My first three years of teaching were in a Title I school, a school that received grants because of the number of high-needs students it served. During the 2009-2010 school year, 56,000 Title I schools served 21 million students. That’s a lot of schools and a lot of kids. And there will be many teachers starting their careers in these schools this year. According to this article from the National Education Association, “It’s one of the harsh paradoxes of teaching: the schools least prepared to support new teachers—that is, low-income, low-performing facilities—are the ones where most new teachers are sent.”
So like thousands of other new teachers, I started my career in a tough position. The first year was, in a word, awful. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, in fact. Why was it so awful? I started six weeks into the school year replacing a teacher who just disappeared one day. He had enough and just didn’t show up for work; we learned later he had moved about an hour and a half away. The teacher before him lasted one semester – as had the two teachers before her. I was the fourth teacher in this classroom in two years. The kids expected me to leave them. (Many of them wanted me to leave them!) But it was an awful year not because of those circumstances. It was an awful year because I was so poorly prepared for the job. Not in the academic sense; I have a Master’s degree in my subject area and received intensive training and weekly mentoring for classroom management and facilitation of learning. I just had no grid for helping children who didn’t know if there would be food over the weekend. No one taught me how to respond when a student asked if she could come live with me, “I have my own blankets, Miss.” What was I supposed to say when a student said I was almost as old as her grandmother at the ripe old age of 28? I had no skills for dealing with in-your-face defiance from the campus drug dealer – much less from the teenage girls who made running me off a game or point of pride – or in supporting children suffering from untreated mental illness. No one could teach me those things, either. No book or manual or class could bring about what needed to happen: a complete paradigm shift. The children and families I served were not lazy. They were not “working the system.” The vast majority were not drug abusers or child abusers or amoral or gang members. In fact, most of them worked hard. Most did not relish receiving public assistance and would give what little they had away to help someone else. Most were clean and sober and loved their children fiercely. Most were working hard in legal occupations – certainly harder than my family had ever worked – against much steeper odds to have less and to stay on the same rung of the socioeconomic ladder generation after generation. My middle-class upbringing left me grossly unequipped for teaching children from extreme, generational poverty, children who were first-generation Americans or children from families affected by inequity in our judicial system. My students and their families changed me for the better. But, man, was I an awful teacher that first year!
Fortunately, my friend starting her teaching career in a Title I school is so much more enlightened than I was; she is not mired in the rhetoric of the privileged class or blinded by buy-in to the bootstrap mythology. But even so, I know the year will be a challenge. I’ve written her a letter, and because I know there are thousands of others out there who find themselves in the same circumstances, I will share it here.
I am so proud and excited for your new venture! You are going to be an awesome teacher and your students are going to have a great year with you. I know you are excited and nervous (and all the other feelings), but I just know everything is going to be great. We’ve talked about it before, but I think it needs saying just one more time before you walk in the classroom tomorrow. All your feelings are okay. All of them.
It’s okay to feel exhausted, physically and emotionally. The emotional roller coaster and the paperwork, the meetings, the planning, the resource gathering, the professional development – plus more – are draining. You will spend hours on bulletin boards and practice packets and lab trays. Since you are just starting out, you will have to make many of your materials – or spend weekends scouring garage sales for treasures you can use or bargain stores for supplies your students can use. You might ask for people’s trash. And you will likely feel so very tired many days. Not as tired as you were during the first six weeks of your babies’ lives, but pretty dang close. Plan now for some rest. Make time to recharge – or you might be that teacher with the nagging cough from October through February. Take care of yourself. No one benefits if you run yourself into the ground.
It’s okay to feel sadness and even despair. There certainly will be children who have suffered neglect, abuse and/or the near-crippling effects of generational poverty who act out those feelings of betrayal and distrust with extreme anger and defiance. There may be children (and colleagues) who are so hateful – to other children, to you, to entire groups of people – that you despair of teaching, of the next generation, of humanity in general. Weep for them and the way things are, the way things have been. Weep for feeling overwhelmed and under-equipped to meet a need so vast and so deep. Cry some big ugly tears. (Just do NOT do it in front of the children. Really.) Let your heart be broken; you know that light shines more brightly through our cracks.
It’s okay to feel clueless. Teachers love to teach, even other teachers. Find a role model and ask for their help. Tell them your struggles, let them give you advice and then follow it. I was so fortunate to have two excellent mentors my first year teaching. They SAVED me and one of them remains one of my dearest friends. Her standard farewell to me is always, “Remember who loves you.” That support CARRIES me. Just remember – if your mentor makes a suggestion, try it. There will probably be other first year teachers you meet who do a lot of complaining. They may even ask for help. But when they don’t get the answer they want (“Poor you. Those kids are chumps!”), they just keep whining. And whining. And whining. They whine loudest when their contracts aren’t renewed in the spring. “If only I had better students!” No, if only you had BEEN a better student. The mentor’s prescription may be tough. It will likely require some hard work, some rewiring of preconceived notions and some stretching outside the comfort zone, but unless it is illegal, immoral or unethical, follow the mentor’s advice. I have never been sorry for doing so. Never.
It’s okay to feel hopeless, to feel like giving up. The tiredness and despair and fury and learning – it will likely be one of the most difficult experiences of your life. I’m not being Queen Hyperbole, either. (This time!) It’s tough and you deserve the truth. (Did you just hear Jack Nicholson say, “You can’t HANDLE the truth!” ?) Well, you can handle it. I know you, and you can. I hope and pray and sprinkle fairy dust hoping that your first year is a breeze. It might be. But I have yet to meet a first year teacher taking on what you’re taking on not having moments of doubt. I certainly thought about quitting many times that first year! You know about the poster. On the poster, I wrote the name of one student in each class that was enjoyable to teach and taped that poster to my bathroom mirror and every morning while I got ready I focused on those names. “Today, I’m going to school for X, Y and Z. They need me today to be the best teacher I can be. They need me to show up. Today I will do this for X, Y and Z.” I hope you don’t need a poster, but if you do – no shame! Write a name.
And finally, it is okay to feel happy and gleeful, to feel delight. You may hear old-timers say, “Never smile before Christmas!” but that’s a bunch of crap. Kids need to see you laugh. Laugh when you screw up, laugh when kids point out your flaws, laugh when things go horribly awry. If appropriate, laugh in front of the children. (With, not at.) Kids need to see us handle mistakes and mishaps with a hefty dose of humor. Laugh when a kid makes a creative connection, laugh at their jokes, laugh when something unexpected happens. Laugh and celebrate when those light bulbs go on – “Eureka, my darlings! You’ve got it!” Celebrate! Celebrate loud and large even when the successes are quiet and small. Enthusiasm is contagious and kids – all kids – need to see that teaching (and by extension, learning) can be rollicking good fun. Most of all, all kids – but especially your kids – need to see that they light up your soul. And they will – they absolutely will.
Sleep, cry, rage, ask for help, laugh – YOU HAVE GOT THIS. Not a doubt. Your kids will grow to love you and they are going to learn so much. You absolutely can do this thing. I don’t doubt it for a second. I’m here if you need me (and here if you don’t) and I believe in you. Remember who loves you –