view, you can see a person you would give anything to be able to see again. Who is it, and what are they doing?”

“I take it back,” a boy suddenly says. “I take back my preconceptions; this is fun.”

The girl behind him echoes his sentiments. “Yeah–I like this.”

I smile. “You get to talk to this person. What do you say?” I give them a minute to write. “Now, you can sense a change in the room. How can you tell something is about to change? Describe how you know, but don’t finish your thought; don’t include what the change will be.”

The room is full of sunshine
or candlelight, whether day or night--
rainbows dance across the wall.
There is a golden birdcage, big enough for me,
in the center.
Its shadow, long across the floor and creeping
up the wall--solid--not barred--
shades a rocking horse.

Buildings outside are brick or sided--
rooftops capping cozy homes.
Jack sits in a window across 
town,
wagging his tail, looking at me expectantly.

Are you happy? I say. Are you safe? Do you know that we still 
love you?

The room is sleepy and warm and lonely and quiet.

The door begins to open and--

I give them a minute or two to wrap up their writing before asking if anyone wants to share. I am pleasantly surprised to find about half the class willing to share their poems, albeit anonymously. I read them aloud, pointing out all the little things that impress me in each of their poems. At the end of class, the boy who predicted his poem “was going to suck” admits he “kind of liked it.” Then he clarifies, “Well, I still thought it sucked when I read it to myself–but I liked it a lot when I heard you read it.”

“That’s interesting,” I say. “Do you think maybe that’s because you still had the preconception that it was bad, but when I read it, I expected it to be good–and read it like it was good?”

He thinks for a second. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Do you think it’s good now?”

He smiles a little. “Yeah.”

“So do I.”

I watch them all file out through my classroom door. I feel a little sad as I realize they’ll walk in and out of that doorway only once more this year before disappearing into a new schedule, different classrooms, different classes, leaving me to build rapport with a brand new, unfamiliar bunch of students with their own preconceptions about English, school, themselves, and me. I remember how worried I was at the beginning of this semester–how skeptical and scared. I reflect on how well it all turned out, and I hush my preconceptions–Stop burdening my moment–allowing myself to savor this small success: Students wrote poetry–and liked it.

My classroom has cleared and the first few students of my next block have entered. One of my students reads the daily agenda on the board.

“Poetry?!” she groans. “Ugh!”

I smile to myself. Buckle up. Here we go again. And everything is going to be just fine.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

For My Fellow Teachers

Imagine it is still July. The height of summer. Yes, you have already invested hours in learning how to use Canvas (or trying to). Yes, you have already spent hours making sure your classroom furniture is set up for social distancing. No, this does not feel like a normal summer break. Because it hasn’t been. And the upcoming school year won’t be normal, either. But we’re not there yet. It’s still July, remember? At least, that’s what we’re pretending.

On this particular July day, I am at the beach. The water is wavier than it was the day before. For several minutes, I hesitate to get in. I watch as my husband takes a running leap into the water. I stand in the surf, just up to my knees, the crashing waves pelting my calves with bullets of sand and pebbles. After several stinging waves, I tentatively wade in to my hips, waves sending splashes against my stomach, up to my face. In a little lull, I finally join my husband, in water up to my shoulders. Waves roll in, relentlessly. I jump them or bob over them. After a few gentler waves, a big, menacing wave blocks my view of the horizon. I kick towards it to beat its break, get into deeper water, counterintuitively safer. Each big wave, I swim into instead of away from, until, despite my efforts, in a trough between waves, a roiling monster comes cresting towards me faster than I can beat its break.

“Gotta go under this one,” I hear my husband say.

Just as its frothing crest barrels toward me, I duck beneath its wrath, below its white water, into relative calm, resurfacing to hear the wave crashing behind me with its roil of sand and foam, sparkling water and blue sky in front of me, the water around me momentarily calm, swimmable, cool, clear, and aquamarine.

