Lessons Learned in 2014 (…as a homeroom teacher)

My ChartI am a homeroom teacher.  And this was a year of being a homeroom teacher. No adjectives.  It was just one day.  And then another day.  And sometimes one of those days ploughed into the next day, the way cars can smash into each other on an icy Michigan freeway after just a moment of carelessness.

This was the year I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if a student had dyed their hair (because it was my job to send them home, call their parents, and make sure they dyed it back to black before they could take another class), or calling mothers and fathers and explaining that yes, technically, eyelash extensions are a form of makeup.  It was the year I realised that having enough time to talk about how it’s a waste of time to use lots of time to write lesson plans was, now that I think about, also a huge waste of time.

This was the year I read other teachers’ blogs and thought, wow, here are all these new voices–to me–saying all these things I admire and helping to keep me going (Hana Tichá, you are amazing; David Harbinson, I am a huge fan, please keep doing what you are doing).

This was the year I would get  a mention on FaceBook (Sandy Millin), a trackback on my blog (Anne Hendler, Anna Loseva, Ljiljana Havran), or see a Tweet (that’s you Colm and Mike) and think, oh, I have not disappeared from the world, I am not transparent.  And all of you who worked to keep me connected, I thank you.

It was the year I took class notes and more class notes and maybe, once a month, I snapped at my co-workers and hid out in an empty classroom and tried to catch up on what was going on with my students when it came to English.

But for all this, it was not a bad year.  In all those days piling up one after another, I learned some things.  Some things I want to share as the New Year starts, because they were small gifts that my students and their parents and my coworkers and friends gave to me.

Parents know about their sons and daughters, they want to talk honestly about their sons and daughters, they appreciate when you give them that chance.  This year I sat down with a handful of parents and told them that I was worried.  I was worried that their child could not screen out the normal noise of a classroom enough to concentrate.  Or that their child could not get half way through a short sentence without forgetting the first two words of that sentence, in either Japanese or English.  Or that their child felt so much pressure about studying, that they didn’t want to leave the school when it was time to close the shutter at 7PM.  I had a lot of hard talks.  I was met with a lot of tears and shed tears of my own.  And almost every single time, the mother or father sitting across from me said, “Thank you for noticing what is happening with my child.”  Honestly, it might be kind of nice to work in a job where there were less tears, less sudden intakes of breath like the whoosh of someone losing their breath after being punched.  But now I know that honestly and clearly providing the small details of a student’s life, to both a parent and the student themselves, is part of what it means to be a teacher.  And when the conversation is hardest, when I would rather be doing anything than sitting down with a mother or father to say what I am about to say at 7 PM on a Friday night, I can feel grateful that there is no way to run away from this moment.  That this is my job.  That this is what it means to be a homeroom teacher in Japan, and probably in the rest of the world as well.

– There are an infinite number of ways to be right about something.  There are also an infinite number of ways to be wrong about something.  When listening, thinking about any of those rights and wrong is nothing more than jamming fingers into your ears.  Keeping track of all those rights and wrongs is, very simply, a way to NOT listen.  How strange, to finally understand at the age of 43, 15 years into teaching, 10 years into a marriage, 7 years into being a father, that before I can expect someone to listen to me, I must first listen to them.

– The space needed to grow as a person often feels exactly like the distance which leaves you cut off from others and standing alone.  This year, when I was overwhelmed, when I needed one more day to get a spreadsheet of student grades completed or a new version of a vocabulary sheet printed out, if I said something, my coworkers were immediately there for me.  They stayed late and helped me punch in data.  They made photocopies.  They made sure that my students, our students, never felt cheated because their homeroom teacher was a little too green at his job, a step too slow to get done what needed to be done.  But for all their help, my coworkers never jumped in and tried to save me when I didn’t ask for help.  They never crowded into my space.  They respected me and believed in me.  There is a difference between being cut off from others and finding the room needed to grow.  It is a difference in emotional nanometers, a difference that can only be measured in the response that comes when you finally ask for help.

* * *

This year I am a homeroom teacher.  Next year, if I am lucky, I will once again be a homeroom teacher.  If I am, I am sure that there will still be days upon days that seem to plough one into the next.  But perhaps there will be just as many days that are each a moment entirely in themselves; days startling in their clarity.  And I will see them for what they are because of the lessons that my friends, co-workers, and students took the time to help me learn in 2014: watch carefully and share what you notice honestly; listen more than you speak; try to do the best you can, but don’t hesitate to ask for help.  And maybe one more: every step on the journey is one more chance to say thank you, one more chance to practice gratitude.

Thank you for reading and may your 2015 be filled with health, happiness, and learning.

Kevin Stein

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9 thoughts on “Lessons Learned in 2014 (…as a homeroom teacher)

  1. What a wonderful way to start the year, Kevin, and if I have helped in a small way to keep you feeling connected, then it’s been an absolute pleasure. I love reading your blog because you always make me think, and I’m looking forward to whatever you have time to share with us this year.
    Happy New Year!
    Sandy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sandy,

      Your blog, the links you regularly post on your FB account, and the fact that you take the time to read, comment on, and share my posts all have helped me feel tied to the ELT community. I’ve loved being a homeroom teacher. And I know I’ll have more time for presenting and commenting on blogs when the next school year rolls around. But there were moments this year when I really wondered if I was going to make it to March (the end of the school year in Japan). And even if I did make it, I wasn’t sure that I was doing any good. But honestly, you were one of the people who routinely made me feel as if taking the time to do this homeroom teaching job, to focus on my class, my students, didn’t mean falling out of the community. So again, thank you. And I’m hoping to do a bit more Millin-ing (finding and connecting with other teachers) in 2015.

