In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week and Edutopia’s “If I Knew Then” challenge, I’m sharing this letter to myself on my first day of teaching.
Dear Ms. Tucker,
You are about to take your first step on an amazing journey, full of laughs and tears and surprises and mistakes. Here are a few wise words that I learned along this way. You’ll find these things to be true:
1. Everything is a phase.
The first year is hard, really hard. You’ll be exhausted most days, because teaching (especially teaching middle school as you were crazy enough to choose) requires you to make so many rapid decisions and each choice impacts the life of a child. Soon, some responses will become second nature as you see more about how students learn and grow. Even as you develop expertise, always be willing to learn new things with open eyes.
2. Know that you aren’t perfect.
There will come a time when you make a mistake. Yes, it’s true. And on one occasion, you’ll continue to beat yourself up about it until a friend and colleague says to you, “Who are you to assume that you’re going to be perfect? Get over yourself.” After you make a mistake, pick yourself up, learn from it, and remember that teaching is not about you but about the students.
3. Today’s another day
A student will teach you this bit of advice. You will find her being somewhere she isn’t supposed to be. As you redirect her to the proper location, she will whisper a colorful expletive about you to her friend as they pass a classroom belonging to one of your colleagues. This colleague informs you of her comments, but you will choose not to say anything to the student until the following day when she asks if she can spend the lunch period with you to continue working on her project. When you refresh her memory of her choice words, she will innocently plea, “But today’s another day.” Each day is a fresh start. Students make mistakes, too. Let them learn and move forward as well.
4. Fight the odds, and refuse the status quo.
You will teach children who experience trials that would bring any adult down. During your first year, you will meet a young man who will drop from honor roll to failing after his family first lost power in their apartment and then became homeless. Believe in him and help him find a way even when it’s dark. There will be a thirteen year old scared to follow your recommendation to move into the higher-level classes, because he doesn't want to lose his friends while he is also worried about losing his mother, his rock and whole world, a single parent fighting breast cancer. Encourage him when he needs support. You’ll meet a young girl who’s falling in with an older crowd, and you won’t say anything even though you are concerned. She will die this spring in an accident, flown from a car while her “friends” leave her behind at the scene. In two years, you’ll teach her brother, frequently truant and struggling with drugs – self-medicating from the pain of losing his sister whom he writes about in his journal. Don’t give up on him. Don’t let him stay in his dark place. Be willing to go where the odds are tough, and fight the odds; don’t accept them as status quo. Over the years, you’ll impact the life of many students, and they will be the reason <a title="Why I became a teacher" href="https://www.lessoncast.com/2013/05/22/why-i-became-a-teacher/">why you became a teacher</a>.
Fight the good fight, but don’t take the burdens to heart. As you can see from the letter that I’m writing, I’m still working on that.