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Virginia Journal of Education


Looking for the Big Finish


A Richmond teacher faces the challenges of June.


By Annie Campbell

We are wired for happy endings. Whether it’s a baseball game or a Broadway play, everybody loves a big finish. The best movies make us want to stand up and cheer. The best books hold us in their thrall long after we’ve read the last page. 

As teachers, we’re in the business of launching happy endings, even though we don’t often witness the college acceptance letter, the first job, the promotions, the awards, the fruitful contributions to the world.  We do what we do to make a difference in the lives of others, hoping that they in turn will make a difference in the world. We love those teacher movies that end with the triumph of classroom success and, while we know success is real, we also know real teachers usually don’t get to walk off stage in the most euphoric and triumphant moment in a classroom story. Real teachers still have June to live through. And June is hard.

Teachers are September people. We may love the big finish, but we are huge believers in the strong start. Pinterest boards about September begin to light up in March. It’s easier to think about the beginning of next year than the end of this one. When endings get complex there can be a temptation to turn toward the next bright beginning too soon. We love the clean slate of September when the construction paper is still crisp and the air smells of freshly sharpened pencils. We look for the next chance to get it right, to do it better, to become the teacher we yearned to be when we chose this profession. We know how to begin something new. And maybe we just want to avoid thinking about the end of the year.

The beginning of the year is about building classroom community, an artful process that engages and celebrates the gifts of each and every child. In the beginning we build neat academic routines of excellence. The end of the year is, well, messy, because it involves emotion, transition, fatigue and loss. The end is less about teaching and more about testing. If September is about shiny new beginnings, June is about endings that can easily be tarnished by an institutional accountability that travels with a heavy clerical burden. This seems to have little to do with the instructional accountability that drives us as professionals or benefits our children.
 
The end sneaks into the classroom and hovers. At the end of Spring Break we were all glad to see each other. The children clearly missed each other and as we sat down on the rug for morning meeting, a child raised her hand. When called on she said, “We are not always going to be together. One hundred eighty days used to sound like such a long time.” And there it was. It was still cold outside. Spring had not yet delivered on its promise. The trade of school for summer was still hidden and in that moment, it didn’t feel like a fair trade. Endings can carry tiny shards of heartbrokenness and anxiety. I see it in children. I see it in teachers I admire. I see it in myself.

My teaching expertise comes from training, coursework and experience; my compassion with my third-graders also draws on my own experience as a child. I remember that I loved June and I didn’t. I loved that it was my birthday month and that the lightning bugs came out. I loved the smell of just-finished cookouts that hung in the air during endless games of Red Light, Green Light in the dimming twilight. I loved June and I didn’t. As often as not, June was moving month and moving was hard. It was exciting to move to a new place with a new house and new friends. And it was sad to leave the familiar. I’m still ambivalent about June, and so are the children I teach. The joy of June is tinged with the loss that comes with transition.
 
I remember that one June. We were moving from Virginia to Cairo. It was 1965 and the world seemed a lot bigger then. We knew we were on the brink of adventure and we couldn’t wait. People told us how lucky we were and our parents told us how great it was going to be. In New York, the ocean liner that would take us across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean seemed to grow bigger as we got closer. People lined the railings and a band played on deck. Thin pastel paper streamers unfurled and twirled toward us as we waited to embark. My sister stood next to me in a matching dress and began to sob. She was inconsolable. When she could finally get the words out, she said she had made a picture of the ship in school and had used the wrong colors. There was a long pause, and then my mother said, “This is about a lot more than the color of a boat.”

In June, when tempers are short and hearts are tender, I remind myself that this is about more than the “color of the boat.”  There is something deeper going on. Feelings are complex and multifaceted. We often name feelings for children by saying this is going to be great or hard or fun. The children who look forward to the end of school may be confused that some children are very sad. Feelings of excitement and anticipation and anxiety about transition and loss can be present all at once.

Many schools have activities that help children process the end of the year. Yearbook signings, field days, slide shows and awards assemblies all have meaning and purpose; they work because they celebrate teamwork, individuality and accomplishment, and they mark the passing of time. Schools do a good job of this, but I’ve learned there is work to be done at the classroom level, too. We write letters to the new third-graders who will be in Room 204 next year; this gives children the chance to look back at who they were when they walked in the door and how they changed through the year.
 
We sometimes do a Celebration Letter Exchange. The children draw names and write a letter that celebrates the boy or girl whose name they drew. At an appointed time, we pass out the letters and sit in a circle. We open the letters together and read them silently with some soft music in the background. We then process the experience of writing the letters and reading them.
 
In the last nine weeks of school, children begin to curate their work. They go through folders and notebooks, mark their best work and choose what they want to keep. They use their academic skills to share their expertise through writing and presentations, and share their best stories in small groups. We create class books of analogies or similes or jokes to become a permanent part of the Room 204 library.

And then suddenly it is the last day. For years I looked for the perfect way to end on the last day. We have released red balloons, we have raised butterflies and let them go, we have joined hands and jumped across a chalk-drawn line to officially become fourth-graders. It is never perfect, because when endings involve relationships, they are never just celebrations. Endings are bigger than that, and they are just a little too messy to be perfect.
 
A good June requires compassion, careful listening and kindness. A good June makes room for celebration of our accomplishments. A good June makes room for anticipation and excitement of what comes next.  I’m not looking for the year to end with a big splash, but we’ve worked too hard for it just to fizzle out. In June, I say goodbye to a group of children who have become a part of my Teacher Story. I am now a part of their story. Honoring this intentionally and mindfully makes for a very big finish.

Campbell, a member of the Richmond Education Association, teaches third grade at William Fox Elementary School.

 


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