It's Day 18 of the Slice of Life Story Challenge, started by Two Writing Teachers. I am writing around the theme topic of "What I Know For Sure." (See Day 1 for a full explanation.)
Just a couple days ago I wrote about my roundabout journey to become a teacher. When I was hired by Mason City Schools to teach 8th grade language arts and social studies in the spring of 1991, the district made one stipulation: I must take the Ohio Writing Project course at Miami University first. I don't remember if I read Atwell's In the Middle (now in its 3rd edition) before or during that course; what I do remember is that they came together to form the foundation of my teaching philosophies. She and Lucy Calkins were my first literacy mentors.
In that first job, I put to practice the pure reading/writing workshop. Not everything fell into place perfectly, of course - I was teaching 8th graders at an inexperienced 24 years old, for one thing. There were days when they practically ate me alive. However, I knew the workshop worked. I knew that kids thrived when given choices, were immersed in authentic reading and writing, and were guided along the way. When I changed to 6th grade, it really came together since I realized the intermediate age group were the kids I was meant to teach. Those 6th graders did some amazing work under the pure workshop model. I left teaching in 1996 when Katie was born and became a stay-at-home mom to Libby and Katie for 8 years.
I got a little tripped up when I came back to teaching in 2004 and found that the workshop philosophy had practically disappeared, at least in the district where I was hired, and at least in my perception. Another writing program had been adopted, and I floundered a bit trying to figure out how to do what I believed and also follow the district's expectations. Don't take me wrong - it was a wonderful district in which to work, it was just that literacy philosophies had changed a bit since I had been gone. I also needed to remember what I loved - since I had been gone for awhile, it was difficult to find my way again. I needed to work my way back into it with the help of a few more mentors, who revitalized the workshop for me. Through some collaboration with my colleague and friend, Megan, we took what the literacy gurus were talking about and made it our own.
Through those years, though, I wouldn't have fought my way back if it weren't for literacy mentors and a couple of wonderful conferences, the Lakota Literacy and Dublin Literacy Conferences. There, my new mentors became Katie Wood Ray, Lester Laminack, Ralph Fletcher, Franki Sibberson, Penny Kittle, Donalyn Miller, and Kelly Gallagher. These amazing literacy educators reignited and kept my passion alive. I continually learn what it means to teach reading and writing in an authentic and exciting way today and in the future. I love going to literacy conferences and learning from these folks and more because it keeps my work current and joyful. Thank you to my mentors for all that you teach me!
What I Know For Sure: Teaching is hard and is changing fast, but when done right is one of the most rewarding jobs on Earth. In order to stay passionate about it and to keep up with best practices, you need inspiration from experts and mentors. This is the case in any job. Everyone needs people to inspire them in their careers and life. Mentors are vital to learning.
Addendum 3/19/15: After reading Tara Smith's blog post today, I was inspired to add some thoughts to this post about Nancie Atwell's final comments on the CNN interview about public school teachers becoming technicians.
What I Know For Sure, Part 2: While I understand Atwell's disappointment and cautionary tale about where public schools might be heading (and it doesn't take away from all that she has given to literacy education), she is mistaken. We public school teachers are not technicians. We are artists, creators, dreamers, think tanks, cheerleaders, counselors, inspirations, nurses, advocates, writers, readers, practitioners....teachers. Public school kids need us - now more than ever. Young educators need us - now more than ever. We should NOT give up, ignore, avoid, or leave public education. We need to stand and fight for best practices. Teaching in public schools is a great honor, and the only way we're going to change the perception that it isn't is to come and stay in droves, with all our energy, passion, and love for teaching and students. We need to show and tell EVERYBODY we are not technicians...we are TEACHERS!