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If I Knew Then: A Letter to Me on My First Day of Teaching

If I Knew Then: A Letter to Me on My First Day of Teaching

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If you could write a letter to yourself on your first day of teaching, what words of encouragement and insight would you offer? Edutopia and SoulPancake teamed up to see what teachers had to say in this video for Teacher Appreciation Week.

See a behind-the-scenes video here!

Ready to write your own? Jump in the comments below and share how #TeachersMatter!

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Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

LOL, Nick. "You are going to be tired for the next 12 years..." Great letter, thank you for sharing it. :-)

All the letters, in fact, have been amazing. Please, let's continue sharing them!

Nicole's picture

Dear Ms. Tucker,

You are about to take your first step on an amazing journey, full of laughs and tears and surprises and mistakes. Here are a few wise words that I learned along this way. You'll find these things to be true:

Everything is a phase.
The first year is hard, really hard. You'll be exhausted most days, because teaching (especially teaching middle school as you were crazy enough to choose) requires you to make so many rapid decisions and each choice impacts the life of a child. Soon, some responses will become second nature as you see more about how students learn and grow. Even as you develop expertise, always be willing to learn new things with open eyes.

Know that you aren't perfect.
There will come a time when you make a mistake. Yes, it's true. And on one occasion, you'll continue to beat yourself up about it until a friend and colleague says to you, "Who are you to assume that you're going to be perfect? Get over yourself." After you make a mistake, pick yourself up, learn from it, and remember that teaching is not about you but about the students.

Today's another day.
A student will teach you this bit of advice. You will find her being somewhere she isn't supposed to be. As you redirect her to the proper location, she will whisper a colorful expletive about you to her friend as they pass a classroom belonging to one of your colleagues. This colleague informs you of her comments, but you will choose not to say anything to the student until the following day when she asks if she can spend the lunch period with you to continue working on her project. When you refresh her memory of her choice words, she will innocently plea, "But today's another day." Each day is a fresh start. Students make mistakes, too. Let them learn and move forward as well.

Fight the odds, and refuse the status quo.
You will teach children who experience trials that would bring any adult down. During your first year, you will meet a young man who will drop from honor roll to failing after his family first lost power in their apartment and then became homeless. Believe in him and help him find a way even when it's dark.

There will be a thirteen year old scared to follow your recommendation to move into the higher-level classes, because he doesn't want to lose his friends while he is also worried about losing his mother, his rock and whole world, a single parent fighting breast cancer. Encourage him when he needs support.

You'll meet a young girl who's falling in with an older crowd, and you won't say anything even though you are concerned. She will die this spring in an accident, flown from a car while her "friends" leave her behind at the scene. In two years, you'll teach her brother, frequently truant and struggling with drugs - self-medicating from the pain of losing his sister whom he writes about in his journal. Don't give up on him. Don't let him stay in his dark place. Be willing to go where the odds are tough, and fight the odds; don't accept them as status quo.

Over the years, you'll impact the life of many students, and they will be the reason why you became a teacher. Fight the good fight, but don't take the burdens to heart. As you can see from the letter that I'm writing, I'm still working on that.

jrushing72's picture

The life of a teacher is hard to explain to people outside of the educational realm. Everyone has their thoughts and opinions on how easy or hard this career can be. Not until you have gone through that first YEAR (or first FEW years) of teaching can you ever really know how challenging -- and rewarding -- this profession is. I'm finishing my 20th year of teaching this May. As long as my career has been -- I can still remember the first day of my first year. I can remember the excitement and the fear I had when those children walked into my room for the first time. I was their leader. I recall the lessons that I thought would be so great and engaging ended up being complete messes. The eye rolls and the heavy sighs of boredom can still be seen and heard in my mind. I remember the kids that pushed me to my limit and tested every ounce of patience that I had....but I also remember watching them grow and mature while they were in my classes. I was surprised to discover the times when the simplest lesson became the greatest learning experience for me and the kids. I learned over the years to let the students help guide the learning process. I learned to listen...to observe....to facilitate -- and not just lead. I learned how to be a teacher....not from a text book or a course in college...but by my students. They taught me to expect the unexpected, to see genius in the little things, and to believe that anything is possible if you just keep trying.

To my friends in the teaching profession during Teacher Appreciation Week -- I say thank you!! Think back through your years of teaching all the way back to that first year and congratulate yourself! Think about the difference you are making each and every day in the lives of your students. Be proud!


Rafranz Davis's picture
Rafranz Davis
Instructional Technology Specialist, Arlington TX

Dear Rafranz

Tomorrow is a new day. Today you will embark on one of the greatest journeys of your life as a classroom teacher. You're so nervous and I need you to know that nerves are normal.

In college, someone told you not to smile, sweat or show emotion. You're thinking right now about that advice and how ridiculous it is. Please ignore it entirely because the best advice that I can give to you are two words that will mean more with each passing day...Be Human.

