You Don’t Always Have to Choose

“You don’t always have to choose. Sometimes let yourself be happy.” – New Kid by Jerry Craft

You Don’t Always Have to Choose

Karl Baresel, Teacher Writer

A teacher mentor once told me that in the difficult  days of teaching, specifically January through March, it can be a  good idea to write daily in a journal about the positive things going on in the classroom. I have done this off and on during my teaching career, recording the engaging lesson plans, fun interactions with students,and moments of happiness in my school day. My mentor could not have imagined the difficulties of the 2020-2021 school year, but I believe that the process of reflection can be transformative still today. 

As I was recently reflecting on another day of teaching during this difficult year, I found myself replaying all of the worst parts of the day in my head. As many of us do, I focused in on all of the failures and mistakes I made in lesson planning, responding to student behaviors, and even conversations with colleagues. In addition to these age-old challenges, this school year has introduced a mix of online and in-person learning as well. I considered how I failed to be a good online teacher that day — how I had failed to reach these students through the screen. And then in worrying about my online students, I worried that I didn’t plan the most successful lesson for my in-person students.  It is a constant spiral and when it comes to tearing myself down, I am the expert. 

Lately, I have been working through some graphic novels and enjoying New Kid, by Jerry Craft. The book offers a very real and important viewpoint on racism, prejudice, and bullying in schools while also captivating the audience through the struggles of what it means to be the new kid at school. As I read along with my class during silent reading time, I was struck by a line: “You don’t always have to choose. Sometimes let yourself be happy.” 

As a teacher, I find that I often force myself into a false dichotomy. I force myself to choose. I either had a good day or a bad day. I was either a good teacher or a bad teacher.  I was either inspiring my students to become readers, or I was the root cause of illiteracy in the next generation. My students were well-behaved, or they were completely out of control. And in my head, all of that is my fault. 

But just like most things in life, teaching does not exist in only black and white. We constantly live and teach in the “gray.” The fulfillment of teaching is not found in the sum of each day, but rather the joy in each moment. If we do not choose to find and recognize  these joyous moments, we can find ourselves obsessing over our shortcomings. 

I reflected on what my students had accomplished that day. We read together — independent reading, read-alouds, and partner-reading. We analyzed an infographic through a quickwrite. We used the Notice & Note Signposts to analyze and close-read a text. Did all of my students do these things perfectly? No. But I know that some students were very close. Many students grew in their ability to read and write. The majority of students were working very hard. And yet, others were playing on their cell phone. I ask myself: What do I choose to focus on? Was my day a success or failure? 

We do not need to be perfect teachers in order to find perfect love in our teaching. We do not need to wait until our units of study are flawless in order to find joy in each lesson. There is no such thing as an entirely extraordinary day. Yet, we can find moments in each day which are entirely extraordinary. Going forward, I hope to focus on those extraordinary moments. I will never be a perfect teacher, but I can find perfection in this flawed journey of teaching. 

So, today, I won’t force myself to choose. Today, I will let myself be happy.