The first thing I ever told my students was a lie. After months of pondering how I would begin my first day once I had a classroom of my very own, I took a deep breath and in my best teacher voice announced, “Good morning! My name is Miss Ring.” Suddenly three-ring binders were thrown open on desks all over the room and 12-year olds began digging for schedules they’d folded into tiny squares and stuffed into their pockets. “Wait, so you aren’t Mrs. New?” one brave soul finally asked. Actually, I was, but I’d acquired that name only three weeks earlier and had never introduced myself using it. I quickly began clearing up the confusion, even as I silently despaired that I’d lost the opportunity to establish myself as the authority in the classroom as was so strongly recommended in the classroom management course I’d taken. At the end of my first day, I accidentally dismissed my students five minutes early. I felt like a sheepdog running up and down the hall, trying to herd my students back into the classroom just in time to dismiss them again.
Fortunately, that bumpy start didn’t characterize my entire rookie year in the classroom. I taught my heart out, and I learned at least ten times as much about teaching as my students did about science. Teaching was a harder job than I’d ever imagined, but I loved it. Although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, looking back I recognize the freedom that came with being a novice educator. I was blissfully unaware of my limitations as a teacher. The sky was the limit and I was going to change the world. It was pretty easy to demonstrate “unconditional positive regard” for my students as Carl Rogers and my educational psychology professor had suggested. None of them had had an opportunity to make decisions that disappointed me yet. I was not constrained by past failures or how I’d always done something, because I was doing everything for the first time. My colleagues and administrators expected me to make some mistakes and that gave me permission to try new things in my classroom. Even the smallest successes were thrilling and warranted celebration.
Over time, I felt the weight of being an educator settle on my shoulders. I still loved teaching, and later, being an assistant principal. I was passionate about my work, and considered it my calling. I gained experiences and additional education that were invaluable and that, without a doubt, contributed to increased effectiveness at my craft. But I also learned that despite a teacher’s best efforts, sometimes it isn’t enough to reach a student academically or personally. Sometimes the investment a teacher makes in a student doesn’t mature until many years later, and may never be known to that teacher. I discovered that some of my fellow citizens didn’t hold educators in high regard, but rather blamed schools for all manner of societal ills then demanded that schools fix those same problems. Some days teaching felt more like a burden than a blessing, and the energy required to be innovative in instruction or take a risk in trying a new approach was simply hard to come by. The eagerness and excitement I’d brought to my work as a rookie teacher had not disappeared, but had been tempered by experience.
A decade in to my tenure as an educator, I entered the field of teacher preparation. It had never crossed my mind to pursue this career path, and so many aspects of it were a surprise initially. Even now having gained my footing in this new terrain, one thing continually stands out to me as unique and interesting. In working to prepare prospective teachers for their rookie year in the classroom, my enthusiasm for teaching is continually renewed. Certainly I have a lot to offer my students who desire to be teachers. My education and experiences can benefit them. I strongly believe that we do a disservice to prospective teachers if we do not represent the profession accurately, so part of my job is ensuring that my students are tethered to reality. (Teaching is very difficult. You can’t say that to a parent. Fifty math problems is probably too many for first grade. Most seventh graders won’t really read their textbooks. You can’t cover that much content in a 45-minute lesson. Please don’t wear that to an interview.) But just as it did starting way back on my very first day of school as a teacher, the learning goes two ways. My students’ excitement about teaching is contagious and I’m infected by their eagerness to do it well. Watching them attempt new techniques with their students encourages me to seek out ways to refresh my own methods. Receiving a text message from a recent graduate sharing a success they’ve experienced in their classroom inspires me to strive toward excellence. Listening to my students talk about relationships they’ve forged with their students reminds me of what really matters in this profession. The fear of failure is diminished, the outside pressures seem less urgent, and the weight of teaching is alleviated a bit when I allow myself to see teaching through the eyes of a rookie once again.
Last week I began my twenty-second year of teaching. Experience allows me the benefit of knowing a lot of what to expect, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. But I plan to dive into this school year head first. I want to try new things and be willing to take risks. I want to demonstrate hope and optimism for the future of teaching, both as my personal career choice and as a profession at large. I plan to celebrate successes, both big and small. I want this year to be my twenty-second rookie year.