I first saw Anne of Green Gables when I was 8. You know the 80s mini-series from Canada with Megan Follows and (the all-time best TV crush) Jonathan Crombie??? I fell in love from the first scene with Anne reciting poetry to herself as she walks through the woods. Tell me you loved it, too! (And now there’s a new version coming to Netflix…crossing all my fingers…pleasebegood, pleasebegood, pleasebegood…)
After the mini-series, I devoured the novels. In Anne’s world, I felt at home–even if it looked remarkably different from my suburban 80’s childhood. I never lost my love for Anne, but I stopped reading her books. I moved out, went to college, started teaching…all the things you do when you grow up.
One Christmas break, back in my childhood bedroom, I came across the Anne books again. Out of boredom, I picked up the second book in the series, Anne of Avonlea, and started reading. Just holding the book was like meeting an old friend. The cover, the typesetting, even the roughness of the cheap paper was so familiar!
But reading Anne this time was a totally new experience. There is a richness in the writing that my 8-year-old self couldn’t appreciate. The book starts with Anne as a new teacher. As a little girl, I had wanted to be Anne. But reading about Anne’s joys and mishaps in the classroom made it seem like, now, Anne understood me.
When I went back home after Christmas, I brought Anne of Avonlea with me. And I’ve reread it several times since then. Every teacher needs a “bosom friend” who understands the highs and lows that come with being a teacher.
With that in mind, here are 10 things Anne Shirley taught me about teaching.
1. You’ll never feel 100% prepared.
She hung up her hat and faced her pupils, hoping that she did not look as frightened and foolish as she felt and that they would not perceive how she was trembling. She had sat up until nearly twelve the preceding night composing a speech she meant to make to her pupils upon opening the school. She had revised and improved it painstakingly, and then she had learned it by heart. It was a very good speech and had some very fine ideas in it. The only trouble was that she could not remember a word of it…
—Anne of Avonlea, page 32
Do you remember that moment? Suddenly you are it! The one in charge. The one all the little faces are waiting on. On my first day of teaching, I kept expecting the real teacher to show up and take over. But she never did. So I went back for a second day. Even after years of teaching, I have moments when my perspective shifts and I realize how strange it is that I’m the one running this classroom!
2. You will learn to (mostly) not laugh at hilarious comments.
“Yesterday I was trying to teach Lottie Wright to do addition. I said, ‘If you had three candies in one hand and two in the other, how many would you have altogether?’ ‘A mouthful,’ said Lottie. And in the nature study class, when I asked them to give me a good reason why toads shouldn’t be killed, Benjie Sloane gravely answered, ‘Because it would rain the next day.’
“It’s so hard not to laugh, Stella. I have to save up all my amusement until I get home, and Marilla says it makes her nervous to hear wild shrieks of mirth proceeding from the east gable without any apparent cause.”
—Anne of Avonlea, page 85
Bless their little hearts! Kids say the funniest things. One of my 2nd graders was reading to the class the story he’d published in Writer’s Workshop. When he was finished, the class politely clapped as they’d been taught, but this little guy was eating it up. He stood up there beaming like he’d won the Pulitzer. In that moment, he couldn’t have been prouder. With a grin from ear-to-ear and the most heartfelt tone, he said, “Thank you! You all make me nauseous!” It took every ounce of self-control to hold back that laugh! But I got a kick out of telling that one in the faculty room.
3. You will never please some parents.
“I am Mrs. Donnell…Mrs. H.B. Donnell. And I have come in to see you about something Clarice Almira told me when she came home to dinner today. It annoyed me excessively.”
“I’m sorry,” faltered Anne, vainly trying to recollect any incident of the morning connected with the Donnell children.
“Clarice Almira told me that you pronounced our name Donnell. Now, Miss Shirley, the correct pronunciation of our name is Donnell…accent on the last syllable. I hope you’ll remember this in future.”
—Anne of Avonlea, page 36
“Have you ever noticed,” asked Anne reflectively, “that when people say it is their duty to tell you a certain thing you may prepare for something disagreeable? Why is it that they never seem to think it a duty to tell you the pleasant things they hear about you? Mrs. H.B. Donnell called at the school again yesterday and told me she thought it her duty to inform me that Mrs. Harmon Andrews didn’t approve of my reading fairy tales to the children, and that Mr. Rogerson thought Prillie wasn’t coming on fast enough in arithmetic.”