School Year
Matty, Soda, and Nacho on the beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in July

Like swimming toward a wave, we teachers are swimming (or perhaps being pushed or pulled or dragged by an undeniable undertow) toward a challenge we have never faced before. I have been tempted to swim away from the waves–run for the shore. But whenever I do that at the beach, I usually end up clobbered from behind, sputtering salt water, gritting sand between my teeth. In swimming toward the wave, meeting the challenge head-on in the best ways we know how, we can let it crash behind us while we continue looking ahead. And so I have spent much of my summer trying to learn how to use Canvas (I still have work to do) and Planbook and Virtual Virginia. I have spent even more time worrying about the energy, effort, and time I will need to convert all of my materials to digital versions of themselves; about how to preserve the rigor of my honors class in a purely virtual environment; about the fact that even in my in-person classes, some of the most effective activities I do are unsafe in the current situation, and will have to be modified or abandoned.

At the beach, I am good at reading, writing, sleeping, walking, playing paddle ball, and swimming in calm water. I am not good at surfing or swimming in rough waters.

At work I am good at connecting with students, helping students improve their writing, creating and facilitating lessons that involve movement and socializing, helping students make connections between literature and the outside world. I am not good at technology.

I like the analog, the physical. I am not going to have a cute, Bitmoji online classroom–or any bells and whistles at all. I simply don’t have the bandwidth. And overachiever that I am, I am not sure I’m okay with that. It’s difficult for me to accept that my mind and time are going to be too occupied converting all my old-school analog activities to digital formats for me to think as creatively or innovatively as I want to. I will have to save that for another year, one where the basics are under control again.

I don’t want to do my first year again–not for myself and not for my students. I can’t survive first-year-teacher me again (and my husband probably can’t either).

I liken the experience to driving: When I drive a route I know well, I don’t have to think much about where to turn or when to slow down. I don’t have to read the street signs or pay attention to the street names. The familiarity allows my mind to wander. I can drive and focus on the podcast I am listening to. I can drive and think about the ways I want to improve my unit on The Great Gatsby. I can drive and brainstorm how to rearrange the chapters of the novel manuscript I’m writing.

When I drive a new route, though, I don’t have the luxury of letting my mind wander. I have to listen to every direction Waze offers, pay attention to how far it is before the next turn, read all the street signs. I can’t afford to think about my writing, my teaching, my podcast, or anything else. I have to think about the fundamental act of getting to my destination.

That is what this year will be like: driving a brand new, unfamiliar route that demands all of my attention. Usually, I make all my lesson plans over the summer, so during the school year I can drive on autopilot–I know the route. I planned it out months in advance, and, because I have been teaching for 14 years, I have likely rehearsed most of it at some point in some form or fashion during my career. I don’t have to think about how to make that quiz or when to give it–I figured that out back in June. Instead, I can focus on giving my students timely and thorough feedback on their papers. I can focus on helping students I don’t even teach this year improve their college essays. I can focus on writing college recommendation letters for students I taught the year before. I can focus on how to improve the project I have planned for November, how to increase the rigor of my honors class, how to help students understand the historical context of a certain work of literature. The fundamentals are under control. They’re not taking up any of my mental bandwidth.

Recently, I heard about a rock musician, Mike Scott of the Waterboys, whose newly-released song, “Beauty in Repetition,” relates William James‘s meticulously following the exact same routine every single day. Scott himself follows a tight routine, right down to eating the exact same dinner every night. Not having to think about the mundane tasks of life (what time to get up, what to wear, what to eat) frees his mind up, he said, to ponder higher thoughts–to access his more creative mind. When his brain is not bogged down with questions like “What’s for dinner?”, it is free to soar to new heights of cognition and creativity.

That is how my school year usually goes. I create a very strict routine for my students and for myself. My lesson plans are flexible, but set enough that I don’t have to worry about what we are doing in class tomorrow–or this week or next week or all the way through the end of the year. I have laid the groundwork for daily survival in my classroom: an established routine.

This year, there is no groundwork. Despite the time I have spent in professional development this summer, I am almost as unprepared for this coming year as I was for my first year teaching back in 2006. The only advantage I have this year is that I am aware of my shortcomings. I have no delusions about my situation.

School Year II
Sadie, Matty, and me days before my first day teaching

I entered the profession naive and idealistic. I was 22 years old. My wakeup call was swift and violent. I devoted all of my mental energy to simply making lessons plans for the next day. Occasionally, I was able to get maybe a week ahead, and that was something. Just to achieve a day or two worth of lesson plans, I regularly arrived to work between 6:00 and 6:30 AM, often bringing with me a microwaveable dinner so that, if I stayed at school later than dinnertime (which I often did), I wouldn’t go hungry.

