Next week, I will begin my tenth year of teaching. I am celebrating this milestone with great satisfaction and nostalgia.
I’m also thinking about this meeting that I had shortly before beginning my very first year as a teacher. There was a staff member who was sharing some information with me. I still remember her saying, “So, some of these resources will help you make it through the year and then we’ll see if you’re really cut out for teaching or if you run off and do something else with your life.” I looked her right in the eyes, little baby teacher that I was, and said, “I’m not going anywhere.” I’m proud to say that I made good on that promise. Teaching isn’t for everyone, but teaching is for me. That much I knew even back then.
Look, it’s not an easy job. I now know that every time you think you’ve got the hang of teaching, every time you start feeling like you’re really a pretty fantastic teaching professional, reality will happily intervene to humble you. There are still points in every year where I feel like a beginner all over again. Ask any teacher you know–no matter how experienced we are, there are always points in the year where we start to question something (or EVERYTHING) about how we do our jobs.
There is nothing I could write that could prepare someone for what this job is, and I am still learning myself how it all goes. However, there are some things that I’m very sure of after being in the classroom for this long. As a victory lap for my decade year, I’d like to share ten things that I now know after ten years of teaching. Especially if you are a new teacher, I hope you find this list hopeful, helpful, and steadying as we welcome the kids through the doors once again.
TEN THINGS I KNOW AFTER TEN YEARS OF TEACHING
1. It helps to be positive and excited even when it seems like no one cares. It does matter. I am a person who is notorious for seeing the brighter side, and giving a peppy, enthusiastic greeting to my all of my kids as they walk through the hallways. It is hard to do this when you are tired, when you have a headache, and when the teenagers whom you are greeting with care and warmth stare through you as if you are actually invisible with hardly a grunt in response. At the end of the year, though, one of the most common points of feedback I get from my students is how welcomed I always made them feel, and how my excitement for what I’m teaching really helped them learn. Kids respond to good energy… they don’t always show it, but it is worth it to summon the effort to be their sunbeam, even when it seems like it’s not making a difference.
2. There are no bad kids. Are there students in my teaching past whose very names make me shudder as I remember the behavioral or academic difficulties I weathered with them? Of course. But even the most challenging, frustrating, inflammatory students are not bad kids. There is no such thing as a bad kid. There are kids with trauma, kids with illnesses, kids without support, angry kids, scared kids, kids who lack self-control. But they are all good kids. If you refuse to accept their reputation and spend the time to get to know them, to gently keep pushing even when they resist you, you will find the goodness. They may still be rude. They may still struggle. But they are still worth your time–sometimes you are the only person who is fighting for them.
3. Teachers are most effective when they embrace the nerd within. Students respond to passion. Everything young people perceive is through a lens of intense emotion. To compete with that, you need to gush and rave and freak out with joy about what you’re teaching. It may be dorky to start yelling about how utterly outrageously good The Crucible is because the unit is only a week away and you seriously count down the days every year until having the privilege of teaching it, but kids respond to that when it is genuine! If I present students with a bookshelf filled with books, there might be a couple of them who want to investigate it on their own. If I take a book off of that shelf and start talking about how it personally changed my dang life with its awesomeness, I will have a waiting list seven kids deep to check it out. Embrace the nerd within. You know you love your content area. Show them why.
4. Teachers do the wrong thing sometimes. There will be days where you will do something stupid. You will react to a student the wrong way in a bad moment and make a kid feel terrible. You will enter an assignment score in the online gradebook for Ashley F. that was actually the score for Ashley T., and somehow lose Ashley F.’s original score in the process. You will listen to a hateful comment from a student in class and want so badly to address it, but end up freezing, your face turning red with anger as you just say nothing. These mistakes will make you feel like garbage. But they happen because you are an imperfect human being. The best thing you can do to remedy this is to address it with an honest apology to the student that was affected–students understand and respect this. And don’t be too hard on yourself, because we all have bad moments.
