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10 Tough Truths about Your First Year of Teaching

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A few weeks ago, I attended a retirement luncheon for a close teacher friend of mine whose daughter recently accepted her first teaching position. As you might imagine, this dynamic inspired quite a bit of reminiscing among the attendees, and soon enough, every veteran teacher in the room was sharing memories of his or her first year on the job.

My friend’s daughter laughed appreciatively at the funny anecdotes that were shared, but as she said her goodbyes at the end of the party, I was struck by the level of candor she shared about her mounting anxiety.

“Thanks for sharing your stories with me,” she said sincerely, and a round of wry laughter ensued. Not every story was a happy one. “No seriously,” she smiled, reassuring those whose memories were less than ideal, “Sometimes, I’m afraid that no one is telling me the truth. Student teaching was such a controlled and well-monitored experience. I know that wasn’t reality. You shared some pretty tough truths about the first year of teaching with me today, and your honesty meant a lot. I’ll remember.”

I hope she does.

Too often, young teachers are blinded by their own expectations or those that others have for them. When reality doesn’t meet them, they end up feeling very much alone.

The fact is that the first year of teaching is often as challenging as it is rewarding. Inexperienced teachers face dilemmas that no one prepares them for. Here are a few realities that my teacher friends shared that day.

10 Tough Truths about Your First Year of Teaching

1. You will grapple with the realization that teaching isn’t a job, it’s an identity. Many other professionals are able to leave their hats at the door on the way out of the office each day. This is not the case when you are a teacher. Society will hold you to a different standard. You’ll hold yourself to a different standard as well.

Don’t believe me? Wait until you walk into a boisterous happy hour with a pile of your single friends only to find one of your students seated at a nearby table with his parents and his siblings. Once you become a teacher, you will always be a teacher, regardless of time, place, or context.

2. You will not recognize your students’ needs, and if you do, you will underestimate them. We tend to be most sensitive only to those issues that we have firsthand experience with. We don’t quickly recognize needs that we’ve never had ourselves, and gaining awareness can often be an uncomfortable process, because it typically happens only when we mess up. Expect this, own it, and allow your eyes to be opened.

We don’t quickly recognize needs that we’ve never had ourselves, and gaining awareness can often be an uncomfortable process, because it typically happens only when we mess up. Expect this, own it, and allow your eyes to be opened.

One of my first students had only lived in our country for two weeks when he walked into my classroom. He spoke little English, he was terribly homesick, and my expectations of him were very different from those his former teachers held.

I wasn’t meeting his needs, but I could not speak with him about any of this, of course. His body language told me what I needed to know, in addition to his increasing rage. It was no surprise when a fist fight erupted on the playground one November afternoon after another child in our classroom began taunting this boy over the food he brought for lunch.

“This isn’t like him,” his parents told me, and I knew that they were  right. I wasn’t doing what I needed to be doing to help him. I had no idea how.

This was one of the most humbling experiences of my career.

You will have some too.

3. You will fail. Sometimes, even your successes won’t shine as bright as you hope they will. This isn’t an indication that YOU are a failure, however. It’s a significant part of the learning process. You can’t succeed as a teacher without learning how to embrace failure.

4. Your students might love you, and this may make some colleagues feel threatened. Showcasing the adoration your students have for you may not be the best way to build relationships with colleagues. Appreciate it, but don’t flaunt it. There are many reasons why students like or dislike teachers. Some teachers are liked because they do things that are wrong, and some are disliked for doing what’s right. Remember that when you experience your own fall from grace. It will cool your wounds.

5. Your administrators might love you, and this may make some colleagues distrust you. It’s important to try to understand why your administrators appreciate you. It’s also important to try to understand why this creates a sense of distrust among others. It’s more important to do good work for the right reasons, though. Commit to that, share what you’re learning with others, give your work away, and don’t allow the opinions of others deter your efforts.

6. You won’t have enough money, but you will feel pressured to live and teach like you do. Your classroom may look sparse compared to the veteran teachers you admire, you may not be able to attend every faculty organized social event, and your car may be a decade or more old and held together with duct tape. It’s likely that your students and your colleagues will not judge you for this, so stop pressuring yourself to have so much so fast and by all means, don’t spend money that you do not have. That’s what college was for.

7. You may discover that what’s right may not be popular among your peers, and what’s popular may not be right. You may be a well-connected educator who enjoys talking about promising practices with teachers all over the world. You may be well read, the first to register for conferences, and committed to conducting your own action research in your classroom. Don’t be surprised to find yourself alone in the teachers’ lounge, and don’t be surprised when you find anti-intellectualism alive and well inside of your school. It happens. Find your tribe online or in other local communities. They need you as much as you need them.

8. You will likely learn that the real leaders inside of your system may not be the titled leaders. Find out why, so you know whom to follow and where you can lead.

9. You will get sick. Then you will get sick again, and then you will get so sick that you may begin making self-care just as much of a priority as lesson planning. This is important. In five years, your friends and family may begin marveling over the fact that you *never* seem to fall ill, thanks to your heightened immunity. You’ll be building it during the first few years. This will be unpleasant and inconvenient. Know that the earth will continue to spin on its axis if you find yourself in need of a sick day. Know that some colleagues may judge you for taking it, too. They’re insecure and maybe, a little bit competitive. Ignore them.

10. You will expect too much from your students, your colleagues, your administrators, and your family. This may make you resentful and at times, a real pill to deal with. Learn how to apologize–especially to your students. Be grateful to those who are willing to hear it, and become one of these people yourself. It’s easier to make apologies to those who don’t demand them.

The first year is messy, without a doubt. Begin with your eyes open, expect the unexpected, and get ready to forgive yourself and others a thousand times or more.

Teaching is a very humbling and very human experience.

This is what makes it worthwhile.

Commit to becoming perfectly imperfect.

It’s how the best of us thrive.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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