Years ago I walked into my Principal's office, a mentor and friend and a great educator. The specific question I had was neither here nor there -- just a 1st year teacher struggling to survive those opening months of having my own classroom and the crazy "Mr..." in front of my name and the entire 'give'em a grade' confusion. I can't imagine what it must have been like to have been a seasoned educator sitting across from that young guy, filled with promise and energy and a bit of fear, and trying to say the right thing that can't really be said but must be lived. What Laura Mack did say, however, was this:
"You've got it backwards, Christian. Stop trying to figure out how to teach this year. Your job this year is simply about showing up every day, no matter how hard it feels, and survive this first year. That's it. Pretty simple, really. Sometime after next summer we'll get down to the business of actually turning you into a teacher. But stop trying to wrestle with that today. It's just not the right struggle."
I had ZERO idea what she meant. I continued to go home each night and do multiple hours of research for each 50 minute section -- an insane and illogical formula -- and spent several more months trying, tying, trying to be a great teacher. Come the summer, I was wiped out. A deep to the core exhaustion.
It took me that entire year to finally realize what she meant. Or at least to begin figuring it out. She wasn't talking about 'surviving' in terms of battles, but in terms of treading water. And she meant something unspoken. Something about kids. Something about relationships. Something about being human first,a professional second, for at least that first year until some solid ground was under my feet.
This all came back to me tonight as I exchanged emails with a trusted friend (and frankly a far wiser teacher today than I ever came close to being). We've been mentoring a younger teacher, someone I described in an email as "one of those teachers" that will truly make an impact of excellence over time, but who today is struggling in those inner-heart sorts of ways with the first year of running their own classroom. Well, my friend sent the following back to me tonight. It goes to the heart of something nearly 'primal' about teaching...and reminds me of another point I'll make in a second. He wrote:
"...right now, [he] is trying to convince kids to love his subject when he needs to convince himself to love them and then figure out how what he teachers matters to them. I don't think he's quite there yet. I read the entry he wrote after he and I emailed -- he still has way too much of himself and his material in there, and not enough of the kids. He's smart, and he cares. I think he'll get there. I think -- I hope -- that by blogging and getting involved in the community of folks out here, he'll find his way."
I want to print that out and keep it close to my eyes for the years ahead, the years that will undoubtedly make it more and more challenging to remember what the 'center' of it all is when it comes down to being a teacher. It's 'the purpose', I believe, and not only is it the right advice for a young teacher who is struggling in the most honest of struggles, but it also gets to the heart of something I've also felt about why certain experienced educators manage to be extraordinary decades later while others with similar experience and knowledge pale in comparison.
As said above, one "needs to convince [one]self to love them and then figure out how what [one] teachers matters to them"...and I think that for the teacher with years and some decades under their belt that truly inspire learning, it is this simple agreement that pulls all things together.
I've always felt -- once I got my feet under myself after that first teaching year -- that the absolute 'survival' experience of a first year teacher is what becomes the DNA for all the years that follow. In otherwords, the survival skills one learns to make it through those scary and paradoxical first 9 months become the ground you stand on in the next few years, and then when the fear goes away, the same skills become a world view and a rationalization and a way of drawing lines in the sand. So, even the most experienced educator on the planet is still in some way re-copying (or mimeo-graphing) those early skills that so often become unconscious, and they simply get better and better at explaining the continued use over time.
Which brings me back to what my first Principal was truly saying in the first quotation above and what my friend said in the second:
If you love your students -- truly love them, serve them, advocate for the, believe in their best selves, appreciate that they are the best kids their parents were capable of sharing with the world, and truly have gifts that can be inspired to great heights -- and you trust this no matter how tough that first year is, then the teaching will follow. Just as importantly, years later when you're sitting back in a faculty meeting with that 'knowing look' or running through one of Shakespeare's play for the 28th consecutive year or mentoring a young teacher of your own, the unconscious bag of tricks will have been grounded in that early love, that early desire to 'serve' your kids, that original intent to do what was right first and figure out the curriculum second.
As someone once said to me,
"Remember, you made an adult choice to go into teaching. While some sympathy is warranted when things are confusing, frankly, it's a limited game. The kids on the otherhand, have no choice in the matter...and yet we still expect them to match our abilities and rules. There's nothing wrong with that. Stop focusing on you. You get a paycheck and at the end of the day get to take off the 'teacher' costume if you want. The kids get talk about the future and never get to stop being students. Never take off that constume.
But when in doubt, when confused or angry, when lost, simply love the kids. And remember you made an informed decision to teach. And stop trying to figure it all out the first day. Love will take you where you're capable of going. When you're ready. And truth of truths, if your ultimate goal is to see your kids learn and grow and achieve great things, this is where you'll find them doing it, when you love them enough to believe they can accomplish anything no matter how hard the challenge."
I agreed with them then. I continue to agree today. And think that all of us are still in the position of making an 'adult choice' and also for looking deep into our hearts at the coping skills we developed that first year (or so) and what entrenched walls of rationalization we've created over the years in an effort to feel comfort 'on the other side of the desk.'
But loving the kids and expecting them to be extraordinary over the evolution of that relationship is perhaps the single lesson that might deserve a 2nd look in the pantheon of teacher education classes, well-intentioned professional development and mentoring for young teachers, and the increasing look at standardization for achievement outcomes that seem to be rolled out when we try to develop young teachers.
And frankly, it's far easier to be at peace that first year when you put all that energy into loving the kids first and foremost.