Dear Brand-New Teacher,
Look at you! You’re here! In just a few short days (or maybe weeks), you will be on your own. Running a classroom. Holding between 20 and 120 brains in your hands.
Maybe this is a life-long dream for you. Ever since you were a little, you were forcing siblings and/or stuffed animals to sit in little rows and take notes as you repeatedly pointed at a Fisher Price globe and made up facts. Or maybe teaching is a new direction for you. You’ve been an accountant for fifteen years and have decided to pursue what you’ve always wanted to do, or maybe a door closed on what you’ve always wanted to do and teaching is your Plan B. It doesn’t matter how you got here. What matters is that you are here.
Undoubtedly you’ve heard horror stories about teaching. How standardized testing is killing creativity, low pay, high demands, especially in Title I schools. Maybe your friends and family have tried to steer you towards another profession. But something has kept you here. You’re not afraid of a challenge. You’re not afraid of long hauls. You would rather do something that matters than do something for status. You are going to make an outstanding teacher.
How are you feeling? Nervous? Excited? Completely overwhelmed by the monsoon of information from teacher workdays and are now panicked that you’ll have no idea what you’re doing? Don’t worry. Those are all normal feelings. (In fact, the only worrisome feeling would be, “This is going to be a total breeze!”)
In the months leading up to my first year, I remember searching online trying to find a detailed, minute-by-minute outline of how I should structure my first few weeks. I basically wanted a script, complete with stage directions and instructions for exactly how to pull off this gig. What should I say? What should I have my students do? How long should I give them to do it? What activities should I do? And I remember being so frustrated that no such thing existed online.
But now I know why.
Nothing about teaching is one-size fits all. Not only is every student different, but every teacher is different. Every school is different. Each grade level group of kids is different.
Teaching changes from one minutes to the next. A lesson plan that might work for a class one year might totally fail within the first five minutes for another class. Part of why teaching is so challenging (and so fun!) is that you have to constantly be on your toes and ready to improvise when you see a conflict arise.
Authenticity matters to kids. If your entire year is you printing out worksheets from other teachers instead of teaching in ways that you are passionate about, your kids will tune out ASAP.
Teaching is like a relationship. As awesome as it would be to be given a script of exactly what you should say on a first date (instead of, for example, rambling incessantly about facts you learned about dolphins from a podcast), life just doesn’t work that way. If you did follow a script on a first date, you would sound like a robot and be completely unable to maintain any kind of conversation, let alone a relationship. Teaching is not that different. A different kind of relationship, yes, but one in which authenticity, responsiveness, and listening matter fundamentally.
I know what you’re thinking: “So—there’s no script, no predictability, and teaching changes from one minute to the next… so how am I supposed to prepare?” The good news is that you are probably more prepared than you know. Teaching is a profession that tends to attract perfectionists, and a lot of times it’s tempting to think that when we are trying out a new skill on our own for the first time, we are failing. Not the case. The only way you fail as a teacher is when you stop trying to be better. But honestly, even more than pedagogy and content knowledge, I think that the best way to prepare for your life as a teacher is to be flexible, to embrace conflicts as learning opportunities, laugh as much as you can, and remember the importance of authenticity.
You’ll have days that are so completely and unbelievably awesome that you’ll feel like you’re in a hot air balloon powered by goodness and youth. You’ll have days where you’ll want to lock your door, curl up on your bottom bookshelf, and cry indefinitely. You’ll have students you will want to adopt and nominate for president. You will have students you will want to send to a boarding school far, far away, but who you’ll love anyway because they challenge you. You’ll experience moments when you love your job so much you will think your heart will explode out of your body in a shower of glitter confetti. You’ll experience moments when you get so angry with The System and The Man keeping your students down that you’ll consider having pizzas delivered to your governor’s office with the words “Can we have a ‘pizza’ our budget back?” spelled out in pepperoni letters. (But then you’ll decide that’s far too nice.)
The trick is to hold on to those good days and those good feelings. Let them power your hot air balloon.
So don’t panic about what’s ahead. That thrill you felt pretend teaching as a child? It’s about ninety times more rewarding and exciting when you watch it happen in real life. And if teaching is your Plan B, know that there are about to be a lot of kids who are so glad that your Plan A didn’t work out. (Hopefully, you will be, too.)
On behalf of the many, many veteran teachers out there: we believe in you. We are a crazy and passionate and tough bunch who are running this marathon together, and we can’t wait for you to join us. So grab your water bottle and a package of Band-Aids, and we’ll see you on the road.
Here’s to 2015-16!