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One Teacher’s Journey

The First Hour, Days and Years

As I stand on the cusp of my 24th year of teaching, I cannot help but fondly reminisce about the vivid memories of my first day as an educator. Indeed, the initial moments of that day have been etched into my consciousness, a testament to the profound impact they had on my journey.

As the school’s corridors began to fill with students, they searched for their names and room numbers on lists plastered across the walls, navigating their way to their respective homeroom classes. A few early birds lingered outside my classroom, hesitant to be the first to cross the threshold. Yet, as the first bell echoed through the hallways, they cautiously filed into the room I shared with the tennis coach, a seasoned professional with over three decades of experience under his belt.

In stark contrast, I had not even accumulated 30 minutes of experience at that point.

Once the tardy bell rang, the principal’s voice filled the room through the speaker, delivering the customary first-day greeting and announcements. As the voice dissipated, it dawned on me that I, a newly minted teacher, had to break the silence and address my very first class. With wavering confidence, I announced that I would begin by taking roll.

Although attendance-taking was a familiar task from my days as a substitute, this time it felt different, more significant. These students were now under my care and guidance, and I felt the weight of that responsibility as I called their names.

Merely seconds into the process, I noticed that the paper in my hand was quivering, making it challenging to read. Upon glancing down, I realized I was gripping the class roster with white-knuckled intensity, as though someone might snatch it from me at any moment. Flustered, I discreetly lowered the paper below the desk, concealing my trembling hands from my students’ view.

As I surveyed the sea of 14-year-old faces before me, I recognized that they were blissfully unaware of my nervous mishap. Instead, I saw in their expressions a mix of uneasy self-awareness and a hint of teenage indifference. In my own self-absorption, I had momentarily overlooked an essential aspect of that day: this was not only the start of a new academic year for my students but also their momentous first day in high school.

Just a year prior, these young minds had been the leaders of their middle schools, but now they found themselves as small fish in an expansive ocean. Hailing from diverse backgrounds and various schools, they were united by the geographical boundaries that had brought them together. As I began my journey as a teacher, so too did they embark on a new chapter of their lives, one that would shape their futures in ways yet unknown.

As the days turned into weeks, I found myself gradually settling into my new role as a teacher, taking pleasure in the dynamic interactions with my students. Each lesson was a learning opportunity not only for my pupils but also for me. Approximately six weeks into my first semester, I felt reasonably content with my performance as a novice educator. While I recognized my shortcomings, I could sense incremental improvements as time went by.

Then came the moment to administer my first exam. Having spent an entire day reviewing the material to be assessed, I was confident that the test scores would serve as evidence of my diligent efforts.

However, when the results arrived, they were a patchwork of commendable, barely passing, and dishearteningly low grades. While I had anticipated the good scores, the prevalence of low ones came as a shock.

I remember discussing those test scores with my mentor, an astute, amiable individual, and an exceptional teacher.

“Bob,” I confided, “sometimes I wonder if these kids are learning anything at all.”

With a knowing smile and a reassuring pat on my shoulder, he replied, “Believe me, Allen. You don’t want to know.”

Although I now understand that he was helping me come to terms with a challenge all teachers face, at the time, the encounter left my aspirations of being a highly effective educator somewhat deflated.

Later that semester, I stumbled upon a claim made by an alleged educational expert, stating that it takes five years to become a good teacher. This notion disheartened me; I yearned to excel in my profession without delay.

When I shared this sentiment with my mentor, he reassured me that I was already a good teacher. He acknowledged my mastery of the subject matter, my dedication to engaging the students, and my genuine concern for their well-being. In his affirmation, he tactfully omitted the qualifier “for a first-year teacher.”

Despite his encouragement, I was unsure if I believed him. Doubts about my capabilities as an educator had taken root in my mind, stubbornly refusing to be dislodged. As I continued on my journey as a teacher, I would come to learn that these early struggles and uncertainties would only serve to shape me into a more compassionate, patient, and understanding educator, committed to the growth and success of my students.

Coming to Grips With the Job

During my first year of teaching, I encountered a situation that gave me a glimpse into the hidden emotional baggage that some of my students carry with them. Madalyn, one of my top-performing students, shared with me that she was withdrawing from school and moving to another city due to her parents’ separation. Although I was disappointed to hear this news, what struck me the most was Madalyn’s maturity, which seemed to surpass that of her peers.

As I expressed my sympathy for her situation, Madalyn reassured me that the separation was long overdue. This incident made me realize that some of my students may be carrying personal struggles that are not immediately visible, and that being a teacher involves being attuned to their emotional needs as well as their academic ones.

As I continued to teach over the next few years, I came to accept that becoming a good teacher was a long journey that required patience, perseverance, and a willingness to learn from my mistakes. Although I had regrets about not being more effective and patient in my early days of teaching, I also recognized the importance of caring for my students on a personal level.