—Anne of Avonlea, page 52
Parents can make teaching ten times harder. Once a mom yelled at me because her son wouldn’t make his bed. At his house. Where I do not live. Imagine the stories Anne would have if she’d had to deal with parents who could just email about every slight annoyance.
4. Some days you will let yourself down.
“Anthony, was it you?”
“Yes, it was,” said Anthony insolently.
Anne took her hardwood pointer from her desk. It was a long, heavy hardwood pointer.
“Come here, Anthony.”
It was far from being the most severe punishment Anthony Pye had ever undergone. Anne, even the stormy-souled Anne she was at that moment, could not have punished any child cruelly. But the pointer nipped keenly and finally Anthony’s bravado failed him; he winced and the tears came to his eyes.
Anne, conscience-stricken, dropped the pointer and told Anthony to go to his seat. She sat down at her desk feeling ashamed, repentant, and bitterly mortified. Her quick anger was gone and she would have given much to have been able to seek relief in tears. So all her boasts had come to this…she had actually whipped one of her pupils.
—Anne of Avonlea, page 99
Obviously, I’m not advocating corporal punishment at any time, for any reason, but this book is set 2 centuries ago. There were different expectations.
The whole book to this point has been building to this event. At the beginning of the story, Anne is talking with her friend and fellow teacher, Jane. Jane plans from the get-go to rule by fear. Anne, fresh from teacher training, is full of theories and plans to guide with affection. Everyone she talks to tells her she’s a fool for not whipping her students, but she stands her ground. Until one day when she’s not at her best and she just reacts. It wasn’t a well-considered choice. And she is regretful and humiliated by that decision for the rest of the book (even if it turns out to have a good outcome).
Put this into a modern day context. We start off as new teachers, or even start off the new year, full of theories. We spent the summer at trainings. We’ve read the books and blog posts. We’ve got this.
You won’t be teaching for very long before you find yourself doing something you swore you wouldn’t. Maybe it’s snapping at the kid who won’t stop poking you. Maybe it’s taking away recess from the whole class because one or two kids misbehaved. Maybe it’s using that stack of worksheets you promised you’d never resort to. There are moments like this all the time in teaching.
The key is to act like Anne. She felt terrible about letting herself and her students down. She figured out why it had happened. And she made a less-theoretical, more informed plan going forward.
5. But even when you fall short of your intention, hold fast to your ideals.
“I’ve come so far short in so many things. I haven’t done what I meant to do when I began to teach last fall…I haven’t lived up to my ideals.”
“None of us ever do,” said Mrs. Allan with a sigh. “But then, Anne, you know what Lowell says, ‘Not failure but low aim is crime.’ We must have ideals and try to live up to them, even if we never quite succeed. Life would be a sorry business without them. With them it’s grand and great. Hold fast to your ideals, Anne.”
—Anne of Avonlea, page 130
We won’t always reach the goals we’ve set, but we can’t stop striving. We don’t get a second chance with our students, so it’s important to hold ourselves to high standards. Sometimes we learn that our goal was worth letting go. Sometimes we learn how to turn the ideal into practical. Good teachers are always refining their practice.
6. Teaching is harder than you can imagine, but so much better than you can imagine.
When school was dismissed and the children had gone, Anne dropped wearily into her chair. Her head ached and she felt woefully discouraged. There was no real reason for discouragement, since nothing very dreadful had occurred; but Anne was very tired and inclined to believe that she would never like teaching. And how horrible it would be to be doing something you didn’t like every day for..well, say forty years. Anne was of two minds whether to have her cry out then and there, or wait till she was safely in her own white room at home.
Anne locked the school door and went home. At the foot of the hill, she found Paul Irving by the Birch Path. He held out to her a cluster of the dainty little wild orchids which Avonlea children called “rice lilies.”
“Please, teacher, I found these in Mr. Wright’s field,” he said shyly, “and I came back to give the to you because I thought you were the kind of lady that would like them, and because…” he lifted his big, beautiful eyes…”I like you, teacher.”
“You darling,” said Anne, taking the fragrant spikes. As if Paul’s words had been a spell of magic, discouragement and weariness passed from her spirit, and hope upwelled in her heart like a dancing fountain. She went through the Birch Path light-footedly, attended by the sweetness of her orchids as by a benediction.
