My Year of Both/And
By Skylar Primm, Educator
Towards the end of last summer, I wrote a piece for the Art of Teaching called New Year, New School, Same Me, in which I shared some thoughts about my then-impending transition to a new school for the first time in over a decade. I was looking ahead with a mix of both hope and trepidation, wondering if I would be able to adapt my teaching to meet the needs of my new students, and where I would be able to find new support networks to replace the ones I was leaving behind. I postulated that both/and thinking, productive struggle, and a joyful approach to teaching would be my polestars for a successful year.
Looking back from the other end of that school year, I feel like the year has been roughly equal parts challenging and invigorating. Recently, I was talking with a teacher friend who also made a switch this year. We both agreed that we were feeling exhausted right now, but that we were also both glad about our moves and very much looking forward to next year, when we will feel more settled and have the opportunity to build on our successes and learn from our mistakes.
To maintain my poise and attitude as an educator this year, it’s been vitally important for me to practice both/and thinking. The more we lock ourselves into binary, either/or perceptions of our work as educators, the less in touch we become with the classroom as a space of shared humanity. I know that when I’m feeling frustrated or overwhelmed at school, I’m very likely to be thinking thoughts that start with, “They never…” or, “He always…” That type of thinking only leads to negativity, alienation, and despair. At the worst extreme, it paints the students as our enemies rather than our allies.
Bringing a both/and approach to the classroom keeps me open to the infinite possibilities that exist when working with children. A few examples that have helped me this year: Our school’s place-based curriculum is both similar to and quite distinct from what I’ve been used to. (So it’s reasonable for me to face a learning curve, despite my previous experience.) My increased responsibility for planning student learning outside the classroom is both intimidating and empowering. (So take some big swings! Some of them will work out amazingly, and others will miss.) My students can be both delightful and frustrating, sometimes at the exact same moment. (So take a deep breath, smile, and enjoy yourself.)
Coming into this school year, I believed that I had my eyes wide open about the challenges I would be facing. Beyond the expected challenges of learning a new curriculum or meeting new students, families, and colleagues, I am very much a creature of habit, and a person can build up a lot of habits over eleven years in one place. In that earlier post, I used the term “productive struggle” to describe my expectations. The importance of learning through struggle, and even at times through purposeful failure, is a key part of my educator philosophy, and what’s good for the students is good for the teacher.
Suffice it to say that I have been at the edge of my zone of proximal development — and sometimes a bit beyond — throughout this school year. I am ending the year feeling proud of the work I’ve accomplished and the growth of my students, but it has definitely been a struggle at times. I now have a greater appreciation for how uncomfortable it can be to live in that space of productive struggle, and more empathy for my students who just want someone to tell them the right answer. (What I wouldn’t give for a “right” answer to some of my students’ interpersonal drama!)
Throughout the triumphs and the struggles, I’ve always strived to center joy in my classroom. Not naive, Panglossian joy, but the healthy kind of joy that reminds me why I keep coming back to the classroom each year. The hopeful joy that reminds my students that they are loved and that it’s okay to still be a kid even when you’re on the cusp of earning your driver’s license. The joy that gives us all an excuse to laugh together, while building and sustaining a classroom community.
My most central belief as an educator is that schools should be humanizing spaces where every student feels loved and accepted. If anything, changing schools has only reinforced that belief, and I’m honored to be able to continue to grow and thrive alongside my students.
Skylar L. Primm (he/him) teaches at Koshkonong Trails School, a project- and place-based school in Cambridge, Wisconsin. In 2017, he was the recipient of a Herb Kohl Educational Foundation Fellowship in recognition of his teaching, leadership, and service, and in 2021 he was named the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education’s Formal Educator of the Year. He currently serves on the boards of the Human Restoration Project and the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education and leads the Wisconsin Teacher-Powered Schools Network. You can keep up with his work at skylarprimm.com and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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