We all remember the wonderfully chaotic process of discovery – equal parts stressful and satisfying – that was our first year of teaching. I remember the little things: smelling freshly sharpened pencils, setting up my own gradebook, staying after school to decorate a bulletin board or writing (and inevitably rewriting) a first-day welcome message to my students on the whiteboard. As teachers, we also recall the anxiety of wondering if we were getting it right, eventually followed by the exhilaration of seeing that we were making a difference for a single student, or one family.
I’ve heard from many teachers that this school year feels like starting over again. And in a way, we are. We are figuring out the best way to toggle through gallery views on Zoom, or maybe we are trying to map out an end of the day cleanup routine that can still keep students six feet apart, or perhaps we are asking ourselves whether automatically muting students who join the virtual classroom makes them feel less nervous - or less welcome. We have been asking, and trying to answer, really important questions. And it feels like we are all first-year teachers.
If we could have a conversation with our first-year teaching self, what advice would we give? We might start by saying it’s OK not to be perfect, so be kind to yourself. We might also acknowledge that teaching is hard work – requiring our hands, our head and our heart – so we should take care of ourselves. And we’d probably suggest that asking colleagues for help is a sign of maturity, not a sign of weakness. Right now, many teachers are struggling with balancing the intellectual and emotional labor that is teaching during a global pandemic.
We might also offer our first-year self both patience and persistence: this won’t last forever. Conventional wisdom holds that hope is not a strategy, but research has linked career optimism to longevity in teaching. Career optimism, teachers' expectations of positive career outcomes, is an important component of professional identity, engagement and commitment to teaching (Rottinghaus et. Al 2005). In a recent study exploring the impact of daily stress and social support on career optimism, novice teachers were found to underestimate the amount of emotional labor required by their new profession and were also “less likely to have positive coping strategies for dealing with these situations, and this may be particularly challenging for teachers experiencing increased life stress” (Taylor et al, 2019). Perhaps not surprisingly, this study found that both stress and lack of social support had a negative effect on career optimism.
So we need to keep in mind that we need to take care of ourselves and take care of each other. There is an African proverb, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” What defines us as social creatures is our ability to connect and communicate with other humans. In the past year, teachers have relied on both friends and strangers for new ways to cope and at times even thrive. Amid pandemics and polemics, we are trying to make sense of our new paradoxical world: finding opportunities for rest in unrest, seeking analog distractions from digital immersion, and looking for meaningful connections across the distances that separate us.
We have turned to social media to learn how to make candy chutes for safe Halloween treat distribution, or how to create bitmojis for interactive virtual classrooms. We are redefining how we teach, together. The global community has shared entirely new learning models: “hyflex” to connect remotely with a co-teacher and students in a physical classroom, or “concurrent hybrid” with students designated as Zoomies or Roomies sharing the learning, both together and apart. Students and families are trying to adapt to the new ways school is structured today, rearranging routines, meals and even furniture in the service of learning. But it’s not easy: none of this happens overnight, and none of it happens in isolation.
A final piece of advice we might give to our first-year teacher self is that students notice. They hear what we say, and more importantly how we say it. They notice how we react when things don’t go well, and how we adapt when we encounter difficult situations. This year, students are surely paying attention to how the adults around them cope with the global health crisis, economic challenges and new ways of teaching. And in the past year they have noticed their teachers modeling patience, and grace, and honesty – bravely leading them through new ways of learning.
Glickman, C. D. (2003). Holding sacred ground: Essays on leadership, courage, and endurance in our schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Rottinghaus, P. J., Day, S. X., & Borgen, F. H. (2005). The career futures inventory: A measure of career-related adaptability and optimism. Journal of Career Assessment, 13(1), 3e24.
Taylor, Michelle, et al. (2019). The Influence of Multiple Life Stressors during Teacher Training on Burnout and Career Optimism in the First Year of Teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, vol. 86.
Portions of this article originally appeared in the WIDA International Newsletter.