After a decade of teaching, I’ve elected to take a year’s sabbatical to focus my energies on a creative writing project. A whole year to immerse myself in research and travel and writing. The gifts of time and space! And yet, when September arrived I was surprised at how much I missed the nervous energy and eager anticipation of a new school year. Now two months on, I find my thoughts still pull toward colleagues and former students. I miss them. That’s not to say that I’m not enjoying my time away. I am. But time has a way of framing feelings.
I’ve been reflecting on my last ten years of teaching and what I’ve learned from a decade in a classroom and I’ve come up with a short list of little truths and little lessons. Some were learned the hard way; others were instinctual. It’s not an exhaustive list, and by no means do I suggest that it’s universal. Maybe some will resonate. I’d love to hear what’s on your list.
1. Some days, it will feel like a job. There will be countless days when you will feel listless and overwhelmed. You will grow tired of late nights and early starts because you toss and turn about the day’s next lesson coming alive for your students. You will wear down. You will neglect other parts of your life. You will want to buckle under that pressure. You will wonder how much longer you can keep this up, and imagine what other lives you could be living.
2. Learn from gold and green teachers. Spend time together. Before they retire. They know more than you do. Same goes for the green teachers. They see things with fresh eyes, things that you have grown blind to. Listen to them.
3. Speak up! No one will know unless you say something… about what’s happening in your classroom, your passions, hobbies, interests, what else may be happening in your life. You need to share these things to build a community, trust, to forge deep and lasting connections with others. You need to listen when others share these things, too.
4. Students know more than they think, even when they think they know it all. Help them to take risks, to break through their insecurities and vulnerabilities. Help them to tap into that quiet voice within and tune out the ubiquitous chatter that pervades their waking lives. Help them to be their true selves. Encourage them to reflect on their education, to test the waters, to try what they’ve always felt/known they were curious about.
5. Learning isn’t confined to schools or classrooms or tests. It doesn’t happen on demand in the span of a 75-minute class period. Recognize real learning as it happens. It takes many forms: doodling, window gazing, laughing, thinking out loud, risk taking, pushing boundaries, and being silent. Do not stifle real learning in the name of ‘education’.
6. Students and colleagues have bad days, too. Respect that. Honor that. Don’t take it personally. Just be kind.
7. You’re not going to like everyone, and not everyone is going to like you. And that’s okay. Don’t try to force relationships or please your audience. If you stay the course, your work will speak for itself. You’re here to educate, not be pals with everyone.
8. Students are forgiving. Don’t pretend to have all the answers. Students need you to show them that it’s okay to make mistakes. That, in itself, is one of life’s greatest lessons. Discover together.
9. Your students are smarter and more talented than you. You will coach athletes who are gifted; you will meet students who will show you new and better ways of doing things. They will show you new things, altogether. They can be your greatest teachers. Let them teach you.
10. Teachers are stewards. Teaching is both an honor and a privilege. You have a responsibility to show your students the beauty and complexity of your subject. And why it matters. The torch must be passed, just as it was passed to you. Don’t let it burn out before your students have had a chance to see for themselves.
11. Graduations will always be bittersweet. You will miss your students. You will worry and wonder about them, and hope that they’re happy and thriving in their lives. Your students stay with you even after they graduate.
12. Teaching really is a vocation, not a job. The days are long; the marking is endless. There will be many times when you feel unappreciated by parents, students, and administrators. You will doubt yourself. But you don’t do it for recognition. You do it because deep down you know you couldn’t imagine dedicating your life to any other profession. It is a life well spent.