By Catherine Sosnowski
“The places in which we are seen and heard are holy places. They remind us of our value as human beings. They give us the strength to go on.”
- Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal
In a few weeks, I’ll celebrate my thirty-eighth anniversary as a teacher. It seems like yesterday. Dressed in a khaki pencil skirt and a lilac top, I felt so professional, armed with the mantra don’t smile before Christmas and 250 pages of suggested activities.
I have such vivid memories of that day. Who knew sweat circles could stretch to your waist? Not smiling lasted 30 minutes into the first class. I couldn’t be someone other than me. It was one of many decisions I made that year – good and bad- that shaped who I became as a teacher. While trying to have seventh graders write a ghazal was not my finest moment, attending the NCTE annual convention that year was. My methods teacher insisted we join NCTE, a place she knew we would find support and a sense of community. She was right. So right. Being a first-year teacher was just hard. Overwhelmed, I worried if what I was doing was really teaching. I learned how hard it can be to ask for direction or advice from colleagues. Who wants to admit they don’t really know what they’re doing? Being that vulnerable was out of the question. Worse still, I felt I was the only one, a lonely imposter.
Attending the NCTE convention that first year reframed that for me. I met teachers from all over the country, all levels of experience who talked about the challenges they faced. They were my challenges too. It wasn’t just my class or my school or my district. I learned in our profession we try and fail and reflect and revise. And we try again. I learned there is no one magic way or answer, but multiple ways. My problems were the same as the teacher from Guam and Kansas. In short, I learned these are English teacher challenges. As I attended different workshops and listened to others, my head filled with ideas and possibilities I’d never considered. I came home with books signed by my favorite author, an armload of handouts from the Idea Exchange, feeling empowered to take on this task. Now that I knew this was hard for everyone, no matter their years of experience, I felt more grounded. One step at a time, I learned. One step at a time. I joined the CT Council of Teachers of English shortly afterward.
What that convention and subsequent CT Council conferences did for me over my career was to provide a place I felt seen and heard, where my experience and ideas had value. I have worked in a district where I was blessed to feel that way. However, I’ve also worked in more where I didn’t. As tired as I may be, as much as I might want to skip a conference, because sometimes it feels like just one straw too many, I know I will leave lighter, engaged, more valued than I was going in. I still have and use strategies from those first conferences. Others have served as a springboard for my own ideas. I came to know teachers from other parts of the state, comparing notes on our experiences and leaving knowing we were not the only ones. It is so easy in our profession when we don’t attend conferences and meet colleagues to assume our class/ school/ district is far behind. I came to use these conferences as an opportunity to calibrate my experience. Sometimes we were on the lower end of the spectrum, but sometimes we weren’t. The support of colleagues who share this work - to engage the disengaged, balance work and home, to agonize over how to manage the sheer volume of grading, mandates, standardized testing – being with people who walk in my shoes is healing itself.
Standing on the threshold of a new year I can feel the nervous excitement as we start new classes. These first weeks are unique in the possibility they hold. We have had the summer to rest, to heal, to reflect, to plan. If last year was difficult, we work to make this year better. If last year was good, we work to repeat it. We hate to leave the freedom of summer, but the challenge of the new year can be a siren song to get it better, righter, stronger. Please know CTCTE is here to support you in those challenges. May this new year bring you joy and blessings.