An Open Letter to First-Year Teachers

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Dear First-Year Teachers,

It isn’t always like this.

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

My first year of teaching, an experienced teacher said to me over lunch one day that if we could just get teachers to stick with it for five years, they were much more likely to stick with teaching for the whole of their career. She was speaking generally of trends in teachers leaving while the job was hard, before they really got the groove of what they were doing. But I think she could sense my unrest. My unease. My then-untreated anxiety.

Her words have stayed with me, through multiple teaching jobs across different districts, in both public and private schools, and even during my time spent as a stay-at-home mom to my two sons. Although I am sure she did not intend to impact me this way with her words, I came away from that conversation with a weight: if I couldn’t stick it out for five consecutive years, was I really even a teacher? What if I didn’t stay in one place that long? If I left my job to start a family with my husband, did I have any right to come back later?

Here is what I want to say to you: whatever questions, doubts, and anxieties you have this year – of all years – it isn’t always like this.

On the other side of this pandemic are peace and calm.

On the other side of first year jitters is a second-year stride.

On the other side of learning content and curriculum jargon for the first time is a deeper understanding of what’s expected of you with each year that passes.

On the other side of that one student that just seems to try and find ways to butt heads with you is a tried and true strategy for connecting with similar kids you’ll meet in twenty years.

It isn’t always like this.

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

Please take heart in knowing that the muscles you are developing now as you navigate hybrid in-person and distance learning, magick up new ways to introduce yourself to children you may not see in person for weeks or even months into the new school year, will not only make you strong for the kids in your care, but they will also make you strong for yourself. You will be resilient. You will be wise. You will thrive.

None of us has done this before, not even the fifty-year veteran teacher who has had to walk to school uphill, both ways, in the snow, has taught during a pandemic on this scale. Do the best you can each moment, and know that it’s enough. Protect your physical health and wellness as best you can. Find your marigold. Ignore the tone-deaf advice to always put on a brave face for the kids or to develop a thick skin against criticism [that way lies madness; so stay soft]. Perhaps most importantly, safeguard the boundaries you put in place in order to remain balanced and whole outside the classroom.

Your expertise and abilities are enough. Your creativity and unique personality are needed. Your care and concern are valued.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

It isn’t always like this, first year teacher, and it probably never will be again.

Keep showing up in the most fearless, honest version of yourself you can muster. And we will all get to the other side of this, together.

– Q, a year-ten teacher who believes in you

Where i’m from

I came across this NPR poetry project recently and decided to undertake it with my students when the time came to write poetry. NPR’s collaborative poem effort was inspired by this gem by George Ella Lyon, after which I modeled my own version in order to demonstrate for my students what they’d be doing. I enjoyed writing this so much that I wanted to share it here with you as well.

I am from honeysuckle

Growing on the backyard fence

From monosodium glutamate and transfat

I am from a well-worn copy of Ramona the Pest

(tattered, torn, smelling of love)

I am from majestic magnolia trees 

Buds sweetly blossoming

Waxy petals glistening, 

From sky-high weeping willows –

The wonder of sap dropping like tears

I am from banana pudding and Pebbles ponytails,

From Ezell and Amazon

I am from too many aunties and uncles to count, 

From First Sunday communion and praise dancing teams

I am from John 3:16 and Psalm 23.

I am from mysterious matriarchs

Florence and Mildred and Sheryl and Bennie,

From don’t make me repeat myself

And from 

Shirley Chisolm, unbought and unbossed

I am from locked diaries tucked away under my mattress,

Personalized pink and purple stationary, 

lines full of hearts and one-day maybe baby names.

I am from neighborhood streets where the midnight pop outside my window 

could be a gunshot 

or a firecracker,

I am from cheesy Hamburger Helper with green beans on the side, 

Rinsed so they don’t taste like the can.

I am from what you see is what you get.

I am from here.

Slow Fade

August 2015, I was teaching 8th grade English for the first time at a small private school. I had spent hours all summer poring over the books I had scavenged from the room where the same class was taught the year before. The prior May, I had taken home several teacher editions of books to familiarize myself with material taught at this specific grade level. I felt confident, armed with my newly completed, color-coded, self-authored scope and sequence.

Then came the plot twist.

I arrived for our first teacher workday in August to find that the only class set of student books that the school owned for this class was nearly thirty years old. Because it was so old, this book was the one resource from which I had not taken any material for my scope and sequence. As soon as I realized the issue, I hustled to the curriculum director and asked for books.

All the money was gone.

Textbook needs had been assessed, books purchased, and monies depleted in May. I was tardy to the textbook party. The result of this was that I’d either have to use the 1989 textbook – complete with problematic verbiage and a few now-defunct historical perspectives – or be true to my own convictions and teach the class without a book.

Thinking quickly, I combed my memory and searched Google to find out the name of the company who published the textbook I had used most frequently for other grade levels. From there, I found several used booksellers on Amazon, printed a cost estimate for a class set of them, and re-approached the curriculum director, hopeful that some miracle would provide these books for my class.

No yahtzee.

(Apparently, tardy to the party + money is all gone =  $325 cannot be found for textbooks from this century.)

So I had to think long and hard about how I was going to teach this class. Had I really reached the point of charging a class set of textbooks to my almost maxed-out credit card?

No.

So I channeled all the energy from my frustration into a creative solution: wish list the books. The school’s biggest annual fundraiser provided teachers the opportunity to ask for special things for their classrooms. This might be the year I asked for textbooks as my special thing. 

But in the end, I chickened out and asked for a few smaller items. I received enough cash donations, miraculously, to fund my smaller items and my textbook wish.

When I tell you this whole scenario absolutely broke me, I mean it truly. As soon as I placed the order for the updated textbooks, I started looking for another job. And although it didn’t come to this, I was willing at that point, mid-autumn, to leave my teaching position immediately if a position came available elsewhere. (If you know teachers, you know a situation has to be dire for a teacher to consider this.)

As I drove home from work today, talking to my mama and venting frustrations, I couldn’t help but remember this incident from four years ago. It utterly changed my perspective as a teacher. Mind you, my heart has always been in my job. But I learned in the fall of 2015 that no matter how much I view my job as vocation; no matter how much energy I am willing to expend so my students get my best; no matter what sacrifices I’m willing to make so they get the materials they need – it can’t come at the expense of my own peace of mind.

If we take time to reflect on all of our individual workplace experiences, I think many of us have had this moment: when you realize the job can’t be your end. At the moment we start to compromise our integrity, turn a blind eye, or conversely, become so fixated on the problems that we ourselves become toxic to those around us, it’s time to step back.

Reevaluate.

Recalibrate.

Reconnect with our reason for being there in the first place.


And wish big for our lives and jobs and selves – not for textbooks.