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New Teacher, You Didn't Do It Wrong

Dear New Teacher,

You're feeling pretty tired right now. You're reflecting on all the times you think you failed, on all the students you couldn't reach. You're wondering how you made it through the year without your colleagues figuring out that you're a fraud. They asked you from time to time, "How's it going?"

You lied. "Everything is great. Yes, I'm doing fine."

Before you clean up, lock the classroom door, and head into your first summer as a teacher, I want you to know one thing: You didn't do it wrong.

Maybe everyone around you looked as if they always had it together.

  • Their papers were quickly graded.

  • Their bulletin boards were perfect and changed with the season or holiday.

  • They never looked exhausted and they never looked as if they cried a little when they made it to the car in the evenings.

That's OK. Maybe they've been teaching long enough to know a few tricks that you've yet to learn. Maybe they have a spouse who helps with that paper grading. Or just maybe they feel like a fraud, too.

You feel the way you feel right now because of the terrible lessons that teachers are fed. These lessons are rarely stated explicitly, but they linger in the air of almost every school. Veteran teachers have mastered the art of walking straight through that air without breathing it in. New teachers inhale all the bad lessons from the teaching culture because they haven't yet learned how to let them float on by.

Here are three lessons that you should ditch right now:

Lesson #1: Burn Those Candles and Burn Them Long

CandleIn teaching, you can walk into a room and say, "I only slept for two hours because I decided to grade the rest of my students' research papers," and colleagues will say, "Wow. You did all that work? You're great!" This philosophy reminds me of a popular teaching quote that reads, "A good teacher is like a candle. It consumes itself to light the way for others."

What a terrible lesson. In a world where teacher burnout is a real and serious problem, it shouldn't be considered inspirational to suggest that an educator must be completely consumed in order to be a good teacher. To the contrary, the only way to be a truly good teacher is to blow out your own candle every now and then, so that you can rest and come back stronger. So, if you blew out your candle along the way to take a much-needed break, or if you kept a mental countdown to the next break, that's OK. Love the profession, but do not let it consume you.

Lesson #2 You Should Strive to Be Superteacher 

I'll be honest. The "I Teach. What's your superpower?" is a teacher catchphrase that I like. I have two T-shirts, a superteacher cape that my friend Pam gave to me, and I've been known to come as superteacher on spirit days. I love the message behind the phrase—not everyone can do this job and do it well. What's important to remember, though, is that being great in the profession doesn't mean that you keep on your cape every second, join every committee, stay late every day, volunteer for every extra task because you're superteacher, and you're there to put others first.

Veteran "superteachers" have learned that sometimes saying "No" can be a superpower, too. It reserves your talents to be used in a way that's better for you and your students. As a veteran educator, I admit that this one is hard for me, and it was definitely hard for me as a new teacher. However, the sooner you learn to be more selective about extra duties, the sooner you start to feel more adept at the required ones.

Lesson 3: Whatever the Test Scores, They Are Your Glory or Your Gloom

The culture teaches that every negative test score your students receive is due to what you did. Likewise, it teaches that every positive test score your students receive is due to what you did. Neither is correct. I've taught students who were disengaged most of the year, but they blew the test out of the water. Maybe they were great test-takers or gifted writers. Sometimes I've taught hard before, during, and after school, but my students still did poorly. I had to learn that all I could do was teach as best I could and understand that the results may or may not reflect the heart and effort I put into the job. If your scores upset you, but you taught with your whole being, you did it right.

Good teaching is about learning, refining, and trying new things. Each year you'll polish and polish some more. You'll learn to balance it all and thrive while balancing.

So, blow out the candle, snatch off the cape, and close the lesson-plan book. Enjoy your summer knowing that, regardless of the lessons you learned about how to judge your worth, you did it right.

Now, exhale.

Monica Washington is the 2014 Texas Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year.
Photo credit: Monica Washington, Burton Avenue 

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