Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Year Two Down - Lessons Learned from Teaching So Far!

I just finished my second year teaching third grade at a title I school in Florida. Craziness! My mom taught for 30 years, and I spent countless summer days and afternoons in her classroom while growing up. I watched her spend Sunday afternoons working on lesson plans for the upcoming week. I watched her invest so much of her own money to make her classroom a home away from home or buying materials to make lessons more engaging. I watched her connect with students and have them come back years later to tell her of her impact. I grew up in the shadow of an incredible teacher, and saw all of the difficulties of public education firsthand. But, nothing can fully prepare you for what it's like to be a public school teacher until you have your own classroom and you are the one responsible for those students walking in each morning.

I'll never be a first year or a second year teacher again, and the fact that I've packed up my classroom and I'm getting ready to close out this season in Florida that jump started my career blows my mind. There have been days where I have left my classroom so frustrated that I chose teaching, and other days where I couldn't wait to tell my mom or Alex about what happened at school and how much I enjoyed teaching that day.

Before I start my third year in third grade (but in a new state!), I want to make sure I reflect on some of the lessons I've learned during my first two years. Maybe a student teacher will read this or someone who is spending his or her summer dreaming and preparing about the group of students that will enter their first classroom ever in August. Either way, here's a glimpse into what I've learned during my first two years teaching.

1. Don't Compare Yourself to Others 

Ah man! This one is something that I think all teachers struggle with, but it can be especially debilitating for new teachers. You come out of college with a thousand different ideas and strategies that you want to implement. Your district will no doubt have new programs or assessments or whatever else that they're implementing. You will see ideas on Pinterest and teacher blogs that are phenomenal that you will want to implement right away. You will have veteran teachers on your grade level that are doing incredible things that you will want to make happen in your classroom too. As a new teacher, I have definitely struggled with wanting to be able to do it all, and then feeling defeated when my best efforts fell short and my classroom didn't look like so and so's or when my science block wasn't as "good" as the teacher bloggers. JUST STOP. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to pick one thing at a time to become an "expert" on. Pick one aspect of your teaching that you really want to hone in on, and become really good at that before moving onto something else. Last year, I chose to become an "expert" on math small group instruction. Next year, I want to focus on integrating science and social studies into math and reading more. Never stop learning and growing as a teacher, but realize that comparing yourself to other teachers is a waste of time. You have a set of skills and strengths that are uniquely yours.

2. Don't Be Afraid to Ask Lots of Questions

How do I take attendance? What does DEA stand for? Where do my students go for rainy day dismissal? How do I look up STAR assessment data? What do I do to help a student who has TERRIBLE handwriting? What can I do to deal with a student with this type of behavior problem? How do I contact DCF about suspected abuse/neglect? You will have no less than a million questions throughout the year. Don't be afraid to ask them. Other teachers and people at your school are usually more than willing to help you in whatever ways they can. There was a time when they had to ask the same questions. It's how we learn. There is so much newness that comes with teaching, and you learn by asking questions.

3. Have Fun With Your Students 

There is plenty of time throughout the year when you're in "business" mode, so it is totally okay to take time to let them be kids. My kids love doing brain breaks (GoNoodle is the best!) throughout the day when we transition subjects. I always dance and sing along with my kids during the brain breaks. If you're using manipulatives (i.e. Geoboards) as part of a math lesson, give your kids a few minutes before you get started to "explore" and play with the materials. Plan lessons that are engaging and fun! Get your students up and moving frequently. Even if it's as simple as getting them up for 30 seconds to do jumping jacks or hopping like a frog. If I ask my kids what they remember about our year they often say things like "when we made ice cream!" or "when we had a rounding snowball fight" or "when we dabbed during a brain break!"

That one time I dressed up as Katniss for "Book Character Day." 

Brain breaks = awesome
Any lesson that is edible is a good one!

4. You Need a Personal Life

It's okay to turn off "teacher brain" on the weekends. In fact, you need this time! There are going to be times in the school year that are extra busy (back to school and February for some reason!) and require you to work extra on the weekends. But, for the most part, you NEED time to step away from thinking about teaching in order to really thrive when you are at school. Use your planning times efficiently so that you can take less work home with you.

