As the school year draws to a pollen and blossom-filled end full of field trips and talent shows, one can't help but reflect on all the challenges, successes, and big lessons that are bound to happen as a first-year teacher. I have to confess, I've had my teaching certification since 2011, but initially chose a different path. I started my education career working for an initiative to promote school health by supporting teachers provide quality daily physical education and healthy eating lessons. I loved creating relevant and comprehensive resources for teachers, instructing workshops for educators and students, and presenting at conferences. Even though my role brought me to many schools and even more classrooms, but part of me did feel like a fraud for never walking the front lines. When my gig with Action Schools! BC ended, and an opportunity to be a high school Physical Education teacher popped up in my home town, I jumped on it with open (although slightly tentative) arms. And so, the new chapter of my life as "Ms. Epp" begins.
Here are some thoughts and insights from my first year on the front lines:
1. In the age of instant gratification, don't expect your career to offer the same. It's no secret that being a teacher in North America is a glamorous profession. We give our hearts to so many who may never be thankful for it... but when they are, wow is it special. Going in to this career I knew it was truly a going to be a 'long game', giving and giving with the hope that one day the students you shared your passion and knowledge with would eventually grow up and become successful, happy people. Now that I'm in the middle of the it, I'm more aware than ever at the shear perseverance and patience that is required day in and day out to show up with a smile. And of course, the definition of perseverance is to continue on a path with little or no evidence of success. A tall mug of green tea every morning helps, too. But, when students smile, laugh, learn, and speak their joys in your class, it is the greatest gift a teacher could ever imagine, and totally worth those mornings you accidentally left your full mug on the kitchen counter. My next confession is how much pride I felt when one of my students said at his graduation ceremony that I was his favourite teacher. What a huge honour to be given that title in one short year... the immensity of my gratitude for my students, and all my teachers throughout my life, is beyond words. I guess I should retire now while I'm on top ;)
2. Let go of being a perfectionist, and accept that your good intentions are enough (for now). So many teachers care... A LOT. And with that passion for touching the lives of the future generations, comes a great weight. Letting go of trying to be the absolute best I could be in my first year was one of the smartest decisions I made. In your first year, you're not only learning how to create and teach lesson plans, but you're figuring out the students, the admin, the other staff, the school expectations, the computer system, the parents, the report cards, the school calendar, the... the list goes on. Trying to navigate all this new stuff AND be the most amazing teacher for every single individual student is overwhelming. To give myself the space to "do better next time" instead of working my butt off to fix every problem now, allowed me to relax and enjoy more rather than worry about everything I was doing wrong. And how can you be a good teacher if you don't believe in yourself? This let me try things knowing they may fail, just to see what would happen. This was monumental, because it was often the activities I thought would bomb, turned out to be the most engaging and exciting for the students. Letting go of perfection was the key to maintaining my sanity and discovering new avenues to learning.
3. In those times when you don't feel like you're good enough, just remember you're doing better than a lot of other people doing the same job. Let me take you back to my first teaching practicum. I walked up to my new school associate, the head PE teacher at a local high school, to introduce myself. Without shaking my hand, or looking me in the eye, all he said to me was "make sure the fatties don't get picked last". Needless to say I learnt a lot of what not to do from this teacher. But most of all, I learnt that no matter how bad I thought I was doing at my job, I would always be better than him. That gave me a piece of mind and confidence, especially when working with special needs children, that even though I didn't know what I was doing half the time, I was still doing right by the students. Sometimes a negative can be a positive.
4. Stay true to who you are. I'll admit, during my practicums I did a very good job of mimicking other teachers I admired and trying to teach the way they taught. Which is a valid way to learn a new skill in the beginning, but you have to embrace your own strengths eventually. Your personal style as a teacher is a strength in the same way diversity is a strength in a community. You never know which students your energy and perspectives will speak to.
5. Teach to what you believe in. To be engaging and effective at teaching, you have to be genuine. It's hard to sell a topic if you absolutely hate the subject. If this is the case, it's up to you to inspire your students to be interested as well... or at least lead the way with the relevant information. This idea became very real for me when I found myself having to teach a unit on textiles as a part of a home economics class. Home Ec was never a subject I thought I would be teaching, but of course you always get the last subject your expect in the beginning of your career. Luckily, foods and nutrition wasn't completely foreign for me, and my passion for helping children and adults live a healthy life was a perfect fit for the subject. But sewing, knitting, and fashion were NEVER something I was interested in... and now I have to teach students?! Thank goodness we live in an age of YouTube videos and google to learn hands-on skills. And boy do I love inquiry-based learning and encouraging a growth mindset when it comes to navigating topics you are less than competent at. But speaking about fashion took a bit more for me. Find the angle that speaks to you... for me textiles became interesting when I could connect the importance of clothing and fabrics to being able to enjoy the great outdoors - in the sun, rain, or snow. Teachers and students are more similar than one would think... we all need to be engaged to want to learn.
Hope you found my thoughts interesting! I always welcome comments or questions, and would like to use this platform as a way to connect and share with you. Stay tuned for some How-To videos on Intercultural Games designed for teachers, summer camp leaders, parents, big siblings, and anyone who likes to play!