Six things I learned during my first year of teaching
1. Cheer for the kids who are doing well. Cheer louder for the kids who aren’t.
Think back to your own school years. You can probably still name some classmates that always seemed to excel in school. I know I can. Maybe you were that student who was always top of the class. The point here is that kids know it. They aren’t oblivious to the fact that some of their classmates may be “smarter” than them. The students who are doing well in the classroom know that they are doing a good job. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be praised, because they absolutely should, but what about the student who isn’t getting straight As? What about the student who has to work twice as hard for a C as an excelling student does for an A? This year has taught me that I have the power to be a cheerleader for the underdog.
After students wrote their first multi paragraph essays for my class, I highlighted pieces of great writing from a few students who don’t receive a lot of positive recognition at school. Upon being granted permission from these students, I read the highlighted portions of the essays to the class. Each time I read one of these examples of great citations, relevant evidence, fluid transitions, and strong conclusions, the entire class immediately began to guess which “smarty” in the class wrote it. They were stunned when I told them the actual essay writers, who were now beaming with pride. It wasn’t that these students had A+ essays. Some of them had a tremendous amount of errors. To be honest, there were probably some other essays that were better as a whole. What matters, though, is that I found one thing that they did well and pointed it out to them and their peers. I was thrilled when I noticed one of my high achieving students high-five one of my struggling students whose essay introduction was read to the class. I think she knew that this student was an underdog. I couldn’t be more proud that she chose to cheer loud for the underdog, too.
2. Your praise matters, and not just for students.
Since the start of the year I have had a “Rockstar Shout-out” bulletin board. Each time I see a student working hard, lending a helping hand, thinking positively, or demonstrating a love for learning, I write the student a note of appreciation, fold it, write their name on the front, and pin it to that board. When students walk into my room and see that there is a new shout-out they are always eager to see if it is addressed to them. I started doing this as a way to motivate students and show that I value their efforts. The strategy did not disappoint. Some students taped these notes in their lockers all year. Some students came up to personally thank me for their notes. I had a parent tell me that her daughter was proud to hang one on their refrigerator. But, even after seeing those sweet reactions to some simple notes, I wholeheartedly believe that the one who benefited most was me. You see, after students leave at the end of each day, no matter how good, bad, or ugly my day is, I sit down at my desk and write little notes about the good things that happen each day. Even on a day when my perfect lesson plan turns into a total flop, or a day when I’m left swamped with my head spinning, there are still good things that happen. When I set aside time for praise at the end of my day, I get to go home thinking about the positive.
3. Read alouds are therapeutic, and not just for students.
I remember learning in college about the benefits of reading aloud to children. Reading aloud builds vocabulary, promotes empathy, ignites imagination, fosters a feeling of connection…I could go on and on. What I don’t remember learning, however, is that sharing a great book with your students is like taking vitamins for your soul. I’ve never felt more connected with my class than when we are sharing a book we all love. There’s something special about building a classroom community. There’s also something special about being able to pause in a certain moment and just soak in the fact that moments like this are the reason you love your job.
This realization came to me on a particularly hard day. I had a meeting during my planning period that left me feeling inadequate and overstretched (likely a product of my hypersensitivity and tendency to be hard on myself). I remember holding back tears as I picked up my students from specials. I knew that when I brought them back to the classroom it would be our read aloud time, but I was so upset that I didn’t want to stand in front of my class and read. Just let it be lunchtime. I thought to myself, wondering if anyone would care if I started recess early so that I could pull myself together. As my students walked into the classroom I heard a few of them saying “It’s Wonder time!” excitedly. They knew that this was our special time to find out what would happen next to their beloved protagonist, Auggie Pullman. Just hearing the enthusiasm in their voices made me change my mind about skipping our read aloud. As I began to read I forgot about those feelings of self-doubt I was having before. For those 10 minutes I felt as if I were home. I lost myself in the feeling of unity that only sharing in a passion, like the love of a good book, can bring. I remember thinking as I was reading, with my students hanging on my every word, that this was one of the things I loved most about the career I chose. Sharing enthusiasm for a book about the power of kindness. It’s moments like those that I live for.
4. Kids will write what they don’t want to say.
Since the beginning of the year, each of my students has had a journal for writing about their weekends, telling me about the books they have been reading, and even for pondering the meaning of inspirational quotes I display on the board. One thing that I did not foresee these journals being used for was to open the lines of communication between my students and me when they are going through a tough time. It started one day when a student came into my classroom crying. I pulled her aside and asked what was wrong, but she was clearly too upset to answer me. I understood why she probably didn’t want to voice her struggles, because I too have experienced what it’s like to be so distraught that speaking about the problem only makes you cry harder.
Instead of pushing her to tell me what was wrong, I handed this student her journal and told her that she was welcome to write about what was bothering her. When she willingly did this, I asked her if she would mind if I read it. She handed me the journal and nodded. Inside she had written about a situation that happened at home, and knowing this helped me support her by simply telling her that I cared. I was a bit surprised at first that this way of addressing the situation had worked so well, but when I tried it again with a boy who was upset in my classroom a couple of weeks later, it worked again. By now I have had multiple other similar situations, and out of all those cases, not a single student has refused to write about their feelings when they have been upset. It has become my go-to strategy when dealing with the big emotions of young people.
5. Don’t invalidate the stresses and struggles of students (or anyone!)
We’ve all been there. After confiding in someone about our trials they say something along the lines of “it could be worse” or “here’s how I have it worse than you” or my personal favorite “oh, you think that’s rough? Just wait until…” If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’re all guilty of saying something like this to someone at one time or another. The thing is, when we make these condescending comments to others we aren’t doing them any favors. We may think we’re putting things into perspective for them, but in reality we’re making them feel as though they don’t have a right to their own emotions. It’s easy for us as adults to forget that this holds true for kids as well. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t annoyed when a student told me “I can’t do homework because I have practice tonight.” Part of me felt like rolling my eyes and telling the student about all the assignments I had to do in school on top of numerous extracurriculars, or about how last year I was in grad school, planning a wedding, building a house, and student teaching all at the same time. But who would that be helping? Sure, being an adult comes with more stresses and responsibilities than being a kid, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that a kid is being introduced to new responsibilities and stresses too. We look back on fourth grade and think it’s easy because we’ve been through harder things, but in their eyes the fourth grade is the hardest thing they’ve done in their lives! This fourth grader hadn’t yet been equipped with the time management skills to deal with stress like an adult. So, instead of saying too bad so sad, I told him that being a student athlete isn’t easy. I told him that it would take a lot of hard work, but that he would have to remember that schoolwork is his top priority. I encouraged him, saying that even though it can be difficult, I just knew he could do it.
6. You’re doing better than you think you are.
Nobody enjoys feeling like they aren’t doing enough. This fear is magnified in teaching, because it is the education of young people we care about that is at stake. If my kids don’t grow enough this year, that’s on me alone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this thought. I continuously told myself that I wasn’t doing a good enough job and picked apart every decision I made as a teacher. The more I think about it though, the more certain I am that it takes a good teacher to recognize our own imperfections. I would rather be a teacher who can point out three things I would change about my lesson for next time than a teacher who thinks every lesson is perfect.
We can always do better.
I’m okay with driving home thinking about how I could have handled a behavior problem differently. I’m okay with asking coworkers for guidance and advice. I’m okay with thinking that there’s always more that I can do. It doesn’t make me a bad teacher to fail, or doubt myself, or to ask for help. This job is not a glamorous one. We don’t go on fancy business trips, or get promotions, or earn extravagant pay raises for working hard. We deal with ignorant people— sometimes even loved ones—telling us that our job is easy,. But they do not know all we do. Ultimately, we have a choice between allowing belittling words to get the best of us, or we can march on, continuing to do the best we can. And if we’re doing that, we’re probably doing better than we think we are.
Jessica Egbert is a fourth grade language arts teacher at Riverside Local School, De Graff, Ohio.
Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2020.