5. It's All About Relationships 

Get to know your kids. Ask them questions about their home life. Find out what games they like to play or what shows they like to watch. Find out if they love Minecraft or Pokemon the most. Kids are forever telling stories so pay attention to their ramblings (at least some of the time, lol!) because they will teach you a lot about who that kid is beyond just being a student. Within appropriate bounds, open up and share about your personal life. Kids love to know what their teacher does outside of school. One of the coolest things this year was getting to share about my engagement with my kids because they had heard about Alex all year long. Being a teacher is so much more than just impacting their academic growth! You get to spend 180 days with them. Make them count.

One of the students that made my first year teaching so memorable!
One of the most fun days this year was when I got to bring Alex to work with me. My kids loved having him there

6. Always Look for How You Can Learn and Grow 

When a lesson goes wrong and then the fire drill goes off. When you get a complaint from a parent. When you get a new student in April that speaks zero English. When a student cries because a new concept is so challenging for her. When a student drops his pencil box and everything in it goes EVERYWHERE. When some sort of hot mess happens at dismissal and you end up crying in front of a grandparent.

Things are going to happen that no class in college could ever really prepare you for. One of the best things that my mom has done whenever I call to tell her these stories is to ask me "how can you learn from this?" Even in the situations where I'm frustrated and feel like I'm not in the wrong she'll have me reflect on how I can learn and grow from it. This has been huge! Everything that happens is meant to grow you as an educator and person. A fun bonus is that you can usually find some sort of meme or quote to relate to any situation that will make you laugh about the situation.



7. The Full Moon Effect is LEGIT

I don't know what it is, but there is something about kids' behavior when there is a full moon. Also, the craziness before Halloween, Christmas break, Valentine's Day, and spring break is unparalleled. I don't need to say much more other than that you can pretty much always tell when there is a full moon. You'll understand once you've been in the classroom!

8. You Are Never "Just a Teacher" 

Most people will never see how hard you work and all the hours that you put in, and that's okay, but don't fall into the trap of saying "I'm just a teacher." There is no one else that can teach those kids entrusted to you like you can! You will mess up and make mistakes. You will have to apologize to your kids sometimes. You will fulfill a million different roles (nurse, counselor, problem solver, organizer, etc.). You will learn and grow and be stretched more than you thought was possible. But, you will also get some things right and it will make your whole year when a parent tells you that this is the first year that her son has loved coming to school.

Now to enjoy the rest and relaxation of summer vacation, and to get recharged for starting year three in August! 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Our Engagement Story

I've been wanting to sit down and write out our engagement story for a while now, and I should probably start with some of the background details. Alex and I have been doing the long distance thing since January when Alex moved to New Mexico, and I stayed in Florida to finish out my school year. I wouldn't trade these months apart for anything because they have strengthened our relationship in ways that I couldn't have imagined beforehand. We started talking more seriously about the future and started reading through a book called So, you want to get married? by Rick Thomas. We were having lots of conversations geared toward marriage and Alex really grew in his role as the leader of our relationship during this time. I knew that marriage was in our future, but I had no idea when or how he was actually going to ask!

On April 14, 2017, my best friend, Janice, was in town for one of our girls' weekends. Over the years, we have taken turns traveling to see each other. and it happened to be her turn to come visit me. This time was extra special though because this was the first time that she was able to bring her daughter, Charlotte, to join us for one of our girls' weekends. Janice and I have been best friends since sixth grade, and she has been such a constant in my life. I remembering us having a sleepover one night in high school when we first started dreaming about what it would be like to let God write our love stories one day. Since then we've been able to celebrate her marrying the love of her life, and more recently her becoming a momma. She has been there to encourage me in every season, and I had always secretly hoped that somehow Alex would involve her in the details whenever he proposed.

During the time that Janice was here, Alex was supposedly somewhere in southwest Texas on a land navigation field training trip. He told me that I probably wouldn't be hearing from him much while he was gone. Although I thought his trip was planned a little at the last minute, he went on field training trips like that all the time while we were dating, so I convinced myself that I was overthinking.

To make his field training trip sound even more convincing, Alex texted me at midnight to let me know he was going out on a night mission. Prior to this text, I had told Janice how strange I thought it was that they would have a training trip on Easter weekend. But, then I got these texts and I thought that there would be no way that he would be up so late texting me to check in if he wasn't really in Texas! 

Fast forward to Friday night, and Janice and I had plans to go over to my aunt and uncle's place for dinner. My aunt and uncle live right on the Bay in Fort Walton Beach, and their condo is pretty special place to me. Not only are they like a second mom and dad to me, but their place is where I first met Alex last May at a dinner party. It's so special to me that Alex had them in on the surprise, and proposed at the same place that we first met. 

