I never slept the night before school started. Not as a student; not as a teacher. I was too excited. The beginning of a brand-new school year stretched before me, magical and unknown. What treasures would the next nine months hold? What rewards, what fun?
Teaching was my calling. I was put here to teach. I realized that in third grade, in Muscogee County Elementary School, in Columbus, Georgia, in the classroom of Mrs. Mabel Howard. She loved children and she loved teaching, and it showed. I knew I wanted to live in that world.
I do not underestimate the extreme blessing of being able to do the work that one was put here to do. The work you’d do for free if you had to. The work that makes your heart sing, that keeps you awake the night before it starts. Very few people on the whole earth get to do their dream jobs; I am blessed indeed to have had thirty years in Mrs. Howard’s world. For that I am grateful beyond measure.
Now, I realize that not every teacher starts a new year with such happy anticipation. I was put on the planet to teach, but not every teacher was. Some people go into teaching for other reasons. In my experience, small rural counties have more than their share of teachers who would choose some other field if more opportunities were available.
A little country girl can drive forty miles to college for four years and get a teaching certificate. Then she can marry a farmer, provide medical insurance and a retirement plan, and spend thirty or forty years doing a job she does not enjoy, because the school system is the best and biggest employer in the county. That is unfortunate, both for her and for the students who sit in her classroom.
Some such teachers do rise to the occasion and even come to enjoy their work; I suspect far more are just putting in the days until they can go home, where their real lives are.
I have had the audacity to make some rules – I mean suggestions – for teachers, both the divinely sanctioned and the purely practical ones. Here they are:
- Students are a captive audience. We MAKE them come. The absolute least we can do is to be interesting.
- Remember that for you, it’s just another in a seemingly endless parade of classes. But for the students, especially the little ones, it’s Life. Nine months to a six-year-old is a huge chunk of life. You are more important to them than you know. Respect that.
- You must read to them every day, at least the elementary grades. In the early grades, refusing to read to them is the same as saying, “Because you don’t know how to make cake, you can’t eat cake.” Besides, children need a reason to learn to read. It’s not an easy task to master the written English language. Show them the reward, and they (most of them, anyway) will be driven to learn.
- Forgive them when they do wrong. A classroom is a little world that you create, and your students live in it. Make it comfortable; make it homey. When I had a child who had been assigned in-school or at-home suspension, when that child returned to school, I had a brief conversation outside the classroom door. It included an acknowledgment of the offense, and it ended with something like this: “That’s over now. I’m not mad at you. We won’t talk about it again. Now come inside this classroom where you belong. I’ve been missing you.” And the world of the classroom is made aright again.
- Don’t take stuff personally. I eventually learned that most of the inappropriate behavior students show has nothing to do with me. They each have a whole life separate from school, and some of those lives are sad and desperate and sometimes even dangerous. You may be the safest adult some children know, the one who won’t slap them across the room if they don’t meet expectations. It really has nothing to do with you.
- You’re gonna need teacher friends at school. You can’t live amongst second-graders without adult companionship, or you’ll get bored and grouchy and be no fun at all.
- Like them all. Even the mouthy ones. Even the dirty ones. They all need you, the dirty ones most of all.
- If you can’t like them all, you can certainly respect them all.
- Don’t have a pet. I know; there will be that cute little kid a lot like your own little kid who is clever and funny and you could just eat him/her up. Like that kid all you want, but it’s your duty not to let anyone know that you have a favorite. Keep it a secret, just between you and yourself. It’s not fair to treat one child like he’s special, either to the rest of the children or to that child. I was a boss’ pet one time. It was awful.
- You have to like all the subjects that you teach. If you don’t, they won’t. You hold tremendous influence over them. Don’t poison their minds toward math because you have a problem with it (no pun intended).
- Have fun. Have a sense of humor. I did that in my classroom, and when it was time to go to lunch or wherever, I’d tell them that they had to be cool; it was nobody else’s business what kind of fun we were having in here. So we’d all put on our “cool” faces and walk out, quiet and orderly. Hey, it worked.
- Be honest with parents, but also be kind to parents. When you have bad news, deliver it gently and honestly. Even if it’s the nastiest little goober you’ve ever taught and you’re glad he’s been suspended because that means you don’t have to see him for a week. Even if his parents are idiots or defend his actions or blame you. Even if all the even ifs you can think of. How you converse with parents is a reflection of you, not the child or the parent.
- Remember they are watching every move you make. And if they like you, they’ll want to be like you. That includes if they see you in the grocery store or at the pool. Just remember that.
That might be all. But if I think of any more, I’ll let you know.
One last thought: When I first began my teaching career, I thought I had the most important job in the world. To train young minds, to influence their characters, to lead them toward the future. And when I finished my teaching career, I knew it was true. Teaching is the most important job in the world. It’s a holy calling. If you aren’t teaching because you love it, please leave the field and pursue whatever is calling you. And if you are teaching because you love it, thank you. You are doing The Most Important Job in The World.
Have a wonderful school year!