13 Things I've Learned In 13 Years Of Teaching

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After thirteen years of teaching high school English in the city and having my own children in the public schools for a few years now, I’m old enough to have learned something important enough to share, and young enough to realize that I’m looking down the line at twenty-plus more years until I’m too old to keep up with my last senior class, who won’t even be born until 2024.

I remember my first taste of teaching when I was a student-teacher. I was 100% student and 100% teacher, only a few years older than the pupils themselves, my bookbag heavy with three years of Education and English classes, and zero classroom experience, lucky to have some great mentor teachers to mold my enthusiasm. I loved it with a specific mixture of expectation and excitement that I still retain. When I get tired of it or stop having fun, I will have to pass on the green correcting pen.

My first year teaching I was twenty-two, and some of my students were nineteen. Nineteen. Suffice it to say I was also a theatre major, so I acted my way to seeming like an older professional. I still got the “hippie teacher” moniker (and I still do), so I chose a genuine track of personality, and found that being myself worked in the smaller moments (and the bigger moments too).

But I’m no longer the younger teacher getting advice from the wizened old curmudgeons recalling the good old days of the 1970s, when lawlessness ruled the hallways and kids left for lunch to get lit at the bar. Now I’m the old guy with seniority. And by the time I retire, I will have taught, advised, coached, and worked with nearly 10,000 kids.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. There is no such thing as a bad kid. There just isn’t. That first paragraph from The Great Gatsby about people not having the same advantages as other people? It applies every day in almost all situations, for the poor and middle and upper class students alike. In an age of awareness and daily treatment of ADD/ADHD, OCD, ODD, and all sorts of emotional and behavioral disorders, it all comes down to that extra chance or allowable mistake. Every kid needs to feel official and worth something, whether they know better or not (or are capable or not).

2. Be patient and kind and kind and patient, and patient and kind. In life, as in teaching, someone is always about to go off or melt down (students as well as teachers as well as administrators), and the rewards are rarely immediate, but often long-lasting.

3. You might not be cut out for this. If a teacher makes it past the first year, and then the fifth year, he or she may really be a teacher! I thought about quitting after my first year, and at that point I had been focused on nothing but being a teacher since I was seventeen. The job molds you and then owns you, and then, when you have tenure, you own the job.

4. Simplify, damn it. Thoreau was mostly correct. All the important things in life have to do with getting the most out of situations where you’re really focusing on the person, product, job, or question at hand. All I need for a class is a book, students who want to learn, and time. Nothing else, not even a Smartboard or Common Core Objectives.

5. “It all comes out in the wash,” is what I’ve been saying for probably ten years, when I figured out that if a child is fed, can read, and has a trade (I have been fortunate to teach at a Tech school), then we’ve done our job. The rest is up to the storyteller and the protagonist.

6. Be excellent all the time, no matter what. If you can’t be excellent all the time, just learn how to edit your highlight reel, because as parents, children, writers, teachers, and workers, we maybe can’t always be excellent. But that should be our standard, no matter what. My first mentor teacher always said “excellent” as her go-to adjective to her students and me, and every time she said this, I wanted to be excellent. I still do.

7. Just don’t lose your shit. You may lose your shit at some point, or a few points. I once lost it and yelled, “You’re all chicken shithouse crazy!” Then we laughed about that for the rest of the year. What I said made no sense and made all sense in the moment. The students knew they were being crazy, and I had just had it. Life went on. But try not to lose it, especially near the chicken shithouse, whatever that means.

8. You only die once. That’s right. Forget YOLO, I’m talking about YODO. You live every day, but you will only die once (or twice if you are that rare case of being declared legally dead and then you get revived. Or a zombie). So here’s my Dead Poets’ Society moment of telling you to Carpe Diem, or, as I like to say, Carpe Todayem. Revise an essay to perfection; enjoy a book for once; be proud of mastering a project; relish that C+ you worked hard for. Now what you do with YODO is up to you, but be nice about it. Also, each class is experiencing you as a teacher for the first time each year, so you have time to change. And change. And change.

9. You have to commit. There was a point in my third and fourth year of teaching that I had to have an out-loud talk with myself about being a teacher who does a bunch of other stuff on the side, or really being a teacher and committing myself to being the best teacher I could be without constantly focusing on better things. I chose to be an excellent teacher, or at least as excellent as I could be. And each year I have to commit myself again and again because you can’t fake it until you make it. You just can’t.

10. My kid is your kid for the year, and I’m teaching someone’s kid. Now that my children have teachers and I’m the one handing them over for seven plus hours a day, I feel the clarity of the situation: my students’ parents are entrusting the greatest things in their lives to me for 200 plus hours a year. There are a few Golden Rules in that one, and I am so grateful that my kids have had excellent teachers so far. I don’t ever want parents to dread the day their kid will have me in class.

11. Everybody needs an ambulance at some point. I’ve put in plenty of “M’s” (M is for Medical, and gives students time to finish work) on report cards for students who have had a bad case of Life making other plans for them. Some “M’s” become “W’s” (for Withdrawal, when Life hits the fan and breaks the ceiling) but some humans just need a few extra chances. Sometimes we need the gurney and the EMTs and the ambulance, and sometimes we just need a few extra weeks.

12. Hopefully we’re getting better. Each teacher meets the student where the student is able to be met, and nowhere else. Sometimes all the standards are thrown right out of the classroom. Sometimes that classroom is life, and sometimes that classroom is just a classroom. The nice thing about teaching is that every four years you get a clean slate with high schoolers, and you can feel free to grow and improve in different ways. The cycle of teaching life is always going, and every essay can be revised for a higher grade (that is, until the term is done).

13. Ask for help. One of my go-to plays is saying I Don’t Know to difficult student questions, then telling the students what I do know, and then talking about and around a problem. Sometimes I cite Antigone or Odysseus or Billy Pilgrim, and sometimes I just tell stories. But I’ve learned how to ask for help and whom to ask for help, and when to ask for help. And I will continue asking for help in different ways until the state-mandated robots make me clean out my room and retire early. I’ve been chicken shithouse crazy plenty of times, but I’m still doing the wash.

And there’s the bell. Here’s to another thirteen years and then some. I’ve been the luckiest in that I’ve had great teachers, and known great teachers, and hopefully, to the first thirteen years of students, been a great teacher, at least on one of those many days I’ve paced the room with chalk in hand.

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