Going “off-book” is a common theater term that often instills fear and panic in the hearts of actors. It’s the first time you have to set your scripts aside in rehearsal and prove that you have all your lines memorized – when you lose your security blanket and have to blunder ahead, memorized or not.
Although that first off-book rehearsal is usually akin to a train wreck, it also creates freedom in the acting process. You are free to use your hands and your body in your acting like you couldn’t when you were bound to your script. You step more fully into that character’s shoes as you walk and talk more naturally like them, instead of referring back to the pages of lines constantly. And it proves to everyone – yourself and the rest of the cast – whether or not you really know your stuff.
This year – third year of teaching – I felt was the year that I truly felt confident enough to go “off-book.” And I don’t mean just metaphorically.
You see, I’m a “write-it-all-out-ahead-of-time” kind of person (shocking, I know!). Every retreat I’ve led or spoken at, every HYPE workshop I’ve done at Expo, every lesson I’ve taught – I’ve written out every single word I’m going to say. When forwarding my talks to my superiors to preview, I almost always feel like I have to give the caveat, “Don’t worry that it’s 11 pages long … I promise it won’t be that long when I give it!”
Writing every word out ahead of time imprints them in my mind somehow. Not that I instantly have it memorized, but by writing out the words, it does give them muscle memory so that I feel more confident in what I’ll be saying. Generally I’ll add a little here, change a little there, and improv a bit in the middle, but if I didn’t write it all out, I wouldn’t even know where to go when I get up in front of people.
Needless to say the first couple years of teaching, my lesson plans were several pages long – especially those science lessons where I taught about concepts I literally learned about the night before! I hated that I had to carry those pages around as I taught, but I knew that I wouldn’t have a clue what I was saying if I didn’t.
But this year – by the end of the year – my lesson plans became shorter and shorter – not because I was teaching less, but because I was falling into the ease and rhythm of what I was teaching. I knew what I needed to say to the point where it didn’t need to be completely written out ahead of time – and what freedom that began to give me as a teacher!
Just like when going off-book onstage, going off-book as a teacher made me embrace the role more whole-heartedly. It felt more natural, more authentic, and more fun. Now that’s not to say that I know everything now and don’t even need anything prepared ahead of time! I’ll always need at least a list of what I’ll be doing in a day, and certainly if I want to be trying new things (as teachers always should), I’ll have to write out what I want to say or do so that I don’t forget.
But I don’t feel tied to the teacher script anymore. I don’t feel panicky about not knowing what to say. I don’t need to carry the paper around with me in case I don’t know what’s coming next.
Because I do know what’s coming next. I know what my kids need to know in reading and writing. I know what they need to hear at certain times when they are misbehaving or forgetting how to be scholarly students. I know when I need to stop and motivate them or move around a bit or re-teach something that they all have their hands up about.
I feel like I’m moving from an emerging reader to a fluent reader … and while I still stumble often, I feel a little more graceful about my daily presentation.
There are so many things I wish I could have done better as a teacher this year. But there are many things I feel like I improved upon, which excite me, and which I want to continue building upon for next year.
There were a host of challenges this year, all of which I’m grateful are behind me now. But I’m also grateful that they taught me how to be stronger, more resilient, and more patient than I ever thought I could be.
There were so many days when I lost my patience – spoke more harshly than I care to remember – and probably didn’t solve problems in the best way possible. But there were also so many days when my sweet boys and girls hugged me, made me laugh, surprised me, apologized to me, grew in maturity, and showed me that perhaps they were listening. Because even some of the boys were about to cry when I gave them my end-of-the-year speech.
Teaching is not a glamourous, world-changing career as some would have you believe. You might be changing the world, but in the moment, it looks more like disciplining rebellious hearts, prodding reluctant workers, solving student drama, taking away fidget spinners, cleaning up more lost pencils than you know what to do with, and losing sleep over state test scores.
It’s a daily grind that takes a lot of commitment because you love those 22 young lives in front of you, and you just want them to succeed in life and maybe learn a few things along the way. And no matter how exasperated they make you, at the end of the day, you still want to hug them and hold them close and remind them always that they are so loved. Because they are – more than they will ever know.
This year, I learned to let go of my script. I learned how to say the words that I know deep within me. I learned how to give more than I ever thought possible. And I learned that the toughest kids require the strongest love – and they’re the ones who don’t want to leave on the last day of school because somehow that love made it through their tough facades and right into their hearts.
Teaching might not be glamourous, but it is always 100% worth it. And that’s something the script never tells you.