6 Things I Learned as a First Year Teacher

‘First Year Teacher’ has been a strange title to hold this year. While I mostly forgot about it at work, it was at grad school and district-wide events that it really shined as an exceptionally weird thing.

At grad school, surrounded by student teachers who I overwhelmingly liked but didn’t have a ton of time to connect with, I was sometimes ignored, something applauded, and sometimes confronted with hostility. To be honest I didn’t like any of those responses and regretted every time I brought up my teaching practice as a present avenue and not a future one.

When interacting with other teachers at professional developments and state exam grading I was mostly looked at with surprise and reminiscence, as though the very thought of it being my first year brought every teacher back to theirs.

It’s strange now that after this first year being such a big deal, none of my coming years will ever mean so much in name, to me or anyone else. Only a little over two weeks out from the end of the school year and I’m still trying to gain some perspective. Mostly I just feel a little bored, a little stressed (finishing my MA), and I really kind of miss my students.

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All that said, I did manage to learn a hand full of important lessons in as a first year teacher.

1. The People Around You Matter

I got insanely lucky with colleagues. I’ve heard the horror stories of apathetic and angry teachers, veterans who don’t care and newbies who think they run the world. I got so lucky with my school family – they are kind and smart and, above all, they care about the kids. Every time I was upset, I had emotional and practical support.

I also made my own support outside of school, leaning on friends and fellow teachers when times were tough. Having a support system, particularly one made up of other people in education is key to survival.

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2. Students are like Family.

You won’t always like them, sometimes you want to throw them out a window and, but you will still love them.

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Throughout the year, when I was unsure about an action I’d taken or something I’d said, I asked myself if the root of it was love. If the answer was no, I needed to apologize.

3. Apologies Hold Huge Power

No one apologizes to kids, especially not adults. Even when they’re wrong, terribly wrong, adults rarely apologize. Early in October I snapped at a kid, it was a passing moment in a bad day, but it wasn’t fair.

I thought about it a lot that night and the next day I pulled her aside when I saw her at lunch and said “hey, I’m really sorry I snapped at you yesterday, that wasn’t fair and you didn’t deserve that.” The look on her face was comically confused and unsure and then she broke into a smile, told me it was ok, and hugged me.

When you’re wrong, apologize.

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4. Self Care

All of the self care. In the beginning of the year, I constantly felt overwhelmed by the amount I needed to prepare and learn and grow and more then once I found myself at school way too late. I brought work home and I was killing my self to finish everything.

I was blessed with an amazing co-teacher  who really kept me honest about self care and cracked down on this. He told me to go home, he helped me finish things, he simplified my to do list, he reminded me that the first year is not about being the best it’s about survival.

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Sometimes it won’t get done but you’ll have taken a long bath and gotten some rest so that you can keep loving the kids and being a good teacher.

5. Take a Day Off

This goes with number four, but needed it’s own section. You get sick and personal days.  Use them. Not excessively, but use them.

Coming to school if you’re too sick, too distracted by something outside of school, or too wrecked to do a good job will only hurt the kids. Take a day, get your head and your body right and never feel bad about it.

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6. Nothing Will Ever be Fully Prepared

No, shut up, no it won’t, just stop. Just when you think you’ve created the perfect lesson and sink hours into making it just right, the whole plan will get thrown by a student question or a broken Smart Board (in May when the tech budget is gone for the year) or a fire drill.

I stopped putting hours into lessons because it only led to disappointment. Plan, absolutely plan and be creative and create cool lessons but don’t plan so long and so hard that you’ll be heartbroken when the plan inevitably gets derailed.

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Teachers, aspiring teachers, retired teachers, parents, students, and anyone else; I’d love to know your thoughts and any big lessons you’ve learned lately in the comments!

Best of luck.

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Learning to Take Care of My Damn Self

Growing up I watched my very motivated father work his fingers to the damn bone. If there was a retake needed by a football player, he’d stay until 6 to give it to them. If a parent meeting needed to happen at 5 am or 9 pm, he’d make it happen. If he needed to learn Spanish or trombone to get the information across, he’d do it.

Every evening I watched him get home late and fall asleep minutes after sitting down. And every single school break I watched him get horribly sick and spend his time off recovering.

When I started teaching I promised myself I would find a way to work for my kids, to give them every chance I can, without burning myself out.

