When Janine Logar first stepped into a classroom as a career-changer studying to be a teacher more than a decade ago, she remembers thinking, “Oh, this is what I want to do.”
“I felt like when LeBron James discovered a basketball,” she said recently. “This is what I was put on Earth to do. … I’m not artistic. I don’t find myself to be particularly good with finances. I’m a terrible driver. But I have a specific set of skills that really meshes with teaching.”
Logar is now entering her ninth year as a fifth-grade teacher at Sabin World Elementary School in southwest Denver. In 2015, she was the sole teacher to be awarded the distinguished Denver Public Schools Leadership Lamp Award, given to employees who go above and beyond.
And at a welcome event last week, she dispensed wisdom to a concert hall full of teachers who’ll be starting their first year in the district later this month. We caught up with the boisterous and passionate Logar to ask about her own experience and her advice for first-timers.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What was your first year of teaching like?
I think I was probably overconfident going into it, like, ‘I totally got this.’ Because maybe you need to be. Maybe you need to feel more prepared than you are.
I came in at a low morale point for the school. The week I got there, they’d been told that they had two years to get it together or they were going to go into turnaround. (State test) scores had just come out and people were crying because they were awful. It was a rough transition.
I found out pretty quickly that the kids at the school were awesome. They’d had some pretty checked-out teachers for a really long time. They’d say things to me like, ‘It’s nice that you always have lesson plans.’ I was like, ‘Yes but you should expect there to be lesson plans.’ So in a lot of ways, they were like a little desert: They were so thirsty for rain.
Denver didn’t really have a (new teacher) mentor program at that point. That part was really challenging. What we forget as veteran teachers is that we veteran teachers know things that our new friends don’t know about. There are so many acronyms and abbreviations (in education) that you can sit in a meeting and be like, ‘I didn’t understand anything.’
I’d just gotten married and I had no children, so I’d scare the janitor in the morning because I’d get there at like 5 in the morning. At nighttime, the custodians would come over the intercom system and be like, ‘Janine, we are trying to go home. We have families and we don’t have time for this.’ I was working 70 or 80 hours a week. I thought that if I had every minute of the day scripted, I was going to do a good job.
What was the hardest thing about that year?
Not really feeling like there was any place to go to get feedback on whether I was doing it well or not. I wasn’t getting any coaching. I would get observed. The only thing that was telling me if I was doing a good enough job or not was the once-a-year evaluation and the kids’ feedback. Some of the kids really loved me and some of the kids really didn’t love me.
I didn’t have a lot of the social emotional stuff. I didn’t know how to support kids like that. We only had a part-time psychologist my first year. The data from tests was saying I was doing fine, but there is more to teaching than how kids are scoring on a test.
Because I was working so hard, everything felt so intensely personal. If a kid told me he didn’t like me, I was like, ‘Oh, you don’t like me? I’m working 70 hours a week and you don’t like me?’ Whereas now a kid could tell me he doesn’t like me and I’m like, ‘Okay. You’ll love me by May.’
What was the best thing about that year?
Without a doubt, the kids. Those kids were so patient and forgiving with me because I was a first-year teacher. Because we went through so much together, we were incredibly bonded. It felt so urgent. They knew the pressure was on them to try to keep the school open.
What was the most important thing you learned that year?
That if you don’t have their hearts, you’ll never have their heads. If they don’t love you and believe in you and look up to you, you can move them intellectually but I don’t think you make long-term intellectual connections with them. I don’t think you draw out their gifts and talents and help them understand their uniqueness if you don’t have a relationship with them.
How do you establish that relationship?
You have to treat them like they’re people. Sometimes in teaching, we talk to kids in a way that is unauthentic. Kids need to know that you’re a person. A big thing is to say you’re sorry. Not, ‘I’m sorry, but –.’ But, ‘I messed that up and it’s going to take some time for me to fix that with you and here’s how I plan to do that. Is that going to work with you?’ Or, ‘That lesson was horrible and how can we make it better tomorrow?’
