Halfway through my first year of teaching, I wrote my resignation letter. Another first-year teacher had just walked away from the profession to open a bed and breakfast in Maine. Boy, that sounded nice.
It was a cold day in January when I stomped out to my deck, pushed snow off of the chair, shoved a beer into the snow on top of the table, and began typing away at my laptop perched on my knees. I thanked my supervisor for all the support he had given me and explained that I had made a mistake. Teaching was just not for me. I printed it, signed it with a flourish, and grabbed another beer. As much as I wanted it to, it did not feel celebratory. It felt like drinking at a funeral.
Lucky for me, my supervisor saw a young kid who was made to be a teacher. He also saw a kid fresh out of college who was drowning in his newfound responsibility. He knew how seriously I took my responsibility to my students, how hard I took it when I failed to reach one of them or watched a lesson I had planned thud like a bird into a windowpane. He told me he would not accept my resignation.
Now, after nearly two decades in the classroom, I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Each day I come to work in a profession that leaves me deeply fulfilled, a profession where I get to help kids navigate the swirling waters of adolescence find their own voice. Here I spend my days helping kids decode the world around them, and speak out.
Looking back, there are a few things that got me through that year. To new teachers struggling away, I would offer this advice.
1. Fail energetically.
Embrace it. You are brand new to one of the most challenging and important jobs available. To expect success in the first year is flawed thinking. When you fail, don’t try to cover it up. Tell your students what you set out to do, and why you think it flopped. Laugh about it and try again. Ask them for advice. When they see how passionate you are, even when you keep messing it up, they will respect you for it.
2. Get involved in things outside the classroom.
My favorite moment of that first year came on the tennis court. A student who was struggling academically and was a frequent flyer in the suspension room joined the team I was coaching. The first match he won, he signed the tennis ball and gave it to me with a hug. He was not the hugging type, and that moment got me through a lot of late nights grading bad essays.
3. Never give up on a kid.
“Watch your back,” a student said to me through his teeth, “my brother and I are going to get you.” He was a kid from whom this was a viable threat. His brother even more so. When he was suspended for 10 days in school, I spent my lunch with him trying to keep him current on our work. Instead of getting angry, I told him not to worry about it.
I rode. I ran. I lifted weights in a gym. I hiked and paddled and spend a lot of time outside. First, this jobs requires endurance. Good teachers don’t sit behind desks. Second, this job can be remarkably frustrating. You need a healthy way to release all that pent up tension.
5. Set clear boundaries, and defend them.
This may have been my most challenging lesson that first year. Teaching seniors who were just four years younger, I got pushed around a bit during the first semester. Kids spoke over me and disrupted my class. Those who wanted to learn grew frustrated with the distractions. When I finally drew the line, wrote a couple of kids up, called a couple of parents, people realized I was serious. Students need boundaries. They appreciate them.
This job is one worth sticking with. With a new group of students each fall, I get two things many of my friends in other professions don’t. A clean slate, and something totally unique to work with. Twenty years in and I am still in love. I don’t look forward to writing a resignation at the end of my career.
On the last day of the school year I headed out to that porch again, snow replaced by flower blossoms and rustling leaves. This time there were lots of other teachers there with me. Together we opened a few beers and raised a toast to the conclusion of a successful year.
Join our Facebook group WeAreTeachers—First Years! to connect with other new teachers, and learn more about how you can navigate your classroom and life.