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Rules of Survival

One of the axioms I was told early in my teaching career was, “Don’t smile till Christmas.” And I suppose to a certain extent this cliche is a useful tool of survival for novice teachers. But based on recent experience, I don’t need advice on how to withstand problems with the kids; I need help with the adults.

The general rule I have tried to follow since early on is, “Pick your battles.” This is definitely helpful in the classroom (Should I bother arguing over pen vs. pencil? Is it worth addressing a kid who is overly fidgety on the rug?), but it is even more valuable for navigating school politics. Since my first year teaching I have found myself confronting issues large and small that made me uncomfortable. Deciding whether to voice my opinions was always a difficult choice.

This year, as I’ve adjusted to the dynamics of my third year of teaching and a new school culture I’ve stayed out of the fray more or less. I don’t bother anyone and nobody’s really bothered me. I may have my issues with test prep strategies or superfluous phone calls in the middle of lessons, but nothing has been worth fighting over. Yesterday, however, I was faced with a classic “small problem, big implications” issue.

It arose from my school’s “science fair” scheduled for today. It’s not a science fair in the traditional sense where individual students, or at least groups of students create their own experiments or models and present them. Instead, each class is responsible for creating a poster board of a scientific inquiry. Naively, I had my students write the different elements of the science lab and create the headings themselves. I just glued the components onto the board.

When I got to the gym where the fair is being held, I realized the error of my ways. I had paid too much attention to things like “letting the kids put the presentation together themselves,” and not enough attention to, “making sure it looked perfect.” I was ready to leave it as is. I knew it would stand out for the wrong reasons, but I was also happy with the choice to let the kids take control of the work.

This was not an acceptable choice, I was informed. “You want the kids to be able to be proud of their work,” I was told. This was ironic because before I brought the poster boards one of the kids said to me, “Everyone’s going to be so proud of our hard work.”

This was a battle that many teachers would deem not worth fighting, but at the same time giving students ownership of their learning (including the products) is very important to me. And as I reassembled the poster board with bright borders, construction paper backgrounds and computer printed headings, I felt sick to my stomach. I have to apologize for the melodrama, but it really was frustrating and demoralizing. My poster board may have stuck out like a sore thumb aesthetically, but I was ready to defend it. Unfortunately I couldn’t just think about my students’ work in this situation, I also had to think about my standing in the school since my tenure is currently being decided. As so often happens, survival trumped idealism.

Maybe I’m overreacting. In the end, the poster board still displays my students’ work. The content is all theirs, only the presentation is mine. What do you think? Am I overreacting? Care to share some other rules of survival along the lines of “pick your battles”? Feel free to share in the comments.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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