In the historical words of Alice Cooper: “School’s out for summer!“ After 1,5 years of teacher training, I’ve now survived my first year as a newly qualified and full-time teacher of a year 2 class. This means that for the last 2,5 years, nearly every day I’ve ventured out into the never ending madness that is Teacher Life. Time to reflect.
Here are the four most important things I’ve learnt so far:
1. There is a solution to any problem
Whatever is broken, stuck, or lost; whatever plan get’s turned upside down or whatever kid gets hurt or sick, there is always a solution to the problem. Why? Because there has to be, and guess what, as a teacher you’re the only adult around who can and therefore has to deal with it. As a teacher, you’re the ’leader of the pack’, and as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. It happens that you’ll have particular kids crying, fighting, throwing a tantrum on the floor (or also joyful: throwing up on the floor), and while you’re tending to them, you’ve got a whole class to watch out for at the same time.
You have to keep calm, think fast, and make decisions on the spot. When what you need isn’t there, you just have to make it up and improvise, while pretending to be absolutely sure of what you’re doing. Even if this sounds like a paradox, teachers are the most organized yet also most flexible people on earth. Nothing is ever set in stone when you’re dealing with children, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, they pull new crazy stuff out of the hat.
2. How to work hard at relationships
I’m highly suspicious of any teacher who says they love their job every single day, and that their students are a blessing to them every single day. We’re all human, the kids are, the teachers are, and not pissing each other off once in a while simply wouldn’t be realistic. Sometimes, I do have enough of them and my job in general. But even when that happens, I can’t quit on them. I can’t just ’check out’. I can’t take a break from them or break up with them. They are there to stay – and so am I.
Early on, this saying became my favourite teaching motto: ’Every day is a new day’. Which to me means that every day is a new chance for my students to show me that they can do better than the day before, especially when it comes to behavior. At the same time, every day is also a new chance for me to show my students that I can do better. Another saying that comes in handy here is: ’If the roots are deep, you don’t have to fear the storm’, which I interpret as in if you have a relationship where the kids see you as an important figure in their life who truly cares about them, a conflict will not be the end of that relationship.
I’m not afraid anymore that telling them ’no’ a hundred times a day will make them like me less. On the contrary: I’ve come to believe that being strict and showing boundaries actually means showing kids how much you care. I’m not afraid to lose their affection. And I let them know each day that they aren’t losing mine either, no matter what happens. It’s my job to make them develop and grow as a person. What they don’t know is that they are doing the same for me. I want to be a better person for them, every day.
3. Appreciation needs to come from within
I feel this is important advice, especially for teachers who are just starting out: Be ever so careful about where you turn to for appreciation for everything you do: The hard work, the extra hours, the sacrifices your make on your mental and physical health. It’s impossible to count the times that I’ve cried my eyes out over superiors who didn’t see what I did right, but pointed out everything I did wrong, which resulted in me feeling like a complete failure. I was still new to the job and allowed other people to dictate how I thought about myself.
Now, I know better. The education system, like any other system, doesn’t give a damn about me as a person. If I quit or drop out, I’ll be replaced and forgotten the next day. The kids on the other hand will remember their primary school teacher forever. This in mind, I’ll be careful in the future about who I’m trying to impress and whether it’s really worth it. I don’t measure how good I’m at my job by the occasional praise of my superiors anymore, but by having faith in myself and by relying on the opinions of the people who really have a say in the matter: My students.
4. Without your colleagues, you’re nothing
In the last school year, I was insanely lucky with my colleagues, and I’m realistic enough to know that for the rest of my life as a teacher, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever be this lucky again. Which is sad, but it also means that I was part of something big, something truly remarkable, and it makes me grateful. Grateful to have experienced this level of loyalty and support in a work environment. One thing is certain: These colleagues have set the bar very, very high, for anyone who’s going to follow.
What was our secret? It was unusual but simple at the same time: We weren’t just colleagues to each other who said ’hello’ in the hallway and discussed the use of the coffee machine during staff meetings. We were colleagues who told each other everything, from students or parents we had trouble handling to private stuff we had going on outside of school. We laughed together, we cried together, and we had each others’ backs, always. In a country far away from our own, far away from anything familiar, we formed a group that came very close to resembling a big family.
I’ve now come to believe that this kind of relationship between teacher colleagues is essential for educating kids, because this profession challenges your sanity more often than you’d want to admit. If you can’t confide in your colleagues, you’re on your own with all your worries, doubts and frustrations, which inevitably results in emotional and physical breakdown sooner or later. As a teacher, more than anything, you need to be able to vent to your colleagues, who truly understand everything you’re going through and everything you’re handling, every single day.
There were uncountable moments when the unconditional support of my colleagues blew my mind in the last year, but I’ll pick this particular example to paint a general picture: In the middle of a lesson a student of mine banged his head on the blackboard, pretty bad, so I immediately took him to the nurse’s station myself. When I came back a minute later, a colleague whose classroom was on the same floor as mine came walking out of my classroom, saying: “I saw you walk away with xx, so I went to check up on your class to make sure that everything was ok.“ This is the ’high set bar’ I’m talking about.
To sum up this post: If you want to go on a journey of brutal but deeply insightful self-discovery and learning about human relationships, don’t travel through India or book a private life coach – just become a teacher. You’ll learn more about yourself in a year than most people do in a lifetime.