I remember feeling crushed. Utterly disappointed. Everything was ruined before it ever began. My first year teaching was going to be nothing like I had imagined.
With one course standing between me and a December graduation, my best hope for beginning my teaching career in 2003 was to get hired as a long term substitute for the upcoming school year. Five days before the first day of school, I got an offer to teach third grade. It was the only job they could offer me, and it was the only job I needed. I accepted the position sight unseen, without going to the school, meeting the principal, or having a clue what I was getting into. For the 45-minute drive to my first classroom, all was right in the world. Persistence had paid off, and I saw my first teaching position as a chance to finally live my purpose.
I remember excitedly asking the secretary on the phone if there were any bulletin boards in the room. Of all things, I was envisioning how I was going to deck out my classroom to the nines with all the exciting things I was going to create…in the five days before school began. The uncertainty in her voice should have tipped me off that I was in for a not-so-great surprise, but I was too excited to pay attention.
All that chutzpah evaporated after I climbed the four flights of creaky stairs to the dusty, tattered classroom that needed to be habitable in less than a week. Broken desks and towering, rusty filing cabinets outfitted the room. Jagged staples poking out of the walls like jagged teeth momentarily took my attention away from the dried flower arrangements hanging from the ceiling. A collection of California Raisins strewn around the room smiled blankly at me, almost like they were daring me to ask them if this was all a bad joke.
A quick scan of the other third grade classrooms - bright, clean, and cheerful with matching name tags and carefully curated libraries - was enough to topple any remaining hope I had of quickly remedying this situation. I was so far behind where I needed to be, and didn’t know where to start. I paced my classroom, my inherited mess, in the dark, dust particles clinging to the air.
I had no books.
I had no resources.
I had no teacher friends.
…and, after prying the warped drawer of the desk that was to be mine open with a ruler, I
realized I didn’t even have a stapler. Just another giant, dusty California Raisin that sang “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” when you threw him against the wall (squeezing his middle would have worked, too, but wouldn’t have had the same affect on releasing my frustration).
This was not what I had studied and prayed for. In my 21-year-old mind, it was a disappointment of epic proportions. What I envisioned would be an exciting start of a promising career instead consisted of doing triage on a scattered assortment of student chairs and piecing together a set of teacher manuals.
It wasn’t what I expected. Chances are, if this is your first year teaching, how this school year may begin isn’t what you were planning on either. Whether it’s teaching virtually or face-to-face with major restrictions, this era of masks, social distancing, and online classrooms is more than anyone bargained for as we prepare for back-to-school.
We all share some sense of disappointment regarding the experiences and expectations we had for this year. Although the sadness and grief stemming from these losses is valid, there is good and purpose to be mined from all of them. Here are three things I have found to be true from experiencing disappointment - in the classroom and beyond.
1: With the right mindset, disappointment makes you focus on what you can control - and what you can control is usually the most important thing.
There was no way I was going to have the classroom environment I envisioned my first year of teaching. I was lucky to be able to clean the room and doctor the furniture enough to have it be presentable on back-to-school night. What I quickly realized, with every meeting and handout I shoved into a growing three-ring binder, was I was going to need to teach these kids regardless of what I lacked. They were coming Monday morning, and above all, they needed me to put as much energy as I could into teaching them the best I knew how. You can read more about choosing to focus on what you can control when you download my free ebook The Thrive Guide.
The same is true this year. You may not be able to structure your classroom the way you always intended, and there will be many things you do or don’t do this year that go against everything you believe about teaching. However, you can control more than you think. How you teach your students, in the classroom or through the internet, is up to you. How you choose to use your voice and ability to connect to your students, making them feel important and cared for, is your decision. Your attitude and response to the safety measures will determine in part how your students view them, and will serve as an example of how to deal with unpleasant circumstances in the future.
Most importantly, you are in control of your own thoughts and attitude. How will you use this moment in time to form the beginning of your teaching career? Focus on teaching and reaching the kids - the rest will either fall in to place or fall by the wayside.
2: Unexpected circumstances are often a chance to rebuild and create something better.
Many things in the education system are broken, and the crisis teaching situation that arose from the pandemic revealed even more inadequacies with access and equality. Despite the shortcomings, technology has been the uniting force allowing any semblance of normalcy and connection to continue with teaching. The flexibility and personalization possible with online or hybrid instruction is just being realized. In another blog post, I’ll go into detail about the things that changed in my classroom when I had to implement distance learning.
Just as important is the review of the role and necessity of standardized testing. This crisis effectively moved assessments and their associated test prep to irrelevance. As one who has always seen the emotional and intellectual danger standardized testing has on student progress, the possibility we will have a chance to reimagine the role assessment has on determining achievement and effectiveness makes me hopeful.
Much is going to change in education regarding the delivery of instruction and the creation of content. You will get to be a part of this change from the start of your career. While many teachers are adjusting to the shift in the role of technology, you will start your career out as part of the change. Aside from the grave seriousness of the events of the world, I see great potential for us all to be a part of what teaching and learning will look like when we come out of this on the other side.
3: Your experiences will help someone else someday.
The mess I walked into almost 18 years ago this August? It made me able to empathize with many teachers who were dealt issues and circumstances that felt unfair and unconquerable. It prepared me for far greater disappointments I have encountered during my career that made finding order in a disordered classroom look like a snow day. I learned I could be resourceful, persevere, and overcome things that seemed destined to destroy my resolve. Most importantly, I have come to realize that everyone is seeking someone who relates to them, to feel validated by seeing themselves in someone else’s story. None of this makes sense now, but someday, be it 8 or 18 years, the wisdom you gain in this season of your career will form the message that other teachers grasp as a lifetime in their own storms. When they do, you’ll know - and it will suddenly all make sense.
We’re all navigating this new normal and all the emotions it brings together. It’s one chapter of our lives we’ll look back at as pivotal in our lives and careers. Instead of letting the circumstances of this year’s back-to-school break you, let them make you into the person and teacher you have the potential to be. Be different, but more importantly, be the difference - and I’ll see you in the next chapter. Together, I know we’re going to make it - I heard it through the grapevine.