Ellen Carenza, Montville's 2013 Teacher of the Year, Opening Day Speech

Every year, I am invariably asked by a student," Mrs. Carenza, if you weren't a teacher, what would you want to be?" I immediately reply, "There is nothing else." I am the luckiest person in the world when it comes to my career. I have always known exactly what I have wanted to be, I am well-suited for it, and I have had success in my first 25 years.  However, to say that teaching middle school language arts is my "job" absolutely undermines the passion I feel for my profession and grossly minimizes the responsibility that I feel as a teacher.  I truly am unable to separate what I am with who I am.  Upon being named the Montville Public School's 2013 teacher of the year, I have had an opportunity to reflect on what teaching means to me and I am honored to share some of these thoughts with you today. 

You know that I must work hard, I am involved in many committees and school activities, I write creative lesson plans, I have good attendance, I follow district rules and meet district expectations, or I wouldn't be up here on this stage.  But without question, my greatest asset as a middle school teacher is in my ability to relate to my students.  In fact, my principal, MJ Dix, praised me by saying, "By the end of the year, Ellen, you own your kids."  Well, as you know, 12 year olds certainly don't come with an owner's manual…so what is it that makes us connect?

First and foremost, I have empathy for my students.  As a victim of the divorce craze of the seventies and a white collar dysfunctional family, I was a kid who found comfort and security in school. There is reassurance in a predictable routine, basic civil rules, punishment or reward based on one's actions, constructive work, and success from cooperation. School can be a student's safe haven.  Treat every kid as if school is a better place than home. 

I am also consistent.  Unbeknownst to them, middle school students crave structure and stability.  I think because their emotions are so variable, it seems to be reassuring to have strict work and behavioral expectations in the classroom. I set daily, weekly, monthly, and trimester routines. Furthermore, I don't believe in setting kids up for failure; so just like I would never have brought my toddlers to the grocery store when they were hungry and tired, I never allow my middle school students to have "free time."

Structure, however, does not mean strict uniformity.  Students need to know that you can be flexible. It shows tolerance and understanding.  If most of the class is having difficulty with a skill, even if you always have a Friday quiz, delay it until they're on track.  If there was an incident during lunch that needs debriefing, give them some time to talk…they're probably not going to be focused on the lesson anyway.  Balance is the key.

A sense of perspective really helps.  One time while I was backstage during a play production, an actor said to me, "Mrs. Carenza, I can't do this. I'm so nervous.  What do I do if I think I'm going to throw up?"  I said, "Well Sean, you throw up. Even if it is your most embarrassing moment now, when you're an adult, it will make a great story." He laughed as he walked on stage. Of course he didn't throw up.  After the applause, he looked at me and said, "That was the most awesome moment of my life." Sometimes the end product is less important than the journey.

My students also know that I understand them.  We have an amazing poem in the 7th grade curriculum called, "I Never said I Wasn't Difficult" by Sara Holbrook.  We use this poem to teach about speaker, since the narrator is obviously a typical young teen warring with independence from parental control.  The last stanza reads, "I know I shuffle messages like cards, some to show and some to hide.  But if you think I'm hard to live with, you should try me on inside."  Shut your eyes for a second and think back to seventh grade.  You are 12 or 13. Did you ever do anything that you knew was wrong?  When you got caught, your parents asked, "Why did you do it?"  Raise your hand if your answer was," I don't know."  When every kid's hand is up in the air, I tell them, "I believe you. At your age, you do things that you know are wrong, and you don't really know why. It doesn't mean that what you did was okay, and you absolutely deserve to be punished, but I believe you when you say you don't know."  They like to be understood.

The most important gift that I give to my students is trust.  If you think that means I can trust them, you are crazy; they have lost control to the peer pressure monster and will say and do anything to save face.  But that's okay.  I'm the adult in this relationship.  What it means is that they can always trust me.  We teachers were always taught, don't be sarcastic with your students.  I don't necessarily believe that with middle school kids-they actually like and understand sarcasm.  What they don't like is being lied to or being treated unfairly.  My classroom is a place where I expect them to behave and act like responsible, young adults.  From the very first day, they realize that I will not tolerate behavior that is hurtful to anyone in the room-ever. When you expect students to behave properly, they usually do. Thus when I "call" kids on mean behavior, they know I am not only for real, but that I am an equal opportunity arbitrator and I will "get their back" as well-I have earned their trust.  When I say I will call their parents if the book report doesn't come in and I do-I have earned their trust.  When I notice and praise individual traits and talents of students- I have earned their trust.  When I admit I made a mistake and say I am sorry and try to fix it- I have earned their trust.  When I don't sweat the small stuff because anybody who expects middle school students to sit quietly in their seats all period is out of their minds- I have earned their trust.  This is how I get to "own" my kids.

I'd like to take a break to thank a few people before I wrap up my message.  First, thank you to the Montville school system for bestowing me with this great honor.  Thanks especially to Margaret Tripp for all of her help in gathering my thoughts for the teacher of the year packet this summer.  Thank you to Will Klinefelter and MJ Dix for being amazingly supportive and helpful administrators.  Thank you to Sharon Hagen for being my dramatic partner in crime.  And the biggest special shout out to Tyl Team Three- Robin, Brooke, Suzanne, Jamie, Lindsay and Colin- those of you who don't teach middle school have no idea how much your team means to you-the best teaching support ever.  (special thank you to my family)

As you begin the new school year, remember why you are here. Times are a little hard right now.  People are financially and emotionally stretched.  The world has become a fast-paced, intense, and dangerous place. Children's role models are disappointing them time and time again. Most adults are nostalgic about their own childhoods and troubled about the future. The strain of the modern world is putting unfair pressure on children's lives and negatively impacting adult/child relationships. As I slip my feet into the sneakers of my twelve year old students, I can feel their indignation toward the adult world.  I think of Anne Frank who railed at her mother, "…It isn't our fault that the world is in such a mess!  We weren't around when all this started!  So don't try to take it out on us!" 

In our profession, there is no point in bemoaning and pining for the way it was in the past; nor can we wait for the advances in the future. We must focus on the present.  Our students need us now.  We have to remember why we became teachers in the first place- for the kids.  They are honest, open, funny; energetic, enthusiastic, loving, malleable, amazing works in progress. They merit our undivided attention every minute of the school day.  They need us to put our personal lives, daily hassles, prejudices, and "screens" away. We must look each and every one of them in the eye, concentrate on their needs, understand their quirks, delight in their energy, and commit to their learning while we have their attention.   

In a world where direct human relationships are becoming scarce and labored, teachers must recommit to forging meaningful, individual bonds with our current students. We must value and educate each unique child, regardless of their personal "baggage", history, and challenges.  We are not their friends, but we should be friendly, we are not their mothers, but we should be maternal, we are not their police, but we should point out the differences between right and wrong.  Do not take the job of teacher lightly. Children deserve to have a relationship with an adult who they can trust to teach and value them for who they are in the present, as well as recognizing their potential as a person in the future. Be that person for your students.