While many teachers are finishing their first week of school, I am viewing the start of school from an unfamiliar distance, having left classroom teaching, at least for the moment. While I’m excited to embark on a new chapter of my journey (and I’ll be sharing more about that very soon), it’s surreal not to have bulletin boards to set up, lesson plans to envision, write, and revise, a mega trip to Staples, and most poignantly, fresh young faces to meet and names to learn. I want to share, from this new vantage point, what I see as so special about being a K-12 teacher.
1. You are part of a community that includes some amazing, caring individuals. Yes, there are frustrating politics and perhaps frustrating individuals, but the bigger picture is that you spend your day in a place where people care about children and are doing their best to support them as they grow. There are people in your building—teachers, custodians, librarians, aids, administrators, parent coordinators—who, seen or unseen, are doing extraordinary things for children. From a distance, I’m imagining those individuals, in the various schools where I’ve taught, doing what they do. And as I think of them, I feel grateful that they are who they are. I think it’s worth pausing to mentally thank—or actually do so!—those individuals who are the soul of a school.
2. Teaching is hard work, but on the flipside, you can really laugh with children. That’s simply not a reality for many people in their daily work. A 6th grade teacher I observed way back in my student teaching year gave me just one piece of advice: “Sometimes,” she said, “you just have to laugh.” Her advice might not sound like much, but it made an impact, because it was coupled with the fact that she was such a wonderful and effective teacher in the classroom. I would remember her words when, in the most crucial moments of a lesson, the fire alarm would go off. I would laugh right along with my students. I remembered them when a student said something so witty or ridiculous that laughter was absolutely required. I remembered this advice when, on occasion, I would lose my cool with students—and realize in that very same moment that I was the problem, not them. I would laugh at myself and give students permission to do the same. Laughter can be like a reset button, and often adults forget about it. Children are so wonderfully connected to laughter, and that’s a gift teachers receive daily.
3. Every year, you get a fresh start. It’s not just a feeling; it’s a reality that is also kind of unique to teaching. Even though it’s a myth that teachers don’t work over the summer, it is true for those of us on a traditional calendar that a school year comes to a full stop. There is a period of rest and rejuvenation, before a new school year begins. Each new school year carries its own flavor, a sense of possibility, the excitement and challenge of trying new things with new students. It’s the undeniable effect of new pencils, new notebooks, new white board markers, and new sneakers. I know, not all my students could start the year with new sneakers, but everyone did seem to enjoy the fresh vibe of September. Although I would actually be in favor of a year-round calendar, with breaks peppered throughout, I think new beginnings are so important, for students and teachers.
4. Actually, in teaching, every day you get a fresh start. I wonder if you’re nodding or scratching your head right now. Let me explain. A few years into teaching, I was having a difficult time with a particular student. The dean (an experienced teacher, himself) was mediating. The student complained that I was picking on him and not applying the same consequences to other students for similar behavior. This might have been true, though the student was no piece of cake. The dean paused and said to the student, “You know that with Ms. Sacks, you get a fresh start every day, right?” The student and I both had to take a moment to think about that. I liked what he seemed to be saying—but was it true? Students and teachers develop relationships over the course of a year, and reputations within a community too. It’s unavoidable to form expectations of a person after a while. But, I also grasped the dean’s lesson to both of us: if the real focus is learning and growth, then students should have the chance to be their best selves every day. I believed that to be right and true. That moment helped me be a better version of myself as a teacher. I also have learned that students are so resilient and forgiving. They give adults so many chances to do right by them. If we take them up on it, we get a fresh start every day, too.
5. You hold an amazing amount of power; you shape the future. We may be underappreciated, underpaid and undermined as professionals in many ways, BUT very few other professions have the power to create community and change lives the way teachers do. I think a lot of adults wonder (maybe not aloud, but somewhere inside) if their lives are significant, if their work matters. Not teachers. We wonder how we can be better, we wonder what will become of our students, we wonder how we can be recognized more meaningfully for what we do, but we know we matter.
Here’s to teachers. Have a wonderful year. I’m thinking of you.
The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story 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.