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Dear Me (On the Eve of My First Year Teaching)

[Editor’s note: Mr. Foteah is a teacher in an elementary school in Queens going into his fourth year. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where this post originally appeared.]

I’ve noticed several posts recently in which people are writing letters to their first-year teacher selves. I thought I’d do the same.

Dear Me (On the Eve of My First Year Teaching),

Well, this is it. This is truly it. Two years ago you finished college with a degree that turned out to be useless, and now, after two years of graduate school in a totally different field – elementary education – they say you’re qualified to be a teacher. And you think you’re qualified to be a teacher.

Well, maybe you are. After all, you have a unique way with children, you can relate to them, you get where they’re coming from because you haven’t lost sight of what it’s like to be a child. But you won’t be dealing with issues like you experienced growing up. Oh sure, your students will experience family and pet deaths, the maddening powerlessness of being caught up in a parental argument, the frustration of struggling in school. They’ll come to you for help, and you will be able to empathize with these things.

But how are you going to deal with the kids who have only one parent and several siblings that they care for at the age of 10? The kid who comes in late every Thursday because he is helping his mom clean until 2 am that morning? The kid with the dad who sees you as a barrier to his child’s success just because you recommend continuation of services? The kid who threatens personal bodily harm because you indicate your disappointment? The kids who wear the same clothes everyday, not because they like them, but because when you wear hand-me-downs exclusively, your choices are limited?

How are you going to deal with all that? (Or any of the other stuff I didn’t even mention?)

If you’re smart, you’ll stay true to your belief that you need to do what is best for your students. This may make you unpopular with your colleagues at times, and may draw raised eyebrows from the administration, but as long as you can rationalize that your students’ best interests are your main motivator, they’ll understand where you’re coming from. It may take some colleagues longer than others, but you can’t worry about them. Just worry about your students.

And speaking of colleagues, you will meet some wonderful people that make it a joy to come to work everyday. But do yourself a favor, try to steer conversations away from everything that’s “the problem with school/parents/kids today” and move it toward a place of acceptance and improvement of the situation. And if you find you can’t do this without insulting people, then just remove yourself from the conversation. You can and will still be friends with these people. Just don’t let the negativity of others – who are all well-meaning people frustrated with a frustrating job – bring you down.

Given the shaky economic times in which you enter the workforce, I should warn you now that you will find yourself at some point in your career without a job. It may happen more than once. Your faith in the system will be questioned, your belief in your capabilities shaken. But try to remember, it isn’t about you. In fact, your colleagues will write you letters of support, and administrators will make phone calls to friends in high places to advocate for you. They will feel the injustice you feel, and will want to help. In the end, everything will work out for the best, but you will learn a valuable life lesson about being thankful for what you have. Life’s not so fun when you don’t have health insurance or a steady paycheck, my friend. You will find yourself interviewing in places you could never see yourself working and dealing with your illnesses without the help of a doctor, but eventually, because everything always works out for the best, you will be right where you want to be.

With one exception.

You see, you’re entering the schools as a general education upper elementary teacher. I know you can’t believe it, and you can laugh at me all you want now, but in spite of your rapport with the kids, your growth in your second year, your exciting ideas that build school community, and your own belief that you will never go anywhere but where you are now, you will one day be teaching primary grades. And you’ll be teaching special education.

That frightens you now? Just wait until your first day in that position!

I assure you it’s going to feel like your first year all over, and it won’t be a pleasant feeling. You’re going to find yourself relearning your entire idea of teaching. You are going to be told to shape up, and you’re going to experience doubts like you never have in your career. But you’re going to make the necessary adjustments. You’re going to learn from people who can help you. You will be humbled, but you will be a better teacher for it. And then you will be grateful.

You will find new ways to develop a rapport with your students, you will reap the benefits of parents’ gratitude, and you will be reaffirmed by the end of your first year in your new position. You will believe more fiercely than ever in your role as champion for your students, and you will motivate them to do things that no one expected of them. You will see incredible growth in them and in yourself. And, while you will still have plenty of improvements to make, you will believe more and more that this is the position where you belong.

I’m glad I told you that, because I don’t want to give the impression that you’re entering into a career where you are constantly confronted by outside forces of negativity. You will remind yourself constantly why you are in the field to begin with: so you can make a difference in people’s lives. And you will. Students who wouldn’t speak in their previous class will be impossible to stop talking by the time they’re finished in yours. Kids who repeatedly were sent into your room to cool off will, next year, never be sent out of your room. In fact, these same children will become model citizens for their classmates. Kids will invite you to hear them play the violin at the school concert, and even though you don’t really want to shlep back to school that night, you will, and you’ll beam with pride from the moment the bow is raised.

The kids will make you laugh and the kids will make you cry. They’ll make you angry and they’ll make you proud. They’ll tire you out and they’ll energize you again.

You are making the right move entering this profession. Just remember, you don’t know everything. In fact, despite what that piece of paper from the state says, you really don’t know anything. Prepare to learn a lot. Prepare to have your whole concept of school and childhood turned on its head. Prepare to find yourself in situations where you just don’t know what to do.

And prepare to make a difference. Because that’s what you’ll be doing every single day of the rest of your career as an educator.

I wish you luck! You’ll need it!