a note to myself in the first year

I wrote the following letter today to the person I was five years ago.  I know it’s a little odd, but here it goes:
Hey John, 
This is a note to you in your first year of teaching.  On some level, you’re counting down the days.  You’re second-guessing what you’re doing, because so much of it seems to be failing.  It’s true that there are a few things you suck at.  Don’t get down by the fact that you can’t do paperwork.  Do you really want to be an expert in that field anyway? 
Don’t get too bummed about managing a classroom either.  You’ll never be a manager, but you’ll grow into leadership.  Eventually, you’ll be less of a hardass and you’ll lead out of who you are rather than what you think people expect out of you.  You’re already lightening up and using humor.  I know, I know, it feels like you’re cheating by joking around and getting to know the trouble-makers and talking things through instead of writing referals. Next year, if you think through a few procedures ahead of time, be authentic, attempt to stay calm and avoid punishments and rewards, you’ll find that the management takes care of itself.  It’s like driving a car.  You’re over-adjusting right now, but eventually it will be so normal you won’t even think about it. 
I know you want to make a difference, but some kids will hate your class.  They’ll hate being challenged or more likely they’ll hate the subject.  They may end up liking you as a person, but there are certain people who would much rather sit in a desk and quietly solve equations than analyze how globalization is changing human interaction.  Do your best not to hold their apathy against them.  It’s not that they don’t care, but that they don’t understand the beauty and the excitement and the mystery of history. The cool thing is that you can bring them into service projects or art or simply allow the classroom to be a haven.  You’ll get to know their stories and you’ll tell them yours.  
People say that you should ask a ton of questions to veteran teachers.  I’m going to tell you something different.  Talk, listen, create a dialog, but you can go your own way.  Otherwise, the landslide will bring you down.  You’ll have so much advice that you’ll lose your core convictions.  You’ll never be the business executive or the drill sergeant or the “hang in there” kitty poster style teacher.  Teaching is your identity.  Your gift is in how transparent you are with students. Continue to be creative, authentic and willing to change. 
Right now your biggest fear is being found out.  You feel like somewhat of a fraud.  You worry about whether people will think you are capable.  Then you feel crushed when your students create articles for an online social studies magazine and no one on staff seems to care.  Embrace the solitude, as painful as that might be.  Be a covert sage working silently against the system of standardization.  Don’t worry so much about the invisible “them.”  In the end, you will have to be accountable to your students alone.  
So, go get a cup of coffee.  Set down the papers.  Give your wife a kiss and remember that, though you teach out of your life, teaching is not your life.  Though you teach out of who you are, your career doesn’t define you.  You can’t teach holistically if you aren’t living holisitcally yourself.  Go rent a movie, cuddle up to Christy on the couch and eat some God forsaken microwave popcorn and spice it up with some lime and Tapatio sauce. 
You’re doing okay, man.  You’re going to make it over the long haul.  Just don’t miss the process in your obsession with the outcome.
-John

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

13 responses

  1. Great john, just great. Would that Colleges of Education had professors with five years of classroom eperience that could teach first year teacher this wisdom.
    You , my friend, are on the way to being a great teacher:)

  2. lol. This is precious.

    “Right now your biggest fear is being found out. You feel like somewhat of a fraud. You worry about whether people will think you are capable”

    Mine too.

  3. This is beautiful. I have been out of the classroom for 2 years and am going back in September. I am going to remember your advice…

    “You can’t teach holistically if you aren’t living holisitcally yourself.”

  4. I love your advice. It took me a lot longer to catch on than it did you. I taught for years worrying about being perfect and trying to please the higher ups instead of just being myself. Humor is the way to go. Plus, taking time for yourself just makes a big difference in how you see things.

  5. This made me cry. I’m trying to separate my life from my job and I’m finding it very difficult. Glad to know I’m not the only one and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

  6. Thanks for all the encouragement. I was a little worried that it would sound too moralistic, but it feels good to have people respond the way they have.

  7. “”Right now your biggest fear is being found out. You feel like somewhat of a fraud. You worry about whether people will think you are capable.”

    I’m a first year middle school teacher and this goes through my head daily.

  8. You know it is crazy, I feel like such a fraud too. Is this an essential teacher feeling? Are we so used to second guessing our capabilities and God-given gifts because “they” don’t think that teaching outside of a textbook is beneficial?

  9. John, nice job with this letter. I’ve been in this for over 20 now and they “haven’t found me out yet”. It sounds like you have found the perspective to make it in this sometimes-surreal parallel universe in which we spend so many of our waking hours. I like the quote from “The Little Prince”, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, which says “what is essential is invisible to the eye,” It has helped me when things seem to be going in a direction not of my choosing.
    Tom Anselm, middle school teacher and author.

  10. “I know, I know, it feels like you’re cheating by joking around and getting to know the trouble-makers and talking things through instead of writing referals.”

    “Embrace the solitude, as painful as that might be. Be a covert sage working silently against the system of standardization. Don’t worry so much about the invisible “them.” In the end, you will have to be accountable to your students alone. “

    the stories of my life.

    glad to have found your blog.

  11. By the way – I’ve added you to my blogroll, under the “education” category. I just like to let folks know.

  12. “Your gift is in how transparent you are with students. Continue to be creative, authentic and willing to change.”

    Oh… I can SO relate to this!

  13. Thanks Maestro.

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