Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

One Teacher's New Year's Resolutions

Michele Dunaway teaches English and journalism at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, Missouri (when she's not writing best-selling romance novels). As 2012 begins, she's been thinking about some New Year's resolutions for the classroom. Here she shares seven of them.

1. Lead by Example

As my goal as a teacher is to get my students to think, I need to be leading by example. I need to be a deep thinker myself. If I'm not already reading the newspaper (I am), I need to subscribe, not just read it online when I get to a computer now and then, or when I click an interesting Facebook link. I need to read Time magazine and other such publications that do investigative journalism. I need to research and understand different perspectives, even those with whom I will not agree.

I should not just be clued in as to pop culture and who won "The Voice" or "American Idol," but I should be able to understand how the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other transcendentalists still influence Americans today. I should lead my students in discussions of how Emerson and Lincoln would view our current state of gun violence and have my students predict what advice and wisdom those leaders might offer. I should be having my students apply Robert Frost's theme in "The Road Not Taken" to their own college/future decisions. I should not shy away from world problem brainstorming just because right now my students have little power over their lives, much less the universe. After all, I am raising them to be that future.

2. Practice What I Preach

If I want my students to be men of action, then I, too, should be one. I ring bells for homeless pets. I brought in canned goods for our canned food drive. As I teach my students letter writing, I should be writing letters as well. I need to send in compliment letters and complaint letters. I should be continuing my practice of writing letters to my elected officials and letters to the editor of my local newspaper. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then I need to show my students that not only do I teach this, but I walk the walk. I should share responses I receive.

In addition, as I teach thank you notes and apology letters, I need to buy a stack of notecards and fill them out for my students. All my students (not just my publication staffers) should get personal notes from me on nice stationary (or at least the stuff that comes from those organizations wanting me to donate money). Nothing helps a kid's day more than knowing his teacher cares about him personally and believes in him, and nothing says it better than a card. Hallmark's right on that one.

3. Take Time for Me

Dear Teacher, you are not being paid to work at home. So don't. If you can't get it all done at work, then perhaps, quite frankly, you are working harder than your students. Certainly, you can make a choice to do some of your work at home (and occasionally I do), but nowhere does it say in your contract that your work is priority over your family and your sanity.  So be sure to take time to do nice things for yourself. I like to get my nails done. I work out. I found a massage therapist who gives discounts to teachers and first responders, so I get a little hour of heaven as she kneads the tension out of my neck and shoulders.  Take a moment to have a glass of wine. Go on a long walk. Whatever you do, the key is that it should be relaxing. It should not be a different kind of work, like laundry or dishes.

4. Laugh More

As teachers, we are under so much pressure to simply plow through the curriculum. Take a moment to let those little digressions and diversions happen. I need to give my students a chance to get to know me. Make your room a fun place (that doesn't mean it's an easy place). In my room, after a test we turn on Animal Planet's kitten cam and laugh while kittens do silly things. One of my journalism students made a lip sync to "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" where she stuck her head in the middle of a wreath. We watched it four times. So be sure to laugh every now and then, if only to find out if it's the best medicine.

5. Read What I Love/Write for Me

If I hate a piece of literature, I vow I will find one that I love and teach that to my students. There are so many works out there from which to choose, that no one, especially me who has to read said piece four times a day, has to be tortured. I will also write things just for me, just because I want to do so, whether those writings are poetry, articles, etc. After all, I should keep my skills current as well. Readers read and writers write.

6. Spend Time on the Small Stuff

I am tired of rushing. If my students do not understand, I am going to stop, slow down, and reteach. I will not rush through just because some timeline says I must. I will spend time doing the small things that really matter, teaching things in depth and not just glossing over them. I owe this to my students who deserve full immersion, not just a dip into the literary waters.

7. Remember This Too Shall Pass

There's a funny thing about time. It marches on. This is why I love Mark Zuckerberg for creating Facebook, which proves to me when I'm worried about my current students, that if my former students all turned out okay, they will too. So think long term. That kid who gave me grief in English class — I turned out to be one of her favorite teachers. I was the one, she told me later, who really cared and didn't just let her coast. I demanded that she work. She hated me for it then, but now as a married woman and young mother, she gets it.

You know what? My Facebook friends list is full of people just like that. Tim (who still probably doesn't know the difference between there and their and I was his English teacher all three years in middle school) is a successful carpenter. Peter just left the Army after three tours of Iraq. Alyssa is a nurse. Erin works in PR. Michael just got hired as a Springfield, MO, newspaper reporter — six months before he graduates. Along with her mother, Jesse opened her own retail store. So whatever funky thing is happening in my classroom, as my former principal always said, "I am the variable." So I'm going to remember, this too shall pass. And if my students and I work together, so will they go onto pass high school and achieve great things.


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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Look for an upcoming Christmas-themed book from St. Martin’s Press later in 2014. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Thursday January 10th 2013, 10:57 PM
Comment by: Jane A.
Thank you for the correction.
Friday January 11th 2013, 6:21 AM
Comment by: Lizandro S. (Rio de Janeiro Brazil)
Very nice text.

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