Dear New(ish) Teachers:
Laugh. A lot. If you don’t, teaching will eat you alive. Start keeping track of the funny things your students say and do. These will keep you in high(er) spirits during the low times.
Cry. Really, cry as much as you need to. You will cry a lot this year. Cry because your students yell at you. Cry because you don’t make enough money to pay your bills. Cry because your students tell you sad stories. Just cry — keeping your “teacher emotions” in doesn’t help anyone.
Take a break! I know you think you can do it all, and in many ways you can, but don’t run yourself to exhaustion. Use your personal days. Take a training day to learn a new skill and get out of your building for a day. Stay home when you’re sick. Your students will be just fine without you for a day.
Collaborate with your colleagues. There are so many years of experience in the public schools. Talk to other teachers, share ideas, and have fun together. Invite people out for drinks or coffee, and work hard to create a strong circle of like-minded social justice educators. These people will be your lifeline on difficult days — well, every day actually.
Speak honestly and openly about your profession. You are going to meet many people who tell you “They couldn’t do this work.” Accept that they are probably right, and value yourself as someone who can and wants to do this work. It’s not for everyone, and many people will not understand why you have chosen difficult, low-paying work.
Do whatever in your power to stay calm. You will have students and situations that make your blood boil. If you work with middle or high school students, you will likely be called choice curse words. Don’t get mad — at least for long. Help those students learn to express their anger in healthy ways.
Be mindful of the School to Prison Pipeline when you discipline children. Are you or your school criminalizing children? Are you working to end zero tolerance policies? If not, get on it!
Remember that people do not learn from those they do not like. Work every single day to make stronger relationships with your students. This is what matters. It is the relationships and connections that both you and your students will remember for years to come.
Use creative subordination when necessary. You might be asked (told) to teach or do something that you don’t agree with. Do your best, but remember, always follow your “teacher gut” when you believe that what you are being asked to do is not serving your students well. It is your duty to do right by your students, even if it means breaking a few “rules” along the way.
Your first year of teaching is like your first year of college — you’ll probably gain twenty pounds and wonder what the hell you’re doing. It’s OK. This is normal. (Remember the laughing part?)
Get to know the people who matter to your students — their families, mentors, and church leaders. These are the most important people in your student’s lives. Invite parents to your classroom. Set up a meeting to share good news. Call home regularly with updates. Don’t ever leave families “guessing.” Many of them are too busy to deeply engage with their children’s schooling, but that does not mean that they don’t care.
Race matters. Check your white privilege and “whiteness,” and then check it again. You cannot do this work without a critical lens towards race. Study anti-bias work. Teach from a transformative perspective to the best of your ability. Your students want to talk about race. You must facilitate this. You are doing an injustice if you do not.
Your students will be tested a lot. Prepare your students to the best of your ability for these tests, but do not forget to teach this message: You are NOT your test score.
Do your best to make school fun for students. If you want students to be on time for your class, you need to make it fun. Making school fun will take time, but you owe it to yourself and your students to do so.
Understand that you will develop amazing lessons that you think are interesting and engaging. However, your students will still hate many of them. Move on. Teaching is about learning, and you will rarely do anything “right” the first time.
Don’t let people tell you that you have it “easy” because you “get summer off.” Ugh. This is the worst, and it’s not even true — I can’t think of one teacher who doesn’t do work for their job during the summer. Not. A. Single. One. Do not let others devalue you for who you are or the work you are committed to.
You must learn about current pop culture. You’re already a freak to your students because you are “so old.” Try not to increase your freakiness by referencing shows from your childhood that your students have never heard of.
Talk about justice and rights. You are a cultural maker, and you have the ability to help young people shape their thoughts. Don’t ever let an insult or a slur go unaddressed. Students look to you to set boundaries and teach them. They may not act like they are watching or listening, but they are. What you do and say matters.
Tell your students that you care about them and that they matter. As you’ll learn, many of your students don’t have the support systems in place that you did. They are “your kids” too. You must take ownership of their well-being and education because not all of your students will have other adults in their life who can, or will, do this.
Learn about your student’s backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. This is essential for your job. Many of your students will have PTSD or severe trauma from war, living in refugee camps, or growing up in homes and communities with violence. You will not be prepared for this, but you must do your best to be a constant for your students.
You will have days where you come home so tired it takes all you have just to put on pajamas and order takeout. It’s OK. Teaching is not your whole life, but it is a huge part of it.
It may not say so in your job description, but you are a nurse, social worker, counselor, cook, parent, mentor, advocate, coach, AND teacher. Try and prepare yourself for all of the various roles you will need, and want, to take on. You won’t always get it right, but if you have good intentions, that is a fine start.
Remember why you became a teacher. You care about people, and even on the hardest days, you will still find good in your students. They are important people who deserve the chance to be healthy and happy. You work for them—do right by them.
P.S. Nap when needed.