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I have been blessed with a team of co-workers who are caring and understanding, who always look out for me. My co-teacher tells me often to take care of myself. The beginning of every department meeting is either a self care check-in (where we talk about our specific self care goals and what we are doing to reach them this week) or a self care practice (Tai Chi, guided meditation, etc.) My Assistant Principal meets with me once a week to lesson plan/unit plan/revise curriculum/talk about what’s not working and how to fix it. My in-school mentor meets with me once a week to talk about literally anything I need help with.

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I’m supported, much more so than a lot of teachers. I’m lucky and I know it. But still I got caught with a case of ignoring my own needs.

Last Monday I got up at 4 and laid on my couch sobbing because my head was pounding so hard I couldn’t move. I called in sick but by noon the fever, headache and general ick was so bad I couldn’t stop crying.

I went to the clinic in the afternoon (I’ll be honest I went mostly because I wanted to be at work the following day) and found out I had a high fever, a sinus infection, and an ear infection.

My point is: don’t do this. Don’t let it get this bad. I was sick, really obviously sick and tried to push too hard through it and for what?

Americans especially have this notion that if you are not absolutely killing yourself at work, you’re lazy. I can’t say this enough times: that’s bullsh*t.

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In Peru, we would work from about 7- or am until lunch, go get lunch and take a nap or spend time with family, and then go back to work from 3 until 5 or 6. Yeah, that’s a three hour lunch. We also took 20-30 minutes breaks throughout the day to sit and talk.

At first I was torn apart by the difference and went to the go-to argument so many others have used (or at least thought in their head): well maybe if they worked more, their country would be more advanced. This, my friends, is also bullsh*t.

The reasons that many countries struggle has more to do with internal structure and corruption than with amount of hours worked. Hard work may be important, but worker bees working their buzzers off with no break  will not improve a country or a city or a workplace or a person.

I suppose the moral of the story is: put in the work, do whatever it is you do the best that you possibly can, but remember that half of being your best is treating yourself well. Work hard, self care hard.

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Best of luck.

Learning to Take Care of My Damn Self

I Took a Personal Day and I’m Not Sorry

Monday was a long, but overall happy day. Tuesday, however, was much worse. We’re talking “no-good, very bad day” status. I won’t even go into the details but we’ll just say I left school after a long after school meeting, fuming. I walked to the subway half-furious, half-devastated and entirely exhausted. I did that weird little public half-cry where you wipe tears away before they really drop and try to pretend you’re not crying.

On the way home, I tried to find comfort in anything I could: I’m a good teacher, it’s almost the mid-point in the week, we get a break in two weeks wherein I’ll get to see my family and friends, I love my sweet smiling students so much…but nothing was sticking. Until I offered myself the possibility of a personal day. Not a concrete plan, just the option.

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A little backstory: in January, two of my colleagues in the history department had a little meeting without me and discussed an important topic; my continued full supply of personal and sick days. They’d both realized that I’d never taken a day off and thought it was ridiculous. As veteran teachers with 6 and 13 years experience, they are very protective of this first year baby teacher, a fact I’m endlessly grateful for. So it was no surprise when they both came to me separately and then together to convince me to take a day for myself.

They told me that it’s important to take care of yourself. They lectured me about self care and burnout. I laughed and told them I would consider taking a day in March because that’s the death month with no days off. And then Tuesday happened and I hit the end of my rope.

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Giving myself permission to call out on the subway gave me so much relief that I just continued thinking about it. Eventually, still undecided, I texted my co-teacher and told him there was a chance I’d be out. I wanted to see his response, since he’d be teaching alone the next day if I wasn’t there. He immediately texted back, telling me I deserve it and I need to take care of myself since it was a hard day. There were many emojis, he was excited, it was very sweet.

So I took a personal day and I still got up at five. I spent the day catching up on lessons and doing my homework. I went to therapy in the afternoon and spent the evening drinking tea and spending time with Boyfriend. By seven that evening I felt good, I felt ready for a 7am-10pm day with work and grad school.

And then de Blasio called a snow day. Excellent timing, de Blasio, excellent timing.

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Previous to taking this day off, I’d only taken two days off from work in my life. One for when I was so sick I couldn’t walk without passing out and the other was the day that an ex walked out on me. The idea of taking a personal day just to get my head on straight seemed weak. But my colleagues (and every other veteran teacher I interact with) have taught me just the opposite. Weakness is not listening to yourself, it’s not taking care of yourself. It’s easy to be in the building every day, it’s much harder to be present. And sometimes you have to be absent in order to be present later.

I refuse to feel guilty about this personal day because it was something I needed to do. I needed a reset and re-focus. And the snow day, well, that was just a bonus.

Best of luck.

