by Cindi Rigsbee
I arrived at my school one recent morning — one of the last summer weeks before the kids arrived — and realized the parking lot was full of cars. I asked a teacher I passed in the mailroom, “Who’s here today?”
“It’s the district’s new teachers,” she said. And I felt all my senses stand up at attention.
Beginning Teacher Orientation. BEGINNING. TEACHERS. These are our colleagues who are fresh out of college, who’ve spent the summer looking for jobs and then, once hired, have hit every teacher supply store in driving distance to get classroom necessities. These are the college graduates who were given inspirational teacher books before they even took off their caps and gowns.
First year teachers. The future of our profession. They’re here.
It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – to remain in the office and not run to them, jabbering welcomes and ohmigosh, you’re gonna LOVE it, and ask me anything, and YAY, YOU’RE HERE, and on and on.
I can only imagine how the orientation facilitators, who have planned this day for months, would respond to the crazy teacher running in and gushing over their audience. So I settled for standing in the office mailroom and thinking. (As Pooh would say, “Think. Think. Think.”)
I thought about my own first year, my own first day, and attempted to get a grasp on what I’ve learned since 1979. I thought about how teaching has changed since then, how students have changed, how learning itself is different. And I thought about what I would say to those beginning teachers if I were <oops> to find myself down the hall where they were getting oriented.
So here goes:
Hi!!! Congratulations on getting a teaching job! It’s very competitive out there these days so you are obviously the best and the brightest. Thank you for choosing the profession that makes all other professions possible. You now have the opportunity to be that person who makes a difference, that teacher who is remembered years from now when someone says, “I had Mr./Ms. So-and-So, and he/she <fill in the blank>.”
What do you want in that blank? This is your chance to shape your legacy. It’ll begin when you look out over that first group, those students who are yours. What do you want them to remember about your class?
Here’s what you need to know. You will hear (probably have already heard) negative comments about our profession (not enough money, long hours, little appreciation). But I challenge you to find anything you will love more. You are about to play the lead in Middle School Musical (…or High or Elementary School Musical…). It’s dramatic, it’s entertaining, and it’s educational!
Yes, believe me when I say that you’ll learn as much or more than your students. As a teacher I’ve learned more about math and science and history than I can ever remember learning in school. And I’ve had the opportunity to continue to study the literature that I loved as a student. They don’t call you a lifelong learner for nothing!
There’s something else you need to know. . .
Teaching has changed, and students have changed – even since you were in high school. It’s a speeding bullet, a shooting star…this teaching thing…and you’ll stay energized just trying to keep up with it. Every school year is new, a starting over, a way to change what didn’t work and refine what did. Every school day is different from the one before – with 30 young “variables” sitting in those seats. (I told you I learned some math.) The way you teach a concept could change from one class period to another; a student’s behavior can take a nosedive (and pull back up again) from one minute to the next. Be ready for the ride.
You will laugh every day. You may cry some. You’ll be so exhausted you can’t sleep. But you’ll get up each morning knowing that what you do is important. And not everyone can say that. You’ll make best friends with your colleagues up and down the hallways who look at you from the trenches and know what your day is like. You’ll join the fight at the jammed copy machine with them and cheer on your school’s teams. They’ll attend your wedding and throw you a baby shower. You can change schools or move to the central office, but those teachers from your first few years will be your friends for life.
Free therapy for life
Your students will unknowingly teach you more about yourself than you’ve learned before. How you react to their successes, and their failures, will say so much about who you are. 180 days of character building, that’s what a school is…for teachers and students.
Welcome to teaching. Take a deep breath and give it all you’ve got. I promise you’ll get back more than you give.
And my advice to you? Design lessons, attend faculty meetings, and disaggregate student test data with your BRAIN. But teach with your HEART. It’s as simple as that.
Cindi Rigsbee has been a classroom teacher, coach and teacher leader for more than 30 years. She was the 2008 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and one of four finalists for National TOY in 2009. She is currently on loan from the Orange County (NC) Schools serving as a regional facilitator of state teacher support programs.
Cindi’s inspirational book about the teaching life, Finding Mrs. Warnecke, was published by Jossey-Bass/Wiley in 2010. She blogs at The Dream Teacher and is frequently seen on Twitter @cindirigsbee. Browse more of her reflections and inspirational articles at the Writing page of her website.