Blog · Teaching

First day tremors

Today was my first day of year 26 of being a teacher. It’s very strange to be at this point. I reflect on my career, how for so long I was the low-woman-on-the-totem-pole, the newbie. I would look at all the veterans and see in their eyes their wisdom, mixed with a touch of jadedness. Some were digging in to get themselves to the sweet release of retirement. Others brought every part of themselves to the job, many staying years past their first opportunity to retire. My goal is to bring the best of myself to my very last teaching day, then quit while I’m ahead, hopefully leaving my programs in the hands of another capable young person with some gumption and passion. I’m looking at my second act as an opportunity to explore more things that I can do, share with the world, and proliferate in other areas.

Today was the first day with the full complement of students in school in over a year and a half. I’ll admit, looking at the idea of being “back in business” spiked my anxiety. Walking into the building, the first thing I saw was a chaotic melange of students and adults, all swimming in a crowded fishbowl of activity. Some knew exactly what was happening, some were utterly lost. All were a little anxious, yet eager (to varying degrees) to make a routine that made sense to them. I made it through the crowd, a little taken aback by the blend of nervous and grateful feelings I had. A few of my familiar kids approached in the hallway and I heard an enthusiastic chorus of “TIRRROOOO” from behind their masks. They had their start of school hair beautifully coiffed, all different combinations of braids and twists. With permission, we hugged or fist-bumped. It felt like the first day of school. It was quite lovely. 

My first period was about finishing the organizing that I started the day before. The countdown to a room full of students was set; there was no turning back. The next two periods, I welcomed my new physical education students and ushered them into the bleachers in the gymnasium. I thought about how we’d had to scrap all of our “normalcy” last year in deference to screen-sharing and virtual assignments. Now, we were facing a new set of teenagers – masked, emerging from isolation, needing guidance and leadership. I had them follow me outside to the beautiful track in the gorgeous early September weather, I took attendance, wondering how in the world I’d be able to learn all their names quickly (the older I get, the less quick I am). I gave them a mini-spiel about modified expectations, then sent them on a walk around the track so they could unmask, take a breath, and start a new routine. So far, so good. 

Our lunch period was once again a swirl of activity. I had hall duty today. There was a crush of excitement and apprehension, and I started to see kids falling back into familiar routines – walking in clusters from place to place, chucking basketballs at a net from the half court line (and missing terribly), kids tucked in quiet corners to decompress before the second half of the day – they were all scoping out their place to exist for that half hour. I, though quite invisible to most, was there to monitor, assist, remind kids to lift the chin diaper to above their nose. Real purpose started to return to my work, even in the mundane task of chaperoning the hallways.

After lunch, I’d switch modes to dance class. Teaching that first class in the studio was…sublime. It was almost like a warm, cozy blanket that we wrapped around ourselves. I started with a little introduction, to get them acclimated to the space – sitting on floor spots, shoes off, masks on. I talked a little house business, gave them my philosophy, reminded them that this is their safe space. When they walk into this room, they are free to be themselves. They are expected to try, to keep an open mind, to make mistakes, and to learn from them. These speeches are the life-blood of teaching. Students have to feel safe and connected to the environment and to their teacher before they can be free to learn. I pray I say what they need to hear to unlock themselves. 

On the board, I wrote the following:

I am
I want
I will
You can

For that last one, these were the things I needed them to know about their time in the dance studio:

You can feel safe to be brave
You can do more than you think you can
You can share safely in this space

After the opening remarks, I sent them to arrange themselves on the floor, using the little pieces of yellow tape that I had set the day before as their guides. Then, I taught them the foot positions, how to improve their posture, and a little roll-down and stretch.  It was a moment I had been awaiting for a year and a half. It would have been emotionally overwhelming, but I was wearing my dance teacher hat and the mojo kicked in. I didn’t even have a lesson plan set – I just went with what felt right. Students in my class who I never saw last year, who hid behind a computer screen avatar were suddenly up, following, moving with me, listening intently. It was where we all needed to be in that moment. 

I repeated that lesson two more times this afternoon. Each period brought a new group of minds and hearts that I hope will entrust me to be their teacher. As I wrote this post, I got a text from one of my beloved 2021 graduates.

Hi Mrs. Tirro! I just wanted to let you know my freshman year has been going well though I still miss SVHS of course. I’m taking dance improv which has been very interesting so far! I’m happy to continue my dancing experience, and appreciate the last four years of dancing with you that have allowed me to move out of my comfort zone today; thank you!

That was the icing on the cake of a good return to “normal.”

As much as I’ve been talking about the idea of retirement of late, standing in front of the mirror with my kids gave me the familiar rush of adrenaline and soul-affirmation that lets me know that I’m not quite done yet. I still have some good years of teaching and learning ahead of me. When I do, I’ll be content with the knowledge that I did my part to assist and guide thousands of young people into their adulthood.

Oh, and I’m taking notes. There will be a book about it someday.

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