A fistful of damp tissues clenched in my hand and mascara running down my face, my mother’s voice whispered soothing advice in my ear as I delicately balanced the phone on my shoulder. Of all the scenarios that I had envisioned, this was not the scene I had in mind when I thought of what my first year of teaching would be like. Sitting on the foot of my bed, in an apartment I couldn’t afford, I had the sudden realization that despite all of my training, I was not prepared for this moment.
This moment was one of many that first year that I spent in a haze of helplessness, feeling completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of my job: the countless IEP meetings, paperwork, consultations with teachers, planning lessons and supervising support staff that were more experienced and twice my age. And perhaps the thing weighing heaviest on my mind were my students–students who, because of their diagnosis, not only perceived themselves as having limited abilities, but were convinced that they couldn’t learn. That first year I saw all too often how fear of failure and of what other people thought paralyzed my students and prevented them from reaching their goals. These students had good reason to be afraid: many of them had experienced multiple failures; some had incredibly difficult home situations and, for all of them, school was hard. So hard, in fact, that at times it seemed impossible.
But, somewhere between March and April that first year, I stopped crying and I came to the sudden realization that I couldn’t feel bad for them or their situations anymore. It wasn’t enough to feel bad or overwhelmed; I needed to help them. Thinking back to how I ultimately survived that first year and many more, I realized that this first year was less about what my students would learn from me, and more about what I would learn from them. Here is what I learned.
Parents send you their most prized possessions. There are days (and yes, it does happen more often than not) when you will be incredibly frustrated with a child, their behavior or their inability to make progress. It is important to remember that parents send you their most prized possessions. They do not leave their perfect children at home and only give you their most challenging ones. Parents do the best they can with the skills they have, just like teachers do. Each child is the most important person in his or her parents’ lives, something to remember in every interaction that you have them.
Content is not the most important thing you teach. As a special education teacher, you’ll teach reading, writing, math and every subject in between. While these things are important, the greatest lesson you teach is perseverance. From the first day that our students walked into a school, they have faced challenges: academic, cognitive, behavioral and even social. And while some of our students are still learning to read, they are really developing strategies to help them overcome the challenges they will face in the future. For the rest of their lives, learning will be hard; however, they’ll have a skill set to help them overcome this.
Take a step back and enjoy the moment, no matter how small. My favorite moments in a school year are not the big ones, but the small,l precious ones. These are so important for all teachers because they are what rejuvenate you when you need it and are a constant reminder of why you do this job.
Have a support system both in and outside of school. It is important to have a network of people that you can call on at any given moment, whether it’s for professional or personal reasons. In this year and in the many that will follow, you will need them.
Give yourself permission to not be perfect. This is hard coming from a perfectionist. Teaching is a dirty, messy job. Despite careful planning, on any given day anything can happen. I have come to realize that these are the moments I learn the most from. If you look around, you’ll see no one is perfect. Besides, we don’t expect perfection from our students, so why set these unreasonable expectations for ourselves?
Allow yourself to ask for help. I am not sure why I often perceived that asking for help was a sign of weakness because I now know it is a sign of strength. When I finally gave myself permission to ask my colleagues and administrators for help, I not only found an incredible network to pool from, but also that they didn’t have all of the answers either.
Find the one thing you enjoy doing that isn’t school-related and carve time out for it. I am my best self when I take care of myself. Burnout is a harsh reality and a reminder of what happens when you are consumed by your job. This is something I have to remind myself of every day. Give yourself permission to do this and your students will be better for it.
Stay true to yourself. That first year of teaching I found myself trying to be someone I wasn’t. I emulated teachers I looked up to. I incorporated grade-level standards and practically killed myself trying to implement every instructional strategy or research-based program because they were considered best practice. Somewhere in the process I lost myself. I have a particular style and approach that makes me unique. As a teacher, I’ve learned that my best educational decisions are based on two questions: “Is this the right thing to do?” and Would I want this for my own child?”