As I looked through my dusty old pictures, faded after years spent in a moth-eaten box in the garage, so many memories came flooding back. Suddenly, I was back at that little red brick school in north Texas, 22 years old, fresh out of college and clueless about what I wanted to do with my life. I had never planned on being a teacher, but somehow, after one interview and a day and a half of observing another teacher, I found myself alone with a class of 16 kindergarteners and first graders. I didn’t even know how to write a lesson plan.
Now, almost 14 (14?!) years later, part of what I do for a living is coaching teachers, many of whom are in their first year of teaching. A few of them are managing things beautifully, and I encourage them, not feeling remotely jealous that they somehow figured all of this out so quickly. Most of them are just like I was, though. They have that deer-in-headlights look, that frazzled smile, and those tired, tired bodies that simultaneously want to change the world and hide in the lounge bathroom until their students go home for the day.
Here’s what I wish I could say to them, and myself, during that first terrifying, wonderful year of teaching:
1. They’re not going to fire you.
2. Everyone knows that you don’t know what you’re doing, so stop pretending otherwise. It’s okay, it’s your first year. You’re not supposed to know everything, or much of anything, really.
3. Make friends with the janitors and the school secretary. They see all and know all, and they can make your life much, much easier.
4. Things will never, ever, ever go like you had it in the lesson plans. But you should still make them.
5. Your principal is not trying to be a total bitch all the time—she just has a lot on her plate.
6. I know that dressing like an adult every day sucks. You’re upset that you had to dye your hair back to its natural color and take out your tongue ring. You can’t see it now, but this is a good thing. Cheer up: Fridays are jeans days. Please don’t wear the bell bottoms.
7. Okay, your principal is a bitch. Keep your head down, do your work, and she’ll stay off your back. And a little gift of chocolate never hurt anyone.
8. You’re not the first teacher to cry during recess. You won’t be the last, either.
9. Buddy up with another teacher. You will be each other’s rocks, and you’ll probably still be friends 14 years later.
10. There will always be something else to do at the end of the day. Staying at work until 10 p.m. every night will not change this. Do what absolutely has to be done for the next day, and then go home. You’ll be a better teacher for it.
11. Do something fun on the weekends. No, cutting out 200 laminated ladybug wings for the science center is not something fun. Do something that you used to do before you taught. You’ll feel rejuvenated and more able to handle whatever comes on Monday. Send those stupid ladybug wings home with that mom who keeps saying she wants to help.
12. Your students go through a lot outside of the classroom that you never see. You are the one constant in their lives. Never forget that.
13. You will be called names, yelled at, cried to, kicked, bitten, and/or scratched, possibly all on the same day. Don’t take it personally; it’s not about you. See No. 12.
14. Parents are going to ask you for advice about their kids. This will feel strange, since 1) you have no kids of your own, and 2) you still feel like a kid yourself. Just give it your best shot. Maybe throw in something about eating more vegetables to sound like you know what you’re talking about.
15. That crazy teacher with the bushy hair is the one who keeps stealing your Coke from the teacher’s lounge. Get your own mini fridge to keep in your room. It’s like heaven.
16. You’re going to mess up, a lot. It’s okay, because that’s how you learn. Plus, it’s good practice for the future. Did I mention you are going to parent twins?
17. When you do mess up, it’s okay to apologize to your students. They need to see that you care enough to fess up and try to make things right.
18. You’re probably going to get thrown up on by students. This is most likely karma from when you threw up on that rich lady’s fancy shoes at church when you were a kid. Just roll with it, and try not to spew on any of the other kids. Again, good practice for the future.
19. Speaking of bodily fluids, the boys at the back of the line are peeing on each other while you’re briskly walking up front. Try walking in the middle so that you can keep an eye on everyone, especially when turning a corner.
20. The old—I mean, veteran—teachers who wear apple necklaces and broom skirts actually know what’s up. If you go to their rooms after school and look at pictures of their grandkids, they’ll help you out.
21. Stealing is good here. Stealing ideas, I mean. Scope out the other teachers’ rooms during team meetings and use whatever looks like it would work in your room. Ask to borrow those cute discovery bottles that your teammate made so that you don’t have to make them yourself. Do it. She’ll say yes.
22. Write down all of the funny things that your students say.
23. Being a newbie, you basically have an invisible sign around your neck that says, “I will sign up for anything because I don’t know any better!” It’s okay to say no, though. You don’t have to be on the Sunshine, Technology, Campus Improvement, and Anti-Bullying committees. There’s plenty of time for that stuff after you figure out what the hell you’re doing.
24. All of the acronyms in education comprise an entirely new language which sounds like Klingon to you at this point. Don’t worry if you can’t remember what they stand for; they’ll change in a year or two anyway.
25. You won’t believe how much you’re going to love these kids. They’re going to break you down, build you up, and push you to your limits, all before 9 a.m. It’s going to be incredible.
Special thanks to my fellow teachers Angie, Elizabeth, Sara and Stephanie for your contributions!!