Anyway, when we pulled up, my uncle met us down at the car and suggested that we go out on the dock to see Landon and Johnson who were fishing. We walked out there and made the different introductions and were making small talk. I saw someone with a hood on behind the gate, and I also remember noticing that there were white string lights on part of dock, and how it was kind of weird for those to be out still in April. Then all of a sudden, those white lights were being flipped on and the guy with the hood came walking through the gate, and it was Alex! I was in complete shock that he was there. He didn't waste any time, and dropped down on one knee and said, "Samantha Grey, will you marry me?" I was so surprised that I said "Yes!" three times. I didn't even look at my ring right away because in typical Samantha fashion, I started asking lots of questions. I was in awe that Janice and my roomies all knew about the proposal, and had kept it a secret. 

After I started to calm down, Alex pointed out my parents up in the condo balcony and showed me how he had his best friends from California watching on the Facebook Messenger video app. He had planned it all so we could celebrate with some of our family and closest friends right after it happened. I found out that the he formally asked my parents for permission to marry me back on February 1st, and that he had most of his family and friends  in on the surprise since January. His proposal far exceeded any expectations I could have ever had! 

I still stare at my hand sometimes in amazement for what this ring symbolizes!

There is also a video of the proposal here that makes me slightly embarrassed because of how distracted I was by everything until I started to calm down. But, I think it perfectly captures the joy and surprise of that moment! Gosh, I love this man and feel so privileged that I'm 62 days away from being able to call him my husband.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Engagement & Expectations

The Lord has done so much during our engagement season so far, and I don't want to miss what He is teaching me or forget the small details of how He has worked in my heart. I wrote about how I will be moving to New Mexico next month to join Alex when I first wrote about our story. He has been there since January while I have been in Florida finishing my second school year. We are just about three weeks away from kissing this whole long distance thing goodbye for a while! We will continue to live separately even once I'm in New Mexico until we are married on July 29th, so I'm excitedly counting down the days (70 days!) until we can officially start experiencing everyday life together as husband and wife.

One of the biggest things that the Lord has been teaching me is that our marriage is a total gift, BUT I can't be holding onto my expectations for it so tightly that I miss how He wants to work. When I'm relying on my expectations to bring me joy, I'm always going to be disappointed and let down. Alex called me a couple of weeks ago after I got home from school, and started the conversation off by saying, "so I have some news that I want to share with you...I got a spot to go to SOTAC school, and I'll leave mid August."

My first reaction was total surprise because this was a different team than what he was supposed to be assigned to. My second reaction was disappointment because thinking about my new husband leaving was less than desirable. I'm not proud of my initial reactions, but I want to be honest with how I felt and share my thoughts.

"Lord, this isn't fair! Other new wives get to keep their husbands home with them."
"But, why does he have to go then?? I never imagined my husband of  two weeks having to leave."
"I know being separated is part of the military, but the timing of this just sucks."

Writing some of those thoughts out makes me want to cringe for how limited my perspective was. Instead of celebrating an incredible opportunity for Alex, I let my disappointment of unmet expectations take over. I was really struggling with thinking about already being a part so much this year, and then having him leave our home once we're finally able to start our lives together. It may not seem like a big deal to more seasoned military wives, but the thought just made me ache.

Alex was very gracious with me as I worked through my emotions, and the Lord is using this to teach me about laying my expectations at His feet. Outside of my salvation, Alex is the best gift I’ve been given, and yes, our soon to be marriage is a total gift too. However, Alex and our marriage ultimately belong to the Lord. Our marriage is meant to glorify God and it’s an opportunity for us to model God’s grace and redemption to others. It isn’t something that is there to fulfill all of my needs and meet my expectations. If that’s how I enter our marriage, then I am always going to be let down.

God has a purpose for choosing to send him off for training at that particular time. What I initially see as sucky timing, the Lord sees as the BEST timing. It is an opportunity for us to grow our dependence on Him. It is an opportunity for me to learn more about how to be my new husband’s helpmate. It is an opportunity for us strengthen our communication skills and to grow our spiritual intimacy. It is as an opportunity for me to develop relationships with other girls in my new community.

It reminds me of Psalm 84:11, and a quote that I wrote in my journal years back…“I realized that because the Lord God is my provider (the sun) and my protector (a shield) and because He knows best as my Father – if something is good and right for me to have today, He would give it to me. He does not withhold any good thing. And therefore, I can trust Him.”

