This year I had the honor and privilege of speaking at my seniors’ graduation.
I had taught all but one or two of the graduating class, so it was incredibly special to be able to see my students off one last time. While I was excited to be able to address them and be involved in their big moment, the speech became a daunting task. An English teacher, I was used to writing being easy for me, but the speech had plagued me, causing nightmares and nervous practice sessions in front of my colleagues. So when the moment finally came and I was introduced, I was absolutely petrified I would bore my audience to sleep on what should be an exciting day.
Something amazing happened though, as I stood to walk to the mic. My students began cheering for me from their seats.
“Yeah! Miss Heather!”
“Best English teacher ever!”
“You got this!”
I couldn’t stop smiling as I walked confidently to the podium. However the speech went, my students were on my side, encouraging me to do my best, just as we always do for them.
It was without a doubt, the highlight of my educational career thus far.
I felt connected to my students, who I am all so proud of, and after a year filled with many experiments in the classroom and many successes, I knew that I had been asked to speak because people trusted me to say something meaningful.
I couldn’t help but wonder how I had gotten to this point. I am, as I write this, in the last week of my fifth year teaching. I enjoy my job. I go to work early because I want to. I browse teaching social media after school for fun.
However, I would never ever choose to repeat my first year of teaching–not for a principal’s salary.
My first year was a disaster.
I had always envisioned myself teaching AP or honors classes. I was going to get my master’s in gifted and talented curriculum. I would speak passionately about the genius of Shakespeare and Austen and Alice Walker. Instead, I was hired at my city’s alternative school–the school for students who, for whatever reason, weren’t making it at the “regular” high schools. It was a Title I school (a term I did not even know as a fresh college graduate), evenly split between Caucasian, African American, and Latino students. My best readers had middle school lexile levels and many did not know how to properly use a period. I had no idea what to do with them.
It was a culture shock for me. I had always been an A student myself, always in advanced courses. I didn’t have any experience with students like this, with people like this. I couldn’t understand why some of my students were so loud or half of what they were saying. On the first day of class I asked my students to put away their cell phones after some beeping interrupted me; they laughed and pointed to a student’s ankle bracelet which needed to be recharged.
I was incredibly white, middle class, and came from privilege and my students knew it. Worse, I was still figuring out my “teacher persona” and probably came across as stiff and disingenuous in my attempt to find some authority in the classroom. I clearly had no idea what I was doing and my students had no problem telling me so.
Every lesson I learned that year, I learned the hard way.
I was at school late at night, until the custodian came in asking why I was still there. In the parking lot, I would sit in my car, willing myself to walk inside and not cry. My entire Sundays were spent trying to figure out what to teach (I was given no curriculum, no textbook, and about three new digital programs to learn) and lesson plan (I was required to turn in weekly and daily lesson plans that year in a detailed format that often went on for three pages for each day). We had meetings during most of our prep time, Friday afternoons, and every other Wednesday after school (mandatory, but not paid). I spent that whole year hating my job, my students, and my own incompetence.
One lesson stands out for me.
I was just trying to get the students to listen to a reading. It took about fifteen minutes to get every student in a chair and silent and just as I had done so and was about to commence the lesson, a girl stood up. I looked at her and said, “Sit!”
“I ain’t no dog!” she yelled back. It was a huge lesson for me. As a child who had always done her best to placate authority, I would have never spoken back to a teacher. But here, I couldn’t expect automatic respect. I was going to have to start by changing my language, my approach, everything I thought about how a student should behave. I was going to have to go out of my way to give respect, if I was ever going to receive it. I took a deep breath.
“You’re right,” I said calmly. “I’m sorry. That’s not how I meant for it to come out. I would just really like to have everyone’s attention, so we can get back to the story. We’re getting to a really good part and I want to share it with all of you. I’m sorry if that came out disrespectfully.” The student did not respond, but she slowly took a seat and I was able to restart class.
I won’t say my first year ended in kumbayas. That would be a total lie. But I learned a lot. The next year I was better acquainted with my students skill level and planned better. I had a better grasp on relationship building. I knew which colleagues would be helpful and which would throw you under the bus. (Since my first year my building and the administration has improved immensely as well. We’re also taking more student who struggle academically and socially, and fewer students who just struggle with the law. These differences have been invaluable in my growth as an educator as well.)
On my first day my first year, I was already regretting signing a contract.
I almost quit during year two. Year three I resolved to spend my free time looking for other opportunities outside of teaching (I even opened and closed a business in that time). Year four I began thinking that things weren’t so bad; I could make it through five years for the sake of my retirement account. Now that I’m ending year five, I can’t imagine teaching anywhere else and I’m already looking forward to my classes and students in year six.
You will struggle during your first year–hopefully not as badly as I did, but you will have your own tests and lessons. Your students, in one way or another, will teach you how to be better if you’re looking for the lesson. They show you what they need every day, but it’s not always in the kindest manner.
Start with small goals. My first year I had two: don’t yell, and find one thing to like about each student.
Also be on the lookout for a positive colleague. I had one I went to when I was especially struggling. She always reminded me that it’s really just about having a good time with your students and that, as long as you are kind to them, you can’t mess up too badly.
You will get better. This job gets better. You are not alone.
If you keep working on your craft, your communication skills, and your passion, one day your students will become your cheering squad and will return the encouragement you unfailing give them.
Veteran teachers, what little goals helped you to stay sane and survive the first year? Need some self-care tips after dealing with teacher overwhelm? Or looking for the right material to make you and your students passionate?