Do Like the Queen Mother, Control the Pace

Parked just outside my school on 56th street is one of New York City’s best food trucks. Inside that food truck, you will find a women I affectionately call the Queen Mother. Sometime between 11:15-11:30, Queen Mother pulls up and begins setting up for her lunchtime crowd. The good news is that my lunch begins at 11:30 and I’m often the first to get in line. The bad news is that Mama doesn’t start serving until she has every napkin and plate in place, and nobody under the sun is going to rush her.I wouldn’t go as far to compare her to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, but there is certainly an understanding that you don’t speak until she opens her window and speaks to you first.  I’ve watched her enough times to learn her routine. She slowly unpacks her napkins, then stirs her pots. She sets up her money tray, and stirs her pots some more. Sometimes she even checks her phone (because she can).  And the best part is no one bats and eye. We wait. The line might be 15 deep and there isn’t one complaint, because you know that what you’re about to eat is worth every minute. Mama knows it too. But she also knows something else:  You don’t dare begin a day without feeling ready. You control the pace.

Tip 2: Get your ducks in a row before opening your door.

Every morning around 8:37 (Our day starts at 8:40.), my heart starts running a little faster than the second hand. I hear the voices of my favorite 8 year olds clomping up the stairs, and almost every morning, I’m not ready. My coffee and breakfast are sitting out on the table with their work, my morning letter isn’t projected, and soft music is not playing in the background. My choices: 1) Let kids come in and start to unpack while I get music playing and project their morning letter. Harmless enough. Or 2) Take the extra minute beyond 8:40 to clean my junk off the kids’ table, turn on a little Bach, and project the directions for the day.    

When I have taken choice 1 out of fear of being “on time” I turn my class into choppy waters. Have you ever tried skiing on choppy waters? It’s nearly impossible and exhausts you, even when you succeed.

A missing morning letter will most definitely yield a chorus of “What do we do? Do we read? Do you want us to turn in homework today? ” comments.  By this time, I’m already cranky (because I’m not a morning person and, hello, you ALWAYS turn in homework.  But they’re 8 — if it’s not spelled out, it never happened.) No morning music is a blank slate for their chatter, while Bach somehow demands reverence without saying a word.

When I choose the 2nd option, the waters are much calmer. I open the door at 8:41and act as smoothly as the Queen Mother. I take my time and greet students with a smile and a whispered welcome, and Bach takes it from there. Any questions are met with “Read the board..” and silence resumes. These two extra minutes might be the most valuable ones you spend because they preserve sanity and set your students up to enter a calm and structured space for learning.

The effective teacher is like the Queen Mother. She sets the pace, and the people follow.

For You, New Teacher.

There was a time you couldn’t walk. Your wobbly little self harnessed all your might  and commanded your muscles and limbs to work together so you could get from point A to B. After a few triumphant steps, you fell…hard. You fell, got back up, fell, got back up, fell, got back up. (Rinse and repeat for a few weeks.)  Meanwhile,  your family cheered from the sidelines. They did everything short of throwing you a party.  Even when you fell, they cheered with an encouraging  “You’re ok! Go Again!!”

Eventually you owned this mantra. “I’m ok! Go Again!”

Being a new teacher in October feels a little like this and you might have the scrapes and bruises to prove it. You are running full steam ahead on 1/2 a night’s sleep and  wondering if you will ever see the afternoon sun in your living room windows again.

With Daylight Savings around the corner, I can’t promise much in the way of sunlight, but I do want to speak from my heart to yours. I write to you from years of my own scrapes and bruises (some current!), and hope to offer a small dose of tonic for your soul. And by tonic, I mean a tip or maybe two (because goodness knows everyone and the doorman have given you advice) smothered in all the good feels. I want to be your cheerleader shouting, “You’re OK! Go Again!”    Because you are. You are more than okay.  (Cue a slow clap for all the teachers. )

Tip 1: Love in the Mess

You know that kid that really gets your goat? (Yes. That one AND the other one.)  Next time he/she tries your patience, wait. Before you say a word, wait a few seconds. Find something about them that reminds you of their innocence. It can be anything: a freckle, a loose tooth, their pre-braces buck teeth. Let your heart go tender and love them hard for a few seconds. If loving is too difficult (because, let’s be real…sometimes it is), then fake it. Finally, in love and patience, respond quietly. Maybe you need to redirect or ask a question. Maybe you simply need to acknowledge them so they feel noticed. Either way, I promise things will go better for both of you. And you’ll save some inner peace that you’ll be needing later.

On the second day of my second year teaching in the South Bronx, I saw a student chewing gum. I usually allowed students to chew gum, but this particular school had a rule against it. I saw Cindy chewing gum, and I took it as a personal affront. I felt disrespected. I power walked to the back of the library to call her out on it. Who knows what I said, but I’m certain that patience and love were not in the equation. She rolled her eyes and sucked her teeth in response (the cardinal sin).   I felt the heat rise from my belly and I was about to let loose with all my teacher anger, but something else happened. Behind Cindy’s eyes I saw a micro glimpse of vulnerability.

She wasn’t my opponent, so why was I planning an attack?   To prove a point? I can’t explain what happened,  other than to say all my anger fell away and was replaced with affection.  I had a second to think. “Do you think I’m mad at you?” I asked.  No answer. She looked down at the ground. By now, my heart had broken at my own impatience and I was able to see the situation with new eyes.  I whispered,  “Oh..No, I’m not mad at you. Not over gum. You matter so much more than gum. I’m just wondering why a student as mature as you would want to break a rule. You seem… above that.”

I can’t recall what happened after that, but I do know that Cindy and I were tight that year. I wept at her graduation and she wishes me a happy birthday ever year, even years later.   I love that kid for so many reasons, but mostly because she taught me the secret.   She taught me that in the heated moments where stuff gets messy, my job is to love.  Even in the mess.  Love first, then think, and finally respond.  Try it – it works every time.