In preparing for a keynote, I had come across this video where teachers were asked to write a letter to themselves as a first-year teacher. It vaguely reminded me of that song Letter to Me by Brad Paisley, which I love as well, where he sings about writing a letter to himself as a teenager to tell him to hold on through the difficult times because there was so much greatness ahead. Both the video and the song share the same theme.
I am sometimes asked if I would go back into the classroom, and although it appeals to me to try everything I’ve learned with my own students, I truly believe that I can be of more assistance supporting teachers in ways I might not have felt supported when I was one. That being said, if I could go back and give myself advice, this is what I would say:
Enjoy your students
I loved my students, but I made the same mistake that I made when I was a first-time mom: I didn’t take the time out to enjoy their little accomplishments and eccentricities. I was so worried about their learning and behavior and test scores. I did create relationships and connections, and I hope that they enjoyed my class, but I rarely took the time to reflect on the awesomeness that was my students and their individual personalities. Allowed my own gas tank to be filled up with their stories and wonder and just being kids. I was just SO busy I rarely felt like I had time to think, and I know that I didn’t take enough time out of my day to appreciate my little school family. My advice to my younger self would have been “Take the time to appreciate the smiles on the kids’ faces when they are happy and listen to them when they are not. Even if it has nothing to do with learning, your students are only this age once, and they will remember you forever. Make sure you do the same.”
Adult bullies are a thing
Prior to entering the education profession, I would have argued that there was no way that teachers would be anything but kind professionals. When I discovered that wasn’t always the case, I didn’t want to believe it, and instead took the unkind treatment and advice onto myself as something I did wrong. Because of a few people, I questioned everything I did, and luckily for me, I had enough confidence in what I was doing to keep trucking through, but not without occasional sleepless nights and ugly cries due to the way I was treated both personally and professionally and the lack of support. Had I known that these kinds of people existed, I would have been able to better cope with my situation and wouldn’t have wasted time questioning every move I made and dreading going to work. My advice to myself would have been “When people doubt you, show them how it’s done. Be humble enough to recognize when you’re wrong, but confident enough to advocate for yourself when you believe in what you’re doing. Keep your chin up and be kind because that’s more about who you are than how they treat you.”
Disengagement doesn’t just happen to other people
I’ve spoken before about the fact that I became disengaged from teaching around my fifth year. I was very close to just becoming another burnt out teacher leaving the profession. I knew the statistics, but after my first year of teaching I felt like that couldn’t happen to me because I loved teaching way too much. I forgot about my chances of feeling teacher burn-out, and when the negativity towards teaching began to set in, I had ceased being aware it could happen to me. My advice: “Watch for little moments that will be the catalyst for connections and relationships, and cherish them. You will stay in teaching because of people and relationships, not technology or curriculum. Search people out who build you up. They will be your lifeline to staying engaged.”
Find balance, young padawan
It’s difficult to find balance between work and family, but one of the biggest struggles I’ve had is the sheer, utter exhaustion that I’ve felt during the school year that resulted in me desiring to find time at home alone to decompress from having little people and big people at me constantly throughout the day, but needing to take care of my husband and four kids. They would ask me for help on their homework and I would cringe because I had papers to grade and I didn’t want to think anymore that day. I’d get crabby, and they’d sometimes get only mediocre assistance with a hint of frustration because I didn’t necessarily understand what they were learning either, and the kids passionately declaring, “But mom! You’re a teacher!” didn’t make me understand it with any more clarity. The alternative would be spending time with my family at whatever sports function was on for that night and taking the chance that I’d be ill-prepared the following day. That’s not taking into account my marriage or the fact that I went many years without friends. I just didn’t have the time. I was so busy managing my life that I forgot to live it. My advice to my younger self would be, “You stink at this. Big time. Figure it out early because the moments you waste you can’t get back. Find people who have found balance and discover what they do. You will get to where you’re supposed to be in your own time, and there are few things more important than being happy when you arrive.”
It’s difficult to have regrets when you fully understand that our collective experiences shape us into who we are, however, being able to write a letter to myself as a first-year teacher would have given me a better foundation for what was coming. It would have given me confidence when I had lost it, and a direction when I was a little lost. There’s no doubt that our early teachers deserve way more support than they currently get, as all of the advice above were conclusions that I had to come to on my own. I’m fortunate that I was able to do that, and continue in the profession that I love.