A message to pre-service teachers

I’m finishing my third year of teaching at age 33.  It’s a long, kinda involved story about how I got to where I am, but long story short I changed careers and decided I wanted to be a math teacher. So I packed everything up and moved to New York because I wanted to help inner-city kids do math good (and do other things good too).  As I was winding down my grad program and looking for jobs, I heard about this new school opening the following year with a focus on preparing kids for careers in addition/as an alternative to college. I’m totally on board with the idea that college isn’t the right fit for everyone right away, so I agreed to come on as the founding math teacher.

Yup. My first year teaching I was the only math teacher at a first year school with a first year principal who had as much teaching experience as I do today, teaching a population in which a third of the students had some sort of special education services.

In an effort to be professional I won’t go into details here, but long story short it was a terrible mess. I never slept. I drank too much. I developed a bald spot in my beard. At the end of the year we had 100% turnover of the teaching staff.

More than once during that year I thought “Oh my god I’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.” Obviously my choice of position didn’t work out, but more than that I thought I was terrible at teaching. And it was devastating because this was something that I felt really passionate about, and more importantly something I had considered myself good at up until that point. Why did I feel like I was getting worse every day? How was I failing so miserably?

But I couldn’t quit. I got my masters as part of MfA, and the fellowship had a four year teaching requirement or else I’d have to repay my degree. And a part of me knew, despite the disaster that was my first year, that I still wanted to teach. So I looked for other jobs.

In a tremendous stroke of luck, one of my good friends at my first school knew of someone at my current school who could pass on my resume. And my current school is awesome. And I got the job. And things are better. Not perfect (and the nature of life is that things will never be perfect), but I look forward to work most days and my co-workers are great and our kids are amazing. My beard even grew back in.

This is a very long, very ineloquent way of telling pre-service teachers the following:

Be Careful

New York City is kind of a special case because a few years ago it was decided that small schools and school choice were the best model, so instead of large community schools we have a TON of smaller schools, most with some sort of special mission statement. So we have a lot more choice about where we apply to work than in other places. But that said, be aware of the place you are working. Don’t repeat my mistake of starting at a brand new school your first year. No matter how much you believe in their mission, there are too many other things to balance just learning to do this job, and trying to also create a school culture and policies is exhausting. Make sure you trust your principal. Research the school. Be wary of charters that churn-and-burn their teaching staff.

Be Resilient

Later this summer there will be a ton of “Letter to a First Year Teacher” blog posts from veteran teachers floating about the interwebs. Read those, and realize that the first year sucks for everyone. But also know that there are levels of suck. If you do find yourself in a bad situation, know that it won’t last forever. Every day there’s another post in some major news outlet about the teacher shortage. You will find another job. And until you do, do your best and remind yourself that you’re doing your best. Nothing lasts forever.

Find things you love, and focus on them

This is intentionally vague, but it could be any number of things. I loved the kids at my first school and tried to focus on the good things they did for me. I loved my coworkers so I went to happy hour every Friday.  I loved cooking so I would spend my Sundays cooking for my roommates. Without those things I honestly don’t know how I would have survived. You need to take care of yourself.

Don’t be afraid to admit defeat

I’m a perfectionist, but one thing I learned that year was to say “This is as good as I can make it right now” and then stop. There will always be things that can be improved, but when your principal keeps telling you to “Figure it out” and then not giving you any advice that’s actually useful, realize that it’s on them and not on you.

Our job is hard. Really hard. Hard in ways that are impossible to describe to other people who focus on the two months we have “off.” But as I said before, and as I say to my students, there are different levels of hard. And maybe this job isn’t the right fit for some of you. Maybe you go to a different school and are still unhappy. That’s obviously ok, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for saying “I tried it out and realized it’s not for me.”

But it makes me so sad to think that there are a number of amazing teachers out there who, for one reason or another, got into a shitty situation and it turned them off from a profession that they could have added so much to. If teaching is something you really feel passionate about, find places and people that will reward that passion.  You can, and will, do so many great things. Just keep looking for a place that will let you.

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