For the last twenty-something years, I’ve been a teacher. I’m extremely proud of my vocation—I see the reactions I get when I tell people I teach, and I am always glad to get to talk about what I do. Most people know that teaching is not easy. It’s tiring, heart-wrenching, and frustrating at times, but it is also fun, energizing, and amazing at its best. Teaching has given me a purpose, a paycheck, and wisdom. I’d like to share with you some lessons I’ve learned from teaching that apply both in the classroom and the real world:
- Take time to build relationships: We teachers have heard this in our education classes, but I can’t stress enough the importance of gaining rapport. Let’s start with your students—they absolutely, unequivocally have to know that you care about them on a personal level. You don’t need to be their best friend, but you do need to care about their lives, their hobbies, and what they do outside the classroom.
It’s important to note that there are more people to connect with in a school other than just students. I teach in the elementary setting, and I’ve found that it is helpful to build relationships with families. I am lucky enough to have former parents who come back and volunteer because we’ve made a connection when I was teaching their child. And I always love it when a student enrolls and I know their older siblings and parents. Connecting with families enriches the teaching experience and helps me better work with students.
It is also critical to connect with co-workers—from cafeteria workers and custodians to the school secretary and fellow teachers. These people are the only ones who understand just what you do, and their friendship and collaboration can keep you going when you struggle. As a school librarian and computer teacher, I don’t really have a teaching partner. But because I have great relationships with my co-workers, I know I can go to anyone in my building with a school-related problem and get some great feedback. Do not underestimate the power of relationships in teaching. For me, the relationships I’ve built have helped me become a better teacher.
Don’t limit yourself to connections within your building—go beyond the school walls and connect with educators from other schools online. If you’re looking for new lessons or activities on a new topic or grade level, online communities can give you a wider, more diverse team to interact and connect with.
- Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate: My first teaching job taught me this important lesson. For my first five years, I taught high school English. Even though I loved my co-workers, I felt very much isolated. I was alone in a classroom, trying to make American Lit interesting to students. None of my co-workers seemed interested in getting together and talking about the art of teaching, sharing lessons, etc., so I muddled through it by myself. I ended up leaving that job and exploring other avenues in education. I realize today that I lacked the collaboration aspect of teaching.
Today, I work in a building where collaboration is valued. Our principal creates special team-building activities that allow us to work together and have fun. Homeroom teachers talk with specialists and work together on projects, and we specialists talk to each other to make sure we are on the same page. The collaborative spirit makes my school unique, and also fills a void that I had at my first teaching job. Thus, I am convinced that collaboration creates a healthier and happier teaching environment.
- Don’t be afraid to laugh: Kids are funny beings. They are honest, have no filter, and are purposely—or even accidentally—funny. I know from experience that you can’t be a successful teacher if you can’t let some things roll off your back. So when a kid says something funny, laugh. Laugh when you do something goofy. Let students know that you make mistakes, but you get right back up and try again.
Last year, we hired a new school nurse who is wonderful and very forward-thinking. Throughout the year, she jotted down funny things the kids said when they came to her office. In our first staff meeting this year, she shared some of these funny moments—it was a great reminder to find the humor in our job.
- Sometimes, you just need to go home: A teacher’s work is never done. It’s true. Even if you worked all day Saturday and Sunday, there would still be something else to do. But sometimes when you’re tired, have had a long day, and you're still stuck on a problem, you just need to go home. Don’t feel bad about it—you’re not a better teacher when you are physically exhausted.
So, go home. Leave with your head held high, knowing that you put in a full day’s work. And then rest. be with your family, or do whatever you need to do to recharge. I often find that when I stop, go home, and get a good night’s sleep, I can return the next day with better solutions to whatever problem I was stuck on. Be gentle with yourself, and recognize the times when you just need to stop and rest.
- What we do every day is important: Being a teacher is important. Sometimes we may feel like we’re not getting through and we may not even get to see the end result—seeing our students as they graduate and go out into the world. But what we do matters, every single minute of every single day. And here’s the thing: It’s not even just the content of what we teach that matters. It is how we treat each and every student who walks through our door.
The school where I teach goes through 4th grade, so I sometimes lose track of students as they leave our building. I don’t get to see the fruits of my labor, but I have learned to be okay with that and to focus on each day. You see, I believe what I teach about my content area is valuable, and what I teach through my actions is valuable, too. I want kids to know they are important and cared for. I want them to know that I am a trusted adult. I want to be a bright spot in their day. And if I’m able to convey these things, along with my content, I can feel good about my work.
Teachers, I hope that you can take these five lessons and apply them to both your work and personal life. Outside of the classroom, my own life has been enriched by building relationships, collaborating, laughing, taking breaks, and knowing that what I do matters. Teaching is hard work, but the joy of working with kids and molding their lives definitely outweighs the struggles.
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