Top 5 most important lessons I learned from my first-year teaching:
1. Take care of yourself!
I always think of the episode in Parks & Rec where Tom and Donna have what they call a “Treat Yo’ Self” day. As teachers, and in any profession that is demanding of your emotional, physical and mental well-being it is SO important to learn how to take care of yourself. As a first year teacher I probably learned this lesson a tad too late, aka when the year was pretty much over. However, it’s NEVER too late to learn this lesson. Take half a day on Sunday or Saturday to just go by yourself on a bike ride or read a book for fun (no, reading a book about teaching diverse classrooms does not count–believe me, I’ve tried!!). Do something that will fill you up, replenish you, and sustain you so you can keep doing the much needed work in the trenches! This one is definitely a “still-in-the-works” one for me, but I am definitely getting there 🙂
2. Never give up–and never let your students either!
“Si se puede”, “Yes, I can”. Cesar Chavez said it first and the school I worked at last year took it on as their school pledge as well. When times get tough, as they will most often times around conferences or when a parent calls or you have to do one more home visit right before spring break, just remember why you do what you do. Having quotes on my desk as little reminders and student work or cards they gave to me reminded me that the work I do is important–incredibly important–no matter how much (or maybe how little) we get paid as teachers we have the MOST important, incredible job probably in the world (Okay, maybe that was a mild exaggeration). I can’t begin to say how many times last year I really asked myself “Am I doing the right thing?” “Am I really even making a difference?” “Is this really the most impactful thing I can do in a young adults’ life?” Even though I asked myself this as I was looking for jobs this whole summer too, so far this school year the answer has been a resounding “YES”–teachers do really make a difference. So, don’t give up–and use your stories of struggle to share with your students so they don’t give up either!
If you aren’t convinced, watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMe8Nil2i20
3.Be in your students’ lives in a real way
This past year when I went home from school I took my work with me. I don’t just mean I took home papers to grades or scope and sequences to write, I mean when I got home I’d get out of my car and see a third-grader from my class playing the down street. Almost every day in the spring she was call out, “Hey Miss N, wanna play?!”. A few times I took her up on the offer. Let me advise you though, piggy-back rides everyday right after 8 hours of teaching in 8 different classes with over-hyped kids was a bit of a stretch–so make it just a once a week thing! 😉 In all sincerity, having one of my students and getting to know her family was one of the biggest blessings in my first year teaching.
Angel was just about as spunky as they come as far as 3rd graders go, even though often times she had to act much older than a 3rd grader to take care of her family. Even if it was just seeing her outside or inviting her to one of the bonfires we had with neighbors, she knew I cared about her in and outside of school and for students who often get overlooked or under-served the smallest actions can make the significant difference. She hadn’t had much consistency with her school or in her home life with her grandma taking care of 5 kids and a newborn baby. I tried to offer rides as much as I could to school events and let them know I was there. In school, I would do everything I could to try to bring what I knew of her and her family into my lessons to keep her going. It definitely felt like an uphill battle in the classroom as she often tried to say she was “sick” to get out of our activities that involved reading and writing, two things that felt like scaling a mountain.
A few weeks before school ended I found she had moved when I stopped seeing her outside everyday after school. I was pretty bummed, I didn’t have any way to keep in contact with her. Then, about a month after school ended she showed up outside my door, with a huge smile and a big hug. Although I’m not sure when or if I’ll see her again, but I hope she’ll be able to look back at that one year we lived on the same block and tell someone how it made a difference in her life–because I know it definitely did for me!
4. Celebrate the victories, even if they may seem small.
Sometimes, as a teacher at the end of the day it’s too easy to be too hard on yourself. It’s too easy to think about the kids who still “don’t get it” and beating yourself up about the things you did or didn’t do or could have done to help them. Something I didn’t start learning until the very end of the first-year (and am still trying to learn this second year) is how to celebrate the small victories. When I say small, I mean small. For example, a kid remembering his pencil for the first time or a student who usually is disengaged getting really excited about something you are learning. It’s remembering these small victories that really do keep you going after a long day.
One of my favorite victories I had this past year had to do with a pen pal project I started with another EL teacher friend and her students. We would write letters back and forth with the group of 3rd graders I worked with. After the first time of getting letters from the EL students at my friends’ school the students kept asking, “But, when do we get to meet them Miss N?!”. This got my friend Tanya and I to thinking, what if we actually did plan a trip to one of our two schools and hosted them at one, how cool would that be?! So, we started planning a few months down the road and decided to host the Pen Pal Visit day at our school, with a pizza party and all .
Throughout my class there was always one 3rd grader named Elver who teachers would say just “always” had a grumpy face like an old man. He would often times get frustrated and refuse to do assignments, BUT he never failed to write to his pen pal. He kept saying that they weren’t really going to visit us. So, when they showed up in March after 4 months of writing he was beyond belief thrilled to see his pen pal in real life–I don’t think I ever saw Elver quite so happy before!! It definitely felt like a victory that day.
5. “People may feel forget what you said, but they will never forget the way you made them feel”
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how many things we might do to try to get new vocabulary words or academic language drilled into our kids’ minds. What does truly matter is our actions–and how much love we put into our actions for our students. This past year, I had a lot to be proud of as a first-year teacher—building an entire EL department at a school that had not seen much structure before. Despite all the efforts I put into building the EL program at my last school, the greatest accomplishment I felt was knowing that my students knew I cared about them and would fight for them.
One day a 6th grader who usually gave me a hard time actually refuted a comment from another student about teachers’ work ethics saying in so quietly it almost was a whisper, “Teachers are really the hardest workers I’ve ever seen”. Students notice when teachers care–and it effects them probably more at this time in their lives than at any other time. Right now when there is so much that needs to be changed within our educational system and how it works, these small things can be the difference between a student choosing to give up on themselves and school or to keep going. At the end of it all, by being a positive light we can together create a circle of hope, of encouragement, and of love for children and young adults all over the country. And, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? 🙂
**All student names were changed to respect privacy**