Yes, indeed, folks, there's someone new in town on our staff, and we want you to meet him: Alfred, our A.E. Beach Elf.
As I was thinking this morning about the "elf culture" that's become so pervasive in the holiday and Christmas season, I wonder if we ourselves experience the same sort of thing in education from time to time. And I wonder if it's helpful or not so helpful in terms of our motivation to become the best teachers we can be. Maybe the best humans we can be, too.
It was back before people ever really heard of having Elf on the Shelf, and I found one in a specialty kids boutique and figured a pet elf would make a fun tradition to the family. My oldest was just coming into the age of toddlerhood so it seemed like an extraneous motivation might save me and be a little fun in the process. I picked one up and read the story: Basically, the elf changes places each day because every day he reports our good or bad behavior to Santa. And from this point manipulation has ensued: If you sleep in your room, If you do this, If you do that, the elf will give a good report to Santa and you shall be blessed with a bounteous Christmas. Ha.
And so I wonder in education if the thought of a "watching elf" and doing things that are either good or bad sometimes limits us in seeing the whole picture.
I remember starting out in the realm of public education. It was unfamiliar territory. I grew up in Savannah, went off to college in Macon, and returned to teach at my own alma mater, a private school in town. But after staying home for a year or two with my oldest and completing my Masters, I was ready to be back. Enter: happy, sprightly, cheerful me into the real world of education. I saw the turnaround was happening, and I wanted in; I wanted a challenge. Before in my three years teaching, I had been used to giving an assignment and it being done. Stat. Pronto. My only concern in that teaching environment? Just that there wasn't too much chatter during the getting it done process. Gum chewing? Yep it was a referral. For real.
But here I was and so I began one of the largest challenges of my life. My first year? I think it was chaos. Our whole motto here was "Whatever It Takes," and boy, somedays it took tears, a whole lot of reflection, but above all else? Commitment and perseverance. In those days, we were just trying to do whatever it took literally to motivate and engage students. After all, most of us were new, and we took their sense of familiar and changed it up completely. They weren't used to us. Literary elements? Yep, taught those through the coolest songs. Irony? I think that was taught through songs as well. Regardless, the whole year felt like a hodge podge of actions and surviving to me. We had a million professional developments, plannings, collaborations, and all the other educational acronyms per week, and it was certainly overwhelming.
And my first test scores I received back? They were probably parallel with the temperature this weekend. In all reality, not.so.hot. And the worst? Feeling like there was this anonymous entity monitoring every success and failure as if it was the end all, be all. But guess what folks? Although there was monitoring and such in place in order to help us succeed as a school, it took me probably five or six years to realize that as a teacher, we are not just a good or bad teacher, forever and ever, amen. We are not bound to live the life of that static, unchanging character. We are dynamic; we are powerful; we are capable of change; we are capable of improvement. Theory in isolation never taught us how to be better teachers. No, it is through experience and practice, and unfortunately that involves both success and failures.
So, in reality, if Alfred the A.E. Beach Elf had been reporting my teaching behavior all these years, if it were about the number of sucessful lessons and highest scores possible every.single.day, y'all I promise you I would be on the naughty list from time to time. Why? Because it takes mistakes to grow. It takes failed lessons to reflect and make them better. Did I have amazing lessons? Yes, as many as I could, but they came about through not-so-great lesson days, too.
But if the A.E. Beach Elf could see my heart? It is through those failures, reflection, peseverance that I have come to love people a whole lot more. And respect my colleagues a whole lot more as well. And that to me, is worth more than any sense of perfection as a teacher. I understand that our kids don't always draw the best hand in life, and I can be here each day to be some stability. I understand that some kids don't come in with the greatest attitudes some day, but guess what?, I can model for them what unconditional love is like. Expectations and rigor? You betcha. Kindness and mercy? A whole lot of that too.
So what is probably the greatest gift we can give to others and ourselves this holiday season? To realize these truths. The true measure of our performance here is not that we've maxed out some TKES scale in every category and had pinterest-worthy lessons every.single.day involving lessons that push kids into a feel-good High School Musical performance by Disney. Do we need those? YES. Absolutely, yes. Engaging lessons are SO important. But, don't ever lose sight that the true measure of our performance is that we have chosen to be here through perseverance, grow through reflection on our lessons, and become better each and every year. And maybe even more that we've learned to love others even when they're acting unlovely. Then maybe, the real gift becomes the transformation that has happened in ourselves that just happens to overflow into the lives of our students.
We are thankful to be on this journey together with you. You bring joy in this holiday season, as you sparkle, shine, and glitter for those that need it the most!
Don't forget to say hello to Alfred. And the truth is? He's not watching your failures. He's watching for dynamic hearts. I'm thinking the nice list will be extra full as Santa flies by the Dawghouse this year.