Some of the inroads I’ve built with kids is when I’ve been really real with their parents and helped them out or bought a coat or helped some of my parents with their college stuff because they’re like, ‘It’s been so long since I’ve written an essay.’
Some of my tougher kids — the kids on the class list that people say ‘oh my gosh’ about — I usually try to reach out to them over the summer under the guise of, ‘You can help me set the classroom up,’ because it’s not threatening, their image and ego isn’t there, they don’t have to perform for anybody. It’s just them and I, and I can say, ‘What hasn’t worked with teachers before?’ If they’ve laughed with you and picked music while you’re painting the room and you take them to Cicis Pizza, you’re going to start on a very different foot.
What’s one thing you know now that you wish you knew then?
Biology trumps psychology every time.
You can have norms set up in your room — and I’m not saying you shouldn’t — you can build relationships with kids, all of those things, but if you have a kid who’s been through trauma, some of that behavior they have when they get escalated can trigger them into fight or flight. They will either attack you or they will run.
It feels incredibly personal. For a really long time, I’d be like, ‘What is wrong with this kid? I have done this and this and this, I’ve had lunch with them, they know that I know their mom, they tell me I’m their favorite teacher and now they’re cussing at me.’
But when you start to do the research on kids engaged in trauma, you realize that a lot of these behaviors really are not in their control. Kids can’t really articulate it. They’ll say things like, ‘It’s almost like I black out,’ or ‘I see red, and this thing is in my body and I can’t stop it.’ That’s fight or flight. We need to adjust our practices with discipline when we’re in a situation like that.
What should a teacher do if they find themselves in that situation?
Discipline works in the moment but it doesn’t do anything to change behavior. So I think a teacher should always think about, ‘Ten years from now, how do I want a kid to respond to this behavior?’ It’s probably not getting sent to the principal’s office that’s going to fix that.
If you have a nondisciplinary option for a kid, that’s the best course of action. Some kids need to walk the track or shoot baskets for 10 minutes. They need time away from the thing that’s irritating them.
I do a lot of conversations with kids. It does take time. Some of that time is my planning time. Some of that time is my lunch time. But for a lot of our kids that go straight to anger, if you can get them talking about what’s hurting them in their heart, then they can usually get through the angry. They have to understand why this behavior is counterproductive to their existence for the rest of their lives, not just today.
What’s one piece of academic advice you’d give new teachers?
Make sure you’re allowing for failure in your classroom, where the whole point of the exercise is to redesign it and make it better. Allow for more student-driven opportunities to make mistakes because they’re going to learn a ton from that.
What’s one piece of nonacademic advice you’d give new teachers?
To try to make a classroom environment that allows for all of your kids to shine at some point.
I was at (a store recently) and one of my former kiddos was there. I asked about his little brother. He said, ‘He dropped out of school. School is not for him.’ I don’t think there’s any statement more heartbreaking for me than that statement. It’s (dependent) upon us to make sure kids are allowed to express what they know and their passions, no matter who they are. If that kid had been in the right kind of environment, school would be for him.
What advice would you give a new teacher who might want to give up?
Everybody feels like that at some point.
Check the calendar. Are you feeling like this in October or February? If your answer is yes, give it a month. You’ll be better, I promise. First-year teachers should know there are valleys — and October and February are the months.
In September, (your students) are trying to make you like them. Especially the younger kids. And then in October, some of their real personalities start to emerge. In February, it’s been a long time since you’ve had a bit of a break. And for tested grades, it’s the pressure of the (state) PARCC test coming and how much weight is on that. See how you feel in November and March.
I’d (also) say find a mentor who can say, ‘I get it. It sucks. But here’s the thing…’ You need that person who will say, ‘It’ll be better tomorrow. And if it’s not better tomorrow, it’ll be better in a month. And if it’s not better in a month, we’ll talk.’
And take time to have fun. If you spend 10 minutes lip syncing to Justin Bieber, they’re not going to fail arithmetic.