Sara Ziemnik is a veteran teacher at an Ohio high school and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s 2017 National History Teacher of the Year. Sara’s teaching emphasizes debate and discussion, while her work (via a Teaching American History grant) has included contributing content to a history app with Cleveland State University. Sara will discuss what she wishes she knew twenty years ago, what teachers tire of hearing, and what teachers need more of.
April 19, 1999
It’s me, You From 2019.
In two weeks, you graduate with your Bachelor of Science in education! You’re twenty-one years old! You’re totally ready to handle a classroom full of high school students! You’ve mastered your history and political science classes, completed your student teaching assignment, and now couldn’t be more excited to get in your own classroom.
I’m almost twenty years in—which feels like both five minutes and, quite literally, half my lifetime. I have some advice for you.
1. Your first year teaching will be the hardest thing you have ever done. It will both knock you down, inspire you, and terrify you. You’ll question—often—whether you were cut out for this. Those 162 students—all with varying levels of ability, varying levels of motivation, unique stories—will make you both smile and cry in your classroom alone as you wonder how to reach them. You’ll come home exhausted almost every day, at first. You’ll figure out that you need to adapt, which leads me to #2.
2. Your default will be to teach as teachers did unto you. Stop that. This will be difficult. You grew up a motivated kid in a supportive home who cared about grades in honors-level classes. You were usually passive, and you sat and wrote things a teacher said. You played this game well. This is not what you’re going to encounter, and you must change your mindset. Your classroom needs to be loud sometimes. You absolutely have to meet and engage every kid where they are, and never take things personally if they tell you (sometimes to your face!) that you suck and history sucks and everything sucks. You’re a people-pleaser, and this will be a hard pill to swallow, but remember that every single kid is fighting a battle that you can’t see, and it’s up to you to keep a smile on your face, because that may be the only smile they see and you might be the only person who believes in them. This will be exhausting. See #1.
3. Technology is great, but it is not everything. Passion, rich content, and analytical thinking are better than even the best tech. Right now, your 1999-2000 classroom will have one blue iMac in it, along with an overhead transparency projector and a white, pull-down screen. Throughout the next twenty years, you’ll see all kinds of technology fads come and go. But what you’ll realize is that you don’t need all of these things. Your passion in the subject—true, honest passion—and your love of sharing that with the kids in your room will be just as good as any interactive “app.” Over the years, you’ll remember some of your most effective lessons because they have thought-provoking, rich primary sources, and questioning that gets your kids to truly think analytically. You can do that with paper, Post-its, and a few markers. Don’t overwhelm yourself on the hamster wheel of endlessly changing technology when at its heart, good teaching is about passion and thoughtful evaluation of primary source content. Primary sources are the closest thing to time travel that we have, and no amount of technology can replace that.
4. Something horrible will happen tomorrow that will change both everything and nothing. You’ll watch the coverage of the Columbine shooting with tears in your eyes. You’ll think how horrible this is, and thank goodness things will change now so it never happens again. Here’s the thing: it won’t change. I know; this makes no sense. But over the next twenty years you’ll hear pundits and politicians wring their hands and propose all kinds of ridiculous ideas, and things still will not change. And the best anyone can do is say, “Well, we need to do drills.” So you do drills—yes, you practice for tragedies, you have fake gunshots and students who are simulated to die and be injured, and you—YOU—have to make the decision on what to do when you hear those gunshots. And throughout these drills, your heart will race and your hands will shake even though you know everyone will go home that night. This will never get easier and it will never stop infuriating you, but you must ultimately focus on the underlying tone every single day that you have the responsibility to help other people’s children survive the day. It’s not what you signed up for. It is what it is.
5. People will tell you that high school students are the worst. This, self, is the biggest lie of them all. Your students will challenge you—that is for sure. They will knock you down more than once, leaving you feeling small and insignificant. But they will inspire you in ways I can’t quite describe. Some are first-generation refugees, who have seen more violence in their young lives than anyone should see in a lifetime. Some of them have a home life with no support and very little love. You won’t reach all of those kids, and it will keep you up at night. But you will make a promise to yourself that you will never give up on them even if everyone else has. And for some, they will see that in you and at least show up to class on time, which is a victory. Ultimately, when people say high school students are scary, awful, and apathetic, you’ll shake your head and smile because you know better. They are inspiring, and you get to see them every day and be a small part of helping them find their talents and discover their future. That is an awe-inspiring gift and privilege that no other profession can claim.
So get that new lesson-plan book ready. (It will be replaced with a computer someday.) Make those seating charts and wonder if the students will like you. (Spoiler alert: some will; some won’t. Keep your chin up and don’t give up on them.) But you know that entire class you just took on how to make “effective and engaging overhead transparencies”?
Yeah, you can probably just forget all that.
You’ve got this, kid. Let’s go.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.