A Letter to New Teachers (Confessions of a Troublemaker)

Dear New Teachers:

Congratulations! You are about to become a member of one of the most verbally accoladed and financially minimized professions in history. Welcome to our fold.

In August of 2008 I was in your shoes, preparing for my first day of teaching at community college. I was nervous, naive, and excited. Having outlined my courses, I felt prepared. It turns out I was not even in the correct zip code for prepared. The past few years I have had what I generously call Growing Pains. Never did I intend to be a troublemaker; instead, I managed to stumble blindly into it, like some unfortunate girl at the core of a horror franchise. As a teacher at heart, there a few things I have learned I would like to share with you. These are not my normal diatribe against the system and the students, but four simple things that if taken to heart can hopefully make your new job remain your career.

First, set up boundaries for yourself and others, both at school and at home. While the Hollywood view of education praises teachers who give themselves over entirely to their profession, this approach is not realistic in the long haul. It is admirable to want to give everything to your students; it is essential to keep something for yourself and your family. In the age of email and texting, students and even administration sometimes forget that teachers are not always “On Call.” The problem comes when there are no boundaries set for you and them. Yes, grading and responding to student questions can be done from home; it’s one of the perks of the job. However, you must teach yourself how to mentally (and often times physically) clock out. The email needing an immediate answer can wait until your office hours or conference period. The phone call can go to voice mail during dinner. As I recently told the committee in an interview for my new administrative position, my time has a price. Figure out how much your time is worth financially and emotionally, and then budget how it should be split between your work, your family, and yourself. You owe it to all three.

Next, realize you are a student, too. The moment you stop learning and growing as a teacher, quit. Every semester, every day, every class, I learn something new (often times merely patience). While I certainly don’t want to reinvent the wheel, I do want to move toward my better teacher-self. When you have a classroom observation, listen to the feedback. Read student comments looking for constructive criticism. Keep up with what’s happening in education and in your field of expertise. Most importantly, own and learn from your mistakes. Yes, you will make mistakes. Some on accident, some on purpose. You are a human being imparted with a difficult job. Of course you will make mistakes. It’s what you do with those mistakes that will define you.

My third bit of advice is compromise on anything but your integrity. No matter what you tell students, parents, administration, family, or even yourself, someone will ask you to compromise. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve said it, written it, or yelled it, they will want exceptions to your rules. Here’s the thing: some compromise isn’t a bad thing. Flexibility to a point shows willingness to adapt and grow. I compromise every day with someone because I have learned to pick my battles. That being said, I value my personal and professional integrity too much to ever compromise those. The way I view it, at the end of each semester I have to sign my name to the grade the student has received. I am saying that the grade accurately reflects the student’s performance to the best of my professional judgment. If the grade reflects something that wasn’t earned or a lack of standards on my part, I have compromised my integrity. Beyond that, the integrity of my courses is two-fold: I must challenge my students to work to their highest potential, even if they hate the work and me for it, and I must be willing to guide them on that path, no matter how frustrated or tired we all might become.

Finally, and this is sort of compilation of all the others, take care of yourself. Be smart in the way you do things. The world is full of wonderful students, some who just may not know it yet–you can help them. It is also full of students who will exploit you and/or the system rather than work. Don’t put yourself in the situation where that can happen because it can kill your career. Keep your boundaries firm, acknowledge and grow from your mistakes, and behave in a way that is befitting of the best of our profession. When the students say terrible things about you (and some will), don’t take it personally. Find friends who will commiserate or just listen. You are not alone in any of this.

I send you my deepest wishes of hope and gratitude as you embark on this path. It sucks, exhausts, challenges, rocks, transforms, consumes, and inspires.
Oh, before I forget, get a sense of humor if you don’t have one already. You’re going to need it.

XO

A

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