You're taking on a classroom mid-year that is accustomed to marching to the beat of their own drum and not in the best way. What they need is to see someone who is human enough to understand them...to feel who they are...and to push them in ways that they have not been pushed.

Your students will fight you every step of the way but you won't budge. You'll continue to make the necessary choices because you care.

Even when you think that your students do not...they do. Eventually, they will show that but they have to see your humanity first. They need to feel your emotional connection to who they are.

So...laugh, smile, tear up, hug, play, engage, make mistakes out loud, correct yourself....and then repeat it all again in every period of the day. Repeat it again the next day...and every moment thereafter.

You've got this!

Be Human

-Your Future Self

Love Teach's picture

This is so fun!

Dear Teach (me),

First of all, you look so cute! What an adorable cardigan. (Lay it flat to dry like the cleaning instructions say, or in a couple of years it'll look and feel like a washcloth and you will be a sad girl.)

Wow. Your first day. Your FIRST first day. I know how you're feeling. Nervous. Excited. Hopeful. Diarrhea-ish. It's like how you felt about that piano recital, except instead of five minutes in front of people it's fifty minutes times six periods times five days times four weeks times nine months, and instead of everyone listening to you quietly NOBODY will listen to you quietly unless you train them, and instead of memorizing something and delivering it your job is to improvise while convincing everyone in the audience that it's something worth playing; that they want to play it, too.

You have every right to feel diarrhea-ish.

I wish I could tell you that you'll have more good days than bad days this year. That you'll get a hang of this teaching thing after a few weeks and after that it's smooth sailing. That, like babysitting and being a camp counselor and volunteering, if you can just get the kids to like you, that means they'll do whatever you say.

But it won't.

It's not like that.

This will be the most difficult, challenging thing you will ever do. It will push you to your limits as a person. It will almost break you. There are times when it will feel like life has sucker-punched you, then offered you crutches, then taken the crutches and is beating you over the back with them while laughing hysterically.

Teaching will also be the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to you.

Weird, huh?

There will be a whole month where it feels like you don't go a day without crying. But guess what? In a couple of years, most of the crying you will do at school will be because of stuff like how awesome Poetry Day is, or from when you will read that darn chapter at the end of Wonder about standing ovations (it's this book coming out soon--trust me, it's the best), or from the time your choir students will sing "Gentle Annie" on a day just a liiiiittle too close to your period.

You know all those cute bins and folders that you think will keep you and your students organized? They won't. Part of teaching is learning how inept all your systems are and adjusting them to work for you. But you are about to embark on a journey that will leave you as THE MOST ORGANIZED PERSON IN THE ENTIRE WORLD! Or at least out of the people you know who are non-teachers.

Other perks:

-You know those super annoying kiosk salespeople in the mall who accost you with flatirons and phones and perfumes? After you have a few years in this gig, THEY WON'T BOTHER YOU ANYMORE! Teaching has made you more confident; taught you to walk with your shoulders tall and with a purpose. Or maybe you just walk around with Teacher Face now.
-You will the master of time management. (This doesn't necessarily mean you choose to employ these skills all the time, but you can when needed.)
-Summer, my friend. Just wait. It's glorious.

But the real perk--the thing that is going to keep you coming back--is something that's hard for me to explain. It's not because of what you're thinking right now on your first day: that you will be the hero in this story, or that you are about to change lives/the world by bestowing your benevolence and your knowledge upon them.

This isn't about you.

You are a vessel. You are at your most important when you make yourself the least important. You are here not to be in front of everyone, but to stand beside them. You are here not to impress others, but to encourage and lift up the kids in your classroom and the people around you. You are here not to be recognized, but to help other people figure out what is recognizable about them and how to use that for good.

I'll let you figure out what that means (I still am).

Good luck out there, kid.

Oh, and go ahead and put that Keurig in your classroom now. You'll need it.


Future Teach

Karina's picture
6th & 7th grade Language Arts teacher from Chicago, Illinois

Dear Karina,

It will get better. Those showers where you stand under the hot water and cry to yourself and contemplate taking a "sick day"? Those will eventually stop. Those calls home to mom in tears about the horrible day you had? Well, you'll still have those, but I promise you, they're MUCH less frequent. I know you look at teachers who have been in this profession for 5 years and think, "How have you survived this?" Well, I'm writing to you from 12 years in, and I'm telling you, you'll survive. And you won't just merely survive. You will thrive.

I know you question daily whether you got into the right profession. You're going to meet someone soon. Her name is Mrs. Hill. She might just look like an ordinary aide that has been assigned to your classroom, but treat her well. I assure you, she's so much more. I don't want to give away too much, but she will guide you in the right direction and make sure you stay on this teaching path and do what you were born to do.

