As I enter my eleventh year in education, I have spent a lot of time reflecting back to my first year. A decade into my career, I am making a transition from the classroom to an instructional coaching position. This has caused much thought about what I know now and what I knew way back in August of 2016. I thought about writing a letter to all first year teachers, but that seemed too presumptuous – who am I to give them advice when I don’t really know them. Instead, I’ve composed a letter to the twenty-three year old version of myself containing the advice I would want to give him if I could go back in time. Here it goes:
It’s me. Or you. Or both of us, I guess. Let me start by telling you that million dollar heated toilet seat idea you had was already invented. Sorry, man, I know how proud you were of that one. This letter isn’t really about your failed inventions, though. It is about that career you’ve chosen – the journey on which you are so scared to embark in a few days. I’m about to start my eleventh year in education and I have some advice for you (Or is it me? Still not sure how to address you…) that might just make it better. The following list is a result of ten years of mistakes, triumphs, and experience. I hope you take it to heart.
The first piece of advice is the most important and the biggest section of this letter. It also encompasses a lot of areas, since I know how you like to cover a lot of ground with one small idea. As a teacher, you have to be yourself in all situations. The most important place to be you is in your classroom. Those students need to see that you are a human being. I know right now you feel like you need to come across as a no non-sense authority figure because you are so young. Don’t! That is not you. Show them your personality, it is okay. Make mistakes – they will learn from them. Most importantly, don’t forget to laugh with your class. Not only will they feel more comfortable, but they will remember those funny moments for years to come.
You also need to be yourself with parents. You’re younger than all of them right now (although you won’t be in a few years) and I know how that makes you feel. You feel like you don’t have a right to give them advice. Those parents may notice you are young, but they don’t view that as a negative. They still look to you for guidance in academic situations. You are the expert in those areas when it comes to their child. You have the training and you have worked with their student. Don’t shy away from parent communication because you are so nervous. In fact, parent communication might just be the key to success for many of your kids.
One more area of your career will benefit greatly just by you being you: interaction with your colleagues. Not unlike your students, those colleagues need to know you are human. They want to see your personality. It makes the school a better place to be when everyone understands and respects each other not just as an educator, but as a person. Which leads me to this: don’t be such a follower! Sure, other people have great ideas, but that doesn’t mean your ideas are awful. Just because you are young, you feel like you shouldn’t share your thoughts from time to time. While you definitely want to learn from all those veteran teachers and their years of experience, don’t just sit there quietly. Interact. Ask questions. Humbly give suggestions. Let your colleagues get to know you personally and professionally early in your career.
Classroom management is important.
That’s an understatement, actually. Nothing will make you a better teacher than getting a handle on classroom management early in your career. I know you think you have a plan, but it isn’t a good one. Trust me…I’ve seen your first few years of teaching already. Right now you are placing all your trust in a system. I think it’s the good old card-pulling system. Later it will be tokens and then a clip-chart. Here’s the thing, though: classroom management is not really a system. Classroom management is how you interact with your students when they are on-task as well as off-task.
Do us a favor, ditch the systems – set up your class as community with a set of beliefs. Don’t give your kids “rules”. Have them help you come up with a list of beliefs about school everyone (teachers included!) should be expected to demonstrate at all times. Then, when a student fails to show they live by those beliefs, give them a gentle warning. I promise, that is all they need nine times out of ten. If that student is having a rough day and keeps having behavior issues, then give them time to process what is happening. Talk with them, not at them, and figure out how to fix it together. A classroom community following an accepted set of beliefs is much more easy to manage.
Build relationships with your students.
Recently I was thinking back to those few days before you and I started teaching and I remembered some advice you received from several, well-meaning people. It was always worded a little differently, but it usually went something like, “Your students have enough friends. They don’t need you to be their friend. That isn’t why you are there.” You are taking that advice seriously…and I’m sorry. Students will not learn as well from some cold, distant android in the front of the class. That probably is not how people meant for you to take this advice, but that is how you are interpreting it. Listen, you and I both know how much you care about the education and life of every single student you are about to meet. They don’t know that. You have to show them.
When I say to be their friend and develop relationships with students, I don’t mean you are going to hang out at Buffalo Wild Wings and watch the Royals make a World Series run (believe!). You aren’t going to go to movies and concerts together. I mean you need to be their friend in that you have to be there for them. Show them you are interested in them. Laugh at their jokes, listen to their stories, and let them vent about school or life with you. You have to be there for each one of your students and they have to know you care about them. For some of them, you may be the only one who does.
I remember how worried you are right now. In a few days you are about to meet about 25 kids, each of whom’s parents are trusting you with an entire year of their child’s life. You are responsible for their safety, self-confidence, and education. You are more frightened now than you have been since your sister let you watch It and ruined clowns forever. To this I say three things: 1) It’s good to be a little afraid – it means you care. 2) Relax! You made the right choice. 3) Your fear of clowns is totally rational – they’re still creepy in 2016.
I’m serious, though – you are going to love teaching. There will be ups and downs, of course, but several years from now you will look back and know there is nothing you would rather be doing. I may be biased, but I now strongly believe education is the most important profession and perhaps the one with the greatest chance of making our world a better place – and believe me, in 2016 we need our world to be a better place! This career you are starting is going to become your passion. Some of the colleagues you will soon work with will become your closest friends and mentors.
Most importantly, the hundreds of kids you are about to meet will change who you are; challenge you daily to be better not for your sake, but for theirs. Oh, don’t think I forgot who you are right now. You are closed off. Your insecurities have led to a fear of interacting with others (It makes one wonder why you chose this profession). Let’s face it, you are kind of self-centered. In a few days, though, you are going to become a teacher; and those young lives you are about to influence are going to force you to become compassionate, confident, and even a little bit nurturing. You didn’t think you had it in you, did you?
I could go on, but, being a teacher, I’ve decided to let you learn the rest on your own. You see, the most powerful learning happens when one discovers instead of when one is told. Don’t worry, though, you will be fine. All those other educators in your building, district, and one day the world (thanks to something called Twitter, invest now!) are there for you, too. Now, get out there and make a difference!