Thoughts on Being a First-Year Teacher

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Whenever I thought about being a teacher when I was younger, I imagined myself after 10, 15, 20 years of teaching–you know, the teacher who knows it all and has a reputation for being brilliant and demanding and personable, all at once. Basically, I thought of the teachers who had made the most difference in my own life and imagined I’d be just like them (and right away, too)–I would have the intimidation factor of my AP Lit teacher Mrs. Drake (who knew how to continually keep pushing us and pushing us until we were doing things we never imagined we could); I would have a free-spirited nature and high expectations just like my Creative Writing teacher, Mrs. Sides; I would have the personal touch and caring attitude of my junior high math teacher, Mr. Short. For some reason, I always thought those qualities would come naturally when I got my teaching license.

I quickly discovered how naive that thinking was.

Wanna know a secret that’s not really too much of a secret? Being a first-year teacher is downright TOUGH: you are expected to do everything that a seasoned teacher is doing (and just as well), yet you haven’t had the thirty-one (or ten, or even five) years of experience behind you. You are expected to differentiate lessons for every student (translation: you are expected to individualize each lesson to meet each student’s personal needs), you are expected to be a student advocate while not losing focus of the academic portion of school, and you are expected to have at least 80% of your kids passing in all units at all times. But don’t forget that you are also expected to return student work in a timely fashion (with lots of personalized comments), challenge the gifted kids so they’re not bored and boost up the struggling kids so they’re not lost, as well as find time to make regular contact with parents, plan engaging learning activities that will excite and push your students, and keep up with the mountain of paperwork required by the administration.

You know I’ve only covered about 1% of my job, right?

But rather than continue on with the mountain of expectations heaped upon first-year teachers (as well as any other full-time teacher), I will just say this:

I have never had a job that was so exhausting.

I wake up around 5:30 every morning (sometimes as early as 5) to get myself ready for school and eat a decent breakfast, and I’m out the door by 6:30 so I can be to the school by 7:10. I do last-minute preparations for that day’s activities, and students start arriving to class at 7:30 (although class doesn’t technically start until 7:40). I teach two periods of Language Arts, a shortened period of either intervention or    ballroom dancing, then I teach two more periods of Language Arts and a Creative Writing class. I get 30 minutes for lunch (when I also have to do hall duty), and I also get a 55-minute prep period that is usually spent either trying to attack the never-ending paper load on my desk or discussing curriculum with the other 7th grade LA teachers. After school, I still have piles of assessments and essays and journals to look through, and I’m lucky if I leave before 4, although I usually end up leaving closer to 5. I am usually the last one here, if you don’t count the janitor.

Now, I’m not telling you all this to complain to you (promise!). I’m just admitting outright that I had NO IDEA how difficult it would be to be a first-year teacher. And I even have a supportive faculty, a wonderful principal, and a reasonable amount of money for supplies–I can’t even imagine how teachers in low-support areas handle things.

But the work load and the high expectations and the stress aren’t really the hardest things about being a first-year teacher. Honestly, I think the hardest thing is how teaching is like falling in love and getting your heart broken over and over again. Why? Because you have these thrilling moments when your kids finally get something for the first time or they go beyond your expectations or they make significant progress from one writing draft to another. It’s just like falling in love–the same thrill, the same giddy anticipation, the same thought of “that-person-can-do-no-wrong.”

Then teaching is like getting your heart broken over and over again because you see smart kids who are giving you much less than their full potential, or you see someone who is unprepared make a dishonest decision, or you see a kid bomb a test who you just KNOW understood the concept. But then there’s the most heartbreaking thing of all: when you start to piece together details of some of these kids’ lives at home and what they’re up against and how much they are struggling with. It makes you want to take them all home with you so you can give them hot meals and regular praise and routine and values and love. And you try to give them as many of those things at school as you can, but you have 150 kids to focus on, and the day goes by so fast, and there’s just so much to do…

But I’m glad that I have these moments because it means that I care about my students. I’m glad that I’m in a position where I can have such an influence on so many kids at such a critical time in their lives. Whenever I need just a little reminder about how important my job is, I just read this quote by Haim Ginott I have written up on my desk:

I have come to a frightening conclusion.
I am the decisive element in the classroom.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather. 
As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. 
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. 
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated,
and a child humanized or dehumanized. 

Despite it all, there are moments like I’ve had this week that make all the stress and all the work and all the heartache worth it–moments like a student bringing you in a box of books for the class library because she’s read them all and wanted to share the books she loves with everyone else; moments like students remembering that your birthday is coming up and saying all the things they want to bring you; moments like seeing one of your lowest-performing kids get an almost-perfect score on the last formative assessment; moments like hearing one of your students read aloud what she wrote in creative writing class and it’s all about how wonderful she thinks you and your class are. And then–just for a moment–you realize, so perfectly, why you did become a teacher.

And you have the strength to face just one more day, just one more class, just one more student.

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