A Letter To The Disillusioned First-Year Teacher
Let's weather this storm togetherPhoto by Shubham Sharan on Unsplash
To my fellow first-year teacher,
If you're anything like me, this school year has been very hard.
If you're anything like me, you are probably not teaching in the easiest district in the world. You're probably not teaching in the easiest school in the world.
If you're anything like me, you have probably had to learn a lot of valuable lessons the hard way. You have probably had to function as much more than a teacher. You have had barely any free time. You haven't exactly been taking care of yourself: you haven't exercised nearly as much as you used to, or at all. You might have gained weight. You might have been eating too much or drinking too much. You may have gotten sick — multiple times, and still had to show up to work.
If you're anything like me, you probably go home most days thinking that you absolutely sucked, that you did a terrible job and didn't do right by your kids. You wonder whether the latest incident or altercation in your classroom makes you a terrible teacher, and you wonder whether your kids are better off not having you there at all. You wonder whether you deserved it the last time your student cursed you out.
You wonder whether you deserve the physical and emotional scars from the all-too consuming job.
I have had one of my kids push me and put me in a headlock. I have had another one of my kids accidentally slam a door on my hand. To this day, I absolutely love both of these kids and look forward to teaching them every day. The problem isn't the kids. The problem is that, like you, I feel like I'm failing them.
Sometimes, you wonder whether you should even show up the next day. You wonder if you should quit, but you can't given your financial circumstances or people you have to support.
All of these concerns are valid. I do not want to invalidate your own unique experiences and say I know how you feel, but this is commonly noted as a stage of disillusionment for first-year teachers. It's natural to feel like you're failing and doing a terrible job. You do everything you can. You put every accommodation, every possible circumstance in your lesson plan, only to have it go horribly awry. You see your prized relationships with your students go to the wayside after you inevitably have to write them up, call home, and discipline them.
But, my fellow disillusioned first-year teacher, I'm here to tell you that you're doing a great job. As long as you have shown up consistently for your kids, you are doing good for your kids. As long as you have shown up and survived, you are doing well. Dan Moore's "A Letter of Encouragement to First-Year Teachers" is a wonderful source of inspiration and motivation to stay the course. It was the inspiration for my article here, and I thought I could give a unique spin as a fellow disillusioned first-year teacher, working in an inner-city school district. I'll just quote Dan a little bit here, for why everything you feel as a failure and imposter is natural, but why it's important to still show up and not give up:
"This year, in comparison to your veteran colleagues, at least — or even the 2nd-year version of your teacher self — you will indeed suck.
But that's why I'm writing you now. This year, it doesn't matter if you suck. What matters is that you not give up. As a new educator, persistence — along with grit, empathy, and dedication to your students — is more important than performance."
To my fellow disillusioned first-year teacher, stay. Show up. Continue doing everything you can for your kids, inside and outside the classroom. Adjust accordingly. Stay the course and love them even when you get cursed out, even when you have a door slammed on your hand, because caring about your kids — that's something you can still control.
Remember that you are not a savior. Remember that no matter how hard you try, no matter how hard you work to make your students learn fractions or use textual evidence to support their answers — or write in the first place, you work with your students for only a part of their day. They have bigger problems when they go home, and I'm not saying that as an excuse for them not to be held to high rigor and high expectations, but as an affirmation for you to let go.
As much as they might feel like they're your kids, they're not your kids. What happens outside the school building is out of your control. I will always remember my disappointment when one of my students showed me a video of her beating the crap out of another kid on a playground, and bragged about it. As much as I call them "my kids," I am not their parents, and I am not their savior.
I want to tell you that it's going to get better. I know it will. But if you're anything like me, that's hard to see almost all the time. When you get together with your teacher friends, you, too, probably participate in a conversation of one-upmanship, about who has had the worst experience, the worst encounter, or who has endured the "misery Olympics" of devastation. That's natural — we all need a place to vent. These are the moments that let us know we're not alone. But I urge you, in these moments, to look upon the positives as well.
I have had parents praise me as one of the only teachers their kids have learned something from, as one of the only teachers in years their kids smile about when they mention. I have heard my kids talking about my lesson and something I taught them in the hallway. I have had students express their gratitude, on rare occasions, of my ability to give a damn about them, to give so much of myself day in and day out. I have had kids, my toughest kids, acknowledge that I cared so much that I was able to reach them, that their disruptive behaviors were part of who they were, that bad behavior and excessive profanity wasn't something they could control well and wasn't something I should take personally.
Likewise, I have had kids criticize me for not being able to control kids, for being too nice, for having awful classroom management. But those moments pale in comparison to the good ones. Teaching, and especially teaching in a rough environment, is like life on steroids: we have the good, bad, and ugly, all in a single day, and possibly all in a single class period.
Take care of yourself. Binge your favorite TV show. Exercise. Spend time with friends and family It doesn't matter if your lesson plan isn't as detailed or you fall behind on your grading — what matters, right now in one of the hardest periods of your life, is that you make yourself a priority. Sleep. Get a therapist. You and the kids will thank you for it.
If I had a magic pill or hack to fix all your problems with disruptive behavior, classroom management, phone use, or grading, I would have taken it a long time ago. I don't. There isn't any magic in the life of the first-year teacher, and if there is, it can slip away very fast.
What I can tell you, though, is that no matter how much the world feels like it's crashing down, no matter how much you feel like you're failing, life will go on. Keep that in mind when you feel like giving up that you'll show up the next day and life will go on, that every day is a new day.
To my fellow disillusioned first-year teacher, let's weather this storm together. We can do this, and we will do this. It's hard, but life will go on, and we and our kids will be better and stronger for it.