5 Critical Lessons

In my years of teaching, I have learned five critical lessons. Be certain of one thing, if you are open and willing to see them, lessons exist in every moment of every day. These five, however, seem to be universal to every school, content, and grade level I’ve ever taught. We all have to learn our own lessons, but at least by reading this you’ll be able to identify them faster. I share them with you today in hopes you will have to endure less heartache in your early years in this profession than I did. This job comes with amazing reward, awesome responsibility, and a whole lot of damn hard work, personal and professional.

Lesson one: if there is any possible way for you to do it, get counseling. Now. Kids are big shiny mirrors to any personal issues you have. Even if you don’t know what your personal issues are now, you’ll know what they are within two weeks of teaching. People who have spent years in the profession blaming the kids for one thing or another that goes wrong in their classrooms aren’t paying attention to the reality that, until they come to grips with their own personal selves, the kids will continue to aggravate any unresolved issues they have. We all think we can escape it; none of us do. Save yourself time and energy, find a therapist on your insurance or with a sliding scale, and do it right now.

Lesson two: isolation breeds one of two things: arrogance or insecurity. Neither is conducive to good teaching. I am fortunate enough to work with exceptional colleagues who push me to be better every day. We collaborate in all areas professional, some even personal. You need a sounding board, a role model, a partner in survival; in short, you need allies. Go to every staff and department meeting with an open mind and open heart; attend every TGIF gathering, ask members of your content area to Sunday brunch to brainstorm anything from lesson plans to classroom management strategies. It will feel like you are too exhausted to reach out; push through it. They need you and you need them. More to the point, if you are going to be great, you are going to need some help. We all think we can do it alone, but we can’t. Reach out immediately and continue to do so every chance you get.

Three, be kind and respectful and appreciative to every single person on your staff who helps you. The secretary, the librarian, the custodian, the student who holds your coffee while you struggle to unlock your door without dropping everything in your hands, everybody. Don’t do it because it’ll get you something later, do it because it’s common human decency. You think you feel under-appreciated, the reality is you don’t know what under-appreciated is until you push a broom behind kids. The world would be a better place if we all took time to smile, say hello, and show gratitude; so will your campus. Do it even when you are tired, even when you are crabby, even when you are feeling like you want to quit this crazy job. Do it, and do it in some form every day.

Lesson four: when your kids work hard, notice. When your kids try hard, notice. When your kids choose to read rather than try to text under the table, notice. When they make you laugh or smile or give a deep sigh of relief because the risky lesson paid off, notice. The human condition is one that desires one thing: see me, hear me, value me, show me I matter and what I’m doing makes a difference. We want that, right? The kids want it too; more than that, they need it. The ten seconds it says to say, “Thank you for a really good day today, you guys,” will pay off a hundred fold tomorrow.

Finally, lesson five: above all else, be sincere. Kids can smell out a fake a mile away. Overly enthusiastic, a giver of false hope, a placater or a patronizer, forget it. If you are having a bad day, tell them. If you are feeling frustrated because you are working harder than they are, tell them. If they got nothing done today after you spent an hour on your plans before school, tell them. Don’t enable and don’t condesend. Be strong, be consistent, and be yourself. Like pets, all kids really want is you. The fancy lesson plans and the perfect outfit are meaningless if they can’t really see you. While I’m a firm believer in boundaries, to give at least a hint of your true humanity every day is essential for your success.

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