I’m certain this piece has been written before. Time and time again, teachers with far more experience than I have shared their reflections as a means of providing tips to new and veteran teachers alike — and that’s okay.
This piece isn’t just for you — it’s also for me. It’s my constant reminder to never forget the simple but powerful lessons I’ve learned throughout my career and to continue to push myself to become a better teacher every day. I hope that you connect with one or more of the items on this list, and maybe learn something new that will help you this year and in all the years to come.
Five Things I Wish I Knew In Year One
- Sharing and collaborating are not synonyms.
I still remember walking into the office on my first day. It took less than ten minutes for at least six or seven teachers to offer me either a binder (yes, that’s how teachers used to store their lessons and assessments) or a jump drive with their resources. There was little conversation. It went something like this: “Here's all my stuff. Feel free to use any or all of it. There’s a folder for each class I’ve taught. Good luck.”
At the time, I thought, “Wow, what a collaborative department. Everyone is so willing to share.” However, with time and experience, I’ve realized that I was wrong. These teachers weren't collaborating at all — they were merely sharing. And sharing is important, don’t get me wrong. Collaboration, though, is when teachers sit down and talk through their materials so that the receiver understands the “why” behind the lesson, unit, or assessment. Or, it’s when teachers sit down and create new lessons and materials together, taking the best from each individual teacher’s toolbox. Good teams share; great teams collaborate.
Kids are kids.
I’ve changed schools a few times over the course of my career. Inevitably, at some point during the first few weeks, my "favorite” question would come up: “So, how do the kids here compare to the kids where you came from?” I always struggled with how to answer because my thinking was always, “I don’t know. They're kids…” But I thought maybe I was missing something.
Over the last several years, I’ve had opportunities to do some deep work in education with colleagues from all over the country and in a variety of school settings, and of course, this question came up a lot. At the end of it all, I realized kids are kids. They're simultaneously the same as kids anywhere else and individuals with unique problems. These problems may vary from poverty to depression, loneliness to abuse, drugs to hunger, but it’s our job to be sure we’re aware of these facts, as well as the fact that kids are very skilled at hiding their problems. The homeless student doesn’t show up on day one and tell you his plight, but if you show this student you care, he just might share his story. Imagine how much better you could help support him if you knew.
This IS real life for our students.
One of the phrases I hate most in education is “real life” — as in, “that's not how things are in real life.” It took me a while to develop a distaste for this turn of phrase. In fact, I’m sure as a young teacher I used the same phrase with my students. However, I’ve come to see the fault in this message. When we conceptualize and verbalize our students’ lives as not being in the “real world,” we fail to legitimize all that they're going through. Their lives are real and the world in which they live, while maybe not the same as the adult “real world,” is still very real to them. The love they feel, the hurt they experience, the stress they have, the joy they know, the lessons they learn, the fun they have, the memories they make, the pain they incur… it's all very real. Student life and adult life might be vastly different, but they are both real.
Sometimes less than your best is the best you can give… and that's okay.
This lesson is still hard to accept, but it’s probably the most important. The reality of life is simple: no one can be their 100% best every day. That’s why MLB players who hit 30% of the time are hall of fame worthy and why actors have understudies. This is especially hard for teachers, because we know we only have a short amount of time with our students each year. Teaching is more important than whether or not a baseball player gets a hit; however, we’re no good to our students if we’re not taking care of ourselves.
To be very clear: There’s a difference between taking care of yourself and abusing the system. I’m in no way advocating for weeks of independent reading and movie watching, nor am I saying that taking off every Friday in May is good for kids. However, when it’s truly necessary to take a day because you’re sick, or your dog died, or you’re in a significant fight with a loved one and feeling the stress, giving students time that day to work independently is okay. In fact, it might even be a good thing. And remember, we have substitute teachers for a reason. If you’re sick or mentally or emotionally too detached to support your kids, take a day off. I promise you this: You’re better off giving 90% of the days your 100% than you are giving 100% of the days your 75% — or less.
Having fun isn’t only okay; it's how you'll make it to retirement.
There are so many ways to have fun on a day-to-day basis when working in a school. Obviously, this starts in our classrooms. Last year, I was lucky to teach in the same classroom as John Waite, a dedicated and passionate teacher in the Downers North English Department. The class he taught during the period before mine was AP Literature, and the ways he found to make it fun were beyond inspiring. From game shows to “CrossFit Olympics,” he planned lessons that found a way to deepen student learning and have fun at the same time. More importantly, even in an AP class, he found the time to take two or three minutes at the end of the period (every now and then) to watch YouTube videos like Prancercise or Opossum Grooming. Simply put, he valued fun.
But the fun can’t just be in the classroom. We must make our office spaces fun, too. The Downers Grove North English Department, which I’m lucky to lead, is known far and wide within the district for its food and fun. We throw parties to celebrate personal accomplishments, host the random “Frat Food Fridays” (nothing but fried foods cooked on the Pizzazz — if your office doesn’t have a Pizzazz, it needs one), gather for happy hour at a local bar, and more. I even invite my colleagues to my home for more formal wine tastings and craft cocktail events. Whatever it is and however you do it, make your job fun. Teaching will destroy you if you let it, but a good dose of fun is both a preventative and a remedy.
After 15 years, I’m sure there are many more lessons I’ve learned and things I wish I knew when I was in year one, but these five seem to be the ones that resonate with me the most. I remind myself to live by these lessons every day, and I hope you can add these to your own list to help make your year the best it can be!