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May 1, 2016

What I Wish My Professors Had Told Me

A veteran educator offers six pieces of advice to pre-service teachers.

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I taught in the "trenches" of public school for 10 years and have lived the life of a committed—but often exhausted—classroom teacher. Now, as a faculty member in charge of preparing pre-service teachers, I have a different perspective on the lives of young teachers. I find myself thinking about how to equip that future workforce with the survival skills they'll need not only to enter, but also to remain in the classroom. Amidst all of the methodology and pedagogy I learned as an education major, what do I wish my professors had told me that would have made my transition into the classroom easier? What messages should faculty share with students that will fortify their current passion and carry them through when times get tough? Here are six truths I share with my pre-service teachers each semester.

1. Know That Loving Kids Is Not Enough

As a young teacher, I thought that loving to be with kids would be enough to get me through long days. After all, isn't working with kids a big part of why teaching is fun? I discovered early on that teaching is a hard job. Hard with a capital H. It's so much more than helping kids and creating engaging assignments; it's conferences, assessments, grading, paperwork … and did I mention assessments?

You have to come to the classroom with a deep understanding of your role and how that role extends well beyond day-to-day interactions with students. You are there to educate—not just teach—but educate your students. You are there to transform their lives by connecting the content you teach to the skills they need to be successful in this big, bad world. You have the power to do that. Wear that belief like a protective armor for those days when you think, "Can't I just close my classroom door and teach?" Let the certainty that you are part of something much bigger and more important shield you on those days when your frustration at the system seems to get the best of you. The students need you, so slap on that breastplate and protect the internal resolution that the work you do is meaningful and worthwhile.

2. Be Ready to Wear the Many Hats of a Teacher

Early on in my career, I complained to a colleague that I was a classroom teacher, so why was I being asked to be a mom, nurse, custodian, therapist, social worker, cheerleader, and judge and jury? I wasn't trained to be those other things! I was lucky to have a colleague who was older and much, much wiser than me put her arm around my shoulder and say, "You are what the kids need you to be at that moment."

At the time, that sage advice didn't help. I didn't feel any less overwhelmed, but I later realized how right she was. We meet our students where they are with what they need. Students are people too, and just like us grown-ups, they have "I've got it together" days and "I'm trying to keep it together" days. Dig a little deeper when that 4th grader refuses to do his math work until he gets a bandage for an invisible cut. There is usually more to the story. Be empathetic and take care of the needs of your students. That is the unwritten (and most important) role of the teacher.

3. Keep Those Bad Class Pictures

No one told me that annual class pictures would document my out-of-date clothes, unfashionable hairstyles, and fluctuating body mass. In my younger years, I was tempted to chuck those pictures in the trash and destroy evidence that in 2001, I could have been mistaken for the long-lost sister of Weird Al Yankovic. Luckily, I instead mindlessly tossed them in a desk drawer and let them accumulate over the years.

I am so glad I did. Those embarrassing class pictures now make up the bulk of my "why I love teaching" emergency box. On a day when I need some reminding of why I keep plugging along, I pull those babies out and flip through the memories I made with those students. Their smiling faces remind me of the year we spent together. Don't get me wrong, there are some pictures that make me ask, "How did we ever survive?" But even those moments make me smile because we did survive and, in many cases, we thrived. Those pictures are a great reminder of how my work and passion have influenced those students' lives, but more important, how each and every one of those faces smiling out at me has influenced mine.

4. Dismiss the Notion of Perfect Lessons

I'm probably not the first or last teacher to strive for perfection in each and every lesson. I spent too much time in my younger days thinking that once I had more experience with the curriculum, once I had a different mix of students, and once I mastered classroom management, I would be able to deliver flawless lesson after flawless lesson. What I have come to realize is that the land of perfect lessons doesn't exist. We are human beings who are tasked with working with other human beings. I don't need to tell you that adds up to a whole lot of fallible human beings in one classroom. You'll never be able to predict how every student will react in every moment or how you will adjust to the hurdles you face each day. And guess what? It's OK. My first-year mentor said to me, "The kids will learn in spite of all the mistakes you make." She was right. Be as gentle, patient, and forgiving with yourself as you are with your students. You will thank yourself.

5. Put Kids Before Content

Those children in front of you are just that—children. They're not data points. They are also the pride and joy of their families, and you have been given the privilege of educating them. Don't forget that. Parents are not hiding the good ones at home and sending you the rambunctious ones for the day. You are getting the best they've got.

Spend time building relationships—genuine ones—not because you have to, but because you want to. Kids can smell a faker a mile away. When students know you care, they will work hard for you and will be more willing to accept your redirection when needed. Really, they will! Classroom management issues will decrease, which will allow you to teach more engaging lessons. Those relationships are the key to your classroom culture. Devote time to forming them and nurturing them. Students deserve a classroom captain who cares.

6. Don't Give Up

You will want to quit. And not "kinda quit." You'll dream about cleaning out your classroom and formulating an impassioned "I'm not gonna take it anymore" speech directed at every bothersome parent and incompetent administrator you have ever met. You will plan a new career that has nothing to do with education or kids, which pays twice as much and provides the freedom to use the restroom on a whim. You'll fantasize about a time when you will sit down to eat lunch. That imaginary act will allow you more than a seven-minute window, an actual chair upon which to sit, and a meal that is neither microwaveable nor bought from a vending machine.

On those days (and yes, you will have them), I hope you will spend some time thinking about your "bigger purpose." And, with that armor of purpose, I hope that you will pause and remember what brought you to the profession in the first place.

You could quit, of course. There is another job out there waiting for you, and there always will be. But I challenge you to find another profession where the daily work you do will have such a deep and profound impact on the physical, emotional, and cognitive development of another human being. Yes, if done right, our profession can take a toll on a person. But in my opinion, that end will always justify the means.

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