I’m closing in on the end of my fifth year teaching. It’s crazy, but in a matter of days, I’ll be able to say I’ve been doing this job for five whole years. That’s half a decade — almost 20 percent of my life on this little blue planet. And if you were to ask me, just five short years ago, when I was accepting my first job, if I’d be sitting here, in San Francisco, helping build a network of micro-schools from the ground up, I’d tell you you were crazy.
But perhaps this is what makes life exciting — the fact that none of us actually know where we’re going to end up. It’s a little unnerving, sure, but I can tell you firsthand that the past five years of unpredictability have taught me more than just how to teach kids; instead, this job has taken me from being an overgrown adolescent to being a real person, a human being, and a man.
I’m excited to share just a few of my lessons with you, but take them for what they are — my lessons. Yours may very well be different.
The world is filled with “yes” men. And I suppose that, in a sense, the world needs “yes” men. We can’t all be disagreeing all the time, but when it comes to teaching, there really are very few absolutes.
At the same time, I’ve gone through phases where I’ve said yes, and done so far too many times. By constantly saying yes, you welcome in way more than you’re ready to bargain for, and suddenly, you find yourself in a place you never anticipated on getting to.
I’ve found it’s best to be agreeable, but remember that it’s okay to disagree, and that it’s okay to have a dissenting opinion. It’s these dissenting opinions that disrupt the norm and innovate.
2) At the same time, recognize that progress needs a purpose.
“Progress for the sake of progress isn’t really progress at all,” said Dolores Umbridge, infamous interim headmaster at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. While her methods didn’t quite work out for Hogwarts, it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a grain of truth within this mantra.
Bottom line — there are tons of education “fads” out there. Just like in any other industry, people are looking for the next best thing, and oftentimes, something radically different looks and may even feel like the next best thing. It’s important to remember that, just because it has a fancy name, and just because it says it’s research-based and progressive, doesn’t mean it will work. In fact, the strongest teachers I know build the basics first and use those to rule out truly progressive initiatives from the vanity initiatives.
3) Find the line between humility and arrogance.
This is a tough one. It’s likely that, by the end of the first year, you will feel beaten into the ground. But by the end of that year, you will also feel the energy and inspiration to start anew. Slowly but surely, many new teachers make the easy mistake of turning their humility into arrogance. They suddenly begin to think they’ve figured it out, that they know it all; but it won’t take long for this idealism to end and for their wax wings to melt, sending them straight down to the ground.
There’s always something new to learn, and you’ll never know everything. So be ready for a lifetime of reinventing, replanning, and innovating. It’s more fun that way anyway.
4) Listen to your students.
They know themselves better than you do, and they’ll find tons of little ways to tell you, even if it’s not with their words.
5) Share. Share. Share.
One of my students’ parents came up to me the other day after I shared a song at our school’s variety show. I played the piano, sang my song, and walked off the stage, happy with my performance, and happy to have shared a piece of myself with my students.
“My daughter told me,” this parent began,”that when I listened to you sing, to close my eyes — because you sounded like a different person on the inside.”
This never occurred to me, but I had felt like a different person — on the inside that is. When I sing, and when I share personal and emotional pieces of myself, it opens me up to my students in a way that helps them truly see me. In a profession where relationships are paramount in making progress and nurturing students to meet their full potential, I cannot think of a stronger lesson I’ve learned.
Looking into Next Year
Authentic relationships are built on trust; trust is built on truth; and truth can only come through vulnerability and sharing of ourselves. I’ll admit, hearing my student’s insights on the seemingly grand difference between me as a teacher and me as a singer made me feel both proud and sad. I view my job as a very emotional one, and it occurred to me that, perhaps, under the stress of a new job, a new city, and a radically new setting with all new people, that maybe I hadn’t been my full, true, and authentic self this year. Perhaps I was too caught up in the to-dos and have-dones to stop, share, and invest in more bonding time with my students.
But the silver lining — and yes, I’ll leave you with a “bonus” sixth lesson — is that we always get to do it over. We always get to do it better the next year, and so do the kids. The nature of learning and the life of the classroom is cyclical. We make mistakes, we make progress, we regress a little bit, and then we make a few more steps forward.
While I reflect on my mistakes and successes this year as the year begins to wind down into fall, I can’t help but feel excited to be an even better version of myself next year, to do it all over again, and continue learning alongside the kids… right where I should be.