I remember it like it was yesterday…my first year as an elementary school teacher in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, NY in 1988. I had never previously taught a day in my life. A class of 5th graders where most had been retained at least once with 100% on free or reduced lunch. I hadn’t started on your normal first day of school. It was November. The previous teacher died the week prior. He was extremely popular and beloved….and then here comes me. Every one of those children were grieving and they exhibited their grief in ways that eventually made me into the teacher I became later. This was certainly the most challenging year of my thirty-two year career as an educator.
I eventually evolved into an effective teacher over the years but that’s for a later blog post. Let’s talk about 1988. By my present standards, I was absolutely horrendous. I was a horrible teacher. In fact, I don’t know if I deserved to call myself a “teacher.” I knew nothing about teaching….and my students knew it. I don’t think I ever had a good day that year. In fact, I state often that if I ever saw one of my former students from that first year, all I could say is that I’m sorry. They are all in their 40’s now. I initially vowed to find yet another career to pursue as teaching was not my initial career choice and my undergraduate major was Marketing. I had therefore concluded rather quickly at the time that I simply wasn’t built for the classroom. Every day was a new challenge, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but every day was so chaotic and hectic. As I reflected upon it during my initial years as a principal ten years later, I thought to myself, “Wow…of that tumultuous year, the vice principal observed me once and the principal never observed me. I had one observation for about a half of a lesson and was assigned to no one to walk me through my new world.” I had to figure this thing out on my own.
To the new teachers out there, I give you this backdrop to talk about you and your first year. I know there are new teachers out there ranging from “I love this work” all the way to “I can’t see myself doing this again next year” and everyone in between. But even the ones who are having great first years, I am willing to bet that you ran into some potholes and roadblocks along the way….you experienced some bumps and bruises on your journey. In fact, this is normal for the superstar veteran teacher as well. Teaching is not easy work. The difference between you and I however is this thing call COVID 19…the Corona Virus…a global pandemic. In my first year, I didn’t have a virus to contend with. My challenge was in the classroom solely, not to mention coming in mid-year after a beloved teacher had died.
Your reality is quite different. You are in your first year. Whether you are having a good year or a struggling year, you have been hit with a challenge that could never have been anticipated…a global pandemic. As a first year teacher trying to find your way under normal circumstances, now you have a pandemic to contend with as well that is impacting all your students, their parents and the community upon which they live. That is not an easy endeavor due to the range of emotions that your students wake up to daily…the uncertainly about the future. As I type, schools are now closed, but when the pandemic first made its way to the U.S., there were so many questions about what the future held as it related to schools.
Schools are closed now but teaching…education has not ended. It just looks and feels different now. Now its distance learning from your home and chances are, as a first year teacher, no one prepared you for teaching through a pandemic in undergraduate school…from your home. So here you are now for example conducting ZOOM lessons virtually. That is not easy to do for your most seasoned teacher. The good thing however, is that like myself entering my first year in a very unusual situation but overcoming it, you too are in an unusual situation but you too will overcome it.
Hey first year teacher, as difficult and frustrating as it may be right now, do not get discouraged; do not entertain quitting; do not second guess your decision to teach nor your skillset. Always keep in mind that this is a difficult time for all of us in our various different capacities. On the one hand, you are a teacher, but on the other hand, you are an individual with a life outside of school. Dealing with a pandemic on an individual basis can be overwhelming in and of itself but when you couple that with the responsibility that you have for your students, it can be downright daunting…if you a allow it to be.
I could go “on and on” on this topic, but I won’t. I wrote these 900 words to simply say to a first year teacher somewhere in the world that “You got this! This will probably be the most challenging year in your career. As you adapt to and overcome this challenge, it will equip you to overcome all challenges. Keep learning…keep growing…keep adapting…and make sure you are collaborating with colleagues…the ones that have your best interest at heart, and you will be fine...and never forget...this too shall pass."
For further reading on school leadership, pick up Principal Kafele’s four school leadership books, The Assistant Principal 50: Critical Questions for Meaningful Leadership and Professional Growth, The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence, Is My School a Better School Because I Lead It? and The Aspiring Principal 50: Critical Questions for New and Future School Leaders – all published by ASCD and can be ordered through principalkafele.com.