It was traumatizing.

When students began to arrive for the day around 7:15, I felt like they were interrupting my much-needed quiet time to plan. When I had to bring home their journals to read or their essays to evaluate, I felt like they were taking away from time I needed to plan for their next class period, not to mention recharge personally. Basically, so much of my focus was directed at the daily logistics of teaching, that I didn’t even have the energy left for the reason I started teaching: my students.

I don’t want to do my first year again–not for myself and not for my students. I can’t survive first-year-teacher me again (and my husband probably can’t either). I have to accept the fact that my plans and activities and projects and instruction might not be up to my own high standards, but it won’t be at the cost of how I treat my students or how I feel about them, and it won’t be at the cost of my own mental or emotional well-being.

When I start to feel overwhelmed this year by waves of I-don’t-have-a-clue-how-to-use-Canvas, I-don’t-have-time-to-convert-this-quiz-to-a-digital-format, I-can’t-adjust-to-this-every-other-day-schedule, and so on and so on (it’s a long list), I will try to remind myself of that day in July, diving underneath the roaring waves. I will take a deep breath and I will dive right in, but I will also try to remember: I do have to come up for air. And when I do, the foaming, angry wave will be behind me, and I will be able to look ahead for calmer waters.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

NHS and Beta Induction Ceremony Speech

In many professions, people are rewarded for their hard work and performance with accolades, bonuses, raises, and trips. Earlier this year, my brother won a trip to a tropical island resort for his performance at his job. Three years ago, my husband and I spent a few days at Disney Land because of his performance in his job. One of my best friends has been in the workforce only a year longer than I have, and earns a salary three times larger than mine. As a teacher, I consider my year a success if a few students ask me to sign their yearbooks at the end of the year. (I’m not being facetious; that really does mean a lot to me.)

While I will never be offered a tropical vacation or hefty pay increase for my performance at work, honors like being invited to attend the Senior of the Month dinner and earning the title Teacher of the Year have been incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.

Last night, for just the second time in my fourteen-year teaching career, I was privileged with another honor: delivering the speech at the NHS and Beta induction ceremony. For weeks, I mulled over what to say, and how to say it. Below is what I came up with.

NHS and Beta Induction Speech

November 2019

Good evening and congratulations. I am so happy to be here tonight to share with you a celebration of your achievements and accomplishments. For those of you who might not know me, my name is Mrs. Creasey. I wear a lot of hats here at the high school, but the most important one to all of you is probably my English teacher hat: I teach English 11 and English 11 Honors. It’s precisely the English teacher in me that decided to write a poem to express how I feel about your induction into NHS and Beta, and what it means. Don’t worry; this isn’t going to be some cheesy, rhyming, rhythmic verse—it’s an acrostic poem—a poem that describes its subject matter using the letters that spell the word. It’s called “Honor,” and here it is:

acrostic honor

Some of you are probably familiar with the quote, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” True statement. But I would argue that equally true is this statement: “With great honor, comes great responsibility.”

Now, I know a lot of you, so I know you have a lot of responsibilities, and I know you experience a lot of obstacles to taking care of them. I would almost be willing to bet money that when I say the word “responsibilities,” a lot of you think of some of the following:

Studying

Getting good grades

Going to sports practices

Working a part-time job

Going to club meetings

Passing your SOLs (preferably advanced)

Earning a high score on your SATs

Getting into a good college.

And I would wager that the obstacles you face in achieving these things typically include:

Not having enough time

Not getting enough sleep

Having too much to do.

What does all of this lead to? Stress. A lot of it. So I want you to ask yourself something: What is it all for? Why am I in these honors and AP classes? Why am I involved in the clubs I am? Why am I even here at this induction ceremony tonight? If the answer is because it looks good on your college resume, I want you to reconsider.