      Kevin

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  2. Dear Kevin,

    Reading your blog feels like reading poetry. Reading this particular post feels like me looking in a mirror and seeing things I might not be completely aware of clearly in front of me. This year I’m a homeroom teacher too, for the first time in my life, so you can imagine how familiar your words sound to my ears.

    There are two things that really struck a chord with me while reading: 1) … there are an infinite number of ways to be right/wrong about something. How true; yet some people still claim there is one ultimate truth and no other alternatives – be it in ELT or generally. But even on a personal level it’s sometimes easier said than done; I’m a passionate person who tends to draw conclusions too quickly, and so I often have to taste the bitter taste of remorse afterwards.

    2) … before I can expect someone to listen to me, I must first listen to them. This is something I notice out there in the virtual sphere too. The best listeners will always have the greatest impact – much greater that the amazing rhetoricians of the past. Nowadays, more than ever before, we need to become good listeners because we need to learn how to navigate through the immense amount of knowledge and information available. Anyway, you are undoubtedly one of those good listeners and your students and their parents are lucky.

    I wish a good year full of space for your personal growth.

    Hana

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana,

      It’s been a pleasure to read and get to know you through your blog this year. It’s nice to hear that other language teachers who are also homeroom teachers are experiencing some of the same things as I am. Although, I’m also starting to think if I had been a more aware teacher a few years ago, I could have started learning these lessons before I got thrown into this new role.

      You wrote, “I’m a passionate person who tends to draw conclusions too quickly, and so I often have to taste the bitter taste of remorse afterwards.” And I so know this feeling. I’m hoping that 2015 is the year of compassionate interaction in place of emotional reaction. Wish me luck.

      And thanks for the idea that good listening is more important than ever in a word of information overload. Something I will be carrying with me into the new year.

      Thanks again Hana. See you, I hope, throughout 2015.

      Kevin

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  3. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful post. I really enjoyed reading about the lessons you learned as a homeroom teacher in 2014: about the importance of watching carefully and sharing what you notice honestly, the art of listening to others, the space needed to grow as a person, and many other really great thoughts.

    I also liked your wonderful descriptions of the challenges you faced as a homeroom teacher: “…And sometimes one of those days ploughed into the next day, the way cars can smash into each other on an icy Michigan freeway after just a moment of carelessness.” …in contrast with “the days that are each a moment entirely in themselves; days startling in their clarity.”

    I’d also like to thank you for your fantastic New Year poem on Twitter.
    Have a great 2015 🙂
    Ljiljana

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    • Happy New Years Ljiljana,

      Thank you for leaving a comment and for your blog full of thought provoking posts. I guess all teachers have the days which blend together as compared with the days that stand out. I’m thinking that reflective practices (like blogging) give us a way to keep the days separate. Hopefully I’ll be doing more writing as well as reading this year and that will help each day stand out a bit more.

      Glad you liked the poem.

      Kevin

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  4. Lovely post Kevin, it takes me back to teaching elementary school in the US and how involved we all got in our students’ lives. I was thrilled when some of my ‘kids’ went on to schools which could help them reach their potential and hoped that I had made a difference. Now teaching English to both Austrian and exchange students here in Graz, things are different as I only see them for an hour and a half a week for one semester. But remembering that we still leave a mark when we work with learners is a valuable lesson to keep in mind. After all, ‘teachers touch eternity’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marjorie,

      A very happy New Years and thanks for the comment. I guess when you are working with the same students every day, seeing them almost each and every morning, it becomes almost impossible to not become involved in their lives outside of school. Especially since so much of those out-of-school-life-issues are going to have a larger impact sometimes than anything we can do in the school.

      But you are so right, no matter if it’s for an hour and a half a week, or two hours a day, or even once a month, we do have a chance to, ‘leave a mark.’ I used to teach in an international centre and also only saw my students once a week. But in one class the students became fast friends and still each each other regularly and even invite me to outings with them. Not really anything I did, except maybe help create an environment where the students feel at ease with each other (or that might have just happened naturally). Which reminds me that how we ‘touch eternity’ sometimes has little to do with the class content we are trying to teach. And that’s OK, too. (Wow, that got a bit random there at the end. Sorry about that.)

      Kevin

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Lovely to read posts like these when so many articles on education today seem to only try and ‘debunk’ teaching approaches which work for many of us. We read a lot about what we shouldn’t do but few of these articles suggest what we should do. It is wonderful, therefore, to consider that the atmosphere we create has value in the same way that the content we are there to impart does. And those friendships that form may be just as important (or in some cases even more important) in the lives of our students as learning to use the past tense correctly. Looking forward to your next blog. And you might find my blog post on ‘Making lessons personal’ interesting as well. http://learnerasteacher.wordpress.com/

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