4 Lessons Learned In My Third First Year of Teaching

back to schoolSeptember is here, which means the beginning of another school year. This last school year was particularly important to me because it marked my first year back in the classroom after a six-year hiatus. After two difficult years teaching in two different schools, I seriously questioned if this was the right field for me. While working in several other fields, I realized that many of my frustrations with teaching were not unique to the teaching profession. Instead, I was just learning how to navigate my way successfully in the professional world. It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching middle school or waiting tables, I now know that wherever I am, I need to find the balance of being a team player while advocating for myself, know how to have honest, difficult conversations with co-workers, and know how to be solution-oriented instead of whining about what makes me unhappy.

I couldn’t be more thrilled at my decision to take a third try at classroom teaching and I’m proud to announce that I survived this last school year (and even thrived at some points).

As a new school year begins, I’d like to share four lessons I learned in my third first year of teaching.

Lesson #1: Celebrate the little victories.

There are days when everything feels wrong. What seems like an interesting way to teach compound sentences falls flat on its face. Or maybe the kids just aren’t grasping the best ways to explain their evidence and I can’t think of a new way to present the material in the moment. Other days the clouds are making us want to put our heads down, I didn’t drink enough coffee (is there such a thing?), my desk is overrun with paperwork, grades are due, and I accidentally threw away everyone’s graphic organizers that we needed in order to complete the day’s writing activity.

Then, I look out at the class and see a reluctant writer writing non-stop for twenty minutes without even looking up. Or there’s the girl, who has struggled staying focused, working feverishly on her essay and can’t help but shout out, “I actually like your class!” Another day it’s the quiet kid who excitedly waves his hand in the air and demands to lead the class discussion on double negatives. There’s the kid who shrieks on the playground and almost falls over when he finds out he’s passing all of his classes. These are the little victories that make the challenging times worth it, and they deserve to be celebrated daily.

Lesson #2: Remember the why.

As someone who is often way too hard on herself, inevitably self-doubt creeps in especially in the cold dark months of January and February. Why am I doing this, I would ask myself. Why didn’t I just give up after two marginally successful years of teaching? What makes this time different? Maybe I should’ve just given up the teaching profession all together.

Proud teacher!
              Proud teacher!

Then, I remember my why. Why do I teach? I teach because I firmly believe in the power of education as what could be the great equalizer, but there’s still so much more work to do. I believe in the limitless potential of students and that they need unrelenting adults who work together to light the fires that are within them. I believe in the little victories that make teaching worth it.

Ultimately, I acknowledge the feelings of self-doubt, but then I move on and trust that I’m doing the right thing because it’s the decision I made for me.

Lesson #3: It’s not supposed to be easy. Nothing is.

I often think of the words Tom Hank’s character in A League of Their Own says when one of his top players, Geena Davis’s character, says she’s quitting the league. She says it just got too hard. He responds, “If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” I feel that way about the teaching profession. The hard is what makes teaching great. Are there days where I wish I could squeeze in a game of tennis after work followed by a long dinner? Of course. Do I gaze longingly at my non-teaching friends’ Instagram pictures of their afternoon meetings around the company keg and subsequent happy hour jaunts? Maybe a little. But, I wouldn’t trade the opportunity to be inside the classroom for anything else.

Lesson #4: Perspective is key.

When I worked at the restaurant, our manager would sometimes ask at the beginning of a shift if we thought our work would cause us to lose a limb or even worse, kill us. The answer was always no. He would then say something to the effect of say exactly, you won’t die while working tonight so relax. I think about this when I need a little perspective. As a classroom teacher, the stakes always feel high. After all, this is someone’s education we’re talking about. When things don’t go as planned, or if students don’t score as well on a test as I’d hoped, it can feel as serious as losing a limb. However, in those moments, it’s important to have some perspective and remember I’m doing the best that I can. I take the work seriously, but I can’t take myself too seriously because that’s when things go awry.

I am so delighted to be returning to my school for a fourth year of teaching and am looking forward to all of the nuggets of wisdom I will gain this year. To all you teachers out there, have a great school year!

Be Brilliant At It

“The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside us while we live.” -Norman Cousins

This is the book my friend loaned me years. I really should give it back!
This is the book my friend loaned me years. I really should give it back!

 Several years ago, a friend loaned me his copy of Words I Wish I Wrote, compiled by Robert Fulgham. As a young professional, not too far removed from my idealistic liberal arts college days, my mind was blown by the nuggets of wisdom contained within its pages. As a writer, I wished I’d written every single one of these words as the title suggested. The above quote from Norman Cousins completely resonated with me and I’ve thought about it a lot recently as I’ve returned to the teaching profession.