It is true that studying, earning good grades, and achieving high test scores are your responsibilities. But accomplishing these tasks is not an end in and of itself. Your true responsibility is not to earn an A in every class you take and get into the best possible college; it is to learn the material to the best of your ability—to really engage with it, understand it, and apply it, so that you can use it to help others, to improve the human condition, to make the world a better place. There is no “A” in “honor.” In fact, there’s no “B.” There’s not even a “C.” Honor does not manifest itself in grades on a report card. Someday, when you’re as old as I am (not that that’s that old, because it’s not), it won’t actually matter whether you got an A or a B in any of your classes. What will matter is what you learned—and what you did with what you learned.

I want to share another acrostic poem with you. This one is about your actual responsibilities as an accomplished, intelligent, capable student—a member of NHS or Beta. I call it “Light.”

acrostic light

This responsibility is not heavy or burdensome—it’s light. Your most important responsibilities are not staying up past 2:00 in the morning to study for that Wordly Wise quiz or running from school to track practice to work, only to complete five hours of homework when you get home. Your most important responsibilities are to be a good influence, use your gifts to give back, develop your talents to develop the world, and lift others up. You are here tonight because you are being recognized as studious, capable, ambitious, hard-working, and honorable.

When you start to feel overwhelmed or stressed out because your to-do list is 500 miles long, tell yourself to do the most honorable thing. “How will I know what that is?” you might be asking. “How can I decide if I should study for math or finish my APUSH outlines or write my English literature portfolio or clean my room or help my mom cook dinner or just go to sleep?” Well, I’m going to share a mantra with you. It’s one I’ve been trying to live by this school year. Next time all of your obligations are vying for your attention and you need to prioritize them, you can use my mantra. Ready? Here it is: You don’t need to get the most done—you need to do the most good. That is how you judge your priorities. Don’t worry about getting the most done; worry about doing the most good.

One day last spring I was driving to school early so Mrs. S. and I could meet with the NEHS officers. I was crossing the bridge over Swift Creek—you know, that bridge over by Wagstaff’s—when I saw a bird, a king fisher, lying in the road. It had been hit by a car. I looked at the clock in my car. 6:55. The meeting was supposed to start at 7:05. I engaged in a little inner battle, one side telling me I had a responsibility to be at the meeting, another side telling me I had a responsibility to help this otherwise helpless bird lying in the middle lane of The Boulevard. I drove another 500 feet or so before turning around. At least I could check and see if the bird were alive, if I could help somehow.

The bird was, indeed, alive. So I wrapped it in a blanket and laid it gently on the passenger side of my car, texting Mrs. S. that I might be a little late to the meeting. As things turned out, I didn’t make it to the meeting at all (though I was at school on time). I stopped to help that bird because I knew it was the right—the honorable—thing to do. When we see someone who lacks what we have, someone we can lift up, it is our responsibility to use our resources and talents. It is our responsibility to lift others up if we have the power to do so—and you do. Your generation is going to face some difficult problems. Human rights issues, a failing infrastructure, political divisiveness, climate change. But each and every one of you in this room is up to the challenge if you nurture your talents, skills, and capabilities, and apply them for the greater good. You have the perspicacity to help solve these problems. We need you—like the bird needed me, we need you. That’s why you’re here. That’s why you’re being honored tonight. You are bright. You are capable. You are dedicated. You are diligent. You are talented. You have been gifted with these traits, and it is your responsibility to use them to improve whatever you can. You should feel honored to do so. Thank you.

Even before I began composing the speech, I was excited about the evening. It means a lot to have a group of young people decide they want to hear what you have to say, so I felt an enormous amount or pressure to live up to the honor. Adding to this was the fact that the day after the speech (today), many of the students I would be addressing were assigned to deliver their own speech to the class for a quiz grade; I had to set a good example.

I knew I had succeeded when, today, several students I don’t currently teach made special trips to my classroom just to tell me that the speech had made them cry, had been exactly what they needed to hear, had hit all the right notes. One student shook my hand. One gave me a heartfelt hug. One told me her mom sent her compliments, but “wouldn’t have picked up the bird.”

Tonight, I spent my Friday evening sitting on my couch with the Littles, reading my students’ Friday journal entries and writing back to them. I closed one and laid it in the basket with the others, reaching for the next one, only to find I had read them all. I was done. And instead of relieved, I felt a little disappointed. I had been looking forward to reading what my next student had to say. Just as they wanted to hear what I had to say, I love to read what they have to write.