“It hurts to grow up,” Ben Folds sings in his whimsical but wistful reflection on fatherhood, Still Fighting It, “but everybody does.” I remember well the feeling of creeping bones at night as the ache of growth in my knees and elbows held me captive as I lay supine and far from dreaming. As a new high school teacher, echoes of this memory come back easily when sleep seems like a distant luxury and my mind is fixated on “that student” or “that lesson.” I can’t help but try solving each problem as my mind takes advantage of my body’s rest; I slip into some sort of cognitive overdrive and my electric blanket coaxes me to come deeper into sleep.
After a semester of teaching, I feel overwhelmed, but not in the horrible sort of way you might imagine. Sure, you’ve been warned: being a new teacher is difficult, you’ll probably be bad at it. After a semester, I’m overwhelmed by so many simple good things: a thank-you letter, smiles, and a 2nd place JV academic team trophy from Bolivar. I feel excited to continue growing as a teacher, a learner, and a role model. Is it possible to go through your first year without botching a lesson (many perhaps), accidentally sleeping in (guilty!), or spelling a simple word inexcusably wrong on the board? No, and the truth is I wouldn’t trade the moments I failed so completely for anything this past semester.
I’m an English teacher, but I can’t help but think of the image of sine waves as I reflect on the roller coaster ride I’ve been on since August. Each crest has brought new excitement about teaching, each trough new understanding and appreciation for professionals of this craft. I don’t expect that next semester will be “better” in the sense of having less dips or struggles; in fact, I hope there are just as many challenges this Spring as the Fall, just as many opportunities to learn (I’ve been subconsciously removing the word “failure” from my vocabulary these past few months).
To all the pre-service teachers preparing to student teach or take your first job, I offer this advice: take care of your self first. The same logic that applies to a plane losing cabin pressure applies to you during teacher training: please secure your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. You’ve been in classrooms before, but during student teaching and your first job I guarantee the oxygen masks will come out more than once, the cabin lights will flash, and the in-flight movie will be interrupted by turbulence. Just like when you are coasting at thousands of feet in the air, you are in danger of crashing if you aren’t careful.
The most important thing I’ve learned during my first semester as a teacher is how to keep my sanity during a crisis. I don’t care whether you’re a type A over-planner with detailed daily calendars months in advance or a flexible go-with-the-flow type person, teaching full-time will test you in new ways. When you find yourself at an apex, a high point, that’s when you plan for the trip down. Prepare to enjoy the drop and careen through it rather than screaming and toiling as though you’ll never come back up. You will be inundated with work which will seem to go on forever; there is always something to prepare for or catch up on. What you can easily forget, amongst the turmoil teaching can induce, is yourself.
Take a sub day when you’re sick, even if you “feel okay” and you’re “just tired.” You need to recoup when you’ve spent your energy completely for days and weeks on end. As often as possible, leave your grading at school; it isn’t always a realistic expectation, but you have to learn to separate your teaching obligations from your private life. During my first semester, I have taken home exactly zero assignments to grade. The benefits of being well-rested and relaxed are much greater instructionally than having next week planned out or all the grades caught up. Your kids will benefit from seeing a teacher who is ready to learn with them, model the attitude and energy they should take on, and answer their questions.
When this semester started I was excited and anticipating all of the learning that was in store for me. Now, looking back, I can’t wait to build on what I’ve started. This profession is wildly rewarding in ways so much deeper than I understood before. What keeps me up at night now is not just the thoughts of unsolved problems, but the unanticipated rewards of tomorrow.