—Anne of Avonlea, pages 36-38
One of the first things I ever learned about teaching is that there are way more hard days than good days, but one good day can make up for soooo many hard days. Sure there are times you cry under your desk, but then you find a sweet note or someone brings you a bruised apple. Love for those little people makes all the rotten stuff bearable.
7. Sometimes having a treat is the only way to move forward.
Marilla listened to the whole of the story. “Well, never mind. This day’s done and there’s a new one coming tomorrow, with no mistakes in it yet, as you used to say yourself. Just come downstairs and have your supper. You’ll see if a good cup of tea and those plum puffs I made today won’t hearten you up.”
“Plum puffs won’t minister to a mind diseased,” said Anne disconsolately.
The cheerful supper table, with the twins’ bright faces, and Marilla’s matchless plum puffs…did “hearten her up” considerably after all. She had a good sleep that night and awakened in the morning to find herself and the world transformed.
—Anne of Avonlea, page 101
As a teacher, it’s easy to make yourself the last priority. Do I go to the gym after school or do I stay late to prepare a hands-on math lesson for tomorrow? Do I cook dinner tonight or do I eat Hot Pockets and catch up my grading?
It’s hard to remember when you’re under so much stress, but teachers: make yourself a priority! In the long run, you’ll be more productive if you make sure you’re healthy, fed, and rested. Get yourself a treat to boost your happiness a bit. Ideally, choose something tastier than whatever a plum puff is (no disrespect to Marilla’s cooking). However, I consistently fail at taking this advice, so no judgement here.
8. The last day of school is delicious.
Anne locked the schoolhouse door on a still, yellow evening, when the winds were purring in the spruces around the playground, and the shadows were long and lazy by the edge of the woods. She dropped the key into her pocket with a sigh of satisfaction. The school year was ended, she had been reengaged for the next, with many expressions of satisfaction…and two delightful months of a well-earned vacation beckoned her invitingly. Anne felt at peace with the world and herself as she walked down the hill with her basket of flowers in her hand.
“I suppose you are looking forward to your vacation, Anne?” [Mrs. Allan] said.
Anne nodded. “Yes…I could roll the word as a sweet morsel under my tongue. I think the summer is going to be lovely…I feel one of my old thrills at the mere thought.”
–Anne of Avonlea, pages 125, 130
Even if I don’t have bus duty, I always go out to send the kids off on the last day of school. It doesn’t seem real until that last bus pulls away. And then it’s over!!!
9. The last day of school is heartbreaking.
Back in the schoolroom, Anne was sitting alone at her desk, as she had sat on the first day of school two years before, her face leaning on her hand, her dewy eyes looking wistfully out of the window to the Lake of Shining Waters. Her heart was so wrung over the parting with her pupils that for the moment college had lost all its charm. She still felt the clasp of Annetta Bell’s arms about her neck and heard the childish wail, “I’ll never love any teacher as much as you, Miss Shirley, never, never.”
—Anne of Avonlea, page 254
Going back inside the school after the kids have all left always feels weird. 10 minutes earlier the place had been total chaos! Kids and parents everywhere. And suddenly it’s a ghost town. It looks and feels like my class, but, like some apocalyptic scenario, I’m the only one left. The stress is over and I can reflect on what the year has brought. I look through the notes and cards on my desk. And that’s when the tears usually start. After spending 9 months pouring my heart and soul into those little people, they’ve moved on. I’ll see them in the halls next year, but they’ll never be “mine” again.
10. They might forget what you taught, but they won’t forget how they felt about you.
For two years she had worked earnestly and faithfully, making many mistakes and learning from them. She had had her reward. She had taught her scholars something, but she felt that they had taught her much more…lessons of tenderness, self-control, innocent wisdom, lore of childish hearts. Perhaps she had not succeeded in “inspiring” any wonderful ambitions in her pupils, but she had taught them, more by her own sweet personality than by all her careful precepts, that it was good and necessary in the years that were before them to live their lives finely, graciously, holding fast to truth and courtesy…They were, perhaps, all unconscious of having learned such lessons; but they would remember and practice them long after they had forgotten the capital of Afghanistan and the dates of the Wars of the Roses.
—Anne of Avonlea, page 254
This is just a little of what Anne (with an e) has taught me. What has she taught you?