Even though I will never like being separated from my soon to be husband, I can trust that God’s timing for sending him off is GOOD.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Our Story #BenkoOrBust

Quite a few things have changed since I last wrote and shared anything on this small space of the internet almost three years ago. This biggest change of all has without a doubt been the introduction of this blonde hair, blue eyed California guy into my life! Throughout college, I wrote a lot about my season of singleness and waiting, but since then the Lord has started to script a new story. I was hesitant to share and even write in my own journal about it for a while. I have been hurt and disappointed in the past, and I guess there was a small piece of me that didn't want to write about this story yet for fear of being hurt again. I want to make sure that I write about our story and share how the Lord has had His hand all over it. If someone would have told me a year ago that a year later I would be getting ready to move to New Mexico, buying/renovating a house, planning a wedding for this summer, and preparing for marriage with the man I love most...I wouldn't have believed her. BUT GOD. The only way I can think to explain it is with Isaiah 43:19..."Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it. I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert." 

Before I get to the night that we met, I want to make sure to include some of the background details. Alex grew up the youngest in his family of four kids in Santa Cruz, California. He spent time surfing, ski boarding, playing sports, getting involved with Boy Scouts and becoming an Eagle Scout. He worked odd jobs such as manning the local Christmas tree lot every year, and was even voted Homecoming King. He never loved the academic side of school, and after deciding that community college wasn't for him either, he joined the Air Force. The particular job that he chose to go into in would take him over two years to complete the pipeline. Over those two years, he spent time training in several different states, and settled in Florida for the last and longest portion of his training. 

While Alex was in California, I was over 2,000 miles away growing up as an only child in Tallahassee, Florida. I spent countless days swimming in our pool, riding bikes around my neighborhood, and having sleepovers with friends. I enjoyed school and academics came pretty easily to me. I never went to prom and only went to two Homecoming dances. After graduating high school, I decided to move to a small town in Tennessee to attend college where I didn't know a single person prior to moving into my dorm. Those four years shaped me and stirred my passion for teaching more than I imagined. I learned that I could move to new places, and build a life there. So much so that once I graduated I decided to move back to Florida, but to a completely different area from where I grew up. I got a job teaching third grade in the small town of Crestview, Florida, and the Lord used that year in mighty ways. No one can really prepare you for what first year teaching is like! The Lord taught me about being faithful in the small things and pressing into Him in new ways. 

At the end of my first year teaching, my aunt and uncle invited me over to have dinner at their house on a Friday night. This was a normal thing for us as I usually had dinner with them at least once or twice a month. However, this time was slightly different as they had also invited two young men from their church over for dinner. I had heard my aunt talk about the group of church guys in the Air Force over the year, but didn't think too much about it with the busyness of first year teaching. So that night I walked into their place wearing my blue floral dress and the first thing I saw was Alex sitting at the head of the table in his khaki pants, blue long sleeve t-shirt, and all black converse. I remember thinking to myself "oh my gosh! He's handsome. And so blonde!" We were introduced and managed to carry on a conversation across the table all throughout dinner. Once we finished eating, we ended up talking more out on the balcony of their condo. We realized that we were overlooking the pool when we could have been facing the Bay the entire time we talked. When we walked out together we made small talk about the weekend and our church plans, and he eventually managed to get my number with the help of his friend, Landon. I watched him ride off on his moped that night wondering what in the world I was possibly getting into. 

It turned out to be one of the sweetest summers of my life. I thought that I would get lonely and restless while being out of school, but the Lord brought so much newness into my life. Two days after meeting Alex we made plans to meet up at the beach with two of his friends. One week later I asked him if he wanted to join me and two of my friends at the beach to celebrate the end of the school year. My friends left early, and the two of us stayed for several more hours talking before he asked if I wanted to get dinner on the beach at Rockin' Tacos. Two weeks later we met for dinner at Mary's Kitchen and shared the best blueberry cheesecake ever for dessert. That night we continued to talk and danced in the parking lot by my car, and while I danced standing on his feet he leaned in to kiss me for the first time.