I know the kids you're teaching make this career out to be unlike anything you had expected. After all, you expected to teach, right? But you and I both know that you spend 95% of your day disciplining and trying to wrangle in those 4th graders. Don't worry. Somebody is going to help you with that too. Remember Ron Clark? The guy you saw on Oprah while sitting on your futon in your dorm room? He was the Disney Teacher of the year. Well, he's going to come out with a book in just a few months, and it will change your life forever. All those classroom management issues will come to a screeching halt. You know how you blamed your students' behavior on their parents and their horrible upbringing? Well, you're going realize really soon that you have more control over the situation than you think. You're going to learn so much more from Mr. Clark than just discipline though. You're going to be reminded of why you went into teaching in the first place. Get ready because the journey you're going to take with him will be a long one. But a good one. One that still hasn't ended.

Karina, there's so much I could tell you, but honestly, I am who I am today because I went through those struggles. And trust me, things will get better, but there will ALWAYS be struggles. When you start to get comfortable, you better make some changes because I believe that good teachers never get comfortable. They always want to change things up and make things better than they currently are.

This first year's almost over, and it gets much better from here. (Except for the year you get placed in 8th grade. Brace yourself.) You have always felt a little different and like you've wanted to go above and beyond expectations. That's a quality I admire in you and one that to this day, I still have. Continue setting the bar high for yourself. Be brave and be bold.

Karina from the future
P.S. I'm going out for coffee with one of those 4th graders this week. She's 21 now

Miss's picture
High school special education teacher

Dear August Miss,

You're standing in your classroom, staring at the mess left behind, thrilled and ready to throw up. You're not sure you will ever be able to dig through all of the paperwork, outdated materials, and general oddities in the way. You won't right away, but it will come in time. You're going to set up your classroom with your parents and your partner. It will not mean a whole lot once the kids show up, but you will feel good.

You will wonder what your staff will be like, since everyone in the building has "opinions" about them. But don't judge too quickly. They will drive you insane, sometimes be petty and cranky, but those nine people will help you through a very hard year and become your friends.

The general ed teachers won't be as welcoming as you hoped, but that one down the hall, M, will be unbelievably kind to you and when the two of you go through similar personal struggles later this year, she will comfort you. The other SpEd teachers will be there for you with fierce love and will surprise you with their belief in you and your passion.

You will be scared of parents. Of their needs, their demands, their anger. You've heard horror stories, right? Those weren't your parents. You will find that when you are honest and funny and ... well ... just yourself, even the parents that people told you to be 'scared' of will respect you and treat you with kindness. You might actually like them!

Unfortunately, one Wednesday afternoon in January will not be like the others. It will be painful, and change you forever. You worry it will keep you from teaching. People thought you wouldn't come back. You hate the way it makes you fear your students. It makes you feel inadequate. But you will make it through every day with love. One day at a time.

In fact, as you type this letter, you just got off the phone with a parent who stormed out of a meeting crying. He feels inadequate. He feels that he and his student were lost in the system. He is scared. You will call him when he gets home, apologize for all the times you let procedure get in the way of his desire as a parent to simply communicate with his son. The two of you will cry on the phone together. And after the real heartbreak and misery of the last month, and the constant fear that you can't make it another day (let alone year) you will write this letter to yourself, knowing that you can, because you remembered why you love this so much.

This will be, undoubtedly, the most painful year of your life. You will question everything and, at times, you will hate yourself for making this choice. The time between spring break and Memorial Day will be awful. You will fear work. You will cry to and from your front door. You will dread Sunday evenings and you will consider leaving everything behind. Please don't. You will look for jobs at Starbucks and think of being a lifetime doctoral student. Please don't.

You will be okay, because those kids need you. You will be proud. And when your senior boys do something stupid, you'll just cry because you know how much you will miss them.

You're okay, kid. Just don't fight the current.
May Miss

Jeff Bachus's picture

Teaching is the hardest job that you will love. Some days you wonder if it's worth it. I am in my 30th year. 10 years into my career I had a former student see me at my second job, he came back into the store to mention he still remembered and uses some of my life lessons. That showed me I was making a difference and all the long hours are worth it. People outside of education will not truely understand the hours you will put in this thing called teaching .

Nancy's picture
I'm a second grade teacher trying to stay "on top" of new trends.

I just finished my 24th year teaching second grade. Second graders are like little sponges who want to know everything, and also want ALL of your attention. Early in my career I would grow impatient with the neediness of these little sponges - I use that term with endearment, by the way. Words like, "sit down", "be quiet", and "go raise your hand" would come out of my mouth constantly. I had not learned to distinguish emergency situations from non-emergency situations. Essentially, I was not paying attention to my students' emotional needs.

One day I was turned away from one of my students who was trying to get my attention. She had a very soft voice. Without looking at her, I told her to go sit down. A few minutes later I found out she was trying to tell me her face hurt because her father had beat her with an extension cord the night before! It hit me SO hard. I wasn't listening to my students, and I wasn't taking care of business.

If there is any advice I could give you to save you time and heartache, it would be to take that extra minute to listen to your students. Not only will it cut down on problems going on behind the scenes in your classroom, it may save a life.

garima sethi's picture

finally i got a job which i want through which i can learn easily and improve my own skills.....that's the first letter to me when i will get a job

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