This summer, I am fortunate enough to work with my friend Seth and under the auspices of the Rhode Island Writing Project on a new program: New Teacher Camp. It’s a week-long professional development experience for teachers entering years 1-3. Seth and I are their “counselors” at a summer-camp-themed exploration of how to make this profession less stressful, more communal, and more magical. For our first Counselor Talk, Seth and I are presenting our “Knapsacks”: the physical items and intangible strategies that we bring with us to every day of teaching. Mine is below.
1. My notebook
I don’t like pre-made planners – they always seem pushy to me. I do something akin to bullet journaling in smaller notebooks. I go through one every 1-2 months. I have visual monthly calendars for 4 months at a time, pages for notespace and writing out my frustration, checklists for each week, my budget, my shopping list and what’s for dinner, thoughts on ongoing writing projects, trackers for how much water I drink, how many hours I sleep, how many steps I take. Some weeks I track my time and set a limit for how many hours I can work. I usually keep the front page open for cute or funny things my students say. My notebook is my memory for all things. If students need something from me, I tell them they need to watch me write it down in my notebook so I remember.
2. The gradebook
I keep a paper gradebook, which may make me seem ridiculously old or just obsessive. However:
a. It helps me see at a glance if students are missing a lot of work.
b. It’s the most efficient way I’ve found to check for completion. If I have students doing warm-ups or classwork or discussions or HW, I can so easily walk around desks and put check marks in that column.
c. It saves my work just in case powerschool loses its shit (it does happen!)
d. It’s so much easier to look at than a grid on a screen and keeps me from getting distracted by the internet when grading.
e. When I was a younger teacher, I used it to hold myself accountable for relationships. I would actually check off which students I had conversations with each day so I could make sure I connected with everyone once a week, or at least see which students were falling through the cracks.
The ones I use are Elan grade books, but a printed class roster on a clipboard works just as well.
3. A water bottle
Despite the fact that teachers aren’t liberated to pee whenever we need to, I try to stay hydrated throughout the day. I keep a reusable water bottle at my desk at school, and have been known to send it with kids to the water fountain during class. Drinking water can be a stalling technique if I need to think of how to answer a student question, or if I’m trying to come up with examples off the top of my head. It’s also one of the ways that I try to take care of myself throughout the day and keep my voice in good shape despite talking for multiple hours a day.
4. A secret stash of tampons and pads
Feminism in the classroom starts with a bottom drawer of the desk that students can go to without saying anything out loud. Once the first girl comes up to sheepishly ask if you have “supplies,” word travels fast. You’ll be a hero. This is also a great place to keep band-aids, some snacks (granola bars and pretzels), and cough drops.
5. Extra pencils
I read something that said that a teacher’s entire philosophy can be boiled down to her response to a kid who doesn’t have a pencil. I don’t scold, and I don’t even ask why. I have pencils to hand out, or a designated spot for kids to find one. It’s one of the things I look for right away when we start class. Please, please don’t be the teacher who doesn’t let kids participate if they don’t bring their own pencil to class. (Also, I designed pencils that say “Pace Yourself” so obviously I embrace all things corny)
6. Music for writing and for fun
I love those cheesy youtube “cafe mix” videos that will play mellow music for a long time. I put them on in the background while I’m writing alongside my students in class. I try to create an environment that feels less academic and more like a communal space in the real world. When the jams are on, the formality level is lowered, and my students can chill. Here’s a good one: Cozy Coffeeshop Music
I also use music as an energizer as kids are walking in to class or leaving for lunch. Sometimes we get attached to a certain song and the kids have to ham it up when they come in. “Africa” by Toto was a big hit. Kids don’t know it, but I like “Grazing in the Grass” by The Friends of Distinction. It’s all part of making the classroom a joyful place.
7. Positive notes from my students
Some days, teaching feels exhausting, faculty meetings seems like a carousel of nonsense, and the grading pile is 5 feet tall. On those days, I like to pull out the box of notes from my students and read through them. It helps me remember why I do this. Seeing the names of former students and their sincere appreciation for my work is a nice boost. I especially value hearing good things from students who gave me trouble or never showed signs that they enjoyed my class (like the one below)
8. A safe space sticker
You can find all kinds of LGBT-affirming classroom decorations at GLSEN’s site. I like to have a small visual sign in my classroom that it’s a safe place for kids to be queer and that I’m someone they can talk to. I’ve been in schools where it’s really not safe for me to be out, but I still try to show the kids that I’m an ally. My current school is very queer-friendly (it’s an arts school….) and I love sharing that identity with my students. Boosting my own bisexual visibility can be tricky, because I have to navigate the political arena and consider how much I’ll disclose to students and maintain boundaries and be a role model. But I’ve found that when I come out, I immediately have at least one kid in the room who feels safer.
9. A book on anti-racist pedagogy
I read We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, by Bettina Love, for a RIWP book club, and I know that I’ll keep coming back to this work for a long time. It helped me consider how to move towards change instead of demanding that students of color deal with the status quo (that I, as part of the system of white supremacy, am unintentionally enforcing). One of the hardest parts for me about being an anti-racist educator is holding two things simultaneously: I know that the whole system needs to change in dramatic and radical ways to get freedom and power for our students, and I have to teach the kids in front of me every day to navigate a system that dehumanizes them. It’s hard to do both, but this book has become my guide going forward.
10. An understanding of my privilege and power
I grew up in an all-white, upper middle class suburb of Chicago. Race wasn’t something we talked about, because we never had to confront it in our sheltered world. In school, we were explicitly taught that racism was something that happened in other places, in the past. We had a profound ignorance of inequality, even while we lived in a suburb explicitly created with restrictive covenants and redlining to keep Black people out. I would not have the life I have lived without the G.I. Bill for my grandfather, a resource-rich school district, and generational wealth to afford college. I didn’t start realizing the full weight of all this until graduate school, after a brief but whirlwind tour through White Saviorism. A source I go back to repeatedly to remind myself of where I am and what I have is Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh. My privilege and whiteness influence my power every day, and I try to use it for good.