By the time I attended the first class for my alternative certification program, I had already been teaching (poorly) for two weeks. I was an emergency bilingual hire who’d been plucked from the masses the previous spring at a job fair for a district near where I was relocating after college. (I was so young and sheltered that my mom drove me to the job fair…and waited outside the room. I cringe to this day when I think of it, but in my defense I was from a very small town, Dallas is huge, and overpasses can be terrifying.)
My plan was to teach for a year while I applied to law schools; I’d be a one-woman Teach for America while improving my Spanish proficiency, doing something meaningful, and (let’s be honest) making my law school application more attractive in the process. Sure, I didn’t know the first thing about teaching (I’d never seen a lesson plan, observed a teacher, or even known one personally) but it couldn’t be that hard, right?
As you might imagine, my overwhelming naïveté and unpreparedness combined with crippling perfectionism meant I spent almost every waking hour working as either a student or teacher for my entire first year. During that time, I received several outstanding pieces of advice that I disregarded completely. I hope they’ll be of assistance to you in whatever season of teaching you find yourself.
- Take one day off of work completely each week.
Y’all, my universe would have imploded completely if I had done this. There just wasn’t enough time to plan lessons, check my translations, grade papers, etc., plus complete my own coursework. I do wish I had done a better job of scheduling, though. Looking back I realize I could have carved significant blocks of time each weekend to unwind and recharge, and I would have been a better teacher for it. So if you’re in a grinding stage right now, consider blocking entire mornings, afternoons, or evenings each weekend and committing to not even think about your precious students during that time.
- Try not to take it personally.
You spent two hours planning a simulation that your students didn’t take seriously. You gave yourself carpal tunnel writing thoughtful feedback on an essay that landed in the trash twenty seconds later. You planned a super fun Valentine’s party, then spent the whole time threatening to end it right this second. Can they not see how hard you worked? Does your effort mean nothing to them?
Of course it means something, but it doesn’t mean everything. As wonderful as you are, you’re just one piece of the very complicated puzzle that is each student’s life. Some are dealing with trauma, some with self-image, some with depression, and some with all the above. You play a powerful role in their story but as a supporting character; you can absolutely influence their behavior, but you are by no means the sole motivator for their actions. When they hurt your feelings (and they will!) try to remember that it’s always about more than just that situation and often about issues much bigger than the incident in question. Keeping perspective can help you get to the bottom of the issue and enable what could have been a negative experience to become an opportunity to strengthen your relationship instead.
- Go easy on yourself.
This is the hardest job in the world. It’s the most rewarding too, but it will take everything you have to give it and more. Are you doing your best? Then that’s all you can ask. You’ll be a better teacher next week, next month, next year, but you’re already a better one than yesterday. Try to spend as much time appreciating how far you’ve come as you do lamenting how far you have to go. As teachers, we excel at showing empathy and compassion to our students, but how frequently do we offer ourselves the same grace?
Almost every teacher I’ve met says they wish they could apologize to their first group of kids (bless their hearts), who suffered through our ignorance regarding best practices, our outbursts of emotion, and our unending bouts of strep throat. And while there’s nothing we can do to make it up to those precious souls, we can at least try to pay it forward by sharing our knowledge with the next batch of first-year teachers so they can learn from our mistakes. I just hope they’re better at following advice than I was.