This school year marks my 20th year as a teacher. Reflecting back, I’ve learned some important lessons in my teaching career that I’d offer to any new teacher . These lessons are of particular importance during the ongoing upheaval of the pandemic, but they will continue to serve you through the rest of your career.
- Take care of yourself first. In teaching, most of our instincts tell us to be selfless, altruistic, giving. And while that is a noble set of impulses, burnout is a real danger to good teachers, especially during this late stage of a pandemic that has injected so much uncertainty. You cannot give your best work to your job and to your students if you are barely hanging on. If you are sleep-deprived or overworked, it is much harder to have patience and understanding. The best teachers are those who make time to fill themselves with joy and curiosity outside the classroom so that they can bring it back to their students.
- Find a mentor. There is no better way to navigate the world of teaching than with a guide. The best way to find a great mentor is to observe. See what other teachers are doing in their classrooms. Which ones have meaningful connections with students? Which ones are still energized by the job and can always find the humor in any situation but aren’t cynical? Whose class would you have loved to have been in when you were a student? That’s the teacher you want to ask to be your mentor. The earlier you can forge a relationship with a positive role model, the better you will be able to handle the everyday challenges of first-year teaching.
- Consider your reputation. Your professionalism, instructional methodology, collaborative spirit, and willingness to build meaningful relationships are all assets to your teaching career. A colleague always refers to his four sections of math by saying they’re “four live shows a day.” Students are always watching you closely—they respond to your energy. Students sense when you’re being disingenuous, and they can feel if you care about them. If you are open and honest, you will earn the reputation of someone other teachers can go to for help and advice. If you work hard to build relationships with your students, your colleagues and the community will know it, too.
- Mental health is physical health. Teaching can be an exhausting endeavor—and not in the way that a good night’s sleep will cure. Working with kids is fun, enriching, and meaningful. But it also means having students that make impulsive decisions, students who have unsettled home lives, or a student whose parent might have cancer. After a year and a half of uncertainty created by the pandemic, teachers are dealing with mental-health challenges like never before. The most important part of mental wellness is making space to process how you are doing, feeling, and reacting. Just as teachers work on the social and emotional aspects of students’ development, we also need to make sure we are modeling good mental-health hygiene as well.
- Know your admins. Teaching can sometimes feel like being isolated in a crowd. For most of my school day, I’m the only person over the age of 12 in my classroom. That’s why I make a point to eat lunch with my 6th grade team colleagues. It’s also why I make a point to develop strong relationships with the administrators in my building, in my department, and at the central office. Administrators are not some distant force behind a curtain. Keeping clear lines of communication means that you can have an open dialogue with your supervisors and that you can ask them to be clear with you about their expectations.
- Know your students and their community. COVID-19 has shown us that schools are often at the heart of a local community. They provide an education, yes, but also meals for many students, a place for civic engagement, extracurricular activities, town meetings, and polling places. Many families have suffered the trauma of illness and even death, coupled with job losses, an eviction crisis, and the slow-rolling hardship of the pandemic. Knowing the challenges and celebrations of the community you teach is an important aspect of knowing your students.
- Let your students know you. This one is sometimes the toughest piece of advice to follow. I had older teachers at the beginning of my career say things like, “Don’t let them see you smile until November.” Obviously, that advice is stupid. And it doesn’t work. Instead, students want to know you—what you’re about. They take interest when you talk about your hobbies, or travels, or even your own experience as a student. I have a photo of me, my dad, and the 2011 Stanley Cup on a bulletin board surrounded by Boston Bruins memorabilia, and this small display has sparked so many great conversations with kids. I love talking to them about my travels in Greece and Italy and my archaeological digs. I talk about my husband and how he finds museums boring, while I want to spend hours in a single gallery. I’ve told my students about my 7th grade Latin teacher who taught every class as if he were a great actor on stage and how he sparked my great love for ancient history. You will find that if you give your students a peek into who you are, they will reciprocate.
I hope that my fellow teachers, and especially those who are new to the profession, are able to find the right balance between great teaching and self-care. But I also want to be clear: We veteran teachers are struggling, too. This pandemic has really shaken us, but we’ve also seen the job get harder and more complex. Since March 2020, nothing has been clearer to me than that we are truly all in this together, in our classrooms, in our schools, and in our communities. I wish you great joy and success this school year, but I want you to allow for growth and setbacks, too. Over time, all of them make you stronger.
A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2021 edition of Education Week as Advice to New Teachers From a 20-Year Veteran