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Success! Finally Being Good at Something

I’ve been decent at a lot of things in my life. I’ve been a decent musician, a decent student, a decent retail worker, a decent volleyball player.

Ok that last one isn’t true, I was pretty awful at volleyball. Your girl does not have hand-eye coordination.

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My point is, I’ve felt like I’m ok at so many things and truly, comically awful at a few, but I have rarely really felt like I found my jam.

Until now.

Before winter break I had two teaching evaluations. One was in October and came back with pretty typical results for a first year teacher: a mix of developing and effective marks. The second evaluation was in December, right at the end of term one. I got those results recently: all effective and one highly effective mark.

It’s ok. You can say it. I know. Daaammmmnnnnnn.

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Now this one evaluation does not mean I’m perfect and I’m also not about to place my worth as a teacher on it. But it made me come back to a thought I’ve had many times in my four months teaching:

I have room to grow and learn and I always will, but damn it if I’m not a really good teacher. I’m good at this. This is my jam. I always thought people who claimed to have found their calling were liars, but then mine came out of nowhere and body checked me.

I only wish I could go back to retail me and paraeducator me and food service me and college me and tell them that they’ll get there. The suffering is real but it will pay off. You will get to your dream one day.

And it will feel so damn good to be great at something.

Best of luck.

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Classroom Portraits: Pete, Javier & Mercedes

I’ve decided it’s time for me to introduce some of my students and celebrate the magical moments of my profession. I’m hoping this will be a regular series, so please let me know if you enjoy it.

Pete

I had Pete in my government class first term. He was always sweet but spent a lot of time trying to sleep through class, begging to be given a task that required less effort and in the end, he barely skated by.

Going through this brought us pretty close. Every single day he comes into my classroom after school and we do our patented jumping high-five, where we back to either side of the classroom and run at each other, jumping and high fiving mid-air in the middle. Every time he exclaims “now my day is complete!” and runs out the door.

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Javier

Javie and I also had a rough first term together. He’s known for leaving class suddenly and disappearing for half the period, cursing out teachers who call him on his behavior, and generally keeping everyone off task. This term, after so many good days, bad days, and long meetings, he’s in my class again. He has grown up a lot in a few weeks.

Last week we held a Class Court for the case of NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin. Many of the more engaged students participated in the court early on and I watched as Javie alternated between talking to a student near him and listening to the other side. I would have been happy with this behavior, but then there came a booming voice from his side of the court.

Javie spoke clearly and with all the professionalism of an attorney defending the rights of workers and the role of the government. He stayed calm when questioned by the judges and stood for his team when challenged. At the end of the period I stopped him and told him I wanted to see this every day. He grinned at me and said “I’ll try.”

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Mercedes

Mercedes is a very sensitive kid whose hurt usually turns quickly to anger, cursing, and fighting. She struggled through the first term but passed. She says hi to me in the hall everyday and has this infectious, crooked smile that I just can’t describe.

At the beginning of January, she came into my classroom at lunch and talked to me about her second term classes. She complained about biology and English but said she liked art well enough. She turned to leave and get some food but then turned back enough and said, “I never got a chance to thank you for all your help last term, I couldn’t have done it without you.”

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These precious moments with this amazing young people bring me up from the very drudges. The best advice I’ve received so far as an educator is to write down this good moments, these students showing you their best selves and cherish them. These moments can save you from the very worst days.

Fellow teachers (and others), do you have any of these moments you hold on to?

Best of luck.

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I Couldn’t Hate Them If I Tried

Something I’ve learned many times before but continue to learn every day is that nothing in education will turn out as expected. The “solid gold” lessons won’t be received as you imagined (or hoped), the “total crap” lessons will hit some just right, and the emotions and break-downs and fights you expect will not happen when you expect them.

My first term as a high school teacher just ended in December and nothing went as I expected. Kids I thought would throw fits over failing didn’t, kids I thought would fail pulled it out at the last second and some that I thought would pass lost their momentum too soon.

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Overwhelmingly though: I am continually floored by how much I love these kids. How much I want to hug them when they cry and tell them it’ll work out even though it feels terrible right now.

I push them hard every day, nobody is allowed to take the L. I expect greatness from everyone, no one is mediocre. I don’t hand out good grades until they’ve been earned. I get called mean on the regular, I’m always “extra” and “doing too much.” I get mad sometimes because CAN EVERYONE STOP TALKING OVER ME?

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But still, when they celebrate, I celebrate. Nothing is better than seeing that smile they tried to hide when they find out they passed.

And when they cry, I cry. Nothing is harder than seeing the despair they’re trying to hide when they find out they won’t pass.

There was this small part of my brain that thought I’d feel justified and righteous handing out failing marks to those kids that have blown off the work and made bad choices. Because I’m teaching them lessons in social studies but I’m also teaching about consequences and professionalism. I thought somehow it might feel good to give a well-earned failing mark.

I was surprised at how much it hurts me when they hurt, even when the pain is necessary.

I’ve known these kids for three months, but something clicked in the hall with Elle while I held her and let her cry through my sweater. Something clicked when Steven laughed out loud at the news of passing my class and couldn’t stop grinning. Something clicked when Kam came in late to study hall and begged me to let him finish his work and pass, and his relief when I let him.

These kids are magic. And I am forever honored to be connected to them in even the smallest way.

Best of luck.

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A Teacher’s Schedule

2:00 am

Wake suddenly either from a half-baked nightmare where the students begin eating their homework instead of doing it and you’re blamed for endangering their safety, or due to a moment of panic about whether you’ve fully planned for tomorrow’s class (spoiler alert: you haven’t).

5:30 am

Wake again and wonder if you should maybe switch the third period jigsaw for a stations activity. Wonder if you should assign the essay earlier, if you should weave in more test prep for state testing next month, wonder if you’re getting enough sleep…

5:45 am

Give up on sleep, get up and get going. Review lessons while reviewing news for the day while replying to the emails you’ll never catch up on while attempting mascara.

7:20 am

Arrive at school, take a deep breath, try to let out said breath in something softer than a scream. Find hope, remember that you love them and your work.

8:19 am

Run around wildly trying to collect your things before going to first period. Forget your keys and wonder how time speeds up around the start of the day.

First Period

Teach and remember all the reasons you love your students. Because they are sweet and hilarious and great. Until one (or all) of them turn on you and put their heads down/curse you out/call you obscenities. Wonder why you do this. Run into that one kid who always makes you laugh while leaving class. Remember why you do this.

Prep

Walk to teacher’s lounge, stare at blank browser on laptop for a full twenty minutes. Ask other teachers if it’s just you, find that it isn’t. Begin writing lessons for next week, or maybe tomorrow, why are you never far enough ahead? Get excited about the lesson you’re writing and how the kids will respond.

Third Period

Teach, expecting chaos. Be pleased when none is thrown your way. Inspire students to make the world better with their intense greatness.

Lunch

Lead women’s study hall or regular study hall or maybe you’re in the gym today…? Receive hellos, hugs, high-fives from students. Answer questions. Tell students that coming to school on time/showing up for study hall/doing homework will make life easier in the long run. Smile.

Prep

Sigh, a lot, like you haven’t slept in days. Check your email while eating the lunch you packed last night. Ask other teachers for advice. Drink your fourth cup of coffee and say repeatedly it will be your last. Breathe and don’t forget to pee before class.

6th Period

Teach. Laugh. Get a little silly because it’s the end of the day and aren’t we all kind of losing it? Run out of staples. Show a video clip you thought they’d hate and find that they are actually engaged and interested. Do an activity you just knew they’d love and watch it fall apart.

7th Period

Teach. Teach like you are dragging yourself through the desert. So tired. Speak quietly so they’ll have to stop talking to hear you. Make a dumb joke and watch them try not to laugh. Remember that they are kids. Be proud of them while being irritated with their behavior. Watch the world stand still for a second while you take in this moment with these beautiful souls. Watch the room stand still for a second when someone knocks the pencil sharpener off the table. Call for a custodian. Tell them to have a wonderful afternoon.

After School

Get visits from students who struggled through your class last term. Perfect a jumping high-five with Pete. Chat with Jorge and Ally about their other classes. Yawn. Lesson plan for too long and then realize how late it is.

5:00 pm

Head home and hope you’ll get a little time to relax and maybe spend time with people who are not your coworkers or students.

5:45 pm

Arrive home because the subways were delayed. Stare at wall. Listen to Boyfriend who is also exhausted. Watch something on Netflix and eat dinner.

7:00 pm

Lesson plan, research, lesson plan, answer emails, wonder if your students are getting enough reading and writing practice, wonder if Elci’s father is still hospitalized, wonder if Franklin could get any more ELL supports for testing, wonder if you’re getting enough sleep.

10:00 pm

Try to get some sleep. Remember all the smiles and jokes and hugs. Love your students and your work fiercely and steel yourself to do it all again tomorrow.

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