Opinion
Professional Development CTQ Collaboratory

Career Advice: Getting Beyond First-Year Teaching Jitters

By Justin Minkel — September 03, 2013 3 min read

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 The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
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
Mathematics Webinar
Engaging Young Students to Accelerate Math Learning
Join learning scientists and inspiring district leaders, for a timely panel discussion addressing a school district’s approach to doubling and tripling Math gains during Covid. What started as a goal to address learning gaps in
Content provided by Age of Learning & Digital Promise, Harlingen CISD
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
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive

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 Opinion How Can Coaches Use a Cycle of Inquiry to Establish Themselves and Help Others?
A cycle of inquiry can both help coaches establish themselves and help those they coach develop areas of improvement.
10 min read
shutterstock 546692113
Shuttestock
Professional Development Opinion 'A Professional Learning Community Is Not a Faculty, Grade Level, or Department Meeting'
Three educators wrap-up a four-part series on professional learning communities.
11 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Professional Development Professional Development This Summer: What Teachers and Principals Say They Need
School and classroom leaders weigh in on how PD this summer should prioritize addressing the needs made plain during the pandemic.
7 min read
Professional Development Opinion Promoting PLCs to Face the 'Twin Epidemics' of COVID-19 and Systemic Racism
Four educators discuss the practical aspects of professional learning communities.
10 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty