Lessons for the First Year Teacher

Dear New Teacher and Nervous Soul,

I know how you feel. Those butterflies turned evil in your stomach, tying knots? I’ve had them. Wondering if you’ve made the right decision. If you’re ready to face the responsibility. If you’ve got what it takes. I know those questions well.

But there’s excitement too. In there somewhere?

Clamoring voices will soon enter through your doors and a new life will begin. In so many ways your life will not be your own. Ever again. That’s the reality—and the beauty—of teaching.

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In coming days new colleagues will either encourage you or horrify you with their battlefield stories. You must choose the voices you ponder.

May I add my voice? I’m not the best teacher you will meet, and I’ve never been teacher of the year. But there are still words I want to whisper. Words I was desperate to hear. Do you mind if I lean in?

I’m excited you’ve chosen this profession. I know you’ve heard the snide remarks and seen the looks of pity cast your way. The warnings of hazards and pay and kids these days. But I’m thrilled you’ve ignored those voices.

Welcome. I’m so glad to have you.

College can never fully prepare you for the work of teaching—nothing could. But that’s okay. Experience can be life’s greatest professor if you’re willing to learn. Because mistakes will be made. The only redemption in a mistake is to learn from it.

Your school friends? They must always include your custodian and the school secretaries. Your degree doesn’t make you better than them—my favorite custodian for the last three years held a masters in teaching from his home country. You can’t do your job if the custodians and secretaries aren’t doing theirs. It takes a village. Be grateful for yours.

Don’t be afraid to break some rules. Bureaucracy will always exist, but you don’t have to bow to it. The best teacher is the one who does what’s best for the student. Just because your lesson plans and your government have an agenda, don’t miss the teachable moments. They don’t happen every day.

Be open to old ideas from teachers who’ve honed their craft. Wise educators that have paved rough roads will surround you. A great teacher is never dependent upon age. Seek out those teachers. Learn from them. I promise, they’re not hard to find.

Avoid bitterness—like the plague. Avoid where it harbors. Not every workroom is filled with its poison, but you will feel it quickly if it is. And then run. Don’t look back.

Your students will break your heart. There will be some you can’t reach. You will ache to touch their hurting places but their walls will be just too high. You will toss and turn in the night carrying their pain with you. It will sometimes seem too much to bear. But you will bear it because you may be the only one, for some students, that even tries.

Perfect your craft. Never stop learning how to be a better teacher. I’ve been doing this a while but there are days I feel like a novice, like a new babe only breathing her first gulp of air. The best teacher is also the best student.

Choose when you discipline wisely. There are battles worth fighting. But sometimes the cost is just too high. Your battle may be won while the relationship with your student is forever severed. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. Sometimes you do.

Though you may want to, you can’t demand respect. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not right. But if you ever want to reach your students, you must show them respect day after day after day. Even when they disrespect you. Only then will they trust. And the relationship you get in return? Beautiful.

You will never win a yelling match with a student. Ever. Screaming at any young heart always shreds—always leaves scars. Don’t leave scars. Your words can wound. Deeply. Forever.

You hold more power than you think.

Take time to listen to what your students aren’t saying. Their eyes tell stories. So do their actions. Do you have a student that needs to sleep in your class every day? Ask them why they’re so tired. The answer may surprise you—and haunt you.

You can make a difference. But if, and only if, you love your students. Look every one of your students in the eye, every day. Let them know you care. Tell them they are worth your time. Love them. Love them.

Love them.

This job? This profession? This calling? It’s worth it. Worth the time. Worth the cost. Worth the toil. Worth the heartache. Because there is joy in teaching. Joy in changing lives and witnessing a life reach toward a dream for the first time.

You are the champion of dreams. The compass leading confusion through the wilderness. The voice of today helping mold the voice of tomorrow. Yes. It’s worth it.

You’re ready. You’ve got what it takes.
Students need your guidance.
They’re waiting.
For you.

And for me. Because while I wrote this letter to you, it’s words need to ring in my head too. A reminder. Of all the things that matter in teaching.

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31 Responses to Lessons for the First Year Teacher

  1. Jackie says:

    Our amazing daughter: you have once again written with wisdom far beyond your years.

  2. gail matthews says:

    Your students are incredibly lucky and blessed.

  3. Tammy Wathen says:

    Heather, beautifully said. Your words always resonate with me. You are blessed not only with the gift of teaching, but with the gift of writing. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Nikki says:

    Heather – I couldn’t have put my feelings into words any better than this.

  5. maranda says:

    Thabk you for these word of encouragement. I am going to print them for the time I am told I will wonder if I made the right choice.

  6. Lydia says:

    Hi, I was one of your students. I hope other teachers will take something from this and use it because if there was any teacher that I could think of that effectively taught me without trying to force me to learn it would be you. Not many teachers realize that their job isn’t to hit a standard. As crazy as it sounds, students need to be taught to want to learn. It is insane to think that there are people who don’t want to learn, but that is because they are blinded; they cannot see the value of the subject. Teach us the beauty and show us the take away. Some teachers try to parent, however that method does not work. We already have parents, and if not, we already have enough people telling us what to do. We are not kids, we’re students. There will always be students who want to be there, and students who don’t. It is inevitable that some students will fail and some will succeed. I’m sure you want your students to succeed; I know it pains you to see them fail, but you can’t blame yourself if they do. As long as you are confident and show interest in what you teach, us students will begin to take notice. Impact us, motivate us, and love us. You’ll learn just as much from us as we will from you. At the end of day, all that matters is that we got something out of it. We took something with us. I hear you, my ears are open. If someone is listening, you are heard. I’m just letting you know that it went through and I understand.

    • Sweet Lydia! You have warmed me heart and soul. You are a treasure, and I enjoyed every minute of having you in my class. I’m so excited for the journey you have in front of you. You’re going to do amazing things!

  7. Linda says:

    Thank you for these pearls of wisdoms. It is a reminder of why I do my job and who I serve on a daily basis. As others have mentioned, I am going to print this as a reminder for when things get tough.

    • Things always do get rough. I’m grateful for the community of teachers I have here in cyberspace and at school to help me always remember I am never alone in my frustrations. May God pour out His mercies on you this year as you guide young hearts!

  8. Marci Lord says:

    Just recently found your blog through another teacher friend. I cannot begin to tell you how much your words mesh into and melt my heart. At times, it’s like you’ve secretly opened my heart and read what was inside. If nothing else, your thoughts, words, emotions have made me realize that the things that I think, pray for, and want so badly are all very real and I’m not completely cray-cray! Juggling life as a wife, mother, AND teacher is sooooo hard. As we hit the hardest time of the year, I find myself wanting to be depressed in some ways, but I’m over-excited in others. I think it’s why I went to bed at 8:00 last night and left my two children wide awake playing! :)
    Again, I sincerely appreciate your heart-felt outpouring and know that it inspires me greatly! I’ve forwarded several of your blog posts on to our entire school because we as teachers MUST keep our perspective in line. God bless you and the new school year before you!

    • Marci, It IS so hard. The juggling is exhausting. I go back tomorrow and my emotional state today? A hot mess! I completely relate. I am passionate about my job but it’s always so hard to go back every August. Praying for you as you begin a new year. Thank you for sharing my blog. It really does mean a great deal.

  9. Missy says:

    Thank you for your words of wisdom as I embark on my First Year of Teaching! :)

  10. Barb says:

    Thank you for your words of wisdom as I enter my 43 year of teaching. It never seems to change-the nerves and excitement of a new year! May God’s wisdom and love guide you through your year!

  11. Lynda says:

    Your wisdom and kindness shines through as usual. Take to heart what your former student Lydia wrote. This was one affirmation that you are a good teacher.
    Best wishes in your 2014-2015 school year!

  12. Rob Brice says:

    Thank you for these words or encouragement as I enter my first year of teaching! This is both scary and exhilarating for me, and I am nervously waiting for school to start.

  13. Mady Polanco says:

    Thank you for your wise advice I will attach it to my heart and I will try to become what you are…a great role model and a great inspiration. God bless you!

  14. Shannon says:

    Thank you!!! I so needed this! While working like a maniac this last week and some of the summer in my class I’ve questioned if this is really what I want to do with my life. If it is all worth it? Then I got to meet my class yesterday and it made since why all this is worth it! You feel alone some days and feel like you can never amount to the teachers around you, but just remember as long as you are giving 100% and caring for your students, that is enough! You don’t have to be the Pinterest queen, or make everything so perfect or cute! I think I am really saying all this to myself too.

    Again this could not have been a better article for the beginning of school! I need it, thank you!

  15. Cara says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! These are words I really needed today. I’m about to embark on my first year and I’m so scarcited (excited & scared). Anytime I meet a seasoned teacher, my first question to them is “what advice do you wish you would have gotten before your first year?” I’ve learned so much; majority of the answers I’ve heard are echoed here. Thank you!

    • Cara, The very fact you seek out wisdom and advice already makes you an incredible teacher. I just know you’re going to be amazing! Praying for you sister. We’re in this teaching thing together:-)

  16. Jan says:

    My daughter liked this post so I had to read it. What you have said is so true. I am starting on my 30th year and my daughter is starting her first year. I embibed some of the same sage advice.

  17. simone says:

    This is a very inspirational article

  18. Daniel says:

    Beautiful and encouraging for any new teacher. I love that you are not ashamed to share your faith and encourage other teachers to do so as well. Jesus is alive and well in our schools and He wants to impart His love, wisdom, favor and blessing over our classrooms and our students if we will let Him. I know this has been true for me over my last ten years of teaching…Have a blessed school year and keep encouraging teachers and glorifying Him with your blog. God bless you. http://www.whattheyhavetaughtme.wordpress.com

  19. Elissa says:

    I love this! This will be my first year as a kindergarten teacher and also an instructor for a program that’s all about theology and discipleship! I’m extremely nervous but overtaken by excitement at the same time!
    This helped me put into place the emotions I have been feeling!
    Some of these quotes will be put on my teachers desk, no doubt!
    Thank you so so much!

  20. Londa says:

    I’m a proud parent of two young teachers, both daughters and both teach English. My Oldest started teaching two years ago and my little one starts this year. Your letter brought tears to my eyes & a heavy joyful feeling that I think only a mother of a teacher and a teacher could understand. I see in you what I’ve already seen in my two girls- wisdom beyond years(as your mom pointed out), compassion, a calling that many don’t understand. I will be sharing your words with them with hopes that it will bring them an understanding about themselves and their calling. Nicely written!

  21. Julia says:

    I’m a college student, majoring in Elementary Education. And as I read this, my heart was so encouraged and your words, rooted in truth and experience, have brought tears to my eyes. Thank you, it was beautifully written.

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