 I’ve been thinking a lot about what we let die inside ourselves in the past few months as I made the choice to get back into teaching and the career path from which I strayed so far. I was starting to feel like I’d let so many things inside me die as I struggled to figure out exactly what I wanted to do career-wise. When I left teaching five years ago, I never gave myself a timeline as to when I’d return, but deep down I always knew I’d find my way back in some capacity.

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-Charles Bukowski

However, in the last five or so months, I felt as though getting back into a career I felt passionate about was beyond my reach. Five years had flown by and my most recent stint as a full-time server made me feel as though I’d reached the point of no return.

Naturally, when you feel so far from your desired path, feelings of self-doubt creep in. How did I get here? How could I possibly have let all of the things that make me who I am just fly to the wayside? It was almost paralyzing to think about all of the potential I was wasting. Was it gone permanently? It had been so long since I’d worked in an academic setting I questioned my ability to secure a job in that field. Had I inadvertently closed the door to teaching forever?

IMG_0779_4To me, there are few things more tragic than wasted potential. I love the way John Updike beautifully paints this melancholy picture of wasted talent in his poem, “Ex-Basketball Player.” He tells the story of Flick Webb, the best basketball player in his town’s history who now pumps gas for “he had never learned a trade, he just sells gas/ Checks oil, and changes flats.” Remembered for his hands that “were like wild birds,” Flick spends his free days at the diner smoking cigars, playing pinball, and drinking “lemon phosphates.” Instead of playing in front of adoring fans, he faces only “applauding tiers/Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads” at the diner. There are several Flick Webbs from my hometown who haunt my memory with their athletic and artistic prowess that went unrealized.

Your potential, rekindled.
Your potential, rekindled.

On the bright side, there is always triumph to be found in tragedy. The good thing about potential is that it is only wasted if you allow yourself to waste it. It can be rekindled. Though I felt so far removed from where I’d begun, I applied for teaching jobs and eventually found my way back into the classroom. All of the things about myself I missed were still buried within me. It was just a matter of bringing those missing pieces to the surface.

On one of my last days of waiting tables, I explained to a group of guests that I was leaving to teach writing. An older gentleman at the table simply smiled and replied, “Be brilliant at it.” Not a congratulations, but a you have an obligation to yourself and to the world to be brilliant at whatever it is you decide to do. This gentleman’s simple words have inspired me far more than he probably ever imagined.

Be brilliant at it. 

I challenge all of you to focus on whatever it is that makes you alive and be brilliant at it. The world is depending on you.

The Dark Before the Dawn

“Remember,” they say, “that the darkest hour of all is the hour before day.”- Samuel Lover

The actual dark before dawn.
The actual dark before dawn.

It’s been far too long since I wrote my last blog post. I could give you a laundry list of excuses as to why this is the case, but I don’t believe in excuses. It looks like I’ve allowed myself to fall victim to the “busy trap” once again.

My last blog post was about letting loose and de-stressing, which is ironic, because at the time I wrote it, my stress levels were at an all time high. New York City was wearing me down and instead of attacking back with a can-do attitude, I let it run me over.

In my two-and-a-half years of living in New York City, I’ve found that city life is a constant give and take. Some days I feel the city takes more from me than it gives. Yes, it’s extremely expensive (I’m looking at you, income taxes). Yes, it feels overcrowded at times, bordering on extremely claustrophobic. Yes, people can be rude, not to mention pushy. At the same time, I love everything the city has to offer. Botanical gardens, surfing lessons, Broadway shows, art museums, French films, awkward poetry readings, garage band performances. You name it, New York City has it.

Just another day of reaping what New York is sowing.
Just another day of reaping what New York is sowing.

There’s so much to do in New York that it can be distracting. I still have to make money and even save it, too. It’s hard to save money when I’d rather be out reaping all that New York is sowing. I feel a constant struggle between making money and doing what I love. Part of the issue is that I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do professionally. Being unsure of what you want to do in a place like New York City where you have to be cutthroat to get what you want doesn’t work out so well. For too long, I’ve put what I love to do professionally on the back burner.

Until recently.

A few months ago, I made the decision to return to teaching. Teaching is where I’ve always belonged, I just didn’t realize that until I took a six-year hiatus. Last week, a few days before my 31st birthday, I accepted a classroom teaching position. I couldn’t be more thrilled. I’ve finally turned a professional corner, or at least returned to the right road.

I’m excited to start a new chapter in New York, which is working in a field I so strongly believe in, in a position I’m passionate about. It will be challenging, stressful, and a whole slew of other adjectives, but I’m looking forward to being a position where I can give back to the community of which I’ve grown very fond.