Sometimes I think about what I would tell myself if I could go back and spend some time with me before I became a teacher. Or what I would say to a group of college students who were preparing to start their teaching career. These are those things.
1. Have enough grace for yourself to get comfortable with moments that feel like failure. They are going to happen. I feel like this is the case for every profession that exists, really. You are going to have off days, and off years. Your kids are going to have off days and off years. You are going to have seasons when nothing is going right, when you question whether you’re cut out for the job. You will yell at your class when you have promised yourself you won’t. You will take things your students say personally when you promise you won’t. Your kids will do badly on a test. You will make a grading error. You will miss an important deadline. You will learn by trial and error and sometimes it will feel far more like error than anything else.
But the good news in that is that “failure” isn’t ever permanent, if you choose to see it as a pathway to growth. If you’re committed to sitting down and being really honest with yourself about what went well and what went wrong, what you can’t control and what is truly in your hands to change, failure can be the best thing to happen to you. So when it happens, notice it, breathe in grace, rechart your course, and move on.
2. Be okay with improvising. Learn how to think on your feet, and be prepared to change your plans in a split second. There will be days, y’all. There will be days when this is a life-giving and sanity-saving skill. There will be days when the moon is full and all the crazies come out, and there are three fist fights before second period, and the entire place is in shambles. When those days come, LET GO. You can either whiteknuckle your expectations for the way the day “should be,” or you can keep your sanity. In my experience, you cannot have both in those moments. Have a backup plan in place for those days.
3. Boundaries. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Know when to say no, and understand that it’s okay to say it sometimes. Teaching is a yes profession, and if you’re willing, you can yes yes yes yes yes your way to a career that is fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. Don’t. That’s not sustainable, and it’s not likely to end well. Pick a couple of days a week when you determine within yourself that you are going home after school. Use your time during school as efficiently as you can. And when you leave? Leave. BE with your family, and your friends. Actually be there, be present, be in the room, be paying attention to your life in that moment. And I get it…there will be times when you absolutely have to take work home, times when you have to work late, times when you have to come in on Saturday. But those times are not all the time. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Your students need to see people modeling a life that is balanced and healthy just as much as they need to see someone with good work ethic.
4. Have other things going. Have a life. Really. Have family, and friends, and hobbies, and take care of those things. Read for fun. Travel. Work out. Play in a band. Get involved in a community theatre. Rock climb. Collect rare ornately-shaped balls of lint. Anything. Just have other things going.
5. Hold loosely to your expectations. Seriously. I know that’s probably some form of heresy in the education world, but expectations for who your students should be right now are poison. Hold on with all you have to hope for who they’re becoming. Actively teach them how to act intentionally and live well. Do everything you can in your time with them to instill in them the curiosity and passion and discipline to become an exceptional human being. But when your sixth grade students act like needy, overly dramatic, self centered human beings and you get pissed off about it? It’s not about them. It’s about your expectations; you are expecting them to behave like grown adults who have already been taught how to manage themselves and their needs and emotions and concerns and desire for instant gratification. They are not that. If they were, they would not be in your sixth grade classroom. Expect a work in progress. Expect them to be exactly who and where they are.
6. Make time for conversations with your students. I know you don’t have it. Make it anyway. Because honestly? Most of the kids who walk in the door of your classroom need a caring adult who actually sees and hears them about a hundred times more than they need to know how to spell the word amoeba. And to be honest, if you make time for conversations with them, they’re going to be a whole lot more likely actually listen when you’re trying to teach them how to spell the word amoeba. Real talk.
7. Learn to pick which hills you’re prepared to die on. There are a LOT of hills, and sometimes our instincts as teachers tell us that all the hills are worth dying on. They’re not.
8. Don’t yell. For most teachers, yelling is effective approximately 2% of the time, and it’s exhausting exactly 100% of the time. It usually works the first time you do it with any group of students. Maybe the second, if you’re incredibly lucky. By the third time, be prepared for the fact that you’re just going to have to do it again in five minutes.
9. Breathe. It’s really okay to take sixty seconds at absolutely ANY point in the day, even in the middle of a class, to just breathe and be in your own skin, to stop reacting and just remember who you are and who you want to be and why you started doing this in the first place when you always knew it wasn’t going to be the easiest route. Breathe.
10. Don’t let the little everyday struggles make you feel like you’re not doing something worthwhile. You may never see the complete results of your work, and you won’t be able to reach every kid. You just won’t. But what you’re doing matters. It really, truly, actually matters in all the big ways.