With the turn of the calendar from July to August I felt it. That tug every teacher feels as a new school year approaches. This year for me, the tug has been especially strong. For the past 14 years or so, my career has taken me to literacy support roles out of the classroom. But this year, I return to teaching first grade, my happy place. Unlike my first year, I have a career’s worth of experience to guide my excitement. I know the vital importance of this August work ahead of me.
June: Everything moved onto the tile awaiting the carpet cleaning.
On August first, it’s still summer, so I awake to gentle sunlight, not the pre-dawn insistence of an alarm clock. I feed the horses in leisure -time for a pat, and to scratch the barn-cats under the chin. I make a bouquet from the garden and walk the dogs…but my brain is beginning to spin with all things school.
By lunchtime I find myself on the phone with Ann, our school secretary. “Can I access my room yet?” You see, summers are the realm of custodians. They have a year’s worth of maintenance on their list, work that can’t be completed around the bustle and dodge of staff and students. The Piece de Resistance? The Waxing of the Floors. To withstand the traffic of so many feet, newly waxed hallways need time to cure. Ubiquitous hand-scrawled “Do not Enter” signs strung across hallways, make the Teachers of August crazed. “You should be able to get in by next week,” Ann said. I look at the calendar feeling the tick of the August clock in my soul.
By August 6th, I find myself headed up the mountain, my car crammed to the gills with step stools and curtains, scrub buckets and books, supplies that have been arriving in boxes for weeks, a rocking chair careening on top.
For a time, I work alone, but soon I’m joined by colleagues feeling the same urgent call. Setting up a classroom is a multi-faceted, thoughtful affair.
First comes the reaming out. Are those decades old, dog-earred materials from several teachers ago still relevant? Into the bin they go. What gems lie hidden in the cobwebby recede of this cupboard? Pull them out, wash and label them, place them in an inviting basket. For a time, every single surface is covered with piles of things. (Teachers are hoarders in secret). I find leftover cans of long dried up spray paint, and a box of funky flat assorted sized wooden rings.. (“these will be useful for something,” I imagine a teacher saying). Overflowing garbage bags and recycling bins soon make movement difficult. At this stage in the process, things are always worse before they get better. Overwhelmed, I hang curtains, so my eyes have at least one cheerful place to land.
Then there is the layout. Where should the library go, the gathering place for morning meeting? What arrangement of desks or tables best suits my instructional style, the needs of my students? Is there room for traffic flow, Can I see all corners of the room, does it still feel airy? Inviting? Can students easily and independently access materials? Are there enough places for small groups, centers, for places for other specialists and adults to work? Sweat trickles down my back as I move a table for the third time on a humid afternoon. Wobbly broken chairs and discarded tables begin to clutter the hallway, until a vision emerges.
There are alphabets to hang, supplies to organize, mailboxes, book boxes, bins, a million things to label. And there is summer too, yet to be had. But by mid August, things are coming together. The clutter is tamed. Instructional nooks abound. A cozy library awaits readers to snuggle in. Now I have the mental calm to plan.
Sometimes, before I go home, I turn on the friendly lamps sprinkled around the room and bask in the calm, smelling the scent of new crayons, and feeling the endless possibility of a new year yet to unfold.
I love this cycle of school years: The anticipation, the preparation and application of everything I have learned to create the best possible year, the getting to know a classroom of unique human beings, the settling in as we become a community, the hum and purpose and celebrating of growth, the problem-solving of needs, the goodbyes and closure of late June. The restorative reflection of Julys.
I am nearly ready to greet my new students. For now, I think I will just sit in the quiet and slowly sip the last cup of coffee I will likely get to finish until next June.