Each year, I get an opportunity to meet our brand new teachers and provide them with some thoughts and hopefully helpful hints going into their first year of teaching. This year will be a little different as: (1) With my impending retirement, this will be my last official address to 1st year teachers as Superintendent of Schools and (2) My daughter who graduated from education in 2016 and has been a full-time mom since, begins her own teaching career this year. Given that, I’m hoping to provide some advice to not only my own daughter but to all those beginning this wonderful vocation we call teaching.
Priorities- I have extremely high expectations for myself and for all of my staff in terms of workload, but not at the expense of hijacking priorities. My message to new teachers and to all staff as a whole is to keep priorities in the right order as much as you can. Faith, family and then the job are the three most important priorities and the order provided, counts. As a Catholic Superintendent, faith is essential in finding the balance required especially for busy people. Faith might translate to prayer or mindfulness or some other form that acknowledges there is a higher power and forms a belief that our lives are not fully complete without it. I don’t begrudge those who don’t have that sense of faith, it is just what I believe has provided me with my grounding all these years. Regardless, family has to be your next (or first) priority. Great teachers and leaders will always spend considerable hours away from one’s family- that’s just part of the job, although many outside of the education world only see holidays and in school time. But you cannot become so consumed with your teaching assignment that you forget to spend quality time with your family. Just as they are your support, you must also be their support. They need you too and feeling guilty that you’re not there enough is not good for you, them or the “kiddos” in your classroom. It takes time to find the right flow that allows you to ensure family first and there will always be times in the school year that your priorities get mixed up, but seek to readjust when you are out of balance. I have found in my experience that those who can keep their priorities in the correct order, always give the very best to their students.
Relationships- What are the 3 Rs? Relationships! Relationships! Relationships! Students need to know that their teachers care for them. Parents/Guardian need to know the same. You cannot establish a supportive learning environment without building strong relationships with your students and their caregivers. And it will always begin by getting to know them, what they like and their strengths before you ever delve into what they can’t do or struggle with! I grew up in the teacher preparation era that said, “Don’t smile until at least Christmas or they won’t respect you!” Really? Let’s start with “Be Kind!” Let’s continue with “Be Compassionate!” I would never ask a teacher to become a friend to a student- you are the adult and that is a line one must never cross. But be approachable and show that you care and the relationships you have with the students and parents/guardians will certainly be enhanced.
It’s okay to make mistakes- Oh, how we always want to get it right but that is not how learning occurs. Please don’t beat yourself up when things don’t go right. Learn from those mistakes, reflect and move on. Seek support from a colleague or your administration if your errors in judgment are weighing you down. But remember to not let the fear of making a mistake paralyze you into never trying anything new. You are practicing your craft as a teacher just like a professional and it never starts at excellent! Be patient with yourself and your mistakes and be persistent in learning from them.
Know that you are making a difference- It always saddens me when I hear disparaging remarks about teachers. Everybody seems to believe they are an expert about teaching because they went to school. The fact is, that most of the public would never be able to do what you do in your classroom and let me be even more honest, most would never survive a day! You may be the only significant adult in the life of a student in your class. You might provide the only positive interaction that a student has on a daily basis. You may not even or ever know the change you’ve made with just one simple comment or gesture. Parents send their children to you… what a great honor and what a great responsibility. Feel privileged for that honor and accept that responsibility, knowing that you will make a difference in the life of a child today!
You will have some really difficult days ahead and you will also have days that are just about magical. Try not to get lost in the highs and lows but rather just breath in the experience of this first year. Know that you are a teacher and be proud that you have chosen this most worthy vocation!