My First Year as a Teacher
My first memory of becoming a new teacher is the distinct, literal sense of skin burning. After being hired 2,000 miles away from home, the Florida sun and humidity seemed brutal just walking within the courtyard of the school complex. The principal and I stepped into the building that was to house the new charter middle and high school— an old, open-style building—only to find dripping wet walls and missing stairs. “This will be your room,” she said, turning on the single fluorescent light. One chalkboard hung off of the wall; broken desks stood like hunched old men in the center of the floor. I swallowed hard and thought, was this what all my years of schooling and training had led me to?
A few short weeks later, I found myself sitting in a cafeteria full of other new teachers. The founder of the charter school system stood before us, his back straight and smile bright. I expected the same old “go get ‘em” speech I had heard in so many teacher-themed movies. Instead, as he spoke, he began to click LEGOs together into a tiny, solid wall: “Imagine this is a good education that every child deserves. Now imagine, for instance, I take this brick out…and then a few more. What happens to that education?” The wall looked like Swiss cheese. “It is your job—no, your mission—to make sure this doesn’t happen. If it has, you have to teach like never before. Each child is a precious gift.”
In that instant, he had my immediate respect. This man that I had never met had brought me to examine a wonderful, challenging reality: The task of teaching is not just about how much effort you have put into becoming a teacher, but how much effort you put into making sure each child receives the best of that training.
That message was fresh in my mind as I welcomed my first set of students to the classroom. Once in heavy disrepair, the combined work of parents, teachers, and even students had made the building and classroom seem more like a place to learn and grow. As my colleagues became more like family over the course of the year, I grew more thankful for the opportunity just to be around a group of educators that had the same goal in mind—teaching our future—with love (and a bit of insomnia).
Even on days that seemed impossible, the true test was keeping myself in check for the sake of teaching the children—a lesson in humility and compassion. Could I remain calm when a ninth grader used inappropriate jokes in class? How could I deal with the occasional visit by our friend Mickey the Mouse during seventh period? Would the rain ever stop coming through the ceiling? These were things people dealt with everyday around the world. Now, in my classroom it was no longer okay to leave the hole in the wall, but fill it with the ideas of respect and humility for those who had even less while dealing with much more.
By the end of school year, despite the trials and frustrations of being a first-year teacher, I felt happy and fulfilled not just by what I was doing, but in the growth I saw in each of my students. They had worked so hard during the school year. Essays went from average to excellent, effort was taken to earn an A rather than being content with a C. I am more proud of the students and staff than I could ever have imagined.
As I cleaned the chalkboards and stacked the desks for closeout, I stopped and thought about how my ideas about being a teacher changed in the past year. It wasn’t about the building, or the meticulous over-planning as it was when I first arrived.
As cliché as it may sound, teaching is about learning to share, grow, and learn with others. It is about learning to love idiosyncrasies and helping wherever and whenever you can. Most of all, it is about watching your students become masons as they learn to help build their own educational foundations.
This year Kira (MT ’09 Soc Stud Ed) is teaching social studies at Washington Lee High School in Arlington, Va.