This past week, I was shocked to see Facebook pictures of some of my former students entering their SENIOR year of high school. Those all grown-up faces were the exact students who shared my FIRST classroom during my very first year of teaching…Second Grade at Shedeck Elementary in Yukon, Oklahoma back in 2004. Back then, I was a driven, over-the-top 22 year old, fresh out of college, and little did I know, I would learn more over the course of that year (and subsequent years) about teaching than I ever thought possible.
As I enter my eleventh year of teaching, I look back on countless happy memories, but most of all, I reflect on what I’ve learned through experience. Here goes…
Start Off at the Pace You’re Willing to Keep Up
A wise mentor teacher of mine gave me this advice during my fifth year of teaching, and I wish I’d heard it much earlier. All too often, we begin each school year with guns blazing, ready to implement every sparkly new strategy that caught our fancy over the summer. Data Notebooks AND Math Journals AND Interactive Reading Notebooks AND Lucy Calkins Writing instruction?? Oh, not to mention, I’ll go ahead and finish up grad school while pregnant with baby #2?! What was I THINKING? The truth is that unless you implement one idea or program with full fidelity, the likelihood that it will be successful is very slim. Choose one or two ideas MAX and ditch the ones that your students are not directly benefiting from. This goes for parent communication as well. Parents will come to expect the communication that you establish at the beginning of the year, so make sure you choose the most convenient, “bang for your buck” methods that won’t suck the life out of your evenings at home.
Your Teacher Friends Should Be Your Best Friends
This is a HUGE one, and I hope beginning teachers are listening. Your colleagues, more specifically your teammates, can make or break your happiness and sanity as a teacher, and you have to make a conscious choice to be a friend and a team player. I promise, you will slowly go crazy if you throw yourself too much into your kids and don’t take enough time to build relationships with others. (as I did my first year). Isolating yourself not only hurts you, it hurts your students too. It DOESN’T MATTER if one or more of your teammates have teaching philosophies that directly clash with yours. Every teacher has something positive, personally and professionally, to bring to the table. In fact, the teammates that have differed the most from me have been the ones I’ve learned the MOST from over the years! Take time to have a cup of coffee and laugh with your team Every. Single. Day.
It’s Okay to Leave it at School
Sigh…I’m STILL fighting myself on this one, and truly, until my daughter was born in 2011, I didn’t fully embrace the importance of attempting to leave work at work. For teachers, I know that sometimes it’s impossible to leave it at school or more importantly, let it pile up and then be forced to spend your entire weekend playing catch up. Over the years, I feel that I’ve gotten better and better at managing the small stuff throughout my day, which often means making copies or grading papers with one hand and eating lunch with the other hand. It also means making good use out of every small “window” of productivity during the day. All I know is that it often feels good to leave my laptop at school, or leave my teacher bag in the car stuffed with papers so that I can fix dinner for my family, do puzzles with my daughter, watch The Bachelor with my husband (while simultaneously texting updates to my teacher friends) or snuggle on my baby Beau. My children will only be little for a few years, and I don’t want to look back on these years and think, “Well… my schoolwork was always complete!”
Bulletin Boards Don’t Matter
There, I said it. 90% of the time, the kids could care less UNLESS that board was constructed completely by them. While I love my darling, bright and bubbly back to school bulletin boards, I spent several years decking out my MASSIVE hallway bulletin board, complete with darling premade cutouts, for every season and holiday, often spending hours after school to make sure it was “just right.” The truth? The only classroom displays that the kids use, notice, and care about are the ones that are completely OWNED by them. This goes for resources too. They’re NEVER going to notice that Parts of Speech poster you bought at Mardel unless it’s used and referred to on a regular basis. Over the years, I learned to save my precious decorating time and instead, put the ownership of the classroom environment into my students’ hands.
It’s Okay to Take it Personally
I honestly can’t remember a single year that I haven’t driven home from school in tears about a difficult school day (often on the phone with my mom) at least once, and some years it seemed much too often. Our shoulders are heavy and expectations are high. Teaching is extremely PERSONAL and taking things personally with your students is a sign that you care as much as you should. We are human and our emotions are a reflection of our passion for children. Give yourself a break and know that, no matter how many years you teach, you will never stop taking things personally!
Never Stop Learning
The day that you stop challenging yourself, learning from others, or trying something new is the day you will lose your passion for teaching. Doing the same thing every single year, with lesson plans photocopied from five years ago, is a fast track to boredom and burnout. If we expect our students to learn and grow each day, it seems only fitting that we learn and grow right along with them. Embrace innovation and share it with your students! You will find yourself feeling more rewarded and accomplished with each new method.