It’s A Process
Sometimes she hands me notes or leaves me a card when I’m not at my desk. I’ll know it’s her — partially because of her track record for reaching out — but also because of the words she’ll put prominently at the top or on the back of the envelope:
It’s a process.
If she’s had time, the note will be handwritten and in an envelope with my name colorfully displayed on the front. Sometimes she leaves the note in the form of a typed slip of paper. More than once I have received a series of sticky notes that elicit a somewhat flip-book nostalgia. Usually, the note contains a check-in about what’s happening in her life and memories of her time in my class; sometimes, there are reflections on her struggles and words of encouragement. Her encouragement, I have found, is never poorly timed.
New and Quiet at First
When I had her in my class in seventh grade, she was new and quiet. She walked with the spirit of a girl who was moving through someone else’s universe. The uniform didn’t quite fit, the smile wasn’t quite genuine, or doubt in her eyes flooded the room if she was called upon to answer a question. As her teacher, I desperately wanted her to step into her story so that she could live in the moment and feel the excitement all around her. Instead, she seemed to feel the weight of her peers, taking on their sadness or struggles, shrugging off their attention. She hadn’t found herself in this space yet — but she still had a lot to say.
Formal writing wasn’t particularly familiar to her. She had written a few paragraphs and called it an essay in her last English class, following the exact demands of her teacher. So when I asked her to explore a text, relate to it, find the characters’ motivations, and think about the author’s underlying message, she froze. She didn’t know where to start. Outlines, brain maps, talking it through — nothing seemed to help.
From just over her shoulder, I said, “Writing is a process.” As I said it, I thought of Anne Lamott’s view on first drafts. I first came across Lamott’s Bird by Bird as a college student, terrified of turning in a bad draft and having my classmates ridicule me for it. Although that never quite happened, I did face the reality that I could never be a one-draft-and-done writer. The first draft needed to happen in order to move forward. My words to my student — in that first moment and then again throughout the year whenever we encountered a new writing task — would become the phrase she associated with my classroom.
For this student, missteps were terrifying — paralyzing. She wasn’t ready to move forward without assurance that the water was safe and a lifeboat was nearby to help if she showed signs of struggle. It would be inaccurate to portray that year for her as one of massive success. Instead, she typed her way through assignments, slowly and carefully, one letter at a time, until she had work that she found tolerable enough to submit.
Looking back, I didn’t feel particularly successful either. While I was certain she knew she was cared for in my classroom, I was not sure how well I did to prepare her academically for what was to come in future English classes. Did she feel confident? Did she at least feel that she had grown as a writer? I couldn’t say.
Teachers, Too, Evolve Through Process
Now that she has completed middle school and gone on to write with confidence, her notes send me back not only to her time in seventh grade, but also to an idea that is true for so many of us in the teaching profession: It’s a process.
As first-year teachers, we knew we’d make mistakes. We knew we had the passion and the energy to work to get it right for the sake of our students. However, sometimes taking that first step into the unknown was petrifying. We did it anyway, again and again, because we knew our students were worth it.
We continued to show up day after day, worn and weary, to preach the Gospel of Lowry or the impact of a well-placed line break in poetry. We knew that over time, we would have experienced some trials and tribulations, but that we would be better for it. We would be better positioned to craft more masterful lessons, to explicate the difference between tone and mood, and to find the perfect book to place in the hands of an awaiting reader. We would grow on this journey together, with help from teachers and students alike, as we found our truest educator selves.
Recently, I had the pleasure of going to a dance workshop performance after school. My former student who struggled to place words on a page was ready to share part of her spirit on the school’s main stage for parents, faculty, and friends. In amazement, I sat in the audience and saw this student in what is now her universe, proudly and confidently owning every step, alongside some of her closest friends.
Reminding her that writing is a process — and now her reminding me that everything we do is a process — has been paramount to our shared evolution. I am grateful to have had students to remind me of what we’ve been through and give me hope for where we’ll go. In the hard days that we all experience in the classroom sooner or later, it’s helpful to remember that those days, too, are part of the process. When we choose to participate in the process alongside our students, our shared journey means much more.