Throughout the summer, my respect and affection for this man grew. We had the best time together and hours would go by without us realizing it. We went shooting at the gun range. Went to the beach. Got my first tattoo (!!!) together. Played Goofy Golf and made wagers over it. Bought our favorite candy at Dollar Tree and ate it by the Bay. Set up our own photo booth. Showed him my classroom. Started going to church together. I remember driving to a 4th of July party, and him initiating the conversation about our relationship. He said, "Just so we're on the same page, I will be introducing you as my girlfriend." My heart sang!l

My second school year started, and what started as a summer crush was continuing to develop deeper roots. He asked about meeting my parents for the first time, and my dad even mentioned that he "wasn't the normal father-in-law" that night and Alex stuck around. We went on night walks at the beach. Made dinner together often. We went rock climbing and found new spots to hammock. I baked him blueberry muffins and cheesecake. We went to church together and really started to make our faith the foundation. He helped me with school work on Sundays.

In September, we had two huge conversations in the development of our relationship. On September 10th, we were driving back from playing Goofy Golf and we were playing the word association game that we liked to do a lot. We would say a word and then the other person would have to say the first word that came to mind (i.e. "Thanksgiving" -- "Turkey", "Beach" -- "Sunscreen"). It was my turn to give him words, and halfway through I said,"Sammy" and he looked over at me, and said "I love you." I remember just staring at me him because I was so surprised before I told him that I loved him too. A week later, we had another huge conversation about where our relationship was going. What I haven't mentioned much about yet is that Alex is in the Air Force, and about a month after we started dating he found out that he would be moving to New Mexico once he finished training in Florida. We didn't talk about it in depth at the time because he was going to be in Florida for seven more months before moving, and we figured we would address it once our relationship was more serious.

Well, on September 17th, we were talking about the seriousness of our relationship and Alex asked me if I would be willing to move to New Mexico in the future. When I shook my head yes, he said, "well, that's exciting to know."

During those fall months, we also learned more about how the military impacts relationships, and spent a lot of time apart. Alex would have field weeks where he would be gone from Monday until Friday, and wasn't allowed to bring his phone, so we didn't have any sort of communication. I especially loved the weekends during that time. 

December was a whirlwind month for us! Alex's best friend got married and he was the best man. I got to fly home with him to California and meet all of his friends and family for the first time. It was the sweetest getting to see where he grew up and getting to meet all of the people who loved him. One week later, his family flew to Florida for his graduation. Then we started the road trip of a lifetime together! We loaded up a Penske truck with all of his things, and we drove from Florida to New Mexico to get him moved into his new apartment. We left New Mexico and drove up to Colorado to hike Pike's Peak. We drove through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada before making it to Santa Cruz, California on Christmas Eve. We spent Christmas with his family, and went to Yosemite before New Years with a big group of friends.

On January 3rd, we started the long distance portion of our relationship as I flew back to Florida to finish my school year, and he moved to New Mexico. I wouldn't trade these months apart for anything because they have strengthened our relationship in ways that I couldn't have imagined beforehand. We have learned more about communicating well, making Christ our foundation, appreciating the time we do get together, etc. During this time, we started talking about preparing for marriage and buying a home together. Alex really grew in his role as the leader of our relationship and made me feel so valued by the way that he was preparing for our future.

In a span of five months, we've been able to see each other in person twice. I flew to New Mexico to spend my spring break with him, and I never want to forget what it was like seeing him in person for the first time in two and a half months. I never really got butterflies when we first started dating, but I had them like crazy that day when I was waiting for him to meet me in baggage claim. When he walked up to me and pulled me in close for a hug and kissed me on the forehead, I felt like I was dreaming. I'm pretty sure I didn't stop smiling that entire first night we were back together.

Not only did that week provide the best quality time, it turned out to be extremely productive for us as well! By God's grace, I was offered a teaching position for next school year AND we found a house that we both loved, and put an offer in on it. I flew back to Florida with a renewed sense of excitement for the future, and a determination to finish out the second half of our long distance season.

When I said "see you later" to Alex at the airport, I didn't think that I was going to see him in person again until mid June. That assumption turned out to be entirely wrong because one month later on April 14, 2017, Alex surprised me by showing up in Florida at the same place we met to propose! He formerly asked my parents for permission on February 1st, and had his family and friends in on the secret since January. It's the sweetest story, and I can't wait to write out the details.

One of the verses I've always landed back on since I first started praying for my future husband in high school is Psalm 127:1 where it says, "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain." I've seen this verse come to life in the development of our relationship. When Alex joined the military he didn't think that he would meet anybody during that time. He thought that he was committing to singleness for the six years to avoid "dragging" somebody else into the military lifestyle. I never thought that I would end up growing in love with a man that has to leave a lot. BUT GOD. His hand has so clearly built every part of our relationship, and we are humbled and grateful that we get to learn more about this gift of marriage together.  

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