In fourth grade I told my teacher that I wanted to be a high school history teacher because the content was “more complex” than in fourth grade. This moment ushered in what I like to call the “Hoarding Years.” I saved [and moved to too many houses] all of my history projects, notes, and books in the off chance I would need them in my future classroom. The need to save also trickled over to DVDs, wall decorations, costume jewelry, socks, mugs, pennants, seats and university sweatshirts. After my first few years with my own classroom and curriculum, I realized I was falling into the same pattern.
When I moved back to Vermont in 2015, I made a commitment to myself that I would get my act into shape and organize the mayhem I had been schlepping from place to place. What I realized in the unpacking process was that I had brought more than a decades worth of notes and textbooks; I had been carrying with me an overwhelming sense of perfectionism I needed to bring to my new classes as well. Starting at a new school I quickly fell into the trap of trying to be the ultimate teacher with all of the answers. I tried to make my classroom student-centered, proficiency-based, universally designed and project based with a curriculum that was progressive and representative of my students. Needless to say, my classroom was a mess, my apartment was a mess and so was my head.
A few years later, I experienced a significant realignment in my personal/professional life that changed all of this. While visiting a dear friend, I was sharing how I felt like my life was in disarray. My lovely friend cut me off and revealed she just could not stand my “historical collections” any longer. She pulled out her phone, and blunt stated, “I’m ordering a book for you. When you get home, read this, and then we’ll get to work.” What I didn’t realize in the moment was she had just volunteered herself to spend an entire weekend watching me contemplate whether or not a pair of soccer socks from my traveling soccer team in 1998 brought me joy.
Let me explain- my friend had bought me Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2014). She included with the book a note reminding me that in order for long-term learning to occur, I must do the work myself… who knew accountants can see deep into the soul of educators? For those of you who have not yet read Marie Kondo’s book or watched her now popular Netflix series Tidying Up (2018)), she has an uncanny ability to persuade you to fold your underpants. To me, Marie Kondo’s magnificence is boiled down to three main ideas:
- Before organizing, you must take everything out from where it’s been stored
- As you decide which things to keep, donate, or throw away, you must hold the item and wait to feel whether or not the item “sparks joy.” If it doesn’t, thank the item for the joy it did bring, however brief, and move on.
- The process is fully immersive – tidying up is more about surrounding yourself with joy and less about cleaning up. A small, yet powerful mental shift.
The second point is where the greatest learning has occurred for me. Kondo writes, “To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.” As I think about my role and responsibilities as an educator, I keep coming back to this quote. As a World History teacher I feel the weight of my task – to provide my students with an understanding and appreciation of cultures, countries, and people from all walks of life and time periods. I want my students to feel empowered, to be confident in their bodies, and to make informed and powerful change to the status quo. I am also becoming increasingly aware of the barriers my privileges as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, middle class, English-speaking, Jewish woman create as an educator. My blind spots are massive. These blindspots do not spark joy. Thank you for the privileges that have allowed me to get to where I am now. I began to crack open my curriculum to critically evaluate whose voices are amplified in my curriculum and whose are limited to whispers. I need to get outside of echoing the euro-centric curriculum I was taught and intentionally learning more about the people, areas and ideologies of the world I have not yet explored.
Now is the time to surround myself with people and things that spark joy. I have learned that the greatest joys often begin as moments of discomfort, whether that is spending two hours folding clothes or acknowledging that many times my students know more than I do and embracing the opportunities vulnerability presents.
I am a work in progress and I encourage you to spend some quality time whether that’s looking at your curriculum or your sock drawer to make more space for joy.
Emily Gilmore (@Queen_Gilmore) is a 2017 Rowland Fellow and Social Studies teacher at South Burlington High School. Current sparkers of joy include: donuts, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, her cats (Minnie and Daisy), Queer Eye on Netflix, and planning her next adventure (roadtrip through Algonquin National Park, Michigan, and Toronto).