Opinion
Professional Development CTQ Collaboratory

Career Advice: Getting Beyond First-Year Teaching Jitters

By Justin Minkel — September 03, 2013 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Your first year of teaching is kind of like your first truly gruesome photo from a high school formal dance. The excessive hair gel, the unfortunate choice of tuxedo or dress, the slightly demented grin into the camera. We look back and laugh, but we shudder first.

Most of us wish we had selective amnesia about that first year. The various star charts, table points, and sticker systems, implemented and abandoned in the same week. The projects that started off great and then wobbled over a cliff. The times we were too nice and regretted it. The times we were too mean and regretted it even more.

I have plenty to be ashamed of from my first year, which 11 much-better years since, hasn’t managed to dim. My fashion sense, which made Pee Wee Herman look like a GQ model. The time I yelled at a student before we had even entered the building for the day, which prompted a passing parent to reprimand me with, “You don’t have to talk to her like that.” (He was right.) But of all the mistakes I made, the most profound was this:

I was more preoccupied with my day than with my kids’ day.

Nervous and elated, underprepared and overwhelmed, I was stuck in my own point of view: How was the knot in my (ghastly) tie? How loudly was I talking? Where was I standing? What did the other teachers think of my unconventional seating arrangement (slanted rows like the “council” in a sci-fi movie)?

It took me a few months to flip that focus. What mattered, I eventually realized, were questions like these: How much did the kids get to talk today? How much did they get to move around? What did they get the chance to do, think, and create?

Once I made that shift, two things happened. First, I became a lot less self-conscious. It didn’t matter if my slacks were too baggy or my voice was too high. It wasn’t about me. It was about the students.

It was about Jahlissa and Xiomara and Anthony. It was about Ivan and Carlos and Tionni.

‘Hard-Won Humility’

The second change is that my teaching got a lot better. The lecture portion of my lessons shrank from 25 minutes to five minutes, so the kids could do less passive listening and more active exploring, writing, and thinking.

I stopped thinking up all the brilliant, passionate things I would tell them. Instead, I started thinking up questions to help me discover what brilliant, passionate things they might have to tell me.

Along the way, I learned the most important lesson a teacher can learn: I really liked these kids. I liked their jokes. I liked their laughter. I liked the way even the toughest mohawked 4th grader would hold his little sister’s hand when he walked her to kindergarten.

How had I initially missed that?

I had missed it by focusing on that curse of our educational system: compliance. I had missed it by seeing these 32 4th graders primarily in terms of their obedience to or disruption of my many rules. I missed it by asking one-dimensional questions that had a single right answer, instead of good questions that made me truly curious to hear what the kids would say.

I missed it by lingering in that self-centered state that gets knocked out of you once you become a teacher or a parent and realize that it’s no longer about you.

Teachers lose a lot once we make that shift. We lose sleep. We lose time for our interests and hobbies. We lose about 50 pounds of ego.

But we gain something, too. We gain a delight in our students’ company. We gain gratitude for the honor inherent in being the only teacher that child will ever have for 4th grade or sophomore English or kindergarten. And we learn that no matter how skilled we may become at teaching, no matter how much we impart in a given year, the kids will always teach us more than we teach them.

There is a hard-won humility in that lesson. There’s a blessing, too.

Related Tags:

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Reading & Literacy K-12 Essentials Forum Writing and the Science of Reading
Join us for this free event as we highlight and discuss the intersection of reading and writing with Education Week reporters and expert guests.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Professional Development New Training Tells Florida School Librarians Which Books Are Off-Limits
Librarians must undergo training for selecting books and can't choose materials about CRT, SEL, and culturally responsive teaching.
6 min read
A student browses through books in the Presidio Middle School library in San Francisco, Calif. on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.
A student browses through books in the Presidio Middle School library in San Francisco, Calif. on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.
Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle via AP
Professional Development How to Get the Adults in Schools to Improve Their Social-Emotional Skills
How do you address adults' social-emotional learning without being patronizing? Two experts weigh in.
3 min read
Image of diverse hands in a team huddle.
melitas/iStock/Getty
Professional Development Irrelevant, Too Conceptual, Boring: Social-Emotional Learning PD Often Falls Flat
Insufficient professional development is a major challenge to teaching social-emotional learning effectively.
4 min read
Hand of a trainer addressing group of females sitting in a conference hall.
E+/Getty
Professional Development PD Supergroup Is Official: ASCD Members Approve Merger With ISTE
Richard Culatta, currently the CEO of ISTE, will lead the new organization.
2 min read
Image of two halves of an arrow merging.
matdesign24/iStock/Getty