Sunday, August 30, 2015

Dear First Year Teacher

Thanks to Michelle Haseltine for the inspiration to write this letter!

Dear First Year Teacher,

When I walk into Superintendent's Conference Day this September, it will be my 14th year of teaching.  I was in your shoes in September 2001, just a few days before the world changed forever on September 11th.  I remember my first sixth grader waiting for me outside the door. I said, "Hello, I'm Kathleen" and saw her face fall with confusion before I realized my mistake and said, "Oh, I mean Miss Neagle (my maiden name)." The other students hadn't even gotten to the door and I made my first mistake. It was the first of many.  

When you are a new teacher, you are struggling mightily to stay afloat in the rough, stormy seas of education.  My friends, it was not smooth sailing for me at all, but I felt like I had to pretend it was.  I believed I needed to wear the mask of the seasoned captain in clear control, utterly calm and sure of each adjustment of the wheel.  The truth was, I was drowning.  

I was one of the first people in the building each day, a good hour and a half before students came. I stayed several hours after students left and would do more work at home.  I worked all weekend long. The more I worked, the more behind I felt.  I could never catch up.  I had no balance.  After a lifetime of wanting to be a teacher, volunteering to teach religious education, working as a teacher's aide, student teaching, and my education degree, I was still unprepared for what I experienced.  All I had ever wanted to be was a teacher and after the first year of teaching, I thought I must have gotten it all wrong.  I didn't know if I could continue on.

I'm sorry to paint a bleak picture.  I hope this will not be your experience.  But, if you have those days where you are starting to feel like the water is rising and you can't keep your head above it, know that you are not alone.  Know that beginnings are always hard and there is just so much to learn.  Be patient and understanding with yourself.  We have all been there, even if some of us forget it or pretend we were always master teachers.  I'm telling you I certainly wasn't.

Here is my best advice:

1-Find other teachers who are passionate and excited about teaching and want to keep learning.  When I was a new teacher in 2001, Twitter certainly wasn't an option so I found like-minded friends at the Long Island Writing Project, to which I still belong and find inspiration. Nowadays, Twitter is a great place to go to find teachers who love teaching and sharing ideas.  The friends I made through Twitter are now my Voxer buddies too and we are constantly asking each other questions, talking through ideas, and sharing best practices.  This has totally re-energized my teaching life and I highly recommend you find a professional learning network (PLN) of your own.

2-Keep relationships at the core of all you do.  Maya Angelou said, "People will forget what you say, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Be friendly to everyone. Smile.  Get to know the people in your building- administrators, secretaries, nurses, custodians, security guard, other teachers.  Reach out to parents and give them the benefit of the doubt.  Make an effort to talk to each student each day and let them know you care about them.  This is what will make an impact, more than any brilliant lesson or perfectly designed classroom.

3-Be kind to yourself.  Hydrate. Breathe.  Find balance.  Realize it will never all be done, ever, so prioritize. Work hard but know when to call it a day. The work will truly always be there. 

4-Laugh with your students.  Let them see you are a real person who makes mistakes and has struggles.  Be kind always and walk the walk of what you are expecting them to do.  Let them see you be moved by literature and words.  Be genuinely enthusiastic about what you are teaching. 

5- Don't doubt your instincts.  You will be handed things to teach and given programs and you'll be trained in one thing, only to have it replaced the next year with a different system.  Know what you believe about learning and keep reading and growing in your professional knowledge.  Believe that you know your students and have faith in your ability to know what will work for them and what won't. 

One of my favorite books was Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year by Esme Raji Codell.  I highly recommend it! I also recommend The World According to Mister Rogers- Important Things to Remember from the unforgettable Fred Rogers.  You really can't go wrong if you stay true to what Mister Rogers teaches and Esme will make you laugh as you face your own joys and challenges in this year, which you will never, ever forget. 

Welcome to the club! Like Kid President says, "Be awesome!"
Kathleen