Walmart’s back-to-school pencil ads and our janitor waxing our classroom floors can only signal one thing: the start of another school year. Along with the right-of-passage teacher nightmares of missing photocopies and the classroom troublemaker, leaving us sweaty and vigilant in our beds, the new year that rises to meet us teachers offers a handshake—a truce, an agreement to do this year right.
Will you do this year right?
Looming large in most teachers’ minds is classroom management. Last year, the spit balls were too wet, the gum under desks too sticky, and the noise level in their classrooms too loud.
Ragged and resentful, these teachers decide: something must be done.
As a teacher, you pine for summer vacation like a fat kid pines for ice cream and a Big Mac. Don’t pretend for a second that isn’t true. I don’t mean to say you and I don’t love children, or that we don’t love what we do. But the teaching grind–it grinds you down. And when the summer comes, all you want to do is put your ground up self in a hot tub and soak and become coffee.
Everybody and his pet rabbit wants to become a teacher. Around this time of year, at least three students tell me they want to become teachers. Later in the year, I often discover, more future teachers pop out of the woodwork.
With eyes that seem to look towards a utopia, these students tell me they want to teach. They tell me they want to share their love of Shakespeare. Biochemistry. The finer points of geography. And they want to inspire. They want to, through their gentle lovingness, spark the latent fire of intelligence and humanity in teenagers obsessed with spinners and dabs.
It’s the little things that chip away at your sense of self-respect as a teacher. The parent that screams at you over the phone at the end of the day because you disciplined his child. The parent who, across the table at a parent-teacher interview, tells you how to teach writing. Another parent who has a gripe with you, and instead of talking with you, emails your principal. The child who says, “My mom said that those who can’t do, teach.” The strangers who call your job “glorified babysitting.” Or the child you tutor who tells you that in his home country, he had two teachers who he called servants.
Yes, all of this has happened to me.
I can imagine you have experienced these moments too. You have been treated by adults and children alike like a dirty rag to be pushed around. I know other teachers have been treated with disrespect because their words and actions are telling. All of it may have even made you reconsider teaching and made you say things like this:
“I’m just a teacher.”
I have to stop you there. You’re not just a teacher. You are a teacher. You direct, guide, scold, and embolden the future. You encourage the gutless in the gutters. You set high standards your students cannot even envision. You rile kids up and take bullies down. You make speeches and promises and you deliver. You analyze novels and poems so deeply that these poems and novels—and even parts of life—become understood.
You are a teacher. That is nothing to be ashamed of, and it is nothing to hide.
To develop self-respect as a teacher, teach louder.
Don’t let anyone treat you like a dirty rag. Dress like a modern-day queen or king. Every day, prepare yourself for school. Iron your button-up shirt so firmly that the iron lines show on the arms. Starch your pants and brush the kinks out of your hair. Shine your shoes and look down in them to see your precious teacher face.
If your child is in my class I have certain expectations for him or her. I expect him to be on time; I expect him to have his materials with him—no, he will not have time to visit his locker for paper and a pen; I expect him to be respectful and say “please” and “thank you”; I expect him to stay seated and quiet during my lesson—yes,I have a seating plan; I expect him to raise his hand when he wishes to speak—I would like to hear him speak; I expect him to have his homework done—yes, I assign and check homework; I expect him to clean up after himself; I expect him to never trash talk any student in my care; I expect him to put his cell phone away or kiss it goodbye; I expect him not to whine, but to work.
I expect a lot from him.
Because I am a strict teacher,I have a lot of expectations.
Because I am a strict teacher, my expectations are often met.
Because I am a strict teacher, my students, in the process of meeting expectations, become better.
When I was a first year teacher now nearly five years ago, I knew as much about teaching as I do about the types of clouds or the kinds of rocks: I had a vague recollection of learning facts about these things in school long, long ago, but put me in a rock museum or ask me to describe the clouds above my eyeballs, and I’d be stumped.
As a first year teacher, my knowledge of teaching was academic. In teachers’ college, I had been fed from a trough of fun, impractical theories; I had viewed classroom simulations comprised of perfectly behaved adults who playfully mimicked rebellious teenagers; I drank Starbucks lattes and sucked on bonbons as my professors talked about creativity, fun, and social justice. In short, I had no idea what hell awaited me.
Here is my practical advice for first year teachers.