The hardest year of my life was my first year of teaching. Riding the A-train home at the end of another grueling day, I had my familiar daily epiphany: “I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Then I had a new, even more disturbing realization: “I don’t like my class.”
It didn’t make any sense. I liked every single kid … individually. Tough-guy Anthony, whose sullen glare served as a shield for a tender heart. Jahlissa, with her attitude and one-liners. She once tried to get out of a letter home by leaving a message on my voicemail in the deepest, smoothest voice her 9-year-old self could manage:
“Yes, hello, this is Mrs. Rawlings, Jahlissa’s mother, and she said you keep getting her in trouble for no reason even though she don’t do nothing and the other kids are the ones bothering her, so don’t send no more letters home and, um, don’t call me back!”
Even when misbehaving, my 4th graders were adorable and hilarious individuals. But taken all together, as a group, I didn’t enjoy their company. I got frustrated with their refusal to do the simplest things I asked of them, like putting down their pencils and looking up when I turned off the lights.
I had discovered a glaring exception to my own “smoothie rule.” If you only put in ingredients that taste good on their own, you’re guaranteed a good smoothie. Ice cream, strawberries, and peach-mango juice? Rest assured that it will be delicious. But throw in a handful of wheat germ, chopped kale, or—more ghastly yet—spinach, and you’re playing a sensory game of Russian Roulette.
I liked every “ingredient” in my class, but the collective smoothie tasted terrible. Why?
My dad, in a rare prophetic moment, once told me, “Sometimes people go into teaching because they love babysitting their niece or nephew, so they think they like kids. But really, they like one kid—not 30 kids all at once.”
In time, I figured out how to solve the conundrum. Most new teachers do, no matter how hopeless it feels early on in that first brutal year.
I still have days when I don’t enjoy the company of my own class. But now I know what to do about it.
1. Realize That the Problem Is Probably Not the Students
Fifteen years later, the first few weeks of school are still hard. But I have made a solemn pledge to resist the lure of punishments and rewards during those initial hard days, because they often treat the symptom while ignoring the disease—which I now realize is usually my own teaching.
A few weeks into my first year, I realized my students’ misbehavior had very little to do with my various behavior charts, table points, and marble jars. It had a lot to do with flaws in my lessons.
I learned to fix those flaws. I began to talk less, and let the kids talk more. I ditched our abysmal math textbook, and tried to get the materials for the next lesson passed out ahead of time so fumbled transitions wouldn’t cause a 32-student collapse.
I began to think through each day from the kids’ point of view instead of my own. What would they get to do, say, think, and create? What would they struggle with?
I realized something else important, too. My dad had not only diagnosed the problem; he had provided me with the solution. If he was right and in reality I liked one kid at a time, not a defiant little 4th-grade mob, the solution was clear: Make sure I got plenty of chances throughout the day to interact with one kid at a time.
I built in more one-on-one writing conferences, and figured out how to make guided reading happen so I could engage in a conversation with five kids instead of a lecture with all 32. I found times to connect with my students one-on-one during recess, when I wasn’t in the disciplinarian role of trying to make them sit still or stay silent in the hall. Ten minutes playing soccer could change my whole relationship with a student who had never smiled at me before.
A month later, I had a much happier epiphany on my way home from work: “I love my class.”
2. Get to Know the ‘Hard Kids’
Certain students are easier to like than others. Xiomara, who looks like the next Disney princess, came up to me the second day of school and whispered, “I’m going to invent a new princess. She has a scar by her eye, and she fights bad guys.” I loved the girl on sight.
But the kids who are sullen, defiant, or wild can be a little harder to like—though, of course, they are often the ones who need us the most. Those are the kids I invite to have lunch with me in the classroom early on in the year. They’re the ones I ask to help me in the classroom before the other kids come in, or make sure to hang out with for a little while at recess.
Robert Reich, the U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, once described his teenage sons as clams who were vulnerable inside but would only let you glimpse that vulnerability in rare moments.
Those moments don’t happen by accident. We have to make them happen by design.
3. Don’t Take Out Your Frustration on Your Students
Sometimes my students act in ridiculous way, and they deserve a reprimand. But when I speak to them more harshly than I should, the real reason often has little to do with their behavior.
Maybe I didn’t sleep well, or was struggling with something in my personal life. Maybe I was angry about some new state regulation that made it harder to do my job. Most often, I was frustrated at myself for a botched lesson.
I have to remind myself of the quote by author Mary Anne Radmacher: “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, I’ll try again tomorrow.”
When I put in the work it takes to get my teaching right, make a connection with every kid, and build a peaceful little community in my classroom, the misbehavior mostly evaporates.
Teaching becomes a joy. The kids work hard and treat each other respectfully for the right reasons. I get to use all my time to teach, rather than constantly doling out rewards, moving down clips, and threatening various consequences.
But it takes time. It takes a lot of patience, compassion, and deep breaths. Without the punishments and rewards I used to lean on, the first few weeks of school are harder now. But the nine months after that are easier.
Seeing Students Clearly
Teaching is the hardest work I know. It’s hard for good reasons—it matters, it’s complicated, and we drive ourselves to be better every day and every year.
It’s also hard for bad reasons. In the 15 years since No Child Left Behind smacked down on classrooms like a hammer on an egg, many schools have been steadily stripped of everything that matters most—from art and science to recess and critical thinking. During that time, our job as teachers has gotten steadily more punitive, time-consuming, and demanding—without any increase in salary, professional autonomy, or collaboration time to balance out those negatives.
But we can’t let the frustration, exhaustion, and absurdity drive us to a point where we no longer enjoy the children in our care. They can sense immediately whether we like them—not just in general, but at any particular moment.
We have to make sure, in the hardest of those moments, that we continue to see them clearly. Their faces. Their struggles. Their talents.
We have to remember that it’s hard to be a kindergartner, or a teenager.
We have to see not only what they need from us, but what they have to offer us. Their joy. Their curiosity, compassion, and humor. Their flashes of insight and wisdom.
If we can do that, we will eventually come to love the whole messy collection of hilarious, emotional, joyous individuals who make up that collective miracle: our class.