5. Business hours are necessary for sanity. To not suffer burnout as a teacher, you need a system for keeping your work life and home life separate. You will be much happier if you are not “on call” 24 hours a day. Do yourself a favor and try to leave your work at work. When you walk out the school doors, there are no more emails, no more quizzes to grade, no more plans to plan until you return the next day. Keep your weekends open for yourself and your family as much as humanly possible. Listen: Even though you are a teacher, you are allowed to have a life. It will make you a better teacher. If you struggle with this, find someone who has it figured out, and learn their ways.
6. Clean slate club. This is one of those cliches that is actually true. If something doesn’t go well in one of your classes, it’s easy to get sucked into negative thinking: you’re doing everything all wrong, your class is never going to be well-behaved, and Bobby in the front row hates your guts for being a lousy teacher. But then, the next day, you try again, and everything is okay again! (In all likelihood, Bobby in the front row has already forgotten the thing you stayed up all night agonizing about.) Students and teachers both bounce back very easily. Bad days may occur, but as long as you approach it with kindness and a desire to understand, a new day is always a clean slate.
7. Teachers disagree with each other a lot, but they are incredibly caring. No matter where you work, you’ll encounter other educators who have different opinions from yours. They may have different ideas about adopting new strategies or keeping old ones. They may hold on to a certain classroom management philosophy with an iron fist. They may just think your fashion sense is whack or misunderstand you on a fundamental level. Decisions are not always unanimous and meetings are not always harmonious. However, all of that falls away when you look at what these people do for kids. Teachers are extraordinarily caring people. They show it in different ways, but they are all kind, self-sacrificing people who want to help others in their own way. If you can tap into that commonality, it’s a lot easier to mediate differences of opinion.
8. Build your legacy! One of the most enjoyable things about being a teacher is the legend that builds up around you. What goes into that legend is sometimes within your control, and other times up to the whims of fate. Seriously, though, it’s amazing to hear kids say “I always heard that this was a great class” or “My older sister had you as her teacher and I’m excited that it’s my turn now.” The more and the longer you invest in your school community, the larger your legacy reaches. You start to feel more admiration and trust from your students, which is really the best feeling in the whole world.
9. Describe behavioral expectations in physical terms. This is a super effective classroom management strategy that has been invaluable to me over the years. When you want students to redirect and do something other than what they are doing, be direct and literal in your requests for compliance–tell them what to do physically to achieve the desired outcome. Instead of telling them “Pay attention,” ask them to “Look at my eyes with your eyes.” Instead of saying “stop bothering her,” say, “I want you to move your desk three feet to the left and turn it to face the window.” Instead of saying “Does everybody get it?” say “Take your notebook out. Draw a big smiley face if you understand and a frown if you don’t. Hold up your notebooks.” Works like a charm–whatever management challenge your class throws at you, if you can think up a physical direction to counter it, better results will follow.
10. Teaching keeps you young. Maybe you’ve seen that funny meme around that says something like “Teaching? Stressful? I feel great, and I’m only 32!” along with a photograph of a woman who could easily be 90+. It gives me a good guffaw. However, I have to say, some of the most supernaturally young-looking people I know happen to be teachers, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Surrounded by all that youthful energy keeps us hopeful, as long as we’re doing it right. We can’t sit still very long without someone needing our attention, and we laugh constantly because kids are often fun and hilarious. Plus we’re usually up on the newest weird slang, music, and fashion trends. We might even feel some extra pressure to stay hydrated with all those teenage athletes walking around with their giant Nalgene water bottles. Sure, the teacher is the oldest person in the room. But if you’re a teacher who enjoys your job, odds are that you have a youthful soul.
I’d like to end this post with a thank you, to all the remarkable students and colleagues who have blessed my life along this ten-year journey.
Thank you, Milwaukee School of Languages.
Thank you, St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy.
Thank you, Sheboygan Falls High School.
Thank you, Port Washington High School. It’s been my privilege. I think I’ll keep going.