Remember Jennifer? She wrote for Reality 101 in 2009–10. She's in her second year of teaching kindergartners with various disabilities in Pasadena, Calif. Reality 101 is circling back with her for a Reality Check to get her perspective and sage advice for new teachers.
One of the best things about special education is that when someone asks you to write about things that have changed in your teaching career, you can honestly say things are just as exciting, interesting, new, challenging, and, occasionally, as daunting as ever. While I feel stronger as a professional, that I have a greater sense of “ownership” in my classroom, and am more experienced when making decisions for my students, I am still always learning, always questioning, and always surprised by what each day brings.
I suppose one of the greatest milestones since I was a Reality 101 blogger is that I have since had the opportunity to work as a master teacher for an intern going through the exact same teacher education program I went through. I've heard that the best way to truly learn something is to try to teach it to someone else. Trying to help guide my student through his own beginning work as a teacher in the classroom was amazing!
Teachers are constantly thinking about so many things all at the same time. By working with him, I learned again how many small pieces of information we have to juggle to put together the right lesson to meet the needs of our diverse array of learners. Helping my intern hash through it all to be the best he could be was downright exhausting some days, but SO worth it in the end! I wouldn't trade that experience for anything; it re-opened my eyes to the importance of the job we do.
A lot has gotten easier over the years. I’m at the same school, which I think has definitely helped me, and which is truly a luxury given our current economic circumstances. I feel I have formed friendships, have a better grasp of the culture and the way things are done, which I have to believe is always just a little different at each school. I think the biggest thing that has helped me assert myself a little more as an educator is that I don't have that “new kid” feel anymore. I have gotten to know the staff I work with, and have a very supportive boss and team.
I think the job never gets easy, but the way we maneuver our way in and out of IEPs, SSTs, 504s, CAPAs, and every other acronym and day-to-day event can feel a little easier as time goes on. I would start to worry if teaching started to feel easy and like the fact that my students always manage to keep me learning and on my toes.
If I had to think of advice for new teachers, I would say there are two major things that I am still learning and may very well always be working on because they are so hard to embrace, but so critical to both your sanity and success:
1. Live in the moment. Be as 'zen' as you can and truly allow the day to slow down so you can enjoy your students as much as you hope they are enjoying you and your lessons. It makes a huge difference in their reactions, retention, and overall love of learning.
It sounds so simple, but when you have meetings, assessments, lessons, and more-than-occasional hiccups in your schedule, it is so easy to fall into this pattern of checking the clock and just hoping you get everything in for the day. Once you cross the thin line between planning two steps ahead, and fully focusing on what those two steps will look like, it can be very stressful -- for everyone.
2. Make sure your lessons, your attitudes, your conversations around students, etc., are all pointing in the direction of just how fun and exciting learning can be. It is really hard sometimes to mask how frustrated we might be when it comes to budget cuts, upset parents, or just being plum overwhelmed, but it is so crucial that students never have any part in that. Even if we think we are “leaving it at the door,” I am positive that it still shows one way or another and the students and paraeducators pick up on everything.
I needed to make a change to help myself with this, so I made a 'Why I Have the Best Job" list, and I go through it every morning now before I drive to work. You'd be amazed at what that can do to your outlook even if you already have something stressful on the schedule that day.
I'd also highly recommend keeping a journal, and taking the time to always look back and see just how far you've come. I think overall, it is just important to keep loving what you do. Embrace the fact that 'eing a teacher is synonymous with being a learner, and that as long as we are teaching our learning will never end. And our students may actually end up teaching us more than we teach them.