I realized today that I’m in the middle of my fifth year of teaching. When did that happen? It certainly feels like just a week ago I was closing the door of my very own classroom, saw 32 pairs of eyes staring at me, and had the panicked thought of, “Oh dear God, what have I done?” run through me like a freight train.
Yet, here I am. Statistically, I’ve made it through the steepest part of the teaching learning curve. And since I’m a teacher of color, it was 24% more likely that I’d find myself saying “adios,” to the teaching profession altogether.
So, what have I learned? How have I changed as an educator? Let’s see:
My immune system and bladder are now made of steel. My first year, I was sick constantly. My first cold lay me out flat in September, just two weeks after school started. My second cold walloped me in October, and I got Norovirus in November. Now, I maybe get the sniffles around Spring Break, but that could just be allergies. As for the bladder, I have gone from making the mad dash to the restroom every passing period to the point where I can literally forget I have to pee. I will just get so into my lesson that I forget. This probably means I’ll be needing diapers by my tenth year of teaching due to my bladder saying, “fuck it, lady. We’re giving up!” but for now, I’m seeing it as an accomplishment.
Parent emails aren’t scary anymore. I remember when I got my first email from a concerned parent. I remember my heart started to pound so loudly my ID tag bounced, and my hands instantly started shaking as I typed out, “I’m so sorry….”. Now, I hardly get emails, because I’ve learned that being proactive is way better than being reactive. I email all of the parents a weekly newsletter with assignments, due dates, and upcoming projects. So often, parents email because they feel like some type of information is being kept from them. By staying ahead of that and keeping them informed, they feel like they’re in the loop, so they stay away from those send buttons. If I do happen to get an email, the first thing I say is, “Thanks for reaching out to me. Let’s see how we can help Little Johnny find success together…” It shouldn’t have to feel scary, or like it’s you against them.
Administrators are just people, too. And like most of us, they make mistakes and have their less than stellar days. I used to think I couldn’t approach them, lest they fire me for being annoying and in their way. I used to think that if they said they would “follow up,” on something, that they would always get back to me. But, they have a lot to deal with, and they can forget. Now, I have absolutely no qualms with being annoying and in the way if it means I can accomplish something for my students. In the three nanoseconds of free time during my day, I will hunt them down to get what I need.
Classroom management does get easier. I promise. My first year, I can’t tell you how many times my voice would get shaky because I was so infuriated at my students’ behavior. That bitch in Freedom Writers didn’t have to put up with this shit. At least not past the first day. Why is this still so hard?! I would lecture them about my expectations, I would scold, and I may have even begged them at one point. I didn’t realize that whenever I reacted that way, I was basically giving my students all the authority on a silver tray (“would you like some Grey Poupon with that power, Mr. Johnny Student?”). Now, I make sure that I dedicate at least two weeks to classroom procedures, expectations, and the big one, relationships. And then we revisit those expectations after Winter Break, lest they forget and incur the wrath that comes from forgetting your SSR book. I also employ management strategies that puts the responsibility on them to work together. Honestly, I don’t think about it much anymore. But when I do have to address a management issue, I don’t get mad. Instead, I do the patented Conquistador Eyebrow Raise, and say something along the lines of, “Wow. This is disappointing. Is this the choice we’re making today, team?” And that’s all it takes. Once a relationship is established, they hate disappointing you. As soon as you hint that it might be happening, they pull it together.
Follow through is everything. Recently, a first-year teacher down the hall was crying outside her classroom. I asked her what was wrong, thinking that something really horrid had happened. “I gave my first lunch detention, like ever,” she blubbered. “He was so mad. Maybe I won’t make him stay,” she said, sniffling.
“Oh, no, you have to stick to your word,” I said emphatically.
“But he’s so mad at me,” she said, “won’t this make it worse?”
“Maybe in the moment,” I replied, “but at least he’ll know that you have expectations.”
I remember being a new teacher and thinking that if my students liked me, then I was a successful teacher. That is not the case. Especially in middle school, students need boundaries because they are literally learning how to be decent human beings. If I tell them that there will be consequences, I better be prepared to follow through because that is how they learn. If I keep making allowances for their not-awesome behavior, then what are they learning? That I don’t care what they do, and that I don’t really hold them to any sort of standard of behavior. Yes, it totally sucks when a kid gives you those puppy-dog eyes or begs you to give them “one more chance,” and you feel like you should totally cave because maybe they won’t ever do it again (pssst, they will) and frankly, you don’t want to give up your lunch either, but you have to follow through. Life will be easier in the long run when students know you hold them to high expectations.
It’s okay to make mistakes or look ridiculous. My first year, I thought I was supposed to model what an amazing, mature grown-up looked like. Since I was only 25, I had no idea what one of those looked like myself (I’m 31 now and I still don’t know) and I just became kind of stiff and stuffy in front of my students. Now, it’s rare if I go more than an hour without either quoting a Disney movie or straight up singing “Let’s Get Down to Business” to my students. I dance, I make jokes, I talk about hair problems and about awkward encounters I’ve had. I used to kick myself internally when I made a mistake or said something wrong. These days, I’m happy to own up to a mistake I make during class. To my students, it makes me human. It also makes me approachable and more likely to listen to their stories or allow them to be kids and make mistakes of their own. Plus, any bad day is made better with a Disney song. Try it.
You have a voice. Use it. Use it often. Dear lord, how I wish someone had told me this my first year. I felt like I wasn’t allowed or supposed to comment on anything, or be upset about anything, or try to change anything. There was this feeling that I was just to keep my head down and let the older, more experienced teachers make the decisions. I just existed at school, and I came to be known as a bit of a doormat. I was being labeled as, “quiet,” and “reserved,” and worst of all, “happy to do whatever.” I’m not any of those things. Like, ever. Somehow, in my first year, I had lost the person I was, for the teacher I thought I was supposed to be. In hindsight, I do think that my teaching, and my students suffered because of that, especially as a teacher of color. I was already being underestimated, and I reinforced their already low expectations. Don’t let that happen to you. Don’t lose yourself. It might be daunting, but go in there and be confident (even if you don’t really feel it). You already got the job. Now prove to everyone else that you are going to be totally kick-ass at it.
So yeah, in the five years I’ve been teaching, I’ve gained a confident voice that I employ daily in my interactions with administrators and students. I think that the five years I’ve spent in public education has also made me a stronger woman, leader, and person as a whole. Also, I’ve gained the almost superhuman capability to never need to pee. I can only imagine what the next five years will bring!