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New, Shiny Things

Near the end of last year I switched over from pens to pencils. The shift was born of convenience: Walking down the hallway, I could always find a pencil on the floor. Some students didn’t care for my lost-boy pencils, saying they were old (well loved, I assured them), wrote funny (lead is different then ink, I explained), and boring (I couldn’t beat a lavender gel pen). But over time I came appreciate the flexibility and subtle security of writing something I could erase.

Cleaning out my room at the end of the year I safely stored my ragtag collection of pencils. I assured myself that this fall my students would fall in love with pencils and the potential for self-improvement that they embody just as I did.

So it was with great excitement that I read this summer about Sharpie’s new Liquid Pencil. The Liquid Pencil promises to combine a pencil’s capacity for erasure with the flow of an ink pen. This new shiny innovation would change everything, I thought. Eager to get my hands on one, I scoured back to school sales at my local Brooklyn office supply stores.

This is how many teachers spend their summers. Not fixating on writing utensils (which I’ll admit in the grand scheme of the teaching profession plays but a small role) but rather reflecting on the past and planning for the future. We collect data (or pencils) from the year’s end, imagine how things will be different next year, and perhaps read about the next newfangled thing that will completely change teaching forever. Reforms like a pencil that writes like a pen — or a teacher evaluation system that aims to support and develop teacher talent — dance through our heads as we spend time thinking and not thinking about school. But these new shiny reforms can distract us and make us feel as all of our prior efforts were in vain. It is important to remain focused upon the core business of classrooms: enabling students to accomplish something they couldn’t previously.

To remained focused, I find it useful to return to past new ideas about education and dig into some text. This summer I did my fair share of reflecting, imagining, and learning. I read a couple of books that inspired some changes I’d like to implement next year in my classroom. Lost at School by Ross Greene gave me a new set of tools to support students who exhibit challenging behaviors. Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System contextualized many of the reforms and trends that surge through the education sector.

Like Stephen Lazar, I’ll be assuming more leadership roles at my school this year. I spent the summer thinking not only about how I want to adjust my practice, but also how to help the other adults at my school do great work with young people. Every school year is an opportunity to try something new, to do something better, to work a little smarter. This annual fresh start is something I’ve come to very much appreciate about my job.

A few days ago, my school held a new student orientation and asked some returning students to help us out. I was excited to see one of my old students, now a few inches taller and sporting a goatee. I shook his hand and commented on his new look. As he shook my hand he looked me now squarely in the eyes and said, “This is my year. I’m doing only good this year.” He needs a great year. In the past, he’s worked himself into a great many holes and had difficulty climbing out. I was excited to hear that, like me, he wanted this year to be different, better. He too spent the summer reflecting on this past year, and imagining how the upcoming one would differ.

The best part about the first day of school is that it is a fresh start for teachers and students as well. As I dust off my pencils (and maybe unwrap one shiny new one), I’m opening the door to a better year. May it be that way for all of us — teachers, parents, and students.

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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