The Thing I Wish I Had Known Before I Started Teaching

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My school keeps a dry erase board in the front office posing a Question of the Week to staff members. It’s a culture-building thing, and it usually results in a lot of laughs throughout a busy week of school. Typically, the Keepers of the Board pull out all the stops to elicit the craziest questions (and responses) you could possibly imagine. Throughout our first full week of classes this past week, I’ve enjoyed reading my colleagues’ responses to a more serious query: “What’s one piece of advice you wish you had received before your first year of teaching?”

“How to get students’ attention without yelling” has gotten a lot of love from staff members. (Middle school can be a loud place, in case you didn’t know.) And “how to create good classroom procedures,” another popular response, is practically the foundation of any successful learning environment. But after spending the last week wrestling with this question myself, I’m just now feeling confident enough to articulate the advice I needed six years ago. 

Find the place where sincerity and authority meet. 

Maybe that sounds vague, or maybe even a little corny, but it’s the advice I needed to hear as an anxious first-year teacher. Students need mentors who are vulnerable in sharing their celebrations and sorrows; educators who are capable of embracing the mishaps that happen alongside the magic. 

Educators will always feel the pressure of excelling at the “adult stuff” in their jobs—things like raising test scores and fulfilling their professional growth plans and checking all the right boxes on their evals—but there’s real danger in letting those things subdue the “kid stuff” that makes the job meaningful. 

But that fine line where the adult stuff (authority) and the kid stuff (sincerity) live in harmony? That’s where the magic happens.

Don’t try to be cool, don’t obsess over being the favorite. Students can see right through it. For them, the beginning of the school year isn’t just making new friends and figuring out where their classes are, it’s about meeting a brand new group of adults trying to make some kind of impact on their lives and figuring out what they’re all about. So show them! Be real with your kids. Let your sincerity go unweathered by the fickleness of appearances and perceptions. If you can do that, the bonds you form will light your path to success.    

At the same time, educators should feel a fierce, moral urgency to do the work of building literate and numerate citizen scholars—and that supremely difficult work requires more than warm and fuzzy feelings in our classrooms alone. As teachers, we hold a position of respectful authority, and we must remind ourselves often that relationships are no substitute for rigor.

As I head back for the second full week of school tomorrow—that week where we make the big transition from ice-breakers and fire drills and benchmarking data to meaningful content delivery—I’m sure I’ll be doing a lot of reflecting on the past six years. Like all educators, I’m proud of the growth that I’ve shown over my career so far, but I still have so much to learn until I can finally say that I’ve heeded my own advice. 

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