Years later, I received a graduation announcement and a photo from Madalyn. Her handwritten note expressed gratitude for my role as her World Geography teacher, which surprised me since I was aware of my shortcomings as a teacher. This experience made me realize that what mattered most to my students was not my innovative teaching methods or flawless execution, but my genuine care and concern for their well-being.

Looking back on my twelve years of teaching, I have come to the conclusion that loving my students should come first, and teaching them second. This belief is rooted in the understanding that students are more than just vessels to be filled with knowledge; they are complex individuals with unique needs, aspirations, and struggles. As a teacher, my role is not only to impart knowledge but also to inspire and support my students, both academically and emotionally.

Amidst the whirlwind of activities, responsibilities, and demands that come with being a teacher, it can be challenging to prioritize and maintain genuine connections with our students. But it is through these connections that we can truly make a lasting impact on their lives.

As educators, we must consistently remind ourselves of the importance of nurturing these relationships, as they can have a profound influence on our students’ well-being and academic success. A caring teacher can be the difference between a student losing their way or finding the strength to overcome life’s obstacles.

Indeed, while it is crucial to be knowledgeable and skilled in our subject areas, our ability to connect with and care for our students is equally, if not more, important. A well-prepared lesson plan or a cutting-edge teaching method may be effective in imparting knowledge, but it is the love and care we show our students that ultimately create a lasting impact.

It is essential to be patient with ourselves as well, recognizing that the journey to becoming a good teacher is a continuous process of growth, learning, and self-reflection. As we evolve and adapt in our profession, we should strive to improve our teaching methods and classroom management skills, but never at the expense of our students’ emotional well-being.

In the end, the success of our students and the positive impact we have on their lives is the true measure of our effectiveness as teachers. As the cliché goes, “Your students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” While it may be overused, it remains a poignant reminder that our most crucial responsibility is to love our students first and teach them second. By doing so, we not only impart valuable knowledge but also create a nurturing environment that fosters growth, resilience, and success for our students, both inside and outside the classroom.

Putting the Big Rocks First

During my childhood, I recall an object lesson at church that utilized large rocks, gravel, and sand. The objective was to fit all these items into a one-gallon jar. When we attempted to add the gravel and sand first, we couldn’t accommodate all the large rocks. However, by starting with the large rocks, we discovered that the gravel and sand fit seamlessly into the jar.

This analogy may provide insight into optimizing our teaching methods. Although it initially appears counterintuitive, I have often tried the educational equivalent of adding sand and gravel first, only to be met with disappointment. Nonetheless, this approach seems to be my automatic response.

Time and again, I have employed this strategy and achieved less-than-desirable outcomes. Consequently, I’ve been prompted to reflect on my teaching methods and ask myself, “How’s that working out for you?”

By consistently reassessing our approach and prioritizing the “big rocks” in our teaching practice, we can create a more effective and fulfilling educational experience for both ourselves and our students. This shift in focus allows us to concentrate on what truly matters, ensuring that we are not only meeting our students’ academic needs but also nurturing their emotional well-being and personal development.

In conclusion, the object lesson from my childhood serves as a reminder to prioritize the essential aspects of our teaching philosophy. By engaging in self-reflection and adjusting our focus, we can create a more meaningful and impactful learning environment that supports our students in reaching their full potential.

The Truth about Shoelaces

One day, about a decade into my teaching career, I found myself in the teachers’ lounge, heaving a frustrated sigh. A friend of mine, who had retired from NASA as an engineer and later became a math teacher, inquired, “What’s wrong?”

I shared my annoyance with my shoelaces consistently coming untied, to which he promptly responded, “You’re doing it wrong.”

Though I may not have been a rocket scientist, I had been tying my shoes for over 40 years. Indignantly, I questioned, “What do you mean I’m doing it wrong?”

He requested that I demonstrate my shoelace-tying technique, and after observing, he reiterated, “You’re doing it wrong.”

He explained that my method resulted in an unbalanced knot, causing my shoes to perpetually come undone. He then guided me to make a minor alteration in the way I initially joined the laces. At first, this change felt peculiar, and I was tempted to revert to my old, familiar technique. Eventually, however, the improved knots became instinctive, and to my delight, my shoes remained securely tied.

Regardless of where you teach, you are likely surrounded by exceptional educators. Some may be seasoned veterans, while others may be just embarking on their journey, already possessing valuable insights to share with their peers. We have the opportunity to learn from everyone.

My initial response to proposed changes in teaching methods is often skepticism, but I am continually reminded of the importance of being receptive to new ideas. We expect our students to approach learning with open hearts and minds; we should hold ourselves to the same standard.

Whenever I require a reminder of this, all I need to do is glance down at my shoes.